What if obscure individuals who are just as much a part of determining the outcome of the Civil War as Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee get together for a party? You know, just some punch, cookies, lots of gossip about who did what to whom and why and perhaps some friendly debate about who influenced history the most and who most defined the character of the nation at war. Of course, celebrities are not invited, because they are the ones our guests will talk about, especially Lincoln.
Besides, we are on familiar terms with him. Born in a log cabin amidst ignorance and poverty, Lincoln was shy but articulate, aloof but friendly, passive in private situations but aggressive in his fight to maintain the unity of the United States. He was reviled during his lifetime, but our citizens revere him more than one hundred and forty years later. If he is off the guest list, certainly missing also is his counterpart in the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, a man not well remembered anyway. Few know details of his life much beyond the fact he was the rebel president. He was a Mississippi native, West Point graduate, Mexican American War veteran, Secretary of War during Franklin Pierce’s administration and a senator at the outbreak of the Civil War. Contrary to popular belief, he was not caught wearing a dress after the war, but was indicted for treason, though never tried. He retired to his Mississippi estate and never asked for a federal pardon.
This will not be a party for generals either, so Grant, final and most successful Union military leader in the war, definitely will be snubbed, although he is well known for his victories in Vicksburg and Richmond, and for bringing the rebels to surrender at Appomattox. His record as president was marred by corruption, not by himself but by the men he appointed and foolishly trusted too much. He possibly will console himself the night of the party by swapping old stories of the Mexican-American War with Lee, who turned down an appointment to lead Union troops, following a misguided notion that his loyalty belonged to his home, the state of Virginia. As were Davis and Grant, Lee was a graduate of West Point and served with distinction in the Mexican-American War, though he admitted not recalling any contact with Grant. His skilled strategies kept the South going for four years, which may give rise to party conjecture that if he had seen what Lincoln knew, that this is one nation and not many independent states only loosely connected by the Constitution, Lee could have saved many lives by serving the Union side and ending the war more quickly.
But this party is not for people commemorated in stone, it’s for folks like you and me, the nurses, actresses, seamstresses, bodyguards, secret agents, prison wardens and doormen who bring life to our American heritage.
Probably least comfortable around the punch bowl and preferring a nice cup of tea is Dorothea Dix, who was a sixty-year-old spinster in 1861 when she was named superintendent of women nurses in Washing, D.C., and who had already gained a reputation as a social reformer for the mentally ill. Her hair is pulled back in a severe bun, her dress a dark, uninteresting color with a collar high on her thin, long neck. A native of Maine, she was raised by an emotional unstable mother and alcoholic father, and eventually she went to live with her wealthy grandmother in Boston. Dorothea spurned her grandmother’s urgings to assume the genteel life of a cultured young lady to become a teacher, first of poor girls and then women inmates, prostitutes, drunks and the mentally ill. This led to her campaigns for reform in institutions not only in the United States but also across Europe. When the Civil War began she offered her services to the government which were accepted, probably with high anticipation considering her reputation. As the Union doctors found, she was, after all, a teacher and not a nurse who had no administrative abilities. In addition, her erratic behavior showed Dorothea to be neurotic and stubborn. However, her motives were well intentioned so she remained at the hospital throughout the war.
We can imagine what life would have been for the patients and staff at Armory Hospital near the Mall in Washington, dealing with Dix’s strict rules of conduct and ideas that only plan-looking women could attend the soldiers. She was shrill and demanding, yet soft and caring. What she lacked in medical knowledge of wounds and disease was compensated by her keen insight into the trouble minds of battle-weary young men.
How she would handle chitchat with flamboyant Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a Washington socialite with the ability to make influential male companions tell her anything? Perhaps they can talk about the advantages of being born wealthy and the consequences of losing parents early in life. Rose was orphaned while Dorothea’s mother and father left her to her grandmother. Romance is not good common ground. Rose married Dr. Robert Greenhow, a well-known scholar of the time, and bore him four daughters before his death. Dorothea rejected a proposal from a wealthy Boston attorney because she feared a marriage wracked with hysterics and drunken rampages.
