Hannibal Hamlin was Vice President during Abraham Lincoln’s first term. He was a decent man, lost to history.
Vice President Hamlin, The Background
Hannibal Hamlin, from Maine, was a likeable and respected attorney, a pleasant but far from stellar United States Senator. To balance the Republican ticket with midwesterner Abraham Lincoln at its head, he was selected by the convention in 1860 to be Vice President. It was a honorable position, albeit one with no “heavy lifting.
Hamlin had never met Lincoln before, but once the election was won, and the two of them were preparing for their new posts, President-elect Lincoln invited the Maine Senator to Springfield, IL for a visit. Hamlin was quick to accept. The two spent a few productive hours in discussion, and each would be complimentary about the other. Once in office, however, Lincoln, like his predecessors, had no idea of how to utilize the position of Vice President effectively. Thus, poor Hamlin, who had wielded considerable weight in Maine Republican politics, was now toothless and clawless in Washington. His only “authority” by virtue of the Constitution, was to preside over the Senate. He had lost whatever clout he had in Maine politics, mainly because his ability to influence its political patronage activities ended with his new office. To wit, he had no jobs to distribute.
Abraham Lincoln always treated his Vice President with respect and cordiality, quick to make time for him whenever Hamlin requested a meeting. But Lincoln had no assignments to offer to the ex-Maine Senator, and Maine was not a particularly important state, politically-speaking.
Political Military Commissions During the Civil War
The American Civil War had, by and large, a voluntary army in 1861. The regular army numbered perhaps 25,000 soldiers and officers, many of who defected to the Confederacy. To ease the burdens of recruitment on such a large scale, Union governors were empowered to commission officers.
Hundreds, and possibly thousands of lawyers and politicians of all ages enlisted at once. By virtue of age, experience, education, perceived leadership and social standing, they were usually immediately commissioned as officers. Many of them were very good. Future Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield and Benjamin Harrison were politicians who proved to be competent officers, and were soon wearing a general’s stars.
And strange as it may seem today, Congress, during the Civil War, was a part-time entity. Washington had abysmal weather during the summer. Built on a swamp, it was a festering morass of potential malaria, typhoid and other fevers usually related to buggy and boggy water and air. Any politician who could, left the city during the summer. Even Lincoln and his family retreated a few miles out of town for the healthier climate of the Soldiers’ Home in suburbia during the summer.
Thus it was not uncommon for high level politicians, i.e. congressmen and senators, to go back home – or possibly to volunteer with the army for a few months, if they felt so inclined, and their health permitted. It was a novel adventure for them.
Hamlin Joins the Coast Guard
Hannibal Hamlin and Abraham Lincoln were the same age, in their mid-fifties in 1864. Certainly well past their physical prime. But Hamlin was bored as Vice President (as most early Veeps were), and had a sincere desire to be of use somehow and somewhere.
When Congress adjourned for the summer of 1864, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin returned to Maine, and joined the Maine Coast Guard.
The Maine Coast Guard was not the Coast Guard one recognizes today. During the Civil War, it was indeed a “coast guard”. Maine shares a long border with Canada, and it was a well known fact during those troublesome times, that Canada was a hotbed for Confederate plotting, blockade running, counterfeiting and assorted mayhem. The Maine Coast Guard was an entity specifically designed to guard its coast line against any activity that might appear potentially dangerous or subversive. It was manned, as one might expect, primarily by old men and boys. Everyone else had already enlisted in the main army.
So Vice President Hamlin enlisted in the Coast Guard as a private, and in that position he remained. He would never achieve the acclaim of his fellow “downeaster”, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a genuine hero of Gettysburg. Hamlin was never “promoted” or given a higher rank as might be deemed fit for his age, education, experience or civilian position. It does not appear that he requested any preferential treatment, either. He drilled and marched alongside 13-year-old boys and men his own age and older. He stood watch with them when his turn came. And he even served for a while as company cook. (One suspects that lobster was not on the menu.) When his “hitch” ended a few months later, he returned to Washington to take up his Vice Presidential duties once again. One could conjecture which occupation was more exciting.
Nevertheless, there has never been another instance of so high a ranking political figure serving while in office in such a low military position. But Hamlin was a pleasant fellow. He did not complain as far as we know, especially since Lincoln had selected Andrew Johnson of Tennessee to be his running mate in 1864.
Perhaps ol’ Hannibal just needed to enjoy a few weeks at summer camp!
Barzman, Sol – Madmen and Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States, 1974, Follett Publishing
Purcell, L. Edward, (Editor) Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary – 2005, Facts on File Publishing