Sometimes there are tangents in local history that lead to major events. Take the case of Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln and a bitter rift between their wives that could have affected what happened at Ford’s Theater in Washington at the end of the Civil War.
Grant’s bond with Bucks is convenient. During the war, the United States Army General visited his card game friend and wealthy Philadelphia merchant, Adolph Borie, at his mansion “The Dell” overlooking the Delaware River in Andalucia.
There, Ulysses demonstrated his carpentry prowess by building a log dollhouse for the neighboring Anderson sisters. As for Lincoln, he was on his way to his presidential inauguration in Washington on March 4, 1861, when he stopped a train to address an enthusiastic crowd in Bristol.
Now move on to a war that turns badly for Lincoln in 1864. To change that course, he turned to Grant to command the entire Union Army. By this time, the general had moved his wife, Julia, and their four children from Washington to the safety of a house just across Delaware from Bristol on Wood Street in Burlington City.
Grant was on the verge of victory in March 1865, mobilizing his army for a final push against the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. To encourage the troops, Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd visited the front. Julia Grant was also present.
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The trouble began when Julia took a seat at a gathering of officers aboard a riverboat. “How dare you sit down until I invite you!” The first lady bristled. Julia took offense, as noted by Captain (N) John S. Barnes.
“If Mrs. Lincoln was the President’s wife, she was the wife of the General Commanding the United States Armies and she would sit anywhere if she found it more pleasant than standing in whose presence whether it be.”
Mary Lincoln, known for berating her husband and throwing household items at him like brooms, potatoes, pieces of stove wood and mugs of hot coffee, was bubbling. Julia avoided further comments.
Grant’s army prevailed, culminating in the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox courthouse on April 9. Jubilation swept through Washington as Grant and Lincoln returned to the capital.
Abe, as an aside to Ulysses, invited him and his wife to celebrate with the first couple by attending a musical at Ford’s Theater a few days later. Ulysses accepted. But when Julia learned of the invitation, she stepped back, refusing to be in Mrs. Lincoln’s presence.
Faced with the dilemma of what to do, the general politely informed Lincoln that Julia yearns to return to Burlington City after a long separation from their children. Lincoln got it.
With that, the Grants load their things into a car and head to the station in the early evening of April 14. The streets are deserted. Suddenly, a rider appeared “galloping on a black horse,” according to Julia.
The rider circled the car, leaning over and looking at the general threateningly, then walked away. It turned out to be one of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators in an assassination plot.
Across town, the Lincolns sat on a flag-draped balcony at the theater without the military escort that would have accompanied Grant. (There was no secret service at the time for presidents.)
According to Lincoln biographer Michael Burlingame, the security guards who traveled with the general and “his own self-protective instincts, sharpened by his battlefield experience, would have made it unlikely that Booth would have succeeded (assassinating Lincoln). . But he did.
In Philadelphia, the Grants took a ferry to Camden where a special train was waiting to take them to Burlington City. “I found people there waiting for my arrival (Camden); and also dispatches informing me of the assassination of the president, ”the general wrote later. “I immediately arranged for a train to take me back to Washington City, but Ms. Grant was with me. It was past midnight and Burlington was only an hour away. Seeing that I could accompany her home and return as soon as a train was ready to take me from the Philadelphia station, I rode with her.
With a crowd gathered outside his house, Grant stood on the second floor balcony telling people what he knew and his plans to return to DC immediately. Four years later Grant, at 46, would become President of the United States and appoint his old pal Borie as Secretary of the Navy. Meanwhile, the Grant family returned to Washington.
Today, memories of Grant and Lincoln remain in Bucks County and the city of Burlington: Andalucia’s well-preserved log cabin. A section of the original railway line where Lincoln stopped to address the people of Bristol. And the private “Grant House” in Burlington where a historical marker notes the importance of the house.
Sources include “Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant” published in 1885; Ron Chernow’s “Grant” released in 2017; “An American Marriage: The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd” by Michael Burlingame published in 2021 and with the help of the Bensalem Historical Society.
Carl LaVO can be contacted at [email protected]