James Garfield and Joshua Chamberlain

On June 14, 1881, Joshua L. Chamberlain of Brunswick, Maine, wrote a letter to President James A. Garfield.  The President’s wife, Lucretia Rudolph Garfield, had been ill with malaria for much of the spring, and Chamberlain offered this advice:

It has been suggested to me by a medical gentleman of much experience

that the best treatment Mrs. Garfield could have would be a summer on

the coast of Maine.  Should that judgment commend itself to you I shall

be very glad if it may be in my power to aid in the selecting [of] a suitable

place, or in any way to contribute to your satisfaction in regard to the

matter.

Chamberlain, then president of his alma mater, Bowdoin College, also invited the President to attend Bowdoin’s commencement on July 14.  It was public knowledge that Garfield was heading north in less than three weeks to speak at his own alma mater, Williams College in Massachusetts, and then enjoy a vacation.  The President was more than ready for a little time away from the White House.  He had only recently won a hard-fought political victory regarding patronage appointments with members of his own Republican Party, most notably Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York.  His wife’s severe illness added to his worries and made his first few months as the nation’s twentieth president even more difficult.

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President James A. Garfield in 1881.  Like Chamberlain, he was an academic but felt compelled to fight for the Union during the Civil War.  (Library of Congress)

Garfield never made it to Williams or his vacation.  On July 2, 1881, as he walked through Washington, D.C.’s Baltimore and Potomac train station to board his train north, Charles Guiteau approached and shot him twice from behind.  The first bullet grazed Garfield’s arm, but the second lodged in his back.  Over the next eighty days, doctors unschooled in Listerian antisepsis and germ theories—or willfully ignoring them—poked and prodded Garfield with dirty fingers and instruments, introducing infection into his body.  The President died on September 19, eighty days after Guiteau’s attack.

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Joshua L. Chamberlain during his time as president of Bowdoin College.  (Bowdoin College)

No evidence exists to suggest that Garfield and Chamberlain ever actually met one another.  However, had they met, it seems likely that they would have liked one another a great deal.  After all, the similarities between the two men were striking.  They were close to the same age, with Chamberlain born in 1828 and Garfield in 1831.  Both showed an early interest in religion and considered careers as clergymen.  Chamberlain attended and graduated from Maine’s Bangor Theological Seminary, but never actually worked as a minister.  Garfield did not attend a religious seminary, but did preach sermons as a lay minister in the Disciples of Christ denomination.

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A young James A. Garfield as a Union Brigadier General, ca. 1862-63.  He left the army at the end of 1863 to take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.  (Library of Congress)

Chamberlain and Garfield both had successful careers as scholars at their alma maters before the Civil War, Chamberlain at Bowdoin and Garfield at Ohio’s Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College), which he attended before Williams.  Both taught many different subjects and were proficient in several languages, including Greek and Latin.  When the Civil War came and both were moved to volunteer for the Union, each determined to use books on military history and tactics to teach himself how to lead and fight.  As Chamberlain told the Governor of Maine in a letter that could just as easily have been written by the Ohioan Garfield, “I have always been interested in military matters, and what I do not know in that line I know how to learn” (emphasis in original).  Soon after, Lt. Col. Chamberlain was second in command of the 20th Maine Infantry.  Garfield, a state senator at the time of the Fort Sumter attack, taught himself drill on the lawn of the Ohio Capitol Building before being assigned command of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

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Brigadier General Joshua L. Chamberlain.  Like Garfield, he left the life of a scholar to join the army.  Chamberlain became one of the Union’s most celebrated soldiers and received the Medal of Honor in 1893 for his actions at the battle of Gettysburg three decades earlier.  (Library of Congress)

James Garfield saw action mostly in the western theater, Chamberlain in the east.  During his service in the army, northeast Ohio Republicans elected Garfield to the U.S. House of Representatives, and Garfield left the army in December 1863 to go to Congress.  Chamberlain remained in the army until war’s end, suffering numerous wounds that would affect him for the rest of his life.  When the war ended, he was elected to four consecutive one-year terms as Maine’s governor.  While Garfield enjoyed political success, though, Chamberlain’s ambitions to serve as a U.S. Senator were stymied.  The Garfields and Chamberlains both endured the pain of losing children to early deaths, and both became sought-after speakers on the post-war lecture circuit.

Had Garfield survived Charles Guiteau’s assassination attempt, or had Guiteau never struck at all, perhaps Garfield and Chamberlain may have met at some point—maybe even on Garfield’s New England visit in July 1881.  We can only guess, but knowing a little bit about their backgrounds and life experiences makes it a good bet that they could have been fast friends.

