Mr. Lincoln’s Fredericksburg–May 23, 1862


From John Hennessy:

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s visit to Fredericksburg, we refer you to a post we did nearly two years ago that documents pretty strongly that Lincoln visited the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights in May 1862. You can find that post–one of our most popular ever–here.

Union General Rufus King (center) on the front steps at Chatham in the spring of 1862. That’s future Union general Judson Kilpatrick at right, already looking the daredevil. Lincoln marched up these steps and into the front door on May 23, 1862 to meet with King, McDowell, Gibbon, and others.

Lincoln’s May 23 visit came at a critical time for the Union army, as McDowell’s troops at Fredericksburg made final preparations for their advance south on Richmond, set for May 25. But while Lincoln was here, bad things were afoot in the Shenandoah that would completely disrupt the grand scheme, for on May 23, Jackson’s men struck at Banks’s forces at Strasburg and Front Royal. The climactic phase fo the Valley campaign had begun.

Lincoln’s visit to Chatham and Fredericksburg was akin to President Obama’s recent journey to Afghanistan–very few in the army or the press knew he was coming. Consequently, the visit received little notice in the press, and indeed is scantily recorded by men in the army either. Still, there are some worthwhile nuggets and impressions that have come down to us.

Union General John Gibbon left the best description of Lincoln’s morning visit to Chatham in a letter to his wife (Gibbon had written an artillery manual before the war that the government had refused to adopt, something the general pointed out to the president):

The dining room at Chatham, where Lincoln had dinner on May 23, 1862. A photo from the 1920s.

“We have had a day of excitement today.  It was understood that the Secty. of War was to arrive at 12 last night, and about nine this morning I received a circular directing commanders of Divisions and Brigades to call at Genl. McDowell’s Hd. Qrs. to pay their respect to the PRESIDENT and Secty. of War.  We all called up and were duly presented.  When my name was mentioned old Abe said ‘is this the gentleman who wrote the Decline & Fall!’  ‘No,’ ‘[W]ell sir if you will write the Decline & Fall of the rebellion I will let you off[.]’  ‘Why I said ‘Mr. Lincoln the only book I ever did write your Department refuse[d] to subscribe to’!  The officers all laughed very heartily & he asked what book it was, and when I told him he said he should have to ask ‘Stanton’ to give me another hearing.  …. I believe him to be a most excellent and HONEST man….I think he is the UGLIEST white man I ever saw, and ugliest when he is laughing, but he has a good face and always tells the ladies…that he is the handsomest man in the state of Illinois.” (From Gibbon’s papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.)

Lincoln’s visit elicited almost no enthusiasm from local white residents.  Betty Herndon Maury, who lived on Princess Anne Street, noted simply:  “Abraham Lincoln was in town on Friday. Our Mayor did not call on him, and I did not hear a cheer as he passed along the streets.”

The Unionist newspaper, the Christian Banner, likewise noted that there was little enthusiasm.  “There were no demonstrations of joy from any of the citizens.  If they were met by the Hon. Mayor and Common Council, we have not learned the fact.  Last winter Jefferson Davis…visited Fredericksburg, and but few demonstrations of joy were manifested on the occasion.  The citizens of Fredericksburg seem to have little partialities for Presidents.”  (For more on Davis’s visit to Fredericksburg, click here.)

Lincoln would visit the front near Fredericksburg many times.  A very nice little book has been written about his visits, by local historian Jane Conner.  You can learn more about the book here.

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3 thoughts on “Mr. Lincoln’s Fredericksburg–May 23, 1862

  1. Just in case anyone is interested, the fellows on the porch at Chatham from left to right are: Captain John Hathaway (Captain and Com. of Subsistence), Captain Robert Chandler (Captain and A.A.G.), Br. Gen. Rufus King, Lieut. A. D. Piilchar 35th (probably Albert A. Pitcher, 35th N.Y.V.I) and Lt. Col. Kilpatrick. This photo was probably taken at the same time as the photos of the 2nd and 7th Wisconsin in the fields beyond the home. There is a second photo of Gen. King and some unidentified officers (one of whom is a naval officer) in existence and I have seen comments of one that would include Gen. John Gibbon but have never seen a copy.
    Marc

    • The old National Bank of Fredericksburg on Princess Anne Street commissioned a painting by Sidney King of Lincoln on the steps of the bank building. Beyond that, there is no image that I know about that purports to capture Lincoln’s visit. John H.

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