Tuesday, February 28, 2012

When Abraham Lincoln met Prince Napoleon

Portrait of Prince Napoleon, circa 1860
In July of 1861, Prince Napoleon, nephew of the infamous Napoleon I, embarked on a two-month private tour of the United States during which he met Abraham Lincoln and also attended a disastrous dinner party at the White House on August 3rd.

As France was still undecided about which side it would support, if any at all, in the Civil War, it was crucial for Lincoln to charm Napoleon and persuade him to support the Union.

Napoleon's first impression of Lincoln got off to a bad start when Napoleon arrived on the doorstep of the White House with his acquaintances and found no one to greet him or even open the door. After a passing clerk happened to notice the prince standing on the steps, he let him in but left him waiting unattended in the drawing room. Finally, after 15 minutes, Secretary of State William H. Seward came in to greet the prince.

In a letter written a few days after, Lieutenant Colonel Camille Ferri Pisani, who accompanied Napoleon to the White House that day, noted that although he thought the White House “is a rather nice palace, located in the most secluded section of Washington and surrounded by a beautiful garden” he was unimpressed with the furnishings inside:

“The drawing room we entered was magnificent; the furniture, though extremely rich, was in rather poor taste. We had been waiting for fifteen minutes, and I expected a sudden departure on account of the growing impatience of the Prince, when we saw a small man with a straw hat and a grey overcoat enter the room. He did not wear a tie, or rather his tie was so narrow that it does not deserve to be mentioned. With a lively step, he approached Baron Mercier, who shook his hand and then introduced Mr. Seward, Minister of State of the Republic of the United States.”

A few minutes later, Lincoln finally entered the room and greeted his guests. Pisani described Lincoln as a “giant” but said his attitude and manners were that of a shy, modest man while his facial expression expressed “benevolence and frankness.”

The meeting did not go well, as the prince was still irritated about being made to wait and Lincoln was reserved and shy around his new guests, as Pisani states in his letter:

“Our meeting was not so gay. The President shook our hands, after shaking the Prince’s. I feared, for a moment, that the interview would end with this silent demonstration. Mr. Lincoln gained a few more minutes by asking the Prince to sit down and by sitting himself, the whole affair being done amidst a great movement of chairs. But, once these new positions were acquired, the two parties sat opposite each other silently, without troubling to go any further. The Prince, impatient because he had to wait, took a cruel pleasure in remaining silent.”

Abraham Lincoln in 1861
To make matters worse, Lincoln asked Napoleon about the health of his father, Prince Lucien, not realizing that he was actually the son of Jerome Napoleon, not Lucien. The conversation then turned awkwardly to the weather while Napoleon remained distant and cold towards Lincoln.

Hoping to wrap the awkward meeting up, Lincoln thanked the prince for visiting him and invited him to a dinner party at the White House that evening. After another long exchange of handshakes, Napoleon and his party set off to see the rest of the city, relieved that the meeting was over, as Pisani wrote in his letter:

“Everyone retired, glad to have completed the official presentation, for these customs are generally boring, and their annoyance is only compensated by the hope for the more intimate and interesting relationships of which they are the necessary prelude.”


American Heritage; The Tour of Prince Napoleon; 1957; Volume 8; Issue 5

New York Times; a Peevish Prince, a Hairy-Handed President, a Disastrous Dinner Party; Adam Goodheart; August 2011

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Harriet Tubman Didn't Like Abraham Lincoln

Harriet Tubman in 1870
During an interview with a writer named Rose Belle Holt in 1886, Harriet Tubman stated that she did not like Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and only learned to appreciate him after her friend Sojourner Truth told her Lincoln was not the enemy but a friend to African-Americans.

The statement came after Holt asked Tubman if she ever visited Lincoln at the White House: “No, I'm sorry now, but I didn't like Lincoln in them days. I used to go see Missus Lincoln, but I never wanted to see him. You see we colored people didn't understand then [that] he was our friend. All we knew was that the first colored troops sent south from Massachusetts only got seven dollars a month, while the white regiment got fifteen. We didn't like that. But now I know all about it and I is sorry I didn't go see Master Lincoln.”

Tubman said she eventually changed her mind after Sojourner Truth told her Lincoln was “our friend” and had gone to the White House in October of 1864 to thank Lincoln for signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Sojourner Truth told her that Lincoln appreciated the visit but felt he only did what any president would have done in his shoes.

For the rest of her life, Tubman regretted not meeting Lincoln and thanking him for ending slavery. One of her close friends, Helen Tatlock, said during an interview with Earl Conrad in the 1939: “I remember very clearly Harriet saying, and repeating, very often, that she did now know Lincoln. It was a deep sorrow and regret of her later years. She never recovered from that in any way.”

"Visits with Lincoln: Abolitionists Meet the President at the White House”; Barbara White; 2011

 "Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories”; Jean McMahon Humez; 2003

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Harriet Tubman Assaulted by a Racist Train Conductor

Harriet Tubman during the Civil War
When Harriet Tubman was working as a nurse during the Civil War, she was assaulted one day in October of 1865 by a train conductor on the Camden & South Amboy railroad while on her way back from the military hospital at Fort Monroe in Virginia.

As she was instructed to do by the military, Tubman had used her nurse's pass to purchase a half-fare ticket from Philadelphia to her home in Auburn, New York. Having missed her original train, she boarded a late-night emigrant train bound for Auburn.

After handing the conductor her ticket, he responded with “We don't carry ni**ers half fare.” Tubman explained that she worked for the government and was entitled to the same half-fare tickets the soldiers received. Refusing to listen, the conductor grabbed her by the arm and called three male passengers to assist him in removing her from the car.

While the passengers shouted “Pitch the ni**er out,” the men opened up the door and threw her violently into the baggage car, injuring her shoulder and arm and several of her ribs in the process.

Harriet Tubman in 1870
According to a letter written by her friend, Martha Coffin Wright, Tubman shouted at the conductor "I'll thank you to call me a 'black' or Negro, you copperheaded scoundrel. I am just as proud of being a black woman as you are of being white.”

Upon arriving in Auburn, a young man stopped Tubman while she was leaving the train, handed her his card and offered to be her witness if she decided to sue the conductor.

Tubman sought out a doctor, who placed her arm in a sling and set her shoulder. Her injuries took months to heal and she spent most of the winter recovering.

Tubman's friends were outraged by her treatment and explored the possibility of suing the conductor. When her friends realized that the young man who offered to serve as a witness did not have any contact information on his card, they placed advertisements in local newspapers but never heard from him.

With no white witness to support her, Tubman knew that as a black woman she would have no case against a white man and reluctantly decided to let the matter go.


"Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History”; Milton C. Sernett; 2007 

"Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories”; Jean McMahon Humez; 2003

"Harriet Tubman: A Biography"; James A. McGowan, William Kashatus; 2011

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Smallpox

When Abraham Lincoln delivered the historic Gettysburg Address in November of 1863, little did the public know he was ill with a deadly form of smallpox. 
Abe Lincoln giving his Gettysburg Address
His symptoms first began during his train ride to Gettysburg on November 18, when Lincoln reportedly told his private secretary, John Hay, that he felt dizzy and weak.

Looking pale and still feeling sick, Lincoln pressed on and successfully delivered his famous speech without a hitch. On the train ride home, his symptoms worsened and he began to complain of a severe headache.

Back at the White House, Lincoln soon developed back pains, high fever and a widespread rash that eventually morphed into itchy lesions. According to the autobiography of surgeon J.M.T. Finney, after losing a large amount of weight and feeling unwell for weeks, a doctor finally diagnosed his illness as a mild form of smallpox that later came to be known as Variola minor.

Only known photo of Abe Lincoln at Gettysburg
Yet, a 2007 study published in the Journal of Medical Biography suggests that Lincoln could not have had Variola minor, and instead had the life-threatening form of smallpox known as Variola major. According to the study, Variola minor didn't even appear in the U.S. until the end of the 19th century and was unknown in the U.S. at the time of Lincoln's diagnosis. The study suggests that Lincoln’s doctor may have tried to downplay the serious of his illness to prevent panic among the public.

It is unknown how Lincoln may have contracted smallpox, but it was a widespread and highly contagious disease at the time. Despite the fact that smallpox vaccines were commonly used to prevent contracting the disease, there is no evidence that Lincoln was ever vaccinated against it.

After feeling ill for three weeks, Lincoln eventually made a full recovery and resumed his presidential duties.


"A Surgeon's Life: The Autobiography of J. M. T. Finney"; J. M. T. Finney

MSNBC: Did Abe Lincoln Have Smallpox?: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18727435/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/did-abe-lincoln-have-smallpox/#.TyRokYFSySo

Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Illness: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17551612