Nan Britton: Harding’s “Lolita”

Warren Harding

Warren G. Harding

This is Part One of a very nifty story!

The Marion Publisher

Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) was a rural Ohio fellow, who, following a mediocre education, gravitated to Marion, Ohio where he purchased an interest in The Marion Star, a small weekly newspaper, married a divorcee five years his senior, and became one of the most affable men in town. He was also good looking and grew even handsomer as he aged.

The Hardings

The Hardings in Marion, Ohio. It was a less-than-blissful marriage.

His marriage was flawed on many fronts, with more than enough failings to go around. Those failings were further exacerbated by his wife’s serious health issues, curtailing their marital intimacy, and leading the virile and attractive Harding into serious philandering. Nevertheless, the marriage continued; Florence Harding had already been divorced and had worked hard to redeem her reputation. A second divorce would ruin her forever.

But the Marion Star thrived, and despite their mutual incompatibilities, neither ever actively pursued divorce.

Nan Britton, Neighbor

Young Nan Britton.

Nanna Popham Britton (1896-1991) was the daughter of one Harding’s neighbors. At an early age, Nan developed a crush on the handsome publisher, some thirty years her senior, and a natural father figure.

Warren looks llike a President

Warren Harding reading the paper on his porch.

The pre-pubescent crush became an obsession as time went on and Nan approached high school age. She made a point of walking past the Marion Star office on the way home from school. She kept an eye peeled for his automobile. She passed his house regularly, hoping to see him reading the paper on his front porch and be invited to “come on up.” When Warren Harding ran for elective office, she clipped his photographs from the newspapers and pasted them on the walls of her room. At one point, at the specific behest of her father, Harding gently counseled the lovestruck-teenager that one day she would find a nice fellow her own age and fall in love.

When Harding was elected US Senator in 1914, he spent most of his time in Washington, but Nan still clung to whatever adolescent dreams she had, like an adoring fan.

Nan Britton Grows Up

nan the siren

Nan Britton had become a sultry femme fatale when her affair with Harding began.

Once graduated from high school, Nan moved to New York. She wrote to now-Senator Harding, hoping he would remember her, and help her find a secretarial position. Harding replied, assuring her that he remembered, and was pleased to enclose a letter of reference. He added that the next time he was in New York, he might buy her a cup of coffee or lunch.

He made a trip to New York soon thereafter, and the “cup of coffee” started a passionate six-year affair.

According to Nan, she kept him physically at bay for quite some time, despite his lustful pleading. She teased and he begged. And finally she acquiesced. His trips to New York became more frequent and matinee-driven.

Sometime in 1919, Nan told Senator Harding he was going to be a father. This was a surprise to the fifty-something man, since (at least according to his family) he believed that a childhood case of mumps had made him sterile. Nevertheless (according to Nan), he seemed genuinely pleased at the impending situation, and was generous in providing for her comfort and care. And, knowing that Harding was a) extremely unhappy in his marriage and b) that Florence Harding was a seriously sick woman whose death was always considered likely, she firmly believed that once Mrs. Harding died, she would become the Next Mrs. Harding. Senator Harding gave her no reason to believe otherwise.

Nan Britton, Mother

Nan Britton was secreted away in a private residence in Asbury Park, New Jersey during her pregnancy, claiming (to the snoopy landlady) that her “husband had been killed in the War.” Elizabeth Ann Britton (Harding) was born on October 22, 1919. Again, Nan claims that the Senator was always financially generous with child care costs… However…

During the remaining four years of his life, Senator-and-President Harding made no effort to see his daughter, nor did he ever publicly acknowledge the paternity.

Nan was now the beggar, imploring him to see the baby, and even suggesting casual wheel-a-baby-carriage/pass-by situations where they might meet “by accident.” Harding was now the tease, assuring her of his interest and care, peeling off wads of bills, and ducking all opportunities to see his baby daughter in person.

Nan could not manage a job, care for her child, avoid the stigma of the unwed mother, and continue her relationship with Harding, so she semi-gave Elizabeth Ann to her married sister to raise. Nan would be the doting “Aunt.”  At least for a while.

Meanwhile Harding…

The election of 1920 was a peculiar one. Both Presidential candidates, James Cox (D-OH) and Warren Harding (R-OH) were Ohio newspaper publishers and very dark horses for the office.

It is said that when Senator Harding was finally summoned to the “smoke-filled room” to discuss his possible nomination, he was asked to take a few minutes in private to decide if there were any personal reasons that might impede his candidacy. The politicians were well aware of his amorous reputation.

young carrie

Fascist-leaning Carrie Phillips was a Marion neighbor and Harding’s long-time paramour.

