The White House New Year’s Day Reception


An early artistic rendering of Washington DC about the turn of the 19th century.

After two years in New York and ten years in Philadelphia, the capital of the country was moved to Washington at the very end of 1800.

The Dismal Days

Washington DC was just opening for business in late 1800, after a ten-year building process. Designed and built practically from scratch from donated pieces of Virginia and Maryland, the new city was muddy, full of building debris, stray dogs, cats and pigs, unpaved streets, fields of weeds, and huge distances between neighbors.


John Adams was the first POTUS to open the White House for a public reception on New Year’s Day – in 1801.

President John Adams came to the White House alone. His wife Abigail joined him shortly afterwards, along with John and Esther Breisler, their long-time stewards.

The place was cold and damp, basically unfurnished other than what Adams brought himself. No one was there to welcome him. The inhospitable atmosphere was matched by the President’s private feelings. His presidency had been troubled and generally unsuccessful, and he had recently lost a bid for a second term to his Vice President and good friend Thomas Jefferson. He had also come to suspect a widening rift marring their quarter century of friendship.

His few weeks in residence in the unfinished President’s House would not be happy.

Nevertheless, Adams began what would become an annual event for more than a century.

New Year’s Day: 1801

white house 1807

One of the earliest images of the White House – circa 1807.

George Washington had instituted a Presidential open house reception on the 4th of July, both in New York and in Philadelphia. Everyone was invited. No formal invitations were needed.

As Chief Occupant in the new President’s House in Washington, especially in a centennial year, Adams believed it was the “people’s” house, and it was incumbent upon him, its first resident, to extend hospitality. Thus, on New Year’s Day, 1801, the doors were open to any and all persons in Washington who wished to come by, shake his hand and exchange greetings.

A year later, Jefferson, urbane and sophisticated, followed suit and cordially greeted any and all who wished to shake his hand on New Year’s Day.

Thus a tradition was born and continued.


Public Presidential receptions differed somewhat from official or private ones. The purpose was to express cordiality to the general public. Refreshments were either very modest or not included. (Presidents were expected to pay for their guests’ refreshments out of pocket until the time of Calvin Coolidge.)

andrew jackson 1

Hordes of well-wishers came to Andrew Jackson’s New Year’s Day receptions.

As the town grew, the New Year’s Day reception lines grew longer.  And if a person, male or female, was properly dressed (most of them in their finest clothes) and willing to stand patiently in line, they were welcome.

Except for slaves. Or even free blacks. It was not a written rule originally, but a tacit understanding. Few blacks could be “properly” dressed, and few blacks – or whites – would be comfortable standing next to each other in line.

By the time of Andrew Jackson, the white population of Washington had grown from some 10,000 in 1800 to nearly 28,000 in 1830. Jackson, a man-of-the-people, attracted thousands of proletariat followers. Clothing was more rustic, manners more coarse, but the people still came to shake hands with Their Hero, who seemed pleased to shake hands with them.

New Year’s Day: 1863

The annual New Year’s Day reception in 1863 is arguably the most important event in the Reception’s history. Abraham Lincoln was President, and the Civil War was raging.

President Lincoln

The New Year’s Day reception of 1863 is arguably the most important. President Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation was going into effect.

It was a Thursday. Earlier that morning, a somber President, well aware of the momentous occasion, retweaked any final changes he wanted made and had the final copy of the Emancipation Proclamation prepared. Then at 11a.m., as customary, the Blue Room reception began, for high ranking public officials and invited guests. A half hour later, the White House doors were opened to the public, and for the next three hours, the President duly shook hands with any and all who had waited in line. Mrs. Lincoln, who was still in mourning for their son Willie who had died less than a year earlier, knowing the importance of this particular day, came for an hour.

At three p.m. the public New Year’s Day reception ended, and the President moved to a different room to sign his carefully written full name to the Emancipation Proclamation.

Hundreds of Northerners who had been active in anti-slavery efforts, some for a generation, had flocked to Washington for this welcome event. Thousands had lined Pennsylvania Avenue waiting to shake the President’s hand. His arm grew tired. His kid glove was stained by contact with thousands of hands. But everyone who came was welcome.

The following year, there were a few well-dressed, cultured and educated Negro attendees admitted to the Reception. It was the first time they had been permitted to attend a social event in the White House.

The End of the Receptions

Sargeant Teddy

TR perfected a handshake that moved the crowds forward like an assembly line.


Crowds lined up for the 1909 New Year’s Day Reception.

As time went on, the New Year’s Day receptions became cumbersome and onerous for the President. Some, like Theodore Roosevelt who was naturally gregarious, perfected a handshake that firmly pushed the visitor along, while controlling the strength of the handshake itself.  By 1900, the population of Washington DC was over 279,000, not counting visitors. By the twentieth century, the estimate was more than 9,000 attendees and was becoming annoying for the president, who complained of a sore arm and hand.


