Recently discovered letters and a review of the life of Henry Ames Blood, historian, public servant, poet and playwright, present an intriguing snapshot of our nation’s capital in the wake of Lincoln’s murder in 1865.
In June 2005, two small envelopes were discovered tucked away in a closet at Hildene, the Georgian Revival mansion in Manchester, Vermont, that was home to Robert Todd Lincoln, the only son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln to reach maturity. One of the envelopes was official Treasury Department stationery and inscribed: “valuable letter account of the trial after the assassination of Lincoln.” The two envelopes contained three letters, dated April 18, May 20 and June 15, 1865. The letters were addressed to Mrs. Lavinia Fletcher, New Ipswich, New Hampshire, and signed “your aff[ectionate] son Henry.” A closer examination of the contents of these exciting, serendipitous finds, and the author who penned them, yields intriguing insights into life in Washington, D.C., after President Lincoln’s April 14 assassination. The letters highlight the swirling rumors, the popular mood, the Lincoln funeral and murder conspiracy trial, as well as the politics of the civil service system.
The “Henry” of the letters was not just a lowly Treasury Department clerk writing simple observations; he was also a rising literary figure with a sharp eye and skilled pen. Henry Ames Blood was born in Temple, N.H., in 1836, the son of Ephraim Whiting Blood and Lavinia Ames. After the death of his father a year later, Henry went with his mother to live with her family in New Ipswich, about 50 miles from Boston. There Lavinia Blood married Samson Fletcher in 1842, when Henry was nearly 6.
After attending the New Ipswich Academy, Blood gained entrance to Dartmouth College in 1853, where, according to his New Ipswich newspaper obituary, “he was distinguished in college for his exquisite literary taste and poetical genius.” After graduating in 1857, he spent the fall months “loafing” at home, most likely following his passions for writing poetry and examining the history of his ancestors. Then Blood began to wander. He taught school in towns in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Tennessee, and studied law in New Ipswich, all the while writing poetry and working on his hometown history. During this period, he dined with Henry David Thoreau and made acquaintance with Ralph Waldo Emerson. In October 1858, he delivered a highly praised centennial address to his hometown and was persuaded to expand his remarks into a book, The History of Temple, N.H., published in 1860.
About the time his history appeared in print, Blood’s big literary break came when N.P. Willis, one of the premier editors of the day, published some of Blood’s poetry in Willis’ Home Journal. In a letter fragment, also found in the box at Hildene, Blood writes that Willis says “that I should publish my poetry in ‘an illustrated & choicely printed volume’ & desires that I call on him.” “Now, Mother,” Blood continues, “aren’t you sorry you always discouraged my writing poetry; after this praise from perhaps the best critic in America? I hope you will live to see me famous.”
Sometime around 1860, Blood left a teaching position and moved to Washington, D.C. Little is known of his first few years there except that he married Mary Jeannie Marshall on August 15, 1862. How he supported himself and his new wife remains a mystery, but it is known that he had a U.S. Census Office job in 1863. For unknown reasons, during the Civil War, Blood did not answer the call to join the Army as did so many other young men. Instead, he stayed in Washington as a U.S. government employee. Blood’s civil service records, found in the National Archives, show he was either a well-connected man or a charming one, or perhaps both.
He obtained a personal recommendation from U.S. Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas, and in April 1864 he received a first-class clerk position in the Treasury Department, Office of Internal Revenue, at an annual salary of $1,200. After only two months at the Treasury Department, he apparently felt deserving of a raise. Blood wrote an audacious letter to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, a fellow native of New Hampshire and Dartmouth alumnus, in which he wrote that it was “difficult to live in a manner becoming my position as a married man and a gentleman. I have confidence enough in your well-known sense of justice to believe that I need not make any further appeal to you in order to have my salary increased.”
Blood’s efforts appear to have been successful—he was soon drawing a salary reported as $1,400. Before the end of the year, Blood used his connections again, asking for a raise and a promotion. In December 1864, Internal Revenue Commissioner Joseph J. Lewis wrote a letter to the new treasury secretary, William Pitt Fessenden, claiming that Blood was “one of the best corresponding clerks in this office” and should be promoted to prevent his departure for another job. The clerk’s audacity paid off again—his promotion to third-class clerk at a salary of $1,600 was approved two weeks later.
Blood was in Washington on the night of April 14, 1865, when a conspiracy to decapitate the federal government in hopes of revitalizing the Confederacy came to fruition. John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, and Lewis Powell (aka Lewis Payne) attempted to kill Secretary of State William Seward in Seward’s home. All the conspirators scattered that night, and in the days that followed the city boiled as crowds thronged the streets asking questions, hearing rumors of other murders and spreading fear. Booth and one of his accomplices, David Herold, escaped the city and fled south toward Richmond, Va. George Atzerodt, who had been assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, headed into Maryland rather than make the attempt on Johnson’s life.
In the letters he wrote following the president’s assassination, Blood reports his impressions to his mother. Published here for the first time, they indicate that Blood read the newspapers regularly, talked with other federal employees, heard the rumors racing around the city and shared the communal shock and sadness. As his April 18 letter indicates, Blood was not at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, but he had friends who were, and as a civil servant, he participated in the Lincoln funeral ceremonies, first viewing the body in the White House and then joining in the procession from the White House, down Pennsylvania Avenue, to the U.S. Capitol on April 17.
Washington 18 April 1865
My Dear Mother,
The President lies in state to-day. The clerks of this Department have now (3 p.m.) gone in a body to see his face for the last time. Mr. Downing & myself went over this morning. The catafalque is placed in the “East Room”. Mrs. Bellows can describe it to you. I thought the President’s face much changed, but it was easy to recognize the features. Seeing him lying there, dead, & all the funeral trappings, I biled with indignation. But this was not the first time. This feeling comes over me at intervals.
It’s supposed that the assassin of Mr. Seward has been taken. As for Booth, he is bound to be, sooner or later. The world cannot hide him. Many people think him concealed in this city. There are good reasons for supposing this. I understand the full corps of the [illegible] detectives is here. If he is in this city, and reads the daily news, he must be very much hardened not to hate himself and kill himself for what he has done.
Mati [Mary Jeannie Marshall, Blood’s first wife] & I rode to Georgetown last Sunday to see Mr. & Mrs. Piatt. We saw from the horse-ears, four U.S. Cavalrymen, escorting a man through the muddy middle of the street, to the “Old Capitol”. The man’s name or nickname (the conductor said), was “Old Fizzle”. He had said something in rejoicing over the assassination, & was arrested as a probable accomplice.
Two acquaintances of ours’,—Messrs [ James Suydam] Knox [of the Quartermaster General’s Office] & Ray [sic: E.D. Wray, of the Surgeon General’s Office] were at “Ford’s” on the night of the crime [Knox and Wray were roommates], and sat in the 2d row from the stage. Knox was the first man after [Major Joseph B.] Stewart, to get on the stage & Ray the second.
Ray secured the assassin’s hat.
(Wednesday noon) I rec’d your letter this morning….We are at the Treasury, waiting to take our places in the procession, which follows our lamented President. I shall miss the view of the procession, which I am sorry to do. Mati will see it from our own windows on the avenue. She will be surprised to hear of Mrs. F. Preston’s death. In the shadow of the President’s death, one cannot feel other sorrows keenly….
The governors of the various states or more than half of them were at our room (Treas. Dept) this morning, waiting to go to the White House, but I didn’t know them & cannot find anyone that did.
Thursday morning. We walked in procession from our office to 17th St. yesterday, to wait our turn in the procession. We had been there about an hour, when I began to feel quite sick, the sun beat down so hotly, & concluded to go home. Mr. Downing & I set forth accordingly. We found Mrs. Taylor (Mrs. Preston’s cousin) then,—she having come down with Mrs. Rollins who boards at her house now. I had never seen her before. She resembles Aunt Harriet a little. Mr. Ray was also there. I informed Mrs. Taylor of Mrs. Preston’s death. She was much surprised.
The procession was very grand, though of course gloomy. It far exceeded the display on the 4th March [inauguration day]. It was all of an hour & a half in passing.
Your aff son Henry
Before and during the obsequies, the federal government was hunting the assassins. Powell was captured on April 16 when he returned to the boardinghouse in Washington, owned by Mary Surratt, where some of the conspiracy plans had been discussed. Mrs. Surratt was also taken into custody that night under suspicion of aiding in the conspiracy. Booth and Herold were on the run for 12 days before Union troops found them. Herold surrendered and Booth was killed on April 26. Atzerodt was captured later after his brother-in-law informed authorities of his whereabouts. By May 2, The New York Times was reporting that nearly 300 people had been taken into custody on suspicion of conspiracy in the assassination. Only eight people, however, were chosen by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for indictment and military trial: Herold, Powell, Atzerodt and Edman Spangler (a stagehand at Ford’s Theatre) for complicity in the attacks; Dr. Samuel Mudd (the physician who set Booth’s broken leg) and Mrs. Surratt, for sheltering the conspirators and helping to plan the assassination; and Mike O’Laughlin and Samuel Arnold (both part of Booth’s March 1865 plot to kidnap and ransom Lincoln), for conspiring in the president’s murder.
In the second of the recently uncovered letters, Blood gives a cryptic weather report, and alludes to the May 10 capture of Jefferson Davis and the widely held belief that the Confederate president would be tried and executed. Of more interest, perhaps, are his mention of a visit to the conspirators’ trial and the enclosed three-page addendum giving his detailed impressions of the conspirator’s characters, physical descriptions and facial expressions.
Washington 20th May, 1865
My Dear Mother:
I went down to the arsenal to see the prisoners as I expected, and wrote you: Enclosed find a description of them, made expressly for you. I have sent you the “Intelligencer” day by day, containing the full report of the proceedings….
There exists little doubt here, but that Mr. Jefferson Davis will be hung, after trial….
It is getting very hot.
The grand review comes off on Tuesday or Wednesday. Grant’s army one day—Sherman’s the next.
Your aff son, Henry
As I sat facing them, Arnold was at the extreme right,—he is a very good looking person, about 22 with dark, but not black hair and whiskers. I shouldn’t take him for a scoundrel.
(Next to Arnold sat a soldier),—then came Dr. Mudd,—a man about 35 with florid complexion, almost flaxen hair and reddish whiskers, and light blue eyes. He is, altogether, an inoffensive looking person. (Then came a soldier.) Next sat Spangler the carpenter at Ford’s Theater,—he is a man about 40—very ordinary looking,—of dark complexion, oval face,— nothing striking about him, in the least. (soldier) Then, O’Laughlin;—He is about 5 ft 10,—has jet black hair, eyes, moustache and imperial,—he looks ugly. (soldier) next— Atzerodt—a low villainous-looking German—with flat head, low & wide forehead, moustache and whiskers. He is hair thin, but not dark; While I was there, he put up his manacled hands to stroke his moustache, several times. He is quite short and looks capable of crawling up behind you and stabbing you in the back. (soldier) Then—Payne, who tried to butcher Seward. He’s the most desperate, stolid, cut-throat-looking fellow I ever saw….He has a large indigo blue eye—high-cheek bones, a square face, dark hair, rather short & thick,—a low forehead, and a perfectly stolid expression. You shudder to look at him. I have no doubt he has committed murders, before. Everybody who has seen him says he is the most villainous looking person they ever saw. He must be as strong as an ox, or a butcher. (Then a soldier) Next sat,—Herold. He looks almost a boy,— and simple at that. His hair is dark,—his eye dark blue. His head is very small & he looks like one who might be used for worse things than he himself would ever imagine.
Mrs. Surratt sat apart from the rest, and on a lower floor,— she was closely veiled, so that I could not see her features. She leaned her head on her hand & her hand against the wall. She conversed a long time with her counsel. All the prisoners are chained, hand & foot, except Mrs. Surratt, who has no chains on her hands. There were only about 15 or 20 spectators.
After a nearly two-month trial with more than 350 witnesses, all eight defendants were found guilty. Herold, Powell, Atzerodt and Surratt were sentenced to death. Mudd, Arnold and O’Laughlin were sentenced to life in prison, while Spangler, acquitted of conspiracy, was convicted of aiding and abetting in Booth’s escape and given a six-year sentence. The executions occurred on July 7. Mudd, Arnold, O’Laughlin and Spangler did not serve out their full sentences. O’Laughlin died in prison from yellow fever in 1867. President Andrew Johnson pardoned Mudd, Arnold and Spangler in 1869.
As the trial was going on, Blood again wrote to his mother, noting that there was nothing remarkable about the places involved in the recent assassination and its planning. Following brief mentions of two of the most popular news magazines of the day, Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Blood wryly reports on how a change in the weather has forced a change in his wardrobe. His reference to the Grand Review in the third letter is of interest. It is well known that to celebrate the end of the Civil War and honor the Union troops who served in it, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac (on May 23) and General William T. Sherman’s men from the West (on May 24) paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue, past a White House reviewing stand, to the cheers of a grateful Republic. What is less known is that the “6th Corps” Blood mentioned, having remained in the field to “mop up,” missed the main reviews but staged its own on June 8. Blood, apparently sated with the first two martial displays, did not go to see the third.
Washington, 15th June, 1865
My Dear Mother,
Do not get excited over the trial of the conspirators. I went with Mr. Boardman, a friend, to see the back entrance of Ford’s Theater last night, or rather two or three nights since.—also to Mrs. Surratt’s house,—“541 H. St.”
Don’t you wish you could see these places!
After all,—they look much like other places. You wouldn’t know from the appearance of the house, but it was devoted to conference-meetings, as soon as conspiracy….
I shall send Mati a “Harpers Weekly”—today—I guess. Ask her to let you see the same. I conclude you have not rec’d any “Leslie” yet?
We are having very cool weather for Washington. I have assumed part of my winter apparel….
Do you remember there was a review the other day in Wash—of the 6th Corps!—a few days subsequently to the Grand Review of “two days”?—and will you believe me when I assure you that I didn’t once leave the office to see it? You can hardly realize that in N.H. can you?
Mati has seen lots of strange things this winter,—the assassins included,—and can tell you “a whole history”.
I will close, wishing you health as your greatest blessing. Remember me to Mati and friends.
Yours affectionately Henry
After 12 years in the Office of Internal Revenue, Blood, 39 years old, survived a Treasury Department reduction in force, apparently by again using his political connections. Records show, however, that in August 1877 Blood moved to clerk in the State Department, a position he held until his death in December 1900. All told, Blood spent nearly 40 years in the U.S. civil service.
Although he continued to publish poems during the 1860s and ’70s, Blood’s literary reputation began to really burgeon in the 1880s. In 1882 a critic writing in the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper dubbed Blood “another poet worthy of a wider reputation than he has yet secured” who had “written much verse, not a little of it of a high order, showing scholarship as well as genius.”
Throughout the 1880s and ’90s, Blood’s poems appeared regularly in increasingly more important publications such as The Century Magazine, Scribner’s Monthly Magazine and Harper’s Weekly, and in major newspapers—the New York Tribune, New York Post, New York Observer,The Washington Post and Boston Advertiser.
On January 12, 1896, The Washington Post stated, “However the fire of statesmanship may smolder in the State Department, the fire of poetry burns brightly there at not infrequent intervals,” and reported that one of Blood’s poems was to be added to a poetry anthology edited by “a learned” Canadian.
Blood also was a playwright, although his talent there may have been inferior to his poetry. Historical mentions or contemporary reviews of his two five-act comedies, The Spanish Mission; or, The Member from Nevada and Lord Timothy Dexter and The Greatest Man in the East, have proved impossible to find. His drama in verse, How Much I Loved Thee (written under the anagram Raymond Eshobel), however, received an unflattering review in The Nation weekly magazine, which declared, “It is very difficult to take seriously a drama so wildly melodramatic.”
While to a 21st-century eye Blood’s poetry may appear rather maudlin and affected, his numerous publications in leading periodicals and newspapers, his acceptance in the highest literary circles of Washington and the positive reviews of his poems all proclaim his talent and contemporary appeal. By the time of his death, Blood’s poetry had been anthologized at least seven times.
Henry Ames Blood died on December 30, 1900, at his home in Washington. He was buried in New Ipswich, N.H. In its four-paragraph obituary of Blood, The Washington Post claimed, “His loss will be widely felt in literary circles, and he was the personal friend and intimate acquaintance of many prominent people throughout the country.” Blood’s hometown newspaper in New Ipswich, declared: “His personal presence was very attractive and his enthusiasm almost boyish. He ‘wore his heart upon his sleeve’ and his own success never pleased him so much as the success of a friend.”
But Blood’s legacy continued even past his death. On August 17, 1901, the leaders of Temple, N.H., dedicated two monuments to the memory of the town’s Revolutionary War and War of 1812 veterans. One side of the latter monument was dedicated to “Henry Ames Blood, poet, orator, and historian of the Town of Temple,” and in December 1901, The Selected Poems of Henry Ames Blood, a slim 88-page volume compiled by his second wife, Mary Miller Blood, was published to critical acclaim.
And now, with the discovery of his three letters to his mother, Henry Ames Blood’s importance to our understanding of America’s past is expanded. To his history of Temple, reprinted in 1993 and still considered a significant history of the area, and his literary works can be added his contribution, albeit perhaps unwittingly, of an unpretentious portrayal of monumental days and events in American history. His keen eye and poetic style present an insider’s view of the confusion, intensity, despair, shock and anger felt by Washingtonians in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s murder.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.