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Sumner, Charles (1811-1874) [to Mary Todd Lincoln]

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Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC05603.01.03 Author/Creator: Sumner, Charles (1811-1874) Place Written: City Point, Virginia Type: Autograph letter signed Date: ca. 6-9 April 1865 Pagination: 3 p. ; 21 x 14 cm.

Last three pages of a longer letter. Recipient inferred based on content. Senator Sumner, en route with Mrs. Lincoln to City Point to meet up with the president, responds to her note regarding Lincoln's return to Washington in the wake of Secretary of State Seward's serious carriage accident. The First Lady wanted the president to wait at City Point for their arrival; Sumner strongly advises that they wait for the president. The carriage accident would end up, indirectly, saving Seward's life on the night of the Lincoln assassination.

On March 23, 1865, Lincoln, his wife and a small entourage traveled to City Point, Virginia to visit General Ulysses S. Grant at his headquarters there. The trip did not go well for Mrs. Lincoln, who found herself overcome by jealousy on at least two occasions. In the first incident, on March 25th, the First Lady discovered that an officer’s young wife had been granted permission by the president to remain at the front with her husband. That, proclaimed Mrs. Lincoln furiously, meant that Mr. Lincoln had met with the woman alone, a circumstance she never allowed. Mrs. Lincoln was eventually mollified. However, she flew into a rage the next day when, arriving late to a review of the troops, she discovered that the president had begun without her, accompanied by the wife of General Ord. She vehemently berated both Mrs. Ord and the president in the presence of shocked military officers, and then returned to her cabin aboard the River Queen. She remained there, "indisposed," for several days before returning to Washington.
On April 2, however, Mary Lincoln received momentous news – Richmond had been captured. She promptly made arrangements to return to City Point with her friend Senator Charles Sumner and additional escorts. They arrived, by boat, as far as Fortress Monroe (at the mouth of Hampton Roads) on April 6, only to learn that Secretary of State Seward had been gravely injured in a carriage accident in Washington. Mrs. Lincoln immediately wired her husband, asking, if Seward was not too dangerously injured, that Lincoln delay returning to the capitol for several hours. That way, she and her party could meet him at City Point and return to Washington with the president. Their own boat, she explained, was "not comfortable." She then wired Secretary of War Stanton asking for his compliance with this arrangement.
At some point in this chain of correspondence, written in the early hours of April 6th, Mrs. Lincoln wrote a hasty note to Senator Sumner. "Mr Stanton, I think would be better satisfied to know, that this news, had been received – If it is ascertained that Mr S is not fatally injured, I know that Mr Lincoln would prefer remaining to meet us – And it does not appear to me, to be a necessity for our returning….Mr L Will, of course, use his own discretion about remaining at C-Pt."
Seward’s succinct reply, likely written from his own cabin, is straightforward in its assertion that they should wait for the president, not vice versa. (Presumably, Lincoln’s boat would rendezvous with them at City Point.) That Sumner would dare to so directly oppose Mrs. Lincoln’s wishes speaks to the urgency of the situation and the trust that she placed in his advice. Sumner’s counsel proved unnecessary, as Mrs. Lincoln received a return telegram from Stanton that morning. As Seward’s life was not in danger, Stanton told her, he (Stanton) had sent a telegram to the president acquiescing to the delayed return. Remarkably, the First Lady wired her husband yet again, this time requesting that if he was compelled to return to Washington before she met up with him at City Point, he arrange to return on "some other vessel, [as] we are most uncomfortable on this & would like your boat…."
With the assassination of her husband in April of 1865, the emotionally-unstable Mary Lincoln assumed her place as perhaps the most tragic First Lady in American history. In a note to Sumner written four days before Lincoln’s murder, Mary exclaimed that the news of Lee’s surrender let her rejoice in a "kind & merciful" God (ML to CS, 10 April 1865). One month later, she prepared to leave Washington "broken hearted, with every hope almost in life – crushed" (ML to CS, 09 May 1865).
The April 5th carriage accident ended up saving Seward’s life. When would-be assassin Lewis Powell [Paine] tried to stab Seward on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, his knife blade was deflected by a metal collar Seward was wearing to keep him immobilized. Seward slowly recovered from his wounds and continued to serve as Secretary of State under Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson.
Turner, Justin G. and Linda Levitt Turner. Mary Todd Lincoln, Her Life and Letters (NY: Fromm, 1987), pp. 214-215.

The President will surely return with as little delay as possible. We must all do as he does. It would not be advisable for us to remain behind.

I think the President is probably on his way now.

Mr Stanton’s des [2] patch is very positive. Mr Seward is dangerously injured.

You might acknowledge Mr Stanton’s despatch, & say that you will wait for the President here.

I fear Mr Seward must be badly hurt. Were his injuries slight [3] you would have had another despatch. I hope for the best; but we must all act according to the despatch received.

The more I think of it, the more I feel that we must wait for the President.

Charles Sumner

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