Posts Tagged ‘Robert E. Lee’

Robert Todd Lincoln’s Gravesite

On this day in 1926, six days before his eighty-third birthday, Robert Todd Lincoln died in his sleep at Hildene, his Vermont home.  He was the son of President Abraham Lincoln.  And his grandson, “Bud” Beckwith, who died in 1985, is the last person known to be of direct Lincoln lineage.  In observance of the anniversary of his passing, on today’s lunchtime bike ride I went to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the sarcophagus, where he is buried with his wife Mary and their son Jack.

Robert Todd Lincoln was Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son and the only Lincoln child to survive into adulthood. While he didn’t make quite the mark on history that his father did, he did have a pretty interesting life.  The following are some of the most interesting and unusual facts about him.

Lincoln was a witness to the assassinations of three presidents, including his father.  The younger Lincoln was there at The Petersen House, where his father was taken after being shot across the street at Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth.  Years later, while serving as Secretary of War to President James Garfield, he was with the president at the Sixth Street Train Station in D.C. when Charles Guiteau shot him.  Garfield died two months later.  Twenty years after that, Lincoln was a guest of President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, when the President was shot by Leon Czolgosz. McKinley died just over a week later.  After that I imagine that future presidents were quietly glad that these events caused Lincoln to believe he was bad luck, because thereafter he refused to attend state events or accept Presidential invitations.

Lincoln’s life was once saved by Edwin Booth, a famous actor and brother of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of his father. The incident took place on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey.  On a crowded platform, Lincoln fell off into the space between the tracks and the platform.  But Booth pulled him by his collar to safety.  The exact date of when this happened is uncertain, but it is believed to have taken place before John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln.

After having her involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, Lincoln had a strained relationship with his mother.  Mary Todd Lincoln is fairly widely renowned today for being mentally ill, but it wasn’t quite such an open secret when she was still alive. Lincoln, however, realized that his mother needed psychiatric help, so he had her committed following a hearing that declared her insane.  She was eventually able to gain her release.  However, by that point she felt as though she had been publicly humiliated, and never patched up her relationship with Lincoln before her death.

Lincoln was the last surviving member of the cabinets of Presidents Garfield and Arthur.  And he was part of President Grant’s junior staff at Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse to end the Civil War, and was the last surviving witness to that event.

Lincoln was also a graduate of Harvard University, on the personal staffs of three Presidents beginning with Ulysses S. Grant, a successful and eventually wealthy lawyer, peripherally involved in politics, successor to George Pullman as company president and later chairman of the board of the Pullman Palace Car Company, a dedicated amateur astronomer and golfer, and a participant in the dedication ceremonies for The Lincoln Memorial for his father.

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Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial

Arlington House, also known as the Robert E. Lee Memorial, and formerly named the Custis-Lee Mansion, is a 19th-century Greek revival style mansion located atop a rolling hill in what is now Arlington National Cemetery (MAP), in Arlington County, Virginia.  And on this lunchtime bike ride I ventured over the Arlington Memorial Bridge to Virginia to see and find out more about the historic house.

The mansion, overlooking the national capital city landscape across the Potomac River, has a long and storied past.  Construction began in 1802, but was not actually completed until 1818. It was owned by his adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, son of John Parke Custis who himself was a child of Martha Washington by her first marriage, and a ward of President Washington.  It was originally intended as a living memorial to President George Washington. To design the estate Custis hired George Hadfield, an English architect who came to D.C. in 1785 to help construct the U.S. Capitol Building.

Custis began living in the house in 1802, in the north wing, which was the first part completed. Two years later he married Mary Lee Fitzhugh, and she moved in with him. Construction of the house continued around them for the first sixteen years of their marriage, and they lived in Arlington House for the rest of their lives .  They were buried together on the property after their deaths in 1857 and 1853, respectively.

Their only child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, took ownership of the property upon her father’s death. She moved in and lived there with her childhood friend and distant cousin, who she had married years earlier. His name was Robert E. Lee. They would have seven children, six of whom were born at the estate.

Contrary to popular belief, Lee never actually owned the Arlington estate.  However, as Mary’s husband he did serve as custodian of the property, which by that time had fallen into disrepair. Although it would take several years, Lee returned the property and its holdings to good order by 1859. But that would only last a couple of years. It would not be long until Lee would leave Arlington Mansion, never to return again.

On May 24, 1861, just hours after the Commonwealth of Virginia ratified an ordinance of secession, thus joining the Confederate States of America, over 3,500 U.S. Army soldiers, commanded by General Irvin McDowell, streamed across the Potomac River into northern Virginia and captured the Arlington estate.  It would soon be seized by the U.S. government when Mrs. Lee failed to pay, in person, taxes levied against the estate.  It was then offered for public sale, at which time a tax commissioner purchased the property for “government use, for war, military, charitable and educational purposes.”

