Ulysses S. Grant: The Homecoming

Ulysses S. Grant was never happier than with his beloved wife and children.

The Family Grant – later

USG & Julia: The Long Courtship

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Young Ulysses S. Grant

For Second Lt. Ulysses S. Grant, it was truly love at first sight when he met Julia Dent. Her brother Fred had been his West Point roommate. Being stationed after graduation at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, USG took a courtesy ride out to meet Dent’s family, who lived about ten miles from town. The Dents welcomed him warmly, and encouraged him “not to be a stranger,” and the 21-year-old soldier, unaccustomed to close family dynamics, began coming for Sunday dinner every couple of weeks.,

He finally met the eldest Dent sister (four brothers/three sisters, in that order) a few months later, when she graduated from finishing school. She was just shy of eighteen. The attraction between Grant and the plain young woman with the warm personality was immediate. He began coming around more often.

A few months later, Grant received new orders. He was being transferred to the Louisiana Territory – and possibly beyond. He found himself uncommonly depressed by the news, and determined that it was because he did not want to leave Miss Julia Dent. He had fallen in love.

When he asked her to marry him, they decided to have a “secret” engagement instead. She knew her parents would object: they were too young, and a 2nd Lieutenant was not a strong financial prospect.

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The young couple – a few years later.

Their “engagement” lasted for four years, mostly by correspondence, and punctuated by the War With Mexico.

When he returned, he was 26, tanned, battle-hardened and a Captain. A man. She was 22. Old enough to marry.

Despite some private worries that their bonds may have frayed, once they saw each other again, everything fell into place. They married.

Newlyweds

Captain Grant and his bride began their mister-and-missus assigned to an army post in Detroit. Little Fred came along in due course. Then they were reassigned to Sacketts Point, NY, a lonely garrison near the Canadian border. But they were happy. Grant even believed that life in the army could be a good future and planned to apply to West Point, teaching mathematics – when there was a vacancy.

But with little “Buck” on the way, Grant was reassigned to the California-Oregon territory. Gold had been discovered in California, and the army needed a presence. The route of choice in the early 1850s was a dangerous slog across the Isthmus of Panama through disease-infested jungles. It was no place for a pregnant woman and a toddler. Julia went back to St. Louis. As soon as USG was settled, he planned to send for them.

The Sad Bad Times

Grant’s misfortunes (and there were several) while assigned out west for the better part of two years, are well known.

He had been given quartermaster duties, and while it undoubtedly gave him great insights into moving armies, he was bored.

As was customary, soldiers were permitted to engage in mild outside business interests. Grant invested a good chunk of his savings into a couple of ventures. Through no fault of his own, they failed and he lost his money.

But perhaps most of all, he was desperately lonely and homesick for the ones he loved best. When a letter finally arrived from Julia, she had enclosed a tracing of little Buck’s hand – the namesake son his father hadn’t seen. It is said that Grant wept. Maybe. He was not a weeper by nature, but no doubt the pain of separation affected him deeply.

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The ones he loved best.

He began helping himself to the community whiskey barrel and dipper behind the barracks. Unfortunately Grant was unable to a) control himself and b) hold his liquor. The effect of one or two drinks would become painfully obvious, and usually observed by those who could (and later did) do him harm.

He was finally given the choice: Resign, or be dismissed. He resigned.

A Long Road Home

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The Dent house in St. Louis – it wasn’t green then.

With practically no money and no companions, Captain Grant began his way back to St. Louis and the wife and babies who would not remember him. Depressed and guilt-ridden for his long list of failures and failings, he was finally forced to wire his father in Cincinnati to “send money” so he could finish his journey. Jesse Grant was so incensed at his son’s irresponsibility, he even wrote to the Secretary of War to have his resignation disregarded. Nevertheless, he sent the money. But the Secretary of War did not rescind the resignation.

Grant had written to Julia, but said little of his ordeal. He merely told her that he had been given leave, and was coming home soon.

It was a forlorn, tired, dusty and sad-eyed Captain who finally rode up the path to the Dent family house. Two little children, about four and two, were playing on the porch. He recognized them immediately and knew they were his. He leaped off his horse and bounded up the stairs two at a time, clutching them, one under each arm, smothering them in kisses.

Little boys, being little boys, squirmed and shrieked at this stranger. Julia, hearing the commotion, came outside to investigate.

Her husband was home.

The Homecoming Decision

A couple of very fine historians have called Julia and Ulysses “soul mates.” This is as good a term as any. They were bound together, and needed each other to function well.

They had no secrets. In a very short time, ex-Captain Grant confessed all his woes to his beloved. His apathy in the army. His business failures and loss of their savings. And, above all, his pain of separation from her. All of which led to the whiskey barrel, and unbearable embarrassment and shame and guilt.

They vowed then and there that they would never be separated again for more than a few weeks. They never were.

Nine months later, their daughter Nellie was born.

Sources:

Grant, Julia Dent – The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant – G.P. Putnam’s, 1975

Korda, Michael – Ulysses S. Grant, The Unlikely Hero – Atlas Books, 2004

White, Ronald C. – American Ulysses, A Life of Ulysses S. Grant – Random House, 2016

https://millercenter.org/president/grant/life-before-the-presidency

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FDR Changes His Will

Franklin D. Roosevelt was well born and well pedigreed.

But…

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

But when his seventy-something father died, FDR was still in college. His son was provided with a substantial yearly income, but Sara Delano Roosevelt was given the principal under her own control. She lived a long life, and never relinquished control until her own death. By that time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) was President of the United States.

The Roosevelt home at Hyde Park belonged to Sara Delano Roosevelt.

FDR had invested a huge percentage of his own income back in the 1920s, when he purchased the Warm Springs, GA property and built a convalescent facility for polio patients – like himself. Ergo, while comfortably fixed financially, he was not nearly the wealthy man many perceived.

FDR invested his own money in Warm Springs.

Early in FDR’s Career…

…When he could still walk and dance and play golf, he became active in Democratic politics, and followed the career path of his distant Republican cousin Theodore, who, when FDR was at Harvard, was President of the United States. When FDR married TR’s favorite niece Eleanor, they became uncle-nephew. And, since TR was a superb politician, he not only understood FDR’s Democratic opportunities, but was happy to support his cousin-nephew.

So FDR became Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and in a semi-throwaway election, was the Democratic candidate for Vice President in 1920.

A young lady, barely out of her teens, had been recruited to help on the campaign. Possessed of excellent secretarial skills, a retentive and discerning mind, plus a good attitude, she was noticed by the handsome young VP-candidate and his family.

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Young Marguerite LeHand

When the losing campaign (it was a rout) ended, FDR invited Miss Marguerite LeHand to join his “professional” family and manage his active schedule and correspondence. The younger Roosevelt children found it hard to pronounce her name, so she was nicknamed “Missy,” and it stuck. She, in turn, would call him “Effdie.”

Missy

Missy LeHand (1896-1944) was the youngest child in her family, and seems to have had some early childhood health issues, which may (or not) have resulted in a heart condition. Nevertheless, it never deterred her from schooling, secretarial training, ambition to be self-supporting and her absolute devotion to her fascinating boss.

In mid-summer 1921, Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio, which was a game-changer for all involved, including Missy. Her role as secretary, office-assistant, etc., now became part-time nurse-attendant, house manager, political aide, occasional hostess and companion to a man who was determined to a) restore his health, and b) keep his finger in the political pot.

That FDR was a charmer-first-class is well known. That Missy became a charmer as well, is lesser known, since she invariably kept discreetly in the background.

Missy was devoted to FDR

It was inevitable that she became aware of the dynamics of the Roosevelt household, with formidable mother, distant-but-caring wife, and five increasingly lonely children. It was Missy who accompanied FDR on his trips to swim in the warm waters of the South where he might regain some use of his legs.

She wrote… I came to know exactly how Mr. Roosevelt would answer some of his letters, how he would couch his thoughts. When he discovered that I had learned these things it took a load off his shoulders…

And she learned to be the companion-hostess that FDR needed badly. She learned to play poker, mix the cocktails, and help with his stamp collection. She knitted. He talked. She listened. Most people who knew them believed she was deeply in love with him.

Serious Politics and Serious Stuff

By the late 1920s, FDR had rejoined the political scene, and won two terms as Governor of New York, which poised him perfectly for a run at the Presidency in 1932. By that time, Missy was far more than just his secretary-assistant. She was a part of his most intimate political cadre. She had clout. She lived at the Governor’s Mansion, and later in the White House.

She was a key member of FDR’s team.

Despite a couple of bouts of iffy-health, and perhaps undiagnosed mini-strokes, she was a handsome woman when she reached her mid-thirties. There were suitors. There were serious suitors. There were even some marriage proposals.

But Missy loved her job. And she loved her boss. No one else came even close. If there was anything more than an unfulfilled romantic attachment, we will never know.

FDR always kept his deepest feelings to himself. If you were going to “know” him, it had to be through osmosis.

The Stroke and the Change of Will

Throughout the massive turmoil within the country, and within the world, Missy LeHand remained an indispensable part of Franklin Roosevelt’s life, and indeed in the annals of history.

Missy’s grave marker

But in June, 1941, she collapsed at the White House. It was a serious stroke. Some said it was from overwork. Some said it was from stress. Whatever triggered it does not really count. What counts is that it happened.

FDR was deeply affected, especially since he had known devastating illness so intimately. At first, he wheeled himself into her room, talking to her, trying to remain cheerful, but it seemed to depress them both. She was given the best medical treatment available, including time at Warm Springs – for the waters.

But very quietly, shortly after her stroke, and the prognosis that any improvement would be long, arduous, and not guaranteed, FDR revised his will. By that time his mother had died, and his inheritance was his alone.

In the revision, the principal was to be divided among his five now-adult children. The income, (today more than $3 million per year) was divided equally between his wife Eleanor, and his devoted friend Marguerite LeHand to provide her always with the best possible medical care.

In the end, it was moot. Missy died less than a year prior to Effdie.

Sources:

Alter, Jonathan – The Defining Moment – Simon & Schuster, 2006

Beschloss, Michael R. – Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989 – 2008

https://fdr.blogs.archives.gov/2016/10/04/marguerite-missy-lehand-fdrs-right-hand-woman/

https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/franklin-d-roosevelt/

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lincoln and Johnson vs. The Georges of 1864

It wasn’t a shoo-in by any means.

The USA in 1864

The Civil War had begun its fourth year. Casualties were huge,with seemingly no end in sight.

Nobody was happy. Nobody was winning. But it was not an election year in the South. When Lincoln issued yet another conscription call, there were open revolts in various Northern cities. Always an astute judge of the people’s pulse, Lincoln expected to be re-nominated, but very likely to lose the election.

The Union’s Political Maneuvering

Nothing seemed to be working in Lincoln’s favor, and he knew it. The Republicans were badly split between the “radicals,” screaming for vengeance for all the misery, the abolitionists, who were screaming for equal-everything for the former slaves, and the peace-lovers who wanted things the way they used to be – and that included the nullification of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln was always a moderate, desperately trying to find an acceptable middle ground.

President Lincoln

Even so, by early summer, Lincoln believed he could be the last President of the United States.

Under his active leadership, two important changes were made within the party. First, since even the name “Republican” had become anathema, the party temporarily changed itself to the “Union” party with no question about what the party (and its candidate) believed to be the essence of the election.

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Andrew Johnson of TN

Secondly, the second spot on the ticket would not go to likeable but ineffective VP Hannibal Hamlin of Maine. The position itself was insignificant, but the geopolitical implications were huge. Maine was small and safely a “Union” state, as was the rest of New England, thus it brought little to the “Union” table. But by 1864, Tennessee had suffered devastating fighting, and the state, always deeply divided, was poised to rejoin the Union. Maybe. Lincoln believed it was worth something politically. Andrew Johnson, a lifelong Democrat, was the only Southern Senator who did not resign his seat at the outset of the Civil War. He had also done yeoman service for the Union cause.

It was a compromise that Lincoln believed was worth it.

The Democrats Pick Their Winner

The Democratic poster of 1864

If the Republicans were badly split in 1864, the Democrats were a shambles of factions, lumped into two main categories: the War-Democrats and the Copperheads.

The War Democrats wanted the Union preserved and reunited. Fight the war. Win it. With or without slavery. They were happy to pull the issue off the table if it made things easier.

The Peace Democrats, or Copperheads, as they were nicknamed for the head of pennies they crafted into buttons, wanted peace at any price. That meant the Confederate states could leave the Union (or not), they could be re-accepted back into the Union (with or without minimal oath and other requirements), and they could keep their slaves, and those who had been freed would be returned to their bondage.

Both sides had been clamoring their policies since the start.

Now, with the Republicans in shambles, all they needed was a winning candidate.

George McClellan

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General George McClellan

General George McClellan was one of the best known figures of the Civil War. A Philadelphia patrician upbringing, an honor student at West Point, a fine engineer, and later a railroad president, McClellan had a strong resume. Once the war began, he re-enlisted in the Union Army as a general, won a couple of petty skirmishes in western Virginia about the same time as the “great skedaddle” of Bull Run demoralized the troops, and was put in charge of the Army of the Potomac.

