FLOTUS McKinley: White House Invalid

William and Ida McKinley. In his eyes, she was always the prettiest girl in Canton, Ohio.

Many historians claim William McKinley would have been a far greater president had he not been so distracted by his invalid wife.

Ida McKinley: Candidate’s Wife

Willi9am and Ida McKinley at their 25th Anniversary Party.

Shortly before the 1896 election, William and Ida McKinley celebrated their Silver Anniversary. More than six hundred guests attended a huge party as Ohio Governor McKinley’s closest political friends watched in horror. They realized that if he became President, his lame, epileptic and difficult wife would insist on become First Lady in fact, as well as in essence. McKinley was delighted however. If his frail wife wished to participate, he was happy to give in. He always gave in to her wishes.

His “front porch” campaign was a rousing success. Ida was thrilled to sit on the porch, crocheting and smiling at everyone who came to pay their respects to the husband she idolized. In a way, she became one of his greatest assets. How could anyone help but admire a man so obviously devoted to his semi-invalid wife? He won easily over the young William Jennings Bryan.

Ida McKinley:  White House Staff Nightmare

From the start there was gossip among the White House staff that “something wasn’t right with the new First Lady,” but the word “epileptic” was never used. One of McKinley’s first acts was to plan escape routes if Ida had a seizure and had to be carried quickly from the room. He had done this so many times and in so many places, he was an expert.

Ida had also developed an intransigent and demanding personality disorder making it impossible for a substitute to assume the hostess role. While nieces came to visit, sometimes for weeks at a time, Ida would not permit anyone to usurp what she believed was her rightful societal position.  Meanwhile her condition, usually treated with heavy sedatives, made it impossible for her to function in that role.

Ida McKinley loved ornate (and very expensive) clothing, even though it was years out of current style.

It therefore fell to the President himself to oversee many of the traditional First Lady duties, such as housekeeping decisions, menu planning, seating arrangements, and even where the coat racks would be placed. Ida was incapable of making those choices – and refused to relinquish them to anyone else except her already overworked husband.

The White House staff loved President William McKinley, who had a warm and generous soul. But whatever sympathy they might have had for his wife became intense dislike. It was not due to the phlebitis, which made her lame. It was not even due to her periodic “nervous faints” and the heavy sedation. It was her total self-absorption and lack of concern about anyone else, including the extra burdens she placed on the husband she so dearly loved.

The First McKinley State Dinner

President and Mrs. McKinley. He always sat next to her at a formal dinner party.

The First Lady was physically and dispositionally incapable of managing state dinners, which frequently numbered more than a hundred guests. Nevertheless, she insisted on attending, and the devoted President would deny his wife nothing.

In the late 1890s, the rigid rules and traditions of diplomatic protocol were practically on a par with war and peace. Guests were seated at a long or U-shaped table, with the President and First Lady seated in the middle – on opposite sides. This provided four places of honor: The President’s left and right, and the same for the First Lady.

At their first state dinner, McKinley was seated all the way around the table from Ida. If he needed to attend to her, he would physically have to run all around the room. His eyes were fixed on Ida. He barely ate. He barely conversed with his guests. He was beside himself with worry.

After that grueling experience, he did the unthinkable. He altered the seating protocol to be seated next to his wife. This threw the State Department into a panic, since they were the ones who had to rework everything – and make vague explanations.

If Ida ever knew what a headache she caused for the staff, it is unrecorded.

Ida McKinley and the Slippers

One of thousands of pairs of slippers that Ida McKinley crocheted – and gave to charity.

With hours of idle time on her hands for more than twenty-five semi-invalid years, Ida had developed a hobby of crocheting slippers. She made thousands of pairs during her lifetime. True to her nature and need for a strict routine, her pattern – and even the colors – seldom varied.

Ida gave slippers away to family, to friends, to slight acquaintances and even to perfect strangers. Mostly, she donated them to charity.

As First Lady, Ida McKinley provided at least one real contribution. The White House has always received hundreds of requests from organizations wishing donations. In the McKinley administration, no worthy cause was refused. They would receive a pair of Ida’s hand-crocheted slippers to auction or raffle off. It is estimated that thousands and thousands of dollars were raised.

Ida McKinley: The Last Years

William McKinley was assassinated six months into his second term. When he was shot, his immediate thought was for Ida. “Be careful how you tell her,” he told his aide. “Be very careful.”

To everyone’s amazement, Ida took the news calmly. Two nieces rushed from Ohio to help their aunt. The doctors kept her from the sick room, comforting her with their belief that her husband would recover. Within a week, however, his condition worsened. He insisted she be brought in for a final farewell. She sat by his bed and put her head on his chest. He placed his arm around her tenderly, just as he had done for three decades.

Ida went back to Canton, Ohio and lived six more years. She never had another seizure.


  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
  • Foster, Feather Schwartz – Mary Lincoln’s Flannel Pajamas and Other Stories from the First Ladies’ Closet – Koehler Publishing, 2016
  • Hoover, Irwin Hood – 42 Years in the White House – Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1934
  • Leech, Margaret – In the Days of McKinley – Harper & Brothers, 1959
  • Morgan, H. Wayne – William McKinley and His America – Syracuse University Press, 1964



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Back Over There, by journalist-author Richard Rubin

One hundred years ago, after futilely preaching neutrality for three years, President Woodrow Wilson, exhausted of options, finally entered “the war to end all wars” so the world could be made safe for democracy. Two million young American fellows left their farms, fields, factories and shops, and happily enlisted in the Great War, whistled Over There, and planned to wreak havoc on the dastardly Huns.

General John Pershing was the man of the hour, and a few little known Colonels named Marshall and Patton and Billy Mitchell would gain their land-legs in that war. A young Douglas MacArthur would earn his first star. A pacifist farmer named Alvin York from the backwoods of Tennessee would become a legend. But this book is not about them. It is mostly about those lesser-known hundred-thousand Americans who did not come home from over there.

A few years prior to writing BACK OVER THERE, journalist Richard Rubin authored a popular series in the New York Times exploring those battlefields and related sites. Returning once again to fill in a few blanks and smooth out the rough facts, he has provided an engaging and extremely thoughtful look at a War that perhaps has become all Wars. He walks a balanced line between sentiment and maudlin; the matter-of-factness of his European friends blends nicely with the innate morality and exuberance of Americana.

The last of the centenarian survivors of that horror, now known as World War I, are now dead. In many cases, their grandchildren are elderly. A few years ago, Rubin, having had the distinct pleasure/honor of meeting some of those aged ex-soldiers, now has parlayed those experiences into a remarkable travelogue-of-sorts through more than 500 miles of the battlefields, trenches and pillboxes, cemeteries, memorials and little known towns on the Western Front in France, which along with the better known places like The Argonne and Chateau-Thierry, made up four years of one of the bloodiest (and under-remembered) episodes in history.

BACK OVER THERE in some ways, is a surprising love story. The country folk of Northern France, where most of the horrific battles, standoffs, death, sickness and despair occurred between 1914-18, are still deeply in love with their history. History is a part of them. People have remained on the farms and in the villages where their ancestors lived and worked a century (or more) ago.  They recall the old stories as if they happened last week. They still love their memory of the idealistic American doughboys who finally came to their aid, and reverently believe the Yanks saved them from total destruction. Even the events of the Second Great War (1939-45) have not dimmed or diminished that love. And the love, at least by author Richard Rubin, is definitely returned in abundance.

His personal experiences of months of dedicated research are coupled with a strong and happy way with words. What could be a litany of dull facts and figures where one battlefield looks just like another, and a trench is a trench, has become a fascinating look at a semi-lost world barely a couple of hundred miles from Paris. It is a world where much of time has stood still. Rubin easily traverses the boundaries of decades, discussing parking places or modern sanitary facilities as easily as he ferrets out the places where a generation of Americans gave their lives and their health and their futures in the hopes of ending war forever.

Rubin introduces us to a dozen or so fellow WWI aficionados, mostly French and a couple of Brits, who, like the metal detectors they sneeringly disdain, helped him find delight in small treasures coughed up by yet another spring rain in an ex-trench that had been overrun by nature decades ago. He learned to recognize grassy hills that buried crumbling cement German pillboxes that mowed down thousands of Allied soldiers. He also learned to appreciate the superb engineering and military acumen that built them. He learned to identify a shard of shrapnel – ours and theirs – and which weapon it came from. Ditto the cap of a canteen or a button from a uniform, or an unspent cartridge. He paid homage to our communal ancestors of WWI vintage, buried forever on French soil. He visited graves and monuments that still were periodically decorated with a flower or ribbon. Some had traces of names that had been worn away by time.  Some never had names. And perhaps most important of all, he learned a deeper appreciation of history and memory – ours and theirs. And perhaps “theirs” is greater and deeper. As one of his French companions remarked, “when you live here, you can’t escape the history – it’s all around you, in everything you see, all the time.

For those who love the glory of war, this is a book be read. For those who loathe war and dismiss glory, this is a book to be read. And for all those in between, who love war when we win, and loathe war when we lose, it is a book to be read – and to learn from. Americans usually try to escape history by denying it and sometimes undoing it, but it is inescapable and we will be forced to repeat and repeat it until maybe we get it right. And maybe we never will.  America lost its innocence during the Great War – just like everyone else.

The War to End All Wars has perhaps become the War to Begin All Wars: vicious, mean, despairing, hopeless, fruitless, seemingly never-ending and in the end, accomplishing little other than leading to new wars in new places with new names and new uniforms and even more destructive weapons.  And more places to bury the honored dead.

And we can thank Richard Rubin for reminding us.


Back Over There, by Richard Rubin

St. Martin’s Press


ISBN-10: 1250084326


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William Henry Harrison: The Big Lie

The “log cabin and hard cider” persona associated with William Henry Harrison was not only a myth, it was an out and out fabrication.

Berkeley’s FFV:

William Henry Harrison (1772-1841) was born at Berkeley Plantation, one of Virginia’s oldest estates along the James river, midway between Williamsburg, then the Colonial Capital, and Richmond, soon to be its state replacement. The Harrison family was a long line of highest-of-the-high FFV’s – First Families of Virginia – both in prestige and in wealth. The plantation boasted thousands of acres, and the house itself was nearly a hundred and fifty years old when WHH was born.

Berkeley, the ancestral home of William Henry Harrison in Virginia. It was nearly a hundred years old when WHH was born.

Built of solid brick and mortar (still standing, by the way), its rooms were ample and furnished with the best England could provide.

Bottom line: WHH was the son of Benjamin Harrison VI, signer of the Declaration of Independence, adjutant to George Washington and an early Governor of Virginia. He was exposed from birth through young manhood, to the finest everything that could be had in Virginia – and that included socializing with the cream of society and all the famous names.

WHH: Younger Son

Young General William Henry Harrison

Families were large in those days, with property divided and sub-divided to provide inheritance and dowries. WHH was the youngest of seven; the bulk of the estate went to his eldest brother.

Thus Harrison was sent to school in Philadelphia where he studied medicine for a year. It was enough to tend to himself and his eventual family, but he opted for a military career. His commission as Lieutenant in the minuscule United States Army was signed by President George Washington, and he was sent “out West,” which in those days meant the Indiana territory. Soldiers were needed to protect against Indian raids, the always-threat of the British, and to protect the wagonloads of settlers piling into the new frontier.

Grouseland. The home WHH built in Vincennes, Indiana. It is still standing today.

By 1798, at only twenty-six, he was named Governor of Indiana (still a territory). He built a sumptuous home in Vincennes, which he named “Grouseland.” It is still standing today.

WHH: General, Hero, Politician

With a solid family background, education and high-up political connections, military promotion came readily. By 1811, he was a Major General.

When long-simmering unrest between England and its erstwhile colonies erupted into the full-scale War of 1812, Harrison was uniquely positioned to do battle near the Great Lakes. The British in Canada, allied with various Indian tribes, hoped to find a soft U.S. underbelly, and perhaps reclaim some of its former territory.

The home WHH built and occupied in North Bend, Ohio. It is no longer standing.

The Battle of Tippecanoe in November, 1811, was a skirmish along the banks of the Tippecanoe River in Indiana. The Indians, under the dynamic leadership of Tecumseh, hoped to stem the influx of American settlers. It lasted perhaps an hour, but it was considered a significant American victory, at a time when the American Army on the East Coast was racking up a series of disasters.

Indian skirmish or not, General Harrison became a hero. In 1812, he followed up with another victory over the Indians at the Battle of the Thames. He parlayed those heroics into the Governorship of the much larger Ohio Territory, a position well suited to his background, experience and the fact that by then, he was past forty. He moved to North Bend, Ohio, and built a very nice house.

During the next twenty years, he served a couple of terms in Congress, representing the new State of Ohio.

The Whigs: 1836

William Henry Harrison as an ex-soldier.

Outgoing President Andrew Jackson, a dominant and charismatic leader, had placed his stamp firmly on the Democratic-Republican party, which by then was called the plain Democratic party. But charismatic and dominant people make as many enemies as friends, and by the end of eight Jacksonian years, those enemies numbered in the tens of thousands. The problem was a lack of commonality and cohesion. In 1832, Jackson’s arch enemy Henry Clay ran as a National Democrat. Anti-Jacksonians didn’t even have a name.

A sixty-something William Henry Harrison first ran for the Presidency in 1836 on the newly named Whig ticket. He did not seek the honor; but he did not decline it, either. The Whig “campaign” was somewhat peculiar. Its followers were so divided, except for basically hating Jackson, that four separate regional candidates were on various tickets, believing that the best vote-getter would be their future candidate. Harrison drew the most votes, but Democrat Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s hand-picked successor, won easily.

The Whigs and The Big Lie

The image and the man. Image won.

The Whig party had begun to coalesce by 1840. The country was suffering from a financial panic (recession), and the urbane, sophisticated and vulnerable Martin Van Buren took the heat.