Whether he thought about his new baby-out-of-wedlock can only be conjectured. Whether he thought about the long-term affair he had enjoyed with another Marion neighbor who made no secret of her infatuation with Kaiser Wilhelm is another possibility – and another story! Then, of course, there were conceivably many other peccadilloes that could arise.

But he said no. There was nothing in his background to preclude his being a viable and electable candidate.

Nan Britton and Elizabeth Ann, the Senator’s daughter, was not even on the radar.

In those days, a man’s personal business remained his personal business.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza  –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990

Britton, Nan – The President’s Daughter, Elizabeth Ann Guild, 1927

Russell, Francis – The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times – McGraw Hill, 1968

Sinclair, Andrew – The Available Man: Warren Gamaliel Harding – The Macmillan Co., 1965

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Dolley Madison at 250

At 250 years old, Dolley Madison has consistently “worn well.”

Happy Birthday to Dolley!

Dolley by Gilbert Stuart

Dolley Madison, by Gilbert Stuart.

From the time Dolley Payne Todd Madison (May 20, 1768-1849) was in her mid-twenties, she was arguably the most famous woman in the United States. Two centuries later, according to the copious amount of written evidence, everybody had nice words for Dolley Madison!

Her good looks and ready smile attracted everyone in Philadelphia, where she lived as a teenaged girl-to-recently-widowed woman. Helping her mother run a boarding house in the new country’s temporary capital gave her proximity and won her the admiration of congressmen and other notables, including President and Mrs. George Washington.

So well known was the Widow Todd, that Congressman James Madison, seventeen years her senior, specifically wanted to meet her. He was immediately enchanted by her delightful personality, and within six months, they were married. As Mrs. Madison, wife of a very important figure in the new nation, she soon dominated the political-social scene as a quintessential hostess.

Wearing Well in the 19th Century.

Being blessed with good looks and a winsome smile are always helpful. Effortless and gracious entertaining and hosting abilities certainly help earn a popular reputation. But Dolley Madison also had some deeper, more substantive qualities that endeared her.

Dolley Madison was not a flirt.

James Madison and Dolley had a particularly happy marriage.

Despite her better-than-somewhat good looks, and marriage to a man several years her senior, half a head shorter, and with a reticent personality, the Madison marriage was a particularly happy one. Nevertheless, she enjoyed the friendship of many men. And their wives. And their mothers or sisters or daughters. Nobody was uneasy in Mrs. Madison’s company.

Dolley Madison did not pry.

She admitted on more than one occasion, and in her own hand, that her “happiest” blessing was a lack of curiosity about other people’s business. If you did not volunteer the information, she would not intrude on your privacy.

Dolley Madison was discreet.

Another image of Dolley – not as good as the Stuart!

She did not spread rumors, gossip or denigrate others, nor did she permit others to do so in her presence. In more than twenty years at the top of the socio-political pecking order, everyone knew that an invitation to one of Mrs. Madison’s soirees (whether in her own home, or in the White House) demanded good manners. This included people with a wide range of political opinions, regional biases, monetary advantages – or disadvantages – and experiences. No invitations were ever issued. Everyone was welcome. Everyone came. And everyone was indeed on their best behavior. No one wished to offend their charming hostess.

Dolley Madison never betrayed a confidence.

As the wife of the Secretary of State and later as the wife of the President, Mrs. Madison was privy to all sorts of knowledge: political, personal, and occasionally private. She knew everyone’s worst nightmares, secret ambitions and hidden doubts. She seldom solicited information, but if or when it was shared in confidence, it remained in confidence.

Politics by People

If Mrs. Madison were alive today, she would continue to insist that she believed in “politics by people.” Those are her words.

The White House of the early nineteenth century.

She genuinely liked people. Her great gift was her effortlessness in bringing them together from all walks of life: highbrows and lowbrows and those in between. For sixteen years in Washington, her Wednesday evening soirees, sometimes called “squeezes” or “crushes,” attracted upwards of 300 guests – every Wednesday. Judges met with clergymen, shopkeepers with generals, and farmers with Senators or editors. And rustics in calico and hobnail boots were welcome to mingle with ladies and gentlemen in velvets and silk.

Blessed with the politician’s gift of remembering names and faces, where they were from, and those little tidbits about their children’s ages or their elderly mother’s health, she greeted every guest personally. She stood at the door and made sure that every stranger to town was introduced to someone with a common interest. She was always sensitive to shyer dispositions, and could not bear wallflowers. Everyone must be made welcome.

She intuitively understood the difference between “private” and “public” personal information. For instance, if someone confided an illness in his family, it was public. It was information that could (and frequently was) shared with her husband. Thus appropriate acknowledgements could be sent and more than likely, be graciously remembered.

