Harry Truman’s Harried Christmas: 1945

Harry Truman, home for Christmas, 1945.

The Sudden Presidency

President Roosevelt looked very ill when he met with Churchill and Stalin for the last time.

While political insiders had noticed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s physical decline, the country was in shock when their President – for twelve years and counting – died suddenly in Warm Springs, GA. His failing health had been generally hidden from the public.

It had also been hidden from VP Harry Truman, who had only seen him once or twice since the inauguration on January 20, 1945. FDR and Truman had never been more than pleasantly cool acquaintances. Truman had never been included in important decisions.

Now, on April 12, 1945, when Harry Truman received an urgent summons to the White House, he could guess the reason. He later claimed that he felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets fell on him at once.

He had little idea of the momentous decisions on his plate.

The Presidential Plate

Harry Truman and his family looked none too happy when he was sworn in after FDR’s sudden death.

When HST was sworn in, it was obvious that World War II was ending in Europe. Within weeks, Hitler committed suicide; by Truman’s 61st birthday on May 8, the war would be officially over in Europe. But the war in the Pacific was still raging, and the Japanese showed no signs of relenting.

On his first day in office, Truman was told about the Atomic Bomb. He had no previous knowledge, and it would fall to him to make a monumental decision a few months later.

He would meet with Stalin and Churchill to determine the “aftermath” of the War in Europe.

Then there was the daunting task of trying to assimilate the returning military, take care of the wounded, and incorporate everyone as seamlessly as possible into a post-war society.

Equally daunting, he needed to steer a wartime economy into a peacetime economy.

He had to deal with unions, veterans’ bureaus, a devastated Europe, a huge influx of new immigrants, ominous tensions between Washington and Moscow, and with a population whose regard for him (especially following the huge regard and popularity of Roosevelt) was less than enthusiastic.

All had multi-levels of sub-problems. Then there were lesser problems, all with their own multi-levels. There would be many more to come.

But mostly, he catapulted the world into the Atomic Age.

All in a space of a few months.

Mrs. Truman

Bess, Harry and Margaret Truman had always been a close family unit.

Bess Truman, a homebody by inclination, was now center stage in the most powerful country in the world, at a crucial time in history. It was not her preference nor style, and was not to her liking. But she had little choice.

Within a very short time, she felt marginalized and pushed out of her husband’s life. Aides and bureaucrats, military officers and foreign ambassadors clamored for a few minutes on the President’s schedule, and he had no time for his wife. She was superfluous. They had always been close, and now she was a spectator rather than a partner, and she was very angry.

Her preference was to return to their home in Independence, Missouri, which she did frequently. It was her house. She had her lifestyle. She had her friends. According to their daughter Margaret, the Truman presidency was a low ebb in the Truman marriage: a serious emotional separation, that neither one could do anything about.

Christmas, 1945: Part 1

Bess Truman was always a homebody. This was “home.”

In many ways, Christmas 1945, was the happiest the country had experienced in more than a decade. The Great Depression had ended. The War had ended. And while there were thousands and thousands of “empty chairs,” there were even more thousands of chairs that had been empty, and were now filled.

Christmas trees were decorated. Stores displayed all the goodies that spell holiday. Churches were filled to capacity. Families were together. The USA had been spared the physical devastation that had decimated most of Europe. There was a lot to celebrate.

Bess Truman went home for the holidays. The President, beset by pressing matters, was not comfortable leaving Washington. Besides, if he left, more than a dozen Secret Service agents and as many newspaper reporters would have to go along, and be away from their families on Christmas Eve.

Christmas, 1945: Part 2

Late on December 24, HST received some optimistic news from his Secretary of State, and decided to spend at least part of Christmas with those he loved best. The weather was horrible; most planes were grounded by a terrible blizzard. It took more than four hours before the presidential plane took off, and it was a wild ride. When the newspapers got wind of his unexpected and dangerous flight, they took him to task for “taking chances with his personal safety.”

When he arrived at their house, presents in hand, Bess Truman did not help matters. Her chilly reception, commenting that he “might as well have stayed in Washington” was infuriating, especially after all the trouble he had taken to get home.

The Trumans at home – the place they loved best.

Truman returned to Washington the next day and sent his wife a hot-tempered letter. The following day, upon reflection, he telephoned Margaret to go to the local post office, retrieve the letter, and burn it – which she did.

Then he sat down and wrote Bess another letter – which was never sent, and only discovered after his death twenty seven years later.”

“You can never appreciate what it means to come home as I did the other evening after doing at least one hundred things I didn’t want to do, and have the only person in the world whose approval and good opinion I value look at me like I’m something the cat dragged in…”

Bess was never happy in the White House fishbowl, but the Trumans would learn to adjust better.

When they retired permanently to Independence, it got better. Much better.


Truman, Margaret – Harry S Truman – William Morrow & Co., 1973

Truman, Margaret – Bess W. Truman – Macmillan Publishing, 1986








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Abigail Adams and the Inoculation Decision

abigail and john

Young Abigail and John Adams. A composite picture.

Smallpox was an extremely contagious disease. The mortality rate was at least 30%.

George Washington’s Decision

Shortly after the battles of Lexington and Concord in mid-1775, George Washington, a former Colonel of the Virginia Militia and the highest ranking professional soldier in the American colonies, was appointed General of the Continental Army.   He was sent to Boston to consolidate the militia troops, bring order, train them to their purpose, and prepare for all contingencies. It was a daunting task.

George Washington taking command of the Colonial Army. (From the Mt. Vernon collection)

When he arrived in Boston, he found himself in the middle of a smallpox epidemic. British soldiers were affected; militia recruits from all over New England were affected; runaway slaves who had fled north to enlist were affected; the general populace was affected. Smallpox was highly contagious. The sickness and death rate was frightening.

George Washington had contracted smallpox when he was in his late teens. He recovered, grateful that his pock marks were not too disfiguring, but mostly because once recovered, he was immune to smallpox thereafter.

Realizing the potential danger to his men, his army, and their cause, he isolated those who were already immune. He quarantined anyone who showed even the slightest sign of the disease, and immediately restricted all soldiers from any contact with Boston civilians, where the disease was rampant. He improved sanitary conditions within his camps. And he insisted that his soldiers be inoculated.

He felt so strongly about it, that he insisted Martha Washington be inoculated as well. When she was in Philadelphia, she bit the bullet, went through the frightening procedures, and spent a month “recuperating” from her ordeal. Her recovery was considered relatively mild.

Inoculation for Smallpox

In 1775, inoculation against smallpox was not new; it had been used in America for several decades with reasonable success, albeit with great danger.   It was also very controversial.

Not long after the Adams family was inoculated, Dr. Edward Jenner substantially improved the procedure.

A cut was made in the healthy arm, and a small amount of skin lesions from infected pustules were introduced. Then the arm was bandaged. It purported to give the patient a “light” case and subsequent immunity. Many people could not understand the concept of this practice, however it had a high success rate. A patient needed at least a full month for preparation, for the inoculation to be administered, to take hold, to “suffer the light case” – sometimes far more severe than anticipated, to recover, and to be no longer contagious.

In short, it was not to be undertaken lightly.

The Adams Family Inoculations

John Adams had been inoculated against smallpox before his marriage.

John Adams had been inoculated as a young man prior to his marriage, and long before the practice had become more acceptable in the Colonies. He had suffered greatly during his three-week recuperation in a hospital “with headaches, backaches, knee aches, gagging fever and eruption of pock marks”.

Abigail Adams made a fearsome decision to have herself and the children inoculated.

His wife Abigail had not been inoculated, but certainly knew about it, and in July, 1776, when the epidemic was particularly virulent, she bit the hard and dangerous bullet. She and the four Adams children, all under eleven, and a few other family members and townspeople, went ten miles from their home in Braintree to Boston, to be inoculated by Dr. Thomas Bullfinch, an expert at the procedure. Her aunt and uncle who lived in Boston offered the medical hospitality of a furnished house – except for bedding.

According to Abigail, …We had our Bedding &c. to bring. A Cow we have driven down from [Braintree] and some Hay I have had put into the Stable, wood &c. and we have really commenced housekeepers here…All our necessary Stores we purchase jointly.”

Abigail Adams further noted, “God Grant that we may all go comfortably thro the Distemper, the phisick part is bad enough I know. I knew your mind so perfectly upon the subject that I thought nothing, but our recovery would give you eaquel pleasure, and as to safety there was none.”

The Adams house in Braintree. They would be away for weeks before they were all well enough to return.

In early July, 1776, while Abigail was preparing for this dreaded event, John Adams was preoccupied in Philadelphia, shepherding thirteen divergent colonies to unite and declare their independence from Great Britain. Once the Declaration of Independence had been signed, he had an equally formidable task of a different nature: helping to govern a generally dis-united new country.

Abigail, the Children, the Reactions

Earlier practices of inoculation included a week of preparatory purging via self-induced vomiting. Dr. Bullfinch did not subscribe to that practice completely, although he had prescribed some distasteful medication. Abigail advised her husband that “the little ones are very sick and puke every morning,” but that afterwards they are comfortable.

Young John Quincy Adams suffered a light case of smallpox.

Abigail suffered a mild form of the disease, and was soon able to nurse the children through their respective ordeals. John Quincy, who had just turned nine, appears to have suffered the least.

Nabby Adams, their eleven-year-old daughter, was very sick with fevers, terrible body aches, and erupting pustules.

Neither Charles (aged 6) and Thomas (aged 4) responded to the inoculation, and it had to be repeated. For Charles, it had to be repeated three times – the last, with a more “active” scraping, insuring that he would contract the dreaded disease as if he had contracted it naturally. The little boy suffered horribly, and was delirious for two days. It took weeks for him to recover.

It would take even more weeks before Abigail could take the children home again.

But they would never have to worry about contracting smallpox. They were immune. They had been inoculated.



Gelles, Edith B. – Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage – William Morrow, 2009

Levin, Phyllis Lee – Abigail Adams – St. Martin’s Press, 1987

Massachusetts Historical Society – Letters from Abigail to John Adams, 13-14 July, 1776





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The Unexpected President: Chester Alan Arthur…..Life and Times: A Book Review

There are very few things that Chester Alan Arthur is “famous” for. One, is his mutton chop whiskers; the other is his statement that “I may be President of the United States, but my private life is my own business.”

The Unexpected President, by Scott S. Greenberger

With that latter statement in mind, Scott S. Greenberger, and indeed any biographer of the 21st President, would be hard pressed to sub-title his book anything other than Life and Times. Mr. Arthur has scrupulously locked every available door to his inner self.

Born in 1832 in a little-bitty town in Vermont to a strict and pious family, he received a liberal education at Union College, became a lawyer, and moved to New York City – where he belonged.

He discovered a not-so strict or pious lifestyle that fit him hand-in-glove. In an age where manners, prestige, manly pompousness and all the accoutrements of the good life were the essence of the good life, Chet Arthur was the poster boy. A handsome, bewhiskered six-footer, he became an immaculate dresser, with cultivated manners, tastes and well-to-do urbanity. He attracted some of the most powerful political mentors in the state. He also acquired a genuine blue-blooded Virginia belle for a wife.

Finding a perfect middle-ground of Civil War service, he was appointed Quartermaster General for the New York Militia, performing yeoman service supplying, equipping and feeding tens of thousands of volunteer soldiers (and their horses) – and never left New York nor fired a shot.

Arthur’s association with NY Senator and political machine boss Roscoe Conkling lasted for the better part of his adult life. Different in temperament according to Greenberger, they nevertheless became close friends. Conkling appreciated Arthur’s gifts for administration, fund-raising, and all the backstage mechanics of political appointments that run governments. He was a treasure. He did it all, and he did it well. Even better, he enjoyed doing it. Prestigious jobs and serious wealth came with it, including the plummiest of all positions: Collector of the Port of New York. The lucrative salary, along with the perks of traditional share-the-spoils, amounted to $50,000 per year – the same as the President of the United States.

The Port, however, was a morass of political corruption, bribery, finagling and decadence. Chet Arthur was in charge, and when heads had to roll, it would be his head. While he never was personally accused of malfeasance, bad stuff happened on his watch, and reform minded President Rutherford B. Hayes removed him.

Arthur resigned in semi-disgrace to practice law, and enjoy political camaraderie in late night partying, copious amounts of champagne, steaks and oysters, cigars, card playing, and occasional cavorting with “sporting” ladies who wore low-cut gowns and short skirts. It placed a strain on his marriage.

Four years later, by a freak of political maneuvering, and against the advice of Conkling, he was candidate for Vice President – and won pretty much by a whisker.

Four months later, President Garfield was shot by an assassin, and the reader finally gets a tiny peek into the man. Chet Arthur’s wife had died a year earlier; he was a somewhat distracted father; he had a marginalized relationship with Garfield and his cabinet, and had acquired a pen-pal: an invalid spinster named Julia Sand, who appointed herself his “Jiminy Cricket.”

The assassin, Charles Guiteau, a certifiable lunatic, claimed to be the “Stalwart of the Stalwarts,” who had made Chester Arthur president. The slight acquaintance between Arthur and Guiteau was superficial; little more than “Good morning.” Nonetheless, there was reasonable speculation that the Vice President was complicit in some way.

Chester Alan Arthur was now in fear of his own assassination. For the better part of the ten weeks remaining in Garfield’s ebbing life, he drew the shades on  his New York townhouse and seldom left. He relied on his well-cultivated and steely persona to see him through all his anxieties and cares. His behavior was impeccable. His words were few, and well-measured. He categorically declined to undertake any “presidential” duties or activities while President Garfield was still alive. For this, he was admired, and began to grow – both into the position he would fill, and in the respect of his fellow countrymen.

