Category Archives: Lincoln

Financing America’s First Transcontinental Railroad

The roles of the Associates and the Central Pacific’s construction of the western leg of America’s first transcontinental railroad are laid out in detail in the past three articles. While the Associates risked their personal wealth in accomplishing their task, the project required far more in resources than they could muster from individual investors. The same was true of the Union Pacific’s principal owners.

In this painting, a rail official drives the golden spike in Promontory, Utah (Source: Politico.com)

In this painting, a rail official drives the golden spike in Promontory, Utah (Source: Politico.com)

The Associates obtained substantial amounts of funding from California and from municipalities, but the greatest source for the national project was the federal government. It seems only fitting that President Lincoln, a former railroad lawyer, signed the first two major pieces of legislation, the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 and a significant amendment to the Act in 1864.

The 1862 legislation provided for 30-year federal loans at 6% interest, in amounts that depended upon the difficulty of the grade. The “easy grades” generated bonds in the amount of $16,000 per mile. The track in the extremely difficult mountainous regions generated bonds in the amount of $48,000 per mile. Bonds in the amount of $32,000 per mile were issued for track over the high plains. A portion of the funds were withheld until the entire line was in working order. Failure to complete the entire line by January 1, 1874, would result in forfeiture of all rights, including the entire rail line completed as of that date.

In addition, the companies were granted 6,400 acres of land per mile of line completed. The companies were not entitled to mineral rights, but they were entitled to timber and stone on either side of a 400-foot right-of-way.

The 1864 legislation allowed the companies to float their own 30-year bonds at 6% interest, on which the federal government paid the interest the first year and guaranteed the interest payment for the next nineteen years. Authorized amounts ranged from $24,000 to $96,000 per mile. To enhance the marketability of the companies’ bonds the 1864 legislation gave the company bonds first-mortgage status over the government-issued bonds. The legislation also allowed the Central Pacific to extend its track 150 miles across the Nevada line, assuming the Union Pacific did not get ahead of them. Important to both companies, the forfeiture provision was removed.

It is one of four ceremonial spikes driven at the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (but is not the final golden spike). (Source: Wikipedia)

This is one of four ceremonial spikes driven at the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (but is not the final golden spike). (Source: Wikipedia)

An 1865 amendment, signed by President Andrew Johnson on July 3, 1866, dropped the restriction against the Central Pacific going 150 miles beyond the Nevada border, allowing the companies to lay track as far as they could until the two tracks met. The race was on and would not end until the driving of the ceremonial golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869, well before the 1874 deadline set in the 1862 Act (but removed in the 1864 amendment).

One may argue whether the legislation was too generous to the railroad companies, but there is little doubt that few investors would have taken on the task without the government subsidies. Much of the West would have remained isolated without the railroad. Before the railroad, goods were shipped either around the southern tip of South America or across Panama. To put matters in perspective, it took upwards of three weeks just to ship mail between New York and San Francisco. Completion of the transcontinental railroad reduced the time to ten days.

Sources: Bain, Empire Express; Lavender, The Great Persuader; Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum, www.cprr.org.

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The Civil War’s First Ladies

If you are in the Washington, DC area, you should take the opportunity to visit the National Museum of American History. Among the more popular exhibits is one dedicated to the nation’s First Ladies. The displays in the First Ladies Hall include a series of period rooms modeled after rooms in the White House. The rooms serve as a backdrop for the first ladies’ gowns. If you cannot make it to Washington, you can enjoy an interactive experience at http://americanhistory.si.edu/first-ladies/new-exhibition.

Mary Todd Lincoln (Source: Library of Congress)

Mary Todd Lincoln (Source: Library of Congress)

One First Lady you will not find represented in the exhibit is Varina Davis. During the Civil War, America had two first ladies, the first, Mary Todd Lincoln, of course, served as First Lady in Washington, and the second, Varina Davis, served as First Lady in Richmond, capital of the Confederacy.

The two women were similar in many ways. Both were well-educated and had traveled in high social circles, but both were criticized by their social peers for their “rough” western manners. Mary Todd Lincoln had grown up in a prominent Kentucky family but lived in Springfield, Illinois, at the eve of the war. Varina Davis lived in Mississippi. In 1861, both Illinois and Mississippi were considered western states

In an earlier blog article, Washington’s “It Girl” during the Civil War, I discussed Mary Todd Lincoln’s social rivalry with Kate Chase, the daughter of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase. Mary suffered pot shots partly due to the Todd family’s divided loyalties and partly due to her husband’s unpolished western speech. (For example, when referring to the “chairman” at an event, Lincoln pronounced the word as “cheerman,” typical of western speech.) Varina Davis, the granddaughter of a New Jersey governor, counted many prominent northerners as friends. She was suspected of northern sympathies and also suffered barbs from Virginia’s and South Carolina’s social elite. After her husband’s death, she spent her remaining years writing and living in New York City.

Varina Davis (Source: Library of Congress)

Varina Davis (Source: Library of Congress)

The ladies Lincoln and Davis received similar “titles”: Lincoln often was referred to as the Republican Queen (see Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Lincoln) while Davis was called the Confederate Queen. Mary went over-budget while decorating the White House; Varina’s critics chided her social gatherings as either too lavish in a time of sacrifice or too informal for FFV (First Families of Virginia) standards. George Rable sums up Varina Davis’s dilemma:

Many old-line Richmond families watched the arrival of Confederate politicians, generals, and their wives with a mixture of bemusement and contempt. To members of this closed society, Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, seemed like unrefined westerners at best and ambitious parvenus at worst. Although Varina had been a successful Washington hostess [when her husband served, on different occasions, as United States Senator and Secretary of War], the haughty Virginians, and especially the hypercritical South Carolinians, remained cool and aloof. — Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (University of Illinois Press, 1991).

Other than attacks about their questioned loyalties, the ladies Lincoln and Davis endured what many people under the spotlight suffer as the price for fame. As you will see if you visit the National Museum of American History or its website, at least our nation’s First Ladies have dressed well for the critics.

For more about Mary Todd Lincoln’s social life, I recommend Vidal’s Lincoln, acknowledging that it is a historical novel but contending that Vidal got the history right. For more about Varina Davis, I recommend Rable’s Civil Wars.

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Judah Benjamin – Indispensable Adviser to Confederacy President Jefferson Davis

Judah Benjamin (Source: Biography.com)

Judah Benjamin (Source: Biography.com)

Edwin Stanton, President Lincoln’s second Secretary of War was the North’s most brilliant legal mind of the Civil War era. The South’s most brilliant legal mind of the era was Judah Benjamin, former United States Senator from Louisiana. Benjamin served Davis, first as Attorney General, then as Secretary of War, and finally as Secretary of State. He easily was the most prominent Jewish politician of his day (and, yes, I repeat, from Louisiana).

Benjamin was the second Jewish United States Senator, the first being David Levy Yulee of Florida. Both men were born outside the United States, Benjamin in St. Croix and Yulee in St. Thomas.

David Levy Yulee, the first U.S. Jewish Senator

David Levy Yulee, the first U.S. Jewish Senator (Source: bioguide.congress.gov)

Benjamin served as Davis’s most trusted adviser throughout the war. Like his Northern counterpart Stanton, Benjamin succeeded an administrator who was not up to the task. As Secretary of War, he butted heads with many of the South’s strong-minded generals, including Joe Johnston and Stonewall Jackson. Jackson submitted his letter of resignation after one such incident, only to have the letter returned to him.  [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville, p. 224 (1958) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

As Secretary of State, Benjamin joined a unanimous cabinet recommending that Davis dismiss General Joe Johnston during the Atlanta campaign. Of Johnston, Benjamin said, “[he] is determined not to fight, it is of no use to re-enforce him, he is not going to fight.” [Catton, Never Call Retreat, p. 330 (1965) (2009 Fall River Press edition)] Davis’s decision to replace Johnston with John Bell Hood proved disastrous. Hood “was determined to fight,” but suffered twenty thousand casualties in the process, troops the South could ill afford to lose, leaving Georgia and the Carolinas largely defenseless against Sherman’s army. [Id., p. 383]

More in line with his duties as Secretary of State, Benjamin attempted through his ministers to obtain Great Britain’s and France’s official recognition of the Confederacy as a nation independent of the United States. Twin defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July, 1863, doomed any such aspirations. Afterwards, Benjamin expressed his belief that the South never had much hope of securing such recognition from Great Britain:

When successful fortune smiles on our arms, the British cabinet is averse to recognition because “it would be unfair to the South by the action of Great Britain to exasperate the North to renewed efforts.” When reverses occur “it would be unfair to the North in a moment of success to deprive it of a reasonable opportunity of accomplishing a reunion of the States.”

[Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fredericksburg to Meridian, p. 655 (1963) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Benjamin remained loyal to Davis to the end, traveling with him and his “cabinet on wheels” from Richmond, to Danville, to Greensboro, to Charlotte, and finally into South Carolina. Finally concluding that the cause was lost, Benjamin conferred with Davis and then traveled “south to the Florida coast, then Bimini, and he set out disguised variously as a farmer and a Frenchman, with a ramshackle cart, a spavined horse, and a mismatched suit of homespun clothes.” Remarkably, Benjamin ultimately landed in Great Britain where he enjoyed a long and successful career as a British barrister. [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, pp. 1007 and 1049 (1974) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Truly, Judah Benjamin was a remarkable man in a remarkable time.

For more information about Judah Benjamin, see Jonathan Tilove, “Judah P. Benjamin, ‘the Confederate Kissinger,’ Featured in Louisiana State Archives Exhibit,” The Times Picayune (April 20, 2010), www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2010/04/judah_p_benjamin.

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Civil War Personalities – Simon Cameron

Cameron LOC

Simon Cameron (Source: Library of Congress)

One of the more colorful politicians of the Civil War era was Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, once accused of being so corrupt that the only thing he would not steal was a red hot stove.

Another politician, Edwin Stanton, served as Lincoln’s Secretary of War during most of the Civil War, but before assuming that position in February, 1862, he served as legal adviser to his predecessor, Simon Cameron.

When Lincoln’s political managers worked for his nomination at the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago, they made many promises, some overt and others subtle, to secure the delegates needed for the nomination. They desperately needed Pennsylvania’s delegates, and no one questioned U.S. Senator Cameron’s ability to deliver them, with the understanding that Pennsylvania would cast its votes for favorite-son Cameron on the first ballot and for Lincoln on subsequent ballots.

Stanton Library of Congress

Edwin Stanton (Source: Library of Congress)

The leading contender, Senator William Seward, thought he had secured Cameron’s support in a visit to the Pennsylvanian’s home in the spring of 1860, trusting the quote often attributed to Cameron that “an honest politician is one who, when he is bought, stays bought.” [Goodwin, Team of Rivals, p. 217]. But when the Republicans convened in May, many Pennsylvania delegates thought Seward was not electable.

While Seward waited at his Auburn, New York estate for word of his nomination, the anti-Seward forces were hard at work in Chicago. In exchange for Pennsylvania’s support, Cameron wanted Lincoln to give him the Treasury post and sole control of all political patronage in Pennsylvania. [Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury, pp. 60-61 (1961) (2009 edition).] Cameron was known as the “Winnebago chief” for purportedly swindling the Winnebago tribe in a supply contract [McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 260 (1988)], and any suggestion that Lincoln would agree to give a reputed crook control of the government’s purse strings is disingenuous. But Lincoln’s men at least gave a wink and a nod of some sort assuring Cameron of a position in the Cabinet. Pennsylvania delivered its support and Seward would have to be satisfied with the State Department rather than the White House.

Interestingly, during the first year of the war, many military contracts went to manufacturers in Cameron’s home state of Pennsylvania. In addition, military supplies traveled inordinate distances on Pennsylvania railroads. There were also many complaints about the quality of materials furnished to the troops. The war added new words to the vernacular, including “shoddy,” charges of pressed scraps of wool used to make uniforms that fell apart after a few weeks’ wear. [McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, p. 183 (Third Edition, 2001)]

Because he received intense criticism for his poor management of the War Department, Cameron sought to secure his fragile position by kowtowing to the Radical Republicans in Congress. In the War Department’s December 1861 annual report, he advocated freeing and arming slaves who escaped into Union army lines. [Ordeal by Fire, p. 291] This early in the war, Lincoln was struggling to keep the slaveholding border states in the Union. Cameron’s report did not help.

In January, 1862, Lincoln let Cameron know his services in Washington were no longer needed. The President ultimately accepted Cameron’s letter of resignation and appointed him as Minister to Russia, thereby sending him where he could do no further harm to the war effort. [Team of Rivals, pp. 410-412]

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The Family Tragedies of Lincoln and Davis

Willie Lincoln (1850-1862) Source: wttv.com

Willie Lincoln (1850-1862) Source: wttv.com

The Lincolns lost their eleven-year-old son, Willie, in February 1862, to typhoid fever. Another son, Eddie, had died of an illness two months shy of his fourth birthday in 1850. The President, in the middle of managing the Union war effort, had little time to grieve. Mrs. Lincoln took Willie’s death particularly hard, later seeking to make contact with him in séances. She often cited Willie’s death as a reason her husband should keep their oldest son, Robert, out of the army. However, despite the Lincolns’ efforts, Robert ultimately served on Grant’s staff in the waning months of the war.

Tad Lincoln also died young at the age of 18 (Source: White House Historical Society)

Tad Lincoln also died young at the age of 18 (Source: White House Historical Society)

One hundred air miles to the south, the Confederacy’s executive couple suffered a tragedy of their own in April 1864, when their five-year-old son, Joe, fell to his death from a second-floor balcony. Like his northern counterpart, President Davis had to continue managing the Southern war effort while grieving a son’s tragic death. Mrs. Davis had to deal with her grief while in the seventh month of pregnancy.

Both deaths were tragic. Willie’s, however, was not out of the ordinary in the 1860s.

Take a look at the obituaries in your local newspaper. This morning, my local paper lists 26 deaths (actually 27, but one obituary does not list the decedent’s age). Twenty-one of those are people who reached at least seventy years of age. In contrast, children five years old or younger accounted for fully half of all deaths in mid-nineteenth-century urban America. The leading causes of death for children were diarrheal (cholera, dysentery, typhoid) and respiratory (tuberculosis, influenza, bronchitis, and pneumonia). 1

Contaminated drinking water was the leading culprit. Death rates for children did not decline appreciably until cities improved water supplies and sewer systems. By 1925, childhood deaths accounted for 25% of all deaths in Chicago.

Improvements in medical science have reduced the numbers even further. In 2007, the CDC reported that children under the age of five accounted for 6.6% of all deaths, with children ages one to four accounting for only 0.12% of all deaths. 2

More recent statistics show accidents as responsible for 34% of deaths for American children under the age of five, whereas pneumonia and influenza contribute to only 2% of such deaths, essentially a reversal of their roles in the 1860s. 3

While soldiers identified their enemies by the color of their uniforms 150 years ago, the country’s children were threatened daily by an invisible enemy lurking in their water supply. Among our blessings this Thanksgiving, we can thank the engineers and scientists who have improved the prospects of our children and grandchildren by providing all of us with cleaner water and significant improvements in medical science.

Sources:

1 Ferrie and Troesken, Death and the City: Chicago’s Mortality Transition, 1850-1925, Working Paper 11427, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA (June 2005)

2 CDC, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality, www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/mortality

3 Singh, GK. Childhood Mortality in the United States, 1935-2007: Large Racial and Socioeconomic Disparities Have Persisted Over Time, A 75th Anniversary Publication. Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Rockville, MD. Department of Health and Human Services (2010)

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Washington’s “It Girl” during the Civil War

Kate Chase (Source: Wikipedia)

Kate Chase (Source: Wikipedia)

Since the time of the Madison administration, when Dolly Madison set the tone for Washington Society, the nation’s First Ladies dominated the Washington social scene. Mary Todd Lincoln expected nothing less when she arrived in the nation’s capital in March 1861. She had not expected formidable competition from the Treasury Secretary’s twenty-year-old daughter, Kate Chase, whose primary goal in life was to see her widower father occupy the office then held by Mrs. Lincoln’s husband.