Wearing Well in the 21st Century

Even in her elder years, Mrs. Madison was considered a good looking lady!

Some modern historians love nothing better than to totally debunk, discredit and dismiss people who lived long ago. Some notables who were prominent during their lifetimes have disappeared into the dustbins. Some rightly so; some unjustly so. Some historians focus on personal biases or single flaws, forgetting that we all have biases, and are all flawed.

With the huge changes during the past half-century or more in what is expected of a First Lady, many people tend to dismiss Mrs. M. as “a good hostess,” and that is all; not particularly remarkable. Big deal. Throwing a party.

James Madison, astute and insightful, understood both the nature and the substance of his wife’s gifts, and how much they enhanced his political life as well as his personal happiness. He could rely on her discretion to refrain from offering political opinions, save those of her brilliant husband. He could also rely on his wife to keep him apprised of everyone’s pertinent welfare, the births and deaths, the sickness and health and those non-confidential details that transcend politics and bind people together. Dolley was immensely popular and her popularity was his joy.  Some even suggested it was the key to his re-election to a second term. Many consider them to be the first Washington Power Couple.

Even twenty years after her heyday in the eighteen-teens, when an elderly Widow Dolley returned to Washington, which had grown exponentially, she was still the most popular First Lady of all times.

The same qualities that held her in high esteem more than two hundred years ago, still do her huge credit today! Happy Birthday!


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961, 1990, William Morrow

Allgor, Catherine – A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation – 2006 Henry Holt and Company

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






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Franklin Pierce: Moments of Grace

Franklin Pierce came to the Presidency following great personal tragedy.

Franklin Pierce: The Tragedy

Only weeks before Franklin Pierce (D-NH) was inaugurated in 1853, he took his wife and their eleven-year-old son to visit family in Massachusetts. En route, their train derailed, and little Bennie was killed. The parents were plunged into devastating grief over their last remaining son. Two other little boys had died years earlier.

jane and bennie

Jane Pierce and her son Bennie.

Naturally the tragic event was carried in all the newspapers, including those in Springfield, Illinois. No doubt it was seen by a lawyer and ex-Congressman. Having recently lost a three-year-old son of their own, Abraham and Mary Lincoln surely were sympathetic.

Franklin Pierce: New President and Friend

Franklin Pierce (1802-1869) was a very dark horse. His name was not even mentioned at the Democratic convention in June, 1852 until the 48th Ballot. “Franklin Who?” was the general consensus – but by then, everyone was hot and exhausted.

Pierce had been a well-liked Congressman and Senator, but that had been more than a decade earlier. By 1852 he was all but forgotten by most of the political world – at least those outside of New Hampshire.

One of the friends he had made some years earlier, was Mississippian Jefferson Davis, and they had stayed in regular touch. When Pierce won the election, he asked his old friend to join his cabinet. Davis declined.

After the tragedy of his son’s death, and the total incapacity of his devastated wife, Pierce reached out to Davis again, this time begging him to accept the position of Secretary of War. He said he needed “a friend” close by. Someone he could talk to in confidence.

Davis accepted and became Secretary of War, and the good friend Pierce needed.

Franklin Pierce: Politics Thereafter

Pierce’s presidency was less than a whopping success, and far from happy. He was disappointed at being overlooked for his party’s nomination in 1856, but relieved to  leave what had become an oppressive and depressive situation.

He had hoped that Jefferson Davis would be considered for the Democratic nomination, believing him eminently qualified. But they both knew that in the volatile 1850s, no one from the Deep South could be nominated – or elected.

franklin pierce

Franklin Pierce, 14th President.

Instead, the aging James Buchanan of Pennsylvania was nominated. Shortlisted for the presidency for a dozen years, Buchanan been Pierce’s Ambassador to Great Britain. Being out of the country and thus out of the fray no doubt made the 65-year-old Buchanan more viable. He was elected.

The Pierces, now free of responsibilities, went to Europe for a few years. They had hoped a change of scenery might benefit his permanently despondent wife. It did not. When they returned to New Hampshire, they boarded.

Pierce maintained his interest in partisan politics, happy to share his increasing opposition to the Republicans – especially Lincoln – with anyone who would listen.

Few listened. He was perceived as a cranky old man, and a very heavy drinker.

FP: The First Moment of Grace

It was no secret that Pierce was adamantly opposed to Abraham Lincoln’s politics and policies.

Willie Lincoln was eleven, the same age Bennie Pierce when he died.

Nevertheless, in early 1862, nearly a decade after Pierce’s tragic inaugural, an incident occurred that bound the two men together. Eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln contracted typhoid fever and died. President and Mrs. Lincoln were thrust into deep mourning.

Of course it was reported in all the newspapers, even in Concord, New Hampshire, where the Pierces were again consumed by sad memories. Pierce’s disdain for Lincoln was strictly political and he knew first hand the pressures the President was under.

The sixteenth President.  Franklin Pierce was not a fan.

Some weeks later, Abraham Lincoln received a personal letter from his predecessor.

My dear Sir,

The impulse to write you, the moment I heard of your great domestic affliction was very strong, but it brought back the crushing sorrow that befell me just before I went to Washington in 1853, with such power that I felt your grief, to be too sacred for intrusion…

Even in this hour… your thoughts, will be, of your cherished boy… until you meet him in that new life, when tears and toils and conflict will be unknown.

I realize fully how vain it would be, to suggest sources of consolation….

With Mrs. Pierce’s and my own best wishes – and truest sympathy for Mrs. Lincoln and yourself

I am very truly, yr. friend,
Franklin Pierce

The likelihood that Lincoln wrote a graceful response to Pierce’s heartfelt condolence letter is strong; but it has never surfaced.

FP: A Second Moment of Grace

Franklin Pierce’s post-presidential years were lonely and unkind, especially to a man who had always enjoyed camaraderie. The permanent melancholy of Jane Pierce did not help. She died in 1863.

Jefferson Davis was one of Pierce’s closest friends.

The Civil War estranged him from many of his old Southern friends, including Davis, now Confederate President. Their correspondence was curtailed. While their affection remained strong, the proximity and ability to communicate was severed.

In April, 1865, the Union euphoria at the end of the Civil War was abruptly changed by the assassination of Lincoln. The mood of the country was ominous and ugly. Jefferson Davis was first on the list of those expected to hang. He was caught, arrested and taken to Fortress Monroe, near Norfolk, Virginia, ostensibly to await trial. He remained imprisoned for two years.

Former President Pierce no longer had any political clout. Nobody was listening to him, especially since rumor had it, he was generally depressed and perpetually drunk. Nevertheless, Pierce made the long trip down the Chesapeake to visit his old friend and offer his sympathies and whatever remnants of prestige the ex-president had.

The substance of their conversation has never been documented, but it is inconceivable that the gesture of sincere personal friendship was not deeply felt. By both of them.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – America’s First Families – Touchstone Books, 2000

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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Johnson, Grant and the Big Parade

Andrew Johnson, 17th President

Mid-March through Mid-May, 1865 were fraught with events

March 1865

With General Ulysses Grant squeezing the Rebel Army even tighter in Petersburg, VA, and General William Sherman marching his vast army up the eastern coast, everyone knew that the end of a terrible Civil War was close at hand. Yes, there would be more fighting and more casualties, but the end was coming.

Lincoln meets with his Generals.

And to that end, President Abraham Lincoln, newly inaugurated to his second term, paid a visit to General Grant and Admiral David Porter. General Sherman made a flying trip to join the discussions.

Lincoln obviously meant every word in his “malice toward none” Second Inaugural speech. He wanted it to be policy: “let ‘em up easy.” A generous approach would woo the vanquished far easier than brutal blame and punishment demanded by many in Congress.

April 9-15, 1865

After a desperate cut, run and chase across central Virginia, Union forces, vastly outnumbering the dwindling Confederates, finally cornered them. Realizing the futility of further hostilities, and with his army near starvation, General Lee surrendered. The terms were generous. Everyone said so.

The news sizzled over the telegraph wires. Within minutes bells rang, cannons boomed in celebration, bands played, choirs sang, churches were filled to capacity for thanksgiving services. Red-white-and-blue bunting was hung. It was over. Finally.

The colorful bunting hung for only a week. The emotional euphoria plummeted abruptly. President Lincoln was assassinated.

Black crepe replaced the bright bunting. The bells tolled a muffled sound. Bands played mournful dirges.

Cracks began to appear in the “malice toward none.”

President Andrew Johnson

President Andrew Johnson

Nobody – including Andrew Johnson himself – ever expected him to become President. He was a Southerner, born in North Carolina and a long-time resident of Tennessee. He was a Democrat, albeit a staunch Unionist: the only Southern senator who did not resign his seat in 1861.

Like Lincoln, his childhood was poverty stricken and devoid of opportunity. And, like Lincoln, he was self-educated and ambitious for advancement.

But unlike Lincoln, his was a pugnacious temperament; far more inclined to stand his ground and slug it out, rather than search for more viable alternatives.

