Posts Tagged With: Presidents

The President Visits Fort Jefferson

From 1865 – 1869, Fort Jefferson served as the island prison which held four of the eight convicted conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, Micheal O’Laughlen and Edman Spangler were sent to this isolated ocean fort, 68 miles west of Key West, Florida, to serve their sentences for their involvement in Lincoln’s death. In 1869, three of the conspirators were pardoned by exiting President Andrew Johnson while one, Michael O’Laughlen, had previously perished at the Fort during a Yellow Fever outbreak in 1867.

Fort Jefferson was named after our 3rd president and is so deeply connected to the death of the 16th, but these are not the only connections that this former military base has to our former POTUSes. In this post we’ll explore the only three Presidents (that I know of) who have visited this sleeping giant.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt

FDR in Miami, Florida on December 5, 1937, the day after his trip to Fort Jefferson

We owe a lot to Franklin Roosevelt when it comes to Fort Jefferson. While the waters of the Dry Tortugas keys on which Fort Jefferson is built had previously been designated as protected, it was FDR who officially established Fort Jefferson as a National Monument in 1935. That put the old deteriorating fort in the middle of the ocean under the purview of the Department of the Interior and started the process of preservation. On November 28, 1937, President Roosevelt departed Washington intent on taking a cruise vacation to the National Monument he had helped save. On November 29, FDR boarded the U.S.S. Potomac out of Miami for a cruise to Fort Jefferson. The President was accompanied by his private secretary (and son) James Roosevelt, along with his attache of officials including the Secretary of the Interior. The Presidential group aboard the U.S.S. Potomac arrived at Fort Jefferson on November 30 and did not leave the waters around it until December 4. Over the course of his five days in the crystal blue waters of the Dry Tortugas, FDR kept busy with his work. He not only received coded messages aboard the Potomac through radio, but a mail plane was ordered by the Navy to run letters and official documents from Key West to the Potomac while it lay at anchor at Fort Jefferson. On the day that the group arrived, FDR wrote to his wife, Eleanor, who had not made the trip with him, “We are west of Key West, at the little harbor of old Fort Jefferson – a most interesting old brick fort standing out of the ocean in solitary grandeur…” The next day, FDR penned a short note to his aged mother headed with, “Dry Tortugas, December 1, 1937”. When not working, FDR joined in the many fishing expeditions that took place in the nearby waters. On one day he caught a total of five barracuda with the heaviest one weighing in at fourteen pounds. While others in the party had visited and toured the fort itself on the day of their arrival and during their subsequent time in the area, it wasn’t until the day of their departure, December 4, that FDR finally visited the Fort himself. The trip log describes his visit.

“At 10:40 the President accompanied by several members of his Party left the Potomac to inspect the ruins of Fort Jefferson. Mr. Willard Morris of the National Park Service escorted the party through the reservation and though he has been there but a few months was extremely enthusiastic and did everything possible to make the visit a pleasant one. The President evinced great interest in the structure and enjoyed the visit immensely. On departing from the Fort, Mr. Morris presented the President with a beautiful Queen conch shell which the President received with thanks and directed that it be sent to the White House. The President and all of his party signed the “guest book” in the Fort office. It was after noon when the President and his party arrived back on board the Potomac.”

During the tour FDR was informed by is guide that, “the first deck of the Fort served at one time as living quarters for soldiers, and later as cells for prisoners. Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, of Maryland, the physician who treated the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, assassinator of Abraham Lincoln, was incarcerated in one of these cells.” With this tour, FDR became the first sitting President to visit the site and learn a bit about the Lincoln conspirators’ incarceration. The looming conflict of WWII prevented Roosevelt from ever returning to the island fort he helped save, but his successor would make his own trips when peacetime came again.


Harry S. Truman

Harry Truman arrives in Key West on November 17, 1946

In November of 1946, President Harry S. Truman was worn out. After 19 months in office, Truman was suffering from poor health and his doctor wrote him a prescription for a nice warm vacation. The decision was made for Truman to travel to Key West, Florida and vacation in a home originally built by the Navy in 1890. This marked Truman’s first visit to Key West but resulted in the President falling in love with the town on the southernmost point of the continental United States. Over the course of his Presidency, Truman made a total of eleven visits to Key West staying a total of 175 days in the home he affectionately dubbed, the Little White House. In his post-Presidency life, Truman continued to visit Key West regularly, he considering it his second favorite place on earth after his hometown of Independence, Missouri. The Truman Little White House is a tourist attraction in Key West today and are regularly open for tours when not housing important guests or diplomats.

Having spent so much time in Key West over the course of his presidency, it should come to no surprise that Harry Truman visited the island prison of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, Fort Jefferson. Truman actually visited Fort Jefferson during his very first vacation to Key West, on November 22, 1946. He was transported to the island by the U.S.S. Stribling, a 2200 ton Navy destroyer, for a sight seeing trip. A second destroyer, the U.S.S. O’Hare carried members of the press and served as an escort vessel. When they reached the island, President Truman and his party were met by Russell Gibbs, the custodian of the fort who lived there with his wife and child. The large party had been joined by members of the press, including photographers who snapped some pictures of the visit that have been digitized by the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. In most of the pictures below President Truman is the one wearing the safari helmet.

The official log of the President’s visit in 1946 included a little summary of the tour Truman was given by Russell Gibbs. Truman was fully educated about how Fort Jefferson was used to imprison Dr. Samuel Mudd (the other conspirators didn’t make the cut again) and how Dr. Mudd’s bravery during the 1867 yellow fever epidemic helped earn him a pardon. The log then contains this nugget:

“The President and his party were shown one of the areas of Dr. Mudd’s confinement, where the President posed for a picture. On being informed by the guide that Dr. Mudd was confined with a ball and chain about his leg, the President jokingly asked the guide if there were any balls and chains available now so that he might leave a few members of his party here.”

Sadly, I have not been able to find the described photograph of President Truman posing in Dr. Mudd’s cell. After the tour was over, President Truman and his party thanked Russell Gibbs, signed the fort’s register, and departed.

The large party then split into two groups and boarded the smaller boats that had ferried them between the destroyers and the island. Preparations were made for the President and his party to enjoy some fishing about 4 miles away from the Fort. A bet was made between President Truman and Clark Clifford, his White House Counsel who occupied the other boat. Clifford bet the President five dollars that his group on his boat could catch a larger weight of fish than the President and his boat-mates. Truman accepted the challenge and the two boats, which positioned themselves about 200 yards away from one another, started casting. President Truman made the first catch of them all, landing a six pound grouper. In the following picture of the ecstatic president with his fish, Fort Jefferson can be seen on the horizon under his wrist.

The log of the trip contains a humorous anecdote of “collusion” on the part of the crew of the President’s fiishing boat. Unbeknownst to Clark Clifford and his boat, while the Presidential party was touring Fort Jefferson, the crew of the President’s boat had done some fishing of their own. The plan was to include these extra fish with the President’s when the two boats weighed up against each other later. While the President and his group had modest luck (save for Truman’s Chief of Staff Admiral William Leahy who caught nothing and “could only confess he was a bad fisherman on this trip”), Clark Clifford’s boat did exceptionally well. When the fishing came to an end and the two weighed up, it was found that Clifford’s group had bested the President’s. Even when the President’s group added the pre-caught fish from the crew of their ship, they still lost to Clifford.

“When it was learned that Mr. Clifford’s group caught the larger weight of fish, the President confessed to Mr. Clifford that even by weighing in the fish already on board the DOLPHIN when he started fishing, his group had failed to beat Mr. Clifford’s group. Had it not, however, the President jokingly remarked he might not have confessed the perfidy.”

It’s unknown if Truman paid Clifford his well-earned Lincoln.

This 1946, trip was not the only time Truman visited Fort Jefferson. About two years later, on November 13, 1948, Truman returned to the Dry Tortugas, this time accompanied by his wife Bess and daughter Margaret. The Trumans and their guests spent about an hour touring the Fort. Here are some of the pictures from this trip, once again courtesy of the Truman Library.

In the log for this 1948 visit, it was noted that President Truman had remembered what he had been taught about Dr. Mudd two years previously:

“The President, who had previously visited the island in November 1946, pointed out the dungeon where Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, had been held prisoner.”

President Truman made one final visit to Fort Jefferson during his presidency. This last trip occurred on March 21, 1951. President Truman greeted the workers and visitors to Fort Jefferson and took the tour. It was a fairly standard visit except this time a picnic lunch was set up for the party on the parade grounds of the fort. The meal included ice cream, which was also given to the children who lived at the Fort with their parents. After lunch was over, Truman signed the guest book as usual and departed. Here are the pictures of the visit.

When President Truman departed Fort Jefferson on March 21, 1951, it marked the last time a President has set foot on the island. But it’s not exactly the last time a President has “visited”.


Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight Eisenhower chipping golf balls in Key West, January 7, 1956

On December 28, 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower landed in Key West, Florida. Three months earlier, on September 24, Ike had suffered a severe heart attack. In order to help with the President’s recovery, it was suggested that he take a vacation to a warmer climate and get away from the harsh D.C. cold. Eisenhower took up residence in the Little White House in Key West that his predecessor Truman had enjoyed so much. Eisenhower had actually stayed at the Little White House during Truman’s presidency when Ike was still acting as a General in the army. Eisenhower spent eleven days in Key West, painting, chipping golf balls, and taking strolls. The press noted that:

“Shirt-wise, the President’s holiday was not so colorful as Mr. Truman’s used to be – he dressed in slacks and sweater. Moreover, the President was conscious that this was a holiday for health and not fun. It was not the place he would have chosen. He is a man who prefers to have the smell of balsam in his nostrils rather than the smell of tide water. (One morning he stood before a window overlooking the sea, painting a Rocky Mountain scene.)”

So it seems that the allure of Key West might not have rubbed off on Eisenhower as much as it did on Truman. However, Eisenhower at least found something alluring with Fort Jefferson. While he did not take a naval destroyer cruise out to the Dry Tortugas, he made sure to get a glimpse of the fort on his way back to Washington. After departing by plane from Key West on January 8, Eisenhower had his pilot divert off their path to Washington so that he could see Fort Jefferson from the air. Here is a New York Times article about it:

Though he never stepped foot inside Fort Jefferson, it could be debated that Eisenhower’s views surpassed those of FDR and Truman. Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas are truly beautiful from the air.

Five hours after his plane had taken off in Key West, President Eisenhower landed back in Washington, D.C.


It’s possible that more Presidents have seen Fort Jefferson for themselves aside from FDR, Truman, and Ike. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have stayed at the Truman White House in Key West following their presidencies, but I haven’t been able to find anything on whether those visits included trips to the Dry Tortugas. Other former presidents like U. S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, and JFK visited Key West, but it’s very doubtful their visits included the very isolated fortress across the ocean 68 miles to the west.

Regardless, Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park remains one of our treasured historical gems. If you ever have a chance to visit this massive masonry marvel, I highly recommend it. Whether you get there by ferry or seaplane, you’ll depart knowing that you have walked in the footsteps of both conspirators and Presidents.

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A Buffalo Resident and Lincoln’s Assassination

On Saturday, April 15, the news of Lincoln’s assassination in Washington, D.C. reached the residents of Buffalo, New York. The entire city followed the rest of the nation with massive demonstrations of mourning. Black crepe was draped over public buildings and the residents wore black armbands and cockades. Many private homes in the city choose to mimic their public counterparts by similarly displaying mourning emblems and decorations. In Niagara Square, an affluent residential neighborhood in Buffalo, every single house was draped in black crepe and flying the American flag with the exception of one. As of Monday, April 17, this home was still without mourning decorations, much to the chagrin of other residences who thought the lack of adornment demonstrated disrespect to the fallen President and the grieving nation. That evening a group of residents decided to take matters into their own hands. According to newspaper reports, a small group of men threw either ink or mud on the front of the offending home. This blackened the front of the home, effectively forcing it into a display of mourning.

This incident would seem a minor and insignificant occurrence had it not been for the well-known nature of the house’s owner. The Buffalo resident who had his house blackened by his neighbors for failing to demonstrate an appropriate amount of mourning over Lincoln’s death was ex-President Millard Fillmore.

Fillmore was the 13th President of the United States, having inherited the office after the death of Zachary Taylor in 1850. Fillmore served out the remainder of Taylor’s term before he was replaced by President Franklin Pierce in 1853. During the Civil War, Fillmore had initially been supportive of President Lincoln’s efforts and the ex-President even commanded a corps of above 45 years-old home guardsmen named the Union Continentals. These guardsmen, too old for regular army service, trained to defend the Buffalo area in case of Confederate attack. As the war went on, however, Fillmore became less support of Lincoln’s administration and the ongoing costs of war. In 1864, he spoke out against the continuing bloodshed and endorsed the Democratic candidate George McClellan, hoping the democrats would end the war and return the Southern states into the Union even with slavery still intact. This betrayal of Lincoln turned Fillmore into a Copperhead and greatly diminished his influence thereafter. The Republican papers in Buffalo never forgave Fillmore for this and recalled his own administration’s commitment to enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.

This is the reason why there was so much backlash to Fillmore’s lack of mourning decoration on his home on April 17, 1865. In papers nationwide, Fillmore was attacked for his impropriety, with many papers taking jabs at his politics.

To Fillmore’s credit, he was quick to rectify the situation. An acquaintance in Buffalo, on Wednesday, April 19, two days after the blackening, described the scene as follows:

“I passed the residence of ex-President Fillmore. It was heavily and appropriately draped, a large American flag forming part of the drapery. Moreover, I met and conversed with Mr. Fillmore on the streets. He wore a badge of mourning on his person. He mentioned his gratification at the solemn and universal observance of the day, in the way of funeral obsequies to the illustrious dead; and in speaking of the event of Mr. Lincoln’s death, he pronounced it ‘a great national calamity.’” – The Wheeling Daily Register, April 28, 1865

In addition to adding the appropriate displays of mourning to his house, some sympathetic newspapers also published Fillmore’s reasoning for having not adorned his abode earlier:

“We have ample reason to know that this omission was not for want of sincere respect for the deceased, or of a heartfelt sorrow at his death. But private dwellings were not generally draped, and no notice was given that they would be, and Mrs. F[illmore] being out of health, Mr. Fillmore – as we are informed – did not leave his house after going to the post office in the morning, and therefore was not aware that any private dwellings were draped, and naturally thought an ostentatious show of grief might be misunderstood.” – Philadelphia Press, April 25, 1865

In the end, there is no evidence to show that Millard Fillmore meant any disrespect toward’s Lincoln’s memory. Even strongly Republican newspapers, when hearing of the circumstances regarding the vandalism and Fillmore’s response, condemned the actions of the mob.

Despite this, many still believed that Fillmore’s crime was of having the reputation of being a Copperhead and failing to publicly mourn Lincoln’s assassination quickly enough. A similar situation to this occurred with another living ex-President, Franklin Pierce.

Unlike Fillmore who had been supportive of Lincoln’s actions in the beginning of the war, Franklin Pierce had been an outspoken critic of Lincoln from the beginning. Pierce publicly spoke out against the war and sought to bring about peace talks to end the fighting and restore the Union with slavery intact. He was also a rightful critic of some of Lincoln’s more controversial acts such as the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and the draft. It was well known that Pierce had no love for the actions of Lincoln’s administration. Upon the news of Lincoln’s death, an angry mob descended on Pierce’s home in Concord, New Hampshire. While Fillmore was either unaware, or ignored, the crowd at his home, Pierce went out to greet them. “Fellow-Townsmen,” Pierce said addressing the crowd, “I come to ascertain the motives of this call. What is your desire?” Someone in the crowd then replied, “We wish to hear some words from you on this sad occasion.” Then, using his powers of oration, the 60 year-old former President was able to nullify the crowd:

“I wish I could address you words of solace. But that can hardly be done. The magnitude of the calamity, in all aspects, is overwhelming. If your hearts are oppressed by events more calculated to awaken profound sorrow and regret than any which have hitherto occurred in our history, mine mingles its deepest sorrow with yours…”

After talking for a bit about their shared sense of mourning, a voice from the crowd shouted out, “Where is your flag?” echoing the lack of patriotic adornment that so condemned Fillmore’s home. Pierce countered this point expertly:

“It is not necessary for me to show my devotion for the stars and stripes by any special exhibition, or upon the demand of any man or body of men…If the period during which I have served our State and country in various situations, commencing more than thirty-five years ago, have left any question of my devotion to the flag, the Constitution and Union, in doubt, it is too late now to remove it by any such exhibition as the inquiry suggests…”

After only a few minutes of talking, Franklin Pierce was able to disperse the angry crowd and prevent any vandalism such as was suffered by Fillmore.

Fillmore, himself, did not appear to make any public speeches of grief until May 9th. During the interim, however, he did take part in the funeral proceedings for the late President. When Lincoln’s funeral train arrived in Batavia, NY at 5:18 am on April 27, 1865, Millard Fillmore was at the station to board it. He was on board along with other dignitaries, who had previously been picked up in Rochester, when the funeral trained arrived in Buffalo at 7:00 am.

Lincoln’s funeral cortege in Buffalo, NY, April 27, 1865

During the course of that day, Millard Fillmore was part of the funerary cortege and events. Fillmore took part in viewing Lincoln’s body as it laid in St. James Hall until 8:00 pm when the coffin was closed and the procession returned to the railway depot. At 10:00 pm, the funeral train departed, with Fillmore remaining in his hometown. An estimated 40,000 – 50,000 people viewed Lincoln’s remains in Buffalo that day including 28 year old future President Grover Cleveland.

It isn’t until May 9, 1865, that we have the first recorded sentiments from Millard Fillmore regarding the assassination of Lincoln. The remarks come from the minutes of the Buffalo Historical Society a group that Fillmore took a vested interest in. Like many other organizations at the time, the Buffalo Historical Society enacted a resolution in their minutes expressing their grief at the national tragedy. Before the BHS adopted their resolution, Fillmore asked to say a few words on the record. In his statement, which is recorded in full below, Fillmore expresses his sense of loss at Lincoln’s death but spends more words speaking hopefully of President Andrew Johnson, a man who had ascended to the Presidency through the death of another – a situation well known to Fillmore.

“As this resolution offered by Mr. Allen, is entertained by the society, and as he has been pleased to refer to me in his remarks, I trust that I shall be pardoned for saying a few words before the question is taken on its adoption. Perhaps no member of this society appreciates more fully than I do, the difficult task which President Lincoln had to perform, and I am sure none can deplore his death more sincerely than I do.

It is well known that I have not approved of all acts which have been done in his name during his Administration, but I am happy to say that his recent course met my approbation, and I had looked forward with confident expectation that he would soon be able to end the war, and by his kind, conciliatory manner win back our erring and repentant brethren and restore the Union. His assassination has sent a thrill of horror through every heart, depriving the Chief Magistrate of his life at a moment when party hostility was subsiding, and his life was doubly dear to his countrymen, and it has plunged a nation into mourning.

The chief assassin has already been summoned to the bar of a just God to answer for his crime, and I hope and trust that every one who participated in this awful tragedy will be legally tried, before the constitutional courts of the country, and if found guilty, will meet the punishment which the law prescribes for his offence; and that no innocent person will suffer from prejudice or passion. I need hardly add that I cordially concur in this resolution as a just tribute of respect to the memory of the deceased.

But while I express my sense of the great loss which this country has sustained in the death of President Lincoln at this particular juncture, I would not be understood as implying a want of confidence in his successor. I can sympathize with him in the embarrassments with which he is surrounded, and the difficulties which he has to encounter in being thus suddenly called to the helm of state amid the perilous storm of an unparalleled rebellion. It appears to me that the storm has nearly spent its fury, and the angry waves are gradually subsiding, and gleams of sunshine already illumine many a dark spot. This fact greatly adds to the labors and responsibilities of the Government. Statesmanship must now take the place of arms. But yet I have hope. From all that I know of President Johnson I think he has talent and integrity; and if he will hear and then follow the dictates of his own good sense and calm judgment, without prejudice or passion, he will succeed. But I must say that I am pained to see so little consideration manifested even by well-intentioned friends, as to rush upon him at this time with addresses, requiring a response from him, thus engrossing his valuable time and distracting his mind, when every consideration of friendship, patriotism and propriety should forbid it.

The first caution he has to observe is to steer clear of the factions that are trying to get possession of him for their own selfish purposes — to carry out some favorite theory of reconstruction, or to gratify some feeling of revenge.

I am happy to see that he receives all politely but keeps his own counsel, and has the prudence and good sense not to commit himself in offhand speeches as to his future policy; but leaves himself at liberty, after due consideration, to take advantage of circumstances as they arise.

In my humble opinion, he who controls the destinies of a nation, especially at a time like this, should never indicate his future policy until it is fully matured in Cabinet council, and he is ready to put it in operation; nor should he promise an office until he is ready to confer it.

While, therefore, we justly deplore the loss of President Lincoln, let us never despair of the Republic; but rally around his successor, regardless of past differences or party prejudices, and do all we can to sustain him, so long as he maintains the Constitution and laws of our common country. Let us remember amidst all our grief and disappointments that there is an unerring Providence that governs this world, and that no man is indispensable to a nation’s life; and let us look hopefully for the rainbow of peace that will surely succeed the storm if we do our own duty. I hope the resolution will be adopted.”

Fillmore would become an ally for Andrew Johnson and supported the 17th President’s Reconstruction policies. This support likely had some roots in Fillmore’s own difficulties in succeeding a deceased President. When President Johnson visited Buffalo on September 3, 1866, Millard Fillmore was selected to be the lead dignitary to greet him and welcome him to the city.

In the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, grief gripped the country. This grief manifested in a variety of ways. While many sought solace through individual and group demonstrations of mourning, other were so filled with confusion and conflict at the loss of the President that they struck out in anger. The forceful blackening of the 13th President’s home was as much an expression of grief as was the Lincoln funeral train itself. Saddened and confused residents around the nation lashed out at those in their communities who they knew to be critical of Lincoln in the past. For a time, many faced severe punishment for a lack of appropriate grief at Lincoln’s death, whether warranted or not. The blackening of Fillmore’s house may be regrettable but it perfectly demonstrates one manner in which the country attempted to cope with the loss of Lincoln.

References:
Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President by Robert J. Rayback
President Lincoln Assassinated!! The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial and Mourning edited by Harold Holzer
Lincoln’s Funeral Train: The Epic Journey from Washington to Springfield by Robert M. Reed
Millard Fillmore Papers, Volume Two edited by Frank H. Severance
Newspaper extracts come from GenealogyBank.com and the Library of Congress
The inspiration for this post comes from the wonderfully done, Railsplitter Podcast. Each week, the Railsplitter Podcast delves into the life of Abraham Lincoln. The three hosts are able to make Abraham Lincoln accessible to all with the use of knowledge and a good dose of humor. In that vein, one of the hosts of the podcast, Railsplitter Nick, has an ongoing “feud” with President Millard Fillmore. Why Nick dislikes Fillmore so much, I don’t really remember. However, he manages to find a way to diss Fillmore in almost every episode of the podcast. In preparation for an upcoming appearance on an assassination related episode of the Railsplitter Podcast, I wanted to find a way to connect Fillmore to Lincoln’s death. That is what led me to research and compose this post. I hope you enjoyed and/or hated it, Nick!

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