It is now the day after Labor Day, marking the traditional end of the summer season. Apart from one beastly hot week, it has not been as warm and humid here in Western Maryland as it has been most other years. We have witnessed a rather wet season, with the Antietam flowing higher, faster, and muddier than most years.
This area of the country is often known for high humidity and terribly uncomfortable weather conditions over the summer, particularly in August. And even as in our era, where Congress is out of session at this time, in 1863 the city of Washington was much less occupied at the end of the summer. It was an unhealthy place to be – quite unbearable before the days of air conditioning.
President Lincoln especially enjoyed and used a cottage at the Soldiers’ Home in northern Washington as a place to daily escape the city. Though it is now in the midst of an urban area, at that time it was removed from the density of city life and located upon a hill where at least a few cooler breezes might render the overnight hours less stifling.
As I have written about previously both HERE and HERE, I enjoy visiting this restored location; and it should be a must-see on the itinerary of any Civil War enthusiast when coming to Washington. The best written piece on the subject is by Dickinson College professor Matthew Pinsker with his book Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home. The following couple of stories are largely derived from this.
Mary Lincoln was gone from Washington for much of the summer of 1863, choosing to travel to a better climate in Vermont. On most days, Lincoln would trek early in the morning from the Cottage, travelling the several miles into the city … from which he would return around sunset.
For the modern observer – used to the extensive network of Secret Service and security that surrounds any President – it is startling to look back at the scant protection guarding Abraham Lincoln during the most intense and impassioned era of American history. The final event at Ford’s Theatre would be the first illustration to come to mind. But beyond that, as one reads of the travels of President Lincoln, it universally stands out that the surrounding security detail is incredibly scant.
Well, even at that time there were those who had a similar thought … such as the account of Noah Brooks – the Washington correspondent for the Sacramento Daily Union. He observed that the protection amounted to a cavalry escort and a company of infantry. In theory, this would comprise about 100 men, but I am betting that it was in actuality considerably less. Brooks wrote, “To my unsophisticated judgment, nothing seems easier than a sudden cavalry raid from the Maryland side of the fortifications, past the few small forts, to seize the President of the United States.”
The diary of Lincoln’s young assistant John Hay noted in an entry on 7/25/1863 about riding back to Washington in the dark, passing through “a party of drunken gamblers & harlots.” Pinsker writes that there were 24,000 arrests in wartime Washington in 1863 … also noting that sources claimed there were in excess of 5,000 prostitutes in the city!
At this end of the summer of 1863, John Hay said that the “town is as dismal now as a dead tombstone.” As evidenced recently even by the fewer “150 years ago today” entries in this blog, this period of time was not nearly as active as most others of the four-year war. It was simply hot, humid, and quiet.
Also gone from Washington in August of that summer was Lincoln’s other primary senior aide John G. Nicolay. John Hay sent a note to update his fellow worker by saying of Lincoln, “The Tycoon is in fine whack. I have rarely seen him more serene & busy. … I am growing more and more firmly convinced that the good of the country absolutely demands that he should be kept where he is till this thing is over. There is no man in the country, so wise, so gentle and so firm. I believe the hand of God placed him where he is.” And as a theologian by trade, I fully concur with this; and I certainly believe history affirms it.
On the 21st of this month at the Cottage, there is going to be a Family Day Celebration – the details of which may be found HERE. Among activities is a child’s petting zoo. Why? Well, as it says, “…play with animals at a petting zoo with Tad Lincoln’s favorite pets.” Tad had a little goat, and the President wrote to his wife about it in the summer of 63, “Tell dear Tad, poor ‘Nanny Goat’ is lost … The gardener kept complaining that she destroyed the flowers, till it was concluded to bring her down to the White House. This was done, and the second day she had disappeared, and has not been heard of since.”
My own particular Civil War personage of special interest also crosses paths with the topic of this day – being in Vermont with his wife at the same place as Mary Lincoln. Abner Doubleday was wounded at Gettysburg by a shell fragment that hit him square upon the back of his neck, knocking him out of the saddle and over the head of his horse. As well, he had been relieved of active command duty just after the battle. From Team of Rivals, page 541 >> “For Lincoln, it was enough to know that his wife and sons were happily ensconced at the Equinox House in Manchester, Vermont, then considered a ‘primary summer resort,’ providing access to fishing, nature walks, gardens, swimming holes, concerts, croquet, archery, and excellent dining facilities. During the visit, Mary climbed a mountain, socialized with General Doubleday and his wife, and enjoyed the clear refreshing air.”
From other research that I have done, I know that Mrs. Doubleday was often one who would visit the Washington hospitals of soldiers along with the Lincolns. But I do not believe Abner and Abe were buddies whatsoever. My guess – and it is merely that – is that Abner Doubleday and Mary Lincoln were kindred spirits due to each having a highly aroused interest in Spiritualism and related occult intrigue. Yes … weird, creepy!