Nevertheless, he had performed yeoman services in Tennessee during the Civil War, and his personal courage never faltered. When Republican Lincoln ran for re-election on the “Union” ticket, he specifically chose Democrat Johnson as his running mate.

On March 4, 1865, Johnson disgraced himself at his inauguration. He had been ill (perhaps typhoid), and unable to eat for a few days. The whiskey his doctor prescribed went to his head. Fortunately, the Vice Presidential inauguration was private, held in the Senate Chambers, sparing him from widespread humiliation. During the next few weeks, Johnson kept a low profile.

When the Presidency dropped suddenly on his shoulders, he was a gentleman. He presided with dignity throughout the Lincoln funeral proceedings and generously allowed Mrs. Lincoln, incapacitated by grief, to remain in the White House as long as needed. He was on his best behavior.

It was his political honeymoon.

May 23-24, 1865

The two-day parade of the Union Army, May 23-24, 1865.

Washington, DC, along with the rest of the country, exhausted by four years of war, the flurry of exhilaration and the devastating grief of the assassination, needed to pull out of its emotional turmoil.

After the surrender, the Union Army printing presses cranked out hundreds of thousands of discharge certificates and related paperwork. Clerks worked around the clock in War Department offices.

Finally, when all the “t’s” were crossed and “i’s” dotted, Union soldiers, soon to be called the Grand Army of the Republic, gathered to march unit by unit, brigade by brigade, division by division in a Grand Review of the Armies down Pennsylvania Avenue. Infantry, cavalry, artillery, scouts, medical wagons. And military bands playing the tunes the country had been singing for the past four years.

The weather was perfect. Thousands of onlookers lined the streets.

The Reviewing Stand in front of the White House

Stands were constructed for honored guests. President Andrew Johnson and his cabinet took center stage in his first major public appearance (other than mourning). But the real star of the show was General Grant, the Hero of Appomattox, an unimposing figure, but the one that everyone wanted to see.

When the signal was given to begin, George Meade, General of the Army of the Potomac led nearly 100,000 of his spit-and-polished soldiers in a six-mile parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, marching twelve abreast, with all the associated bells and whistles.  It took six hours for the parade to pass.

General Ulysses S. Grant.

General George A. Custer

But if General Grant was the star, the scene stealer was brash “boy-general” George Armstrong Custer, of General Sheridan’s 7th Cavalry. He broke away from his assigned place, and galloped way ahead of his troops, waving his hat in the air! The crowd roared its enthusiasm.

The following day was not quite so spit-and-polished, yet soldierly and in fine drill. It was General William T. Sherman’s western Armies of Tennessee and Georgia – mostly unknown to Washington except by reputation. Flowers and bunting and ribbons were scattered among the soldiers, acknowledging their valor and contributions.

General William T. Sherman

Eighty-five thousand soldiers rode behind Sherman, as he rode past the reviewing stand, peeled off, and took his place beside President Johnson and General Grant, and the other notables. More bands. More songs. It took another six hours. And the combined total of marchers was only 20% of the Union Army at the end of the War.

Within a week, the armies were disbanded, and the soldiers went home.  During the decades to come there would be many more parades. But never like this.

The Grand Review may have been Andrew Johnson’s happiest day as President. It was a glad day, a victorious day, a day of pride and celebration.

And hovering over it all was the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.


Henig, Gerald S. and Niderost, Eric – Civil War Firsts: The Legacies of America’s Bloodies Conflict, Stackpole Books, 2001


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George Washington and Smallpox

George Washington’s image in his old age. The smallpox scars are visible.

Smallpox was a dreaded contagious disease. If one survived, one could be scarred and disfigured for life.

George Washington and his Brother Lawrence

Augustine Washington died when his son George was eleven. He had four younger siblings. He also had two older half-brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, from his father’s first marriage. Fortunately for George, Lawrence Washington (1718-1852), some dozen years his senior, had always displayed a brotherly affection for the boy, and took him under his wing.

Lawrence Washington

Mount Vernon, Lawrence’s property, was a modest plantation with a modest house, situated on the banks of the Potomac River, midway between Alexandria (which he helped found) and Fredericksburg. Lawrence had married Anne Fairfax, the 15-year-old daughter of his near-neighbors, and George was invited to spend time at their plantation, with ready access to the Fairfaxes, one of the wealthiest and most aristocratic families in Virginia.  They sincerely liked the  bright young fellow who absorbed knowledge, breeding and bearing first-hand. They made many things possible, including his early trade as a surveyor. At seventeen, George became part of the group of men who surveyed and made maps for the new town of Alexandria.

Lawrence Washington was tubercular however, likely infected when he served in the

George Washington, by Charles Willson Peale.

