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

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A Private Chapter of the War, Part I

When Johnny comes marching home again

Hurrah! Hurrah!

We’ll give him a hearty welcome then

Hurrah! Hurrah!

The men will cheer and the boys will shout

The ladies they will all turn out

And we’ll all feel gay

When Johnny comes marching home.

 

Get ready for the Jubilee,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

We’ll give the hero three times three,

Hurrah! Hurrah!

The laurel wreath is ready now

To place upon his loyal brow

And we’ll all feel gay

When Johnny comes marching home.

 

Written and published in 1863, this optimistic song lifted the spirits of Americans north and south during the final, difficult years of the Civil War.  Those at home may have expected Johnny to return older, perhaps a bit battle-worn, but essentially unchanged from the enthusiastic patriot or the reluctant conscript they had sent off to war.

But the men were changed, each in his own way, based on his own experience;  all in ways that they could not readily share as they tried to readjust to civilian life.  Each had his own “private chapter in the war;” but most, according to a Wisconsin officer “thought only of how [they] could best take up the pursuits of peaceful industry.”  They “had then no inclination to study the comparative analysis of the war, or the proper bearing it had upon our country and race.”  As much as the country was in need of reconstruction, the war’s veterans were in need of what Gerald Linderman, author of Embattled Courage, called “hibernation”—a period of quiet when each man could reflect on his experience and try to come to terms with it.  For more than a decade veterans remained quiet. Linderman explains, “Disturbing memories were to be kept to oneself, not to be aired publicly to relieve the sufferer and certainly not to correct public misapprehension of the nature of combat.”

Eventually, though, what Linderman calls a “revival” began.  Around 1880, commemorations, publications, and organizations of veterans proliferated.  Individual soldiers told their stories, wrote their memoirs, and shared their experiences.  George W. Bailey of St. Louis, Missouri wrote A Private Chapter in the War in 1880.  His slim volume, he said,  “presents a limited inside view of a portion of the Confederacy within its military lines, as secretly observed by a ‘stray’ from the invading army in blue, whose experiences disclose the real political sentiments of fair samples of different classes who resided within the Confederacy during the war…”  He sent a copy of his book to “Gen. Jas. A. Garfield, with compliments of the author” sometime that year.  It is now part of the collection in the Memorial Library at James A. Garfield NHS.

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First Lieutenant George W. Bailey, author of A Private Chapter of the War, as seen in 1864.  This image was taken from the copy of Bailey’s book sent to James A. Garfield in 1880.  (NPS photo)

Bailey, writing in the present tense, begins his story on July 22, 1864, before Atlanta, Georgia.  He identifies himself as a first lieutenant and aide-de-camp on the staff of Major General Morgan L. Smith, commander of the Second Division, Fifteenth Army Corps.  Captured in the midst of battle by Confederates who had overrun the Union position through an undefended railroad cut, Bailey, with perhaps eighty other officers and “a great number of soldiers” was taken under guard toward Atlanta.

“An excited rebel soldier amuses the citizen spectators by trailing one of our captured flags in the dust behind his horse…Women taunted us with, ‘Ah, boys you’ve got into Atlanta at last, haven’t you?’  Everybody seemed crazed with delight…Men, women and children gaze at us good-naturedly; but occasionally there are countenances sneering with scorn or pale with hatred.”

The Union prisoners were quickly moved out of the city, heading south, toward Andersonville.

July 25. “Continued silence in the direction of Atlanta.  What was the result of the battle?  What does this silence mean?…One genius said, ‘The Yankees can’t fight for a while; all the live ones are busy burying the dead ones.’ (Astounding announcement—astute sentry!) How long are we going to be kept in this miserable place?  How long are we to be kept on quarter-rations?   Nobody seemed to know.  We know that exchanges of prisoners had ceased because of a misunderstanding or disagreement concerning the status of negro troops…The gloomy prospect of Andersonville loomed up again.  Horrifying contemplation.  A careful mental consideration and adjustment of chances for life resulted in favor of a desperate attempt to escape, rather than attempt to survive Andersonville.”