They may exchange notes about political acquaintances. Dorothea proved to be a potent lobbyist, pushing passage through both houses of Congress of a bill to set aside five million acres for the benefit of mentally ill Americans. Pierce, another uninvited party guest, vetoed the bill. Rose Greenhow might have been able to help her; after all, among her social contacts were William Seward, soon-to-be Lincoln’s Secretary of State, President James Buchanan and controversial senate John C. Calhoun. However, Rose’s interest lay elsewhere. Though she was fifty at the outbreak of the war Rose was still a handsome woman of considerable charms. She flirted with influential Republicans to gain serious military strategies, including the army’s route to Manassas. These precious nuggets were turned over to the Confederate government. Her notorious activities did not go unnoticed, resulting in her arrest in January 1862. The North decided it better suited its purposes to escort Rose to the Virginia border than to put her on trial, so she went to Richmond where Davis eventually sent her to England. Ah, Europe, they can compare experiences abroad.
“London, I just loved London,” Rose exclaims with artful hand gestures. “I loved the parties and men, oh my dear, how attentive they could be and generous with their purses for the Cause.” Fluttering her eyes at Dorothea, she asks, “And what did you do in London, my dear?
“I inspected insane asylums,” Dorothea replies, her head held high. “The excrement-stained bedding was particularly alarming. Unfortunately, I did not find the gentlemen of England as eager to donate money to remedy the plight of their mentally ill countrymen as you did to fund the rebels.”
“Oh,” Rose responds, her eyes down momentarily, until they fly up with coquettish charm. “You should have written a book about it. Everyone loves to read about interesting things. I wrote a memoir, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule in Washington. I made quite a bit of money for the South.”
“I didn’t have time to write a book,” Dorothea replies in a dry tone. “I was too busy writing reports on the wretched condition of the asylums.”
“How wretched, I mean, how fascinating.”
Saving Rose from her uncomfortable predicament is the arrival of lovely actress Jean Davenport Lander, who grew up on London stages and gained wealth and fame performing all the leading roles from Europe to the United States. Plopping between them, Jean begins chatting about favorite hotels and restaurants that Dorothea and Rose may have frequented. Then she switches to the good stuff—stories about influential Washington officials. After Jean’s husband Gen. Frederick Lander died, she caught the attention of future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in a brief period between his two marriages. She also shares with the two ladies a story of a party where she met a gallant Southerner who bragged he was going to do something that would “ring through the world.”
“How terrible,” Dorothea says, putting a thin hand to her wan cheek.
“Oh really,” Rose replies, slightly stiffening her back.
“I relayed the story to Mr. Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay,” Jean tells them and then laughs gaily. “John is such a dear boy. I think he has a crush on me.”
Jean is right, which is probably why he boycotts our party, even though his role as one of two secretaries to the president qualifies him as a minor but interesting figure of Civil War history. In a new version of his book Inside Lincoln’s White House, the Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, editors have restored parts that John himself had scratched from his manuscript including a sentence that says, “I like Jean M more and more.” No wonder he’s not among those gathered around the punchbowl. He’s too embarrassed by his reckless remarks.
“Did you catch the name of the dashing Southerner?” Rose asks.
“No, I didn’t,” Jean replies innocently. Whether she shared marquee billing with John Wilkes Booth on any theatrical production up and down the Atlantic seaboard is not known.
“Well, it’s probably not someone I would know,” Rose says.
“I know I certainly wouldn’t,” Dorothea adds.
“My dear,” Rose continues, eyeing Jean carefully, “we have just been discussing our literary careers. Miss—Miss—what did you say your name was, my dear?”
“She’s Dorothea Dix,” Jean says softly. “She is very well known for her work nursing our soldiers. I spent time tending the wounded myself in Port Royal, South Carolina.”
“Confederate?” An anticipatory smile flickers across Rose’s broad, striking face.
“Oh. Well. As I was saying, Miss Dix is known for her reports on mental institutions. I have my memoir of Yankee prisons.” She arches an eyebrow. “You must have tales from the theater and secrets about your ardent friends like Mr. Stanton and Mr. Hay.”
“My only writing has been translations of French plays in which I have performed. I don’t kiss and tell, as the expression goes.”
At this point Rose flies from the sofa to speak to one of her old acquaintances across the room because no further amusement is likely from her conversation with the nurse and the actress, which is just as well. They do not have an inclination to compare death scenes. Rose’s was most unpleasant, drowning on her return from England in 1864 when her ship sank off the coast of North Carolina, being dragged to the bottom by gold coins sewn into the hem of her dress. Dorothea died in 1887 after her frail body succumbed to the travails of a life spent serving the unfortunate. Jean continued her stage career and conducted a respectable life until her death in 1903.
“My darling Mr. Wood,” Rose gushes as she hugs a small but strong man in his late forties, “how is my favorite jailer?”
William P. Wood smiles ingratiatingly, as he did when he welcomed Rose and her daughter Little Rose to the Old Capitol prison when she was accused of spying in 1862. A coarse, crude man, William could nonetheless be quite charming to prisoners he wished to impress.
“We did so appreciate the fresh bread you brought in just for us,” she coos.
“Yes,” he responds through gritted teeth, knowing that he told all prisoners he had brought in fresh bread just for them, the crafty little hypocrite.
William was born in Alexandria, Virginia, raised in the Catholic faith and became a model maker. His entry into government was secured when, in 1854 he testified as an expert witness in a patent case involving Cyrus McCormick. Wood lied about the design of one of McCormick’s early reapers, causing the inventor to lose the case. The winning lawyer, coincidentally, was Stanton who later appointed him head of the federal prison in Washington.
“I never believed you were guilty, Mrs. Greenhow,” he tells her, “and you know I never lie.”
“How kind of you to say so.”
William conveniently fails to mention to Rose that as an adult he had abandoned his Catholic father and ridiculed inmates who wanted to participate in religious ceremonies. In his prison career as a civilian, he also made a point of ignoring military orders with a relish bordering on impertinence. When one office complained to Stanton about the warden’s rudeness, he was told to put up with it or resign. William always denied Stanton knew about how he lied in the McCormick case. However, if Stanton did know, he would be highly susceptible to blackmail which would explain why William seemed to have such influence over the Secretary of War. How embarrassing for Stanton to have his character flaws splashed across the nation’s front pages in the middle of the war.
“I’m always good to my friends, and my friends are always good to me.”
As Rose continues to sweet-talk the prison warden, another party guest breaks into a raucous rendition of “Blue Tail Fly,” a favorite song of Lincoln’s and dances about the room, doing a merry jig and playing the banjo.
“He’s so vulgar,” Rose says, in a judgmental tone.
“I think he’s been drinking,” Dorothea whispers to Jean.
They both probably are right about Ward Hill Lamon, Washington district marshal and self-appointed bodyguard to the president. He and Lincoln were law partners in Illinois, and he accompanied the president-elect to Washington to protect him from would-be assassins along the long route. He was a big man with a big ego, antagonizing members of Congress by enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law, which returned runaway slaves to the masters. They reduced his fees as marshal, an action that Lincoln refused to veto. They were opposites in personality and politics, but Lincoln saw in Ward a true friend who truly cared for his safety. At one point Ward even slept on the floor outside the president’s bedroom. His rowdy impulses for entertainment got him in trouble with the press. After he sang some songs for Lincoln at the site of the Battle of Antietam in October of 1862 Ward was lambasted by northern newspapers for not displaying proper reverence for the deceased. After the assassination he assumed supervision of the funeral procession from Washington back to Illinois through all the cities Lincoln visited on the way to his inauguration.
Then Ward returned to his Springfield law practice where he spent the next few years working with fellow Lincoln friend Thomas Herndon in writing a history of Lincoln which proved as controversial as his career in Washington. After a full life of altercations Ward experienced a quiet death attended by his loving daughter.
After a few minutes of Ward’s musical antics a short, muscular man with an unkempt red beard grabs his arm and swings him around.
“That’s quite enough of that,” Lafayette Baker says. He was a detective first in the State Department and then the War Department, tracking down Confederate spies in the capital. History does not state if Ward and Lafe—as Baker was nicknamed—ever worked together, but it would be easy to assume the two men did not like each other. Ward was everything Lafe was not—tall, handsome, educated and a close friend of the president.
“I do declare, Mr. Wood,” Rose remarks about the circumstances, “I think these two gentlemen are going to engage in fisticuffs.” Waving her fan against her flushed cheek, she adds, “I do believe the larger man will take him down.”
“I wouldn’t count on that,” William responds. “That’s Lafe Baker, the meanest man in town.”
That observation was very near to correct, because Lafe began his life as a mechanic in western New York, moved to California where he was part of a vigilante gang putting down riots in San Francisco. He then joined the Union at the war’s outset and posed as a photographer to spy on Confederate troop movements in Virginia. When he was captured, Lafe escaped using a small knife to break away the cell bars. General Winfield Scott rewarded his exploits back in Washington to promoting him to colonel whereupon Stanton hired him to catch spies in the capital. Among his more notorious captures was Belle Boyd, a woman not unlike our party guest Rose Greenhow. He was also characterized as venal and infamous for his questioning of rebel prisons at the Old Capitol prison. Immediately after the war Lafe wrote a memoir of his secret service duties but close examination of the text had some historians think he may have exaggerated quite a bit.
“All this commotion is making me nervous,” Dorothea says as her teacup clatters against the saucer.
“Don’t worry, Miss Dix,” Jean reassures her. “I know Ward Lamon. He won’t cause a scene. Ward’s a good man who misses his wife and daughter in Illinois dreadfully. But his duty to Mr. Lincoln comes first. You can always tell a man’s character by his allegiance to his country.”
“What’s your problem, Baker?” Ward growls.
“Don’t you ever get tired of being the center of attention?”
There was some truth to that too. Somehow Ward finagled his way into being appointed the grand marshal of the parade going to Gettysburg battleground for dedication of the new cemetery in November of 1863. A few people attending the ceremony might have even remembered his hooting and waving to the crowd more than the few words President Lincoln uttered from the podium.
“Mr. Lamon, Mr. Baker.” A mellow female voice calls out from the other side of the room. “You stop this childish bickering right now, or I’ll tell Mrs. Lincoln.”
No matter how tough each man considers himself, neither wants to deal with the wrath of Abraham Lincoln’s highly excitable wife, so they just bow slightly in acknowledgement to Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s closest friend and confidante in the White House. Lizzie, as she was called, was Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress. Born in North Carolina, she learned her sewing skills from her mother. After buying her freedom she taught these skills to young black girls in Baltimore. After her years of making dresses for Mrs. Lincoln, she went on to found the Black Contraband Relief Association. Like so many others at our party she wrote her memoirs which so upset her former employer and friend that Robert Todd Lincoln had it pulled bookstore shelves.
Lafe wanders over to Dorothea and Jean and wonders aloud, “Who does she think she is, telling us what to do?”
“She’s a saint, as far as I’m concerned,” Jean answers. “Who else could have been as kind to such an unfortunate soul as Mrs. Lincoln?”
Indeed, Lizzie consoled the First Lady when her son Willie died in February of 1862, nursed her when she injured her head in a carriage accident in July of 1863 and patted her hand as she fretted about death threats against her husband. Sadly, very few ladies in the Washington social circles would have much to do with Mrs. Lincoln because of her unstable personality so it fell to a seamstress to fill the void.
A minor flirtation between Ward and Rose is on the horizon as he saunters over to her, bumping little William out of the way.
“You look like a lady who would know where they hide the hard liquor.”
“You are a big brute, aren’t you?” Rose’s eyes flutter. “I’d just love to hear about your last meeting with Mr. Lincoln. I imagine he told you all sorts of interesting things about the Union Army.”
“That’s enough of that, Mrs. Greenhow,” William says, pulling her away. “You’ve gotten into enough trouble for wheedling information from gentlemen.”