British Army. By thirty, the disease (frequently termed “consumption”) had debilitated him to a point that his doctors insisted that only a warm climate could keep him from certain death. His young wife implored him to heed the advice.

With his nineteen-year-old brother George as nurse and companion, Lawrence Washington sailed to Barbados in the West Indies. It was the only time George Washington left the American continent.

It was in Barbados that George contracted smallpox and was ill for at least one month. His case was considered fairly mild, although it left him with some facial pock-marks. And permanent immunity. The brothers returned several months later, but Lawrence died within a year, leaving a wife and infant.

According to Lawrence’s will, his Mount Vernon plantation went to his widow Anne, followed by his infant daughter. In the event that neither survived, the bequest went to his half-brother George.  Anne and the baby survived Lawrence by only two years. Mt. Vernon now belonged to George Washington.


Image result for 18th century smallpox

Hogarth included smallpox victims in his art.

Smallpox (a variola virus) has been successfully eradicated during the past fifty years. But prior to that time, it had been known for thousands of years. It was highly contagious, had a mortality rate of perhaps 30%, and if a patient survived, the scars from facial pock marks could be disfiguring to a point of grotesque. Permanent blindness was not uncommon.

It was a horrible disease, lasting a month or more. It went through several stages including fevers and body pains, nausea and vomiting, an infectious and spreading rash that evolved into pustules, usually originating in the mouth and throat. Then the pustules spread to the rest of the body, erupted, spread further, and finally dried up and fell off, usually leaving disfiguring scars. The disease was generally believed to have been brought to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by European immigrants and the slave trade, although most American “outbreaks” were confined to “cities.” Rural areas seldom had epidemics of smallpox.

The only thing good about smallpox, was that if one survived, it would provide immunity for life.

Smallpox, George and the American Revolution

The great General.

In spring, 1775, Boston, with a population of 15,000, was considered a major city, and the center for the Continental Army, following hostilities in Lexington and Concord. Smallpox, was rife, acerbated by close quarter “city” living, and reaching epidemic proportions.

George Washington, with the highest military rank and experience of any “American,” was appointed Commanding General. Within days of taking command, he wrote to the Continental Congress of his concerns about strong indications of smallpox, assuring them of his “utmost vigilance against this most dangerous enemy” and that he was taking aggressive steps to isolate anyone who showed even its slightest symptoms.

By fall, 1775, smallpox had claimed hundreds of victims in and around Boston. Hundreds of young farm boys who had never experienced close-quarter living had come to join the Continental Army and were particularly susceptible. General Washington immediately forbade any soldiers to leave the encampment – or have any contact with Boston civilians. He insisted that sanitary conditions be improved, including digging new latrines far from their drinking water supply.

Once the epidemic in Boston proper began to subside, he sent in nearly a thousand of his soldiers who had survived smallpox and thus were immune, to help abate any further spread of the dreaded disease.


Inoculation against smallpox had been known since early in the 18th century, but was a perilous experience, and far from safe. It would not be until early in the 19th century that sufficient scientific information made it a viable (although still frightening) consideration. It was a long process, with no guarantee that it would be painless or successful. It might take upwards of a month before a patient was fit to resume normal life.

Nevertheless, George Washington believed wholeheartedly in the process of injecting dead smallpox pustules into living patients, thus infecting them with a very mild case, and subsequent immunity. He insisted that all Continental soldiers be inoculated and thus free for life of the scourge.

He believed in the process so strongly, that he insisted his wife Martha be inoculated as well, which she did while she was in Philadelphia.

Looking at Washington

Another portrait of President Washington, with indications of his smallpox scars.

Photography was not invented until decades after Washington’s death. During his lifetime, any images of the man were dependent on the talents and perceptions of portrait painters. Some were better than others. A few dared to paint (or engrave) the Father of our Country as they truly saw him.

Including his smallpox scars.


Davis, Burke – George Washington and the American Revolution – Random House, 1975

Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington – Galahad Books, 2006

Williams, Tony – The Pox and the Covenant – Sourcebooks, 2010



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Seward and Davis: An Unlikely Friendship

Jefferson Davis and William Seward in their old age.

William H. Seward: Republican Whig

Senator William Seward (R-NY)

The 1850s was decade seething with unrest; a volcano just waiting to erupt. The Whigs had always been a cobbled-together party of various factions and sections and philosophies. By the 1850s, it was imploding, scooping those factions and sections and philosophies into the new Republican party. Only this time, it would have stronger leadership.

Arguably the best known and most respected Whig-turned-Republican was William Seward (1801-72), a New Yorker who had been in the public eye and on the national scene for more than a decade.

