Notable Visitors: Mary A. Livermore (1820-1905)

Mary A. Livermore

A prominent activist in the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Mary A. Livermore helped as a nurse and fundraiser. She was the wife of the editor of the Chicago-based New Covenant, a Universalist publication where she also worked as an editor and writer. She covered the nomination of Abraham Lincoln at the Republican National Convention in Chicago in May 1860.

Mrs. Livermore was one of the founders of the Chicago branch of the United States Sanitary Commission in 1862. Historian Wendy Hamand Venet noted: “Livermore’s leadership role in the Sanitary Commission expanded. In the spring of 1862 she departed on her first hospital inspection tour, visiting facilities in Southern Illinois and Missouri. She learned a great deal about the Sanitary Commission’s bureaucracy, the army’s bureaucracy, and the tragedy fo war, for she encountered badly wounded soldiers from the Battles of Fort Henry and Donelson.”1 In November 1862 Mrs. Livermore went from Chicago to Washington, where she and some colleagues visited the President:

I shall never forget the shock which his presence gave us. Not more ghastly or rigid was his dead face, as he lay in his coffin, than on that never-to-be-forgotten night. His introverted look and his half-staggering gait were like those of a man walking in his sleep. He seemed literally bending under the weight of his burdens. A deeper gloom rested on his face than on that of any person I had ever seen. He took us each by the hand mechanically, in an awkward, absent way, until my friend Mrs. Hoge, of Chicago, and myself were introduced, when the name of the city of our residence appeared to tach his attention, and he sat down between us.
“So you are from Chicago!” he said, familiarly; ‘you are not scared by Washington mud, then, for you can beat us to pieces in that.” And then he asked about the weather we had had during the fall, the health of the city, and other matters of local interest, as one to whom the Northwest was home, and dear. It was explained to him that we were all identified with the Sanitary Commission, and that we had called, before separating to our widely divergent homes, to obtain from him some word of encouragement – something to cheer and stimulate. ‘I have no word of encouragement to give!” was his said and blunt reply. ‘The military situation is far from bright; and the country knows it as well as I do.” There was no attempt at question or answer; but a momentary deep and painful silence settled on his auditors.
“The fact is,” he continued after a pause, “the people haven’t yet made up their minds that we are at war with the South. They haven’t buckled down to the determination to fight this war through; for they have got the idea into their heads that we are going to get out of this fix, somehow, by strategy! That’s the word – strategy! General McClellan thinks he is going to whip the rebels by strategy; and the army has got the same notion. They have no idea that the war is to be carried on and put through by hard, tough fighting, that will hurt somebody; and no headway is going to be made while this delusion lasts.
Someone one ventured to remonstrate against this, and reminded the President how hundreds of thousands had rushed to arms at the call of the country; how bravely the army and navy had fought at Forts Henry and Donelson, Pea Ridge, Shiloh, and New Orleans; and how gloriously they had triumphed.
He admitted this, but returned to his first statement. ‘The people haven’t made up their minds that we are at war, I tell you!” he repeated, with great positiveness. “They think there is a royal road to peace, and that General McClellan is to find it. The army has not settled down into the conviction that we are in a terrible war that has got to be fought out – no; and the officers haven’t either. When you came to Washington, ladies, some two weeks ago, but very few soldiers came on the trains with you – that you will all remember. But when you go back you will find the trains and every conveyance crowded with them. You won’t find a city on the route, a town, or a village, where soldiers and officers on furlough are not plenty as blackberries. There are whole regiments that have two thirds of their men absent – a great many by desertion, and a great many on leave granted by company officers, which is almost as bad. General McClellan is all the time calling for more troops, more troops; and they are sent to him; but the deserters and furloughed men outnumber the recruits. To fill up the army is like undertaking to shovel fleas. You take up a shovelful,” suiting the word with an indescribably comical gesture; “But before you can dump them anywhere they are gone. It is like trying to ride a balky horse. You coax, and cheer, and spur, and lay on the whip; but you don’t get ahead an inch – there you stick.”
“Do you mean that our men desert?” we asked, incredulously; for in our glorifying of the soldiers we had not conceived of our men becoming deserters.
“That is just what I mean!” replied the President. “And the desertion of the army is just now the most serious evil we have to encounter. At the battle of Antietam, General McClellan had the names of about one hundred and eighty thousand men on the army rolls. Of these, seventy thousand were absent on leave granted by company officers, which, as I said before, is almost as bad as desertion. For the men ought not to ask for furloughs with the enemy drawn up before them, nor ought the officers to grant them. About twenty thousand more were in hospital, or were detailed to other duties, leaving only some ninety thousand to give battle to the enemy. General McClellan went into the fight with this number. But in two hours after the battle commenced thirty thousand had straggled or deserted, and so the battle was fought with sixty thousand – and as the enemy had about the same number, it proved a drawn game. The rebel army had coiled itself up in such a position that if McClellan had only had the seventy thousand absentees, and the thirty thousand deserters, he could have surrounded Lee, captured the whole rebel army, and ended the war at a stroke without a battle.”