Kate counted among her admirers Governor William Sprague, Rhode Island’s largest and wealthiest citizen, and John Hay, one of President Lincoln’s two personal secretaries, who later in his career would serve as Secretary of State. Sprague’s successful pursuit and Hay’s infatuation with Kate are among the principal topics in Gore Vidal’s brilliantly entertaining Lincoln.

William Sprague (Source: Wikipedia)

William Sprague (Source: Wikipedia)

Kate also enjoyed the admiration of the capital’s women, who sought invitations to the Chase home and Kate’s companionship at Washington’s many social events.

In 1863, Sprague left the governor’s mansion for the United States Senate. In November of that year, he won Kate’s hand in marriage, presenting her with a diamond and pearl tiara rumored to have cost fifty thousand dollars – almost one million dollars in today’s money. The wedding guests included President Lincoln and the entire cabinet. Mrs. Lincoln chose not to attend her social rival’s grand wedding.

A young Kate Chase (Source: Wikipedia)

A young Kate Chase (Source: Wikipedia)

Although the couple had four children, their marriage ended in divorce in 1882, after her husband’s financial reverses and her alleged affair with Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. After the divorce, Kate dropped the Sprague name and lived in her father’s home (Chief Justice Chase had died in 1873.) in Washington, DC. She died in poverty in 1899.

The New York Times said of her at her death:

[She] was born in Ohio about fifty-nine years ago. She was educated under her distinguished father’s eye, and when she became old enough to be of assistance to him acted as his private secretary. * * * There was magnetism in her personality and the friendships she made were of the most loyal character. When she went to Washington to reside she found herself in a congenial atmosphere. She was a diplomat of uncommon tact, and within a short time the homage of the most eminent men of the country was hers. She was ambitious, and she wielded her power and the influence of her high social station as no other woman in this country had ever wielded such forces.

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A Confederate in the White House

image004

Emilie Todd Helms
Source: Kentucky Legislature Research Commission

The Civil War eventually would claim over 600,000 lives in a country with only ten percent of today’s population. Some families split their loyalties – some siblings throwing their lot in with the Union and others attempting to forge a new nation with an economy dependent upon a workforce of African slaves.

No family demonstrated this split more publicly than the Todds of Kentucky. Mary Todd had married the man who would not allow a permanent split in the Union. One brother and one sister remained loyal to the Union. The rest of her siblings – four brothers, and three sisters – went with the South.

The secessionist Todds had made their choice. Three brothers died on the battlefield, one at Shiloh, one at Baton Rouge, and one at Vicksburg. A brother-in-law died at Chickamauga. In a war that claimed so many lives, one would think the North’s leader had to turn his back on those who had chosen rebellion. But that was not entirely the case.

Benjamin Helm, the brother-in-law who died at Chickamauga, had married Mary’s sister Emilie in 1856. Lincoln had offered Helm a commission in the Union army early in the war. After Helm fell at Chickamauga in 1863, the Lincolns invited Emilie to stay with them at the White House. Emilie accepted the invitation and lived at the White House for several weeks, all the while making it clear she had not renounced her loyalty to the rebel cause, much to the chagrin of many Northerners. When Union General Daniel Sickles complained to the President, Lincoln issued a strong rebuke to the general, adding that the Lincolns chose their own guests.

Can anyone imagine a president behaving in a similar manner today? The more we learn about Lincoln – the burden of forging a united country split asunder by war, the compassion he demonstrated to friend and foe alike, his capacity for humor in the country’s darkest hours – the more we count our good fortune that this humble, brilliant man commanded this country’s highest office when we needed him most.

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