He came to a saddened Presidency along with a secret of his own. He was a sick man and he knew it. Nevertheless he redecorated the White House, according to his excellent and sophisticated taste, mostly with his own funds. He distanced himself without rancor from Roscoe Conkling, whose star was quickly fading. He embraced a favorable position toward Civil Service reform, which in its quirky way was responsible for both the loss of his Collectorship position and the death of President Garfield.

While he hoped to be nominated for a term on his own, he refused to seek it overtly.  He returned to his well ordered life in New York, was asked to co-chair the huge funeral for General Grant, and to help dedicate the Statue of Liberty. The machine politician had become a statesman who had earned the approbation of the country.

But true to himself, he kept the pot of “mind your own business” on a steady boil, destroying most of his personal papers and documents. We are welcome to know the manners of the persona, but we can never really know the man. Greenberger surmises that Arthur was less than proud of his pre-presidential career. No argument here.

Chester Alan Arthur’s life by itself would be little more than a magazine article, since so little of him is available. The times he lived in were interesting, but not especially exciting.  Civil Service Reform is not a sexy topic.  Author Greenberger has done an admirable job piecing together its random pieces, and presenting our mutton-chop President as a man with some real chops.

The Unexpected President is a quick and surprisingly nifty read – hardcover or ebook!.

Greenberger, Scott S. – The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur, De Capo Press, 2017

ISBN-10: 0306823896

From $18.30

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Buckey O’Neill, Captain of TR’s Rough Riders

Next to Theodore Roosevelt, Buckey O’Neill was the most famous Rough Rider.

Buckey O’Neill: Not-So-Rough Riding

Buckey O’Neill, man of varied and various interests.

No doubt about it, when Theodore Roosevelt assembled the voluntary cavalry corps nicknamed the Rough Riders, a wide assortment of men couldn’t wait to sign up. One of them, westerner William Owen O’Neill (1860-1898) had almost as varied a life-path as his soon-to-be pal TR.

He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of a Union Civil War soldier seriously wounded at Fredericksburg. The family moved to Washington, DC, where Buckey (still called William) graduated from the National Law School. By nineteen, he had found his way to Tombstone, Arizona and became a gambler. He earned his nickname, “Buckey” from his habit of “bucking the tiger” or “bucking the odds” in faro and other gambling games. The nickname stuck.

O’Neill began his adult career as a journalist on the Tombstone Epitaph. Having become amiably acquainted with the Earp Brothers, he was on hand to cover the now-legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (printed without byline). Shortly afterwards, he moved to Prescott, AZ, where he married and made his permanent home.

Prescott Sheriff Buckey O’Neill and his posse.

In Prescott, he became a court reporter, and went on to edit the Prescott Mining Journal. Then he established his own newspaper, The Hoof and Horn, primarily for the ranchers and cattlemen who populated the area.   He also joined the Prescott Grays, a unit of the Arizona militia, and became its Captain.

Shortly afterward, he became the three-term sheriff of Prescott, and later was unanimously elected Mayor. He dabbled in mining and business enterprises and was on his way to becoming a wealthy man.

TR & Buckey O’Neill: The Common Bonds

Except for the gambling, Buckey had much in common with TR, and the two of them, once acquainted, discovered mutual affinities cum varied interests.

At the time of the Spanish-American War, Theodore was not quite forty; Bucky was thirty-eight. Theodore had already written several books, and had achieved acclaim. O’Neill had made a modest name for himself as a journalist and publisher. They both understood the power of words.

Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt of the First US Volunteer Cavalry.

Then of course, Buckey O’Neill was a thorough “westerner” – despite where he had been born. His roots took hold in the west. He could ride and shoot and chase bad guys with the best of them. So could TR. In his on-and-off ranching days in the Dakotas, he had also (in his own way) become one of them, riding and shooting and chasing bad guys.

Then there was the political aspect of their lives. Buckey had a degree in law that he never used as a profession. TR had toyed with the law, even spending a few months at Columbia Law School. But he had been a state legislator, and run for (and lost) the NYC mayoral election. O’Neill had been elected sheriff and mayor. He tried for a Congressional seat and was defeated. The essences of politics are still the same.

And they both loved the strenuous life. TR worked hard as a child-to-man, training his asthmatic and frail body into a strong, muscular physique; Buckey was known to be the best shot in the county. They both had reputations for leadership and courage.

TR spent time in the Dakota Badlands following the death of his first wife. It was a life-changing experience.

It would have been impossible for them to have been anything other than boon companions.

Assembling the Volunteers

The regular U.S. Army was minuscule in 1898. Its generals were old, flabby, 35-year leftovers from the Civil War (both sides), and it was a War that many people (including President McKinley) were half-hearted about. But Cuba, oppressed by its cruel Spanish overlords, wanted its freedom. Some people entertained hope that once free, Cuba would annex itself to the U.S. and become a state. O’Neill was one of those, commenting, “Who would not die for a new star on the flag?”