“We have a Stragglers’ Camp out here in Alexandria, in connection with the Convalescent Camp, and from that camp, in three months, General Butler has returned to their regiments seventy-five thousand deserters and stragglers who have been arrested and sent there. Don’t you see that the country and the army fail to realize that we are engaged in one of the great wars the world has ever seen, and which can only be ended by hard fighting? General McClellan is responsible for the delusion that is intoning the whole army – that the South is to be conquered by strategy.’ That very week, General McClellan had been removed from the command of the army, and General Burnside – of whom the President spoke most eulogistically – had been appointed in his place, but none of us knew it that night.
“Is not death the penalty of desertion?” we inquired.
“Certainly it is.”
“And does it not lie with the President to enforce this penalty?”
“Why not enforce it, then? Before many soldiers had suffered death for desertion, this wholesale depletion of the army would be ended.”
“Oh, no, no!” replied the President, shaking his head ruefully: ‘that can’t be done; it would be unmerciful barbarous.”
“But it is not more merciful to stop desertions, and to fill up the army, so that when a battle comes off it may be decisive, instead of being a drawn game, as say Antietam was?”
“It might seem so. But if I should go to shooting men by scores for desertion, I should soon have such a hullabaloo about my ears as I haven’t had yet, and I should deserve it. You can’t order men shot by dozens or twenties. People won’t stand it, and they ought not to stand it. No, we must change the condition of things in some other way. The army must be officered by fighting men. Misery loves company, you know,” he added; “and it may give you some consolation to know that it is even worse with the rebel army than it is with ours. I receive their papers daily, and they are running over with complaints of the desertion of their soldiers. We are no worse off than they are, but better; and that is some comfort.”
The conversation continued for an hour, the President talking all the while of the country and of the aspect of affairs in the most depressing manner. When we left him, we agreed among ourselves that it would not be wise to repeat the conversation, so as to have it get into the papers. For, in the then feverish state of the public mind, whatever was reported as coming from the President, no matter how or by whom reported, was eagerly seized upon. The influence of the talk upon ourselves was too dispiriting for us to wish to extend its effect. It cost those of us who belonged to the Northwest a night’s sleep. The condition of the country, the unsatisfactory military aspect, the uneasiness of the people, the state of the army, all wore hues of midnight before our interview with the Chief Magistrate, and this had given them such additional gloom that we almost repented our visit to Washington.
The next day my friend Mrs. Hoge, and myself, had another interview with the President, on business entrusted to us. If we were shocked the night before at his haggard face, how much more were we pained when the broad light of day revealed the ravages which care, anxiety, and overwork had wrought. In our despondent condition it was difficult to control our feelings so as not to weep before him. Our unspoken thought ran thus: ‘Our national affairs must be the very extremity of hopelessness if they thus prey on the mind and life of the President. The country has been slain by treason – he knows it, and that it cannot recover itself.”
Our business ended, before we withdrew we made one more attempt to draw encouraging words from the reluctant head of the nation. “Mr. President,” we said timidly, “we find ourselves greatly depressed by the talk of last evening; you do not consider our national affairs hopeless, do you? Our country is not lost?”
“Oh, no!” he said, with great earnestness, “our affairs are by no means hopeless, for we have the right on our side. We did not want this war, and we tried to avoid it. We were forced into it; our cause is a just one, and now it has become the cause of freedom…And let us also hope it is the cause of God, and then we may be sure it must ultimately triumph. But between that time and now there is an amount of agony and suffering and trial for the people that they do not look for, and are not prepared for.”2

Mrs. Livermore successfully pressed for an original of the Emancipation Proclamation be given for display and sale at the Sanitary Fair to be held in Chicago in November 1863. Wendy Hamand Venet noted: “Livermore’s efforts in planning the Northwestern Sanitary Commission Fair represented the high point of her wartime organizing and an important turning point in her emergence as an advocate for woman’s rights.”3 Mary Livermore recalled: “From the first public announcement of this fair, President Lincoln took a lively interest in it. He bore testimony again and again to its moral influence, and inquired concerning its progress of every visitant from the Northwest that found his way to the White House. We wrote with much hesitation – for we never forgot how he was shouldering the woes and cares of the country – asking for some contribution from himself to our fair. The people of the Northwest were idolatrously attached to him; and we knew that any gift from him would be prized above all price. So we urged our petition as earnestly as we knew how, and enlisted Hon. Isaac N. Arnold, of Chicago, a personal friend of Mr. Lincoln, to send our prayers in person.

