Col. Elmer Ellsworth, The Lincolns’ Favorite

Col. Elmer Ellsworth

Few Lincoln favorites were as beloved by the entire Lincoln family as Elmer Ellsworth.

The Young Militia Colonel

Ephriam Elmer Ellsworth (1837-61) was a poor New York fellow with long bootstraps. Blessed with a charismatic personality, solid brains, and an abiding interest in all things military, he gravitated to Chicago, had formed a local militia patterned after the French-Algerian Zouaves, drilled it and nurtured it, and became its Captain – all by the age of 21 or 22.

He came to the attention of Springfield attorney Abraham Lincoln, who took a paternal liking to the young fellow, considering him at only 5’6”, one of the greatest little men he had ever met. Sympathetic to his impoverished self-made background similar to his own, he suggested that Ellsworth come to Springfield as law student/clerk.  The advice and offer was taken.

Willie Lincoln adored Elmer Ellsworth.

So did Tad.

Within a short time, Elmer Ellsworth became a great favorite of all the Lincolns: Mrs. Lincoln (known to be picky) adored him; Willie and Tad Lincoln considered him a big brother who happily engaged in horseplay with the little boys. Robert Lincoln, away at Philips Exeter, would meet him Ellsworth later, and always thought well of him.

But Ellsworth’s love of the militia in all aspects would soon override his enthusiasm for law.

The Lincoln Campaign of 1860

Political campaigns have always attracted young enthusiasts, willing to “volunteer” for long hours and no pay, in the hope of experience, facetime with the powers that be, and potential reward down the road.

Lincoln’s Secretary John Hay thought highly of Ellsworth.

So did Lincoln’s other secretary John Nicolay.

So it was with young Ellsworth, who, along with John Nicolay and John Hay, men close to his own age, he offered to help wherever he was needed. According to Hay, “He soon became indispensable. No one could manage like him the turbulent assortment of loyal followers” that crowded along the railroad stops between Springfield and Washington. Nicolay would consider him “very self possessed and cheerful.”

Between September 1860 and February 1861, he saw Lincoln practically every day, and the whole family adopted him as one of their own.

In reality, just about everyone liked and admired Elmer Ellsworth.

Ellsworth in Washington

Invited to bunk-in with Nicolay and Hay at the White House, Ellsworth continued to impress the newly elected President. Within a week of inauguration, Lincoln wrote a lengthy recommendation to then-Secretary of War Simon Cameron, recommending that Ellsworth be appointed Inspector General, along with several perks and benefits. Cameron however, had already promised the position elsewhere, so it was never effected.

Abraham Lincoln had high hopes for the young officer.

The best that the young self-educated militia officer could obtain was a commission as Lieutenant, since existing army protocol placed high emphasis on seniority. Lincoln suggested appointing him to some special duties in the future since the new President who had little formal judgment in those matters, had formed “a high estimate” of his military talents. On the very day that Fort Sumter fell, he wrote to Ellsworth that he hoped [the army] “would personally oblige him” and place him in a position…”satisfactory to himself.”

On the day the President called for 75,000 volunteers, Ellsworth, armed with the presidential letter, raced to New York to raise a regiment of Zouave firefighters. They were quick to enlist, particularly attracted to the exotic uniform with its royal blue shirts and bright red pantaloons. Battles were still to be fought, but troops were trickling in to Washington from all the Northern states, setting up camps everywhere including on the lawn of the the White House and the Capitol. As one of the first units to reach Washington, they became a great hit in the capital – especially when they put out a fire at Willard’s Hotel. Lincoln personally attended the official swearing-in of the Zouave regiment. Ellsworth was beginning to make a name for himself in military circles.

Ellsworth in Alexandria

When Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers, the state of Virginia voted to join the Confederacy, to no one’s surprise.

A popular drawing of Ellsworth meeting his fate in Alexandria.

Alexandria, Virginia is only a short distance from Washington across the Potomac River. On the rooftop of the John Marshall Hotel, one of the taller buildings in the Virginia town, a makeshift rebel flag (not the one later associated with the Confederacy) was hoisted atop its flagpole – in easy view of the White House.

As a Volunteer Militia Colonel and practically a part of the President’s family, Ellsworth was incensed that his beloved Mr. Lincoln was confronted by this obvious sign of secession. He and a few of his men had gone to Alexandria for a minor assignment, but upon its completion, decided to haul down the offensive piece of material.

With cool judgment, he personally raced up the stairs of the small building, and lowered the offending flag. As he descended the stairs, the owner of the hotel shot and killed him instantly. One of Ellsworth’s men returned a bullet between the owner’s eyes.

