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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Rutherford Hayes’ Secret Oath

The election of 1876 was one of the most rancorous, divisive and probably corrupt in American history.







Oddly Enough…

Both Governor Rutherford Hayes (R-OH) and Governor Samuel Tilden (D-NY) were honest, decent men, albeit bland and uncharasmatic. Any scandals or machinations done in their names were done with no overt support from either of the candidates. (Whether or not there was tacit approval, or more likely “blind eye” is always open to conjecture.)

General Hayes

Major Rutherford B. Hayes of the Union Army.

Hayes had a solid reputation. He was a successful Ohio attorney, a Union Major General – wounded four times, Ohio Congressman and three-term Ohio Governor. He was sincerely respected and even beloved by his soldiers. He was a devoted family man, married nearly twenty-five years, with five surviving children.

Governor Samuel Tilden of New York.

Samuel Tilden had a credible record as a New York behind-the-scenes politician – a man reputed to have a brilliant legal mind.  He never married, and was reputed to be a loner and cold-fish in personality. Nevertheless, he had served New York capably and honestly, successfully prosecuting Boss Tweed!

The Problem Was…

Ten years after the Civil War, few people believed that a Democrat could ever reach the White House. They were the party of rebellion. They were the party that started the Civil War.  So how did the Democrats get so close? How and why did the Republicans steal the election?

General Grant had been President for two terms in 1876. He had won in a walk in 1868, following the mess of Andrew Johnson’s impeachment proceedings. He had won in 1872 in a strange situation. Horace Greeley, a lifelong Republican newspaper publisher, ran against the victorious General – on the Democratic ticket. He lost – and then promptly died.

General Grant’s administration has always been considered fraught with corruption. Grant was never personally corrupt, but his poor choices in cabinet members and those closely associated with him are undeniable. The problem got even worse during Grant’s second term. Reform was in the air! Problem was that the “reformers” were about as exciting as a bowl of oatmeal, and “reform” as a campaign issue, was in the same category.

Meanwhile, many parts of the South, still under a severe thumb of Reconstruction, military districts and soldiers, were flexing political muscle. If they were to rejoin the Union per se, they wanted above all, for the soldiers to go away.   Both candidates promised an end to Reconstruction.

The Election of 1876

Many books and articles have been written about the fractious “stolen” election of 1876. It was very complicated. The fact that both Hayes and Tilden chose to rise above it all speaks well of both candidates. Hayes was a decent enough President; we can only conjecture that Tilden would have been the same.

Cartoonists had a field day as the Republicans and Democrats fought over the election result.

But the basic problem with the election centered on a) while Tilden unquestionably won the popular vote; b) the electoral vote (ay, there was the rub), was in question. It appeared that Tilden had also won the electoral count, but FOUR states were questionable, and there was indication (plausible) that there may have been finagling involved.

The Republicans were infuriated that after only a decade since the Civil War, the party of rebellion might claim the Presidency. Unthinkable!

The bottom line was that IF the Republicans could demand a recount in those four states, and IF they could “un-finagle” and “re-finagle” in their own behalf, and IF they could claim the electoral votes for ALL FOUR questioned states, they could claim the election victory. That was a lot of IFs. It remained iffy for months. Nobody really knew who the next President would be.

Ballots were re-counted. A special committee was named: five Congressmen, five Senators and five Supreme Court Justices (8 Republicans, 7 Democrats) to investigate the suspected finagling.

And, as only politicians can do, ALL FOUR of those suspect states were determined along party lines to have their electoral votes line up in the Hayes column. The final decision was made only two or three days before the Inauguration! And, as one might expect, there were a lot of people who were unhappy with the decision.

General Grant’s Final Decision

President Grant was concerned that there might be trouble at the Inauguration.

President Ulysses S. Grant had truly enjoyed his eight year residence in the White House. The recent election, however, was troublesome, and he, for all intents and purposes, sat it out. He did not participate in the campaign, and instead focused on his personal plans for a trip around the world, which would last the better part of two years.

Concerned that the dissonance in the country might seriously impact the Inauguration proceedings, the President had arranged for extra security, soldiers and whatever means could be taken for preventative measures. In addition, it so happened that March 4, 1877, the day Constitutionally assigned for the Inauguration, fell on a Sunday. In deference to the Sabbath, the Inauguration would not take place until Monday, March 5.

Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th President.

Meanwhile, the President and First Lady hosted an elegant dinner party on Saturday night, March 3, their technically-last-day in the White House.  Congressmen and Cabinet members and Court Justices and assorted other notable were invited for a big “farewell” bash. President-elect Hayes and his wife were included.

As the guests were gathering that evening, Grant asked Hayes to join him for a few minutes in the Blue Room. He also asked a few congressmen, and Chief Justice Morrison Waite to join him as well. Then, to insure against confusion that might result in having the United States without a duly inaugurated President – even for a day – he asked the Chief Justice to administer the Presidential Oath to Hayes a day early to insure continuity.

The witnesses were unimpeachable, but it was not made public at the time. Sunday, March 4, came and went with no disturbances. On Monday, March 5, ex-President Grant escorted incoming President Hayes to the Senate chamber where he formally re-took the oath of office.

Nobody was the wiser about the premature-oath until  afterwards.





Rehnquist, William – Centennial Crisis – Alfred Knopf, 1974

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President Grant and the First State Dinner

King David Kalakaua of the Sandwich Islands.

The first sovereign of a foreign country to be hosted at a White House State Dinner was the King of the Sandwich Islands – in 1874.

State Dinners

From the beginning of the United States as a nation, elegant dining was an essential practice. A little upstart country with even smaller claims to “culture” needed to prove itself equal (or almost equal) to the great countries of Europe, with centuries of history and tradition.

This does not mean that the US was backward or inhospitable. George and Martha Washington were wealthy Virginians, to whom elegance, taste and “southern hospitality” was natural. Their “official” presidential house on Cherry Street in New York City, albeit rented, was chosen specifically because its ballroom could accommodate a hundred people.

The White House State Dining Room, perhaps around the 1870s.

John and Abigail Adams were considered gracious hosts. Thomas Jefferson, the soul of elegance, preferred the “small” table, perhaps a dozen to twenty guests. But it was the charming First Lady Dolley Madison who put the White House on the map as a social Mecca, hosting not only intimate luncheons and suppers, but grand weekly soirees, for some 300 people.

“State” Dinners, however, were formal banquets for the highest level guests, and could be either large or small. The problem was that with 3,000 miles of ocean on one side, and 3,000 miles of unknown frontier on the other, not too many heads of state were coming for dinner. Thus, the few foreign diplomats dispatched to these upstart former-colonies, were welcomed like the visiting royalty they represented.

Ambassadors from Britain, France, Spain and other European countries, accustomed to pomp, ceremony and inviolable etiquette, were usually dismayed at the “democratic” tendencies of US dinner parties.

But mostly, the so-called “state” dinners of early Presidencies honored their own: Governors, Victorious Generals, the Supreme Court Justices, the Congress, and sometimes for former or incoming presidents.

The US Civil War as a Turning Point

Grand entertainment in Lincoln’s administration was curtailed due to Civil War; Andrew Johnson’s turbulent administration due to the President’s unpopularity.

President Ulysses S. Grant.

But when Ulysses S. Grant became President in 1869, the Gilded Age (a term coined by Mark Twain) had begun. Grant was likely the most popular man in the country. The economy was strong. There was money to be made, and a great many people were making it. Showing off wealth was fashionable. The more opulent the dress and decor, the more respect you were said to merit.

While the White House could never rival the true glitz of the Astors’ Fifth Avenue New York mansions, or the summer “cottages” of Newport’s Vanderbilts, the Presidential Mansion was still a nifty place to hold a party. Since both Ulysses and Julia Grant were affable people, the White House doors were flung wide for dinners and balls and receptions.

President Grant Hosts King David Kalakaua

The King of the Sandwich Islands, a.k.a. Hawaii.

The Sandwich Islands, today known as Hawaii, was a practically-unknown atoll in the faraway Pacific, but it was a sovereign nation. It had its own government. It had its own king. During the American Civil War, it had become semi-important to the Union economy by supplying sugar.

In 1874, David Kalakaua (1836-1891) became King (actually the last King, but he did not know it at the time). It was a semi-elected accession, he being a collateral (rather than direct) descendant of the reigning monarch. But Kalakaua was a man of strong western influences, and the Sandwich Islands were suffering an economic depression. In order to bolster their economy by trade agreements, he embarked on an extensive goodwill tour, starting with the United States.

As a reigning monarch, Kalakaua was invited to the White House for the first “state dinner” given by an American President for a foreign head of state.  President Buchanan’s dinner for the Prince of Wales in 1860 does not count. The Prince was only eighteen, not a head of state, and supposedly traveling incognito (although nobody believed that for an instant), thus relieving the President from demanding protocol issues.

An artistic rendering of the first U.S. state dinner for a reigning monarch.

King Kalakaua was different. He was a reigning monarch, and expected to be acknowledged as such. He was pleasantly acquainted with Mark Twain, who had spent considerable time in Hawaii. Twain was also pleasantly acquainted with President Grant, a man he greatly admired. An introduction from Mark Twain (who Grant admired in return) was good enough for an invitation to dinner at the White House.

President and Mrs. Grant greeted the King cordially, and dinner was served at a small party: only thirty-six people were invited. It was said to have nearly thirty covers (separate dishes) of exotic French cuisine and the finest of wines. The menu included several choices of soup, fish, boiled meats, roasted meats, game entrees, vegetables, relishes, pastries and other desserts. And coffee. The cost of the affair was around $3000 – more than ten-times the amount today!

But the purpose of the visit (and the dinner) was well served – at least for King Kalakaua. He achieved his goal, and a duty-free agreement was reached between the Sandwich Islands and the USA for sugar, among other items. It was obviously mutually beneficial, since twenty years later, Hawaii (as it became called) chose to annex itself to the USA.

Postscript to King David

In 1881, King David Kalakaua made a round-the-world trip, and became the first ruling monarch of anywhere to do so. He again visited the US, met President Chester Alan Arthur, again to promote Hawaiian “culture” and again arranged reciprocal trade agreements.

As a one-man Chamber of Commerce, King Kalakaua could be considered a whopping success.

When he first came to his throne in 1874, Hawaii had been exporting little over $1,000,000 in sugar and other commodities. By the end of his reign in 1891, the amount had risen to $31,000,000. But he would be the last King of the Hawaiian Islands.


Landau, Barry H. – The President’s Table –  Harper Collins Publishers, 2007




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Sarah Polk’s Memoirs

First Lady Sarah Childress Polk lived to be nearly ninety.

Miss Childress of Tennessee

Sarah Childress (1803-1891) was born to a comfortable Murfreesboro, Tennessee family, not long after it had joined the Union. Her Presbyterian father was a planter and merchant, and, rare for his time, believed in educating his daughters as well as his son.

Accordingly, she attended the best available schools in Tennessee, and then to a Moravian Female Academy in North Carolina. Before completing her studies, her father died, and she returned home.

Sarah and James Knox Polk

At twenty, Sarah married James Knox Polk, a Tennessee attorney and state legislator, seven years her senior. Legend has it that General Andrew Jackson advised Polk to “look no farther than Miss Sarah Childress” as possessed of all the qualities desired as a lifetime companion. Legend or bona fide, or a combination (since they were both acquainted with the General) the bottom line was that Jackson was right: they were very well-suited and happy together.

The Silver Years

According to Sarah, many years later, the two never had a cross word in the twenty-five years of their marriage. Comfortable financial circumstances (two plantations) helped. That the Polks had no children may also have contributed to their compatibility.  The freedom from the serious health issues of childbirth and its ties to home left Sarah free to accompany her husband on many of his travels.

President James Knox Polk

A year after he was elected to the first of his seven terms in Congress (including four years as Speaker), Sarah went to Washington with him.  She was one of the few Congressional wives in the capital, happy to fully participate in all the social events. Their personal intimacy with now-President Jackson insured that those events were numerous. Those who knew her – both men and women – were abundant in praise of her charm, her stylish good looks, her discreet character, and her uncommon intelligence.

In 1839, Polk was elected Governor of Tennessee, but he lost the next two efforts at re-election, and a life of political oblivion loomed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a law practice (which was not appealing), Polk made a last-ditch political effort, hoping to secure the Vice Presidential slot on the Democratic ticket in 1844. He subtly (and later more overtly) lobbied for the second spot.

Sarah Polk served as Presidential secretary as well as First Lady.

In the complicated and deadlocked 1844 Democratic convention, nobody really cared about a Vice President. The physically unimposing ex-Speaker and ex-Governor was interested, and seemed qualified. The office, merely a geopolitical accommodation by that time, was honorable, paid a handsome $5000 a year, and had few responsibilities.

When no one seemed to agree on a suitable candidate for President it began to occur that if Polk was everyone’s choice for the second spot, why not the first spot?

Thus “dark horse” James Knox Polk received the Democratic nomination, and in a surprise upset over sure-winner Whig Henry Clay, became the 11th President of the United States.

James Polk had an extremely busy Presidency, ably helped by his capable and politically savvy wife. They seldom took time to relax, believing it was their bound duty to work assiduously to complete a comprehensive agenda in a single-pledged term. He achieved his goal, but died (some say from overwork) only three months after his term ended. He was 53.

Enter Anson and Fanny Nelson

Sarah Childress Polk as a middle aged widow.

Sarah Polk was a widow at only 46. She returned to their Polk Place home in Nashville, and became a “professional widow.” Her beautiful and becoming deep jewel-toned gowns and accessories were put away forever, and she wore only black. She also eschewed most activity, other than attending regular church services.

With servants and periodic live-in family members to help, the months and years passed. Sarah arranged and sorted her husband’s papers. Then she re-arranged and re-sorted them. The Civil War came and went, with both Union and Confederate soldiers careful to keep Mrs. Polk’s home from harm. Men of prominence who visited Nashville were said to make a point of paying their respects to the former First Lady.

Meanwhile, a younger couple, Anson and Fanny Nelson, had become neighbors to the venerable Widow Polk, now well into her eighties and as alert and intelligent as ever. The Ansons were fascinated by Mrs. P’s stories of her life in the White House, and suggested that she write her memoirs for a whole new generation who knew little about James Knox Polk, let alone the former First Lady.

The elderly former First Lady, Sarah Polk

The elderly woman was disinclined to lift her pen, but was amenable to “collaborate.” She would be happy to tell her story to the Nelsons, and let them write it.

A modern copy of The Memorials of Sarah Childress Polk.


It was the first “biography” of a First Lady based on actual interviews with the subject herself.

Sarah recounted how she saved money by assuming most of the President’s secretarial functions; copied his papers in a firm hand; maintained his appointment book; and culled dozens of daily newspapers, carefully folding them to bring her husband’s attention to the salient points. Wearing her “FLOTUS-hat”, she saved money by serving no refreshments at their weekly receptions, since they were paid out-of-pocket.

She remembered “permitting” new-fangled gas candelabra to be installed, but kept the candles just in case. Sure enough, the gaslights failed and the candles were needed, available and appreciated.

She also made a point of discreetly allowing her “opinions” to be known only to her husband, but insisted on strict observance of the Sabbath. No visitors would be admitted to the White House on Sunday – unless they wished to accompany the Polks to church services. And, in accordance to her strict Presbyterian faith, she banned spirits, dancing and card playing in the Executive Mansion.

The Memorials of Sarah Childress Polk, was published in 1892, shortly after Sarah died at 88. It has been reprinted many times, and while it is Victorian in style, content and florid language, it accomplished exactly what the Nelsons desired: a remarkable look into the life and times of a remarkable First Lady.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power, 1789-1961, Harper Perennial, 1992

Nelson, Anson and Fanny – Memorials of Sarah Childress Polk – ADF Randolph Company (reprint of 1892 publication)



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