Thursday, April 30, 2009
We were on a blood trail, one that dried up over a hundred and forty-four years ago in a city that’s lost much of its historic past. There were no pigs roaming free, no mud to contend with, no saloons swelling with patrons. It was Washington in 2009 and much of what we heard forced everyone to use his or her imagination.
We started in Lafayette Park, directly across from the White House, and there Anthony Pitch, author of “They Have Shot Papa Dead,” began his narrative, setting the stage by offering a brief biography of John Wilkes Booth, then transitioning to April 10th, when Booth and Lewis Payne standing among an overflow a crowd in front of that same White House across the way, listened to Lincoln, silhouetted in a second story window, announce that some blacks, “the highly intelligent” and veterans, would be given the right of the vote. Those words were the final straw for Booth, according to Pitch, who, after muttering a racial epithet, demanded Payne shoot the President. Payne declined; stating the likelihood of arrest was too great to risk an assassination attempt. The pair walked away and Booth reportedly vowed Lincoln had made his last speech.
The War Department building, which stood to the right of the White House, and which housed the telegraph office, where Lincoln spent a considerable amount of his time, was torn down in 1870, its former footprint now covered by the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Moving to 16th Street, we came to Lafayette Square, an area framed by three story row houses, now in use as government offices, but at the time residences for some of Washington’s most powerful elite. The area was threatened with urban renewal in the early 1900’s, but spared from the wrecking ball by the advent of World War I and the Great Depression and ultimately rescued through efforts led by Jackie Kennedy in the early 1960’s. Number 712 is where Major Henry Rathbone and his wife Clara resided following their 1867 marriage. Both were in the Presidential theater box as guests of the Lincolns the night of the assassination, Rathbone suffering a deep slashing wound to his arm, from the shoulder to the elbow, in his attempt to disarm Booth. The couple would later move to Hanover, Germany where Rathbone, serving as U.S. counsel in 1883, suffered a psychotic break, shooting and stabbing Clara to death, before attempting to kill himself with the same blade. Unbalanced to the end by auditory hallucinations and paranoia, and his actions in the hotel room eerily mirroring the events of April 14th, Rathbone would himself die in a German asylum twenty-eight years later, the asylum’s doctors still uncertain whether his schizophrenia predated or surfaced after the assassination.
Almost directly across the square, through a park, on which the Federal Court of Appeals is now sited, Lewis Payne did his bloody work, smashing openings in Frederick Seward’s head with the butt of his pistol, before slashing at and plunging his knife into Secretary of State William Seward time and time again, before he was finally wrestled away and escaped down three flights of stairs, bellowing at the top of his lungs, “I’m mad! I’m mad!” All traces of blood that made Seward’s bedroom floor run slick and intermingle with that of Augustus Seward, another son, and George Robinson, a member of the Veteran Reserve Corps assigned to assist in the nursing care of the Secretary, disappeared when a wrecking ball crashed through the walls years later. Fannie Seward’s screams of “Murder!” that had echoed through the house and carried out onto the street through an open window that night, and perhaps silently echoed within those walls for decades afterwards, would have escaped, too, into the stratosphere forever.
Past the Treasury Building, down H Street for four blocks until we come to the back entrance to Williard’s Hotel, though not the same hostelry occupied by Lincoln and his traveling party when they first arrived in Washington in March 1861. There have been two reincarnations since, the most recent a replacement for the structure lost in a 1921 fire. Lincoln’s party of six, which stayed on the sixth floor for a week, was presented with a bill for $730 when they checked out on the day of his first inauguration.
At 1111 Pennsylvania Avenue, on the corner with 12th Street and directly across from the Old Post Office building, there’s no historical marker on the outside of a modern edifice to remind people that Andrew Johnson first learned of the assassination here, at the former site of Kirkwood House, where he was boarding. But for losing all nerve, George Atzerodt, who had taken a room one floor above on April 14th, would have paid Johnson a deadly visit. When police invaded that room, their search uncovered direct evidence linking Atzerodt to Booth, including weapons and a Montreal bank draft note made payable to the actor.
Two blocks away stood the National Theater, once home to Grover’s Theater. Had Lincoln not chosen to attend “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater, he might have accepted an invitation to a performance of “Aladdin or The Wonderful Lamp.” In one of the more poignant moments in a night ripe with tragedy, 12-year-old Tad Lincoln, who was attending that play, learned of the attempt on his father’s life when the play was interrupted by two separate announcements to a startled and disbelieving audience. The first announcement was initially dismissed as a ploy by pickpockets to panic the crowd, while the second confirmed the horrible truth of that initial announcement, “The sad news is too true. The audience will disperse.” Tad was hustled back to the White House by his chaperone. It was there that Thomas Pendel, the doorkeeper, heard the boy cry out, “Oh, Tom Pen! Tom Pen! They have killed Papa dead! They’ve killed Papa dead!” The following morning, Leonard Grover, owner of the namesake theater, received a telegram from C.D. Hess at his New York City hotel room, which stated, in part, “Thank God, it was not ours.”