Andersonville_Prison

Andersonville, Georgia was the location of the Confederacy’s most notorious and deadliest prison for Union POWs.  Thousands of northerners died here from exposure, malnutrition, and simple neglect.  Lt. Bailey was understandably eager to avoid ever stepping foot in Andersonville.  (Library of Congress)

July 26.  [Bailey decides to] “escape by way of burial…Trusty comrade officers assist.  Tin cup, muscles, will, calculating ingenuity, friendly suggestions, briars cut to be stacked in the earth concealing the writer and present uninviting appearance to pedestrians, …Boughs and grass were gathered; the adventurer fitted in; satisfaction.  ‘All right, cover up.”  First came grass and boughs, then—‘Oh, here Lieutenant, here are some things you’ll need.’  Col. Scott presented some maps (linen) of the country, rolled up in which was a small pocket-compass…A canteen was also presented, and served as a substitute for a pillow.”

Bailey was carefully concealed under earth, grass, and artfully arranged briars, with a packet of rations buried near his head.  The column moved out the next morning, and a short time thereafter a hog helped itself to the buried rations.  Bailey waited and listened until at least mid-day, when it began to rain and his “grave” became untenable as a hiding place. So he pushed himself up and out, and almost immediately discovered another Union soldier, a six foot tall seventeen-year-old named Lybyer.  According to Bailey, when asked how the young man had escaped, his answer was “I was asleep in a brush-pile.  I didn’t wake up until after they’d gone; then I thought I’d go the other way.”

On the evening of July 27th, the day of his escape, Bailey and Lybyer attempt their first contact with local slaves, which Bailey describes this way:  “Hungry. Twilight; we approach the road.  A mansion; negro cabins in rear.  Objectives—the blacks.  A whispered consultation; we are unanimous in our opinion that the blacks are our friends…”  Their faith was rewarded.  The two escapees were sheltered, fed and supplied by a nameless women who told the men that they were the first Yankees she had ever seen, and that they would find all the blacks in the area friendly, and could be depended upon for help.

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Enslaved African Americans proved to be invaluable to Bailey and Lybyer as they hid from Confederates and tried to avoid recapture and being sent to Andersonville.  (Georgia Encyclopedia)

July 31. “No news; no encouraging sounds of cannon—ominous silence Atlantaward—doubts, fears, speculations, conjectures, ignorance—enemies in enemy’s country—thoughts of home, of friends, of companions in arms, of chances of meeting them again, of glowing firesides, of beaming countenances, all in contrast with the present. Raining.”

The next day the escapees discover a substantial plantation, with several slave cabins some distance behind and not visible from the main house.  They hide near a pathway until a field hand comes by.  Calling out to him, they determine that again, Bailey and Lybyer are the first Yankees the slave has seen, and that the plantation’s black population will be friendly and accommodating.  They are told to remain hidden until dusk, when they can be safely brought into one of the cabins.

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James A. Garfield’s copy of George W. Bailey’s A Private Chapter of the War.  (NPS photo)

August 1.  Determining location—twenty-four miles a little east of south from Atlanta.  Federal raids had caused the Confederates to closely guard every mill and cross-road of importance in the vicinity.  The guards could unite in the defense of any threatened point, and they also served to prevent suspected stampedes of negroes to the Federal lines.  Negroes who had recently returned from the ‘front’ reported that the Federals were expected ‘in these parts ‘fore long.’…Basing action upon the uncertainty of the situation at Atlanta and the certainty of danger ahead, and upon the fact of weariness—meaning exhaustion,–and the liability of falling into worse keeping, we concluded to remain encamped nearby until possessed of further information.  The negroes clapped their hands with joy at our decision, promising to render any assistance possible.

The plantation belongs to a committed Confederate named Smith, who lives in the main house with his wife, daughters, and a son who is at home on leave from the Confederate army, recovering from a wound.

(Check back soon for Part II of this article!)

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide