Posts Tagged ‘President Abraham Lincoln’

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The Grave of Charles Forbes

On this lunchtime bike ride I returned to Historic Congressional Cemetery (MAP) on Capitol Hill, one of my favorite lunchtime biking destinations. I like it because even after numerous rides there, there is still so much more history within the cemetery to be discovered and learned. This time I visited the grave of Charles Forbes, who I often think about whenever I make a mistake at work. Let me explain why.

Forbes was born in Ireland around 1835 and at the age of 26 started working at the White House in 1861, shortly after President Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration. He was one of several house servants assigned to President Lincoln. Quickly becoming a favorite with both the President and Mrs. Lincoln, Forbes became the personal attendant to the President, a position he held for approximately four years. He also occasionally watched out for Mary Todd Lincoln and Thomas “Tad” Lincoln III, as well.

And it was during this time working for the President that Forbes made one of the biggest mistakes on the job that anyone has ever made. Forbes accompanied the Lincolns to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, the night that Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. That night Booth approached Forbes, who was seated outside of Lincoln’s box, and gave him his calling card. Forbes then allowed Booth to enter the door to the private box. Moments later the President was mortally wounded.

Forbes remains a mysterious figure in the events of that night. He never gave a witness statement nor did he ever leave a written or verbal account of the assassination of the President. But Mrs. Lincoln remained fond of Forbes, bore him no ill will for the evening’s events, and later presented him with the suit of clothes that Lincoln wore that night.

After Lincoln’s death, Forbes became a messenger for the U.S. Treasury Department and later for the Adjutant General’s office. He died October 10, 1885, at his home at 1711 G Street in northwest D.C., leaving his wife Margaret and a daughter, Mary. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Congressional Cemetery until 1984 when The Lincoln Group, a historical society, placed a marker on his grave.

So it was this mistake on the job of Forbes’ that makes me glad that the mistakes I make at work never result in the consequences his mistake did. Even the worst mistakes I could possibly make don’t result in altering the course of history, as his mistake did. So when I mess up, I just think of him and this bike ride, and I feel a little better.

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The Lincoln Statue at the Summer Cottage

In northwest D.C., near the Petworth and Park View neighborhoods (MAP), there is a Gothic Revival-style residence known as President Lincoln’s Summer Cottage.  And there is a statue of its namesake resident on the grounds.  On this lunchtime bike ride I rode there to see it.

The 2,500-pound sculpted bronze statue of President Lincoln and a horse, presumably his favorite horse named Big Bob, was created by sculptor Ivan Schwartz of StudioEIS, who spent months conducting research to ensure the historical accuracy and visual aesthetics of this portrayal of Lincoln and Big Bob.  The statue was financed by Robert H. Smith., and dedicated in February of 2009.

The statue depicts President Lincoln standing next to his horse, who he was seen riding around the grounds of the cottage on April 13, 1865, the day before he was assassinated.  He is presumably either about to embark on or returning from his commute to the White House.  Every morning from April or May through November, Lincoln would make the three-mile, 30-minute commute on horseback down the hill into D.C. , and back again in the evening.  In 2011, staff from the summer cottage tried to reenact his horse ride and it took two hours due to traffic and lights.  That’s typical of D.C. traffic.

In comparison to The Lincoln Memorial, the summer cottage statue’s portrayal of President Lincoln is a much more intimate and personal one rather than a strong, serious figure elevated and looking down at the viewer.  The lifelike statue of a standing  Lincoln is exactly six feet four-and-a-half inches tall, which was the actual height of the 16th President.  So visitors are at eye level with Lincoln.  So step right up to it to get an idea of what it might have been like to stand toe-to-toe with Honest Abe. The hat brings him up to seven feet tall.

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The First Public Performance of The Star Spangled Banner

On this bike ride as I was riding east in the protected bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the U.S. Capitol Building, I happened to see a small plaque on the front of a building.  Out of curiosity I circled back and stopped to see what it was.  And as it turns out the plaque, located 601 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP), commemorates the location where “The Star Spangled Banner” was sung in public for the first time.

The Star-Spangled Banner” is the national anthem of the United States.  It was recognized for official use by the United States Navy in 1889, and by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916.  And it was made the national anthem by a Congressional resolution on March 3, 1931, which was signed by President Herbert Hoover.

The song’s lyrics come from a poem entitled “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, which was written in September of 1814 by Francis Scott Key, who just a few block past the western end of Pennsylvania Avenue has a memorial park named after him.  Key was inspired to write the poem by the sight of a large American flag flying above Fort McHenry during its bombardment by the British Royal Navy during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812.  The words were later set to the tune of a British song which was already popular in the United States entitled “To Anacreon in Heaven”, written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a men’s social club in London.

Despite the fact that the song is notoriously difficult for nonprofessionals to sing because of its wide range, The Star Spangled Banner today is traditionally sung most often at the beginning of many public sporting events in the United States, as well as other types of public gatherings.  But on this bike ride, I discovered where the patriotic song was sung in public for the first time a little over two hundred years ago.

