During the Civil War the proximity and urgency of the nation’s terrible ordeal was a visceral reality for the residents of Washington, D.C. The city and its outskirts were filled with Union troops, and the news of battles fought and casualties suffered had an immediate and profound effect. But the everyday business of government had to go on, and New Hampshire native Benjamin Brown French was one of the loyal functionaries who tended to the bureaucratic necessities.
French was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as Commissioner of Public Buildings for Washington in early September 1861. He had served in this position under President Franklin Pierce from 1853 to 1855. French’s jurisdiction included the Capitol Building, which was undergoing the massive project to construct the 288-foot tall cast-iron dome that so distinguishes the building today. He was also in charge of the White House, and the city’s bridges, public squares and parks. The Capitol police force was also under his jurisdiction.
French was a genial person who enjoyed the Washington social scene, and he was an able organizer. He was tapped by President Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln to serve as the “general factotum” (all-purpose aide) at official functions in the White House. Beginning in early December 1861 Mrs. Lincoln hosted regular receptions at the White House every Saturday and Wednesday. French assisted her with these events. He wrote in his personal journal that he was required “as an official duty … to introduce visitors to Mrs. Lincoln. It is a terrible bore, but, as a duty, I must do it, and it leads to an acquaintance with very many celebrities of whom I should otherwise have no personal knowledge …”
In the early months of Lincoln’s administration, prior to French’s tenure as Commissioner, Mrs. Lincoln had proceeded with great enthusiasm to refurbish the White House’s decor. She hired a designer to assist her, and spent a great deal of money on elegant carpets, wallpaper, silverware, and other fine items. On the morning of Saturday, Dec. 13, 1861, although suffering from a severe headache, French made his way to the White House at the urgent request of Mrs. Lincoln. As he later wrote, there he “had an interview with her and with the President, in relation to the overrunning of the appropriation for furnishing the house, which was done, by the law, ‘under the President.’ The money was actually expended by Mrs. Lincoln, and she was in much tribulation, the President declaring he would not approve the bills. … He said it would stink in the land to have it said that an appropriation of $20,000 for furnishing the house had been overrun by the President when the poor freezing soldiers could not have blankets.”
Mrs. Lincoln took French aside and asked him to intercede on her behalf, but he was unable to change Lincoln’s mind. French wrote, “It was not very pleasant to be sure, but a portion of it (was) very amusing. Mrs. Lincoln was to have a reception in the afternoon, but on account of my headache insisted upon my not attending …” In the coming weeks French was able to divert money from various government accounts to pay Mrs. Lincoln’s bills.
At 5 p.m. on Feb. 20, 1862, the Lincoln’s middle son, 11-year-old William “Willie” Wallace Lincoln, died. His 8-year-old brother Thomas “Tad” Lincoln was also sick with the same illness, which was likely typhoid fever. French was asked to organize Willie’s funeral, which took place on the morning of Feb. 24. He wrote that when he arrived at the White House he “found everything properly arranged … The body of little Willie lay in the green room, in the lower shell of a metallic coffin, clothed in the habiliments of life, and covered with beautiful flowers.” Before the mourners were led into the room for the ceremony, the President, Mrs. Lincoln, and their 18-year-old son Robert Todd Lincoln stood by the coffin, quietly sharing their heartache in private. As French later wrote, “While they were thus engaged there came one of the heaviest storms of rain and wind that has visited this city for years, and the terrible storm without seemed almost in unison with the storm of grief within. …”