Chester, N.H., native Benjamin Brown French held one of the most important positions in the administration of President Abraham Lincoln outside of the cabinet, as Commissioner of Public Buildings for Washington, D.C. He also became a trusted personal aide to both the President and Mrs. Lincoln.
After French’s wife Bess died in May 1861, he was consumed by loneliness. But something unexpected would brighten his life. In November 1860, a young woman, Mary Ellen Brady, had joined the French household as a caregiver for Bess. Mary Ellen‘s sister Margaret was married to French’s younger half-brother Edmund French. Also, French had been friends for many years with Mary Ellen’s and Margaret’s late father Peter Brady, an Irish immigrant. Both men had been involved in local politics in Washington.
Mary Ellen had been a great comfort to Bess in her time of suffering. French recorded in his private journal what Bess had told him on her deathbed, “I leave Mary Ellen to you.”
As French was 60 years old at the time, and Mary Ellen was 30, he understood that Bess had meant that he should treat her as a daughter. Instead, French found himself falling in love. He often saw Mary Ellen after Bess’s death, as she would come by to help with the housekeeping. The two became close companions, and in summer 1861 French bought her a diamond ring. On Aug. 17, 1861, French wrote that Mary Ellen had returned to his house to stay, and that “She makes my home cheerful … Would to God I could have her with me the rest of my life, for I find my happiness depends upon her presence, and I would try — oh how earnestly — to make her as happy as a mortal woman could be.”
Mary Ellen Brady and Benjamin French were married in Concord, Mass., on Sept. 9, 1862. As Mary Ellen was a devout Roman Catholic, the modest ceremony in a friend’s home was conducted by a priest. The event was witnessed and celebrated by a gathering of family and friends. The joyful newlyweds traveled by train to Boston for a short stay, and then to Montreal, Canada, where they enjoyed their honeymoon.
On Nov. 19, 1863 the Soldiers’ National Cemetery was dedicated in Gettysburg, Pa. The cemetery was built as the final resting place for fallen Union soldiers who had died and been buried on the Gettysburg battlefield. This great and terrible battle that had taken place there from July 1 to July 3, 1863 marked the turning point in the Civil War in favor of the Union. The Marshal-in-Chief for the grand event was Ward H. Laman, Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard and confidante. Lamon asked French to assist him in planning and managing the procession and ceremony. French, who had organized Lincoln’s inaugural parade, took to this assignment with enthusiasm.
One problem Lamon encountered was that several prominent poets had turned down a request to write a hymn for the program. French happened to be an amateur poet, so he volunteered to compose a suitable hymn, which he was able to put together the next morning. On the day of the dedication, French rode on horseback in the splendid procession to the cemetery. Later, he was seated in the front row on the speaker’s platform, only a short distance from Lincoln.
The featured orator was Edward Everett, the renowned politician, educator, and diplomat. After he delivered his two-hour speech, the chorus of the Maryland Music Association chanted French’s hymn. It began, “Tis holy ground — This spot, where, in their graves we place our Country’s braves, who fell in Freedom’s holy cause — fighting for Liberties and Laws — Let tears abound.” French was pleased that his words were “sung beautifully, and with much effect.”
When the hymn ended, Lamon introduced Lincoln. The President opened his 272-word address with the unforgettable sentence, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” French later wrote that the President, “in a few brief, but most appropriate words, dedicated the cemetery. Abraham Lincoln is the idol of the American people at this moment.”