“Yes,” said the President, “I must send something to that fair; but what?”A happy thought came to Mr. Arnold. ‘Why not send the ladies the original manuscript Proclamation of Emancipation? They can made a good thing of it?”

So the manuscript was shipped to Chicago where it sold for $3000. President Lincoln was again approached in March 1865 by Mary Livermore. When she and Mrs. Hoge entered his office, President Lincoln “told us laughingly, as we entered the room, that ‘he supposed he knew what we had come for. This time, ladies, I understand you have come for me.” They were indeed seeking to have the President attend the Chicago Sanitary Fair – as he had the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair in June 1864. He complained that the Philadelphia fair had not been a pleasant experience. Even before he arrived, “Everywhere there were people shouting and cheering; and they would reach into the carriage and shake hands, and hold on, until I was afraid they would be killed, or I pulled from the carriage. When we reached the fair it was worse yet.”4

They argued: “The Northwest won’t listen to your declining; and the ladies of Chicago are circulating a letter of invitation to you, which will have ten thousand signatures of women alone. The whole Northwest proposes to come to Chicago to see you and the desire is so general and urgent that you must not feel like declining.” Mr. Lincoln professed to be appalled: “Ten thousand women! What do you suppose my wife will say at ten thousand women coming after me?” When he was assured that Mrs. Lincoln had already given her seal of approval to the invitation and signaled her intent to accompany him, the President replied: “Well, I suppose that settles the matter then.” What sealed the deal what the women’s promised to “Charter a boat to take you out on Lake Michigan for a trip to Mackinaw, where the affectionate desire of the crowd to shake hands with you cannot be realized.” The President responded: “I will come! The trip on Lake Michigan will fetch me.”5 Death intervened.

Mrs. Livermore reported on her attendance at a White House evening reception during her 1865 visit: “We remained for some time, watching the crowds that surged through the spacious apartments, and the President’s reception of them. When they entered the room indifferently and gazed at him, as if he were a part of the furniture, or gave him simply a mechanical nod of the head, he allowed them to pass on, as they elected. But when he was met by a warm grasp of the hand, a look of genuine friendliness, the President’s look and manner answered the expression entirely. To the lowly and humble he was especially kind; his worn face took on a look of exquisite tenderness, as he shook hands with soldiers who carried an empty coat sleeve, or swung themselves on crutches; and not a child was allowed to pass him by without a kind word from him. A bright boy, about the size and age of the son he had buried, was going directly by without appearing even to see the President. ‘Stop, my little man’, said Mr. Lincoln, laying his hand on his shoulder, ‘aren’t you going to speak to me?’ And stooping down he took the child’s hands in his own, and looked lovingly in his face, chatting with him for some moments.”6

Mrs. Livermore also noted: “A poorly dressed, humpbacked woman approached whose face had that rare spiritual beauty often seen in connection with this deformity. Her lustrous eyes looked up almost adoringly to the Chief Magistrate, but in her humility she forebore to offer her hand. Low bowed the President to her short stature, with that heavenly look in his face…and he said something kindly in low tones to the poor cripple, that called a warm flush of gratitude to her face. It was impossible not to love the President. Awkward, homely, ungraceful, he yet found his way to all hearts, and was the recipient of more affection than any man of the nation.”7

After the Civil War, Mrs. Livermore organized the Woman Suffrage Convention in Chicago. She founded The Agitator, which she later merged into the Women’s Journal, which she edited.


  1. Wendy Hamand Venet, “The Emergence of a Suffragist: Mary Livermore, Civil War Activism, and the Moral Power of Women,” Civil War History, Volume 48, No. 2, p. 154.
  2. Mary A. Livermore, My Story of the War: Four Years Personal Experience in The Sanitary Service of the Rebellion, pp. 555-561.
  3. Venet, “The Emergence of a Suffragist: Mary Livermore, Civil War Activism, and the Moral Power of Women,” Civil War History, Volume 48, No. 2, p. 159.
  4. Livermore, My Story of the War: Four Years Personal Experience in The Sanitary Service of the Rebellion, p. 579.
  5. Livermore, My Story of the War: Four Years Personal Experience in The Sanitary Service of the Rebellion, pp. 580-581.
  6. Allen C. Clark, Abraham Lincoln in the National Capital, Journal of the Columbia Historical Society, Volume XXVII, p. 64 (The New Covenant).
  7. Livermore, My Story of the War: Four Years Personal Experience in The Sanitary Service of the Rebellion, pp. 582-583.


Lincoln by State: Chicago