Papa was not yet dead, but he was unconscious, brain dead, and lying mortally wounded in the Presidential box at Ford’s Theater. Charles Leale, six weeks after graduating from Bellevue Hospital Medical College, was the first doctor to reach Lincoln, the first to attempt treatment by performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the first to identify the wound, and the first to recognize the President was beyond hope. He took charge and stayed in charge, even as other physicians crowded into the box, determining that Lincoln would die in route if taken back to the White House, and ordered his body carried to the nearest house. His efforts in removing a blood clot from behind Lincoln’s left ear restored his breathing, prolonging his life, but, in effect, prolonged and heightened the agony of those waiting for the inevitable end.
With Leale supporting the head, Dr. Charles Taft the right shoulder, Dr. Albert King the left, and soldiers the rest of the body, those carrying Lincoln’s body exited the theater onto Tenth Street, which was jammed with a pressing crowd, the majority of whom were black. Henry Stafford, “holding a lighted candle on the steps leading up to a four story, brick boarding house...diagonally across from the theater,” called out “Bring him in here.” “Here” was the Peterson House, where Lincoln was placed diagonally across a too short bed, stripped of all his clothing, and hung on for the next eight hours. It was “here” that Edward Stanton, without objection, assumed the role of Chief Executive, that Mary Lincoln alternately wailed and during brief visits to her dying husband’s bedside implored him to speak to her, where Robert Lincoln leaned on Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner’s shoulder and sobbed uncontrollably, where at 7:22 a.m. on April 15th Abraham Lincoln became one with the ages.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
“It seems strange how much there is in the Bible about dreams. There are, I think, some sixteen chapters in the Old Testament and four or five in the New, in which dreams are mentioned. And there are many other passages scattered throughout the book which refer to visions. If we believe the Bible, we must accept the fact that in the old days God and his angels came to men in their sleep and made themselves known in dreams. Nowadays dreams are regarded as very foolish, and are seldom told, except by old women and by young men and maidens in love…I can’t say that I do [believe in dreams]. But I had one the other night which has haunted me ever since. After it occurred, the first time I opened the Bible, strange as it may appear, it was at the twenty-eighth chapter of Genesis, which relates the wonderful dream Jacob had. I turned to other passages and seemed to encounter a dream or a vision wherever I looked. I kept on turning the leaves of the old Book, and everywhere my eye fell upon passages recording matters strangely in keeping with my own thoughts – supernatural visitations, dreams, visions, et cetera…But somehow the thing has got possession of me and, like Banquo’s ghost, it will not down.”
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
You’ll have to forgive me, but I can’t help thinking that Thomas Jonathan Jackson was a little off kilter. I suppose you could label him eccentric, as the man seemed to have more than his fair share of personality quirks. And I don't mean his sucking lemons, because that’s more myth than reality, particularly since peaches were his favorite fruit. Maybe it's all part and parcel of genius, provided genius comes to the fore. Who knows? It does make me wonder what he would have seen in this inkblot though.
Perhaps the answer will be found in the pages of what our guide at Thomas Jonathan Jackson’s home recommended as the best biography ever written on the man, James Robertson’s "Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Myth."
Friday, April 03, 2009
We know that Booth traveled to Montreal, Canada, where the Confederate government had established commissioners, whose responsibities included oversight of spy and espionage operations carried out across the border. We know that John Surratt, the son of Mary, was, at the least, party to the plan to kidnap Lincoln, and that as a Confederate courier also traveled to Montreal where he met with Jacob Thompson, a commissioner, and then conveyed letters to Judah Benjamin at Richmond days before the city fell. We know that Edwin Gray Lee, second cousin of Robert E., was appointed a commissioner in December 1864 and was later called as a defense witness in John Surratt’s 1867 trial, essentially to establish an alibi that Surratt was in Montreal the night of April 14, 1865. So, what did Edwin G. Lee know, or not know? We’ll never know, because no one ever asked him. After Surratt’s defense counsel posed seven questions, all of which were framed to establish his identity (six of which were sustained prosecution objections), Lee was dismissed due to poor health, without being subjected to cross examination.
Edwin Gray Lee wasn’t feigning illness in an effort to get off the stand. He’d die of tuberculosis in 1870 and would be interred at Stonewall Jackson Cemetery, where his grave is located but a few feet from his sister-in-law Rose Page Pendleton. So, ultimately the question becomes, what did Miss Rose know about what Edwin Gray Lee may or may not have told her. I was too much of a gentlemen to ask her.
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
Lexington of the Shenandoah Valley. The adopted home of the orphaned and never to be adopted Thomas Jonathan Jackson. The place of eternal rest for a beloved horse and the beloved commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, who ultimately failed a country that sought to be, yet never was; home to a military institute that fought as tenaciously against the admission of women as its virginal cadets at New Market.
I haven’t come to dance on the graves of generals, colonels, or privates in the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery. There is no celebration in my step. I am respectful toward the fallen and the exiled who sought refuge after the thunder and roar faded to a stilled echo of memory surrounded by loss and ruin. But more than Stonewall, more than Robert E., even more than the institutions that still bear the handprint of each, I have come to see Miss Rose.
I have a picture in my mind of Miss Rose. Plain. Small breasted. Light brown hair. Blue eyes. Fiery. And proud. Like her brother Sandie. Devout like her father William Nelson Pendleton. Aristocratic. Erect posture. Proper; a true lady of Southern breeding and manners.
I speak to Rose Page Pendleton’s headstone. Moss covered; the year of her death indecipherable. But I know. February 24, 1910. 71 years of age. A spinster. Perhaps a recluse toward her end dressed always in black. I sense curiosity, until I tell my purpose. Defiance and anger sweep like a wind of warning toward me, until I whisper that I bring no ill will, no animosity. I tell her I have been to Amasa Guild’s grave and I have read his letters to her and hers to him. And I understand each gripping the end of a rope in a tug of war over a flag that once was lost and was finally found.
On August 30, 1862, at what we called the “Second Bull Run,” and you call “Second Manassas,” my regiment (the 18th Mass. Vol. Infty) with which I was present, charged the railroad cut near Groveton, in which was the famous Stonewall Brigade. We reached within a few yards of the cut where we remained about half an hour, losing terribly over 60% in the regiment.
We carried the regimental flag, also a state flag, which latter was of white silk with the state coat of arms on it; the carrying of this latter flag was a mistake; when the few that were left fell back we found that the state flag was missing. We lost so many color bearers in the falling back, every man for himself, the state flag was overlooked. In all these years nothing was heard about it until some two years ago some one in visiting the Confederate Museum at Richmond saw it on exhibition there, and it came to the knowledge of our regimental association.
… If all of our flags, which for so many years have been on exhibition in Boston, have been returned, I see no reason why this one need be kept in Richmond any longer. If you can assure me that this restoration has been made, I will at once send…the certificate of deposit I hold, that yours, or rather the Mass. flag may go back. I have no authority to return the flag, I only hold the certificate of deposit, or “loan certificate” from the 27th Va. Rgt. If the survivors of that Regt. have agreed to its return I have no further responsibility in the matter, and the Museum will gladly abide by this decision. When I hear definitely and satisfactorily from you, I will communicate with Mrs. Ellyson. Your threat to bring the authority of the State Government [of Massachusetts] to bear in the matter is truly laughable. I scarcely think that the two branches combined will interfere with the decision of the 27th Regt. If its will is in your favor the flag goes back at once.
There is reconciliation and a shared mourning for the life of her brother Lt. Col. Sandie who lies buried not ten feet away, dead one day after being mortally wounded at Fisher’s Hill on September 22, 1864. There is sorrow in reflecting on the life of a son Sandie, born two months after his father was covered with the sacred soil; a father and son, never destined to gaze upon the other, but fated to lie beside the other in clingy clay a year later.
Miss Rose wraps me in her sorrow for a time, place, and era lost. I try to reassure her that all is well in this country where we, as Americans united, now dwell. And when I ask, she obliges me, for she is, after all, a lady of heart and grace.
The old state flag of the 18th Massachusetts volunteer infantry was returned to the state yesterday morning by a delegation representing the regiment. Gov. Douglas received the delegation and they were introduced by Lieut. Gov. Guild. In the party were Col. William B. White, who commanded the regiment, Lieut. Amasa Guild and Sergt. David C. Meechan.
Lieut. Guild said the flag was not returned before because it could not to be found. It was carried in the second battle of Bull run, Aug. 30, 1862.. The regiment with others of the brigade was ordered to charge a railroad cut occupied by the enemy. In crossing the open field the regiment was subjected to a heavy artillery and musket fire, that reduced it nearly 60 percent.
Thinking that reinforcements would surely arrive, the regiment held its position for nearly half an hour, during which time men dropped on all sides. Color bearers were changed several times as the men were either killed or wounded. Finally, not receiving any support, the order was given to fall back, every man for himself. When the regiment formed again in the rear the state flag was missing.
No trace of the flag could be had until about six years ago, when it was reported to be on exhibition in a confederate museum in Richmond, Va. Lieut. Guild said he visited Richmond to secure the flag, if possible, but found that it had been loaned by some people in Lexington, Va. Correspondence followed, and with the assistance of Lieut. Gov. Guild, the flag was secured.
Mrs. J. Tyalor Ellyson of Virginia, vice regent, C.M.L.S. said in her letter transmitting the flag: “it is my desire that the flag shall be turned over to the governor of Massachusetts with the assurance of our society that this action is taken with very great pleasure and in acknowledgement of our appreciation of the late act of congress in returning the confederate flags held by the government to the governors of the several southern states.