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Collection Washington During the Civil War: The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861 to 1865

The Washington Diary of Horatio Taft

A photograph of the President and Thomas (Tad) made by Mathew B. Brady on February 9, 1864. Photograph by Anthony Berger of the Brady Studio. [photographed 1864 February 9, printed later]

The Washington diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, presented in 2000 to the Library of Congress by Mrs. Willoughby Davis of Falls Church, Virginia, has been in the possession of the Taft family since the author's death at Sag Harbor, New York, April 14, 1888. Amazingly, the three-volume manuscript has never been read or discussed at length outside the Taft family. The only hint of its existence appeared in 1901 in a small but popular book entitled Tad Lincoln's Father, which was written by Horatio Taft's daughter, Julia Taft Bayne (1845-1933).

Keeping the private diary of one's ancestor out of the hands of scholars and writers is not unusual; however, in this case, the decision is somewhat remarkable considering the interaction that existed between the children of Horatio and Mary Taft and the children of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. The Lincoln boys, William and Thomas, better known as "Willie" and "Tad," were regular playmates of fourteen-year-old Horatio Nelson Taft Jr., or "Bud," and eleven-year-old Halsey Cook Taft, called "Holly." Until Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever in February 1862, the Lincoln and Taft boys, sometime in company with eight-year-old Willie Taft, were almost inseparable. When not with their tutors, they played, ate, and occasionally slept together, either at the White House or at the Taft residence near Franklin Square. For financial reasons, Taft moved to 346 9th Street, Northwest, in late September 1861, but the move did not deter frequent visits from the Lincolns.

Page Image 149, The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 1. January 1, 1861 - April 11, 1862

Julia Taft, who was in her teens during the Civil War, also found a warm welcome at the White House. Julia was assigned the responsibility of escorting her younger siblings between Franklin Square and the Executive Mansion, and she passed the time between trips reading on the White House stairs or a window seat. To her delight, Mary Lincoln took an interest in her, either engaging her in conversation or asking her to play the piano, while President Lincoln, perhaps mindful of the daughter he would never have, found her long curls irresistible.

Horatio Taft was already a fixture in Washington when the Lincolns moved into the White House. The economic upheavals of the Panic of 1857 had forced him to abandon a struggling law practice in Lyons, New York, in order to provide for his family of six. After considerable reflection, he decided to apply for a salaried position with the federal government. Working largely on his own, he had developed some expertise in steam power and weaponry, and he hoped he might find employment as an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office.

Washington presidents house / lith by E. Sachse & Co. Baltimore. Created by E. Sachse & Co. [1860-1870]

On January 22, 1858, just nine days after his fifty-second birthday, Judge Taft (as he was often addressed) boarded the train for Washington. Had he known the extent of the lobbying effort he would have to undertake to win the desired appointment, it is doubtful that he would have made the trip. Membership in the Democratic Party meant nothing, and his room at the recently opened Willard Hotel was rapidly exhausting his few remaining resources. Nevertheless, Taft set about collecting as many endorsements as he could. Twice he called upon President James Buchanan, and he made several appearances at the office of Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson. Also high on Taft's list of potential supporters were Isaac Toucey, Secretary of the Navy, and Aaron V. Brown, Postmaster General. Next he called upon Senator William H. Seward and Congressman Daniel E. Sickles, whom he offered a "fee" for assistance. Such popular New Yorkers as Horace F. Clark, former Congressman Hiram Waldbridge, and Fernando Wood listened to Taft's appeals and promised their support, but nothing happened. Frustrated, Taft continued his rounds. He spoke to Harriet Lane, Senator Preston King, Duff Green, B. Percy Poore, Persifer F. Smith, C. P. Kirkland, and even the artist Clark Mills. Finally, one month from the day of his arrival in Washington, he boarded a train for New York, noting only that he traveled as far as Philadelphia in company with Senator Charles Sumner, who assured Taft he had almost recovered from the beating he had received at the hand of Preston Brooks of South Carolina.

View of Washington drawn from nature and on stone by E. Sachse ; lith. and print in colors by E. Sachse & Comp. Published and sold by E. Sachse & Co., c1852.

Taft did not return to Washington to continue his lobbying effort until May 14, but he seemed more determined than ever. One day he was with the Secretary of the Interior and the next with the Postmaster General. Over the next month, he called upon generals and judges, foreign diplomats and government clerks. He had abandoned expensive hotels for the cheaper boarding houses so he could stay longer, but he seemed to grow increasingly desperate. At the end of the third week of June, Taft wrote, "Shall make a rush next week for myself," and two days later, "Shall use all the Democrats this week, they all favor me." He spent most of Tuesday, June 22, gathering signatures. The list was long and included every Democrat of note in the government. Finally, on July 1, Taft was summoned before an examining board made up of three senior patent officers: Holt, Bailey, and Shugart. Believing that he had answered all the questions satisfactorily, he returned to his quarters to await the result. It came the following day in the form of an announcement in the three o'clock issue of the Washington Star. Judge Horatio Nelson Taft was appointed as an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office. On Saturday, July 3, Taft reported for work. He was given the oath of office and assigned to the Class of Civil Engineering, Fire Arms, and related areas.

"U.S. Patent Office Building" detail of Birds eye view of the city of Washington from the dome of the U.S. Capitol Looking west / Lith. & print by A. Sachse & Co. [between 1860 and 1890]

In the months that followed, Taft worked hard at his job. He loved the work, although the constant flow of visitors proved distracting, and he described the other examiners, most of them gentlemen and scholars. In his spare time, Taft took in the sights of Washington and Georgetown. He especially enjoyed the Smithsonian Museum, Corcoran's new art gallery, the Capitol, and the Congressional Library (Library of Congress). Nothing escaped his notice. But the citizenry disappointed him. As he put it, the city did not "move"; the people had no enterprise, no distinctive character. Washingtonians showed no interest in self-rule; rather, they looked to the federal government for everything. Especially disappointing was their lack of enthusiasm over the laying of the Atlantic cable, which had Taft on tiptoe awaiting the expected exchange of messages between Queen Victoria and President Buchanan.

Detail of [Horatio Nelson Taft], Mathew B. Brady, undated. The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865

Taft finished the year apart from his family, making only a brief visit home in late October to replenish the supply of firewood and generally check on things. But he was also concerned about the November elections, which, as he may have foreseen, brought defeat to many long-term Democrats throughout the state of New York. Black Republicanism (as its proslavery critics called it) now reigned supreme, and, according to Taft, it was just as well.

Taft was back at his desk in the Patent Office on November 10. He grew more confident in his work and began to pass or reject cases as he thought proper, although usually with the advice of a respected colleague. But he was increasing lonely, and, sometime after the first of the year, he rented a house at 15th and L Streets, Northwest, next door to John Philip Sousa and brought his family to Washington. Taft leased two slaves from a Virginia slave owner to assist Mary with her domestic chores, one an aging wash woman and cook, and the other a young mulatto or "Yellow" girl for light housekeeping. Both slaves slept in a shanty in the alley behind the house.

Cover, The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Volume 2. January 1 - December 31, 1863
Volume 1. January 1, 1861 - April 11, 1862
Volume 3. January 1, 1864 - May 30, 1865

In many respects, Judge Taft had been given a new lease on life. Although Mary never really liked Washington, he was happy. He loved his work, and his children adjusted to their new surroundings beautifully. Julia, after withdrawing from Elmira Seminary, had been enrolled in a fashionable French school near the White House grounds, and the boys were being tutored at home. Taft's annual salary of $1,600 did not provide many luxuries, but carefully managed, it was adequate. Life was good for two years, and then the war came.

Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Ermordung des Presidenten Abraham Lincoln. L'assassinat du president Abraham Lincoln. [n. p., 1865?] 19.9 x 24.8 cm. Stern Broadside v. 5, no. 1.

The diary begins on January 1, 1861, and ends on May 30, 1865. Entries are daily through April 11, 1862. Taft did not completely abandon his diary for the remainder of his Washington career, but his entries thereafter are sporadic or irregular. He began to synopsize events of the past few days or weeks. The effect is no less fascinating. In some ways it is even more informative, for the resultant essays, however abbreviated, allowed Taft greater freedom of expression. There is also a noticeable change in the tone of the diary following the tragic and untimely death of Willie Lincoln in February 1862. In her grief, Mary Todd Lincoln wanted nothing further to do with the Tafts, and Tad Lincoln, immature and highly impressionable, adopted his mother's unseemly behavior in adverse situations. Both hurt and angry, Taft sent his wife and children to Sag Harbor on Long Island to live with his wife's parents. He stayed on in Washington, living in a series of boarding houses and visiting his family every three or four months. Mary Cook Taft had grown up in a seafaring family. She felt at home in such quiet isolation. But the children suffered, especially Julia.

Lincoln's last hour. Lincoln's letzte stunde. La derniere heure de Lincoln. [n. p., 1865?] col. lith. 20.2 x 24.9 cm. Stern Broadside v. 5, no. 2.

Taft recorded the temper and scenes of the rapidly changing city, and he followed the progress of the war until the last hurrah of victory. Especially significant is his account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which provides perhaps the only new information on that tragic event to come to light in the last fifty years. One of Taft's two sons by his first wife, Dr. Charles Sabin Taft, was in the audience at Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was shot. Charles was the physician lifted from the stage to the President's box to attend the fallen leader, and he remained at Lincoln's side until the ordeal ended.

John Sellers, Manuscript Division