General Grant’s Greatest Lesson

Fear is a natural reaction in the face of danger, or stress or the unknown. Or all of it.

USG: Reinstatement

The quintessential General Grant

The surrender of Fort Sumter in April 1861 changed everything for West Point trained Ulysses S. Grant. President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers. Galena, Illinois, where the Grant family was living, was firmly committed to the Union. But while scores of volunteers came forward, there was only one townsman qualified to train them: ex-Captain Grant – the only one in Galena with any military training and experience.

Congressman Elihu Washburne was one of Grant’s earliest mentors.

Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne, a good friend of President Lincoln, took an interest in his 39-year old constituent, and sponsored his rise. Grant was reinstated into the U.S. Army, promoted to Colonel, and assigned to the State House in Springfield, to assist with the overwhelming paperwork and procedures. His prior experience as a quartermaster stood him in good stead.

But the Union Army was in dire need of experienced military leadership, not merely clerks. In early summer, Colonel Grant was assigned to the District of Southeast Missouri, under the command of General John C. Fremont. Missouri, a deeply divided border state, was the birthplace of Grant’s wife Julia Dent. Grant himself had lived in Missouri for several years. Maintaining control of Missouri, and thus the Missouri/Mississippi River was crucial to the North. Grant, who credited much of his military skill to the ability to “read a map” knew this.

The Army was still in a state of general confusion; nevertheless Grant was in charge of nearly 20,000 troops, young, raw and untested. While Grant experienced battle first hand as a young Lieutenant during the Mexican-American War some fifteen years earlier, this would be the first time he actually commanded troops – troops he would have to send into battle.

The Salt River Incident

Brigadier General Grant. His wife made him trim the beard.

Grant was always a man who loathed idleness, and itched for action. Having been assigned to assist in the military effort to keep Missouri in the Union, he discovered a Confederate encampment near the Salt River, under the command of Colonel Thomas Harris. He planned accordingly.

According to Grant’s Personal Memoirs, written nearly a quarter century later, he recalled vividly:

“As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Galena, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on.”

Meanwhile, as they approached the crest where he could see the plains below, he found the Confederates had evacuated the camp. “My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him… a view I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards.”

He added that while he was always generally anxious when confronting the enemy, he never experienced that kind of trepidation again.

“I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. This lesson was valuable.”

Within weeks, Grant received notification that he had been promoted to Brigadier General.

Three Years Later

By spring, 1864, Grant was not only a General, but had become the General. His victories at Fts. Henry and Donelson, Shiloh and Vicksburg cemented his reputation as a general who could – and would – fight.

President Abraham Lincoln had little luck with his generals – until Grant.

President Lincoln, who had had little luck with his long string of failed eastern Generals, brought the “western” General Grant forward to take complete command of the Army. One of his first decisions was to make his headquarters with General Meade’s Army, rather than at the War Department in Washington, subject to politicking and infighting and all the distractions that had beset his predecessors. In the field, he believed he would be where he could best serve.

The Army of the Potomac was more than 100,000 strong. The soldiers and officers had heard of General Grant, the Victor of Vicksburg, of course, and undoubtedly respected him. But they did not know him. It would take a little time. But despite Grant’s obvious successes in the west, the rank-and-file soldiers of the eastern army were battle tested by General Robert E. Lee, and time and again, had been “whupped.”

The general consensus in the camps was, “Yeah, but he hasn’t come up against Bobby Lee, yet.”

Grant respected Robert E. Lee, but he did not believe he was invincible.

Grant had met Robert E. Lee briefly in Mexico. Lee was more than a dozen years his senior, with a distinguished reputation, that Grant knew and respected. But Grant also knew that while Lee was undoubtedly a fine commander, he was not a superman or a genie out of a bottle.

He finally had enough of the pervasive fear of the supposedly invincible “Bobby Lee” and quietly, but firmly advised his Lee-shy soldiers that they should stop worrying about what Lee would do to them, and let Lee worry about what Grant was going to do to him.

He had learned the lesson of the Salt River Non-Encounter.

Even Later

Grant’s Personal Memoirs are considered some of the finest war memorials ever written.

That non-encounter at the Salt River was remembered for all times when a dying General Grant wrote his memoirs in 1884-5.

It is perhaps part of Grant’s greatness as a commander that like Abraham Lincoln, he could learn valuable lessons from all sources, and apply it where needed.

The quotes about his enemy being as frightened of him as he was of them have been repeated widely for the last 150 years. They will likely continue to be repeated. The truth of the concept holds.


Grant, Ulysses S. – Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant – World Publishing (reprinted) 1952

McFeely, William S. – Grant: A Biography – W.W. Norton, 1981





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Harriet Hanks, Lincoln’s Cousin-Niece

It’s a complicated family line.

The Lincoln-Hanks Kinship

Abraham Lincoln, as everyone knows, was the son of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks.

A photograph of Thomas Lincoln, coupled with an “imagined” picture of Nancy Hanks Lincoln.

Nancy Hanks, Abe’s mother, had an aunt, also named Nancy Hanks, who had an illegitimate son named Dennis, born in 1799, about seven years before Tom Lincoln and Nancy Hanks married. At an early age, Dennis (whose mother presumably died) went to live with Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow, aunt and uncle to the Aunt Nancy Hanks. His great-aunt and -uncle.

When Abe was around six, the Lincolns decided to move to Indiana. The Sparrows joined them, and took Dennis. Within three years, Nancy Hanks Lincoln died. So did Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow. Dennis Hanks moved in with Tom Lincoln and his two young children, Abe, now nine, and Sarah, two years older.

The only known photograph of Sarah Bush Lincoln, taken in her elder years.

Realizing his children’s need for a mother, Tom Lincoln went to Kentucky to look up an old childhood friend who he had learned was a recent widow. Some months later, he returned with his new wife: Sarah Bush Johnston, and three children of her own, fairly close in age to the Lincolns. The eldest was a daughter Sarah Elizabeth, who they decided to call Betsey, since three Sarahs in the small cabin was overkill.

A newspaper photo of Betsey Johnston Hanks and Dennis Hanks.

Adding to the already convoluted family-line, Betsey Johnston, Abraham Lincoln’s step-sister, married Dennis Hanks, his (perhaps) second cousin once (or twice) removed. When the Lincoln family later moved to Illinois, Dennis and Betsey Hanks went with them, finally settling in Coles county. By this time, Abraham Lincoln was twenty-one, beginning his own life.

Harriet Hanks, Godsend. Maybe

Abraham Lincoln did not marry until he was nearly thirty-three, and his financial readiness for matrimony was precarious. As a struggling attorney, he “rode the circuit” from courthouse to courthouse, drumming up business when the courts were in session.

The Lincolns had only been married a year. Robert was a baby, and their house required furnishing and home-making. He was understandably concerned about his wife, the former Kentucky belle Mary Todd. She was left alone for weeks at a time. Thus, when a letter came from Harriet Hanks (1828-1915), Dennis’ seventeen year old daughter, he viewed it as the answer to his predicament.

Harriet wanted to improve her education. Lincoln offered to pay her tuition at the Springfield Female Seminary, plus her room and board. She in turn, would help Mary with housekeeping and baby-care. His tacit underlying thought was likely that she might be company – or at least another person in the house for Mrs. Lincoln. Arrangements were made.

Mary and Harriet, Oil and Water

A composite photo of the Lincolns; they were never photographed together.

Mary Todd Lincoln was indeed a Kentucky belle, born to a well-to-do Lexington family of stature. When her oldest sister Elizabeth married Springfield attorney Ninian Edwards, Jr., the son of Illinois’ first Governor, three Todd sisters were urged to live with them, to marry prominently, and form the core of Springfield’s upper crust society. They did.

Mary had been accustomed to slave-servants in the Todd House, all of whom “knew their place,” and how to manage their respective duties. The well-to-do Edwards’ of Springfield had no slaves, but immigrant or local hired girls were engaged to perform household tasks for room, board and a dollar a week.

William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner. He never liked Mrs. Lincoln.

Harriet Hanks was a poor girl, with little pretensions of elegance. Nevertheless, she considered herself Lincoln’s “family,” and expected to be treated as such. This did not set well with Mrs. Lincoln, who saw Harriet more as “hired help” than quasi-kin, and treated her as such. In short, Mary was not thrilled to be related to the girl, no matter how quasi that in-law-ship was. According to Lincoln’s law partner and later biographer William Herndon, Mary Lincoln held the Hanks’ in complete contempt.

Nevertheless, while Harriet fared well enough at the Springfield Female Academy, her relationship with “Cousin-Aunt” Mary was tenuous at best. Mary was a not only a snob, she was a scold, and never satisfied with Harriet, or indeed, any of her household help. Ever.

According to Daniel Mark Epstein in The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, Harriet expected to eat at the family table and sit with them in the parlor. In addition, if guests came to call, Harriet, as kin, expected to be included in conversation. This grated on the aristocratic Mrs. L.

