Send In The Plumbers?

James A. Scrymser, post war years.

Reading through James A. Scrymser’s reminiscences, I found this delightful account of when some volunteer plumbers were called to the White House in 1861.

Before turning it over to the original writer, it is helpful to note that the “water-back” on a stove was a large tank used to heat large quantities of water.

Daniel Butterfield to the rescue? He promised to send some plumbers.

When the Twelfth New York Militia left New York for Washington, April 21, 1861, I was one of the Engineer Company. Colonel (afterward General) Butterfield commanding was then very much of a “society” man, and we had been in Washington but a few days when he became very intimate at the White House, and particularly so with Mrs. Lincoln. Out of this came an incident in which Mr. Lincoln appeared for the first time in Washington in one of those homely relations with which afterwards the public were to become so familiar through so many reminiscences. Mrs. Lincoln told Colonel Butterfield that the White House cook was in trouble—the “water back” of the range was out of order. “Couldn’t he have it fixed that day — perhaps he had some soldier plumbers?”

Of course he had—the Twelfth was full of ’em (probably he would have offered to furnish aeronauts or lion-tamers if she had wanted any)—and promptly he made a requisition on the Quartermaster,—or perhaps it was the Adjutant—for plumbers to go to the White House.

The Adjutant, who knew little and cared less about the matter, slid it over to the Engineer Company: “Wanted, plumbers for the White House, by order Colonel Butterfield.” But none of the Company were plumbers—we ranked as non-commissioned officers, and one of us—Frank Barlow—ranked as Major-General later—and perhaps we did not feel complimented even by the chance of a “job” at the White House. But I ventured the opinion that there probably were some plumbers—in other companies—and so was detailed to get them.

Engineers of the 12th New York

I did—four—and went along to “boss the job.” It certainly was a sight—four uniformed militiamen, with arms and accoutrements, marching into the White House kitchen, with an admiring group of colored servants looking on. We “stacked arms” and in a few minutes the range was yanked out, and set in the middle of the kitchen, and four able-bodied New York plumbers were wrestling with its water-back.

The details of the job have escaped my memory, but not so my—and our—first sight of Mr. Lincoln. He came down to the kitchen, and half-sitting, half-leaning on the kitchen table, and holding one knee in his hands, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy said: “Well, boys, I certainly am glad to see you. I hope you can fix that thing right off ; for if you can’t, the cook can’t use the range, and I don’t suppose I’ll get any ‘grub’ to-day!” It was a Saturday, possibly the President was also thinking of his Sunday dinner.

How the Twelfth saved the Presidential dinner ought to be writ large in the regimental history. I know not if any of my four comrades of that occasion are living, but if any of them see the story in print I am sure they will remember the event.


Personal Reminiscences of James A. Scrymser, In Times of Peace and War – James Alexander Scrymser. Accessed at Google Books:

“At Home with The Range: The American Cooking Stove, 1865-1920” by Phyllis Minerva Ellin, University of Pennsylvania. Accessed:

6 Responses to Send In The Plumbers?

  1. Given the state of State House plumbing and waste removal, we’re lucky ( as the English were) not to have lost all of our Presidents to disease.

  2. My God !! The military sent in as a favor to get the hot water running !! Adam Schiff would surely
    have his Trump Impeachment !!

  3. Did anyone ever determine positively the source of the “contaminated water” that sickened Tad and Willie, and led to the death of Tad in 1862?

    1. Yes, I know… it should read “death of Willie in 1862.” Too quick on the keys, sometimes.

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