It wasn’t until 1864, when the increasing number of battle fatalities was outpacing the burial capacity of D.C. cemeteries, that 200 acres of Arlington plantation were set aside as a cemetery. Upon the authority of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, General Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army, appropriated the grounds for use as a military cemetery.  Meigs believed Lee committed treason in deciding to fight against the Union, and denying Lee use of the mansion after the war was politically advantageous.  So he decided that a large number of burials should occur close to Arlington House to render it unlivable should the Lee family ever attempt to return.  And he was successful.  The mansion never again served as the Lee family’s, or anyone else’s, home.

Throughout the war, the Arlington estate also provided assistance to the thousands of African-Americans slaves fleeing the South.  The U.S. government even dedicated a planned community for freed slaves on the southern portion of the property, which was named Freedman’s Village.  The government granted land to more than 1,100 freed slaves, where they farmed and lived until the turn of the 20th century.

Neither Robert E. Lee, nor his wife ever attempted to recover control of Arlington House. However, after Lee’s death in 1870, his son, George Washington Custis Lee, brought an action for ejectment in the Circuit Court of Alexandria (today Arlington County).  Custis Lee, as eldest son of the Lees, claimed the land was illegally confiscated and that, according to his grandfather’s will, he was the legal owner.  In December 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, returned the property to Custis Lee, stating that confiscation of the property lacked due process. The following year Congress purchased the property back from Lee.

In 1955, Congress enacted Public Law 84-107, a joint resolution that designated the manor as the “Custis-Lee Mansion”, and as a permanent memorial to Robert E. Lee. The resolution directed the United States Secretary of the Interior to erect on the premises a memorial plaque and to correct governmental records to bring them into compliance with the designation, “thus ensuring that the correct interpretation of its history would be applied”.  Gradually the house was furnished and interpreted to the period of Robert E. Lee as specified in the legislation.  In 1972, Congress enacted Public Law 92-333, an Act that amended the previous law to designate the manor as “Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial”.  It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in October of 1966, and is currently administered by the National Park Service.

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The view from the front porch of Arlington House

 

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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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The Major General George B. McClellan Memorial

The Major General George B. McClellan Memorial

On this bike ride, I stopped by the Major General George B. McClellan Memorial, which is located on a median at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue, Columbia Road, and California Street (MAP), directly in front of The Washington Hilton in northwest D.C.  The statue is part of a group of statues 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.

After being named General-in-Chief of the Union Army during the Civil War by President Abraham Lincoln, McClellan drew praise for his military initiatives. However, he also quickly developed a reputation for his arrogance and contempt toward the political leaders in D.C., including toward the President who had named him to the top army post. The general began openly associating with Democratic leaders in Congress and showing his disregard for the Republican administration. In a letter to his wife, McClellan wrote that Lincoln was “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon.”

During McClellan’s brief tenure as General-in-Chief, Lincoln made frequent evening visits to the general’s house to discuss strategy.  The most famous example of McClellan’s cavalier disregard for the President’s authority occurred on a day in 1861 when Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and presidential secretary John Hay stopped by to see the general. McClellan was out, so the trio waited for his return. After an hour, McClellan came in and was told by a porter that the guests were waiting. McClellan headed for his room without a word, and only after Lincoln waited another half-hour was the group informed that McClellan had retired for the evening and had already gone to bed. Hay felt that the president should have been greatly offended, but Lincoln replied that it was “better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.”

Lincoln made no more visits to the general’s home. However, approximately four months later, the President removed McClellan as General-in-Chief of the army. How much the general’s abrasiveness played a part in his removal is open to debate. Many regarded McClellan as a poor battlefield general. Others maintain that he was a highly capable commander, whose reputation suffered unfairly at the hands of pro-Lincoln partisans who needed a scapegoat for the Union’s setbacks. His legacy therefore defies easy categorization. After the war, Ulysses S. Grant was asked to evaluate McClellan as a general. He replied, “McClellan is to me one of the mysteries of the war.” But Robert E. Lee, on being asked who was the ablest general on the Union side during the late war, replied emphatically: “McClellan, by all odds!”

Interestingly, McClellan later ran as the Democrat party’s nominee for the 1864 presidential election against Lincoln. He was soundly trounced in the election, obtaining only 21 electoral votes to Lincoln’s 212 electoral votes. McClellan subsequently held several positions, including governor of New Jersey, before retiring to spend his final years traveling and writing his memoirs.

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Leesylvania State Park

Leesylvania State Park

I’ve found holiday weekends are an ideal opportunity to venture away from the city and explore one of the regional or state parks in the D.C. metro area. So for a Columbus Day weekend ride, I selected Virginia’s Leesylvania State Park. The Park is located on the shores of the Potomac River overlooking Neabsco Creek, about 30 miles south of D.C. in the southeastern part of Prince William County (MAP).

The land where Leesylvania State Park is now located has had a rich history. Native Americans lived on this land for thousands of years, and it was once the site of a former Algonquian Indian village. Records indicate that Capt. John Smith also visited the area in 1608 on his voyage of discovery. It was eventually settled in 1747 by Henry Lee, II, who lived there until his death in 1787. He and his wife had eight children at their home there, including Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, a Revolutionary War hero and the future father of Civil War General Robert E. Lee, who was also born there. During the Lee family’s ownership of the land, George Washington is known to have visited there on several occasions, mentioning the visits in his diaries.

Then in 1825 the property was sold to Henry Fairfax. Henry Fairfax was a descendant of Thomas Fairfax, the 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, for whom neighboring Fairfax County, Virginia, was named. Fairfax County was formed from the northern part of Prince William County. The land was eventually passed to John Fairfax in 1847. The site was John Fairfax’s boyhood home, and he returned to live on the property in late 1875 after serving as a staff aide to Confederate Lt. General James Longstreet during the Civil War. Fairfax remained there until his death in 1908.

During the Civil War, the land was also used as a small Confederate force and gun emplacement, named the Freestone Point Confederate Battery, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Unfortunately, little remains of the physical remnants of the park’s early history. Only a small cornerstone of the Lee House remains, as well as a restored chimney of the Fairfax House. Henry Fairfax and his third wife are buried on the property, as are Henry Lee II and his wife. These archeological sites and the cemetery are accessible by trail, and are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today Leesylvania State Park offers many land and water activities, including hiking, picnicking, fishing and boating. The park includes a playground, four picnic shelters, a small group-only campground, a snack bar, and store and gift shop, and a visitor center. There are also five hiking trails, and a 20-station fitness trail. The park’s water amenities include a natural sand beach, boat launches and a boat storage area, canoe and kayak rentals, and a universally accessible fishing pier. Interestingly, halfway out on the park’s pier is the state line, so by walking out to the end of the pier you are actually in the state of Maryland, which can be seen on the other side of the river, about a mile away by water.  The shortest way to get there by land, however, is over 55 miles.

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General Philip Sheridan Memorial

General Philip Sheridan Memorial

The General Philip Sheridan Memorial is located in the center of Sheridan Circle, which is a traffic circle at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and 23rd Street (MAP), in the Embassy Row neighborhood of northwest D.C.  A bronze sculpture dedicated in November of1908, it depicts General Sheridan during battle on his horse.  It was sculpted by John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, commonly referred to as Gutzon Borglum, who also produced an enormous carving of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee’s head at Stone Mountain in Georgia, and went on to create his crowning achievement, the Presidential Memorial at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.  The General Philip Sheridan Memorial is part of a group of statues entitled “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city, and are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.

Philip Henry Sheridan was a career U.S. Army officer and a Union general during the Civil War.  His military career was noted for his rapid rise, but it did not start off as successfully.  He obtained an appointment to the United States Military Academy from Congressman Thomas Ritchey, but only after the congressman’s first candidate was disqualified.  While at West Point, Sheridan was suspended for a year for fighting with a classmate and threatening to run him through with a bayonet in reaction to a perceived insult.  He was allowed to return, and graduated in 1853, but was ranked 34th in his class of only 52 cadets.

His physical stature and appearance most likely did not enhance his career either.  Fully grown, he reached only 5 feet 5 inches tall, a diminutive stature that led to the nickname, “Little Phil.”  And he was even described by Abraham Lincoln as “A brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.”

But despite his physical appearance and his career’s less than stellar beginnings, Sheridan went on to achieve great success in his military career.  He demonstrated his capacity for command during assignments on the U.S. frontier and in early Civil War operations.  Sheridan’s successful Shenandoah Valley Campaign in 1864 crushed Confederate General Jubal Early’s cavalry while destroying much of the South’s food supply.  Sheridan was also instrumental in General Robert E. Lee’s withdrawal from Petersburg, Virginia, after which Lee would soon surrender to Grant in April of 1865 to end the war.  Many contend that his career was also the result of help from influential friends, including his close association with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant.  Sheridan eventually became the Commanding General of the U.S. Army in November of 1883, and just before his death in June of 1888, he was promoted to General of the Army of the United States – the same rank achieved by Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Sheridan also enjoyed a number of other somewhat unusual successes during and after his military career.  In 1871, Sheridan was present in Chicago during the Great Chicago Fire and coordinated military relief efforts.  The mayor, Roswell B. Mason, to calm the panic, placed the city under martial law, and issued a proclamation putting Sheridan in charge.  Sheridan also played an important role in the establishment and protection of Yellowstone National Park, which was officially created in 1872.  Mount Sheridan, which rises more than 10,000 feet and is located within the national park, was named after him.  Sheridan served as the ninth president of the National Rifle Association as well.

On a personal note, in 1875 Sheridan married Irene Rucker, a daughter of Army Quartermaster General Daniel H. Rucker. She was 22 at the time, and he was 44. They had four children.  After the wedding, Sheridan and his wife moved to D.C., where they lived in a house given to them by Chicago citizens in appreciation for Sheridan’s protection of the city during the Great Chicago Fire.  In 1888, at the age of 57, Sheridan suffered a series of debilitating heart attacks.  Knowing that his end was near, Congress promoted him to General of the Army on June 1, 1888.  Sheridan died on August 5, 1888.  He was survived by his wife Irene, who never remarried, saying, “I would rather be the widow of Phil Sheridan than the wife of any man living.”

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