Lincoln, as was his nature, was oblivious to the social-nuances of parlor society – at least in those early years. The story goes that he was home one evening when a neighbor came to call on Mrs. Lincoln. He answered the door himself – in his shirtsleeves! – already anathema to his wife, and asked the lady to have a seat while he “trotted out his women-folk.”

Harriet managed to last a year before she returned home.

Harriet Hanks Chapman

Harriet Hanks Chapman lived a long life. Nearly ninety!

Within a few years of her stay with the Lincolns, Harriet married Augustus Chapman, a dentist in Charleston, Illinois. This was a huge social step upwards for her, and she seems to have managed it well.

After Lincoln’s death, his former law partner William Herndon began organizing interviews with various people who knew Lincoln at various times of his life.  This was eventually compiled into a book co-authored by Jesse W. Weik. Harriet Hanks Chapman was pleased to discuss the late President, who she recalled with affection, but as for Mrs. Lincoln, “I would rather say nothing about his wife, as I could say nothing in her favor.”


Baker, Jean- Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography – W. W. Norton & Company, 1989

Berry, Stephen – House of Abraham: Lincoln & The Todds, A Family Divided by War – Houghton Mifflin, 2007

Epstein, Daniel Mark – The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage – Ballantine Books, 2009

Herndon, William H. and Weik, Jesse W. – Herndon’s Life of Lincoln – DeCapo Press, 1983



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Grover Cleveland, Commuter

An early image of the White House, home to twenty presidents before Grover Cleveland.

The Presidency has always come with very nice housing. Free.

Presidents’ Residence

By the time a President is elected, he is mature, established in a profession, and at least of middle class means. Some of our early POTUSes had magnificent estates even then – like Washington, Jefferson and Madison.

World-traveled John Quincy Adams maintained two homes: one in Washington DC, and the family home in Massachusetts. Professionally rumpled soldier Zachary Taylor had purchased a Louisiana plantation for his retirement. Distinctly middle class presidents like Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson owned their own homes. Even lifelong bachelor James Buchanan had a fine estate in Lancaster, PA.

But not so Grover Cleveland.

Cleveland the Houseless

When Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was elected President in 1884, he was 47 years old and a bachelor.

Grover Cleveland had no house of his own until after he became President.

As a successful business attorney in Buffalo, NY, as well as an unmarried man, he found it more expedient to maintain a couple of rooms above his law office for his modest housing needs.

His meals were “out” – mostly at the plentiful saloons that abounded in industrial Buffalo, where, for the price of a nickel beer, one could get all the sausage one could eat. At 300-lbs., Grover Cleveland could put away a lot of beer and sausage.

His need for formal entertaining was nil, since his preference was for card games at the fire house, and periodic fishing and hunting trips. Guy stuff.

Thus he had no need nor desire to purchase a house, even though he could easily afford one. In the brief time he spent in public office (two years as Buffalo Mayor and two as NY Governor), he still had no need for a house.

And the White House came with the job.

The POTUS and the Secret Fiancé

Frances Folsom Cleveland was the youngest of all First Ladies. Only 21 when she married a sitting President.

Unbeknownst to just about everyone save those intimately involved, the brand new President was engaged to be married. His intended was a 20-year-old woman he had known even before she was born. Her father had been Cleveland’s law partner and best friend. When he died “Uncle Cleve,” his executor, undertook to provide for his widow and nine year old daughter. This included an education at Wells College.

About the time Miss Frances Folsom was old enough to put her hair up and her hems down, “Uncle Cleve’s” interest became less avuncular. The actual courtship was via letter and bouquet; nevertheless, by the time Cleveland was elected, he had already proposed and been accepted. Once graduated, Frances and her mother spent several months abroad, ostensibly purchasing her trousseau.

An artistic image of the Cleveland wedding. No actual photography was permitted.

Meanwhile every matron in Washington was eager to introduce her widowed or unmarried middle-aged sister/daughter/aunt to the very eligible (so they thought) President.

Oak Hill/Red Top

House purchases are public records. Anyone can go to a town clerk and ask for and receive access to information about recent local house sales.

Some time in May, 1886, President Grover Cleveland closed on a large house in Georgetown and began making substantial changes to the 20-year-old structure.

Why would a lifelong bachelor President with a fine FREE residence at his disposal, purchase a house? Something must be afoot, thought the journalists who always scoured for news. Rumors spread like wildfire, and eventually uncovered the President’s long kept secret.

He was about to marry Miss Frances Folsom, who was scheduled to return to the US within a few days.

Grover Cleveland loathed the press, believing journalists to be intrusive and utterly disrespectful of anything resembling privacy. This was one of the reasons he chose to purchase a house where he and his bride could live away from the White House fishbowl and the prying eyes of newspaper reporters.

An etching of “Red Top.” Nobody called it Oak Hill except the President. (Courtesy of the Cleveland Park Historical Society)

Cleveland’s new property, named Oak Hill, was situated on around 25 acres, far from the road. He immediately authorized a high fence surrounding the property to deter snooping. One intrepid journalist climbed a tall tree, and discovered that he could only see its the red roof. The estate was immediately nicknamed “Red Top,” further annoying the President who consistently referred to it only as Oak Hill.

During the next two years, several alterations were made, including tall turrets, the popular Victorian architectural element. Cleveland spared no expense making the house a home, plus whatever furnishings his bride wanted.  With more than 20 rooms, including a large ballroom, sufficient dining areas and lush gardens, she had plenty of opportunities to decorate.

Another artistic rendering of “Red Top.” (Courtesy of the Cleveland Park Historical Society)

The Clevelands spent the Washington social season (traditionally mid-fall to mid-spring) living at the White House, and holding the huge numbers of luncheons, teas, receptions, dinners and state occasions expected from the First Family. But once the “season” ended, they moved to Red Top/Oak Hill where they could truly be Mr. and Mrs. Grover Cleveland.

Each morning, the President drove his carriage on the brief commute to his White House office and returned later in the afternoon, away from the insidious intrusions of the “ghouls of the press.”

Later and Later

Grover Cleveland lost his bid for re-election in 1888, so Red Top with all its improvements, was sold in 1890 at a tidy $100,000 profit, according to the Cleveland Park Historical Society. The property was re-sold several times until it was finally demolished in 1927. Today the area is now called Cleveland Park.

In 1892 however, Grover Cleveland was elected once again to a non-consecutive second term. By this time, a daughter had been born, with two more to follow. True to form, President Cleveland bought another home-away-from-House, called “Woodley,” where he and his growing family could enjoy at least some modicum of privacy and family life.


Brodsky Alyn – Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character. NY, St. Martin’s Press, 2000

Carpenter, Frank G. – Carp’s Washington – McGraw Hill, 1960

Stoddard, William O. – Lives of the Presidents: Grover Cleveland – Frederick A Stokes & Brother, 1888




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Zachary Taylor: Reconciliation

Zachary Taylor was a lifelong soldier – up through the ranks.

Colonel Taylor: Commandant

General Zachary Taylor

In the early 1830s, Colonel Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) was the commandant of Fort Crawford, a small outpost in Priairie-du-Chien, Wisconsin, as the Black Hawk War was skirmishing. Having risen in the ranks since his late teens, he brought his wife and family along wherever he was posted. Three daughters and a son.

Army life in those still-frontier days was harsh, particularly on one’s health. Death came all too often, and not just in battle. Serious and communicable disease was common; infant and child mortality was high. The Taylors had already lost two children. There was always danger. There were little civilized luxuries and cultural opportunities.

Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor.

The usual procedure for those early years of Zachary and Peggy Taylor, was to keep the children with them until they were of “schooling” age – perhaps seven or eight. Then they would be sent east where family members could look after their boarding school education. Parental visits were infrequent; occasionally their children returned “west” to spend summer time with their folks.

But by the time schooling ended, when the girls were perhaps fifteen or sixteen, they returned to “army life.” (Their son Richard received a fine classical education – including Oxford University.)

The bottom line was that Colonel Taylor wanted the very best for his children. That meant his stern opposition to his daughters marrying “into army life.”

A Bridegroom Appears

Sarah Knox Taylor.

The middle Taylor daughter, Sarah Knox, was seventeen when a new West Point graduate was assigned as Second Lieutenant under Colonel Taylor. At twenty-four, Lt. Jefferson Davis was tall, handsome, with a good family background. “Knox”, as her family called her, was smitten. So was the young lieutenant. He wanted to marry her.

Jefferson Davis was a handsome young man.

Taylor had no personal animosity to the young soldier; in fact he considered him a fine officer, and admired his abilities and personal presence. But he was adamantly opposed to his daughter marrying into a military life, with all its hardships.

Hoping to “test” the romance by distance, Davis transferred to a different location, but he and Knox stayed in close correspondence. When he returned, the romance had held firm, but to no avail.

Believing that a career change might help change his commander’s mind, he resigned his commission, became a Mississippi planter, and pressed yet again to marry the woman he truly and deeply loved. Three years had passed, and Knox’s father was still vehemently opposed to the marriage.

So the couple eloped. Knox’s parents were not at their wedding.

The Taylor Tragedy

Wishing to introduce his now-21-year-old bride to his family, the newlyweds traveled to Louisiana where they both contracted malaria. He recovered, but within three months of their wedding, Knox died. She had not been reconciled with her family.

Naturally Zachary Taylor and his wife were apprised of the tragic news. Their grief was devastating as one might expect, but they never sought to reach out to their “former” son-in-law. And with a bundle of emotions ranging from resentment to anger to sadness to pride and desolation, Davis did not choose to further roil the already muddied waters.

For the next eight years, he remained mostly at his plantation, in general seclusion, mourning deeply for the young wife he had lost. Her “aura” of virtues became more and more enhanced as time went on. But at thirty five, he met another young woman half his age. It was time for Davis to resume living. He remarried.

The Bridegroom and the Father-in-Law

After the tragedy of his first marriage, ex-Lt. Jefferson Davis became a prominent citizen in Mississippi. His plantation thrived. He was well-to-do. Shortly after his second marriage, he was elected to Congress. He and his new bride, Varina Howell, went to Washington, where his active support of President Polk brought them high level administration regard and visibility.

But the politics of the Administration were fomenting a war with Mexico, and once formally underway, Jefferson Davis, West Point trained, resigned his seat to enlist as Colonel of the 1st Mississippi volunteers.

The story goes that by coincidence, General Zachary Taylor and Col. Jefferson Davis were on the same steamship to Mexico. One can never know the thrust of the private conversation between two intensely private persons, but it is generally believed that it was Taylor who approached with open arms and a warm welcome. He immediately arranged for Davis to be on his immediate staff, where Davis performed heroically at both Monterrey and Buena Vista.

President Taylor and Senator Davis

Whig President Zachary Taylor

Jefferson Davis was severely wounded in Mexico, and sent home to nearly two years of recuperation.  When Mississippi’s Senator died, Davis was appointed to fill the balance of his term. Jeff and Varina returned to Washington.

Democratic Senator Jefferson Davis

Also by this time, General Zachary Taylor, a man of no particular political leanings or experience, became President of the United States.

A much-reprinted etching of the deathbed of President Zachary Taylor.

Even thought Taylor was elected as a Whig, and Davis was a loyal Democrat, the new President became particularly close to his former son-in-law. Taylor understood his former son-in-law’s strong political allegiances which frequently were in conflict to his own, but nevertheless sought his advice and input. Both Jeff and Varina were welcome guests at private dinners in the White House. They were considered family.

As Taylor lay dying in midsummer 1850, Jefferson Davis was summoned to his bedside. He was still their son-in-law, the one who had deeply loved their dear, dead daughter.


Davis, W.C. – The Man and his Hour – HarperCollins, 1991

Eisenhower, John S.D. – Zachary Taylor – Times Books, 2008


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Theodore Roosevelt: September, 1901

The iconic family photograph of Theodore Roosevelt and his family.

The month had started quietly enough for Theodore Roosevelt and his family.

A Family Vacation

Theodore Roosevelt, his wife Edith, and their six children were on a rare and well-needed family vacation in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. A year earlier, the 42-year-old Theodore had been elected Vice President of the USA, an ineffectual position he neither sought nor wanted. But it fell into his lap, and he was semi-willingly coerced into making a lap.

He duly presided over the Senate, his one constitutional duty, and made the usual social-Washington rounds and other obligatory appearances.

Now the family was enjoying the late summer at a cabin resort with all the outdoor amenities necessary to Rooseveltian fun.

President William McKinley was shot by an assassin in early September, 1901.

On September 6, Roosevelt was attending a luncheon at a Lake Champlain resort when a messenger came bearing horrifying news. President William McKinley had been shot in Buffalo, while attending the Pan American Exposition. TR immediately left for Buffalo and was relieved to find the wounded President in stable condition, according to his doctors. They believed he would recover. Assured of no imminent danger, or anything the Vice President could do, TR rejoined his family.

The Inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt

The “resumed” vacation only lasted another few days. On September 14, when TR spotted someone huffing his way up a mountain trail where the family was hiking, he suspected the grim news immediately. President McKinley had died earlier that day. Theodore Roosevelt was now President of the United States.

He raced to Buffalo again, this time prepared to stay as long as needed: to take the oath of office, declare the formal procedures for McKinley’s funeral arrangements, issue the proper statements, receive the diplomatic condolences, offer every consideration to the McKinley family, and plan for the momentous changes in his own life.

Theodore Roosevelt, the new President.

September 14 was a Saturday. At 3 PM, a New York district Judge administered the oath to TR in a private ceremony at the home of Ansley Wilcox, an old friend of his. Members of McKinley’s cabinet were already there. The ceremony was brief and subdued. No photographs were allowed.

Once his immediate business in Buffalo was concluded, TR went to Washington to stay with his older sister, Anna (Bamie) Cowles , whose town house had been his second home in the Capital. The frail Ida McKinley was urged to take whatever time she and her family needed.

They did not require very much time. They vacated by September 21. Most belongings were shipped.

Mrs. TR: Moving On Up

Theodore Roosevelt may have had the momentous task of suddenly becoming President, but he had spent two years as Governor of New York and understood the responsibilities of executive leadership. He also had plenty of assistance.

Edith Roosevelt was laid-back woman who took complete charge.

Not so Edith Roosevelt, whose six children ranged in age from 17-year-old Alice to Quentin, who had just turned four. In between were Ted (14), Kermit (11), Ethel (9) and Archie (7).

Once back at Sagamore Hill, their home on Long Island, Edith needed to arrange a major move to the White House, where they were now First Residents. Not only clothing and personal possessions had to be sorted and packed, but personal items deemed essential to their lives. Favorite furniture, hunting trophies, nostalgic souvenirs, hundreds of books (all were prolific readers), and a menagerie of pets: dogs, horses, ponies and even Emily Spinach, Alice’s pet garter snake. Older children had to be readied for school. And, as the family treasurer, she had to make sure all the bills were paid and up to date.

Edith also arranged for Sagamore Hill to be properly “closed up;” for servants to be dismissed or brought along – or left behind for skeleton maintenance. While she had assistance in all the manual activities of the move, most decision making was left to her. She and TR certainly communicated during the interim period, but Edith was already an expert in packing and moving a large family. They had done it several times over their fifteen year marriage – between Sagamore Hill and Washington, and between Albany and Sagamore Hill.

This time was different and much more complex. The Roosevelt family did not physically move into the White House until later in September.

TR’s First White House Dinner

Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., “the best man I ever knew.”

TR’s younger sister Corinne Robinson

Theodore Roosevelt siblings were always a tight knit family unit. Anna, the eldest, had been a take-charge person from her early teens, despite physical health problems that might have daunted a lesser woman. TR’s younger sister Corinne Robinson was also a strong, intelligent woman. Both were fiercely devoted to their remarkable brother. A fourth sibling, Elliott, had died a decade earlier.

TR’s older sister Anna (Bamie) Cowles.

On September 21, 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt entered the White House as First Resident. While he was an extremely outgoing man with dozens, if not hundreds of friends, he chose to have a very quiet “first dinner.” With his sisters and their husbands. Family first. Edith arrived the following day. The only “outsider” at the table was George Cortelyou, President McKinley’s indispensable secretary, who would do the same for TR.

The family understandably reminisced about their childhood, and Theodore remembered that September 21 was his father’s birthday. Theodore Senior had died of cancer years earlier – when he was not that much older than his son was that day. TR always considered his father “the best man he ever knew.”

He believed it was a fortunate omen that his first dinner in the White House as President was on his father’s birthday.


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

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



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Robert Lincoln’s Second Father

Robert Lincoln was twenty-one when he became man of the family.

Young Mr. Lincoln

Young Robert Todd Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln died intestate: he had not made a will. Thus, by law, his estate would be divided into thirds: a third to his widow, and a third to each of his two remaining sons.

Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926) was a Harvard graduate and had begun some law studies when he joined the Union Army toward the end of the Civil War. With his father’s approval, he planned to return to Harvard once he was discharged.

Abraham Lincoln’s assassination changed everything. The Army expedited his discharge so he could attend to his numerous family concerns. His mother, overwhelmed with shock and grief, was little help. His young brother Tad was twelve. He was no help. And Robert knew he needed help.

He asked (presumably with his mother’s agreement) Judge David Davis, one of Abraham Lincoln’s oldest friends, to be the executor of his father’s estate.

Judge David Davis

David Davis (1815-86) was born to wealthy and prominent Marylanders. His fine education included Yale University. He became an attorney, moved to Bloomington, IL, married, and began a successful law practice-cum-mild-politics.

Portly David Davis was a long time friend of Abraham Lincoln.

Early on, he became acquainted with a struggling lawyer six years his senior, and his polar opposite on many fronts: financially poor, no family position whatsoever, and totally self-educated. Then there was the physical side: Davis, very short and very rotund; Lincoln, very tall and very lanky.

The two men became friends and mutual admirers. They were guests in each others’ homes. Their spouses were pleasantly acquainted. About the time Lincoln was a Congressman, Davis was appointed Judge on Illinois’ Eighth Circuit. After Lincoln’s single term in Congress, he resumed his law career, and rode that Eighth Circuit with Judge Davis and a cadre of other lawyers, soliciting legal business.

Judge Davis was one of only a few Lincoln friends offered a federal appointment.

Lincoln, the Republican candidate for President in 1860, made Judge Davis his campaign manager. Once elected, he offered only a few minor positions to his Illinois colleagues. In 1862 however, when a vacancy opened, he appointed David Davis to the Supreme Court.

David Davis: Robert’s Second Father

Throughout his long life, Robert Todd Lincoln referred to David Davis as a “second father,” the man who stepped in to fill the void that (according to RTL) was never quite completely filled by Abraham Lincoln himself.

Robert needed guidance and mentoring. He needed to “read” law, still acceptable for a legal education. Davis could steer him toward the best law firms in Illinois.

Young attorney Robert T. Lincoln.

Shortly after his family moved to Chicago, Robert found that living in close boarding house quarters with his still-babyish brother and his still-overwrought mother made concentration on his studies impossible. Davis understood the situation. He was happy to advance Robert sufficient funds so the young man could move out on his own.

The Lincoln Estate

Perhaps because he had so little money for most of his life, the sixteenth President was very casual in handling it. His needs were relatively few. When he married and had a family, he opened accounts with various Springfield merchants. When the bills came, if they seemed right, he paid them.

He was married for nearly ten years before he achieved middle class status. In 1860, the year he was elected POTUS, he earned $6000. Comfortable, but hardly opulent.

As president, Lincoln’s housing was “on the house,” including servants, maintenance and traveling. His out-of-pocket expenses for food and entertaining was moderate. He regularly forgot to cash his monthly paychecks from the Treasury. A few unopened envelopes were found in his desk.

Judge Davis had a difficult time trying to make an accurate accounting of Lincoln’s finances. What he did learn early on, was that Mary Lincoln had incurred huge debts, unbeknownst to the President. Merchants had been eager to grant Mrs. L. unlimited credit; now they wanted payment. She was panicked.

It took Davis two years to resolve whatever needed resolving, during which time the family was put on allowances, considered more than ample for most people, but nowhere near what Mrs. Lincoln required. She considered the $25,000 she received from Congress paltry and wanted a great deal more – including a pension.

Lincoln’s estate was finally valued at around $90,000. Congress believed that even divided three ways, it was a considerable sum. But Congress did not like Mrs. Lincoln, and more money was not forthcoming. A moderate pension took nearly five years to pass.

Robert and the Judge: The Hard Call

Said to be the last photo of the Widow Lincoln – with the doctored “ghosting” of Lincoln behind her.

Robert Lincoln around the mid 1870s

David Davis had known Mrs. Lincoln for many years, and never cared for her. Now he liked her even less, perhaps realizing she was a “loose cannon” vis-a-vis the Lincoln Reputation. He also learned through Robert, circumspect though he was, what a serious headache and embarrassment she had become to her only surviving son. (Tad had died in 1871 at only 18.) While Davis sincerely sympathized with the Widow Lincoln’s many losses, his primary concern was keeping the Lincoln name unsullied.

In 1875, Robert, who was disinclined to bare his soul, finally confided to his “second father” that his mother was exhibiting very bizarre behavior – even for her. He couldn’t work, his marriage had become strained, and his own health was compromised. He was beside himself with anxiety. Judge Davis suggested that perhaps the Widow Lincoln might be insane – a somewhat catchall phrase that covered a myriad of psychological disturbances. And if that were the case, perhaps she needed to be protected from herself.  Then of course, there was the Lincoln “name.”

Nearly a century would pass before Robert Lincoln’s private correspondence was discovered, indicating that whenever wise counsel was needed, he turned to Judge Davis. He likely knew that whatever his “second father” suggested would always be in the overall best “Lincoln” interest.


Emerson, Jason – Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln – Southern Illinois University Press, 2012

Emerson, Jason – The Madness of Mary Lincoln – Southern Illinois University Press – 2007

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Dolley and Her Sisters: The Merry Wives of Washington

Dolley Payne was the eldest daughter of eight; she had three younger sisters.

Dolley Payne: Quaker Daughter

John Payne, Dolley’s father was a convert to the Quaker religion, and like many people who choose their faith, was strict in its observances. The family moved from North Carolina (where Dolley and her older brother were born) to Virginia, where they had a comfortable mid-sized plantation. They lived there until Dolley was around fourteen or fifteen.

While she received a basic education of reading and writing and sufficient arithmetic to manage household accounts, she was mostly trained in homemaking skills – and helping to tend to the younger siblings who appeared at regular intervals. It was a close and loving family, but perhaps because of their “plain” manners, it was not opulent or particularly merry.

The Payne family moved to the house (below the steeple).

Since Quakers were adamantly against slavery, John Payne finally made the hard decision at great financial loss: he manumitted (freed) his slaves, sold his plantation, and moved the family to Philadelphia, a Quaker City. He purchased a starch business, which eventually failed.

The Payne Girls: Lucy, Anna and Mary

Lucy Payne (1777-1846) was only fifteen when she “eloped” with George Steptoe Washington, nephew and ward of General George Washington, the country’s first president. The strict Quakers expelled her for marrying out of faith, but it did not deter her; she maintained strong relationships within her family. Her marriage to Washington’s nephew was a happy one, living on his inherited plantation “Harewood,” in what is now West Virginia. (It was at Harewood that Dolley and James Madison were married in 1794.) Lucy bore two surviving children and the marriage lasted until Steptoe’s death.

Mary, the youngest Payne sister, (1781-1808) married Judge (and later Congressman) John G. Jackson before she was twenty, and moved to what is now Clarksville, West Virginia. She died of consumption at 27. Only one of her several children lived to maturity.

Dolley’s sister Anna Payne Cutts. The resemblance is there. So is the gown.

Anna Payne (1779-1832) was Dolley’s special charge. A full ten years her junior, Dolley considered Anna her sister-daughter, and the relationship between them would be extremely close for life. When Dolley married Philadelphia attorney John Todd, Anna came to live with them. She was around eleven at the time; old enough to be helpful and even companionable. But after only three years of marriage, John Todd died, and Dolley, her two-year-old son Payne, and Anna went to live with her widowed mother, who had turned their home into a boarding house to make ends meet.

Not quite a year after Todd’s death, Dolley married Congressman James Madison, bringing Anna, along with little Payne to live with them in Philadelphia. Later they moved to Madison’s Montpelier plantation, and finally moved to Washington, where they lived while Madison was Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State. It was there that Anna met and married Massachusetts (now Maine) congressman, Richard Cutts in 1804. By that time, the age gap between Dolley and her little sister had evened out; they were close companions and confidantes.

The Madison White House & Its Merry Wives

In 1809, James Madison took the oath of office as the country’s fourth President, and moved into the White House.

Washington was still a small village, and congressional sessions were by and large, seasonal. Elected Representatives traveled from their homes periodically, and stayed in boarding houses or hotels for the few months of the session. If they had relatives in town, it was a bonus.

First Lady Dolley Madison had always been extremely close to Anna, and when the Cutts’ came for the Congressional sessions, they stayed with the President until their own house was ready.

Dolley’s sister Lucy Washington was the widow of George Washington’s nephew George Steptoe Washington.

George Steptoe Washington died in 1807. Perhaps from loneliness and a need to be with family, his widow Lucy and their small children came to Washington. They were also urged to stay at the White House.

It was while she was living with the President and First Lady that the widow Lucy Washington met the widowed Supreme Court Justice Thomas Todd (no relation to Dolley’s first husband). They married in 1812 in a small White House ceremony, considered the first White House wedding on record.

For a brief time, all three of the Payne sisters lived under one roof. Considered attractive, they were also said to be particularly amiable and delightful company, much like the reputation enjoyed by their oldest sister, Dolley Madison.

A portrait of author Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis.

New York author Washington Irving (Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), on his way to a notable career in both literature and diplomacy, visited the White House during that time, and remarked on the pretty and pleasant trio, likening them to Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Their spouses were prominent, their political “connections” were impeccable, their influence on “society” was notable; their good looks and cheerful presence made the fashionable salons even more popular.

Gilbert Stuart, the foremost portrait painter of that period captured their likenesses – and their general resemblance.

The Merry Wives: An Epilogue

Mary Payne Jackson died when she was still in her twenties, and never really had the opportunity to know her sisters as an adult and peer.

Lucy Payne Washington Todd lived mostly in Kentucky, where her second husband was a prominent and early settler. When he died, Lucy made periodic visits to both Montpelier and Washington.  She lived until 1846.

Anna Payne Cutts died in 1832, at the relatively young age of 52. Her death devastated her sister-mother Dolley.

Dolley Payne Todd Madison, the eldest, outlived all her siblings, and her popularity not only as First Lady, but as any lady, has seldom been eclipsed. She was 81 when she died, and her final illness was mercifully brief and generally without pain.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961, 1990, William Morrow

Allgor, Catherine, – Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, 2000, University of Virginia Press

Allgor, Catherine – A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation – 2006 Henry Holt and Company

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