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Tag: civil war

Facial Hair Friday: Gideon Welles, Bearded and Bright

Since the new film Lincoln has spent a few weeks in theaters, we thought it’d be interesting to learn more about President Lincoln’s fantastically hairy cabinet.

First up is Gideon Welles, who served as President Lincoln’s and then as President Johnson’s Secretary of the Navy from 1861 to 1869, the longest anyone had held the position. Born to an esteemed Connecticut family, Welles had facial hair almost as prodigious as his political presence.

Gideon Welles graduated from what is now Norwich University in Vermont with a degree in law. However, he found he had a knack for journalism and became editor and part owner of the Hartford Times in 1826. That year, he was also elected to the legislature. As a Jacksonian Democrat, Welles supported wide-spread enfranchisement and President Jackson’s anti-bank campaign. In 1836, Jackson appointed Welles as the postmaster of Hartford, Connecticut, until William Henry Harrison removed him in 1841.

When the “slavery issue” emerged in the 1850s, Welles became a major figure in the newly formed Republican party, serving as Republican national committeeman and member of the party’s national executive committee. He also helped establish the Hartford Evening Press to support the party. He was a strong advocate for Lincoln and abolition, and was rewarded with appointment to President Lincoln’s cabinet. Throughout his career, Welles was regarded as an unusually astute, methodical, and … [ Read all ]

The Real Widows of the Pension Office

Today’s post was written by Pamela Loos-Noji, a former volunteer with the Civil War Widows Pension Project. The National Archives holds 1.28 million case files of pension applications from family members of deceased Civil War Union soldiers. A team of more than 60 volunteers, led by National Archives staff, is digitizing the files and placing them online. Pamela will be giving a talk on “The Real Widows of the Pension Office” on October 16 and 18.

The reason I decided to volunteer was an article written by a friend of mine about her experience working with the Civil War Widows Pension Project. She wove a compelling story of the person at the center of her file and brought the relationship between a mother and her soldier son to life in a way that surprised me. I was hooked. I, too, wanted to find stories, have people from the past speak to me of their lives, and to share what I learned.

The years after the Civil War were right in the middle of the Victorian era. In my mind, Victorians were uptight, straight-laced people who did not express strong feelings and who acted in a very proper manner. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

In fact, I learned a lesson I thought I’d already learned about history. People are the same as they’ve always been. … [ Read all ]

Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on display in New York City

The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. . . . In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth. President Abraham Lincoln, 1862.

Two original versions of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation will be displayed together for the first time in the Schomburg Center in New York City from September 21 to 24.

This is a rare opportunity to see the signed draft that is part of the holdings of the National Archives. This document represents the transformation of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation from intent to action. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln’s handwritten draft was transcribed, affixed with the Seal of the United States, and signed by him. The Proclamation now carried the force of law.

The Proclamation had been in development since the summer. In July 1862, President Lincoln read his “preliminary proclamation” to his Cabinet but decided to wait for a Union military victory to issue it. On September 17, 1862, over 6,000 Union and Confederate men died at Antietam in the bloodiest day in American history. Thousands more were wounded or missing. It was also the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

On … [ Read all ]

Secession, Congress, and a Civil War Awakening at the Archives

The U.S. Capitol under construction, 1860 (National Archives Identifier 530494)

As a new year begins, the 112th Congress reconvenes for a second session of legislative activity. Representatives and senators from across the country are again descending upon the Capitol, ready to commence debates, proceedings, and hearings. This is how the legislative branch of the Federal Government always functions, right? Well, not always.

On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, the 36th Congress consisted of 66 senators and 234 representatives. There was a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and every state in the Union was effectively represented.

But once South Carolina issued its ordinance of secession on December 20, 1860, a surge of southern legislators began withdrawing and retiring from Congress.

By the time the 37th Congress convened in March of 1861, six states—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—had already joined South Carolina and left the Union. This prompted Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina to follow.

When the torrent of secession finally concluded, vacancies existed in both chambers of Congress. The mass exodus of southern Democrats, coupled with the commencement of Union-Confederate hostilities, shrank the Federal legislature to 50 senators and 180 representatives by the beginning of 1863.

Southern secession transformed Congress in many ways. The dozens of unfilled vacancies in the Senate and the … [ Read all ]

Little Women in the Civil War

About 20,000 women volunteered in military hospitals during the Civil War. Unfortunately, the majority of them left little or no written evidence of their sacrifice in the war.

Louisa May Alcott, renowned 19th-century author of Little Women, was one of them, and her service is documented in a Washington, D.C., hospital’s muster roll.

Alcott was an abolitionist from an early age and eager to give her share, however small, to the war effort. She began sewing Union uniforms and badges before serving as a nurse at the age of 30.

As her muster roll indicates, she was stationed at the “Union Hotel U.S.A. General Hospital,” a makeshift military hospital in “Georgetown, D.C.” She served under the superintendent of Union Army nurses, Dorothea Dix, as a “female nurse” for November and December 1862 and received ten dollars pay.

“My greatest pride is in the fact that I lived to know the brave men and women who did so much for the cause, and that I had a very small share in the war which put an end to a great wrong,” Alcott wrote.

A bout with typhoid ultimately ended her short career as a nurse. Alcott never fully recovered from her illness, and for the rest of her life, she suffered from mercury poisoning as a result of her treatments with calomel.

Her time as … [ Read all ]