The Civil War’s Forgotten Vice-President

At night, the Kenduskaeg Stream runs through downtown Bangor like an eel in the dark, barely visible at the bottom of the concrete canal that channels it to the Penobscot River. Where the dark night ends and the surface of the water begins isn’t always easy to tell except when an errant ripple glistens in the caught shaft of a streetlight or the faint glow from one of the overhead offices. It’s just after six, so most of the offices are closed, most of the occupants gone home, most of the lights out.

Kenduskaeg Parkway runs down the middle of the creek, crossing under Franklin Street and then the one-way Central and State streets that make the downtown loop. Through the park, coming upstream from Central, a sidewalk runs, parts around a statue pedestal, flows back together in its run toward State. On top of the pedestal, alone on his island, stands Hannibal Hamlin.

Across the Penobscot, perhaps a mile away, another Civil War-era figure stands atop a pedestal. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, born there in Brewer, is about as famous as famous gets in Civil War circles thanks to modern Hollywood. But on this side of the river, the vice president of the United States during that same war stands nearly forgotten.

It’s a cold night when I stop to visit Vice-President Hamlin. The snow that fell on Christmas has been plowed from the sidewalks into waist-high heaps, and snow that might’ve been his shoulders and head has melted away. A pair of walkers, puffing steam from behind collars pulled up like smokestacks around their necks, come up from behind Hamlin and part paths, like the sidewalk, one moving around the statue to the left and the other to the right. They don’t nod at the vice-president or otherwise seem to take notice of him.

I always feel bad for Hamlin. He stands here in downtown, certainly one of Bangor’s most successful sons (a club that also includes Stephen King). Yet Hamlin is largely forgotten by most folks. Such is the fate of any vice-president, I suppose, a position described by John Adams, the first V.P., as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

But for Hamlin, the slight, unintentional as it is, seems especially grievous. Had he remained vice-president for Lincoln’s second term, it would’ve been this son of Bangor, not his replacement, Andrew Johnson, who would’ve ascended to the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln and Hamlin, by all accounts, weren’t close, but they got along well enough in a professional capacity. Their marriage on the Republican ticket came, as most political marriages do, as a matter of convenience. They provided geographic balance.

That same political convenience led Lincoln to jettison Hamlin in favor of Johnson, a Democratic senator from Tennessee who remained loyal to the Union despite his state’s secession. Lincoln thought Johnson would broaden his base of support—particularly in the face of Democratic opposition from the wildly popular George McClellan—and give his administration greater legitimacy in the South once the war finished (if it did).

Well, of course, things didn’t work out that way. Booth assassinated Lincoln, whose martyrdom catapulted him to the level of American mythology; Johnson became president and fought with a Congress that impeached him. It’s no wonder, compared to that historical context, that Hamlin faded into obscurity.

Hamlin returned to the Senate in 1868 and served two more terms. He also served as the U.S Ambassador to Spain under President Garfield. He eventually retired back to Bangor, where he lived until his death on July 4th, 1891. (As a note, Adams and Jefferson had famously died on the same July 4th, in 1826; less known is the fact that Monroe died on a July 4th, in 1831. Hamlin potentially could’ve been the fourth U.S. president to die on Independence Day.)

Hamlin lies interred in a corner of the Mount Hope Cemetery on the edge of Bangor—the second-oldest garden-style cemetery in the country. A carefully laid-out mosaic of stones by his crypt now has moss growing between the colored patterns. A few crispy leaves, dead from fall, rest against the granite steps. Even with a statue in downtown Bangor, it seems like such an anonymous end.

Across the river, perhaps Chamberlain could send some visitors this way.

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