Moving Toward Civil War: The Presidency of Franklin Pierce

As a young congressman, Franklin Pierce was fond of socializing and drank heavily. To please his wife who hated both Washington, D.C. and his drinking, he agreed to go back to his law practice in New Hampshire. He displeased her when he signed up for the Mexican War. Pierce wanted to serve his country but was a terrible general who suffered from multiple injuries and fainted often.

Portrait of Franklin Pierce

Portrait of Franklin Pierce

When the Democrats nominated him for president in 1852, his main advantage was that he had been out of politics for years and had no enemies. His journey to Washington turned tragic when he and his family were involved in a train wreck. He and his wife were unharmed, but their young son died. Mrs. Pierce refused to accompany her husband to his inauguration and returned to New Hampshire to grieve.

Though he was from a non-slave state, Pierce believed that the Constitution supported slavery. He made Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, a member of his cabinet. As president he enforced the Fugitive Slave Act that Northerners hated.

He also supported the Kanas Nebraska Act, which allowed people in the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide whether they wanted slavery in those territories or not. Slave owners and abolitionists rushed into Kansas in an effort to influence the vote on slavery. The clashes between the slave owners and the abolitionists turned violent. Pierce was unable to unite the country or his party while the fighting continued.

Democrats passed over Pierce and nominated James Buchanan for the next election. When the South left the Union, Pierce wrote a letter of support to his friend Jefferson Davis. The letter became public and Pierce was viewed in his own state as a traitor. The increasingly reclusive former president drank so much after his wife’s death that he also died.

The Childhood of Civil War General Robert E. Lee

Most history books show pictures of Robert E. Lee as an aging man with white hair and a beard. It’s almost impossible to imagine that this man was once a child. Like everyone else, the famous American Civil War general did have a boyhood, though it was not always happy.

The Lee Family Heritage

The potential for Robert E. Lee to be a great man started before his birth. Robert’s father, Henry Lee, served in the cavalry during the American Revolution. Henry impressed his general so much that he said Henry had “come out of his mother’s womb a soldier.” After the war, Henry served in the Continental Congress and encouraged his home state of Virginia to ratify the Constitution. By the nineteenth century, however, things started to go wrong for Henry Lee. He made bad investments and ended up in a debtor’s prison for a year.

His wife Ann Carter Lee gave birth to her son Robert in 1807, shortly before her husband’s imprisonment. She already had several children, and admitted to a friend that she did not want another child. Later on, however, when her husband left the family for the West Indies and never returned, Robert became her favorite.

Robert E. Lee Grows Up

Robert comforted his mother in her husband’s absence. He did household chores and served as a nurse to his ill sister and his mother. Though obedient to his mother, like most boys his age Robert enjoyed swimming and playing sports with his cousins. He especially loved tricking foxhunters by following hounds on foot. He became so good at taking shortcuts to find the foxes that when the adults arrived, Robert was already there. Even at a young age, Robert understood how to use geography and the element of surprise to his advantage—skills that would one day make him a great general.

Though Robert didn’t have a father, he did create a father image for himself. When the family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, Robert and his siblings often visited President George Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis. Custis told the children stories about Washington and showed them Washington’s pistols and uniforms. Though Washington had died many years earlier, the people of Alexandria cherished their connection to the former hero. Washington’s career may have partly inspired Robert to pursue a military career, but in reality there was little money available for him to go to college. Luckily, he had family connections that helped him get one of the 250 spots available for the West Point cadets.

Robert At West Point

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point had many rules, and Robert was one of the few cadets who followed them. Others, like Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, partied and drank on a regular basis. Robert was a serious student who graduated second in his class. He was not a snob, however, and made close friends at West Point. His friend Joseph E. Johnson remembered that Robert “was the only one of all the men I have known that could laugh at the faults and follies of his friends in such a manner as to make them ashamed without touching their affection for him, and to confirm their respect.” His military training and the ability to positively influence others would come in handy when the U.S. Civil War broke out.

Elizabeth Van Lew: Southerner and Union Spy

Although she grew up in a wealthy household in Richmond, Virginia, Elizabeth Van Lew would later become one of the most successful spies for the Union during the Civil War. Like many southern households, Elizabeth’s family owned several slaves. When her parents sent her to school in Philadelphia, however, Elizabeth met people who thought slavery was wrong. After she returned home, Elizabeth tried to convince her father to free their slaves. Although he didn’t agree, Elizabeth convinced her mother to free them when her father died.

By the time of the Civil War, Elizabeth had grown up. She still loved her hometown, but she was devastated that Virginia decided to leave the Union. “Never did a feeling of more calm determination and high resolve for endurance come over me.” While some southerners with Union sympathies fled north, Elizabeth stayed, determined to help the Union cause from Richmond. Unionists who stayed behind often became agents for Elizabeth who slowly assembled a spy ring for the Union.

In July 1861, Elizabeth first visited Libby Prison where Union soldiers from the First Battle of Manassas were held.  From these men she got information about the location and movements of the Confederate forces and they received food and medicine from her. She was already considered by the townspeople to be odd because of her views on slavery. Some people called her “crazy Bet.” She used this perception to her advantage when visiting the prison. She talked aloud to herself and dressed in strange clothes so Confederate guards would think she was harmless. Her frequent visits allowed her to pass information to the Union army.

Some of the slaves she had freed and other Union sympathizers carried Elizabeth’s messages at various stopping points on the way to a federal fort in Hampton, Virginia. It was important that Confederates not intercept the messages, so Elizabeth devised different ways for her agents to hide information. Elizabeth later wrote, “Information was delivered by servants carrying baskets of eggs. One egg in each basket was hollow and contained notes…torn into small pieces. In addition, notes were carried in the soles of servant’s shoes.” Elizabeth got one of her servants, Mary Bowser, a position as a maid in the home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. The girl pretended to be illiterate, but she memorized letters Davis received and reported the information to Elizabeth so it could be sent to Union commanders.

Elizabeth’s spy ring was so reliable that she communicated with high-ranking officials, including General Ulysses S. Grant.  When the federal army overtook Richmond in 1865, General Grant stopped at the Van Lew home to thank Elizabeth. In a letter Grant wrote, “you have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”