“Little Mac” as he was called, was unquestionably a superb military organizer, and he duly began whipping the army into shape. He equipped them, fed them, drilled them, marched them, paraded them, reviewed them and truly loved them. They in turn loved him. He made them proud of themselves. Lincoln, his cabinet and congress became impatient. Mac did everything except “fight” with them.

After nearly two years of losses, near-losses and/or not-wins, plus a super ego-cum-mouth that alienated his “superiors,” Lincoln finally dismissed him.

McClellan returned to his home “awaiting further orders” that never came. He was also a discontent. And a Democrat. Democratic party bigwigs made a beeline for the McClellan house.

George Pendelton

On-again-off-again young (in his thirties) Congressman George Pendelton was an Ohioan, firmly opposed to fighting the Civil War, and later firmly opposed to Emancipation and the 13th  14th  and 15th amendments. Entrenched in the Copperhead faction of the Democratic party, he was fast becoming one of its top spokesmen, making him a viable candidate for the Vice Presidency (still a geopolitical accommodation).

At the Democratic convention, the Pendelton-Copperhead faction rammed through a platform generally denouncing the War as a failure, and proposing to end everything, reverting to how it was in early 1860. But if the South wished to secede peacefully with slavery intact, that could be made possible.

McClellan Says No

Almost immediately after being named the Democratic candidate, McClellan publicly repudiated the peace plank of its platform and pledged to continue the war effort – but to do a better job of it than Lincoln.

After all, McClellan was first and foremost a soldier and general, and had led the Union’s military efforts. He stressed his strong commitment (after victory) to “the restoration of the Union in all its integrity” and his firm belief that the huge number of Union casualties and other sacrifices should not have been in vain. It would be a deal breaker.

The Democratic party leaders wanted McClellan.

The Upshot

Within a month, the Lincoln-Johnson ticket received the welcome news of General Sherman’s devastating, but almost-bloodless march through the South. Lincoln also was generous in granting military leave so the soldiers could go home to vote.

Lincoln-Johnson won with about 55% of the popular vote – and more than 90% of the electoral vote. The soldier vote was overwhelmingly for their Commander-in-Chief. He loved them too.

Sources:

Beschloss, Michael R. – Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989 – 2008

Waugh, John C. – Re-Electing Lincoln: 1864 – Crown Publishing 1997

https://www.ushistory.org/Us/34e.asp

https://www.lib.niu.edu/1996/iht319615.html

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/george-b-mcclellan

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Abraham Lincoln, American Civil War, Andrew Johnson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Florence Harding: The Poison Rumor

Spoiler alert! She didn’t do him in!

The Death of Harding

When President Warren G. Harding died unexpectedly in August, 1923, the country was sincerely shocked and saddened. The people liked and thought well of him.

President Warren G. Harding

The fact that he had been ill for some time with a un- or mis-diagnosed heart condition was not common knowledge. His widow, Florence Kling Harding, had adamantly refused to have an autopsy performed. It was also noticed that Mrs. H. was stoic and stone-faced during the entire time. She quickly burned quantities of his letters and related documents.

When she vacated the White House, she returned to Marion, OH, and died a year later. She had been chronically ill herself – for years!

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Florence Kling Harding

The Dam Cracks

Within weeks of the President’s death, a trickle of rumors and innuendos began to emerge about misdoings and irregularities in the Harding Administration. The trickle became a torrent, and eventually a flood lasting for years. Screaming headlines throughout the ’20s implicated high-level members of the Harding Administration with their hands in the public purse up to their elbows. Most were long time pals of the former President and Mrs. Harding.

Some months prior to his death, Harding became aware of complicated doings of cabinet members, department heads, and trusted friends. It gave him great grief and stress, complicated by his wife’s serious illness. Their marriage had been turbulent, but by this time, Florence Harding was likely the only person he could truly trust. She knew all the players and was equally upset.

The Dam Breaks

Lumped into a general category they called “Teapot Dome” (named for an area of oil reserves in Wyoming) a variety of complex crimes, misdemeanors and financial finagling surfaced.

Government owned oil reserves in the Rocky Mountains were illegally (or certainly suspiciously) leased to oil moguls, with large sums of money (or loans) equally illegal or certainly suspicious, going to Harding cabinet appointees (and former good-buddies).

The Department of Veterans Affairs (dearly loved and supported by Mrs. Harding), was systematically being swindled out of huge amounts of money, paying top-dollar for new supplies and re-selling them almost immediately for cash. It’s department head was a long-time Harding friend, whose resume concealed prior finagling and outright fraud.

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Attorney General Harry Daugherty

Then there was the problem of Prohibition. Liquor sales and distribution (but not consumption) had been banned – except for “medicinal purposes”. Several members of the Harding inner circle found dozens of connections for “medicinal purposes” in exchange for large sums of cash.

Some people committed suicide. Some went to jail. Some probably should have gone to jail.

Insult to Flooded Injuries

If that were not sufficient to taint the Harding reputation and give additional grief to the Widow Harding in her remaining months, she was personally/privately apprised of yet-another one of WGH’s amorous liaisons. She had known about his peccadilloes for decades, but this one flew under her radar.

Nan Britton, a teenaged Marion, OH neighbor, had a crush on Harding for years, and when she was eighteen, the publisher-turned-Senator began a steamy love affair with her, resulting in a child, born a year before Harding was the Republican nominee. While he lived, WGH was generous with the young woman, but he never publicly admitted to the child, nor provided for them in his will.

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Nan Britton

When Nan sought child support, a furious Florence Harding flatly refused, remembering the child as a strumpet-in-situ. Finally, in desperation, she published The President’s Daughter and the tell-all book became a best-seller. But by that time, Mrs. Harding had died.

The Strange Death of President Harding

Gaston Means (1879-1938) was a con-man, swindler and general nogoodnik, who managed to inveigle himself a job with the Bureau of Investigation in 1921 (pre-FBI), under the directorship of William Burns. Burns obviously never scrupulously checked Means’ very shady past, which included indictment for murder, along with other acts of crime and fraud.

Gaston Means

Via his new “position” he managed to inculcate himself, at least peripherally, within the Harding inner circle of pals, including his boss’s boss, Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty, who met regularly for poker and booze. The “iffiness” of his association appears to have been more wannabe than “wuz.” Nevertheless, he was involved with several violations of the Volstead Act (Prohibition-related), and spent a couple of years in jail, courtesy of the government.

While in jail, he conceived the idea to write his own book, with the help of a ghost-writer. He called it The Strange Death of President Harding. His book came out in 1930.

His mild association with the “Ohio Gang,” as Harding-buddies were termed, made him privy to the public, personal and private gossip about Warren and Florence Harding, who by that time, were dead for several years.

One of his many plausible “innuendos” was the deep implication of Florence Harding, reputed to be a very savvy political insider. He completely fabricated a story of her knowledge and fury at the Nan Britton hijinks-cum-child, an elaborate plot for revenge, and finally poisoning WGH to “protect” his reputation.

In a century since the Hardings died, there has been no evidence that they were involved in any of the scandals.

The Upshot

Of course the deceased Hardings could refute nothing, but… a) Mrs. Harding knew all about many of WHG’s romances – but the one about Nan was unknown to her till after her husband’s death; b) She absolutely did not poison him – or commit any other mayhem; c) Means’ ghost-writer, having had her own reputation sullied by all the scurrilous accusations sans factual evidence etc., turned state’s evidence.

Gaston Means wound up in in Leavenworth where he died in 1938.

But copies (many reprints!) of The Strange Death of President Harding are still available.

Sources:

Daugherty, Harry M., and Dixon, Thomas – The Inside story of the Harding Tragedy – The Churchill Company, 1932

Means, Gaston G. and Thacker, May Dixon – The Strange Death of President Harding – (Elizabeth Ann) Guild Publishing – 1930

Miller, Hope Ridings – Scandals in the Highest Office: Facts and Fictions in the Private lives of Our Presidents – Random House – 1973

Sinclair, Andrew – The Available Man – Macmillan Co., 1968

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gaston-Means

http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Harry_M._Daugherty

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Nifty History People, Warren G. Harding | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Three Forgotten FIRST LADIES

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The incomparable Dolley Madison

Following Dolley Madison, there was a big gap in the role of the First Lady

Elizabeth Monroe was a reclusive woman by nature, and her grown daughter was a snobbish substitute. Louisa Adams was in chronic poor health; her husband was unpopular. Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren were both widowers. Widower John Tyler’s second wife Julia Gardiner might have been a shining star if a) she filled the role for more than 8 months, and b) if John Tyler was popular. Sarah Polk was certainly socially competent, but the Polk view of the Presidency itself, and their devout religious inclination made them stodgy.

Then, between 1849-57 came three reluctant and reclusive women, well into middle age when duty called, deeply entrenched in their modest private lives. They were more than happy to relinquish social duties to younger relatives and even happier to avoid the criticism of social Washington, whose main avocation was criticism.

Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor

Margaret Smith Taylor (1788-1852) was born in Maryland to a family of gentry. At twenty-one she married Zachary Taylor, a professional soldier who rose through the ranks. In 1810, when they married, a soldier’s life was harsh, assigned to isolated outposts, mainly to protect against Indian attacks. 

Zachary Taylor, #12

Peggy traveled from pillar to army-post, living in barracks, lean-tos, tents, forts and whatever dwellings were available. She lost two babies to disease, and raised four children to maturity. By the late 1840s, she was looking forward to a quiet retirement on their Baton Rouge plantation, surrounded by family and close friends.

Margaret Smith Taylor

But by 1848, after the War with Mexico, General Zachary Taylor was a bona fide hero, and thus a handy recruit for Presidential nomination, albeit against his will. And hers.

Military life had taken its toll on her, and between age and frontier hardship, her health had ebbed. Youthful beauty coarsened. While the dignities and manners of a gracious upbringing may have lingered in essence, she likely felt ill-equipped to be the social leader of the nation’s capital, and had no interest in trying.

She chose seclusion at the White House, remaining in her rooms and presiding only at the family table. She relinquished the hosting duties to her married daughter, Betty Blair. Naturally rumors abounded that Mrs. Taylor smoked a pipe, or was otherwise “unfit” for the role.

About the only thing known about Peggy Taylor is her claim that the “Presidency would shorten both their lives.” She was a prophet.

Both Taylors died before their natural term would have ended. 

Abigail Powers Fillmore

Abigail Powers Fillmore (1798-1852) was also disinclined to be First Lady – but for a different reason.

Abigail Powers Fillmore

Born in upstate New York, her father died when she was young, and the family struggled. Having had a fair education (at least for a woman), she became the village schoolmarm at sixteen, and has the distinction of being the first First Lady to work outside the home. She taught school for several years, and developed a deep love of books and learning in general.

She was still in her teens when she met Millard Fillmore, a local fellow with ambition. She tutored him for a better future in a courtship that lasted for several years before he was financially stable.

Once married with children, Abigail devoted herself to her family, their home in Aurora, New York and the moderate reputation of her lawyer-congressman husband. Nevertheless, she channeled her own intellectual interests into helping found their town library society. Letters between the Fillmores are filled with lists of books she asked him to purchase in New York or Philadelphia when he was a Congressman, en route to Washington. As a Congressman’s wife, Abigail came to Washington periodically and found “society” boring. She believed the Washington doyennes were superficial, placed appearance above substance, and above all, loved gossip. 

The Fillmores came to the White House accidentally. President Zachary Taylor died. Placing substance over socializing, she continued to channel her intellectual efforts and established the first White House library. When she became First Lady, there wasn’t a book in the place – not even a Bible.

Millard Fillmore, #13

Not long before assuming the “Second Lady” spot, Abigail had broken her ankle. It was poorly set and painful for her to stand in receiving lines. It was also a handy excuse to bow out. She did not lock herself away a la Margaret Taylor. She participated as needed, but kept the social scene to a minimum. Their daughter Mary Abigail, was twenty and happy to fill in for her disinclined, and genuinely bored, mother.

Jane Means Appleton Pierce

Jane Pierce (1806-1863) was a depressive, period. She was also zealously religious. Born in New Hampshire, she did not marry until she was twenty-eight, considered an old maid. Her polar-opposite husband, the gregarious Franklin Pierce, had just been elected to Congress.

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Jane Appleton Pierce

Jane hated Washington with a passion. The climate was bad for her frail health, and she disliked the politics, believing it ungodly. She managed to convince her husband (who loved politics) to retire from the national scene, and devote himself strictly to his law practice and local New Hampshire affairs. She lost two sons as babies, and devoted herself to raising her remaining boy. 

When Pierce became the Democratic nominee, elected President in 1852, his wife fainted at the news. If dissatisfaction with the course of events wasn’t enough, eleven-year-old Bennie Pierce was killed in a freak railway accident only a few weeks before the inauguration. Jane was prostrate with grief, and remained mostly secluded in the White House for months. 

Franklin Pierce, #14

When she finally made a public appearance, it was sad that her “woebegone expression” made it difficult for anyone to enjoy the gathering.

Her aunt-by-marriage was enlisted to handle whatever mild social duties could not be avoided.

Sources:

Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995

http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/first-ladies/margarettaylor

http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/first-ladies/abigailfillmore

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Franklin Pierce, James K. Polk, James Monroe, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Zachary Taylor | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mary Lincoln and the Seed Pearls

No question abut it, Mary Lincoln liked nice stuff!

The Well-Born Miss Todd

Miss Mary Todd (1818-1882) was born into what might be called Lexington, Kentucky aristocracy. At birth, she was already 3rd generation Lexingtonian.

The earliest known photograph of Mary Lincoln

The Todds had done well in Kentucky. Her father, Robert Smith Todd, had followed the three traditional professions of a gentleman: planter, lawyer/businessman and legislator. He had a fine plantation a few miles outside the city limits, next door to Kentucky’s favorite son, Henry Clay. They also had a house in town.

When Mary was six, her mother died in childbirth, leaving six little Todds under twelve. Within eighteen months, Robert Todd remarried. His new bride, Betsey Humphreys, came from a family even more pedigreed than the Todds.

While the “first family Todd” was unhappy with their new stepmother, all the niceties of prominence were amply provided, including manners, graces, a taste for lovely things, and in Mary’s case, a good education.

Doing Without

When Mary Todd married lawyer Abraham Lincoln of Springfield IL, she was just shy of 24. He was 33, late come to his profession. His background was as meager as hers was prominent. He had very little money, old debts still owing, and his prospects were not sterling. He was also absent for large swaths of time, riding the court circuit in central Illinois.

The Lincoln house in Springfield

Within a year of their marriage, the Lincolns had purchased their one-and-only home, and were proud parents of a baby, Robert Todd Lincoln – named for her father. The niceties she had known before… lovely clothes, fancy bonnets, jewelry, etc., were no longer in her immediate picture.

They made do.

Lincoln was no fool and no doubt realized that to achieve any success as an attorney and/or public figure, he needed polish. Mary Todd was well equipped to do the sprucing.  She was a Kentucky belle. She knew what to do.

She made a nice middle-class home where Lincoln could be proud to bring his associates.  She made sure his suits were better tailored. She taught him to dance a little and make a deep courtly bow. Thus when he was elected President, Abraham Lincoln was parlor-ready, and undoubtedly knew that he owed much to his society-minded wife of eighteen years.

One of the earliest photos of Lincoln

Repayment

Some time in February, 1861, when the train bringing the President-Elect to Washington stopped in New York, Lincoln quietly visited Tiffany & Company, then as now, the premier jeweler in the country. As a gift for her (one of the few actually recorded as his gift), he purchased a stunning set of seed pearl jewelry, to include a necklace and two cuff bracelets. 

The price tag was a whopping $530, an enormous sum in the mid-nineteenth century, especially for someone whose income in 1860 was around $6000, a substantial, but hardly opulent sum.

Tiffany’s was top of the line – even then!

The Pearl Jewelry

The necklace itself was a “choker” style, defined as a length of 14-16″.  It consisted of nineteen oval shaped rosettes, six large and thirteen smaller. One of the six is extra large, used in the center of the necklace to dangle a somewhat smaller rosette as a pendant.  The smaller rosettes feature a bar of three pearls surrounded by a circle of seed pearls. The larger ovals feature a bar of three pearls surrounded by two seed pearl circles. The extra large central rosette has three circles of pearls.

The two identical cuff bracelets display the same style as the necklace, but the central oval rosette is the largest one in the entire set: three large pearls surrounded by four rows of seed pearls. Two smaller (three rows of surrounding pearls) rosettes flank the central piece. The strap and clasp are silver plate.

Some historical accounts claim Lincoln purchased earrings and a brooch along with the aforementioned items. A similar set, also made by TIffany’s did include the additional pieces, and sold for $1000. Lincoln was more thrifty, and opted for a less expensive set.

Curiously enough, TIffany records indicate that Lincoln purchased the items on April 28, 1862 – more than a year after his inauguration, when it is documented that Mary actually wore them. A Matthew Brady photograph taken of the new First Lady wearing her inaugural gown, showed the necklace and one of the bracelets. The earrings may have been on loan. Tiffany may have had “the slows” in its billing department, but Lincoln paid the bill.

It is also interesting that in April, 1862, the date of Tiffany’s accounts, the Lincolns were in deep mourning for their son WIllie, who had died a few weeks earlier. Mary would not have been purchasing or wearing elaborate jewelry. 

While there is no record of Mrs. L’s reaction to the surprise gift one can assume she was delighted. She wore it at both Lincoln inaugural balls.

Mary wore the jewelry!

The Aftermath of the Seed Pearl Jewelry

Mary Lincoln made a simple will in 1873 leaving everything to her son Robert and his progeny. This included her jewelry.

The unfortunate set of circumstances that caused Robert to declare his mother tried for insanity (later reversed) understandably created a major rift between them, and they were more or less permanently estranged for the rest of Mary’s life. 

When Mary made her will, she had only seen one grandchild: Robert’s daughter Mary, nicknamed Mamie. Robert’s two other children, Abraham II (nicknamed Jack) and Jessie had not yet been born, and there is no indication that Mary ever saw them.

The seed pearl set (LOC)

Despite the estrangement and the fact that Mary lived for nearly another ten years, she never changed her will. Her property went to Robert, including the seed pearl necklace and bracelets.

The set of jewelry is now in the Library of Congress collection. It was donated in 1937 by Mary’s granddaughter, Mary (Mamie) Lincoln Isham, shortly before her death. 

Sources:

Baker, Jean – Mary Todd Lincoln – W.W. Norton, 1987

Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life – HarperCollins, 2009

Foster, Feather Schwartz – Mary Lincoln;s Flannel Pajamas and Other Stories From the First Ladies Closet – Koehler Publishing, 2014

Helm, Katherine – Mary, Wife of Lincoln – Harper & Row, 1928

http://www.thejewelleryeditor.com/jewellery/article/the-history-of-tiffany-tiffanys/

(www.internetstoes.com)

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Abraham Lincoln, American Civil War, Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

George Washington Revered and Reviled

Harry Truman probably said it best. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

The Thick Hide

It is a part of human nature to be sensitive to criticism. Those who achieve celebrity, whether it be political or artistic or academic or elsewise, invariably make enemies for a variety of reasons. Resentment and jealousy usually being at the top of the list.

There are many instances in recent history where fine public figures withdraw from public life due to the intrusive instant-judgments of social media.

Ergo, being in the public eye makes you subject to the public mouth, and “truth” is also a victim.

George Washington the Tight-Lipped

George Washington’s father died when his son was eleven. Every aspiration for a formal classical education (like his older half-brothers) was now denied.

Eldest brother Lawrence was fond of George, and frequently invited him to visit at his Mount Vernon plantation. The property was a work-in-progress, but perhaps its most valuable asset then (other than splendid location) was its neighbor: Lord Fairfax, one of the highest ranking noblemen in the Colonies, and one of the wealthiest. Lawrence was happy to introduce George into the Fairfax circle, and it made a huge impression on the teenager. It provided him with manners to emulate and a lifestyle to dream about.

Washington’s lack of formal education weighed heavily on him, especially when he served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He was now in the company of some of the best and brightest men in the Colony. He made it his lifelong habit to keep silent as much as possible, speaking only on subjects he knew about. The reticence served him well. His peers grew to like and respect the quiet man of Mount Vernon. When he did rise to speak, it was usually something worth listening to.

General George: The Target of Calumny

By the time of the American Revolution, George Washington (left) was 44 years old, one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia, a former Colonel of the Virginia Militia (highest ranking officer in the American colonies), and was widely regarded. For a while.

Major General Charles Lee, a Virginian and erstwhile British military officer, was hugely jealous of Washington, and believed that his own experience in the British army far outranked GW. He commented to a fellow General, “a certain great man is most damnably deficient…unless something we do not expect turns up we are lost.”

Even John Adams, (right) ardent patriot, but jealous of GW’s height, frame and demi-god appearance (which GW could do nothing about), once remarked “Washington was a Virginian. This is equivalent to five Talents. Virginian Geese are all Swans.”

Most of the time, GW countered criticism by ignoring it, nevertheless it rankled.

POTUS George: The Worst Nightmare

Smart and educated fellows that our founders were, they were nevertheless somewhat naive about “human nature.” They had hoped that the new United States citizens would act in concert for the good of the country rather than sectional or petty needs. They deplored political parties. By the time GW became President, newspapers throughout the colonies had proliferated, (basically the only form of mass communication then), whipping their readers into the usual frenzies of opinion. The founders’ great fear of political parties and factions was coming to pass.

The Political Slings and Arrows

GW had spent the better part of nine years with the American Army. When the War for Independence was finally concluded, GW voluntarily relinquished his command, and happily became “Farmer Washington” once again.

But as the arguably most famous man in the United States, he was inevitably drawn into the realities of forming a workable union of thirteen vastly different colonies. He became a creature of politics, whether he liked it or not.

He was twice elected unanimously to the office of President, the highest honor the country could bestow. But everything he did from this point on, set precedents and all of it was now open for criticism true, false, conjectured, half-truth or plain imaginary.

He was attacked for being monarchial, and too formal in his entertainment (left), emulating foreign courts. He was attacked for his clothing, his carriage, his dinner service and the price he paid for fish. His foreign and domestic policies were either reviled or revered, depending on who was asked. When GW seemed too much of a “presence”, his advisors were blamed for giving poor advice.

Adding insult to Washington’s true antipathy for parties, was their emergence via two of his most important advisors: fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson (Sec/State), and former ADC Alexander Hamilton (Sec/Treasury). GW admired and liked them both. But they were perhaps unwittingly, tearing the country apart.

By his second term, criticism of GW included slurs to his character, his abilities and even his military prowess.

Former “pen of the Revolution” Thomas Paine (right) was no friend of GW, writing “the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.”

Benjamin Franklin Bache (grandson of Ben himself), publisher of a popular contemporary newspaper, called him “a Virginia planter, by no means that most eminent, a militia-officer ignorant of war both in theory and useful practice, and a politician certainly not of the first magnitude.”

And those were tame. There were frequently worse.

Washington did not suffer criticism gladly. He was forced to hold his temper, and most of the time, he countered it by ignoring it. This did not make him impervious. He may have ridden out the storms of pernicious poison, but he admitted that the experience had “worn away my mind”.

He could not wait to return to his beloved Mount Vernon (left) and his “vine and fig tree” and a life of retirement and ease, far from the gabbing crowd.

Sources:

Beschloss, Michael – Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America (1789-1989) – Simon and Schuster, 2007

Chernow, Ron – Washington: A Life – Penguin Press – 2010

Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington – Galahad Books, 2000

https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-u-s-president-elected

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, George Washington, John Adams | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Grover Cleveland and the Abscessed Tooth Decision

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Grover Cleveland always resented media intrusion.

The Return of Cleveland

Just about all historians rate Cleveland’s second go-round (1893-7) as far less successful than his first. Mr. and Mrs. C. returned to the White House with a baby and another on the way. Frances Cleveland was still their media darling, but now as a matron with children, not pestered as much.

G

The big problem was the economy. The country was in the throes of one of its worst recessions, panics, downturns, or whatever phrases were used in the early ‘90s. The stock market had tumbled. Huge companies were folding. Small businesses were gobbled up by bigger companies, forcing thousands of workers out of jobs and homes. Hundreds of thousands of poor immigrants jammed our cities. Strikes were rampant. Crime was rampant. Farmers, along with the poor, had gravitated to “populism,” demanding free coinage of silver (bi-metalism), certain to lead to huge inflation, anathema to the conservative Cleveland. Times were tough, and hard sacrifices were demanded.

Not long after his second inauguration, in the middle of all the crises-de-jour, Grover Cleveland was bothered by a rough spot on his upper jaw, interfering with his ability to eat. (And for a man whose great joy was gustatory, this was a serious problem.) He put it off as long as possible, but by summer the area had grown and medical attention was essential. The doctor was summoned. Alarmed by his findings, several medical specialists were consulted. A biopsy concluded that the “rough spot” was indeed cancerous – a word fraught with anxiety even today. And all insisted immediate surgery was needed. If it spread (as it was sure to do) it would be fatal.

President Cleveland was only 56. He had come late to marriage and fatherhood, and in 1893 had a young wife, a toddler, and another baby on the way. Most people put GC’s paternal instincts into the grandfatherly category, nevertheless it is a fair assumption that he would enjoy seeing his children grow up.

The story of where and how the surgery plus the custom made prosthetic jaw was done is a terrific story in itself. The creative technology of that time is fascinating, and generally applauded by modern medical people. But the decision for the secrecy is just as interesting, and perhaps apropos today as well.

Grover the Grouchy

Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was an unlikely candidate for President in 1884. Barely known outside New York, he had risen to the top of the Democratic ticket in only three years.

Unfortunately, a few weeks before election day, a story appeared in an obscure Buffalo newspaper that the perceived “Grover The Good” had fathered a child out-of-wedlock years earlier. It was true. He confessed. He weathered the storm.

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But he bitterly resented the intrusion into his private life and that resentment would grow.

A year into his Presidency, his secret engagement was out of the bag! The 49-year old bachelor, gruff, overweight and somewhat coarse in his manners was about to marry his pretty 21-year-old ward, Frances Folsom.

If journalists had been intrusive about his early liaison, they now surrounded the White House like a swarm of bees.

Cleveland fumed. And he fumed even more when the press made Frances their darling, and regularly intruded into the privacy of “Mr. and Mrs.” Cleveland.

Ergo, Grover Cleveland neither liked nor trusted reporters.

The Decision

One’s health is about as personal as it gets. And there was no way President Cleveland, who remembered the media circus death-watch for General Grant, was going to permit those “liberties”.

But how to do it without alarming the country? “Cancer” is a word that generates fear even today. If the “ghouls of the press” (his words) made it public, the flailing economy was certain to collapse without his strong and determined leadership.

VP Adlai Stevenson (right) was neither a strong nor experienced leader. He was also a firm bi-metalist, and Cleveland feared the economy would go into free-fall.

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Absolute secrecy was vital. A medical-dental team was organized, each with specific assignments, and each vowing never to divulge the event.

Cleveland contacted E.C. Benedict (left), his long time close friend, whose yacht (right) was sufficient for the task at hand. He asked to “borrow” it for a few days, no questions asked. Permission was given, and no questions asked.

Unfortunately, one of the medical-dental team spilled the beans a few days later, and newspaper reporters converged on the Cleveland summer house in Buzzards Bay, MA. By then, the surgery had been successfully completed, including a few “staged” appearances of Cleveland looking none the worse for wear. Since the oral surgery was performed inside his mouth, there were no facial scars. His closest advisors, including one of his doctors, insisted that the President merely had some “dental work” done to treat a couple of abscessed teeth.

And the President’s “friends” made sure the intrepid reporter-with-the-scoop was quickly and soundly discredited before innuendo, half-truths, gossip and outrageous lies wreaked havoc on the economy.

A Quarter Century Later

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Grover Cleveland lived to be seventy one, and the father of five. It was not until several years after his death that the “secret” cancerous jaw surgery was made public. The honor of sworn oaths mattered.

There are always differences of opinion about what “the public has a right to know” and what may well be “in the public’s best interest”. A couple of generations later, it would resurface as “loose lips sink ships.”

Cleveland believed there was far more to lose than gain if unfounded opinions of some 2 million people with little education or training in governance or economies were bandied around.

His dying words were, “I have tried so hard to do good.”

Sources:

Algeo, Matthew – The President Is A Sick Man – The Chicago Free Press – 2011

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

Jeffers, H. Paul – An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland – William Morrow – 2000

https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/grover-cleveland/

https://magicmastsandsturdyships.weebly.com/president-grover-clevelandx27s-secret-surgery-on-the-steam-yacht-oneida.html

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Grover Cleveland | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Woodrow Wilson and Mrs. Peck. And Ellen Wilson

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Woodrow and Ellen Wilson

Woodrow Wilson always enjoyed feminine companionship.

Woodrow Wilson and Women in General 

Like many men with high intellect and matching egos, Woodrow Wilson was drawn to the company of women. If they were attractive, intelligent, lively, gentle-natured and content to be a good audience, he was delighted to bask in their admiration.

He was also a devout Presbyterian. His family tree was peppered with ministers, including his own father. He prayed on his knees every night, until his health made it impossible. The teachings of his religion and its morality were of vital importance to him.

Very little is known of Wilson’s adolescence and early manhood vis-a-vis romantic interests. Most historians tend to believe he was generally shy around the opposite sex, believed himself to be “homely,” and if there was any “romance” involved, it was likely cerebral and certainly unfulfilled.

The First Mrs. Wilson

Wilson was 25 when he met Ellen Axson, a 22-year old Presbyterian minister’s daughter, and fell deeply in love. Immediately. He wooed her for three years, mostly by passionate letters, opening up his innermost soul, dreams and hopes.

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Ellen Axson Wilson

Woodrow was a brand new college professor, fast-tracked to being one of the top governmental history (political science) experts in the country. Their house was a revolving door of assorted long-term guests, relatives on both sides. Her 10-year-old brother Eddie lived with them from the start. Her other brother Stockton stayed with them on vacations from college. The three Wilson daughters were born within five years. Money was always tight, and Wilson wrote a book a year to augment his sparse salary. He also accepted extra seminars and lecture engagements.

Those extra engagements usually included invitations to other professors’ homes, where WW met many intelligent and scintillating female dinner companions. Ellen was an artistic woman of serious talents, and a serious nature. She shunned the limelight, and witty repartee made her uncomfortable. She encouraged him “go solo” to those engagements. She understood his needs, and at the top of that list, was his dependence on a woman’s nurturing companionship.

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Wilson’s wife and daughters adored him.

She made it a point throughout their 30-year marriage, to seek out his feminine admirers, and make them her friends as well. And she never doubted that Woodrow loved her.

The Rough Time

Some 20 years after they married, Ellen suffered a grievous loss. Her brother Eddie and his wife and baby died in a drowning accident. He was only 31. Ellen, as next of kin, did whatever was needed. She notified family members, arranged for funerals, handled his modest estate, and finally grieved. Like others in her family who were prone to crippling depression, she had generally warded off sadness over the years. This time she could not.

According to her daughter Eleanor McAdoo, her depression went deep, and she retreated into a world of silence. Woodrow could not reach her. He was overcome by her grief, and his own need to comfort her, which he could not do. She had always been his steel magnolia. Now he had no one to comfort him.

Wilson’s physical and emotional health had always been tightly intertwined. He could plunge into a deep abyss if a letter hadn’t come when expected. His body usually paid the price. For years he suffered periodic gastric problems, headaches and a couple of undiagnosed strokes. A quiet and solitary change of scenery, with Ellen’s encouragement, seemed to restore him to his usual productive life.

Bermuda

In early 1907, about a year after Eddie Axson’s death, with Ellen still “not herself,” Woodrow took a solo vacation to Bermuda. The sea air and quiet surroundings were recommended.

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Mary Allen Hulbert Peck

Mary Allen Hulbert Peck was a comfortably situated woman who spent winters in Bermuda “for her health.” A few years Wilson’s junior, she had been widowed several years earlier, and had remarried a well-to-do businessman. That marriage was unhappy. Ergo, Bermuda “for her health.”

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Mary’s guests in Bermuda

Mary was delight and a charmer, and quickly became Bermuda’s premiere “hostess.” On a small island in the off-season, socializing was easy, and an invitation for the then-President of Princeton University was quickly extended. Woodrow found Mary to be wonderful company and a warm friendship ensued, lasting for several years. As always, Woodrow an ardent correspondent, wrote to her often. And returned solo to Bermuda.

Smoke, Fire and Smudge-Pots

The likelihood that anything even remotely akin to “unPresbyterian-like” behavior occurred is difficult to imagine – considering Woodrow. Both he and Mary Peck always insisted that despite their effusive correspondence (common for that time), their relationship was never more than a warm friendship. His marriage to Ellen was always loving and happy, and he would never put that in jeopardy.

Effusive correspondence was common.

Naturally, Woodrow told Ellen about Mrs. Peck, who eventually divorced and re-assumed her widowed name of Hulbert and moved to New York. Ellen characteristically sought opportunities to meet her husband’s dear friend, and even made it a point to introduce her daughters. It would be a rare stretch for the morally pious Woodrow to have his wife and daughters in the company of a woman if it was an immoral relationship. She was even their guest at the White House.

Nevertheless, Ellen commented to a friend that it was the only time in their marriage that her husband had caused her pain.

The apothecary clerk.

Several years later, when WW was a serious political figure, there were the usual gossipy innuendos. Candidate Theodore Roosevelt was advised of the “situation” in 1912, and declined to make it an issue, stating that it would be hard to believe that someone who looked like an apothecary clerk was a Romeo.

And as long as Ellen Wilson lived, their friendship with Mary Peck Hulbert would never seriously harm Woodrow Wilson’s reputation.

Sources:

Heckscher, August – Woodrow Wilson: A Biography – Scribners, 1991

McAdoo, Eleanor Wilson – The Woodrow Wilsons – Macmillan, 1937

Saunders, Frances Wright – Ellen Axson Wilson – University of North Carolina Press – 1985

Weinstein, Edwin A. – Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography – Princeton University Press, 1981

https://www.americanheritage.com/love-and-guilt-woodrow-wilson-and-mary-hulbert

Posted in American Civil War | 2 Comments

Lincoln: The Deepest Sadness

Abraham Lincoln

“It is hard, hard to have him die.”

Man of Sadness

Most historians agree that Abraham Lincoln, when he wasn’t laughing and telling droll stories, was a generally sad man. He described his upbringing as the “annals of the poor.” His mother died when he was nine. His only sibling died in childbirth when Lincoln was still in his teens. 

While he made friends easily and engaged socially, he still remains elusive. Other than a long-standing close relationship with Joshua Speed, his friendships remain superficial or professional rather than deep bonding. He was, by and large, a solitary soul. His deepest feelings were “conceptual” rather than personal, in the sense that he was distraught over the enormous deaths of the Civil War: but they were people he did not know.

He was nearly thirty-three when he married, partly due to insufficient income, and partly due to his lack of ease with the fair sex. When he married Mary Todd, a well-to-do Kentucky belle, it followed a rocky courtship of misunderstandings. Maybe. The marriage itself was “average” for its time, with the usual ups and downs. Probably. Undoubtedly he cared deeply for her, and was devoted to her welfare and comforts.

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Mary and sons – in better days.

The word used to describe him best, was “abstracted.” In his own world.

The Weight of that World

With most deep thinkers, thoughts and conclusions not only run deep, but usually go through convoluted channels to arrive at whatever conclusions finally surface.

By his own admission, Lincoln was slow to learn, but once learned, the knowledge remained. He was also slow to stray from the middle road. He was always opposed to slavery, but never considered himself an abolitionist. He was a lifelong Whig, slow to embrace the Republican party. His own political inclinations could and would change – if he believed they might be incorrect, or not viable. They were subject to change as the occasions demanded. 

His early months as President are usually considered unsure and uncertain. As he said, events were controlling him, not the other way around. Secession had begun before he took the oath of office; within weeks, it was a fait accompli. He would promote and demote a series of military generals whose accomplishments on paper fell far short of their accomplishments in the field. Totally ill-equipped in military knowledge himself, he needed to become a true Commander-in-Chief. That took time. Meanwhile, fighting a Civil War on many fronts – militarily, politically, industrially, financially and socially, situations and issues were flung at him daily. 

A Lincoln Family etching ca. 1861

Early 1862

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Willie Lincoln

The year had started bleakly enough. The Union defeat at Bull Run six months earlier was an eye-opener. The war would not be a few skirmishes and the expected “empty chair.” The casualty list horrified everyone, but compared to what would follow, a mere spat. 

Determined to present the White House (i.e. the presidency) as a continuation of what-should-be, the Lincolns planned a gala affair. There was the usual carping about “don’t you know there’s a war on?” Then there was the unsettling situation with the two youngest Lincoln boys. They had caught cold and were feverish. Their 3-year-old son Eddie had died several years earlier, and both Lincolns were always skittish about their childrens’ health. But the doctors assured them the boys were not seriously ill, and the big-do did not need to be cancelled.

Tad, the youngest son, was eight. He recovered.

Willie, at eleven, was touch and go for several days. He was the apple of both his parents’ eyes: smart, affectionate, warm-hearted, and, it is said, the most like Lincoln. His mother commented that she expected Willie to be the solace of her old age. 

By the time the doctors confirmed that his “cold” had become typhoid fever, it was already too late. Willie was rapidly failing. Both Lincolns kept a vigil at their son’s bedside, but on February 20, he died.

The grieving father entered his secretaries’ office and said, “Well, my boy is gone.” Then he left. 

Willie was laid out in his coffin in the black-draped Green Room of the White House, with the mirrors and windows covered in crepe. Mary Lincoln was so distraught, she could not leave her bed, except to advise the mother of Willie and Tad’s best pals, “not” to send her sons to play with Tad anymore. She could not bear it. 

Despite his own unbearable grief, Lincoln personally brought the two young playmates into the Green Room to say their goodbyes. Tad Lincoln would never see them again. 

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Mrs. Lincoln wore black for two years.

After a brief service conducted by Rev. Phineas Gurley, Willie’s coffin was placed in a borrowed crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery until such time as the Lincolns returned to Springfield. 

Grieving

Grief comes in many patterns. Some build shrines; some remove all mementos as too painful. Most fall in between. But all parents are devastated when they lose a beloved child.

Mary Lincoln wore her grief, and those deep losses that followed, like a badge of punishment for whatever sins she perceived she might have committed. Her convulsive sobs could be heard throughout the White House for weeks. 

Abraham Lincoln’s grief was internal. He knew that by February 1862 there were already thousands of parents, North and South, who had lost sons. Those parents mourned too. He may have even suspected that many more thousands of sons would lose their lives, and as the war continued, so would the grieving. 

Lincoln could only put aside an hour or two on Thursdays, the day Willie died, and retreated to the privacy of his room to grieve alone. It is also said that on occasion, he sat in quiet contemplation at the borrowed crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery. He considered it the worst blow of his life. “It is hard, hard to have him die.”

Three years later, Willie’s coffin was disinterred, and he returned to Springfield. With his father.

The Lincoln Tomb in Springfield

Sources:

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

Randall, Ruth Painter, Lincoln’s Sons, Little, Brown, 1955

http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/education/williedeath.htm

https://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln68.html

Family: William Wallace Lincoln (1850-1862)

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/willie-lincolns-death-a-private-agony-for-a-president-facing-a-nation-of-pain/2011/09/29/gIQAv7Z7SL_story.html

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Abraham Lincoln | 2 Comments