Ellsworth Back in Washington

Word spread like wildfire – including notifying the White House that the young colonel was dead. Lincoln was devastated. “I knew poor Ellsworth well,” he told some congressional visitors, “and held him in great regard…the event was so unexpected…it quite unmanned me.”

Mary Lincoln wept at Ellsworth’s funeral.

The country mourned him.

Lincoln and his family went to the Washington Navy Yard, where Ellsworth’s body had been brought, and later arranged to hold funeral services in the East Room of the White House. The President and Mrs. Lincoln sat near the foot of the coffin, surrounded by their cabinet officers, and were known to have shed copious tears. Later, Lincoln was reported to have sat alone by the coffin, meditating on the young soldier of whose career he had cherished such high hopes.

Ellsworth left a lasting impression on all who knew him.

Sources:

Donald, David H. – Lincoln – Simon & Schuster, 1995

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-death-of-colonel-ellsworth-878695/

http://www.mrlincolnandfriends.org/the-sons/elmer-ellsworth/

http://www.albanyinstitute.org/colonel-elmer-ellsworth-1837-1861-11th-new-york-volunteers.html

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Benjamin Harrison: Cold Man in the White House

President Benjamin Harrison

Most politicians excel at the glad-hand. Benjamin Harrison was the exception.

BH: POTUS Grandson

William Henry Harrison died after only one month as President of the US. His grandson Benjamin Harrison (1832-1901) was only nine years old. His memories were sketchy at best.

BenjLincoln

Great Grandpa Benj. Harrison

Grandpa Wm. H. Harrison

Nevertheless, the memory and mantle of his patrician Virginia forebears (namesake Great-Grandpa Ben signed the Declaration of Independence, among other accomplishments), and his illustrious Grandpa General WHH of Tippecanoe/POTUS fame, followed him throughout his life.

Ben’s financial inheritance had long been dissipated by large Harrison families and the once-wealthy Virginians were now scattered and modest in means. Ben was a younger son of a youngest son.

But he managed to get a college education, became a lawyer, married and began a practice in Indianapolis. It was a very slim practice. Harrison took on clerical positions within the court to make ends meet.

The main problem was Ben himself. While his legal abilities and diligence were satisfactory, his personality was a turnoff. Instead of a firm handshake, his was likened to a “wilted petunia.” Small talk was not among his talents, and his conversation skills were nil.

Young lawyers are usually dependent on crumbs from the tables of established attorneys: small cases that a successful lawyer was glad to refer to a beginner. Ben Harrison received few referrals.

One story suggests that he once considered giving up law to open a store, so at least he could feed his family.

The Turning Point: The Civil War

The Civil War was a turning point in Benjamin Harrison’s career.

Harrison was thirty when the Civil War began. His law practice was small, and it is said he thought to use his life savings (around $300) to purchase a substitute so he could support his wife Caroline and their two children.

Since a volunteer army was desperately needed, President Lincoln empowered state governors to commission officers. Indiana’s Governor Oliver P. Morton announced that anyone who could raise a regiment (1000 men) could be its commanding officer. Harrison hung a flag from his office window with a sign to enlist. The regiment was subscribed quickly and “Colonel” Harrison was now assured an officer’s pay to send home each month.

Young General Benj. Harrison

Old Tippecanoe’s grandson knew very little about the military, but he proved to be a quick learner. Attached primarily to the “western” army, he was both brave and competent, and was a brevet Brigadier General by war’s end.

Surprisingly for a personality-challenged man, Ben was an effective public speaker. He was clear and coherent, and could actually inspire a crowd with his oratory. But his one-on-ones had not improved.

After the War, a Republican, a lawyer and a Union General with a Midwestern pedigree were now viable credentials for political office, and Ben was courted by Indiana politicians.

There is a story that one of his colleagues met him at the train station as he was leaving to make a speech out of town, and remarked, “I know you’ll make a fine speech General, but afterwards, try to mix it up with the boys. The fellows like that.” Upon his return, he met up with his colleague and admitted that he tried to be one of the boys, but just couldn’t. “I have to be what I am,” he said honestly.

The Harrison house in Indianapolis.

Wimpy handshake notwithstanding, his law practice improved nicely, and his involvement in Indiana politics was welcomed. At that time, US Senators were “elected” by their state legislatures, and in 1881, Benjamin Harrison was sent to Washington for a six year term as Indiana’s Senator. While he was never part of the “Old Boys Club,” he was perceived as diligent and competent and of good character.

When the opportunity arose for the Republicans to challenge President Grover Cleveland in 1888, a general, a lawyer, a senator and a Midwesterner seemed an ideal candidate.

Once again, the famous Harrison name and “his grandfather’s hat” slogan resonated with the populace, but true to himself, BH did little in the meet-and-greet department, and was always disdainful of the “grandpa” connection.

It was a squeaker. Democrat President Cleveland was only slightly more scintillating than Harrison, and actually won the popular vote. But the Republicans “waved the bloody shirt,” drumming up Civil War political sympathy, and the electoral votes went to Harrison.

BH and Baby McKee

Three generations of Harrisons

The Harrisons moved to the White House with a large extended family: his wife Caroline, her elderly father, her widowed sister and her widowed niece. Then there were the Harrison’s son Russell and his wife and child, and their daughter Mary McKee, and her husband. And a little baby.

The story goes that as the family’s personal belongings were being moved in, reporters saw a baby buggy and high chair on the steps, and asked the staff if the baby was a boy or girl. They didn’t know, so the baby (it was a boy) was immediately nicknamed “Baby McKee.” And “Baby” McKee he remained.

Photo of the Harrison grandchildren.

President Harrison’s legendary permafrost did not melt in the White House, causing his aides to try to whip up whatever favorable publicity they could to warm his image. Babies usually do magic, and Baby McKee (actually Benjamin Harrison McKee), was a cute little fellow.

“Baby” McKee dropped the “baby” part as a grown man.

Photography had improved considerably over the past decades, and “candid” or unposed pictures could be taken. The little guy was a natural. His activities were regularly reported in the newspapers. Aides were able to arrange “naturally posed” photos of the President and his little namesake from time to time.

A huge effort was made to portray the well-known reserved POTUS as a different man when he was “grandpa.” But alas, the actual close relationship appears to be somewhat apocryphal. While Ben Harrison was surely benevolently fond of his namesake grandson, much of the “playful” Grandpa image was a creation of a nearly-desperate public relations team. Like the man said, “I have to be what I am.”

Sources:

Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981

Crook, Col. W.H. – Memories of the White House: The Home Life of our Presidents from Lincoln to Rooevelt – Little Brown, 1911

Hilton, George – The Funny Side of Politics – G.W. Dillingham Co., 1899

ttps://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/benjamin-harrison/

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Presidents and The Pastime: A Book Review

Curt Smith is a journalist with a quirky but engaging writing style. He is a major league expert in baseball history. He also knows presidential history. He was on staff with both Bush Presidents.  All of this is very good.

The Presidents and the Pastime

The Presidents and the Pastime, by Curt Smith

That being said, Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball & the White House, is not for the casual reader. It is for readers who are passionate and knowledgeable about either baseball or the presidency. Hopefully both.

Baseball used to be our national sport. Decades ago, the sports pages were filled with the glorious deeds of people like The Babe, The Man, The Yankee Clipper, The Duke, The Mick and The Say-Hey Kid. It was a very long list. Now, not so much.

Smith has ferreted out a few obscure details about baseball’s antecedents, questions the Abner Doubleday connection (that few people really care about, since his name is so good), and even dredges up some kind words that POTUS Andrew Johnson once said about the sport, or how Grover Cleveland exchanged mild pleasantries with Buffalo semi-pro players back in the 1880s. But the book belongs to the 20th century.

Our author is secretly (or maybe not so secretly) devastated by Theodore Roosevelt, who was about as interested in baseball as he was in ballet dancing. Not for him. Our national sport never caught on with one of our most national-minded and activity-driven leaders. Smith is hard pressed to forgive him.

But with very few exceptions, the rest of the POTUS-gang loved, enjoyed, attended, knew-about, and participated in baseball, whether they grew up playing the game in school or sandlots or merely threw out the first pitch of the season, a tradition started by TR’s successor, Big Bill Taft.

Wilson loved baseball, and managed his college team. Harding played it as a boy. During that first Golden Age of baseball, Calvin Coolidge learned to like it superficially; his wife Grace was a fan from the get-go, and could keep the box-scores like a pro. They even invited Babe Ruth to the White House. Herbert Hoover managed his Stanford team, and respected the game for what it was.

But the one Smith believes “saved” baseball for the generations, was Franklin Roosevelt. Crippled at 40 by polio, all sports became spectator sports for him. But FDR’s defining baseball moment was shortly after the US entered World War II. Baseball’s star players were enlisting. There was serious thought to cancelling the entire season, or perhaps season(s). According to Smith, despite momentous events and decisions, FDR immediately answered a letter from baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, urging that major league baseball be continued. Considered “The Green Light Letter,” FDR believed our national pastime was essential to the spirit/morale of the country. He was right. Everybody went to the games, and the men all wore suits and ties and hats! And they loved the B-team players as much as they had loved the stars now in military uniform. Had the season been cancelled, baseball might never have recovered.

Nearsighted Truman enjoyed the game, but his athletically-inclined wife Bess liked it almost as much as Grace Coolidge. Ike played baseball as a boy in Kansas, but sports injuries sidelined team sports, and he took up golf. Nevertheless, the second Golden Age of baseball was an “Ike event.” A whole decade of it!