Captain Buckey O’Neill of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry

When the word went out that Theodore Roosevelt was forming the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, O’Neill organized 300 local miners and cowboys to sign up and ride to San Antonio, TX where the new regiment was amassing. The Prescott boys would become Company A; Mayor O’Neill would be its captain.

Training for the regiment in San Antonio was a piece of cake for the Prescott contingent. All of them were superb horsemen, marksmen and men of physical valor. That the horses never made it to Cuba did not matter. The Rough Riders would literally be the Rough Infantrymen. They came to participate, and by thunder that is what they would do.

The End of Buckey

The War with Spain itself lasted barely six months, and was a lopsided rout of a dying empire. When the battleship Maine (sent to protect American citizens) sank in Havana Harbor in early 1898, it was believed to be a deliberate act of sabotage. (That it was truly an accident would not be determined for nearly a century.)

The Rough Riders (minus their horses) managed their way to the front of the fighting, with Captain O’Neill taking part in the advance on Santiago, and engaged in the early stages of the Battle of San Juan Hill. Legend has it that he smoked a cigarette, recklessly moving among his men as they advanced. When one soldier cautioned him to take cover, Buckey said, “A Spanish bullet hasn’t been made that can kill me.” He was wrong. Within moments, a Spanish ball passed through his skull, and he died instantly.

The sculpture of Buckey O’Neill, in Prescott, Arizona.

According to Theodore Roosevelt, “The most serious loss that I or the regiment could have suffered befell us just before we charged.”

Buckey’s Memorial

Captain William Owen O’Neill is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. But his truest, and perhaps most important memorial is in Prescott, AZ, in the middle of the county Courthouse square.

It is a large and appropriately rough-hewn bronze sculpture of Buckey O’Neill astride his horse. The artist was Solon Borglum, the brother of Gustav Borglum, who chiseled Theodore Roosevelt’s image (among others) on Mount Rushmore.


Roosevelt, Theodore- The Rough Riders – Desert Publications (Reprint) 1992

Traxel, David – 1898, The Birth of the American Century – Alfred A. Knopf, 1998









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Mary Lincoln’s Gala Bash

An artistic representation of Lincoln’s White House Gala Reception.

In early February, 1862, President and Mrs. Lincoln hosted their only huge party at the White House.

Mrs. Lincoln: New FLOTUS

For nineteen years Mrs. Abraham Lincoln was only a middle class Springfield, Illinois housewife – and the middle class part was in those later years. The early years were a struggle. When Lincoln was elected President, his last year’s earnings were $6000. Reasonable and comfortable, but hardly opulent.

Now, as President, he had an annual salary of $25,000, and the new First Lady could finally have everything she had always wanted. Fine furniture, gowns, jewelry, an elegant venue for entertaining, and perhaps most of all, attention.

FLOTUS Mary Lincoln resented the inference that she was unequal to her position in society.

When she first came to Washington in late February, 1861, Mary Lincoln was blindsided by misconceptions. The Northerners considered her a “Southerner.” After all, she was born and raised in Kentucky – a slave-holding state. The Southerners considered her a “Westerner,” since Illinois, where she had lived for nearly 25 years, was far from cosmopolitan. And finally, it was well known that Abraham Lincoln came from a humble background. Many Washingtonians assumed that Mrs. Lincoln came from a similar upbringing.

Like most assumptions, it is an amalgam of pieces of true and false. Mary indeed came from a slave holding Kentucky family – but she was always opposed to the “peculiar” institution. And Springfield, Illinois, albeit a state capital, was limited in sophisticated opportunities. But Mrs. Lincoln was a Kentucky blue-blooded belle; she had an excellent education, including culture.

When a delegation of Congressional wives called on Mrs. President-Elect-Lincoln to offer their advice and assistance on her social duties, Mary was offended, and made no effort to hide the fact. She never forgave them; and they never attended her receptions.

The Need for Stardom

Mary Lincoln wanted to be another Dolley Madison: the leader at the pinnacle of Washington society: the one whose excellent taste was admired and emulated. And to her, the best taste was the most expensive taste. Nothing but top of the line was good enough for the new First Lady.

Mrs. Lincoln wanted to show off the newly decorated White House.

The White House had grown shabby during the past decade, and Congress, despite a Civil War ramping up on all fronts, voted a generous $20,000 for Mrs. Lincoln’s refurbishment. She contacted the finest merchants in New York and Philadelphia, purchasing lavish carpets, draperies and curtains. She had the formal downstairs rooms repainted and the furniture refinished. She also exceeded her budget by nearly 50% – which triggered one of Abraham Lincoln’s rare outbursts of temper. But while Lincoln knew about the decorating budget excesses, he had no idea about his wife’s spending on her personal wardrobe and accoutrements.

No photographs were taken of White House receptions – but graphic images were created.

If Mary Lincoln wanted the House to glitter and dazzle, she wished to be the star on the Christmas tree.

Mary had a deep-seated need to “show them” that her taste was impeccable, and that she was the unquestioned leader of Washington society. Her gowns and fans and shawls and headdresses had to be the finest – and most expensive.

Successful merchants are not fools. They quickly determined that Mrs. L. was susceptible to flattery, and they laid it on with a trowel. They praised her excellent taste and style; after all, the more they fawned, the more she purchased. And since her husband was President, they extended unlimited credit.

The Gala Affair

President Lincoln wanted to preserve the image of a functioning capital.

Once the new draperies and carpets and were installed, Mary Lincoln understandably wanted to show them off. Both Lincolns believed that the government should continue its traditions and proprieties, to signal that all was under control. Thus Mary planned a lavish and gala ball for early February, 1862, but, as a concession to “the War,” there would be no dancing.  It was personally paid by the Lincolns.

Mrs. Lincoln wanted to prove herself as the center of social Washington.

Five hundred invitations were sent – a huge departure from protocol. In the 1860s, there were only two types of Presidential entertaining: private and public. A grand public entertainment – the type Mrs. Lincoln was preparing – was expected to be open to all. No invitations necessary. Everyone could attend. (Amazed modern readers, understanding the ordering, logistic and security nightmares with such a large party, are likely to agree with Mrs. Lincoln.)

An artistic representation of the grand promenade.

But invitations were issued. Several Congressmen declined, with snide comments about elegant parties with a War on…. Even so, the creme de la creme were invited – and came. No expense was spared on refreshments. Maillard, a well known caterer from New York was engaged to prepare supper. He arrived a week in advance with his retinue. Costly wines and liquors had been provided (despite the fact that neither Lincolns ever touched more than a sip of wine on occasion).

An immense bowl held ten gallons of champagne punch. According to Pulitzer Prize winner Margaret Leach’s Reveille in Washington, “There was nearly a ton of turkeys, duck, venison, peasants, partridges and hams, and the tables were loaded with the confectionery inspirations of Maillard.”

The Flaw in the Triumph

Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever not long after the gala party.

A few days prior to the event, both Willie and Tad Lincoln had caught colds. Willie, at eleven and Tad, at eight, were sent to bed under doctor’s care. The concerned parents seriously considered cancelling The Gala. But the doctor re-examined the children, and pronounced that despite Willie’s continuing fever, they were recovering, and there was no need to change the elaborate plans.

Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, had become indispensable to the President’s family. She  personally tended the ailing children – particularly Willie, whose troublesome fever was not responding to the prescribed treatment. Both the President and First Lady took turns slipping upstairs to sit with their son. Lincoln is reported to have mentioned his “sick boy” to a few of the guests at the Gala.

Two weeks later, Willie died. The Lincolns never had another ”gala”, and Mrs. Lincoln never really recovered.


Clinton, Catherine –  Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, Harper Collins, 2009

Leech, Margaret – Reveille in Washington – The American Past, 1967







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IKE: Bearing Witness to the Unthinkable

General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike.

By early April, 1945, US soldiers in Europe were horrified by scenes that had hitherto been semi-dismissed as “rumors.”

Death Camps and Corpses

For a few years, there had been undercurrent rumors that the Germans had embarked on wholesale internment and extermination of millions of people: Catholics, gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents – but mostly the Jews of central and eastern Europe. The mere thought was so horrific that it couldn’t possibly be true.

But it was.

As WWII was nearing its conclusion in Europe, a battered and desperate Germany, barely clinging to its own rubble, began a systematic destruction of the evidence of its barbarity and crimes against humanity. It would soon become known as The Holocaust.

The undeniable evidence of German atrocity was witnessed at the highest level.

Those German officers and soldiers in charge of scores of concentration, work and death camps (as they would interchangeably be called) hurriedly destroyed whatever they could – including survivors. Some were sent to the furnaces. Some emaciated souls were thrown into hastily dug pits and machine gunned, loose ground tossed over the corpses. Some were force-marched for miles, with hundreds collapsing along the road and left to die of exposure and exhaustion. Dead and dying bodies littered the road.

It was beyond unthinkable. It was beyond unimaginable. It demanded attention at the highest level.


Generals Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley came in person.

Ohrdruf was considered a “feeder” camp for the extermination ovens at Buchenwald, a small town in Germany, only a few miles from the picturesque town of Weimar. Here, in quickly constructed barracks, thousands of men, women and children were wasting away of starvation and disease before being sent to the “final solution.”