A crowd lines up outside the White House for the annual New Year’s Day Reception.  Notice the weather.

Then there was the obvious problem: Cold, wet, damp weather, with attendees standing outside, perhaps for hours, coughing and sneezing, chilled to the bone.  It had become a serious health concern.


One of the last images of crowds lining up for the New Year’s Day Reception.

The last New Years Day Reception was held in 1932. Herbert Hoover had followed the protocol three times, but by 1933, whether it was from his own disinclination to press the flesh, or the unwieldy (and unhealthy) crowds, or even a perceived threat to his personal safety, since the Great Depression was gripping the country, he was “out of town” on New Year’s Day.

No President since has sought to revive the old custom, and today, the logistical and security problems would make it completely impossible.


Brandus, Paul – Under This Roof: The White House and the Presidency – Lyons Press, 2016

Landau, Barry H. – The President’s Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy – Harper-Collins, 2007

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, American Civil War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Roosevelt and Remington: The Cowboy and the Sculptor

Theodore Roosevelt was an unlikely cowboy. Frederic Remington was an unlikely sculptor of the West.

Roosevelt the Cowboy

Teenaged TR

Theodore Roosevelt was a sickly child who built his body by sheer will and exercise.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)was a wealthy New Yorker by birth and upbringing. A nearsighted and asthmatic child, he overcame much of his frailty by sheer will and family encouragement. His physical weaknesses helped channel his interest in natural science however, since it could be enjoyed via his collections of plants and rocks and small critters. By the time he was twelve, he was a bona fide taxidermist with a great love of the outdoors.

Theodore had many varying interests, and his Harvard education led him into politics (Republican) and the writing of history.

When his first wife died in childbirth at only twenty-three, a distraught Theodore went to the Dakotas to heal his grief and sow the seeds of his own greatness.


TR outfitted himself for his western adventure – and had his photograph taken.

He immediately astounded the locals with his Abercrombie and Fitch outfit, his thick spectacles on a silk cord, his Harvard-Eastern accent, and his quaint way of speaking. They didn’t know what to make of him,until he bought a small ranch and a herd of cattle, and proved his mettle, riding long hours, eating “grub”, sleeping under the stars, shooting varmints and rounding up the bad guys. They loved him. They also respected him. The fact that his ranch failed was never held against him.

Some historians claim that Theodore Roosevelt would never have achieved what he did if he hadn’t “gone west.”

Frederic Remington: Western Sculptor


Frederic Remington. Artist. Sculptor. Bon vivant.

Frederic Remington (1860-1909) was also a New Yorker, albeit upstate, with as fine a pedigree as Roosevelt. He could trace his lineage to both George Washington and western artist George Caitlin. Remington displayed a superior talent for art as a youngster, along with decidedly unacademic inclinations. He much preferred the outdoors, athletics and drawing.


Frederic Remington made his reputation and fortune sketching characters and scenes of the old west.

Nevertheless, he managed to go to Yale. For one semester. He spent more time with athletic programs than studies. Returning home, he admitted to his general laziness and decided to live off his income, and perhaps do a little newspaper reporting and illustrating. In short, the gentleman’s life.


Remington sketches were so popular they were issued in book form.

At nineteen, with vague thoughts of buying a ranch or something similar, Remington went west. He invested in ranching, but those efforts failed. He preferred the comforts of indoor life, and his neighbors thought him lazy. He began sketching the Wild West right before the wildness of it disappeared forever with the railroad and the settlers. He sold a few paintings to the locals, and sent some sketches back east to the newspapers and magazines. His true calling was becoming clear.

Realizing that his art was still unpolished, and perhaps with some newfound maturity, a 24-year-old Remington returned to NY, studied at the Art Students League, improved his technique, and by 25 was a regular contributor to several magazines eager to capture the feel and experiences of the Wild West.

Roosevelt and Remington: Common Bonds


Remington and Roosevelt team up as author and illustrator.

Remington was making a serious name for himself in the art world. Harper’s, Leslie’s and Century magazines, the cream of the publication world, gave him plum assignments. He was making a living through his art. He was also beginning to collect the artifacts and colors and sinew for what his art would become.

His biggest break came in late 1886 when he was commissioned to provide more than 80 illustrations for Theodore Roosevelt’s Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail, to be serialized in Century Magazine prior to book publication.   TR, also an ex-cowboy and rancher (but never lazy!) and the young and brilliant artist became friends for life.


Magazines featured Remington drawings regularly.


Another magazine cover for Frederic Remington

Remington’s career was beginning to soar. He was hailed as one of America’s greatest painters. He won prizes at the Paris Exposition. At 29, he had a one-man show. In his thirties, he had discovered sculpting. His prowess as well as his enthrallment with it came as a surprise, but his instant success with bronze casts elevated him to a whole new status.

Meanwhile, TR’s career was also rising, and falling, and zig-zagging, but always on an upward level. TR just didn’t quite know what career he wanted. Politics? Writing? Or the natural sciences he had loved since he was a boy. He decided to do everything.

Rough Riding with TR and Remington


Theodore Roosevelt, Rough Rider

When a potential war with Spain was churning, Frederic Remington was in his late-thirties; not only an artist-sculptor of renown, but also one of the country’s leading sketch-journalists. Roosevelt was just shy of forty.

TR, having decided to focus on politics, and maintain natural science and writing as side-interests, was now Assistant Secretary of the Navy, itching to prove himself in some other way than behind a desk. The War with Spain would do that.


One of Remington’s sketches of the Mexican War

TR, gathered a volunteer regiment of cowboys, Ivy League college fellows and New York City policemen to form the Rough Riders.  He was commissioned Lt. Colonel, and took them to Cuba. Remington was sent there by the newspapers to sketch and report the action. Both men performed their respective assignments brilliantly, certainly in the sense that it would bring them exceptional fame.

The Broncho Buster

The “bully little war” with Spain was mercifully short, and the Rough Riders et al were mustered out in Montauk, Long Island some six months later. Due to the high rate of yellow fever, malaria and assorted tropical diseases, the army was quarantined there for several weeks.


One of the original castings of Remington’s Broncho Buster was presented to TR as a gift from his soldiers.

When the Rough Riders were formally disbanded, Colonel Roosevelt was surprised when his men chipped in and presented him with one of the original bronze casts of Frederic Remington’s most famous western sculptures: The Broncho Buster. Thousands and perhaps millions have been cast in reproductions. An original casting would be worth well into six figures today.

TR was deeply moved by the token of affection and esteem, as well as the choice of gift. It was placed prominently in the great North Room at Sagamore Hill, and he always declared it to be one of his most prized possessions.

It is still there today. If you visit Sagamore Hill, you will see it.


Corry, John A. – A R0ugh Ride to Albany: Theodore Roosevelt Runs for Governor – Fordham University Press, 2000

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

McCullough, David –  Mornings on Horseback  – Simon & Schuster, 1981





Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Davis: A Healing Friendship

Two Civil war icons, one North, one South, finally met in old age, and became friends.

Varina Davis: The Confederate Queen

Varina Davis (1826-1905) first appeared on a national stage when she was eighteen and recently married to Congressional widower Jefferson Davis, nearly twice her age.

young varina

Mrs. Jefferson Davis as the Confederate First Lady.

The tall (around 5’10”) dark beauty mingled at the highest levels of US government.  From the start, she became her husband’s secretary and amanuensis, taking dictation for his letters and notes and speeches. It was a career that lasted for the rest of his life.

By the time Jefferson Davis was elected Confederate President in 1861, they both had enjoyed close friendships with many of their northern counterparts. A Mississippian by birth, Varina had close relatives in the North, and those deep personal ties  would work to her disadvantage as the Confederate First Lady.

Like Mary Lincoln, the Union First Lady, many of her “countrymen” suspected her allegiance. They also disapproved of her political savvy and influence on her husband.

Bottom line: she was not popular. Nor was her husband.

Varina Davis: Post-Civil War

By 1865, the once wealthy Davises had lost a huge amount of their property and fortune. Davis also lost his freedom and spent two years incarcerated in Fortress Monroe.

Once released, the Davis family were wanderers. Their once-prosperous plantation in Mississippi had been devastated past repair. Davis’ main concern was providing for his still-young family. Being past sixty, in poor health and political status, this presented difficulties.

Davis kids

In 1866, the Davises had four children under twelve.

Jefferson Davis died in 1889, at 81.  His reputation, at least in the South, had begun to mend. Hers, however, had not. Only two children of the six she had borne remained. Her once-willowy figure had grown bulky. Her suspected Northern allegiances still rankled ex-Confederates. And her finances were precarious.

An opportunity arose when an admiring Joseph Pulitzer offered her a position writing for his newspaper in New York. Interestingly enough, while much of the South was still cool, the North found Mrs. Davis interesting and delightful.

Julia Grant: The Early Years

Julia Grant (1826-1901) and Varina Davis were the same age. Born to a middle-class St. Louis planing family, she met West Point graduate Ulysses S. Grant when she was barely eighteen. He was twenty-one. It would be four years, punctuated by the Mexican War, before they married.

Julia Dent Grant

Julia Grant as a young bride.

His up and down career during the 1850s was mostly down, despite their four children and obvious marital congeniality. By 1861, ex-Captain USG was at the bottom of his fortunes, working at a job he hated: a clerk in a tannery owned by his father.

Despite his plodding routine, surrounded by Julia and the children, he was happy. And they were happy.

Julia: The Civil War Years and After

By her own admission, Julia Grant spent the four years of the Civil War as either “Penelope” waiting for her Ulysses, or as a nomad, with children in tow. The ex-Captain rose quickly in a Union Army sorely in need of competent, experienced professional officers.

Once again it was up-and-down for Grant, but this time, the downs were glitches and the ups were giant leaps forward. Grant wanted his wife nearby, and Julia joined him whenever he summoned. And despite her Southern-ish, slave-holding family ties, her allegiances were never suspect.


General Grant and family.

By the end of the War, General Grant was the general, the hero, the man of the hour, with fortunes assured.

By 1868, USG was a shoo-in for the Presidency. While the Davises wandered, Julia spent her happiest eight years as mistress of the White House. Never a beauty nor witty in conversation, she was always a pleasant, sociable person who made friends easily.

After the Presidency, the Grants spent two years traveling the globe, feasted and feted by Kings, Queens, Emperors and even the Mikado of Japan.

Julia: Later

A yo-yo life seemed to follow the Grants perpetually. The highest of all fortunes soared briefly, and then, once again plummeted.

When Grant was 62, a business venture failed ignominiously, bankrupting him. With months, a diagnosis of terminal throat cancer followed. To provide for Julia and his family, to repay his creditors and to rescue his good name, he raced the clock, writing his war memorials. A week after the final edits, he died.

elderly julia

Julia as a middle-aged woman.

Grant’s Memoirs were a huge success, making Julia a very rich widow. She traveled as she pleased, and surround herself with a close-knit family and many friends. And like Varina Davis, she had become a city girl, with a town house in New York.

The Friendship

In 1893 there was a celebration at West Point, an institution dear to both Davis (class of 1828) and Grant (class of 1843). Both in their seventies, the Widow Grant and the Widow Davis attended the ceremonies.

They had heard of each other of course, but had never met.

elderly varina

Varina Davis in her elder years.

It turned out they were both staying at the Cranston-on-Hudson Hotel, and it was Julia who learned of the coincidence first. “Oh, I have always wanted to meet her,” she is said to have remarked.

She inquired of Mrs. Davis’ room number, and knocked at the door. It was a pleasant surprise for Varina, who invited her in, and a friendship began.


Grant’s Tomb in New York City. Varina Davis attended the dedication with Julia Grant.

The two iconic women of the Civil War discovered they lived within blocks of each other in New York City, and we’re both social and active, having left partisan politics behind decades earlier.

Varina Davis had been hosting a small salon for some time. Always intellectually inclined, she patronized the galleries, theatres and lecture halls. Julia, as always, had dozens of friends. Now she would have one more.

They were seen periodically driving in an open carriage en route to lunch or a drive through the park, chatting away, as if they had known each other for years.

When Grant’s Tomb was dedicated in 1897, Julia Grant sent a personal invitation to Varina Davis to attend the ceremonies.  It has been suggested that in its own way, their friendship helped knit the North and South back together.


Ross, Ishbel – The General’s Wife – Dodd, Mead, 1959

Ross, Ishbel – First Lady of the South: The Life of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, Greenwood Press, 1958

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Road to Val-Kill


Eleanor Roosevelt, at the time she became “Eleanor Roosevelt.”


Eleanor Roosevelt was nearly forty before she had a life, and place of her own.

FDR, Eleanor and Polio

The marriage between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, fifth cousins by birth, had never been a joyful one. Their personalities were poles apart, and while they truly cared for each other and recognized and appreciated the others’ strengths, the young Mrs. Roosevelt was never comfortable – or happy – with motherhood and matronly engagement in the social scene of the New York well-do-do. Her volunteer work helping new immigrants and World War I soldiers was far more satisfying.

young couple

The young Mr. and Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


Sara Delano Roosevelt, on the cover of TIME Magazine.

Sara Delano Roosevelt, Franklin’s overbearing mother, was another cross to bear.  Eleanor, still in her twenties, did not have the self-confidence to wrest control of her life (or family) from the domineering woman.

When he was thirty-nine, Franklin D. Roosevelt was stricken with polio. His political career had been a steady rise to a point of becoming the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate in 1920. It would now fall to Eleanor to provide the impetus and continual spur to keep him engaged in life, living and politics.

Eleanor Becomes “Eleanor”

At the end of World War I, Eleanor Roosevelt discovered that her husband had become romantically involved with another woman. It was a devastating blow to the inward and unfulfilled woman. After fifteen years of marriage, she was at a crossroads. She had borne six children in ten years. One died. She was further trapped between an overbearing mother-in-law and a time-consuming round of social obligations that she hated.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt, about the time he was thirty.

She offered her husband a divorce. He was ambivalent, but his mother was horrified by the scandal. She threatened to cut her son off without a cent. FDR’s longtime political advisor, Louis Howe, was also adamant, insisting that FDR was cutting his own political throat.

Franklin and Eleanor came to an amicable resolution. They would remain married, but they would lead emotionally detached lives. Since neither of them were bitter or rancorous people, each cherishing personal harmony, they could make their new relationship work.

Eleanor and Franklin: The Long Separations

Once the acute phase of his illness had passed, FDR’s main goal was his health and regaining his mobility, which would forever be denied.

His treatment centered on swimming in the warm waters of Florida and Georgia; he was  gone for weeks and even months at a time.


The Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park. It is a magnificent place.

The five Roosevelt children were now in boarding school. The huge estate in Hyde Park, about an hour from New York City, was her mother-in-law’s. Not hers. Not even her husband’s. Eleanor felt more like a guest than a resident.

She began to find interests of her own; interests that had surfaced decades earlier with her volunteer work in the settlement houses of the Lower East Side. She had loved it.

Eleanor as Eleanor


Louis Howe would be a close political friend to both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor had never been an active suffragette, but when women got the right to vote in 1920, Eleanor joined the League of Women Voters, and at Louis Howe’s suggestion, and with her husband’s enthusiastic support, she became active in the women’s division of the Democratic Party. This led to her acquaintance with dozens of women whose interests coincided with hers.

With FDR and the children away, there was little to keep her at Hyde Park. Her outside activities increased, and her political connections (being niece of Theodore Roosevelt and wife of FDR) were excellent credentials.  There was also her own innate abilities. Her opportunities broadened. She loved it.

Sara Roosevelt was displeased. She had been unenthusiastic by her son’s political inclinations at best. To have a daughter-in-law off and running in such “unladylike ” circles was horrifying. Eleanor spent more and more time away from Hyde Park.

A Place of Her Own


The Val-Kill cottage on the Hyde Park property was Eleanor’s own getaway. The entire Roosevelt family used it frequently, however.

It was FDR, aware of his wife’s discontent with the old life and fulfillment in the new, who suggested that she might like having a place of her own. Somewhere where she would not feel constrained. Where she could invite her friends, chair committee meetings in comfort – or even stay up late to read or write. Without disturbing anyone.

The Hyde Park estate was large, with plenty of room to build a separate cottage. FDR was always eager to make his wife happy when and if he could. Of course Eleanor would always stay in the “big house” whenever FDR and the children were in residence. For appearances and convenience.


The furnishings at Val-Kill were pure Eleanor. Functional.

It was truly a cottage – only six rustic rooms. Eleanor had been an enthusiastic sponsor of a consortium of local craftsmen in the nearby village of Val-Kill, ergo, her “cottage” was furnished by those craftsmen. The arts-and-crafts utilitarian style suited Mrs. R. perfectly. She always preferred function to decor. And knowing that it helped support local interests and families was a primary benefit.

FDR was more than a mere supporter. He became a frequent visitor when he was home. In appreciation, Eleanor had a swimming pool built on her property, since the large estate did not have one, and swimming was an essential exercise in FDR’s health regimen. The entire family used it during warm weather.

The Estate


President FDR. He was sixty when his mother died and the Hyde Park property became “his.”

FDR did not become the owner of the Hyde Park estate until 1941, when his formidable mother died.


Eleanor never stayed in the main house after FDR’s death. Val-Kill would be her “home.”

With his wife’s agreement, the President made his will, which included arrangements for the estate’s future. After his wife’s death, the property would go to the government and provisions were made to build a Presidential Library, the first planned by a living president.

Eleanor survived him by more than fifteen years, and saw the completion of the FDR Library.

The former First Lady never lived in Hyde Park again. Val-Kill would be her home from then on.


Roosevelt, Eleanor – Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt – Harper & Bros. 1961

Cook, Blanche Wiesen – Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume One 1884-1933 – Viking Press, 1992

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

U.S. Grant: The Shiloh Tree HQ

Army Generals in the Civil War usually commandeered the best houses in the area for their Headquarters.

Pittsburg Landing, TN

Pittsburg Landing, TN was a small village on the Tennessee River. Control of that river, which flowed into the Mississippi, was essential – both North and South. The North needed to choke off supplies to the Confederate army. The South needed their supply lines to remain open.


Ulysses S. Grant was the Union commander at the Battle of Shiloh.

Battlefields are seldom planned, but in this case, the battle was generally expected. General Ulysses S. Grant, the recent hero of Forts Henry and Donelson, was assigned command of a large army of some 40,000 soldiers to wrest complete control of the  Tennessee River.


General Albert S. Johnston was in command of the Confederate forces – on the first day.


General Don Carlos Buell was en route by river steamer with 20,000 reinforcements.

Opposing him was General Albert Sidney Johnston, the best they had, according to Jefferson Davis. (General Robert E. Lee was still riding a desk in Richmond.). He was there to secure the river with his army of nearly 40,000. Scouts had been sent by both sides. They knew what was coming. Grant had already sent for General Don Carlos Buell to come with his 20,000 soldiers.

So the battle, named for a small Dunkers church named “Shiloh,” out in the middle of nowhere, was not a surprise. Everyone knew a battle was inevitable. They even knew the probable location. Both sides were prepared.


A recreation of the little Dunker Shiloh Church, for which the battle is named.

The Surprise

What was a surprise, and what always remains a somewhat-controversy, is when it occurred.


An artistic rendering of the Battle of Shiloh – the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

Early in the morning of April 6, 1862, Union soldiers were just rising, their campfires lit to fry bacon and heat coffee. There was no cause to expect any fighting that day.

All of a sudden, there was a rustle of branches and trees, and forest critters came running out of the woods and into the camps. This was immediately followed by Southern cavalry yipping their rebel yells! The battle was on.

General Grant was in severe pain. The ground had been soaked by torrential spring rains, and two days earlier, his horse slipped in a muddy crevice and rolled over, trapping his rider’s ankle. It was not broken, but it was badly bruised, and so swollen that his boot had to be cut off. He was still using a crutch.

But as soon as word came that the armies had engaged, Grant mounted his horse and spent the entire day in the saddle, riding for hours from corps to corps, division to division to issue orders, direct strategy when needed, tactics when needed, send reinforcements where needed, and send stretcher bearers and wagons for the wounded – everywhere.

When he arrived at the killing fields of Sherman’s army, he quickly noted that “Cump” was doing exactly the same thing: riding circles within his corps for the same purpose. The two Generals thought alike.

Grant and Sherman


William Tecumseh Sherman. Some historians claim that Grant and Sherman together, made the perfect General.

U.S. “Sam” Grant and William Tecumseh “Cump” Sherman had known each other since their West Point days. Sherman, older by two years, was two classes ahead. West Point classes in the pre-Civil War days, were small. A graduating class might only number 40-50 cadets, thus everyone at every level would likely have been acquainted.

Grant and Sherman had met on occasion during the next twenty years, but it was a casual old-school-tie. The mercurial-tempered Sherman was faring much better than the laconic and directionless Grant.

But today, on the fiercest battle by the bloody River, the two became “friends.” They thought alike, and anticipated and understood each other without much discussion. Grant was senior to Sherman in command, but he knew intuitively that his subordinate was in complete control of his corps, and was functioning exactly the way Grant would have done in the same position.

The casualties were horrendous. They would get worse. By the end of the day, the battlefields were such that the phrase about walking for a hundred yards upon corpses without touching the ground was born. It would be used again. And again.

Then the torrential rains began late in the day, and an exhausted Grant, with his throbbing ankle, rode back to the small house he had commandeered as his Headquarters. Only his HQ had been re-commandeered by the Army surgeons for the wounded and dying. They had priority.

The Tree


An oak tree (questionable if it is the oak tree) similar to the one that sheltered General Grant in the rain.

A few yards from the cabin-surgery was a large oak tree, perhaps 150 years old. Its spreading branches offered a small bit of protection from the deluge, and Grant, with his crutch, leaned against the huge trunk and tried to rest. The rain and the pain became too much, and he hobbled inside the cabin to find a dry corner where he could stretch out and rest his leg.

But the sights and sounds of men vs. saw blades, of the bloody arms and legs being tossed into barrels, and the smell of torn flesh and blood (reminiscent of his father’s tannery that he hated so much) made it impossible for Grant to rest. So once again, he found shelter under his tree.

Sherman had been wounded four times that day, albeit slightly. Now, having tended to his men, he set out to check on his commander. He found Grant leaning against a huge oak tree, hat pulled low over his brow, trying to sleep in the rain.

The conversation is reported to have been such:

Sherman: Well, Grant, it’s been a devil of a day.

Grant: (nodding) Whup ’em tomorrow, though.

Then the two Generals puffed silently on their cigars in the rain.  Grant had heard from Buell. Some 20,000 fresh troops would be there by morning. And it would start all over again.


Flood, Charles B. – Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Saved the Union – Farrar, Straus, 2005

Henig, Gerald S. & Niderost, Eric – Civil War Firsts – Stackpole Books, 2001

Kelly, C. Brian – Best Little Civil War Stories – Cumberland Press, 2010


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

Martha Washington’s White House

Martha Washington died in early 1802. She had never set foot in what is known today as the White House in Washington, DC.


The road sign in New Kent County, VA, where George Washington met and married the widow Custis.

Martha’s White House in New Kent County

martha young-2

An etching said to be the young Martha Custis Washington.

Martha Dandridge (1731-1802) was only seventeen when she married Daniel Custis, a near neighbor from New Kent County, Virginia, along the Pamunkey River. The Custises were extremely wealthy and Daniel Custis, more than twice Martha’s age, had waited a long time to marry.

Eight years later Daniel died intestate (without a will), which meant under Virginia/British law, his vast property was divided into thirds. One-third to each of his surviving children (John and Martha, ages 4 and 2) and one-third to his widow.


A likeness said to be Daniel Parke Custis, the first husband of Martha Washington.

His 18,000 acres and 300 slaves also included a comfortable house, called “The White House,” and its treasure in furnishings and accoutrements. Also, according to Virginia/British law, her new husband became “owner” of Martha’s property, and guardian for the property of Jacky and Patsy, as the children were nicknamed.

Martha Custis married George Washington, a little more than a year after Daniels’ death, and many sources believe they celebrated their wedding in The White House. Then she moved to Washington’s plantation at Mount Vernon, some hundred miles north.

George Washington was not only a wise and honest guardian of the Custis inheritance, he was also an affectionate stepfather. His semi-annual files detailing how the children’s monies were being spent were carefully prepared, and indicate that they were provided with the very finest of everything.

The New Kent property was too far for hands-on day-to-day management, so it was rented out, a common occurrence. Washington periodically visited the estate, particularly when the House of Burgesses was in session in Williamsburg, then capital of the Virginia Colony. Washington served as a Burgess for fifteen years prior to the American Revolution.

Jack’s White House

jack custis

John Parke Custis (Jack), Martha’s son, and George Washington’s stepson. He inherited the White House when Daniel Custis died.

Jack Custis, Martha’s son, married when he was  nineteen. His bride was seventeen. Despite their youth, George Washington turned over the White House estate to his stepson, and the young couple lived there for a few years.  They had four children: three daughters and a son.

Jack died at twenty-six, from a camp fever that he contracted during the siege of Yorktown in 1781, intestate, like his natural father. The property came to his only son, George Washington Parke Custis, an infant at the time.

Martha Washington was devastated by Jack’s death, and partly to console her, and partly to assist his widow, who they loved dearly, the Washingtons arranged to raise her two youngest children (Nelly and “Wash”) at Mount Vernon. (Jack’s young widow Eleanor remarried  and had several more children. The Washingtons always considered them “family.”)

Once again, Martha Washington’s White House was overseen by George Washington.

G.W.’s White House


George Washington Parke Custis as an elderly man. George and Martha Washington raised her grandson practically from birth. The White House became his when Jack Custis died.

G.W.P. Custis (1781-1857) was not yet twenty  when his step-grandfather died. Due to financial and legal complications in Jack’s estate, the White House property did not fall under his control for another twelve years. By that time, G.W. had married and began building Arlington House as a memorial to his late step-grandfather. It was on a hill overlooking the Potomac River, in view of the President’s Mansion in Washington DC.

Meanwhile the White House in New Kent County burned down, but was eventually rebuilt into a pleasant six-room house.


Mary Custis Lee, the only surviving child of G.W.P. Custis and the wife of Robert E. Lee.

G.W. lived to a ripe old age, but only a daughter, Mary Anne  Custis lived to maturity. In 1831, she married a young West Point graduate with a fine pedigree of his own: Lt. Robert E. Lee. They had three sons and four daughters, but due to military assignments, Lee was away most of the time. His wife and their growing family lived with her father in Arlington House.

According to G.W. Custis’ will, the Arlington estate (after his daughter’s death) would go to the Lee’s oldest son Custis. The White House property went to their second son, nicknamed “Rooney.” Rooney Lee began to repair the property which had fallen into neglect.  A third property was willed to Robert E. Lee, Jr.

Rooney’s White House

WHFRooney Lee

William H.F. “Rooney” Lee, the great-great-grandson of Martha Washington.

Early in the Civil War, the Lee plantation at Arlington was confiscated by the Union Army, and within months, a cemetery was dug in the front yard, making it forever “unliveable.” Mary Custis Lee, by that time, was an arthritic invalid confined to a wheel chair.  Along with her unmarried daughters and Rooney’s wife Charlotte, Mrs. Lee went to live at The White House in New Kent County, where they hoped to be out of harm’s way.


A vintage photograph of The White House, rebuilt by Rooney Lee.

General George B. McClellan had other plans. His Peninsula Campaign of 1862  included New Kent County. The property once owned and managed by Martha and George Washington would be commandeered as a supply depot. General McClellan allowed Mrs. Lee and her family safe conduct to travel to central Virginia.

Mary Custis Lee left a note pinned to the door for the soon-to-be Union occupiers. “Northern soldiers, who profess to reverence Washington, forbear to desecrate the house of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants,” she wrote, even though a newer house had long ago replaced the original. The Northern soldiers who camped near the White House respected Mrs. Lee’s wishes. Instead of looting it, officers stationed sentries to protect it. Newspapers including The New York Times carried a story that one officer scribbled a response below her note. “Lady: A Northern officer has protected your property in sight of the enemy, and at the request of your overseer,” it read.

Despite good intentions, war was war, and the house was briefly turned into a hospital.  Then it was burned again.


Brady, Patricia – Martha Washington: An American Life – Viking Press, 2005–a-life/early-life/page-3


Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, American Civil War, Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Lincolns and the Actors

Everyone knows about Abraham Lincoln’s brief run-in with John Wilkes Booth, but  other Lincolns had life and death incidents involving theater folks.

Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth

The assassination

One of dozens of etched interpretations of the Lincoln Assassination in Ford’s Theatre.

John Wilkes Booth came from a well regarded family of dramatic actors. His father Junius Brutus Booth appeared in leading roles about the time Lincoln was born. His famous older brother Edwin was the matinee idol of his time. Another brother, Junius Brutus (the younger) had also made a solid name for himself on stage. John Wilkes slipped easily into the family business, blessed with good looks, athletic agility and a fair amount of talent.


Lincoln’s assassin: John Wilkes Booth. Boo-hiss.

By the time John W. was out of his teens, his career was on the rise. He was already playing leading roles, including a performance with his two illustrious brothers in Julius Caesar. Then came the Civil War.

His family were Marylanders, and strong Unionists.  For reasons known only to himself, John Wilkes Booth was a racist and ardent Confederate sympathizer. He laid all the South’s misery at Lincoln’s feet, blaming him for anything and everything. He began plotting to kidnap the President and hold him for enormous ransom. He attracted various cohorts, mostly hangers-on, but  he was undoubtedly the leader.

Once Lee surrendered, the plot abruptly switched from kidnap to murder, and on April 14, in a theater that Booth knew well, murder it was.

Robert Lincoln and the Actor

Robert Lincoln

Robert Lincoln was just 21 when his father was killed. A year earlier, his life was saved by an actor.

Robert Lincoln was only 21 when his father was assassinated. Months earlier, once he finished Harvard, he became a captain on General Grant’s staff in Petersburg. He became acquainted with another young officer, Adam Badeau, who would later record the experience Robert had told him.

Returning to the White House from college, Robert was standing at the train station when the train began to move. He lost his footing and slipped into a narrow space between the platform and the car body.  According to Robert Lincoln, it was Edwin Booth who grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back to his feet, saving him from serious injury or worse. Lincoln recognized the famous actor and thanked him for his efforts. Booth did not know the young man’s identity until more than a year later.


Actor Edwin Booth was a famous theatrical star prior to the Civil War. He managed to redeem the “family theatrical honor” in subsequent years.

Edwin Booth (1833-1893) was a well known performer. His photograph was in the newspapers. His cartes d’visite were readily available. Robert likely had attended one of his performances. When Robert looked into the face attached to the arm that had pulled him from danger, he recognized it at once, but other than Robert’s profuse expression of gratitude, there is no record of further conversation or contact.

Edwin Booth sank into a deep depression after the Lincoln assassination. He was devastated not only by the deed, but by the fact that his brother had done it, and had forever sullied the family’s good name. He feared he would never be able to appear on stage again.

It is said, however, that when Edwin Booth learned that the young man he saved from certain injury or death was the son of the murdered sixteenth president, it helped to ease his depression, and he triumphantly returned to the stage.

Years later, Robert Lincoln verified the account of the incident in a letter to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine. 

Mary Lincoln and the Actress

mary in mourning

The widow Mary Lincoln.

Mary Lincoln had always loved the theater. She attended performances in Lexington, KY as a young girl, and during her years in Springfield, IL, a theatrical show was an occasion for a night out. In Washington, the Lincolns were regulars at the theater. After Lincoln’s assassination the former First Lady never set foot in one again.

For her remaining seventeen widowed years, Mary was mostly a wanderer, going from spa to spa, climate to climate, to try to find respite for her various physical, emotional and psychosomatic ills.


The Divine Sarah Bernhardt. She had a flair for the dramatic onstage and in life.

1880 found Mary living in France, in a residence-hotel. Her health was now seriously declining. In her early sixties, her eyesight was deteriorating, likely from cataracts. Then she fell and hurt her back. One cannot be sure of the exact damage, but indications point to a possible fracture. It was time to go home. The Widow Lincoln packed up the sixty-odd crates and trunks of her life and booked passage on the Amerique.

During those seventeen years of Mary Lincoln’s widowhood, the name of Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) had blazed across Europe as one of the finest dramatic actresses in the world. In 1880 she was at the height of her fame, and was coming to the United States for a grand theatrical tour.  The great star and the frail widow were on the same ship.

In the memoirs Mlle. Bernhardt wrote later… as turbulent weather rocked the slippery deck, she was near a staircase and spied a small elderly woman swathed in mourning clothes who was swaying and about to lose her footing and tumble down the long flight. In an instant she reached out and grabbed the woman’s clothing and prevented the fall.

Mrs. Lincoln never mentioned the incident (as far as can be documented) and perhaps never knew the identity of her rescuer, but she murmured that she was the widow of Abraham Lincoln. Sarah Bernhardt wrote in her memoirs, that she realized that she had done “the only service she ought not have done.”  Mary Lincoln was the one person in the world whose “rescue” was not a favor, and that perhaps death would have been kinder for the tragic Widow Lincoln.


Baker, Jean – Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography – W.W.Norton & Co. 1999

Skinner, Cornelia Otis – Madame Sarah – Houghton Mifflin, 1966

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments