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Christmas Day, 1863: Charles Sumner Visits the Wounded in Army Hospitals

(Excerpted from THE GREAT ABOLITIONIST: Charles Sumner and the Fight for a More Perfect Union)

Christmas Day, 1863, Washington, D.C.

With his mother and sister miles away, and other Washington acquaintances otherwise occupied, Charles Sumner spent Christmas in the nation’s capital in a contemplative and selfless way, unusual for him during the heat of political battle but perhaps expected as he struggled with the recent death of his brother and his own deep loneliness.

He visited the wounded in nearby army hospitals.

Sumner does not identify precisely which of the more than fifty hastily constructed hospitals in Washington he visited, but from his descriptions, it appears he toured the Lincoln General Hospital on the corner of East Capitol and 15th Street, and the more well-known Armory Square Hospital on the national mall in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol building, whose new dome, capped by the statue of freedom, had been completed only weeks earlier.

Wounded, sick, and suffering Union soldiers made up the overwhelming majority of patients, but Sumner also visited a rebel ward that housed about eighty bedridden soldiers. While the Confederates were treated “precisely like our own soldiers,” Sumner conceded that he had “never before noticed so great a contrast in . . . human beings.” Union soldiers, even in their suffering, appeared reasonably content to Sumner, or at least quietly resigned to their fates, but “the rebels seemed in a different scale of existence . . . mostly rough, ignorant, brutal, scowling.” Sumner talked with several Confederates, inquired about their health, offered his best wishes that they enjoy their holiday meal, and in many cases “softened them into a smile.” Still, Sumner admitted, “when they knew who I was they seemed uncertain whether to scowl extra or be civil.”

Convalescing Confederates may have been agitated when they learned of Sumner’s identity, but as the congressional session got underway in late 1863 and moved into 1864, Sumner felt a sense of calm about the state of the nation, perhaps another reason he decided to visit army hospitals on Christmas. Recent Union victories and shifting political attitudes convinced Sumner that it was simply a matter of time before the United States prevailed and slavery was abolished forever.

“The result is certain—sooner or later,” he said.

Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters at City Point, VA – where Charles Sumner Witnessed the “Abraham Lincoln Magic”

In my upcoming book, The Great Abolitionist: Charles Sumner and the Fight for a More Perfect Union, I include a chapter on the important events that took place during April, 1865, at General Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Virginia.

Grant and his Army of the Potomac command staff ensconced themselves at City Point during the siege of Petersburg, and, after the fall of Richmond on April 2, awaited the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia (which would occur on April 9 at Appomattox Court House, Virginia).

Eager to leave the constraints of the Executive Mansion and to be close to the action as the long and brutal Civil War ended, President Abraham Lincoln visited City Point from March 23 through late in the evening of April 8 – interrupted only by his historic visit to Richmond on April 4 – to discuss end-game strategies and post-war decisions with Grant and his staff.  Charles Sumner was part of Lincoln’s close circle of advisors who joined him (Sumner and Mrs. Lincoln also visited Richmond two days after the President toured the former Confederate capital).

The gathering of luminaries is part of City Point’s rich history, a history my wife Kate and I were thrilled to experience on our recent road trip, which also took us to the Petersburg battlefield (and numerous other great places!).

In addition to City Point serving as Grant’s headquarters, an island right off the mainland was also the location of a massive Union tent hospital, which housed 5,000 sick and wounded Union troops, as well as some Confederate soldiers.  During the day on April 8, just before Lincoln and Sumner returned to Washington, Sumner watched in awe as the President shook hands with virtually every bedridden Union soldier.

Lincoln’s physical stamina was impressive enough – the President shook his head when Sumner asked him if his shoulder or hand was tired – but even more noteworthy was the way Lincoln so easily connected with these men, most of whom had suffered grievous wounds or were dying from debilitating diseases.  A handshake and a brief conversation here, a chuckle and mirthful smile there; Lincoln’s “where are you from, boy?” at one bed-stop, a “how do you do?” at another; a “thank you for your sacrifice” to an emaciated soldier whose head was swathed in bloody bandages, and even a magnanimous “I hope a Confederate colonel will not refuse me his hand,” when Lincoln reached the bedside of a captured rebel officer, who gratefully clasped the President’s hand in both of his.

It all seemed to come naturally to the President, Sumner observed – knowing what to say, how to say it, how long to visit, when to move on to the next bed; when to speak, when to listen, when to inject gentle humor even as he expressed grave concern.  Sumner possessed little in the way of these instincts, and as he watched the President in action, he marveled that Lincoln’s mannerisms were neither contrived nor disingenuous.  The President comforted all of these men but patronized none of them.  He asked questions and listened with patience for the answers. The sheer daunting number of soldiers to greet required that he move efficiently, yet the President seemed to give each man all the time he needed.  Authenticity and concern radiated from Lincoln’s tall, thin frame.

Sumner watched Lincoln – the indefatigable President’s face careworn, but his mannerisms energetic, personable, at ease, conveying to these men that he had nothing more pressing at this moment than visiting with them; expressing his love for them and their sacrifices.

It was yet another learning experience for Sumner about Lincoln; the President’s deep connection and popularity with ordinary people were keys to his success.  Sumner, brilliant and passionate and unshakeable in his convictions, was more aloof in his style and temperament and found it difficult to relate to others on an emotional level.

Sumner’s observation of Lincoln at City Point was just one example of how he and Lincoln learned from each other – it’s one reason I was excited to visit the historic spot where the two men interacted in 1865.  When Sumner first met the President in 1860, he had doubts about Lincoln’s commitment to abolish slavery and his ability to lead the country at such a perilous moment.  When Lincoln first encountered Sumner, he respected the Massachusetts senator’s commitment to abolitionism and his dedication to equal rights, but questioned whether Sumner’s inability to compromise and lack of strong personal relationships would hinder his ability to achieve these goals.

As time went on, both men realized how much they shared, how committed they were to saving the Union, to living in a country free of slavery, dedicated to equality, and striving to form the “more perfect union” promised at its founding. Sumner came to admire Lincoln’s steadfast leadership, and Lincoln deeply respected Sumner’s unwavering and uncompromising commitment to abolish slavery and enshrine the principle of equality into America’s laws and customs. Their close relationship enabled each man to learn about the other, and Lincoln’s warm interactions with wounded soldiers at City Point – which occurred just days before he was assassinated – was a reminder that the learning never stopped.

Sumner’s relationship with Lincoln is a key theme running through The Great Abolitionist – I think you’ll find fascinating the many examples of how each man influenced the other.  Theirs is a remarkable story.

My research on The Great Abolitionist repeatedly revealed Charles Sumner’s courage and authenticity

One message came through repeatedly while I was researching and writing THE GREAT ABOLITIONIST: Charles Sumner’s Fight for a More Perfect Union: Americans today who crave, above all else, courage and authenticity in their leaders would have enjoyed watching Charles Sumner work in the mid-nineteenth century.

Where others preached compromise and moderation, Sumner never wavered in denouncing slavery’s evils to all who would listen and demanding that it be wiped out of existence. Where others muttered cautious, even insipid platitudes, his voice was clear and strong, and unambiguous on the issues of freedom and equality. Where others wilted under the onslaught of political attack, he stood strong and fearless, a bulwark against the slings and piercing arrows of those who targeted him — Southern slaveholders for sure, but also many Northerners who placed their economic interests ahead of their moral outrage.

Sumner was beholden to no one, sought no ill-gotten gains, was unbribable and unbuyable, and had little interest in even currying favor to advance his own political fortunes.  And he never, ever pandered.

Hard to believe he was a politician!

Charles Sumner was the biggest, boldest, most controversial, and most influential national voice of America’s most turbulent two decades; the 1850s and 1860s.  No one else came close.  As great events played out across the land during the country’s most stormy and divisive period, Sumner seized the national narrative, refused to let go, and repeatedly held a mirror up to the country’s aspirations and ideals.  He inspired those who agreed with him, swayed fence-sitters, and eventually, converted millions of naysayers to his point of view.   

It was Sumner who first used the phrase “equality before the law” in the United States, who first argued that “separate but equal” violated the precepts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and who infused the concept of “equal protection” for all into the language of the Fourteenth Amendment.

His oratory was his gift if occasionally his undoing.  He never backed down, never tempered his remarks, never prevaricated.  He understood the evocativeness of words and the power of sweeping themes.  Merely uttering the words “United States Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts” was enough to stop both his allies and his enemies in their tracks.  Supporters trumpeted his courage, his resilience, and his moral certitude.  Detractors detested his insolence, his arrogance, his seeming lack of empathy for others, and his contempt for those who disagreed with him.

But without question, when Charles Sumner spoke, everyone listened.

Like Winston Churchill during World War II and Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights era, Sumner relied most heavily on the uncompromising clarity of his ideas, his relentless honesty, and his fearless steadfastness as his most effective attributes as he sought to move the heart and mind of a country embroiled in crisis.  Like Churchill and King, too, he employed rhetoric befitting big moments, and like both twentieth-century leaders, he shaped – and was shaped by – grand causes and occurrences.

Sumner knew instinctively what was at stake and how to convey it in his oratory and his writing. No single individual did more to influence the anti-slavery movement on a national scale. No single person was more responsible for founding and fueling the growth of the anti-slavery Republican Party and influencing Abraham Lincoln’s ideas.  No single lawmaker advocated for such broad and sweeping equal rights, and made the discussion of such rights a reasonable and respectable option for so many Congressional colleagues during political discourse.  No single person insisted so fervently and so early that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution guaranteed both freedom and equality (Lincoln would eventually adopt and promulgate this view with brilliance).

His positions cost him dearly.  Southerners despised Sumner, sometimes feared him, and celebrated gleefully when he was beaten unconscious in the Senate Chamber.  Northerners blanched at his abolitionist calls at first, resisted his later demands for equal rights as detrimental to the nation’s attempts to heal, and often found his chafing personality off-putting.

But eventually, they came to respect him and his positions, and near the end of his life, they elevated Sumner to revered elder-statesman status.

More than any other person of his era, perhaps of any era, Charles Sumner’s political courage and moral authenticity blazed the trail on the nation’s long, uneven, and ongoing journey toward realizing its full promise – its ever-striving quest to become a more perfect union.