Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Happy surprises

At the Library of Congress last summer, when the woman seated at my table took a sharp audible breath, I glanced over to see why. She turned to me and said what a wonder it was to behold the letter that lay on the table before her. She invited me to take a look.

Dr. Esther Hill Hawks, Manchester abolitionist 
I was busy with my own work, poring over the fat scrapbooks of Esther Hill Hawks, an abolitionist doctor from Manchester who had served as a military surgeon for black regiments and a teacher of freed slaves. In 1976, long after Hawks’s death, the notebooks had been rescued from the trash heap. Because of this lucky circumstance, Hawks is a character in several chapters of Our War.

But the researcher beside me was beaming, and I couldn’t resist finding out why. A moment later I was holding in my hands a warm personal letter from George Washington to Thomas Pinckney, a Revolutionary War veteran from South Carolina who later served as Washington's U.S. minister to Great Britain. It was indeed a thrill.

If you’re a diligent researcher, you’ll have your “Aha!” moments. You find the missing link you were looking for. A wild goose chase pays off. You see “Confidential” scrawled at the top of a letter and mutter, “Not anymore, pal.”

On town meeting day 150 years ago, New Hampshire held a gubernatorial election with national consequences. It pitted Ira Eastman, a Democratic judge, and Joseph Gilmore, a Republican railroad man. The Republicans so feared an Eastman victory that they put up a third-party candidate, pro-war Democrat Walter Harriman, to siphon votes away from Eastman.

I wanted to tell the story of this election in Our War. I found what I think is an innovative approach, which I laid out in an earlier blog post. A key character in the campaign was William E. Chandler, the young Republican firebrand who ran Gilmore’s campaign. Chandler also happened to be married to Gilmore’s daughter.

Today I want to share with you two notes I found in the Chandler papers at the New Hampshire Historical Society. Other researchers, notably Lex Renda in Running on the Record, have used them, but I can’t tell you what a happy jolt it is to come upon such candid material in a politician’s papers.        

William E. Chandler
I don’t know why Chandler saved the two notes. Since both men lived in Concord, neither do I know why they exchanged their thoughts in writing. Perhaps Gilmore was ashamed of the decision he had reached and afraid to bring it up in person. Perhaps Chandler was busy elsewhere but wanted to answer Gilmore instantly.  

Both notes were written on March 2, 1863, eight days before the election, Gilmore’s in the morning, Chandler’s in the afternoon.

Here’s Gilmore:

“I find my health is such that I must not undertake to have anything more to do with political matters and you will excuse me from anything of the kind. I am going to take it fair & easy as Judge Eastman & Walter Harriman [do,] and if elected well and good and if not just as well.”

Why did Gilmore suddenly get cold feet? Maybe he didn't think he could win and decided a losing campaign wasn't worth any more time, money or effort.

Here’s Chandler’s response to his father-in-law:

“If you propose to stop working I do not. You shall be elected Governor and the State saved. If you do not go to Boston I must have the money some way.

“I want you to raise me Five Thousand Dollars which I shall put into the campaign. I have $2000 in Valley Bank stock which I want the money upon. The House on Merrimack Street is worth $1500 and my office Furniture and Library $1000 more. I want Two Thousand Dollars temporarily and will execute the securities, immediately.

“I will either die, leave the state or bankrupt myself to elect you governor.

“Yours truly W.E. Chandler”

So Chandler was willing to risk his stock, his house and his furniture and books on behalf of his father-in-law's candidacy. In the event, he didn't have to: Gilmore came up with the money. Maybe it was the house that did it. After all, Gilmore's daughter lived there, too. 

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