I’ve been reading 1864 entries from Benjamin Brown French’s journal this summer as part of my tangent study for perspective on how folks in the north responded to the impending presidential election. French offers quite a contrast of subjects in his entries at the end of August and beginning of September.
Mr. French lived in Washington City and was acquainted with twelve presidents during his long life. From Andrew Jackson to Ulysses S. Grant’s presidencies, he observed the happenings in the nation’s capital and kept an extensive journal. Born in 1800 in Chester, New Hampshire, French started his political career in 1825, representing his district in the state legislature from 1831 to 1833. He relocated to Washington in 1833, looking for work and eventually finding employment as a clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1847, French took a break from politics and became president of Samuel F. B. Morse’s Magnetic Telegraph Company where he spent several years expanding the use and reach of the telegraph across the United States.
By 1853, French returned to the political scene and held various offices over the next years, including Commissioner of Public Buildings for President Pierce and Chief Marshal of Lincoln’s inaugural parade. During the Civil War, President Lincoln reappointed him as the Commissioner of Public Buildings. In his role as Commissioner, French oversaw the construction of the U.S. Capitol Building and oversaw the care of all other public buildings in the city. Some of his war moments included witnessing the Gettysburg Address and the tragic duty of presiding over the funeral arrangements for both Willie Lincoln and President Lincoln. In 1867, French moved from Commissioner to working in the U.S. Treasury Department, a position which he held until the end of his life.
Well-connected in society and respected, he was often “in the know” and rarely without an opinion on the happenings of his time. Here’s what he had to say about his life and the approaching political crisis during the late summer of 1864:
Saturday, August 20
….I went with Col. Seymour and examined the Navy yard Bridge with a view to deciding as to the kind of draw to have built. From there we went to the Botanic garden to see about a culvert, & then I went to Doct. Humphries, dentist, to see if he could do anything toward extracting the root of a tooth[,] the crown of which Doct Hayward of the firm of Sigesmond & Hayward broke off in an attempt to extract it last Monday, and after two attempts to extract the root, which half killed me, he gave up. It has pained me constantly ever since…. [after much terrible pain, the tooth root is not extracted by Doct. Humphries and French goes home]
Sunday, August 21
Toothache all night! Sailors have a habit of “damning their eyes” – were I to anathametise after their fashion I should certainly damn my teeth – for they have plagued me enough to deserve damning many times over. I feel, however, much better than I expected to this morning. My teeth are well, and my head, which ached considerable when I first awakened, is also well. If I can only get through this day and night without pain, I think I shall be ready to labor tomorrow….
Friday, September 2
….McClellan is nominated by the Democrats to run against Lincoln. I am armed cap-a-pie for the conflict, and if honest old Abraham cannot beat George McClellan, why the country is gone to the dogs – that’s all. If our people are bewitched so far as to desire prosperity to Jeff Davis and treason, they will elect Mac; if they are true to the Union & Constitution, Lincoln will be elected by an overwhelming vote. I firmly believe Mac stands no chance, but we shall see. I feel a very great interest in the result, & hope and pray that Lincoln may succeed….
Sunday, September 4
….Atlanta has at last fallen and Sherman and his brave army are triumphant. This, with the capture of Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay, will be a bitter pill to the patriotic Democrats & the Mac & Pendleton ticket. Now let us have Mobile, Petersburg & Richmond, Charleston and Wilmington, and the jig is up with Treason in the South & subornation of Treason in the North….
French, Benjamin Brown. Witness To The Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, 1828-1870. Edited by Donald B. Cole and John J. McDonough. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1989.
Biographical notes about French’s life copied from Gazette665 and written by Sarah Kay Bierle.