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The plaque reads, “On this site in 1814, “The Star Spangled Banner” was first sung on public.  The most famous of several hotels on this block was Brown’s Marble Hotel (1851 – 1935), an innovative greek revival landmark, where John Tyler and Abraham Lincoln were guests.  In the 1830’s, Beverly Snow, a free black, operated the epicurean restaurant on the corner of 6th Street.  The Atlanta Coast Line Railroad Building was completed at the same location in 1863.  Its façade was incorporated into the present office building, erected by the B.F. Saul Company in 1985.”

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The Octagon House

I may sound like I’m getting old by what I’m about to write, but Halloween isn’t what it used to be when I was growing up.  Some of the most popular costumes in recent years have been a twerking former Disney child star, a female prison inmate in an orange jumpsuit, and a fired high school chemistry teacher turned homicidal meth dealer.  I miss the more generic and traditional costumes, like ghosts.  So as I celebrated Halloween on today’s bike ride, I went on a ghost hunt. There are a number of reportedly haunted locations throughout D.C., and today I rode by a few of those places where ghosts and spirits are reported to have been encountered.

The first stop on my self-guided bike tour of D.C.’s haunted locations was The Octagon House, which is reported to be the most haunted residence in the city. It was built in 1801 by Colonel John Tayloe, III, and some members of the Tayloe family are reported to still be residing there today.  Two of Colonel Tayloe’s daughters are said to haunt their former home. The first allegedly died just before the War of 1812.  Colonel Tayloe and his daughter quarreled on the second floor landing over the girl’s relationship with a British officer stationed in the city.  And when the daughter turned in anger to go down the stairs, she “fell” down the stairs.  Or possibly over the railing.  Stories differ.  Either way, she died.  Her apparition has allegedly been seen crumpled at the bottom of the steps, or on the stairs near the second floor landing, and sometimes exhibits itself as the light of a candle moving up the staircase.

The death of the other Tayloe daughter, stories claim, occurred in 1817 or shortly thereafter.   She had eloped with a young man, thus incurring her father’s wrath.  When she returned home to reconcile with her father, they argued on the third-floor landing.  This daughter, too, “fell” to her death.  Her spirit is alleged to haunt the third floor landing and stairs between the second and third floors.

After the burning of the White House in the War of 1812, President James and Dolley Madison briefly lived at The Octagon House as well. Dolley Madison’s spirit is said to have been seen near the fireplace in the main ballroom as well as heading through a closed door to the garden.  Her ghost’s presence is reported to be accompanied by the smell of lilacs, which was her favorite flower.

Other spirits are also said to remain at The Octagon House as well. A slave girl in the house was allegedly killed by being thrown from the third floor landing to the first floor below by a British soldier during the War of 1812.  During the years since eyewitnesses have reported hearing her scream. The specter of a British soldier in a War of 1812 dress uniform was seen by a caretaker named James Cypress in the 1950s.  Perhaps it was the soldier who killed the slave girl.

A gambler shot to death in the home’s third-floor bedroom in the late 19th century has sometimes been seen still in the bed where he died. And ghostly footmen have been seen at the front door waiting to receive guests. Various witnesses have also reported hearing assorted moans, screams, and footsteps in The Octagon House.

The next stop on my ghost ride was the Dolly Madison House, also referred to as the Cutts-Madison House, located at 1520 H Street (MAP), near the northwest corner of Lafayette Square Park.  One of the most reported spirits in all of D.C. is that of former First Lady Dolley Madison. In addition to being seen at The Octagon House, her ghost has been encountered at additional locations, including the White House Rose Garden, and at her home on Lafayette Square. It is in this home that Dolley Madison spent her last years, and where she died in 1849. Since the mid-19th century, it is on the porch sitting in a rocking chair that her ghost has most often been encountered.

I then made a stop at the nearby statue of President Andrew Jackson, located in middle of Lafayette Square Park (MAP) across the street from the White House.  There are a variety of haunted accounts involving the boisterous President Jackson within the nearby White House. Most of the stories center around the canopy bed in the Rose bedroom on the second floor.  Mary Todd Lincoln and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands are but a couple of the notable witnesses to President Jackson’s apparition.

My next stop on this haunted bike ride was the location where Congressman Daniel Sickles’ House used to be.  Located at 717 Madison Place (MAP), it is now the downtown site of the U.S. Court of Claims.

In 1859, Sickles shot and killed Philip Barton Key, who at that time was the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and was the son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem.  After learning of Key’s affair with his wife, Teresa, who was only 15 years old when she married the 33-year old Sickles, Sickles approached Teresa’s lover in front of his home and allegedly said, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house. You must die.” He then shot Key. As he lay dying, Key gazed at the window where Teresa would signal him when the coast was clear for their trists. A jury acquitted Sickles after a sensational trial that featured the first use of the temporary insanity defense in U.S. legal history. Since that time Key’s visage has been reported to occasionally appear in the location where Sickles shot him.

I then proceeded to the Walsh Mansion, which currently serves as the Indonesian Embassy and is located at 2020 Massachusetts Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Embassy Row neighborhood.  The most expensive residence in the city at the time it was completed in 1903, the mansion was built by Thomas J. Walsh, a famous gold miner and industrialist. He was also known for giving the famed Hope Diamond to his daughter Evalyn Walsh McLean as a wedding present. However, along with the diamond came its curse.  According to the legend, a curse befell the large, blue diamond when it was stolen from an idol in India – a curse that foretold bad luck and death not only for the owner of the diamond but for all who touched it. Anyway, Evalyn continued to live in the house after her father’s passing until her death in 1947. However, by the time she died she had lost the family fortune and more, and to cover her significant debts, the Walsh Mansion was sold to the government of Indonesia. According to embassy staff, however, Evalyn never vacated the home. Rather, her spirit has been seen several times gliding down the mansion’s grand central staircase.

The Mary Surratt Boarding House was the next destination on my haunted tour of D.C.  Located at 604 H Street (MAP) in the heart of the city’s Chinatown neighborhood, the three-story Federal-style townhouse has been substantially renovated through the years.  But in the mid-1800’s it was a boarding house owned by Mary Surratt, who was convicted and hanged as one of the conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The building currently houses a Chinese restaurant, named Wok and Roll, on the ground floor. But it may also house Mary Surratt’s ghost as well. From the 1870s onward, occupants of the building have claimed that Surratt’s spirit is responsible for the incomprehensible mumbling and whispers, footsteps, muffled sobs, and creaking floorboards which have unnerved them.

I also rode to the Capitol Hill neighborhood today, where the ghost of Joseph Holt is said to haunt the street near where he lived.  Holt was Judge Advocate General of the Army, and presided over the trials of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. During the trials, accused conspirators Dr. Samuel Mudd (who treated assassin John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg) and Mary Surratt (at whose downtown boarding house the conspirators met) were held at the Old Capitol Prison opposite the U.S. Capitol Building. The modern day U.S. Supreme Court Building stands on the site today. After Holt retired, he allegedly became a recluse in his Capitol Hill home. Local residents have told stories of Holt’s ghost walking down First Street in a blue suit and cape, pondering the guilt of Mudd and Surrat as he heads for the site of the Old Capitol Prison.

Lastly, before heading back to my office, I concluded my self-guided haunted bike tour by stopping by the U.S. Capitol Building. Many people would contend that the Capitol is soulless, but it is no stranger to departed souls. The Capitol Building is reputedly haunted by a former President, many past members of the House of Representatives, other government officials, officers who served during the American Revolutionary War, workers who died during its construction, and perhaps most famously, or infamously, a “demon black cat.”

One of the most illustrious ghosts said to haunt the Capitol Building is John Quincy Adams, the nation’s sixth President, who after serving as President went on to serve nine terms as a Massachusetts Congressman. In 1848, at age 81, Adams fell unconscious on the House floor while in the middle of a speech. Lawmakers carried him into the speaker’s office, where he died two days later. Ghost followers contend that his spirit subsequently made its way back to the chamber, now known as Statuary Hall. A plaque there marks the spot where Adams’ desk once stood. It is from that spot, believers attest, that his ghost sporadically redelivers his unfinished speech.

The infamous “demon black cat” is alleged to prowl the halls of Congress, and make appearances just before a national tragedy or change in Presidential administration. It was first seen in the early part of the 19th century, and a night watchman shot at it in 1862. It has also been seen by other night watchmen and members of the Capitol Police. It appeared before the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the October 1929 stock market crash, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The cat has not only been seen in the halls, but has repeatedly appeared in Washington’s Tomb. The Tomb, located two levels below the crypt beneath the Capitol Rotunda, was an original feature of the building, planned as a resting place for George Washington and members of his family. But the Washington family politely declined the offer, and the Tomb now stands empty. Or does it?

The specters of at least two soldiers are also said to haunt the Capitol Building.  A few eyewitnesses have claimed that whenever an individual lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda, a World War I doughboy momentarily appears, salutes, then disappears. A second apparition, which eyewitnesses say is the ghost of an American Revolutionary War soldier, has also appeared at the Washington Tomb. According to several stories, the soldier appears, moves around the unused Washington family catafalque, and then passes through the door into the hallway before disappearing.

Thus having concluded my haunted tour, I headed back to my office.  It was a great bike ride, despite the fact that I did not see, hear, or otherwise sense the presence of any ghosts in a city that seems to be full of them.

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James A. Garfield Memorial

Despite serving in office for only 200 days, President James A. Garfield is, in my opinion, one of the most unique and interesting Presidents in history.  For this reason, and because it was on this day in 1881 that President Garfield succumbed to wounds inflicted by an assassin 80 days earlier, for this bike ride I chose to ride to the James A. Garfield Memorial.  It is located on the grounds of the United States Capitol Building in the circle at First Street and Maryland Avenue (MAP ) in the Downtown area of Southwest D.C.

Born in Orange Township, now Moreland Hills, near Cleveland, Ohio on November 19, 1831, James Abram Garfield was the last of the seven Presidents who were born in log cabins.  His father, Abram Garfield, was from Worcester, New York, and came to Ohio to woo his childhood sweetheart, Mehitabel Ballou.  When he got there and found out she was married already, he married her sister Eliza, instead.  His father died when he was still a baby, and he was raised by his widowed mother and elder brother, next door to their cousins, in virtual poverty.

Before eventually entering politics, Garfield first unsuccessfully tried his hand at being a frontier farmer.  Then, after completing his education, he worked teaching Greek and other classical languages for his alma mater in Ohio (now called Hiram College), where he met and eventually married one of his students, Lucretia Rudolph.  Together they had seven children, one of whom lived to be 102 and did not die until the 1970’s.  He also served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

While still serving in the Army in early 1862, Garfield began his political career.  He ran for the U.S. Congress in Ohio’s newly redrawn and heavily Republican 19th District, and won.  During his time in Congress, Garfield supported and voted for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1866.  Also during his time in Congress, Garfield served on a specially-created Electoral Commission that decided the disputed outcome of the 1876 Presidential election, giving the presidency to his party’s candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes.

Then, while still serving as a Congressman in 1879, Garfield was elected by the Ohio Senate to replace John Sherman as U.S. Senator from Ohio because Senator Sherman resigned his seat to campaign for the presidency.  Garfield then went on, unexpectedly, to beat Sherman in the primaries and then win the 1880 presidential election.  As a result, there was a period of time, following the presidential election, where Garfield was a sitting congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senator-elect, and the U.S. President-elect, all at the same time.

Some other interesting aspects of Garfield include that he was the first primarily left-handed President, but he was also ambidextrous.  It is said you could ask him a question in English and he could simultaneously write the answer in Greek with one hand and in Latin with the other.  Also, as a minister in the Disciples of Christ Christian Church, Garfield is the only President to ever have been a preacher.  Also, as a former professor of languages, Garfield was the first President to campaign in multiple languages. He often spoke in German with German-Americans he encountered along the campaign trail.

On the morning of July 2, 1881, just four months into his presidency, President Garfield went to D.C.’s Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, then located at the corner of Sixth Street and B Street, and the present site of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art.  He was there to catch a train on his way to a short vacation.  As he walked through the station toward the waiting train, a man named Charles Guiteau stepped behind the President and fired two shots.  Guiteau was an attorney and political office-seeker who was a relative stranger to the President and his administration in an era when Federal positions were doled out on a “who you know” basis. When his requests for an appointment were ignored, a furious Guiteau stalked the President, vowing revenge.

In comparison to the enormous amount of security now surrounding the President when he travels, it is incredible to think that when President Garfield was killed he was walking through a public train station with no bodyguard or security detail.  He was scheduled to travel alone, and was being seen off at the station by two of his sons and two friends.  One of those friends was Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of the first President to be assassinated.

Guiteau’s first bullet grazed Garfield’s arm.  The bullet second passed below the president’s pancreas and lodged near his spine, and could not be found by doctors.  Doctors made several unsuccessful attempts to remove the bullet while Garfield lay in his White House bedroom, awake and in pain.  Alexander Graham Bell, who was one of Garfield’s physicians, invented a metal detector to try to find the location of the bullet but the machine kept malfunctioning, apparently due to the metal framework of the bed Garfield lay in.  Because of the rarity of metal bed frames at the time, the cause of the malfunction was not discovered.

By early September, Garfield, who was recuperating at a seaside retreat in New Jersey, appeared to be recovering.  However, he took a turn for the worse and succumbed to his injuries.  He died 80 days after being shot.  Historical accounts vary as to the exact cause of Garfield’s death.  Some believe that his physicians’ treatments, which included the constant probing of the bullet wound with unsterile instruments, may have led to blood poisoning.  His treatment also included the administration of quinine, morphine, brandy and calomel, as well as feeding him through the rectum.  Many believe that the medical treatment he received eventually led to, or at least hastened, his demise. Autopsy reports at the time said that pressure from his internal wound had created an aneurism, which was the likely cause of death.  Garfield’s spine, which shows the hole created by the bullet, is kept as a historical artifact by the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Garfield was the second President to be assassinated, after Abraham Lincoln in 1865.  At 200 days, Garfield’s presidency was the second shortest, behind William Henry Harrison’s presidency, of just 31 days.  Also, Garfield is the second youngest President to die in office, behind John F. Kennedy, who was 127 days younger that Garfield was at the time of their deaths.

This ride was an interesting one, much like Garfield himself was interesting.  And it was not a very long ride, but it was for a President who did not serve for very long in office, and did not live a very long life.  Garfield worked as a farmer, a janitor, a bell ringer, a carpenter, a canal boat driver, a college professor, a lawyer, and a preacher.  He was also a Brigadere General in the Army, a Congressman, a Senator and a U.S. President.  So I guess maybe it’s not about how long you live, but what you do while you’re alive that counts.  

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President Lincoln’s Cottage

On this lunchtime bike ride I visited what’s now known as President Lincoln’s “cottage”, which is a national monument located on the grounds of the “Old Soldiers’ Home,” known today as the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home.  Located in northwest D.C. near the Petworth and Park View neighborhoods (MAP), the Gothic Revival-style residence, a style considered particularly appropriate at that time for country cottages, has a very interesting history.

Originally known as the “Corn Rigs” cottage, it was built in 1842 by wealthy D.C. banker George Washington Riggs, at his 250-acre summer retreat.  The word “cottage”, however, is somewhat of a misnomer inasmuch as it is actually a 34-room country home.  Almost a decade later, Riggs offered to sell his property to the Federal government, which was looking for a place to create a home for retired and disabled Army veterans.  An army committee purchased the estate in 1851 and utilized the house to create the Old Soldiers’ Home later the same year.  Six years later, in 1857, the retired soldier residents moved into a newly-built large stone Gothic building near the cottage. 

With the cottage now vacant, the Old Soldiers’ Home invited President James Buchanan to make his summer residence there.  Accepting the offer, President Buchanan spent a few weeks out of at least two summers at the cottage during the remainder of his presidency.

Presumably on the recommendation of President Buchanan, the next president, Abraham Lincoln, first visited the Old Soldiers’ Home just three days after his first inauguration.  Later, President Lincoln and his family would escape to the cottage between June and November in 1862, 1863, and 1864.   The family would almost certainly have returned in 1865 if President Lincoln had not been assassinated in April of that year.  In all, President Lincoln and his family spent over a quarter of his Presidency there. Each summer the White House staff transported some 19 cartloads of the Lincoln family’s belongings to the cottage. Unfortunately, there is no record of exactly what they brought.

With the Civil War officially commencing just a month after he was inaugurated, Lincoln could not escape the Civil War and his burden of leadership, even at the cottage. Every morning the President rode by horseback to the White House to carry out official business, returning to the cottage every evening.  Today, the drive down Georgia Avenue takes just a few minutes, but in the 1860s the commute through what was then a mostly wilderness area was a little slower and more dangerous.  The cavalry units that were to eventually accompanied him on his commute, as well as the encampments, hospitals, and cemeteries he passed on his was to work served, as constant reminders of the war.

It was while staying at the cottage, in fact, that President Lincoln came his closest to the war.  On July 12, 1864, when Confederate General Jubal Early attacked Fort Stevens, the President brashly went to observe the nearby battle, even though his family had been evacuated to the White House for the four days of the battle.  It was during this time that President Lincoln became the only president ever to come under hostile fire while in office.  During the second day of the battle, as he stood on atop the parapet of the fort to witness the battle, the President came under direct fire of Confederate sharpshooters.  Perhaps saving his life, a young officer named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would eventually go on to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, shouted to the President, “Get down, you damn fool!”

Other interesting events for which President Lincoln’s cottage served as the backdrop include the fact that the President was staying at the cottage when he wrote the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862.  And in August of 1864, a sniper attempted to assassinate the President as he traveled back to the cottage alone late at night.  The lone rifle shot missed Lincoln’s head by inches, but during the attempt the President lost the hat he was wearing.  The following day, two soldiers went looking for the hat.  They discovered it on the path, with a bullet hole through the side.  Also, in the summer of 1864, John Wilkes Booth, who would later in April of 1865 successfully assassinate President Lincoln, formulated his original plot, which was to kidnap the President during his commute from the cottage to the White House.

President Lincoln reportedly made his last visit to the cottage on April 13, 1865, the day before his assassination.  But he was not the last president to take advantage of the healthy breezes at the cottage.  Rutherford B. Hayes spent the summers of 1877 to 1880 there.  And Chester A. Arthur stayed at the cottage during renovations at the White House in the winter of 1882, and spent summers there as well.

In more recent years, the cottage has been recognized for its historical significance. The Secretary of the Interior designated the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home, which includes the pre-Civil War cottage, as a National Historic Landmark in November of 1973.  President Bill Clinton declared the cottage and 2.3 surrounding acres a National Monument in July of 2000.  To this day it holds the distinction of being the only national monument in the country that operates with no Federal funding.  The following year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation began a thorough restoration of the cottage, restoring it to the period of Lincoln’s occupancy according to standards established by the National Park Service. The restoration was completed in 2007.  President Lincoln’s Cottage was then opened to the public for the first time in history on President’s Day in 2008. It remains open today, and is managed through a cooperative agreement between the Armed Forces Retirement Home and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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Click on this photo to take a virtual tour of the inside of The Lincoln Cottage.

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General John A. Rawlins Statue

On this lunchtime bike ride I visited Rawlins Park, which is located between 18th Street, 19th Street, E Street and New York Avenue (MAP), in northwest D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood.  Located on the eastern end of the park is a statue of General John A Rawlins, and it is the a focal point of the park named after him.  The monument and park are owned and maintained by the National Park Service.  The statue was installed in 1874, and was relocated in 1880, and then again 1886, before eventually being located in Rawlins Park.  The bronze statue, which rests on a granite base, is part of a group entitled “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city.  They are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.

John Aaron Rawlins was born on January 13, 1831, in Gelena, Illinois.  When his father left the family and departed for California for the great gold rush in 1849, the teenaged Rawlins became the head of the family.  Despite receiving little formal education,  he became a lawyer and was admitted to the Illinois State Bar a few years later in 1854.  He began practicing law, and  became involved in state politics.  This led t0 becoming the city attorney in the city of Galena beginning in 1857.

Rawlins was a Douglas Democrat, and was a successful politician with a passion for military life by the time the Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, when troops attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.  Two days later, President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers, and a mass meeting was held in Galena to encourage recruitment. Recognized as a military professional for his prior service, an unassuming ex-captain of the Army, who also clerked for Rawlins’ brother in his leather store, was asked to lead the ensuing effort.  That man was named Ulysses S. Grant.  Grant would soon

Rawlins became Grant’s aide-de-camp and his principal staff officer throughout the Civil War.  Rawlins also became Grant’s most trusted advisor and , according to Grant, nearly indispensable.  But perhaps Rawlins’ greatest contribution was being instrumental in keeping Grant, who was known to be a heavy drinker, from excessive imbibing throughout the war.  Within eight years Grant would become President of the United States, and appoint Rawlins his Secretary of War.

However, Rawlins’ health declined after taking office.  and he would serve as Secretary of War for only five months.  Rawlins was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease that claimed the life of his first wife, Emily Smith, nearly eight years earlier.  He died in D.C. at the age of 38 on September 6, 1869.  He was survived by his second wife, Mary Hurlburt, and two of his three children.  He was originally buried in a friend’s vault in Congressional Cemetery, but was subsequently moved to Arlington National Cemetery.

Note: If you stop by Rawlins Park soon, you will have the added benefit of seeing the statue of General John A. Rawlins flanked by a grove of some of the most beautiful magnolia trees in our nation’s capital.

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The General William Tecumseh Sherman Monument

There is a group of statues spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city entitled “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.”  One of the largest and most imposing of these monuments is the General William Tecumseh Sherman Monument. The massive monument is located in a prominent spot in President’s Park, southeast of the White House and immediately south of The U.S. Department of the Treasury Building, at the intersection of 15th Street, Pennsylvania Avenue and Treasury Place (MAP).  And it was this statue that was the destination for this lunchtime bike ride.

Tecumseh Sherman, named for the famous Shawnee Indian chief, was born on February 8, 1820, in Lancaster, Ohio. He was the sixth of eleven children born into the prominent family of Charles Robert Sherman and Mary Hoyt Sherman. His father was a successful lawyer who sat on the Ohio Supreme Court, but died unexpectedly in 1829 when William was only nine years old, leaving his mother with eleven children and no inheritance or means of support. It was at that point that a neighbor named Thomas Ewing, also a successful lawyer, offered to help by taking in one of Mary’s children. Tecumseh was chosen because Ewing wanted the “smartest boy,” and after some discussion between Mary and her oldest daughter, it was decided that he was the best choice.

After being taken in by Thomas Ewing, Sherman was baptized and given the Christian name “William” by Ewing’s devoutly Catholic wife, Maria. She was shocked that the boy had not been baptized and remedied it immediately after he became a part of their family. She also felt the name “Tecumseh” was not an appropriate name, hence he was given“William” as his new first name.  He almost never used the name William though.  When he signed his name he used the signature “W.T. Sherman”, and he was most often referred to by the nickname “Cump” throughout most of his life.

Two years later Thomas Ewing was elected to the U.S. Senate, and went on to serve as Secretary of the Treasury before becoming the first Secretary of the Interior. He became a fixture of D.C. society, and William Tecumseh Sherman’s star rose along with that of his foster father. One of the most significant events during this time for young William came when his foster father secured him a coveted appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He entered West Point as a cadet at the age of 16, and would go on to excel academically, graduating near the top of his class.

The other most significant result of being raised in the Ewing family was growing up with his foster sister, named Eleanor Boyle (“Ellen”) Ewing.  After obtaining Thomas Ewing’s blessing, Sherman would go on to marry his foster sister.  The two were married at a wedding hosted by the Ewings at Blair House, with President Zachary Taylor and his entire cabinet in attendance, as well as Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.  William and Ellen would remain married and devoted to each other for the rest of their lives.

After graduating from West Point in 1840, William Tecumseh Sherman would go on to spend 13 years in the military, serving with honor but no real distinction. After resigning from the military, Sherman attempted several different careers, spending time in California as a vice president of that state’s first railroad, and later as a banker. He then moved to Kansas, where he worked as a lawyer like his father and foster father, and later he moved to Louisiana where he was the superintendent of the Louisiana Military Academy. It was at during his time in Louisiana that it seceded from the Union, and although Sherman was not anti-slavery and sympathized with the South, he was very much against the idea of secession. Stating he could not support an institution that would supply troops against the United States government, Sherman resigned his post as superintendent of the Louisiana Military Academy and moved back north, to D.C.

After returning to D.C., and readying himself to join the Union Army, Sherman met with the newly-elected President, Abraham Lincoln. But he came away from the meeting so discouraged about the lack of understanding about what he viewed as an impending war that he moved to St. Louis and took a position as the president of a streetcar company. The very next month, Sherman was offered the chief clerkship of the War Department with a promise to be made Assistant Secretary of War when Congress came back into session, but he declined.  Later, however, through the intervention of his prominent now father-in-law, Sherman returned to D.C., and after a one-on-one meeting with President Lincoln he was commissioned a Colonel in the U.S. Army.

After the Battle of Manassas he quickly was promoted to Brigadier General, and then Commanding General of the Department of the Cumberland Territory. Interestingly, Sherman is upset inasmuch as never wanted to be the one in charge, a sentiment that he had previously conveyed to President Lincoln during their meeting. But you have to be careful what you wish for, because he soon enough got his wish. In October of 1861, Secretary of War Simon Cameron came to the conclusion that Sherman was unfit to command, and he was relieved of his command and transferred. Within two months, Sherman was put on indefinite leave and returned to his boyhood home in Lancaster, Ohio. There he became so despondent that he contemplated suicide.

Had Sherman remained the president of a street car company in Missouri instead of returning to D.C. and being commissioned a Colonel in the Union Army, or had he gone through with committing suicide after he was relieved of his command, the Civil War may have been very different. Instead, Sherman returned to duty with the help of his father-in-law, and went on to be considered by historians as one of the ablest Union generals of the war. He was the originator and the first practitioner of what the twentieth century would come to know as “total war”, and the harshness of the “scorched earth” policies that he implemented in conducting total war against the Confederate States would enable him to command his troops to decisive military victories across the South from Chattanooga to Atlanta to the famous “march to the sea” across Georgia. In these campaigns and his later push northward from Savannah through the Carolinas, Sherman’s troops carried the war to the Southern home front and blazed a wide path of destruction that delivered a death blow to the Confederacy’s will and ability to fight.  For the accompanying destruction, his name is still cursed in many parts of the South.

Sherman’s service during the Civil War would result in him succeeded General Grant as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army, a post in which he would go on to serve for almost a decade and a half. However, despite his military victories and successful military career, Sherman would also be remembered for a couple of memorable and oft-quoted remarks.

In describing war, Sherman wrote in a letter to Mayor James Calhoun of Atlanta that “war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” He would later revise this statement in a commencement address at the Michigan Military Academy in 1879 to the simple phrase “War is hell.”

Years later, after his retirement from the military, Sherman was frequently talked about as a prospective Republican candidate for President. During the 1870s and 80s, Republican Party movers and shakers often tried but failed to convince him to make a run for the White House. Sherman, however, made no secret of his disdain for politics, and repeatedly declined to run. In fact, he once quipped that he would rather spend four years in jail than in the White House. Sherman eventually ended speculation once and for all in 1884, when at the Republican National Convention he turned down the party’s invitation to become their candidate by saying, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” So I think it seems somewhat ironic that his memorial is located so close to the White House.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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The African-American Civil War Museum

Whether it’s referred to as the War to Preserve the Union or the War to End Northern Aggression, American Civil War history is all too often thought of in terms of white Yankees from the North fighting against white Southern Rebels, with African Americans relegated to the sidelines of history as their fate was decided for them. The truth, however, is much different.

In 1861 before the Civil War broke out, African Americans comprised about 14 percent of the country’s population, compared to 12.2 percent in the most recent U.S. census.  There were approximately four million slaves in the United States, and almost a half a million free African Americans. But only about one percent of all African Americans in the country lived in the North at that time.

Although African Americans had served in the U.S. Army and Navy during the American Revolution and in the War of 1812, they were initially not permitted to enlist on either side during the Civil War. In the North, a 1792 law barred them from bearing arms in the U.S. Army. Additionally, President Abraham Lincoln did not support it at that time because he was concerned that accepting black men into the military would cause more of the border states to secede. Free black men were finally permitted to enlist in the Union Army in late 1862, following the passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, and Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the South, General Robert E. Lee eventually convinced the Confederate Congress to begin enlisting black soldiers near the end of the war. The legislation required the consent of the slave and his master, and would confer the rights of a freeman after the war.

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, it is estimated that 209,145 African-Americans had served as soldiers, participating on both sides, although to a far lesser degree in the South than in the North.  Eventually, several thousand blacks were enlisted in the Rebel cause, but they could not begin to balance out the nearly 200,000 blacks who fought in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) for the Union, and it was too late in the war to make a difference regardless of the numbers.  All together, over 60,000 died over the course of the war, with sickness causing thirty times more deaths than battle.

The African American Civil War Museum, where I went on this lunchtime bike ride, is dedicated to preserving and telling the stories of these men, and African Americans’ involvement and impact during the American Civil War.  The museum is located in the historic Grimke Building at 1925 Vermont Avenue (MAP), just a couple of blocks west of The African American Civil War Memorial in the Shaw neighborhood’s historic U Street Corridor, an area traditionally considered to be the heart of African-American entertainment and theater in the city.

The museum opened in January of 1999, with a mission “to serve the educational needs of its local, national, and international community with a high-quality and effective learning experience while interpreting the history of the USCT and the community life of African Americans prior to, and after, the American Civil War.” This is achieved through the communication of information and stories using historic documents, photographs, newspaper articles, replicas of period clothing and uniforms, military weaponry and other artifacts, seminars by staff, and historic presentations by volunteer re-enactors. With more than 200,000 visitors each year, the museum serves as a unique resource for teachers, scholars, students and professionals of museum studies, as well as the general public. And through the museum’s African American Civil War Descendants Registry, the museum documents the family trees of more than 2,000 descendants of the men who served with the USCT.

As I was leaving the museum, I couldn’t help but think that its importance is even greater at a time like now, when the Confederate flag is getting so much attention and causing debate and divisiveness around the country. The museum enables visitors to instead learn about the largely unknown role of those 209,145 black men who fought for freedom and to preserve the union, the 23 who won the Congressional Medal of Honor, and the emergence of three important amendments to the Constitution — the 13th, 14th and 15th — which ended slavery, gave blacks equal protection under the law, and guaranteed black men the right to vote.  All in all, I’d say that’s not a bad achievement for a museum.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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Blair House

On this lunch time bike ride I stopped by a late-Federal style, buff-colored limestone townhouse known as “Blair House.” Located across from the White House at 1651–1653 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C., it is directly opposite the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and near the southwest corner of Lafayette Park.

The original townhouse at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue was built in 1824 as the private residence of Dr. Joseph Lovell, who was a member of the Continental Congress and the first Surgeon General of the United States.  After Dr. Lovell’s death in 1836, the house was sold for $6,500.  It was purchased by Francis Blair, who had previously moved to the nation’s capitol at the urging of President Andrew Jackson. It soon became known as Blair House, and has retained the moniker ever since.

Francis Preston Blair, Sr. was born in April of 1792 in Abingdon, Virginia. In 1811, after graduating from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, he moved to nearby Frankfort, where he worked as a circuit court clerk and a journalist who frequently contributed articles and editorials to a local newspaper. Blair became an ardent follower of President Jackson, and his writings and editorials eventually garnered the attention of the President, who invited Blair to move to D.C. and take over a failing newspaper named The Globe. Blair turned the paper into a pro-administration publication, and became a successful newspaper publisher. He was also an influential advisor to President Jackson as a member of what became known as his “Kitchen Cabinet.”  Blair also continued to be an insider in the administrations of Presidents Martin van Buren and Abraham Lincoln.

Beginning in 1837, seven years after moving to D.C., Blair and his wife Eliza and their three children took up residence in the townhouse, which would remain in the family for over a century. In 1859, Blair built a red brick townhouse next door, to the left of to Blair House, at 1653 Pennsylvania Avenue, for his daughter, Elizabeth Blair Lee, and her husband, Samuel Phillips Lee, a third cousin of Robert E. Lee. In 1942, after being purchased by the U.S. government, the houses were combined, along with two other adjacent townhouses. The complex is sometimes referred to as the Blair-Lee House, though Blair House remains the official name.

Blair House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is now managed by the U.S. State Department and serves as the President of the United State;s official guest house.  However, one President, Harry Truman, actually resided there during an extensive renovation of the White House.  As a side note, during President Truman’s time in residence at Blair House it was also the scene of an assassination attempt in which the first Secret Service Officer killed in the line of duty, and to date the only Secret Service member to be killed while defending the President, occurred.

Today Blair House is primarily used to house foreign heads of state and their delegations, and flies their countries’ flags when foreign leaders stay there. It is also occasionally used for domestic guests, which has included several presidents-elect and their families prior to their initial inauguration.

During the 1980s, Blair House underwent significant restorations, with a new wing added on the north. The combined square footage of the entire complex now exceeds 70,000 square feet, making it more massive than its famous neighbor, The White House, which is approximately 55,000 square feet. And what started as a simple private residence has now expanded to consist of 110 rooms, including several conference rooms and sitting rooms, 23 bedrooms, 35 bathrooms, and 4 dining rooms, as well as several kitchens, laundry and dry cleaning facilities, and an exercise room. It even has a hair salon and a florist shop.

As I visited this house that has long been associated with important events in American history, and in recent times, world history, I couldn’t help but wonder what Francis Preston Blair, Sr. would think if he could see his former residence today.

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