William Henry Harrison was sixty-eight and had retired. But he was still considered “available” and his name still magic from Tippecanoe. He had been a governor. He had been a congressman. But he was “western”; a perceived frontiersman, accustomed to the rough-and-tumble idea of Americanism.

WHH was fairly apolitical and reluctant (and maybe a little long in the tooth), so when a Democrat sneeringly suggested that if you gave him a log cabin and a jug of hard cider he would be happy, some Whigs in Pennsylvania ran with the phrase, turning an intended deterrent into a positive asset.

The image of the log cabin and hard cider marked the start of what could be called “political campaigns.”

Log cabins were the very image of the new, rugged American generation. The image stuck. The phrase stuck.  The first real political campaign began. With banners, with neck scarves, with parades and floats purporting to be log cabins and jugs of hard cider. They even wrote songs about it.

Anti-Jacksonians (now anti-Van Burenites) enthusiastically united in favor of this 68-year-old man they believed to be one of them. He won handily.

But in truth, he came from one of the First Families of Virginia and had dined at elegant tables with Washington and Thomas Jefferson.


Cleaves, Freeman – Old Tippecanoe – American Political Biography (reprint) – 2000





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Doc Sawyer: President Harding’s Surgeon General

President and Mrs. Harding came to the White House with serious medical problems.

It is  unfair to compare medical practice of a hundred or more years ago with the enormous technological changes that have occurred. Nevertheless…

Charles Sawyer: Homeopath

Doctor Charles E. Sawyer, was both doctor and close family friend to the Hardings.

Charles E. Sawyer (1860-1924) was an Ohio homeopathic doctor of limited formal training, believing in medicines and diet rather than dedicated diagnostic skills and treatment.  Still, by the turn of the twentieth century, he had built a popular sanitarium, enjoyed a strong following, serious medical credentials (for the time) and was a respected member of society.  Having known the Harding family for many years, “Doc” Sawyer became family doctor to Warren Harding, and  treated him for a variety of common ailments, including gastritis.

Doc Sawyer had a thriving sanitorium in Marion, Ohio.

Florence Harding became his patient as well. Florence was a seriously sick woman with a chronic and frequently life threatening kidney ailment that caused regular blockage, pain and fever. It would be a serious condition today, but treatable with modern medicines and techniques.

Doc Sawyer was certainly competent to recognize the gravity of her problem, but believed her kidney would “unblock” itself, given time. But while waiting for that time, “Duchess” as Mrs. H. was nicknamed, was a very sick woman, bedridden, and believed near death on several occasions. In 1900, one of her kidneys was removed.

Doc Sawyer Comes to Washington

Warren Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914, the first year that a new Constitutional Amendment allowed the direct election of Senators. The Hardings came to Washington with high hopes of a new chapter in their not-blissful lives. Their marriage had become somewhat of an armed truce. Five years older than her husband, the Duchess was a domineering woman, and her kidney disease precluded “marital duties.” Harding, an affable and handsome fellow, found entertainment elsewhere.

Warren G. Harding was considered the handsomest President up to his time.

Senator Warren Harding’s congeniality drew him into the “good old boys” club: men who liked cigars, whiskey, poker – and women. He was a happy man.

Not so Mrs. Harding. She was considered old, dowdy, and generally snubbed with few friends. To add to her unhappiness, she had another bout with her remaining kidney. Her death was once again expected.

Florence Harding, nicknamed “Duchess,” had a long history of kidney problems.

Doc Sawyer, now a close family friend, immediately rushed to Washington. He moved in with the Hardings, and slowly nursed Florence back to health. She firmly believed she could not live without Doc Sawyer’s devoted medical care.

Doc Sawyer Gets a Promotion

Nobody would have predicted that Warren G. Harding, mediocre newspaperman-turned-mediocre Senator would become President of the United States. Nobody, except “Madame Marcia,” a Washington fortune-teller whose patrons included half of socio-political Washington including a superstitious Florence Harding. Madame Marcia advised her that Harding would become President, but would not survive his term. Florence believed her. If she was troubled that her husband would die, it is unknown. She had always loved politics, and this was the culmination of all her hopes and dreams – and an opportunity to avenge those who had snubbed her for years.

Brigadier General “Doc” Sawyer, made Surgeon General, loved wearing his military uniform.

Harding indeed became President in 1921, and Mrs. Harding insisted that Doc Sawyer be made Surgeon General, thus in constant attendance. Harding offered no arguments. In addition to naming Sawyer to the post, Harding inducted the sixty-year-old into the U.S. Army, commissioning him as a Brigadier General. Doc was overjoyed! He immediately ordered custom-made uniforms, and loved wearing them all over Washington.

It goes without saying that his medical peers were not impressed with Sawyer’s uniforms or his new title. They were even less impressed by his medical credentials. They considered him little more than a charlatan.

But the Duchess could not live without him.

The POTUS Becomes Sick.

As First Lady, Florence Harding indeed had another bout with her failing kidney, and sure enough Doc Sawyer pulled her through again. But it was Warren Harding who required serious medical care.

In some ways, Harding’s lifestyle was catching up with him. So was his “unfitness for the office,” as he admitted. He knew he was not qualified to be President, and the only part of the job that he truly enjoyed, was the meet-and-greet ceremonials, which he had always done extremely well. Now in his late fifties, Harding had put on weight, via a fashionable “high-stomached” paunch. He also had emotional turmoil via his presidential worries, his marital worries, his extra-marital worries, his financial worries, and growing worries about less than honest old pals that he had appointed to high office. He also had a bad heart.

Doc Sawyer, family doctor and close friend, knew about all Harding’s worries, but categorically denied the bad heart.

Despite Harding’s difficulty breathing, chronic chest pains, cold sweats and other common symptoms of heart disease, the Surgeon General insisted the President was merely suffering from indigestion: too much rich food, too little sleep, and too much stress and worry. Rich food, lack of sleep and stress and worry were certainly not helping, but other Washington physicians insisted that the President was showing classic cardiovascular symptoms. Harding believed his old friend. Indigestion.

The Death of Harding, Sawyer and The Duchess

Surgeon General Sawyer accompanied the President and his party on their fateful trip to Alaska in 1923. Harding was clearly not well. When symptoms suggested a heart attack, Sawyer claimed food poisoning from bad crabmeat. Within a week, the President was dead. Rumors abounded, especially when Mrs. Harding forbade an autopsy. But the Washington doctors were correct. It was a heart attack.

The death of Warren Harding was a complete surprise to the country.

New President Calvin Coolidge did not choose to continue Doc Sawyer’s appointment as Surgeon General. The aging homeopath returned to Ohio, and died a few months later.

Florence Harding also returned to Ohio. Shortly after Doc died, she had another bout of nephritis, and died. She was sixty-four. Doc Sawyer wasn’t there to keep her alive any more.


Ferrell, Robt. H. – The Strange Deaths of President Harding – University of Missouri Press, 1996

Russell, Francis – The Shadow of Blooming Grove – McGraw Hill – 1968




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Theodore Roosevelt: Sailor and Soldier

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt, man of a zillion interests, always loved the military.

TR: The Sailors’ Nephew

Theodore Roosevelt was a little child during the tumultuous Civil War years.   His was a well-to-do prominent New York family, but his mother, Martha (Mittie) Bulloch, was a  born into an equally well-to-do and prominent Georgia family.

To the eternal chagrin of his son, TR Sr, in his thirties, purchased a substitute to serve in the Union Army rather than risk possible armed battle with family members.  Two of Mittie’s brothers fought for the Confederacy.

James and Irvine Bulloch were heroes of the Confederate Navy.

Those two brothers, James and Irvine Bulloch, were heroes – NAVAL heroes – whose derring-do as blockade runners were the stuff of legends.  Mittie Roosevelt made sure her children knew the glorious stories of their Southern kin.

Theodore, an asthmatic and nearsighted boy, reveled in those adventure tales and would always point with pride to his Southern antecedents. But like his father, he was and always would be a Northerner, strongly opposed to slavery, and just as strongly, a Unionist.

TR: The Sailor Student

Theodore Roosevelt as a college student.

By the time TR went to Harvard, his health had improved, largely due to his regimen of vigorous exercise and body building. His inquisitive mind and always-superb intellect had also matured and expanded along with his stronger body.

He easily sailed through his studies, his social club life, a romance with Bostonian Alice Hathaway Lee, (who he married upon graduation) and his continued vigorous exercise. But, as throughout his life, he was easily bored and needed challenges.

Image result for TR book "The Naval War of 1812

Theodore’s first book. Many more would follow.

Partly to relieve said boredom, and partly due to sincere interest in history, he began a book on the Naval War of 1812 – battles that had been fought sixty years earlier. Few participants were still alive. But TR diligently researched all available material and decided that he liked writing about history. Back in New York, he enrolled in Columbia University Law School – briefly. He was bored.  But the university boasted a fine library where he could finish his naval history project.

Once completed, it was published to much acclaim and success and The Naval War of 1812 would be a gold standard for War of 1812 enthusiasts for two generations.

TR: The Political Soldier-Sailor

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) had a bellicose nature, period. Even in politics, he always alluded to the “fight” and was evermore the “man in the arena.” Tilting in the political lists, and proving his mettle in the strenuous life in the Dakotas of the 1880s only strengthened that side of him that loved action and glory.

For the young political-cowboy, that meant fighting cattle rustlers, rain and snow, and political corruption on all fronts. Since the country was at peace; his wars would have to be fought against the elements and social corruption.

Alfred Thayer Mahan was the foremost champion of a strong and modern navy.

In 1897, when William McKinley became President, TR was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He had become an ardent supporter of the theories and strategies of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who believed that a strong and modern navy was essential to a prosperous country.

Admiral George Dewey would be the hero of Manila Bay. His exploits helped make the USA a world power.

Theodore-the-sailor (whose hands-on maritime experience was never more than rowing on Long Island Sound), was now in a position to help effect the growth of the minuscule and unimportant U.S. Navy. The trouble was that both the Secretary of the Navy and indeed, the President himself, were happy with a minuscule and unimportant Navy.

All that changed, once events in Cuba escalated. Rebels fighting against corrupt and oppressive Spanish rule appealed to freedom-loving Americans, and TR was happy to help whip the country into a righteous and indignant jingoistic frenzy.

Having issued strategic orders to the Pacific fleet commander (on a day his boss was away), TR effectively helped push Admiral Dewey’s rout of the Spanish Navy in the Philippines into the headlines.

Then, in a seeming about-face, the Navy man became an Army man.

TR: The Crowded Hour

An artistic rendering of the Rough Riders riding rough in Cuba.

The War with Spain reached fever pitch when the battleship Maine suspiciously blew up in Havana Harbor. Assistant Naval Secretary Roosevelt immediately resigned his post, and became a soldier, personally raising a voluntary cavalry regiment. He became Colonel of the “Rough Riders,” a nickname given to the assortment of cowboys, NY policemen and college-fellows who signed on, generally for larks and a chance for glory.

Colonel Theodore Roosevelt of the Rough Riders.

For TR, barely 40, it was a bully little war. He challenged fear and won, and would be an example of valor and courage to his children, if not to the rest of the country.

His “victory” at San Juan Hill cemented his personal legend, and was the one adventure in a lifetime of adventure that he treasured most. Within three years, he was President of the United States.

TR: The Navy President

The War with Spain elevated the US to global power. Whether we liked/wanted it or not, we now had “foreign territories”: The Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico. The strong Navy that he (and Mahan) had relentlessly promoted was now at a point of reality. Old ships, some that had been commissioned decades earlier, were now scrapped in favor of building new, modern vessels with the latest technology.

The Great White Fleet

But the country was once again at peace – and liked it that way. What should President Roosevelt do with his new toy – a modern fleet of ships? In a spectacular flash of political brilliance, TR decided to send them on a two-year worldwide “goodwill” tour. Having these great vessels painted a visible and peaceful white instead of the customary battleship gray, was a public relations stroke of genius.

The Rough Riding soldier was now back in the Navy, as the Commander in Chief of the Great White Fleet.

The Soldier in Retirement

Both George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant (and much later, Dwight Eisenhower) preferred their former title of “General” once they retired from the Presidency. They had all been professional soldiers.

Theodore Roosevelt was never a professional soldier. His few months in Cuba was as a “volunteer”; his title as “Colonel” was more honorary than anything. Nevertheless, when he retired from the Presidency, he chose to be called “Colonel Roosevelt” for the remaining ten years of his life.


Brands, H.W. – TR: The Last Romantic – 1997 Basic Books

Dalton,, Kathlen – Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life – 2004, Vintage

McCullough, David – Mornings on Horseback – 1982, Simon & Schuster

Morris, Edmund – Theodore Rex – 2002, Random House


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The Assassination Attempt on Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Political assassination has been around since Biblical times, if not longer.

Andrew Jackson: Public Figure

General Andrew Jackson was the ideal image of “The Hero.”

Andrew Jackson had been in the public eye since he was in his early twenties. As a Tennessee lawyer, planter, speculator, horseracer, duelist and legislator, he eventually became “General” Jackson, a militia title, and “Old Hickory” for posterity. With such a resume, it is easy to understand his huge number of followers – and  enemies.

When he became POTUS in 1829, he was sixty one, a recent widower,  skinny as a rail, white haired and practically toothless.

An idealized President Jackson.

By 1835, well into his second term, many Americans wondered how he lived as long as he had. At sixty-seven, the odds were that he would not survive his term. But Old Hickory was as tough as his nickname, and was now the crusading champion of dissolving the Bank of the United States, a controversial policy that had added long lists to his roster of detractors. The aging President, accustomed to having powerful political enemies, had become more paranoid than ever, and just as feisty. After all, he had participated in several duels over the years, with two bullets in his body as souvenirs.

Richard Lawrence, Assassin and Lunatic:

Richard Lawrence (1800?-1861) was born in England, but had migrated with his family to the U.S. when he was still a child. He had become a house painter, and was seemingly a solid citizen living in the Washington DC area.

