John Summerfield Staples: In the Shadow of History | A Meeting with President Lincoln
He sought neither fame nor fortune for his unique experience and none has been afforded him.
This series endeavors to recognize him, his legacy, and the unusual military position he occupied as the “Representative Recruit” of President Abraham Lincoln. Installments of this series appeared in each edition of The Fanlight through Spring 2015 and the anniversary of the ending of the Civil War.
PART TWO of FIVE
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Washington, D.C., July 1864 — Life in the nation’s capital was unlike life in Monroe County’s seat of government. John Staples, Summerfield’s father, experienced a period of adjustment, but was now accustomed to the traffic, heat, humidity, and the crowds of people, to say nothing of the mosquito population.
Once a month for 10 months, he walked the five blocks from his boardinghouse to the train station and traveled home to Stroudsburg, checking on the family, the business, and visiting those who had lost loved ones in the war. But today he climbed the steps to the train platform and waited in the shade of the roof’s overhang. Summerfield would be on the 3 o’clock train from Baltimore.
During his June visit home, Summerfield had expressed a desire to join his father in D.C. and make his own contribution to the war effort. Summerfield was fully recovered from his bout with typhoid, and his father readily agreed. Mother required further persuading. Eventually she relented, understanding their need to be of service and imbued with her own sense of self-sufficiency. She supported both husband and son in their dedication to the Union cause. Like so many other women, this unselfish and unheralded act would be her contribution to the abolition of slavery.
As the sun moved across the sky, John Staples followed the shade and the platform became increasingly crowded as the hands of the large, round station clock neared 3 p.m. John Staples was not a man given to idle thoughts, but he allowed his disciplined mind to contemplate time and circumstance. A year had passed since Rev. Howell had been killed at Gettysburg. It was difficult to comprehend the amount of death and suffering that had occurred over the past three years.
He heard the whistle and saw the train in the distance. He made his way through the crowd and stood at the edge of the platform, relieved that Summerfield had come safely through Baltimore, a hot-bed of southern sabotage activity. He glanced again at the clock and felt a twinge of northern pride: “Their trains are a casualty of war – ours still run on time.”
He was not an impatient man or a needless worrier, but as the platform cleared and the baggage area emptied, he couldn’t help but wonder where his son could be. At last, Summerfield appeared; an old woman attached to his right arm, her bulging travel bag securely held in his left hand. Pride replaced concern and he walked quickly across the platform to be of assistance.
After several awkward minutes of meaningless conversation, they were joined by a young Army officer who apologized for his tardiness, thanked them for their help, and quickly escorted the old lady to a waiting carriage that obviously belonged to an officer of higher rank. No carriage awaited the Staples men, so each lifted a suitcase and Summerfield followed his father through the congested streets of the nation’s capital.
The talents of John Staples had been quickly recognized at the Navy Yards, and he was now functioning as a supervisor. He arranged a job for Summerfield, removed from his own area of responsibility, so the boy could function without accusations of privilege.
They fell into a comfortable routine: up at 5 a.m., breakfast at 6 a.m., work at 7 a.m., knock-off at 5 p.m. Dinner at their boardinghouse was served promptly at 6 p.m. and the table was always plentiful.
The Potomac River offered an array of food items vastly different from Summerfield’s usual Pocono Mountain diet, but he ate what was served and, for the most part, enjoyed the meals. Evenings were spent on the wisteria-draped porch or in the large, comfortable parlor, writing letters home, reading newspapers or conversing with the other boarders, all transient, war-time laborers like themselves.
Because Saturdays were full workdays, Friday afternoons, when possible, were given over to “father and son” time. They strolled the streets of D.C., father pointing out sites of interest. On Sundays they attended services at the Presbyterian Church near the boardinghouse. The minister there, also a friend of the late Rev. Howell, had been instrumental in arranging employment and lodging for Summerfield’s father. July and August vanished in the haze of a D.C. summer and grueling six-day work weeks.
By September, Lincoln was acutely aware of the manpower shortages facing the Army of the Potomac. Convinced he could not win re-election, and unwilling to ignite another round of draft riots, Lincoln set his mind to devising a less dictatorial method of raising troops. During his regular carriage ride with Mary, an idea began to crystalize. The concept revolved around men not eligible to serve due to age, physical condition or government position, recruiting men to serve in their place. Unlike the paid substitute program that put a man in the field while allowing one to stay out, this program would put a man in the field where one would not have been. Liking his idea of a representative recruit, Lincoln turned the idea over to his trusted secretary, John Hay, to embellish and implement the plan. Lincoln made sure young Hay understood that a candidate was to be found to represent the president of the United States.
The assignment to find Lincoln a suitable representative quickly found its way to the desk of Noble Larner, president of the Thirrd Ward draft club. Larner was already under pressure to meet his monthly quota of new soldiers and this additional task, directly related to President Lincoln, added greatly to his burdens. He wanted the job completed quickly and off his desk. He decided a leisurely stroll around the city would calm his nerves, so on Friday afternoon, he started down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Summerfield and his father were also out for their Friday afternoon walk-about when Larner approached them. He explained the program and asked Summerfield if he would serve. He did not get the “yes” he was hoping for, “I will if my father consents” was the reply. Anxious eyes darted to the father’s face. “I consent,” Staples replied. Larner hurried them off to the draft club office and Summerfield was sworn in. He made arrangements for them to meet President Lincoln on Monday, and they parted company. Larner’s relief was visible; he was quite pleased with himself. He reached down, opened the lowest drawer of his small desk and removed a bottle of his favorite beverage. Years later, the true character of Noble Larner would surface in an interview with a reporter for a D.C. paper.
Although not as formal, there was, then as now, a protocol in place for meeting the president of the United States. John Hay briefed father and son, and then escorted them into the small room where Lincoln stood. Hay made the introductions; first the president followed by Provost Marshall Fry and then Larner. A reporter stood by the window; he was not introduced. Lincoln shook hands with Summerfield and asked if he had been sworn. Larner replied that he had, absorbing a glare from Hay. The president reached in his pocket and handed young Staples $60, saying “I hope you will be one of the fortunate ones.” He extended his hand again and Summerfield shook Lincoln’s hand a second time. With that, the president glanced at Hay, and father and son were ushered out of Lincoln’s presence. Summerfield was again paid $500 for his service and his father received $50 for his consent.
Far in the future, this diary entry would come to light: “Abraham Lincoln took no small interest in his Representative Recruit, and often inquired about the young man from Stroudsburg, Pa.”
Rumors of the war drawing to a close abounded in the capital and the volume of work at the Navy Yards began to diminish. Satisfied with his contribution and proud of his son’s position, John Staples decided to return to Stroudsburg. Although Summerfield missed his father’s companionship, his duties did not allow him time to dwell on the matter. He clerked long hours in the office of the Provost Marshall and worked heart-wrenching shifts in the hospitals. Having proven himself trustworthy and reliable, he was also assigned to guarding prisoners, a duty of which he was not overly fond.
Summerfield was well aware of the responsibilities his position carried and knew his conduct had to be above reproach at all times. As he prepared for a prisoner escort job, he set his mind to preparing for his own future and a life without the cloud of war hanging over it.