Ordered to evacuate and destroy all evidence, German soldiers pushed tens of thousands of human near-skeletons on foot for more than five miles.

According to statistics gleaned and assimilated at the end of the War, there were some 40,000 camps throughout Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia and other regions of central and eastern Europe, usually tucked into isolated areas, miles from town.  Some were small; some were enormous – cities unto themselves.

General Ike: Part I

General George C. Marshall had the ear of everyone in Washington.

As evidence mounted beyond all description, US officers were summoned to witness – and more importantly, provide emergency aid. The horror of the situation was at such a level, that General Dwight Eisenhower, along with General George Patton and General Omar Bradley, came to see for themselves. As the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Ike outranked everyone and had the immediate ear of everyone who counted.

Ike would never forget what he saw and heard. It touched him to the core.

Recognizing the unquestioned historical (if not moral and perhaps eternal) importance of the scenes of such sadistic atrocity, he summoned the newspaper reporters and photographers to document the unspeakable carnage – and personally demanded that it make all the front pages of the United States newspapers. He posed with his fellow generals and soldiers at the worst scenes.

“Old Blood and Guts,” General Patton, not known to be squeamish, admitted to being sick to his stomach when he entered one of the barracks and inhaled the stench of rotten, decayed filth. Ike spent several hours in Ohrdruf in near disbelief. But seeing was believing, and Ike’s report to General Marshall was unsparing in detail and reaction.

But coincidental to the headlines uncovering the overwhelming evidence of the Holocaust, there was another headline that took precedence above all others: the sudden death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. As Supreme Commander, Eisenhower’s responsibilities were naturally diverted, but his subordinates were all instructed to go and bear witness. And aid.

A personal letter from General George Patton.

He also cabled General Marshall to send the most prominent newspaper, magazine and newsreel photographers and journalists to the concentration camps along with contingents of Congressmen and Senators. Those horrible scenes, well documented and attested to at the highest level, would be part of the various “crimes against humanity” trials in Nuremberg, Germany.

General Walker’s Edict

Ike is usually credited with insisting that the townspeople living near the various concentration camps be forced to witness for themselves what they had long been denying – or turning a blind eye.

German civilians were forced to bear witness themselves – and bury the dead.

According to General Patton, Ike was not the one who issued that directive; it was General Walton Walker (likely with Ike’s support), who insisted that German citizens bear their own witness and responsibility to the atrocities committed by their own countrymen and sanctioned by their own Nazi government.

Scores of German men and women and even children were marched to various camps to witness, to bury, and to assume moral responsibility.

General Ike: Part II

General Eisenhower was truly horrified by what he had seen, and in a moment of perhaps supreme wisdom and/or supreme prescience, he wrote in his report – and included verbatim in his wartime memoir “Crusade in Europe,” he wanted to be in a position “to give first-hand evidence of these things, if ever in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda.”

Ike’s quote has been memorialized many times and in many places. Etched in stone.

In 1945, Dwight Eisenhower was one of the most famous people in the world. He also enjoyed a stellar reputation for integrity. His testimony carried enormous weight, and he knew it. In seven years he would be elected President of the United States.

In 1978, nearly a decade after Ike’s death, and after he had served for two terms as U.S. President, a commission was formed to create a memorial dedicated to “teaching” the Holocaust (as it came to be called) to future generations. Located in the heart of Washington, DC., The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum features a center plaza called Eisenhower Plaza; and Ike’s quote regarding the deeply troubling tendency to “charge the allegations to propaganda” is prominently displayed.

Today, there are charges that those allegations are fictions. Or manipulated. That the Holocaust did not exist.

Today, there are many people who believe it was a fake story with doctored photography.

Perhaps Ike could sense the depravity of human nature and its unfathomable consequences.

May his integrity and his unswerving testimony always carry the balance of weight.


Eisenhower, Dwight D. – Crusade In Europe – Doubleday & Co., 1948







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The Deception of Franklin Pierce

Some marriages are mismatches.

The Pierces

Young Franklin Pierce D-NH

Franklin Pierce was 30 years old when he married in 1834. Good looking, genial and personable, he waited until he was established in his law practice, and was a sitting New Hampshire Democratic Congressman.

His bride, Jane Appleton, was twenty-eight, considered a spinster, synonymous with “old maid” at the time. She was petite, pretty with finely chiseled features, bookish and very religious. She was also of a melancholy disposition. Geniality and pleasure-loving traits had eluded her.

