I’ve never written to you before, I hope you can answer a couple of peculiar questions for me:

  1. Do we know why Mary Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin disliked each other? Was there an incident?
  1. Why did Lincoln decide to go watch the battle at Fort Stevens?  Did he know it was a pretty risky thing to do?


Russ Woody




Dear Mr. Woody,

One of Hannibal Hamlin’s letters to his wife Ellen indicates that he considered seeing Mary Todd Lincoln “no job I covet,” because he thought “her ladyship” spent too much on clothes and décor in the White House. “I dislike her very much,” he wrote. “She is a mere snob, but she holds a position to which courtesy requires we should be respectful.” So, evidently, he kept his feelings private, save for his wife, and there were no incidents.

As to President Abraham Lincoln’s appearance at Fort Stevens, on July 12, 1864 he had observed the advance of Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s force from five miles away and also learned that two ships had arrived on the Potomac, bearing two veteran divisions detached by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant from the VI Corps. Being a hands-on commander-in-chief by nature, Lincoln thought it would calm Washington in general if he led the reinforcements to embattled Fort Sevens personally. While he surveyed the field from the parapet, Early’s troops were recuperating from heat and exhaustion, but his sharpshooters, trained to effectiveness at up to 800 yards were firing from trees, farmhouses and cornfields at targets of opportunity. John Hay, his private secretary, noted in his diary that night that “A soldier roughly ordered him to get down or he would have his head knocked off.”  That soldier’s identity has many claimants, most famously future chief justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. In any case, content with the strength of Fort Stevens’ defenses and the quality of the men defending it, Lincoln was described as making his way back home “in fine feather.” The next morning Early, learning that Union veteran reinforcements were arriving in growing numbers, despaired of his prospects and began planning to disengage from Washington.



Jon Guttman

Research Director

World History


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