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

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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

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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


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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


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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

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Wilmer McLean: A Plague on Both His Houses

Wilmer McLean is one of those oddities of the Civil War, where truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.


Wilmer McLean, an unlikely Virginia grocer whose houses bookended the Civil War.

Wilmer McLean was a Virginia wholesale grocer, who at age 39 married a well-to-do widow with two children and a moderate plantation some twenty miles from Washington. The property was close to the Washington and Richmond rail lines and there was a nice creek to provide water. The town was called Manassas, and the creek was called Bull Run.

Ft. Sumter surrendered in April, 1861 and the Civil War began in semi-earnest. McLean was 47, and his family had increased. He had been a Major in the Virginia militia, but now was too old for active duty.

First Bull Run (N), First Manassas (S)

For three months, armies of both the Union and the Confederacy had been amassing and training. Both sides were prodded by the newspapers and politicians to fight. Both sides believed a single skirmish with a handful of casualties would suffice; cooler heads would prevail and appropriate steps taken to resolve the unresolveable issues.


The McLean house in Manassas, where a Union shell exploded in the kitchen and landed in General Beauregard’s dinner.

All signs pointed to the area around Manassas as the battlefield. General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, the acknowledged victor of Ft. Sumter, was head honcho for the Confederacy. He commandeered the McLean property as his HQ, made arrangements to compensate the grocer (in Confederate scrip) and moved in. The McLeans moved out.

As the General and his staff were enjoying dinner in the detached front-yard kitchen,  a freak Union shell came through the chimney, landing in Beauregard’s dinner. The Civil War now began in real-earnest.

It was not a skirmish. It was a horror story of casualties that portended even greater horror stories.

After the battle, the McLean house became a hospital. McLean returned alone some weeks later, having become a sugar purveyor (or privateer) for the Confederate Army. It was six months before his family could return to their barely habitable home.

Second Bull Run (N), Second Manassas (S)

One year later, in exactly the same location another mega-battle was fought. The North called it Bull Run, after the creek; the South called it Manassas after the town. Once again, McLean’s property was in the middle of a battlefield.


The McLean house in Appomattox Court House, where General Lee formally surrendered to General Grant.

McLean called it quits and decided to move as far from danger as he could. He put the property up for sale (which was a long time coming), and found a nice house-with-land more than a hundred miles to the southwest, in a town called Appomattox Court House. In the middle of nowhere. Out of harm’s way.

McLean continued to maintain his sugar purveying, since he was near the rail lines. He was happy to mind his own business, take care of his property and his family – out of harm’s way.

Harm’s Way Follows McLean

Some people are born with a magnet that draws ill fortune, and so it was with Wilmer McLean. He was content in his new surroundings, making pleasant acquaintances among his neighbors, and bothering no one.

But the fortunes of the Civil War had been exhausted by April, 1865. Petersburg, a city of railroad crossings only twenty miles from Richmond, had been besieged for months. The Confederate army was dwindling from casualties, desertion and starvation.  In a last ditch effort, General Robert E. Lee slipped out of the Union stranglehold, and marched to the southwest to join General Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina.

The Union army, led by General Ulysses S. Grant, outnumbering its foes about four-to-one, was right on it tail.

They finally met not far from the McLean property, at a small clearing called Sailor’s Creek. Valiant to the end, the Rebels were surrounded by overwhelming forces. General Lee had little choice.  He swallowed the bitter pill, sent word to General Grant and sent his aide, Col. Charles Marshall, to find a suitable place to conduct the momentous business.


An artist’s rendering of the surrender formalities that took place in McLean’s front parlor.

Appomattox Court House was the closest village in the area. The story goes that Col. Marshall stopped Wilmer McLean, the first person he met, and asked about a suitable location for the meeting of the Great Generals. He reluctantly offered the front parlor in his own comfortably furnished house. The offer was accepted.

McLean’s House Ransacked

The meeting between General Grant and General Lee was historic and for the ages, and has been commemorated many times in many ways. But poor Wilmer McLean’s moment in the sun – the unlikely coincidence of his houses involved in both the opening and the closing of the Civil War, was once again covered in gloom clouds.


Soldiers lined the road for miles, stacking their weapons. Then they were formally paroled, and were free to return to their homes.


The table where the surrender document was signed.

Realizing the importance of the occasion, Union officers (some of very high rank) ransacked the McLean house. According to historian Shelby Foote, “something like pandemonium set in.” Everything that could be taken as souvenirs was taken – but not without “paying for it.” Union soldiers were not looting or stealing per se. They thrust US money, and even gold coins into McLean’s hands, even though he did not want the money. He wanted his furniture and his household goods. Nevertheless, money was thrown on the floor, and Union soldiers walked off with tables and chairs and ink stands, and even his little daughter’s rag doll.


Wilmer McLean as an elderly man.

They cut the cushions from his chairs, and tore strips of upholstery from his sofas. Fence rails were cut down as souvenirs.

The armies had trampled his house and land at Bull Run, and now they had done the same in Appomattox Court House. Once again, the McLean house was unfit for living.

A year later, Wilmer McLean put the “surrender house” up for sale, but there were no takers. Having lost everything, including his source of income, he defaulted on his taxes, moved away and the place was sold at public auction in 1869. Records show that in 1872 he voted for Ulysses S. Grant, and had taken a position in Washington as an agent for the Internal Revenue Service.