Jack Kennedy enjoyed baseball. Both Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter were only interested in politics, but summoned up mild boyhood enthusiasm. Jerry Ford was an all-around athlete, who played baseball as a boy, and enjoyed all team sports.

But when he comes to Dick Nixon, who, with baseball as a channel to his more private side, becomes human, likable, and even a sympathetic man. He probably knew more about baseball than any POTUS.  The 1969 Amazin’ Mets was a World Series capstone not only for Nixon, but for practically all baseball lovers. (I was living in NYC at the time; a bi-league Yankee/Mets fan, so I know!!!)

Then, of course, there was Reagan-The-Gipper. He loved baseball. He loved all things American, and baseball personified America. The author tells a cute story about Reagan, in his movie-days, starring as early baseball figure Grover Cleveland Alexander. When one “presidential” conversation led to a discussion of Grover Cleveland, Reagan commented that “he played him in the movie.” Wrong guy.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama liked baseball well enough, and no doubt played it growing up. But Bush Leaguers 41 and 43 are core baseball guys, including “43” having been a major league owner.

So much for the POTUS side of the book. The baseball side is an i-dotter-t-crosser trove of baseball stats, stuff, nonsense and good trivia stories. A little heavy-handed on stadium details and numbers that few people really care about, but full of names like Goose and Ducky, Pepper and PeeWee, as well as the well known DiMag and Jackie, Ted and Yaz. Full of Babe-isms, Dizzy-isms, Casey-isms, Yogi-isms and all the tidbits that true aficionados go crazy for. They don’t make ‘em like that any more.

Bottom line. You really DO need to know BBall to get the real effect of  POTUS/Baseball. Modern players don’t seem to inspire the devotion. Maybe too much money and too little fun. The new stadium names reflect the sponsors not the teams, and it is hard to remember who plays where. Baseball is no longer the sport we Boomers once knew. For all its attractions, LA can never replace Brooklyn. And for sure, not a Brooklyn fan.

Whether Curt Smith intended it as such or not, this really-delightful book is for us.

Thanks for the memories.

 

The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House

by Curt Smith

University of Nebraska Press, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-8032-8809-6

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Andy Johnson and His Father’s Statue

President Andrew Johnson

President Andrew Johnson was barely two when his father died.

Jacob Johnson, Hero

Said to be Andrew Johnson’s birthplace in Raleigh, NC

Jacob Johnson (1778-1812) was poor as a church mouse. Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, he had no education, training or skills. Although he served in the NC militia and rang the church bell, he found menial work at Casso’s inn, stabling horses, carrying bags and unloading wagons. His wife Mary, just as unskilled, worked at the tavern as a housemaid and laundress. They had two children.

Or maybe it was this one. Either way, it was small and poor.

It was a cold winter in 1811 and three men fishing in the nearby creek capsized their small skiff. One made it to shore, but two were drowning. Jacob Johnson heard their cries for help, and without hesitating, plunged into the icy waters and somehow brought the men to safety. Unfortunately the icy water, the exposure and the exertion was too much for the thirty-three year old man, and he died shortly after the attempt.

He was a bona fide hero.

The entire town turned out for his elaborate funeral, replete with a parade and preachers and flowers and fine eulogies. Unfortunately the town provided nothing for Johnson’s widow and small children. Mary Johnson was forced to struggle on. She remarried not long afterwards, but her second husband was even less educated or skilled than the first. Some said he drank and seldom worked. Living and trying to raise two small boys was an ordeal. They barely survived.

Andrew Johnson: Quick Bio

Andrew Johnson (1808-75) was the younger son of Jacob and Mary. He had no memory of his natural father. His earliest memories centered around not enough food or shoes – or education.

Andrew Johnson’s first tailor shop is housed in the Johnson Visitor’s Center.

When he was ten, his mother and stepfather, as a kindness (and perhaps to reduce the mouths to feed) apprenticed the two boys to a tailor, where they would be housed, fed, given the rudiments of basic education, and most importantly, learn a trade so they could make their own ways.

Stories vary about the “master’s” cruelty and Andy Johnson’s natural truculence, and likely contain pieces of truth midway. But shortly before his 18th birthday, Andy ran away (not the first time) – but this time he made it across the Tennessee border, where NC apprenticeship law had no jurisdiction.

Johnson’s next house was a big improvement.

He settled in Greenville, and within a short time married and opened a tailor shop, making men’s suits and coats. With the help of his wife Eliza McCardle, he began a family and learned to read and write proficiently. He prospered.

Eliza McCardle Johnson

He attended local political meetings, and by his early twenties, embarked upon a long career of public office: alderman, mayor, state legislator, congressman, senator, Governor of Tennessee, Vice President and President. An impressive resume.