By the early 1830s, however, it was apparent to Lawrence’s family that his behavior had become erratic, and downright peculiar. He ranted and raved, quarreled violently with family members and neighbors, left his job, insisted that he was the King of England and that the United States owed him vast sums of money. Then he insisted that such funds were not forthcoming due to President Andrew Jackson’s banking policy.

Speculation (since we will never know anything for sure) has centered on the possibility that exposure to the chemicals in the paint (perhaps lead poisoning) had affected Lawrence’s mind. Then again, many people painted houses in the 1830s with no ill effects on their sanity.

The Fateful Failed Shooting

President Jackson was in his late sixties, frail and toothless, when the assassination attempt was made.

It was January 30, 1835. The weather was damp and drizzling. Rep. Warren Davis of South Carolina had died a few days earlier, and there was a State Funeral Service at the Capitol. A frail President Jackson leaning on his walking stick, came to pay his respects. Richard Lawrence was lying in wait behind a pillar near the East Portico, ready to accost and shoot the President as he left the building.

Lawrence brandished two single-shot brass pistols. They were well made; the powder was considered to be excellent. As Jackson passed, Lawrence jumped out from behind the pillars, and fired his pistol at the President. The percussion cap resounded, but there was no explosion. The powder had not ignited and the pistol misfired. Legend has it that Andrew Jackson, exploded in rage, dropped twenty years, and once again became Old Hickory. He raised his cane, charged at the assassin, and began thrashing him soundly.

An etching of Lawrence’s attempt on Jackson’s life.

Lawrence fired the other pistol, this time at point blank range. Again, the pistol misfired. Meanwhile, some of those accompanying the President also had sprung into action, wrestling the assassin to the ground. It is said that western legend Davy Crockett was one of those who helped subdue the assailant. Lawrence was immediately taken to jail.

It was the first instance of a President of the United States being the target of an assassination. It is also the first (and only) time a President of the United States is reported to have fought back.  Maybe yes, maybe no – but it makes for a great story!

The Lucky Non-Shots. The Lunatic. The Trial.

The trial was short, and Lawrence’s lunacy was quickly determined.

Within a very short time, it became apparent that Richard Lawrence, the would-be assassin, was insane. When his pistols and his gunpowder were tested, the examiners were amazed to find them in good working order. They fired readily, and penetrated an inch-thick block of wood thirty feet away. The gunpowder was also said to be of good quality.

The fact that both guns and both shots had misfired puzzled the investigators, but they concluded that the gun had some history of being erratic in damp weather conditions. The day was definitely damp; the powder may have been affected. They also concluded that the odds that both shots had not fired were 125,000-to-1. Some said that Divine Providence had obviously been at work to protect Andrew Jackson.

Francis Scott Key was the prosecutor in Lawrence’s trial.

Lawrence was brought to trial a few months later. The prosecuting attorney was Francis Scott Key, of The Star Spangled Banner fame. It took the jury only a few minutes to determine that the defendant was “not guilty, by reasons of insanity.” He was still behaving preposterously at the trial, insisting he was King Richard III, or similar royal personage.

He was sent to Washington’s Government Hospital for the Insane, and remained there until he died in 1861.

Old Hickory and the Conspiracy

President Jackson, feeble in health, was still sound of mind – albeit a little warped. A lifetime of battling powerful political (and personal) enemies had made him paranoid and suspicious, particularly of long-time foes. He was always eager to believe that a nefarious plot was afoot, and that his enemies were always ready to conspire at mayhem. His decades-long animosity towards Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun led him to suspect that either or both were involved in his potential assassination, and had likely conspired with (or hired) Richard Lawrence to do their dirty work.

Some people insisted that Jackson had organized the attempted assassination himself to gain sympathy for his Bank policies, but that does not sound like Jackson, who never ducked an issue or a fight.


Meacham, Jon – America Lion: Jackson in the White House – Random House, 2008



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Montgomery Meigs: Civil War Quartermaster


Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs

The United States Army in April, 1861

On the eve of the Civil War, the regular United States Army consisted of 16,000 soldiers, most of which were deployed out west. Other than maintaining the always-touchy peace with the native tribes, there was little need for armed forces. The 1100 officers were, for the most part, West Point graduates, either fulfilling their obligations or pursuing a career.

The Quartermaster Department was miniscule. There was, of course the Quartermaster General. He was in charge of a mere thirteen clerks and a budget of about $4 million annually. This covered all supplies except for food and weaponry, which were assigned to other departments.

When the Union began to split following Fort Sumter, a full third of those officers resigned to re-enlist with the Confederate army. Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers.

With little mechanism in place for raising the kind of army that was needed, northern states were obliged to send their individual militias, most of which had little resources of their own. Private individuals were permitted to raise companies or brigades.  Governors were authorized to commission officers.

Within three months, the Union Army had 235,000 men in military service. By December, there would be 640,000. They all required  uniforms, shoes, tents, mess kits and sundries – and a means to transport them deep into rebel territory.

Montgomery C. Meigs: The Right Man for the Right Job

Whether Lincoln was a particularly good judge of ability, or he was incredibly lucky – or both – he found the perfect man to administer the mammoth job of supplying the army.


Montgomery C. Meigs met Lincoln shortly after he took office and impressed the new President, who promoted him rapidly.

Montgomery C. Meigs (1816-1892) was Southern born to a prominent patrician family. Smart and well-educated, he entered West Point at sixteen, and graduated fifth in his class. An engineer by training, and indeed by preference, he would spend his entire career associated with large public works. In the twenty-five years prior to the Civil War, he was engaged building forts, improving river navigation and aqueducts.


All the tools and component parts for the Union Army’s engineering projects, such as trestle bridges and corduroy roads, were part of Meigs’ Quartermaster domain.

When Lincoln took office, Meigs was a Major. He had come to Lincoln’s attention as the supervisor in charge of building the wings and dome of the U.S. Capitol building. Lincoln assigned him the unenviable task of attempting to provision the small force that was trapped at Fort Sumter. The project, of course failed, but not from want of effort. Meigs was promoted on successive days: first to colonel, then to brigadier general, and placed in charge of the huge task of provisioning the Union Army.

Engineers usually have a reputation for meticulous organization, with a temperament to match. Meigs was no exception. His detractors considered him stubborn, self-serving and thin-skinned. His admirers considered him scrupulously honest and an organizational genius.

Saddled with previous procurement scandals in his department, and determined to overcome them quickly, he instituted competitive public bidding for military contracts, which included speedy delivery of all goods. Bottom line: he would provide extraordinary service and exemplary results.

The Quartermaster Department: 1861

Little materiel was on hand when Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs assumed responsibility in June, 1861. One of his first orders of business was to determine what the needs were, and in what order they should be supplied. As he noted in his records, “men must be clothed before they could fight.”


Outfitting and supplying the Union soldier from cap to boots, and everything in his haversack was a mammoth task, since clothing and personal items were easily lost or damaged.

Under Meigs’ administration, detailed records was collected with an eye toward providing the kinds of statistics needed. A uniform wore out in four months; thus three uniforms per year must be procured for each soldier. Shoes barely lasted two months, requiring millions of pairs to be furnished. As the Civil War dragged on, the sheer numbers of supplies needed were staggering.

And if that were not enough, Meigs needed to create some standardized warehousing for all those supplies.

Military Transportation During the Civil War


Huge warehousing facilities to store all the supplies also came under Meigs’ purview.

Unlike the Confederate Army which obtained most of its supplies close to home, the Union Army had to ship its necessities deep into enemy territory.

For General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign into Virginia during 1862, Meigs would supply a 100,000 man army. Six hundred tons of clothing, shoes, tents, blankets and sundries would be necessary every day.


Horses, mules and wagons were also a part of the Quartermaster’s realm – and that included the tons of forage needed to maintain the animals.

Providing the various wagons and animals for transportation also fell under Meigs’ control. In one year, 200,000 horses were procured for the cavalry, 20,000 for the artillery; more than 60,000 mules were purchased to haul supply wagons. Each horse and mule consumed nearly twenty-five pounds of forage daily. The Quartermaster records indicated that more than half the daily provisions shipped to the army in the field consisted of forage.

Quartermaster General Meigs rose to the challenge of co-ordinating the efforts of private and public railroads. The department also organized a huge fleet of water transports, suitable for ocean, bay and river travel. Thousands upon thousands of wagons, plus the materiel for bridges, roads and infrastructure repair were also supplied.

The Quartermaster Department By the Numbers: 1865

Brigadier General Montgomers C. Meigs was the first government official in United States history with a budget of more than $1 billion.

A total of 3.5 million pairs of trousers, 3.7 million drawers and 3.2 million flannel shirts had been purchased and distributed.

The thirteen clerks of the Quartermaster Department in 1861 had grown to more than 650 by 1865.

At the end of the War, Senator James G. Blaine would comment that “Perhaps in the military history of the world there never was so large an amount of money disbursed upon the order of a single man … The aggregate sum could not have been less during the war than fifteen hundred million dollars, accurately vouched and accounted for to the last cent.”

Secretary of State William H. Seward’s estimate was “that without the services of this eminent soldier the national cause must have been lost or deeply imperiled.”


Henig, Gerald S. and Niderost, Eric – Civil War Firsts: The Legacies of America’s Bloodies Conflict, Stackpole Books, 2001





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