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

Meet Wilmer McLean – One of the Civil War’s First and Last Victims



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Ellen Wilson’s Great Sadness


Ellen Axson Wilson, the first wife of Woodrow Wilson.

Ellen Axson came from a family prone to severe melancholy.

Ellen Axson: Family Caretaker

Ellen Axson (1860-1914), was born in Georgia, just as the Civil War was beginning. From earliest childhood, she showed a decided talent for art, but family obligations were demanding of her time and energies.

Young Ellen

Ellen Axson was only twenty when she became the caretaker of her family.

Her father, Samuel Edward Axson, was a Presbyterian minister who fought a lifelong battle with melancholia, to a point of requiring hospital care. When Ellen’s mother died, Ellen was twenty, and her father lapsed into a severe depression, and died in a sanitarium.

She was the eldest of four, widespread in ages. Her brother Stockton was six years younger; her brother Eddie, sixteen years younger with a pronounced stammer; and her baby sister Margaret was newborn, and indirectly responsible for her mother’s early death.

Ellen had hoped to teach art, once her high-school education was finished, but now further education or career was out of the question. Family needs came first.

She married Woodrow Wilson when she was twenty-five. From the beginning, they had agreed that Eddie would live with them permanently. Stockton would join them on his vacations from school.

Growing Up Wilson

From the first, the new couple never had an empty house. Because the age-gaps in her own family were not conducive to sibling “playmates”, Ellen and Woodrow had their three daughters within five years.

Eddie Axson was also a constant, and in the loving and stable Wilson home, his stammer abated. In addition, he began displaying his own talented hands and gift for mechanics.  By the time he was twelve, he could take-apart, fix and put-back practically anything. He graduated from Princeton University, studied further at MIT, and eventually became superintendent of a mining company in Georgia. In 1906, he had married and had a small baby. By that time, Woodrow Wilson had become President of Princeton University.


Dr. Stockton Axson, Ellen’s brilliant younger brother, who inherited the family genetic trait of severe depression.

Ellen’s other brother, Stockton Axson had received several advanced degrees, and was teaching English at Princeton University. He also had been in and out of various hospitals with the same clinical depressions that had afflicted his father.

Eddie Axson: The Tragedy

The young Edward Axson seems to have been spared the Axson melancholy gene of his father and brother, and, to a lesser extent, by both Ellen and Margaret.

Happy with his position at the Franklin Gold Mines and his growing family, in the summer of 1905, Eddie took his wife and year-old son on a day-outing. Here is where the story becomes conflicted. Some sources say, there was an accident on a ferry crossing the Etowah River; some sources say that the horses on the carriage Eddie was driving were spooked and plunged into the river. Whatever the exact specifics, the upshot was the same. Despite his valiant effort to save his family, Eddie Axson, his wife and baby son were all drowned. He was only thirty-one.

Ellen Wilson: The Abyss


When Eddie Axson drowned along with his young family, he was only thirty-one. Exact details have always been sketchy and conflicting.

Ellen Wilson, the sister-mother, was next of kin, and notified first. It fell to her to notify the rest of the family, to make the funeral arrangements, and to dispose of whatever needed to be disposed of.


Ellen Wilson was comfortable within her family circle, surrounded by those she loved.

Ellen had never been a woman who sparkled in society. Her wit and charm was considered, rather than spontaneous. She was happy to let Woodrow go “solo” on those occasions, where he could shine. She was content to bask in his love and her happy family life. Ellen may have even suspected her family “disposition,” but she fought it continuously, especially since Woodrow Wilson possessed an emotional neediness of his own, and she was needed “to rest him,” as he put it.

At one point, In a letter to a friend, Ellen mentioned being deeply distressed about the death of a mutual friend, remarking that “but for Woodrow’s sake” she mustn’t show it. She continued confessing that if she were the least bit sky-blue, he immediately became blue-black, and all her resources were needed to care for him “feeling her pain,” as it were.

Eddie’s untimely and horrific death plunged Ellen into a blue-black of her own – but not until whatever needed to be done was done.

The Blue-Black

Losing Eddie was like losing her own son. Responsibilities concluded, Ellen slipped quietly into her own world, and it was a silent world. There were no tears, no outpouring. No weeping or wailing.

According to her daughter Nell (Eleanor Wilson McAdoo) in her later memoir about her parents, Ellen barely talked at all. When asked if she want to go on a carriage ride, she might nod and go. But she did not engage or converse. She was in her own blue-blacks, and it needed to run its course.


A rare photograph of Ellen and Woodrow Wilson – together.

For the first time in her life, even her beloved artwork did not comfort her. Her easel was empty for a long time.

Woodrow was beside himself with worry – and his own neediness. He required comforting as well, and his wife was unable to comfort him. Ellen was unreachable and beyond comfort. She needed all her resources to heal her own wounds.

It took several months for Ellen’s deep pain to begin to subside, and for her to climb out of the abyss of grief. But she did, and in many ways, it would be her art that proved to be her greatest comfort and outlet.

Unlike Jane Pierce or Mary Lincoln, other First Ladies who succumbed to the devastation of their losses, Ellen was able to pick up the tatters and mend. She painted when she had time, and with her own children grown, her time was becoming her own. She entertained graciously and often, especially once Woodrow Wilson became New Jersey Governor. She became First Lady. And through all of it, including her own growing reputation in the art word, she was first and foremost Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.


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

Miller, Kristie – Ellen and Edith – University Press of Kansas, 2010

Saunders, Frances W. – Ellen Axson Wilson – University of North Carolina, 1985







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