Thursday, May 12
….Yesterday I took Fannie to the Arsenal in the buggy. We went all through the workshops and saw all that was to be seen. She was very much pleased and carried home with her as trophies, a loaded and unloaded fuse, and a minnie bullet, of the sort she saw them making at the rate of 70 per minute….
Sunday, May 22
….We, i.e. Mary Ellen, Hattie & I attended a party at Mrs. Sprague’s (Secy. Chase’s) on Friday evening. We were invited to hear little Teresa Carreno play on the piano. She played splendidly, and there was some excellent song singing by two gentlemen. The party was very pleasant & consisted of at least 150 people. We came home at a little before midnight.
The news from the Army does not amount to much lately, and I begin to imagine that Grant is not going to beat Lee so easily as everybody seemed to suppose. Those Rebels fight like a parcel of wildcats… I do hope we shall overpower the infernal villains soon.
Sunday, May 29
….Our garden is a paradise, such a show of roses I scarcely ever saw. The vegetable garden looks well, the strawberries and cherries are ripening fast, the grapes have set elegantly, and all is as promising as we could desire. This is not so miserable a world after all. There is a good deal more sunshine than shadow in it, and I like it very well. Mary Ellen thinks that if she has such a beautiful garden and so many other beautiful things (beautiful husband no doubt included) she shall not be willing to die….
4 P.M. Since writing the foregoing we have dined, smoked our cigars and drank our juleps in the summer house in the garden. Two of Nathan’s friends, James Brown of Concord, and a Mr. Brown of Worcester, who is here to look after the wounded of that place, are now here. Nathan has taken them into the garden to see it. They have been telling me about the sounded. The number is immense, and, according to their account, they have not been well cared for. Poor fellows, it is a shame and sin that these brave men who have periled their lives for their Country, should not, when disabled in so glorious a case, be properly taken care of….
Benjamin Brown French, private journal excerpts, May 1864
Source: Witness To the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, 1828-1870, by Benjamin Brown French, edited by Donald B. Cole and John J. McDonough. (Hanover, The University Press of New England, 1989).
Benjamin Brown French
He lived in Washington City and was acquainted with twelve presidents. From Andrew Jackson to Ulysses S. Grant’s presidencies, he observed the happenings in the nation’s capital and kept an extensive journal.
Born in 1800 in Chester, New Hampshire, French started his political career in 1825, representing his district in the state legislature from 1831 to 1833. He relocated to Washington in 1833, looking for work and eventually finding employment as a clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1847, French took a break from politics and became president of Samuel F. B. Morse’s Magnetic Telegraph Company where he spent several years expanding the use and reach of the telegraph across the United States.
By 1853, French returned to the political scene and held various offices over the next years, including Commissioner of Public Buildings for President Pierce and Chief Marshal of Lincoln’s inaugural parade. During the Civil War, President Lincoln reappointed him as the Commissioner of Public Buildings. In his role as Commissioner, French oversaw the construction of the U.S. Capitol Building and oversaw the care of all other public buildings in the city. Some of his war moments included witnessing the Gettysburg Address and the tragic duty of presiding over the funeral arrangements for both Willie Lincoln and President Lincoln. In 1867, French moved from Commissioner to working in the U.S. Treasury Department, a position which he held until the end of his life.
In his personal life, French married his first wife – Elizabeth Richardson – in 1825, but she died in 1861, leaving him brokenhearted. However, he remarried the following year, and his second wife – Mary Ellen Brady French – is mentioned several times in these journal entries. French had one child, a son who went on to a law and financial career.
These journal entries offer a contrast both between French’s experience of the Civil War and the contrast of ideas that he recorded. First, he describes a touring party to see the arsenal where ammunition was made for the Union soldiers. Then, he details a party. Finally, he describes a summer gathering with fine food and drinks while a discussion about the war and care of the wounded progresses with the guests.
French had a very different Civil War story than an officer or a soldier slugging through the Overland Campaign at the same exact time. While French enjoyed his garden and a concert, others were sleeping in tents (if they were lucky), and trying to find a way through the bloodbath of war, or wondering if they would survive the next fight.
However, it should be noted that French was aware of the war and commented on Grant’s campaign and the plight of wounded soldiers. In a first read of these entries, he seems removed from the conflict, but a closer examination of his writings shows that he was thinking about the war and the soldiers, just from the luxury of his home and position in the capital city.
“so many other beautiful things… not be willing to die”
Benjamin and Mary Ellen made this observation in the beauty of their summer garden, sheltered from the actual dangers of war. In both Union and Confederate armies, soldiers made the same observation and wish.
Despite the mud, long rows of soldier graves, wounded comrades, and other scenes of war, the soldiers often noted pretty things in their journals or letters. Maybe flowers by the wayside or birds singing. And when they didn’t have anything else they wanted to write, they wrote about the weather – a powerful note that said “I’m still alive and here.” Some deserted. Most – in blue and gray – stayed. They wanted to live and see beautiful things, but they also felt bound by duty or comradeship to their causes and their armies.
From comparative safety, the Frenchs made a wish that was already echoed across the nation, across humanity. Perhaps it is observations like this that make the people of past eras not seem so foreign and distant. We can relate to experiencing a beautiful day and being thankful for the blessings of life and the grace to draw one more breath.