Disappointed that his encounter with the spirited Rose is cut short, Ward consoles himself with a cup of punch, spiking it from his own brass flask pulled from an inside coat pocket. Looking over at Lafe, he mutters to himself, “Somebody’s going to kill that guy one day.”
His observation had a ring of prophecy. Andrew Johnson dismissed Lafe from his security position for spying on him. Lafe’s only excuse was that Stanton told him to spy on the controversial successor to Lincoln. His testimony before a congressional hearing into the president’s assassination revealed that eighteen pages had been torn from the diary that Booth kept from the time of the assassination to his own death on a Virginia tobacco farm. Lafe was found dead in his Philadelphia residence in July of 1868. The official cause of death was meningitis, but some must have wondered if it were murder considering all the enemies he accrued over the years.
Back across the room from our more social types a tall, lanky man hands a cup of punch to Lizzie and whispers, “You always know how to make folks behave.”
“Thank you, Mr. Pendel. How kind of you to say so.”
They were old friends, both serving in the Executive Mansion. Thomas Pendel was doorman, hired from the Washington metropolitan police force and one of Tad Lincoln’s favorite playmates. The night of the assassination he was the one who put the boy to bed and lay next to him until he went to sleep. Thomas might be considered one of the first media consultants as he lit White House windows with candles perched on slats of wood he nailed on the sides. When Lincoln stepped up to the window to speak to the crowds, Thomas held a candle just out of sight but high enough for the people to see Lincoln’s face. He also shared with Lizzie a compassion for the First Lady. During the time between the assassination and her departure from the White House, Mrs. Lincoln asked Thomas, who bore a resemblance to the president, to wear Lincoln’s clothes in front of her, a disturbing request which he obeyed. He went on to serve many more administrations and, like many others, wrote his autobiography. Thomas smiles at Lizzie and shakes his head as he looks across the room at our ladies and gentlemen.
“Oh, my. What a party this has turned out to be.”
Over in another corner, shadowed by heavy red curtains, is another guest, who sips her punch and munches on a cookie, choosing to stay in darkness, for even among these forgotten figures of history she is a mystery. Jessie Home was an immigrant from Scotland who worked in the military hospitals of Washington, D.C., during the Civil War and at its end, she died of natural causes, probably some contagious disease she contracted from one of the wounded soldiers. That’s all the history books say about her.
“And who is that?” Rose asks William.
“I don’t know,” he replies with a glint in his eyes. “But she’s a pretty one with all that red hair.”
Rose’s nostrils flare at the thought she isn’t the prettiest belle in the room. Crossing to the divan where Dorothea and Jean still whisper, she taps the back of the furniture to get their attention and nods to Jessie in the shadows.
“Who is that girl?” she says.
“A lovely girl from Scotland,” Dorothea replies softly. “She volunteers at the hospital.”
“Volunteers?” Rose says incredulously. “Why would she do that?”
“She’s pretty enough to be on stage,” Jean offers.
“Not that pretty,” Rose says with a sniff. “I never cared for red hair and freckles.”
“I almost didn’t let her attend to the wounded because she was so lovely and kind,” Dorothea reveals. “But she was so lovely and kind, I couldn’t resist her.”
“Hmp.” Rose is not to be denied her indignation. “This isn’t even her country.”
“She chose the United States to be her country.” Dorothea turns to look at Rose sternly. “That makes her more of an American than any of us.”
“How intriguing,” Jean says in a murmur.
Suddenly the door wings open, drawing everyone’s attention.
“Oh no, not her,” Rose mutters. “Doesn’t she have her own parties to attend? She doesn’t even belong here.”
“Quick,” Ward goes to William and breathes on him. “Can you smell liquor? She hates it when I drink.”
“So that’s what she looks like,” Dorothea says. “She’s slimmer than her pictures make her appear.”
“Gate crasher,” Lafe says, turning his back.
“How wonderful,” Lizzie whispers with pride. “She’s wearing the first dress I ever made for her.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Thomas announces, “the First Lady of the land, Mary Todd Lincoln.”
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