-Todd Arrington, Site Manager

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Mary Clemmer Ames and “Ten Years in Washington”

March being “Women’s History Month,” it seems appropriate to say a little something about a woman whose name is more than likely unknown to most present-day Americans. She wasn’t a leader in the abolitionist movement or a suffragist. She gained no fame as an advocate of temperance. She was, though, a lifelong resident of the District of Columbia, and chronicled the Washington scene from the 1860s into the early 1880s.

Her name was Mary Clemmer Ames (1839-1884) and her book Ten Years in Washington, first published in 1874, is an engaging account of the notable buildings and agencies centered in the nation’s capital, and the people whose activities breathed life into them. Her descriptions of the many individuals, male and female, prominent and not, who set the social standards of the political class, or who did the everyday work of the federal bureaucracy, are intelligent, sympathetic, at times witty, and fully human portrayals.

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Mary Clemmer Ames, author of Ten Years in Washington.  (Frontspiece of the book Ten Years in Washington.)

This post will pay most attention to the commentary of Mrs. Clemmer that particularly illustrated the role of women of “Gilded Age” Washington. However, as James A. Garfield is inevitably the subject in some way of what you read on this page, what Mary Clemmer had to say about him will not be neglected.

Ten Years in Washington covers a wide variety of topics. There is a historical treatment of the designation of ten square miles of land given by the states of Maryland and Virginia for the establishment of the District. Mrs. Clemmer goes into great descriptive detail about the Capitol building, “the President’s House,” the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. The inner workings of the U.S. Treasury, the Post Office and the Patent Office and other agencies are a prime focus of her writing. The State Department, the Army, the Navy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Interior Department all came into view.

Mrs. Ames had something to say about every mistress of the White House, whether she was the President’s wife or daughter (there is a highly complimentary portrayal of Martha Patterson, daughter of Andrew Johnson). Her portrayal of Sarah Polk includes the following:

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Sarah Knox Polk, First Lady of the United States from 1845-49.  (Wikipedia)

Mrs. Polk, intellectually, was one of the most marked

women who ever presided in the White House. A lady of

the old school… her attainments were more than ordinary…

Never a politician, in a day when politics… were forbidden

grounds to women, she no less was thoroughly conversant

with all public affairs…

She was her husband’s private secretary, and, probably,

was the only lady of the White House who ever filled that

office. She took charge of his papers, he trusting entirely to

her memory and method for their safe keeping… [and when

needed] it was Sarah’s ever ready hand that laid it before his

eyes.

Conjured by Mrs. Clemmer’s pen, Mrs. Grant, the then-current First Lady, was a worthy object of the respect and admiration of that generation of Americans.

First Lady Julia Dent Grant in the White House

Julia Dent Grant, First Lady of the United States, 1869-77.  (Wikipedia)

Mrs. Grant’s morning receptions are very popular, and

deservedly so. This is not because the lady is in any sense

a good conversationalist, or has a fine tact in receiving, but

rather, I think, because she is thoroughly good-natured, and

for the time, at least, makes other people feel the same. At

any rate, there was never so little formality or so much

genuine sociability in the day-receptions at the White House

as at the present time.

Ten Years in Washington is full of interesting facts and anecdotes. Many of these illustrate the contributions and the plight of female federal workers. Here, in her chapters on the Treasury Department, Mrs. Ames lauds the ability of the women who performed their work so well:

“After the great Chicago fire in 1871, cases of money to the value of one hundred and sixty-four thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-seven dollars and ninety-eight cents, were sent to the United States Treasury for identification… All these charred     treasures were placed in the hands of a committee of six ladies… What patience, practice, skill, were indispensable to the fulfillment of this task, it is not difficult to conjecture… After unpacking the money… the ladies separated each small piece with   thin knives made for the purpose, then laying the blackened fragments on sheets of blotting paper, they decided by close scrutiny, the value, genuineness, and nature of the note.  Magnifying glasses were provided, but seldom used…’”

Mrs. Ames identified the members of this committee of six as Mrs. M. J. Patterson, Miss Pearl, Mrs. Davis, Miss Shriner, Miss Wright, and Miss Powers. “The most noted case [Mrs. Patterson] ever worked on was that of the paymaster’s trunk,” that sank with the Robert Carter, in the Mississippi River.

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Martha Patterson, daughter of President Andrew Johnson.  (Andrew Johnson National Monument, National Park Service.)

“After lying three years in the bottom of the river, the steamer was raised, and the money, soaked, rotten and obliterated, given to Mrs. Patterson for identification. She saved one hundred and eighty-five thousand out of two hundred thousand   dollars, and the express company, which was responsible for the original amount, presented her with five hundred dollars, as a recognition of her services.”

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Female workers at the U.S. Treasury Department during the period Mary Clemmer Ames describes in Ten Years in Washington.

And yet, the familiar refrain best summed up in the old adage, “The more things change, the more they remain the same,” was as pertinent in the distant 1870s as it it today.

Of the forty-five ladies in the Internal Revenue Bureau,

there is but one, and she is fifty years of age, who has not

more than herself to support on the pittance which she is

paid. Nevertheless, whenever a spasmodic cry of

‘retrenchment’ is raised, three women are always dismissed

from office, to one man, although the men greatly out-

number the women, to say nothing of their being so much

more expensive.

Today’s crusaders for “equal rights for equal pay” have soul mates going back 140 years and more. There are connections between we, the living, and past generations of Americans. History is not bunk. The past is not entirely past. It is not dead.

For many years Mary Clemmer authored a column called, “A Woman’s Letter from Washington.” This journalistic exploit for the New York Independent encouraged her passion for description, and her interest in the common man and woman. Her delight in limning the social elite sprang from that same reportorial flare.

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James A. Garfield, from an engraving in Ten Years in Washington by Mary Clemmer Ames.  (Ten Years in Washington)

It then comes as no surprise that in the March 27, 1879 issue of that column she presented a word portrait of Congressman James Garfield that mixed reservation with admiration:

“In mental capacity, in fine, wide, intellectual culture, no Republican for the last decade has equaled, much less surpassed him… Were it possible to honor his moral purity as one must his intellectual acumen, he would  be as grand in personal and political strength, that no whim of man, no passion of the hour, no mutation of party could depress, much less overthrow.”

A month later, Garfield learned of the column’s complex account of his character through a letter from a Boston, Massachusetts correspondent, Jeremiah Chaplin. According to Garfield’s diary entry for April 27, 1879, Chaplin quoted the column, which “criticizes me in a vague, unjust, and indefinite way.” Calling on Mrs. Ames a few days later, he left [Chaplin’s] letter “for her to read at leisure and to let me know what she meant by her language. She asked me to call on Wednesday evening to see her about it. I am curious to know what she will say.”

Two days later, Garfield called on Mrs. Clemmer at seven o’clock in the evening. “I had a strong conversation with her on the subject,” he wrote afterward. Did she remind him of the marital infidelities of which he had been accused some years earlier? Did he refute these as unjust? Did he invoke the current state of his relationship with his wife as his defense? Alas, the content of that conversation is not known.

What is known is that in 1882, the year after President Garfield’s assassination, a new edition of Ten Years in Washington appeared. It now featured, “A Full and Authentic History of the Life and Death of President James A. Garfield.”

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Title page of the 1882 edition of Ten Years in Washington, featuring “A Full and Authentic History of the Life and Death of President James A. Garfield.”  (Ten Years in Washington, Hartford Publishing Co., 1882).

Was the inclusion of the Garfield biography intended as a well-deserved homage to the late president whose character the author had once questioned, or, (more cynically) was it designed to boost new sales of the original book?

The biography includes passages on First Lady Lucretia Garfield, who, returning from her own convalescence at Long Branch, New Jersey

bravely took her place by her husband’s side, and

comforted and cheered him during his long and weary

fight for life. How grandly she rose to the occasion,

how tenderly she endured the weary weeks, always

wearing a cheerful face, while her heart was breaking

with its cruel load, the whole world knows. Her heroic

devotion to her husband grandly typified the loyal and

self-sacrificing spirit of wifehood, which finds no more

conspicuous illustration than in our American homes…

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Lucretia Rudolph Garfield, First Lady of the United States, March 4-September 19, 1881.  (Library of Congress)

Cognizant of all that had occurred between 1879 and 1882, driven perhaps by the changed perspective that death brings, Mrs. Ames concluded in 1882 that, “President Garfield was large-framed, large-brained, and large-hearted.”

He was six feet tall in height and was a splendid picture

of a man. His personal character and habits were clean  and

pure, and his home life at Mentor or Washington as

simply delightful. … In a word, James A. Garfield was a

man physically, intellectually, and morally who was an

honor to his country and … no more imperishable name

will ever adorn our country’s annals.

It was not long after this writing that Mary Clemmer herself died at the age of 45, only a year after her 1883 marriage to Edmund Hudson, editor of the Army and Navy Register. Her earlier marriage to Daniel Ames ended in divorce in 1874, the same year in which Ten Years in Washington was first published.

Death came early to Mary Clemmer Ames Hudson, but she has left behind a wonderful chronicle of Gilded Age Washington.

 

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger