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Chapter 39: Cabinet life.

In the summer of 1853 I left New Orleans, under the care of Major T. P. Andrews of the army, to join Mr. Davis in Washington, with my baby, my little sister, Margaret Graham, and brother, Becket Kempe Howell; the two latter were going to school. We remained a day in Mobile, and the little ten-year old boy went to dinner alone. He had never been at a hotel before. The waiter laid down the wine card before him, of which the child ordered several bottles. He drank a teaspoonful of it and then told me in confidence: “I suppose the people of the hotel give it, and some of them drink it. I tried, but I could not.” He thought it was included in the ordinary charge for board. We departed shortly after the yellow fever had appeared in the city. General David Twiggs came to bid me goodby the day before I left, and told me that Colonel Bliss was quite ill with the disease; the day after I reached Washington, his death was announced. He was a handsome man, of very dignified mien, an accomplished soldier, [533] a graceful writer, and was such a rare union of all that renders a man acceptable to his fellowmen that at West Point he used to be called “Perfect Bliss.”

The water is so near the surface about the city that to obtain sepulture is an anxious consideration with those who bury their dead there, and tombs are built in the walls of the cemetery by many. In this epidemic, however, the people died in such numbers that it became necessary to burn many of the dead.

When we reached Washington we found Mr. Davis had rented a furnished house on Thirteenth Street, temporarily, and Mr. and Mrs. Richard Brodhead were taking care of him in my absence.

Here Mr. Guthrie, who was much esteemed and beloved by our whole family, used to come in the evening and talk his strong common-sense. Sometimes he favored me with shrewd criticisms of men and things. Once he was very indignant with Mr. Cushing for “ripping out his scientific stuff to impress me; but I have found, and so told Mr. Cushing, that I do not know much, but things I do know well, he does not.” Once Mr. Guthrie sat down in one of the trumpery chairs in our furnished house, and being very tired, dropped asleep. He was a very large man and proved too much for the chair, so it [534] gave way with a crack which wakened him. He rose deliberately, examined the chair for some minutes, then looked at me quizzically, and said, “You know a man is heavier when he is asleep, do you suppose it possible I could have been asleep?” He lived a few doors from us, and Mr. Cushing boarded not far off. Mr. Campbell lived more in the centre of the city, and Governor Marcy only a few squares from the Executive Mansion. Mr. Dobbin, the Secretary of the Navy, was also quite near, so that the Executive family of Mr. Pierce could be summoned to a meeting in an hour or less time.

From this house, which had been taken by Mr. Benjamin for the winter, we moved in a few months to one round the corner on Thirteenth Street, and there lived a year. There our only child sickened, and after several weeks of pain and steady decline, died at twenty-three months old; and his lovely personality had even at that early age impressed itself on many people. He was Mr. Davis's first thought when the door opened, and the little fellow would wait as patiently as possible, sometimes a quarter of an hour, at the door to kiss his father first. He was much beloved by Mrs. Pierce, who constantly sent or called for him to drive with her.

For many months afterward, Mr. Davis [535] walked half the night, and worked fiercely all day. A child's cry in the street well-nigh drove him mad, and to the last hour of his life he occasionally spoke of “the strong young man on whose arm, had God so willed it, I might have leaned and gone down to my grave.” The sympathy of thousands is gratifying and acceptable as a tribute to the living as well as to the dead, but one misses sorely the opportunity to mourn in secret.

While we lived here, Colonel Delafield, Major Mordecai and Captain McClellan were sent as a military commission to the Crimea to study the methods of war adopted there. They were to visit England, France, and Russia as well. We invited the general officers of the Army and the ambassadors from these countries to meet the Commission. Generals Scott, Jessup, and Totten were present. Colonel Delafield was an alert soldierly man with much of scientific acquirement, but a curt manner. Major Mordecai was a Hebrew, and one could readily understand, after seeing him, how that race had furnished the highest type of manhood; his mind was versatile, at times even playful, but his habits of thought were of the most serious problems, and so perfectly systematized as to make everything evolved from his fecund mind available for the use of mankind. [536] His moral nature was as well disciplined as his mental, and his private life was of the purest and most admirable; he was an “Israelite without guile.”

Captain McClellan was quite young, and looked younger than he really was from an inveterate habit of blushing when suddenly addressed; his modesty, his gentle manner, and the appositeness of the few remarks he made, gave us a most favorable impression of him. The instinct of protection was strong in General Scott, and he assumed a protectorate over Captain McClellan at once. General Totten and he were talking about traprock in an undertone, while General Scott was explaining to the Comte de Sartige how to cook terrapin, “mixing the wine with a judicious flavoring of spice, but no flour, sir --not a grain.” Captain McClellan just then uttered the word “trap.” General Scott set his fork rampant and called across the table, “No, sir — I say no, they are never caught in traps.” General Totten explained in his debonnaire way that they were speaking of traprock, but the General gave us a disquisition upon the proper manner of chasing buffalo upon the plains, and wound up with the announcement, “I have never heard of their being caught in a trap, sir.”

The horror of a wrangle, and the embarrassment [537] of having the attention of the whole table called to his conversation, turned Captain McClellan a fine rosy purple.

The French Minister expressed to me in a whisper his profound sympathy with General Scott's labors in having, “according to the necessity of his nature, to teach the whole company at once.”

Each one of the ministers present had given assurance of the willing co-operation of their Government with the labors of the commission; but our officers were afterward not granted the facilities by France for which Comte de Sartige hoped — in fact they received scant courtesy, which was amply made up, however, by the kindness of the English and Russian Governments.

They proceeded to the seat of war, where they messed with the English officers, saw the defects of their commissariat, their consequent suffering, their splendid gallantry in action, and compared the methods of the French and English in active warfare. After the “Malakoff” was taken they went into Russia. There Captain McClellan mastered the language in three months in order to read their books on military science, and when tie commission returned the fruits of their journey were as prodigal and fair as those brought by the spies from the Promised Land. The discriminating [538] world praised the acumen of the Secretary who had sought out so able a commission, and the labors of the accomplished soldiers who had done honor to his choice.

Mr. Davis's appreciation of Captain McClellan was an instance of his happy faculty of discerning the merits of young people and “drawing” them into sympathetic communion with him by his charm of manner. There was a refined assumption of equality and cointelligence between himself and them, which conciliated them at once. If he expressed a decided opinion, it was prefaced by “I take it for granted you will coincide with me in the opinion,” etc. He pursued this plan even with children, and always with servants. A striking instance of this occurred with my little brother Jeff. When he was nine years old I sent him to his brother to be rebuked for playing “hookie” from school; he returned not disconcerted, but quite cheerful. I asked him what Mr. Davis had said. He answered, “Oh! I shall not do it again, but brother Jeff knows how a man feels, and understands that he sometimes gives way when he is bored without meaning to do it.”

As soon as practicable, when our year was out in this house, we removed to one once occupied by Mr. Edward Everett, at the corner of F and Fourteenth Streets, much nearer [539] to the War Department, not larger, but more commodious.

The President had brought with him from Concord the son of a widowed friend, to be his private secretary. Sidney Webster was a young man of pleasant, decorous manners, and a nice sense of propriety and honor. He made himself acceptable to the President's Cabinet, and to visitors very generally. The position is a difficult one to fill, and the temptation is very great to a young man to arrogate to himself the importance due alone to his office. Mr. Webster was the most impersonal private secretary of all I have known in that position. It is doubtful whether he knew how to make political combinations, or ever tried to effect any, but he was all the more successful for the lack of such effort. He rendered every needful courtesy, performed punctiliously every duty, and for the rest was a great favorite in society, and enjoyed his leisure hours exceedingly. As one grows old and wiser than of yore, the things that friends do not do are even more occasions of grateful memory than the deeds they perform; for that reason it is so hard to describe a thorough gentleman, so many of his virtues are those of abstention.

Mrs. Pierce was a broken-hearted woman in weak health, and not a person who found [540] it easy to become acquainted with strangers. She had one child, a very promising boy, and, after Mr. Pierce's election, while the three were taking a little journey together, there was an accident which precipitated the train down a steep bank. Mr. Pierce found his little Ben insensible, as he supposed, but upon removing his cap saw that the poor lad's head was crushed.

The grief-stricken mother was brought to Washington, more dead than alive. Certainly there was little in the new life she led there to comfort or cheer her, and her depression was rendered still greater by being a constant sufferer from an obscure ailment. She was very small, and never could have been pretty, but was very well read, intelligent, and gentle, and was a person of strong will and clear perceptions; her husband's society was the one thing necessary to her, and he was too overworked to give her much of his time. She was so like the picture of Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning that one who knew her was deceived into believing that it was her likeness. She had a keen sense of the ridiculous, but was too ceremonious to indulge it often. She lived much within herself. With her sorrow pressed close to her stricken heart she bore her position with patience and gentle dignity. [541]

Of Mr. Pierce I cannot speak as reliably as another who loved him less. All sympathies seemed united in him. No one was so poor that, in any honorable personality, Mr. Pierce could not do him reverence. His door-keeper once speaking of him, said: “He does not keep his manners for the fine folks that come here, but he gives me the compliments of the morning as grandly as he does to General Scott.”

His courtesy was unfailing he was incapable of feigning, and was, if he disapproved of anything a friend had done, gravely sincere and plain in the expression of his opinion, but in the reproof there was no semblance of a sense of superiority, and this took out all the sting. He was one of the most genuinely honest, upright men I have ever known. His wants were few, his personal habits were rather elegant. He accepted no presents, but did not seem to think it a matter to be vaunted, though he dearly loved to give, and gave much to the needy.

At the time the first expedition to Japan returned home there were sent as presents a large number of curios and much fine lacquer work-besides some Japanese dogs-very singular animals, unknown in the United States at that time. Mr. Pierce came over to see us early after breakfast the day after [542] they arrived, as glad as a boy to have something to give to his friend. He was hardly seated before he burst out with, “General, I have a dog for you.” Mr. Davis said, “What can I do with a dog in town?” “Oh!” said the President, “you can put it in a tea-saucer, if it crowds your house.” The house had twenty-three rooms in it, and our family were four in number. It was in those days one of the most spacious dwellings in Washington. After this sally, Mr. Pierce went on to say that if I chose I might “abstract” some of the exquisite presents sent by the Japanese Government as they belonged to no one; but Mr. Davis said, “In that case my wife knows they do not belong to her.” So we went over and looked on while the beautiful things were unpacked and had a barmecide feast of the eyes. In the evening a messenger arrived from the President, who took out of his coat pocket a little creature with a head like a bird with a blunt beak, eyes large and popped, and a body like a new-born puppy of the smallest kind. He was prettily marked with a band of white about his otherwise jet-black body. A coffee-saucer made an ample scampering ground for him. On a tiny string about his neck was traced Bonin-because he was born in passing the Bonin Islands. Thus was installed Mr. Davis's pet and the scourge [543] of the servants and of the family. Bonin was so small and dark that it was difficult to distinguish him from the hues of the carpet, and if ever a bashful young lieutenant came to pay his respects to the Secretary of War, he entered in a somersault over the dog, or he trod on it, and Bonin, yelping out his indignation, had to be soothed by his master. If I complained of this nuisance Mr. Davis bowed and offered to “build a house for myself and my dog.” However Bonin grew to be somewhat less troublesome as he gained in age and experience.

When he left Washington, in 1861, he was given to Patrick Jordon, Mr. Davis's faithful messenger, to be reclaimed when convenient, but this distinguished Japanese, one of the first who acquired citizenship by years of residence, went in an unhappy hour during the war to a fair, where the persons present, finding out that the little dog was Mr. Davis's, fed him with so many dainties that he died of indigestion. His master never ceased to talk of and regret him.

We never understood why Mr. Pierce was undervalued and spoken of by his opponents as a man of no force, except that he never assumed anything, and when he asserted himself, which was not seldom, the desire to make the dissonance as little painful to his [544] opponents as possible, gave him the air of seeking a compromise.

He never yielded a point to his Cabinet on which he had once expressed an opinion, and no one of them, and they were nearly all positive men, would have thought of presuming to dictate to him. Only once, I believe, was there any serious divergence between him and Mr. Davis. Mr. Davis expressed his inability to agree with the President, and after the Cabinet meeting he came home and told me the circumstance, and that he could not recede, as he looked upon the act as subversive of justice. He added, “I will not insist upon my view of the matter, but I will resign rather than embarrass the President, or do what I consider an injustice.” Late in the evening the President sent an explanatory note, offering to announce himself responsible for the objectionable course, and so it was settled. Mr. Davis has given an account of the slight dissonance elsewhere. A most absurd thing occurred through my sympathy with a young couple who were about to be separated in consequence of the husband being ordered to San Francisco at a critical time for the wife. Personally anxious about his wife, the lieutenant craved a postponement of three or four weeks; but General Scott refused the application. The officer had married [545] into the Taylor family and the general was not intent upon serving them.

There were no railways then to that distant State and to go there one must cross the Isthmus, or double the Cape. Then the journey was more tedious and the communication more difficult than it now is with China. In my distress I appealed to the Secretary of War, but he said: “I cannot interfere with General Scott's prerogatives; it would be offensive, and our relations are now strained. I am as much troubled about it as you are.” I laughingly said, “I shall appeal to the President,” and accordingly wrote to him at once, that the Secretary of War declined to relieve the lieutenant, that I thought it unnecessary severity, and that I hoped he would grant the delay, and signed it V. H. Davis. Weeks passed on and no answer came. The President rode up to my carriage the evening preceding the parting of the young people, and noticing that I was depressed, asked what had “gone awry.” I told him, and said, “I have never asked any favor of you except this, and it was an intensely personal one to me.” He laughed heartily and said, “I noticed the handwriting, how much like the General's it was, and thought it a man's hand and referred the note to him, but I will go at once and send General Scott a request to [546] postpone the young fellow's departure for two months.” He went back home immediately and arranged everything satisfactorily. In the meanwhile I interrogated my husband about the note. He smiled, and said, “You had a right, Madam, to be put on file, and there you are.” For some time after this whenever the President saw me he inquired if my “young people were all right.”

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