He was not only a leader, but one with a solid resume:  Legislator, Governor, NY Senator, and shortlisted for high office. He was perceived a moderate in a sea of extremes. Always strongly against slavery, he was pragmatic like Abraham Lincoln, and had straddled the middle ground. Having a cool disposition, he was seldom governed by personal passion; rather by the expediencies that could (hopefully) bring fractious parties together. Nevertheless, it was Seward who coined the phrase “irrepressible conflict,” to describe a war that he was certain would come.

Jefferson Davis: Southern Democrat

Senator Jefferson Davis (D-MS)

The Democratic Party had been a political powerhouse since the time of Thomas Jefferson, who was president the year Jefferson Davis (1808-89) was born, and for whom he was named. A Democrat all his life, Davis was a strong believer in States’ Rights, but fell far short of supporting “secession.” In short, he was perceived to be a moderate.

But with his West Point military education and service, his thriving Mississippi plantation, and four years as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, he was easily elected to the U.S. Senate in 1856. He arguably had the best resume of all the Democrats, and was unquestionably the political leader of the “Southern” Democrats. His mellifluous speaking voice was powerful, but always a softer voice of moderation, usually toning down the rabble-rousing “fire eaters” who came from other parts of the dissatisfied South.

Naturally Davis and Seward were acquainted, albeit political adversaries. They respected each other, but they were hardly “friends.”

Seward Befriends Davis

Jefferson Davis, well into his forties, had come late to fatherhood. His first wife had died more than twenty-five years earlier; Varina, his second wife, did not conceive until they had been married for seven years. In January, 1857 she was expecting their third child. Advised that this birth would be difficult, the doctors instructed them to summon the midwife at the earliest onset of labor.

Washington, DC was hit by a powerful snowstorm that crippled the city when Mrs. Davis began labor. Mrs. Margaretta Hetzel, her midwife, lived several blocks from the Davis house, and in the raging blizzard, could not manage the distance on foot. Senator Seward lived on the same block as the midwife, and while each knew the other by sight, they were only superficially acquainted.

Varina Davis with their last child, born as the Civil War was nearing its end.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Hetzel knew that Senator Seward had a horse and carriage, and knocked at his door.  She explained the urgency of the situation and asked to borrow his horse and carriage. Seward refused. Instead, he insisted on driving her to the Davis house himself, which he did.

Senator Davis was deeply touched by this personal kindness, particularly since as expected, it was a very difficult birth, and Varina Davis was ill for several weeks afterwards.

Seward Continues the Friendship

A year later, Jefferson Davis became seriously ill himself with a chronic and dangerous ocular infection that is believed to have begun many year’s earlier, from a case of malaria. His physicians called it “ulcerations of the cornea” and/or “abscesses of the eye.” It made him painfully ill, and eventually blinded his left eye. Concerned that the eye might rupture, he was heavily bandaged and unable to attend Senate sessions for several weeks.

Perhaps hoping to find some common philosophical and political ground in the growing rift between North and South in 1858, or perhaps needing a balanced “sounding board,” or perhaps because he sincerely had come to like the generally remote Mississippian, Seward began visiting the Davis house after the Senate sessions to update his colleague on what had been happening, and what had been under discussion. There was a growing bond emerging between the two men perched at the top of opposite poles.

In 1865, Jefferson Davis had four children under twelve.

One can only wonder if and how that surprising “friendship” might have played out under different circumstances. Suppose William Seward had won the Republican nomination in 1860. He was, after all, the front runner. Suppose Jefferson Davis had not been elected President of the Confederacy. Could the two of them, acting in tandem, have been instrumental in ameliorating that “irrepressible conflict”? We shall never know.

The United States Secretary of State and the Confederate President

In 1861, Abraham Lincoln became President of the United States, and appointed William Seward as his Secretary of State. Jefferson Davis had already been elected temporary (and later permanent) President of the Confederate States of America.

In his new position, Davis overcame his deep regret at the rift in the country and became secession’s great champion. Despite chronic ill health, he lived to be 81, living more than fifteen years longer than Seward.  After the Civil War, his fortunes plummeted on many fronts; there was no way he could repay Seward’s kindnesses.

But during the four years of Civil War, and the quarter century that he lived afterwards, Jefferson Davis never once said an unkind word about William Seward, nor would he permit anyone to criticize him in his presence.  It was the least, and perhaps the only thing he could do.


Chadwick, Bruce – 1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson, Robert E Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War they Failed to See – Sourcebooks, 2011

Ross, Ishbel – First Lady of the South – Harper, 1958


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General Grant’s Greatest Lesson

Fear is a natural reaction in the face of danger, or stress or the unknown. Or all of it.

USG: Reinstatement

The quintessential General Grant

The surrender of Fort Sumter in April 1861 changed everything for West Point trained Ulysses S. Grant. President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers. Galena, Illinois, where the Grant family was living, was firmly committed to the Union. But while scores of volunteers came forward, there was only one townsman qualified to train them: ex-Captain Grant – the only one in Galena with any military training and experience.

Congressman Elihu Washburne was one of Grant’s earliest mentors.

Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne, a good friend of President Lincoln, took an interest in his 39-year old constituent, and sponsored his rise. Grant was reinstated into the U.S. Army, promoted to Colonel, and assigned to the State House in Springfield, to assist with the overwhelming paperwork and procedures. His prior experience as a quartermaster stood him in good stead.

But the Union Army was in dire need of experienced military leadership, not merely clerks. In early summer, Colonel Grant was assigned to the District of Southeast Missouri, under the command of General John C. Fremont. Missouri, a deeply divided border state, was the birthplace of Grant’s wife Julia Dent. Grant himself had lived in Missouri for several years. Maintaining control of Missouri, and thus the Missouri/Mississippi River was crucial to the North. Grant, who credited much of his military skill to the ability to “read a map” knew this.

The Army was still in a state of general confusion; nevertheless Grant was in charge of nearly 20,000 troops, young, raw and untested. While Grant experienced battle first hand as a young Lieutenant during the Mexican-American War some fifteen years earlier, this would be the first time he actually commanded troops – troops he would have to send into battle.

The Salt River Incident

Brigadier General Grant. His wife made him trim the beard.

Grant was always a man who loathed idleness, and itched for action. Having been assigned to assist in the military effort to keep Missouri in the Union, he discovered a Confederate encampment near the Salt River, under the command of Colonel Thomas Harris. He planned accordingly.

According to Grant’s Personal Memoirs, written nearly a quarter century later, he recalled vividly:

“As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Galena, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on.”

Meanwhile, as they approached the crest where he could see the plains below, he found the Confederates had evacuated the camp. “My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him… a view I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards.”

He added that while he was always generally anxious when confronting the enemy, he never experienced that kind of trepidation again.

“I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. This lesson was valuable.”

Within weeks, Grant received notification that he had been promoted to Brigadier General.

Three Years Later

By spring, 1864, Grant was not only a General, but had become the General. His victories at Fts. Henry and Donelson, Shiloh and Vicksburg cemented his reputation as a general who could – and would – fight.

President Abraham Lincoln had little luck with his generals – until Grant.

President Lincoln, who had had little luck with his long string of failed eastern Generals, brought the “western” General Grant forward to take complete command of the Army. One of his first decisions was to make his headquarters with General Meade’s Army, rather than at the War Department in Washington, subject to politicking and infighting and all the distractions that had beset his predecessors. In the field, he believed he would be where he could best serve.

The Army of the Potomac was more than 100,000 strong. The soldiers and officers had heard of General Grant, the Victor of Vicksburg, of course, and undoubtedly respected him. But they did not know him. It would take a little time. But despite Grant’s obvious successes in the west, the rank-and-file soldiers of the eastern army were battle tested by General Robert E. Lee, and time and again, had been “whupped.”

The general consensus in the camps was, “Yeah, but he hasn’t come up against Bobby Lee, yet.”

Grant respected Robert E. Lee, but he did not believe he was invincible.

Grant had met Robert E. Lee briefly in Mexico. Lee was more than a dozen years his senior, with a distinguished reputation, that Grant knew and respected. But Grant also knew that while Lee was undoubtedly a fine commander, he was not a superman or a genie out of a bottle.

He finally had enough of the pervasive fear of the supposedly invincible “Bobby Lee” and quietly, but firmly advised his Lee-shy soldiers that they should stop worrying about what Lee would do to them, and let Lee worry about what Grant was going to do to him.

He had learned the lesson of the Salt River Non-Encounter.

Even Later

Grant’s Personal Memoirs are considered some of the finest war memorials ever written.

That non-encounter at the Salt River was remembered for all times when a dying General Grant wrote his memoirs in 1884-5.

It is perhaps part of Grant’s greatness as a commander that like Abraham Lincoln, he could learn valuable lessons from all sources, and apply it where needed.

The quotes about his enemy being as frightened of him as he was of them have been repeated widely for the last 150 years. They will likely continue to be repeated. The truth of the concept holds.


Grant, Ulysses S. – Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant – World Publishing (reprinted) 1952

McFeely, William S. – Grant: A Biography – W.W. Norton, 1981





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