Where Was Charles Sumner?*
Bill Long 5/29/07
Debby Applegate's biography of Henry Ward Beecher
[*A multiessay review of Applegate's book, emphasizing some of the good things she does, begins here.]
In this well-researched Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Debby Applegate has given us an insightful and humane picture of the leading preacher of the mid-19th century America, Henry Ward Beecher. I was enjoying the book so much (which I received as a birthday present from my daughter) that I almost glossed over some unclarities and mistakes she makes in the first 100 or so pages. I thought to myself, 'This is so engaging a book that she can't be making such mistakes or, alternatively, that she can't be really so imprecise.' But, I went back and checked out a few of her points, and indeed, she did and she was. The purpose of this and the next essay is to show how even Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers can screw things up when no one is looking. I hope to write a very appreciative essay when all is said and done about the contributions of this excellent biography. First, however, the mistakes.
Where Was Charles Sumner?
She begins her book according to the conventions of contemporary biography: pick either a "turning point" event or a "big occasion" from the life of the subject, bring your subject to life, and then build your story from the "beginning." Debby Applegate has done so here by vividly portraying Beecher's trip to Fort Sumter (SC) to deliver an oration on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, commemorating the Union's retaking of the fort. That day, of course, is emblazoned in the heart of America because of the evening assassination of Lincoln in Washington, DC. Beecher was a persona non grata in the South because of his vigorous denunciation of slavery, his sending of rifles to anti-slavery people in Kansas (Beecher's Bibles), and his conducting of "mock slave auctions" at the church where he was pastor, Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn. The day went off without a hitch, however, and that night they all celebrated. On the day of Saturday April 15, 1865, before news of Lincoln's assassination had reached them, Beecher and his family and friends went sightseeing amid the ruins of Charleston, looking for keepsakes and other memorabilia of the War--keepsakes which would no doubt double as sermon illustrations when he returned to Brooklyn. In describing the scene, Applegate writes:
"It was quite a sight to see, some of the greatest reformers of the last twenty years--Beecher, Garrison, George Thompson, Massachusetts senators Charles Sumner and Henry Wilson--jolting along the rutted roads in donkey carts because all the other vehicles had been commandeered by the Union army" (p. 16).
As I was reading this, I smiled inwardly, imagining the scene in Charleston as this Protestant "relic seeker" went about with the other influentials. Then, I paused and said to myself, "What?! Charles Sumner wasn't there! Charles Sumner was at Lincoln's bedside in Washington DC when the President died around 7:00 a.m. on Saturday, April 15." At least, that was my memory of things from some 2006 reading I did on Charles Sumner.
So, I had to check to see if Debby Applegate or my memory was right. Here is what I found.
Charles Sumner and Abraham Lincoln's Death
Here are a few things we know about Lincoln and Sumner in the last weeks and days of Lincoln's life. You can read this in David Donald's award-winning biography of Sumner (vol. 2), but the information is also available elsewhere. The Senate adjourned one week after Lincoln's inauguration to his second term as President. Inauguration day was March 4; adjournment was March 11. Sumner's custom was to stay around in Washington for a month or two to "catch up" on correspondence and other end-of-the session affairs. The President left Washington by boat for City Point, VA (headquarters of the Army of Virginia) on Thursday, March 23, not returning to Washington until Sunday, April 9. Mrs. Lincoln accompanied him. She, however, returned early to Washington (April 2), and invited Sumner, who was a very frequent visitor in the White House, to join her when she returned to City Point to her husband. Mrs. Lincoln left Washington on April 5 (Wed.) accompanied by Sumner, the Marquis de Chambrun, Secretary Harlan and a few other people. When they arrived in Fort Monroe, en route, they learned that Secretary Seward had just suffered a serious injury in a fall from his carriage. They arrived at City Point around noon on the 6th. After visiting the President for a few hours only, they went down to Richmond (recently surrendered). On Friday the 7th they returned to City Point to visit the President. On Saturday April 8, Sumner visited the sick at the tent hosptial at City Point with the President. Stories were told that the President shook 5,000 hands that day and then reported to Sumner that his arm was not tired. Late that evening they all sailed on the River Queen back to Washington, arriving on schedule on Sunday, April 9.
Stories abound regarding the intimate party on the River Queen that night, where Lincoln was supposed to have twice read aloud the tribute to the murdered Duncan from Shakespeare's Macbeth (his favorite play) and then recited some lines from Longfellow's poem Resignation. On Monday, April 10, Sumner received word of the surrender of Lee's army. Tuesday, April 11 saw a celebration of this event in Washington, DC, and Sumner was invited to the White House to enjoy that event, an event at which Lincoln gave his last recorded public utterance. Sumner probably didn't see the President in the next three days, even though he was invited to an event at the White House on Thursday April 13. We know that on the evening of Friday, April 14, about 10:15 p.m., Lincoln was shot at the Ford's Theater.
Where was Sumner, then, when Lincoln was shot and when he was pronounced dead the next morning about 7:00 a.m.? Had he made a quick trip to Fort Sumter to be with the Rev. Beecher and the throng there? Every shred of evidence I could find points to Sumner's being in Washington DC that night and being the most intimate companion of the President as he expired. The next essay will give you what I know about that.