Newly elected to Congress in 1833, Pierce brought his bride to honeymoon in Washington, DC – a place she quickly grew to loathe. Always frail in health, possibly due to early tuberculosis, she believed the climate was unhealthy. More importantly, she disliked the social and political atmosphere of the nation’s capital. Declining most invitations, she chose to remain in her rooms, except for regular attendance at church services. Subsequent congressional sessions saw Pierce going to Washington alone.

Young Jane Appleton Pierce.

Jane had a valid reason for remaining in New Hampshire by then. She was in her childbearing years, and would have three sons. The first died in infancy; the second at aged four.

The third child, Benjamin, was born when she was thirty-five. She considered it her last chance for motherhood, and life thereafter revolved around little Bennie.

The Acquiescence of Pierce

Jane Pierce and her son Bennie. Two sons had already died. He was all that was left to her.

Devoutly religious, (more so than her husband) Jane Pierce (1806-1863) believed that after her duty to God, motherhood was the ultimate and highest calling for a woman. Her life was well ordered. Her pleasures were focused on a small circle of friends and relatives, and regular visits from her minister.

It is always difficult to project backwards, particularly when personal matters are involved.  Even private letters and diaries avoided recording the most intimate of thoughts. Nevertheless, one can surmise that the Pierce marriage was showing signs of strain. The differences in their personalities were becoming apparent. Every indication shows that Pierce loved his “Jeannie,” as he called her, and tried sincerely to please her, but it was difficult. Everything he enjoyed, she disdained.  So he acquiesced.

The Pierce Manse in Hillsboro, NH. Franklin Pierce was born here.

She hated Hillsborough, where they made their home, about 15 miles from Concord. They moved to a rented house in Concord.

She hated Washington. He went alone.

A town house in Concord that the Pierce’s lived in prior to his Presidency.

She disliked most of his companions. He was convivial and loved company.

She hated politics. He declined to run for re-election, and concentrated on his law practice and local New Hampshire issues.

She continued to hate politics. He declined an appointment in President Polk’s cabinet.

She was opposed to drinking. He took the pledge, joined a temperance society, and for a time, even served as its president.

In 1846, when Pierce was past forty and with no military experience, he enlisted in the Mexican War as a private, perhaps to escape the tedium. Because of his age, his education, and his prominence as a former congressman and senator, he was promoted. To General.

The Deception of Pierce

Despite his vow to refrain from national politics, Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) had a thirst  for it like the liquor he also vowed to avoid.

The political scene was turbulent and complicated, and would become more so.  The Democrats found it increasingly difficult to find a viable presidential candidate. Pierce, a Northerner with no personal inclination toward slavery except where it already existed, had many Southern friends.  His political instincts indicated that he might indeed be available, i.e. acceptable to both North and South.

In the early 1850s, most politicking was done via letters. Pierce wrote many letters to various political friends, a common enough activity in the mid-nineteenth century. As was also common, Pierce was very cautious about being a possible candidate – after all, he did not wish to appear overtly interested. He needed friends to toot the horn.

But Pierce had been involved in politics (overtly and peripherally) for years. He knew the odds. He knew the odds, long though they might be, were also in his favor. He assured his politics-hating wife that he was “long forgotten.” In truth, he meddled via the New Hampshire politicians et al, to help the odds.

Pierce Is Nominated and Elected

President Franklin Pierce

It took 35 ballots to even mention Franklin Pierce’s name in 1852.  It took 48 ballots to nominate him as the Democratic candidate. He was honest enough with his wife; he had been long forgotten. Very few of the convention attendees had heard of him. But he had very few enemies, and a fairly bland reputation.  He had served in Congress and in the Mexican War. He was handsome and likeable. In short, just what was needed.

After Bennie’s death, Jane wore mourning for the rest of her life.

When Jane heard the news, it is said that she fainted. Pierce claimed it was a total surprise to him as well. Privately Jane hoped her husband would lose so she would not have to live in Washington in an environment she disliked intensely. But she was a deeply religious woman, and came to believe that it was obviously God’s will for Pierce to be President. She acquiesced.

Shortly before the Pierce family left for Washington, they visited family in Massachusetts. En route, their train derailed, and their 11-year-old son Bennie was crushed between the cars. It was devastating to both parents, particularly his already depressed mother, who now believed it was God’s punishment for leaving home.

Even more devastating was learning, en route to the inauguration, that her husband had lied to her. He had personally encouraged his candidacy, and had taken behind-the-scenes part in its promotion. Jane left the train in Baltimore, unable to continue.

She did not attend the inauguration. She did not arrive at the White House for a month. And she never really recovered from her son’s death – and her husband’s deception.


Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies: An Intiate Portrait of the Women Who Shaped America – Sourcebooks 2011

Nichols, Roy Franklin – Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills – University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959 (revised)

Shenkman Richard, Presidential Ambition: Gaining Power at Any Cost, Harper, 1999





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