But his natural truculence was never far from the surface, and Johnson had as many (if not more) detractors as admirers. A lifelong Democrat, he was strongly pro-Union, mildly anti-slavery (believing it was better if everyone worked for wages), and violently antagonistic toward the “property” class, who he blamed for most of the country’s deep divisions.

Johnson was first and foremost a “mechanic”, a term used for tradesmen like tailors, carpenters, shoemakers and small merchants, and was staunchly proud of his working class status.

Andrew Johnson: President

Andrew Johnson’ presidency was difficult on all fronts. In 1864, he was a Democrat running with Republican Abraham Lincoln, on a makeshift “Union” ticket. His political accession to the presidency was mired in tragedy and grief.

Some claim he tried to follow Lincoln’s “let ’em up easy” policy (regarding the ex-Confederacy). Some claim with reason, that he was uncaring about the socio-political future of former slaves. All claim he was difficult to work with, far more inclined to fight it out than co-operate. He had no real partisans.

He endured a bitter impeachment trial, acquitted by only one vote. Needless to say, he was not nominated by anyone for a term of his own.

He returned to Tennessee, unbroken, unbowed and determined to engage in public life again. He ran for and lost two state elections, before being (finally) elected once again to the US Senate, where he was given a standing ovation. He died shortly thereafter.

His Father’s Statue

This is an old story retold by historian Paul Boller, and it very well may be apocryphal, but since any story about Andrew Johnson that generates a smile is so rare, it should be treasured. It is too good a story to lose!

The statue erected to the memory of Jacob Johnson

The absolute truth of the matter is that in mid-1867,  the good people of Raleigh, NC decided to erect a statue at the hitherto long neglected grave of Jacob Johnson, the bona fide (and long dead) hero.

Andrew Johnson’s gravestone is very elaborate.

For the dedication ceremony, William D. Haywood, the Mayor of Raleigh, invited the hero’s son, President Andrew Johnson, to participate and say a few appropriate words. It was his one and only trip South during his presidency. Even though Johnson had no recollection of his long-deceased father, nor had he lived in North Carolina since his teens, he accepted the invitation. So did a huge crowd of local residents, some of whom were old-timers, who remembered the drowning incident, and even knew some of those involved.

Johnson duly made a conventionally windy but satisfactory speech, indicating he had returned to the place of his boyhood in the hope of repairing some of the “breaches” made by the Civil War.

One of the attendees was an elderly woman who remembered young Andy as a tailor’s apprentice. She is said to have remarked to a companion, “Bless this dear old man. He has come back to Raleigh to open a tailor shop.”

True? Not true? Not important enough to really care?

Smile anyway.

Sources:

Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981

Hilton, George – The Funny Side of Politics – G.W. Dillingham Co., 1899

https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/andrew-johnson/

 

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George Washington: Officer and Gentleman

General George Washington

Of all the residents of 18th Century American Valhalla, George Washington was arguably the one whose character and demeanor were consistently above reproach.

Braddock: The Making of An Officer

The teenaged George Washington’s first career choice was the British Navy. After all, Britannia ruled the waves, and Naval officers were the elite. It did not happen, so the British Army was second best. That didn’t happen either. The best he could get was the Virginia Colonial militia.

With his fair experience as a surveyor and knowledge of the western parts of Virginia, he showed fine promise, displayed stamina and courage, along with all the callow failings of an eighteen or nineteen year old.

Gen. Edward Braddock  inspired a commander.

But at twenty, he managed to obtain a “voluntary” assignment as a scout to General Edward Braddock, one of England’s most experienced soldiers. The French and Indian War was going full tilt, and Washington had knowledge of the frontier, the Indian tribes, and the trails and forts.

The patrician Braddock took a liking to his young volunteer, and counseled him in many of the character traits that make fine leadership. That the two men differed in many ways is to be expected, but Washington absorbed readily, and took many of the older man’s instructive remarks to heart. When General Braddock met the bullet with his name on it, it was young Washington, of the Virginia Militia, who took charge and brought the remaining soldiers back to safety.

One of the key lessons he learned from Braddock, was the importance of a solid and competent officer corps. He famously stated that “An army of asses led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by an ass.”

The Revolutionary Officer

George Washington, commander

George Washington spent eight years in the Virginia Militia, rising to the rank of Colonel. He tried numerous times to secure a position in the British Army, but it never happened, and disenchanted after eight years, he changed careers. He had inherited his late half-brother’s property along the Potomac River, married the wealthiest young widow in Virginia, and was a successful planter for the next fifteen years. The property was a profitable showplace, and Washington became a wealthy man. As such, he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses.

When the rifts and unrest between England-the-Mother-Country and the Colonies intensified to a point of military action, it was Washington who was appointed “General.” He had the most professional experience of anyone, even if he was a little rusty.

He spent eight years in command of the little American army, filled with losses, brilliant retreats, a few hard-won semi-victories, and several political near-coups. By and large, it was a thankless job.

General Rochambeau, the French General who respected Washington

But throughout the Revolution, through bad times, worse times, and some horrible times, Washington maintained his unquestioned leadership. His personal reserve and irreproachable character brought him an almost mythic reputation.

By the surrender of Cornwallis’ Army at Yorktown in October, 1781, he was becoming what future generations would term “the indispensable man.”

Yorktown

Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, redeemed at Yorktown.

By the late 1770s, the American Revolution had taken a new direction: instead of its focus on New England and the middle colonies, the British swept up through the Southern Colonies. Washington was consulted on the strategies and tactics, but  his best under-commanders were in the field: General Nathaniel Greene and General Benjamin Lincoln. Washington himself never went South during the Revolution. Greene and Lincoln had a rough go of it, learning Washington’s lessons of running away to fight another day.

Meanwhile, after Benjamin Franklin’s long diplomatic siege on the French monarchy, monetary and military assistance had finally materialized. General Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau (1725-1807) and Admiral the Comte deGrasse, were finally committed to the American cause.

General Charles Cornwallis, a capable officer in a bad spot.

General Charles Cornwallis, one of England’s finest commanders, found himself in an untenable situation at the little town of Yorktown, Virginia, some 75 miles up the York River from the Chesapeake Bay – just as the French Fleet arrived and found a superb place for a bottleneck. As the American soldiers effectively held the English with their backs to the river, Washington and his soldiers, plus Rochambeau and his soldiers, raced from New York to Yorktown, Virginia. This would be it. Perhaps the war would be over.

The Surrender

The surrender at Yorktown, by Trumbull

General Cornwallis, competent officer though he was, had no choice. He was boxed in, and had learned that no reinforcements or aid would be forthcoming. He requested terms to surrender his army.

George Washington had an excellent memory, and remembered the humiliation that General Benjamin Lincoln had endured in South Carolina at the hands of British General Henry Clinton. He had been refused the “honors” of war (something of the utmost importance to GW), and was treated ignominiously.

General Washington sent word to Cornwallis, that his second-in-command General Benjamin Lincoln would accept the surrender. Cornwallis immediately advised that he was indisposed (these honors were of the utmost importance to him, too), and sent his second-in-command, General Charles O’Hara, who offered his sword to Rochambeau. The French General graciously declined, and to British musicians playing A World Turned Upside Down, Benjamin Lincoln accepted O’Hara’s sword.

General Washington, Quintessential Gentleman

General Washington, officer and gentleman.

It wasn’t personal. Washington, a patrician Virginia planter as well as General, had sincere respect for his adversary General Cornwallis, and after the surrender, invited him and key members of his staff to a dinner at his headquarters. It was undoubtedly elegant, with the finest of food and wine.

According to historian Paul Boller, the story goes that his guest General Rochambeau stood, raised his glass and toasted, “To The United States.”

Washington stood, raised his glass and saluted, “To the King of France.”

Then Cornwallis stood, raised his glass and said, “To the King.”

There was silence. Then Washington stood, raised his glass and said, “….of England. Let him stay there and I will drink him a full bumper.”

Sources:

Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981

Lengel, Edward G. – General George Washington: A Military Life – Random House, 2005

http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/yorktown.htm

https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1304.html

https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/the-revolutionary-war/washingtons-officers/

 

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Thomas Jefferson, Louisiana and An Ideological Dilemma

President Thomas Jefferson

When Thomas Jefferson became President, there were fifteen states in the Union.

A Geographical Overview

In 1801, the USA consisted of the original thirteen colonies, plus Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee. By the terms of the treaty ending the American Revolution, the US gained the Northwest territory, what is now Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota. It also gave the USA free navigation rights on the Mississippi River from Canada to the bustling port of New Orleans.

The USA at the time of the Louisiana Purchase.

But we were not alone!

Great Britain claimed most of Canada, with which we maintained a cautiously respectful relationship.

Spain had claimed nearly all of the Western Hemisphere three hundred years earlier, and still claimed Florida, which at the time included part of today’s Alabama and Mississippi. But Spain’s might and influence had declined, and they paid scant attention to their USA possession. Even their vast near-Empire via Mexico, including much of the present-day Southwest up through California, was semi-neglected by Spain.

France had planted its flag encompassing more or less the middle third of the USA and pieces of Canada back in the 16th Century. After the Seven Years War (1752-9) with Great Britain (the French and Indian War to Americans), the entire territory was ceded to Spain – except for New Orleans, which remained French.

All this was complicated by fuzzy boundaries and some up-for-grabs. Plus countless native tribes at various locations we knew practically nothing about.

Jefferson the Francophile

There was no doubt about Thomas Jefferson’s deep affection for France. Sent to represent Congress in the 1780s, he spent five years in Paris and grew to love all things French. When our great ally for American independence fomented its own revolution, he was overjoyed and happy to provide whatever he could to help chart its new direction.

As the French Revolution devolved into the Reign of Terror, Jefferson, like most Americans, was dismayed and concerned. By 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte was making everyone uneasy with his military adventuring all over Europe. One of those “adventures” re-ceded the Louisiana Territory (the middle third of the US) back to France.

Things were growing more complicated.

New Orleans

In 1803, Napoleon was approaching the height of his power.

Small trading posts and villages had cropped up at various locations along the Mississippi, and commercial river traffic was increasing as more US settlers trickled westward. New Orleans had grown into one of the continent’s busiest ports, and deemed vital to US interests. With France now having a much larger presence on the continent, both we – and the British – were becoming understandably nervous.

In early 1803, the opportunity arose for the US to purchase New Orleans and was received enthusiastically by everyone – including Napoleon. Congress was unanimous, and authorized $10 million for the transaction. Then Congress adjourned until November. President Jefferson dispatched Robert Livingston to Paris to begin negotiations.

Meanwhile, Napoleon, having risen to great power in France, realized that (a) his future opportunities, goals and plans were centered in Europe; (b) he had little time or energy to devote to his American interests , and (c) he needed money to finance (a).

He offered to sell the United States the entire Louisiana territory, from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. Jefferson immediately sent James Monroe to Paris to work with Livingston to facilitate the larger deal now on the table.

Jefferson’s Philosophical Dilemma

One must never be simplistic regarding the mind of Thomas Jefferson. As one of our most complex Presidents, he did not have a simplistic bone in his body.

Politically, Jefferson did not favor a strong central government. Conversely, he envisioned a country of yeoman farmers, to whose judgment most matters could be referred, i.e. strong local (state) governments. To his way of thinking (and what became the core of the Democratic Party for the next half-century), the Constitution assigned specific functions to the federal government. States Rights prevailed otherwise. Thus Congress, elected by the states, was dominant.

Jefferson was torn. As he saw it, the President had no authority to agree to up the ante to include the entire Louisiana Territory, more than 825,000 sq. miles, at a greater cost to be determined – no matter how good the deal was. He insisted that a Constitutional amendment was needed, and drafted suggested language.

Secretary of State Madison was the premier expert on the US Constitution.

His close friend, Secretary of State James Madison argued tirelessly against the need for an amendment. Madison arguably knew more about the Constitution than anyone in the country, and claimed that the elasticity of the law and its implied powers allowed for this type of action. Besides, the mechanism for proposing and ratifying a Constitutional amendment was complex and time consuming. There would be political opposition, and no guarantee it would pass.

But perhaps the most “simplistic” factor was the deadline for the purchase: the offer expired on October 31. Use it or lose it. Deeply torn between his personal (and well known) ideology and a phenomenal deal, he had to jump on it!

Kit and caboodle, it was negotiated down to only $15 million.

Jefferson’s Metaphor

The best land deal ever!!

A prescient metaphor to explain the reasoning behind a complex or controversial issue can be very effective from time to time – especially if the creator of the metaphor has the wisdom and wit to hit the nail on the conceptual head.

Thomas Jefferson indeed needed to justify his thinking to Congress, to the Country and perhaps to himself regarding such a departure from his oft-stated philosophy. To wit: “It is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory, and saying to him when of age, I did it for your own good.”

Fifteen states or parts thereof would be carved from the Louisiana Territory, bloodlessly doubling the size of the country, at a cost of only 4 cents an acre.

Mr. Jefferson did it for our own good.

Sources:

Cullen, Jim – Imperfect Presidents: Tales of Misadventure and Triumph – Fall River Press, 2007

Ellis, Joseph – American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson – Alfred Knopf, 1997

https://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/louisiana-purchase

 

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Julia Grant: Sleeping With the General

Ulysses and Julia Grant

This is Julia’s story. She saw it first hand.

General Grant’s One-Two Punch

For twenty years, General Ulysses S. Grant had been at the pinnacle: victorious Union General, the Hero of Appomattox, two-term POTUS and world traveler, hosted by kings and queens, emperors and similar royalty.

Until the last 18 months of his life, Grant was doing well.

After a lukewarm and aborted attempt to reclaim the White House, he entered into a financial partnership on New York’s Wall Street. His partner, Ferdinand Ward, was the brains; the General was the well-known name and face.

All went well for three years. For the first time in his sixty years, Grant became a wealthy man. His grown children were investors. They became wealthy.

Then, in spring 1884, the firm of Grant and Ward tanked suddenly. Ward had concocted a Ponzi-like scheme (borrow from Peter to pay Paul) and the bottom fell out of the tub. Ward fled with thousands of dollars borrowed by Grant, and the General was left holding the bottomless tub.

He vowed to cover all the company’s debts, but he was broke, as was his family.

Within weeks of that debacle, he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the throat.

The Lifeline

For two decades, Civil War veterans, North and South from privates to generals had been writing their recollections – to enormous success. The country couldn’t get enough of the war stories. Naturally Grant was approached by the major publishers, but he had always declined. He did not fancy himself much of a writer.

The financial and medical problems were practically concurrent.

Now, desperate for money, he reconsidered. Mark Twain, successful author and old friend, had a publishing company. He believed any war memorial by Grant would make a fortune. He offered him an unheard of advance and an equally unheard of royalty percentage.

Grant was a quick learner, once he got started, and had been advised to include his thought-making processes and even personal anecdotes. As a pretty fair writer himself, Mark Twain was seriously impressed by Grant’s clarity and style.

But it was a race with the clock. The cancer was aggressive.

Treating Grant

Dr. George F. Shrady, a wise physician.

Several eminent doctors had been summoned; all concluded the diagnosis and prognosis. They were competent enough to recognize the problem, but treating it was a different matter. They were also Victorians. The thinking was to spare the patient/family from ominous news. They encouraged hope, prayer and faith in miracles.

Julia Grant (1826-1902), the General’s wife of nearly forty years, took comfort in the daily visit from Rev. John Philip Newman, their Methodist minister. If it gave his beloved wife ease, Grant was amenable, but he himself had no illusions.

He was completely focused on finishing the book, and refused all pain medication. No laudanum, no opiates. He wanted his mind clear. The only palliative care he accepted was having his throat “painted” with cocaine several times a day to numb the area.

As expected, it became harder and harder for him to swallow. Soft foods, like eggs and custards were required. In time, only liquids could be tolerated, and those, only painfully. And, as further expected, he lost a great deal of weight and by summer, he took to wrapping himself in a blanket to disguise the great change in his appearance.

Sleeping was another problem.

The Sleeping Story: Part 1

The Grant townhouse on E. 66th Street.

By fall, General Grant had a great deal on his mind. He had a houseful of family and extended family who had moved into his townhouse at 3 East 66th Street. He had deeded the house to William H. Vanderbilt, his major creditor, but Vanderbilt insisted that Grant and his family remain there as long as he wanted.

Two of his sons, their wives and children, having lost their own fortunes, moved in with their parents. They assisted with book – and with receiving the many visitors who showed up to pay respects. Grant saw few visitors personally. Finishing the book was crucial, and he had no time for anything else. He needed to provide for his beloved Julia.

Then too, he cared deeply about his reputation and his character. He wanted all debts paid in full.

Then there was the pain, which was increasing. Dr. George Shrady came three of four times daily to paint his throat which was swelling to a point of strangulation.

If the General was not sleeping well, it was no surprise.

The Sleeping Story: Part 2

At some point, Grant confided to Dr. Shrady that he couldn’t sleep. He was fitful and unrested, and he knew he needed the sleep.

Dr. Shrady asked the General what time he usually went to bed, and offered to come back at that time. Perhaps he might be able to help.

Julia Grant, a loving and intuitive wife.

When the doctor arrived, the told the General to undress and get into bed. When Shrady entered the room, the door was left slightly ajar, and Julia Grant stayed outside. She could see in, but they could not see her.

It is not uncommon for military men, especially with battlefield experiences, to fall asleep quickly – anywhere. Grant got into bed, propped up on a couple of pillows, lying on his back. Sure enough, he fell asleep quickly, but fitfully. He was tossing and turning.

Dr. Shrady asked the General if that was the way he always slept. Advised that it was, the doctor exclaimed that he indeed could be helpful! Grant was sleeping in the wrong position!

Julia’s manuscript was not discovered until 75 years after her death!

Then he suggested that the General remember when he was a little boy, perhaps six, and his mother came to tuck him. He had Grant turn on his side, raise his knees, and put his arm under the pillow, and let his head rest on it. After a few soothing words from Shrady, Grant immediately fell into a comfortable sleep.

Julia Grant never forgot the wise counsel that allowed her husband restorative rest. It was one of the memories she included in the memories she penned herself some fifteen years later.

Sources:

Flood, Charles Bracelen – Grant’s Final Victory:  Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year – 2012, DaCapo Press

Goldhurst, Richard – Many Are the Hearts – 1975, Reader’s Digest Press

Grant, Julia Dent – The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant: (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant) – 1975, G.P. Putnam’s Sons

 

 

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