Friday, August 13, 2010

Montgomery Blair’s Wine Cellar saves the Capital and the Union

I have recently been doing research at the Library of Congress on an issue that intrigues me when I came across two photographs which sent me on an historical frolic and detour to verify the truth of an old family story about Montgomery Blair's wine cellar, Jubal Early and the fate of the Capital.

Montgomery Blair was the eldest of Francis Preston Blair's four children. Born in Franklin County, Ky., Montgomery graduated from West Point in 1835. Having studied law in St. Louis, Mo., he became a U.S. attorney for that state and in 1842 at the age of 29, became the mayor of St. Louis.

Blair moved to Washington, D.C. in 1852, establishing his residence at Blair House, located on Pennsylvania Avenue diagonally across from the White House. In 1857 Blair served as counsel in the case of slave Dred Scott. Scott wanted to sue in federal court for his freedom and that of his wife after their master had moved them to Missouri, then free territory. (The case, argued before the Supreme Court, failed.)

Blair later served as President Abraham Lincoln's U.S. Postmaster General from 1861 to 1864. During his term Blair originated prepaid postage, free mail delivery in cities, money orders, and railway postal cars. In other words, he was the father of the 19th Century Internet and Modern Banking.

Two years after moving to Washington, Blair began construction of his summer estate in 1854 on land adjoining that of his father, Francis Preston Blair. Located just over a quarter of a mile to the northwest, Blair named his mansion “Falkland”. Built on a tree-covered hill, the front entrance faced north towards the present-day intersection of Colesville Road and East-West Highway.

On the afternoon of July 11, 1864, Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early sat astride his horse outside the gates of Fort Stevens in the upper Northwestern fringe of Washington, D.C. The 47-year-old Confederate, a veteran of Antietam, Gettysburg, the Wilderness and countless other fights, was about to make one of the Civil War's most portentous decisions: whether or not to order his 10,000 veteran troops to invade the United States capital.

He and his men were camped at Montgomery Blair’s Falkland estate. While Early considered his options his troops looted Blair’s wine cellar. Drunken soldiers ransacked the house, strewing papers and women’s clothing in their wake. Montgomery’s home, Falkland, was burned down. (See Photo above, double click for enlarged view).

As a result of the drunken delay, the Sixth Massachusetts arrived in Washington and immediately fortified Fort Stevens. A battled ensured at Fort Stevens and President Lincoln arrived to support the troops. As President Lincoln climbed the ramparts, a surgeon next to him was hit by a Confederate sharpshooter from 1000 yards away – making him the only President to face enemy fire.

Several people took credit for telling the President to take cover, including future Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Aunt Betty – the freed black slave whose house was demolished to make way for Fort Stevens. He did so but stayed to watch as the Union reinforcements were finally ordered over the walls to chase the enemy north.

Jubal Early and his troops were beaten back and they left the next day for Richmond.

Montgomery Blair's loss of his summer home proves the adage that no good deed goes unpunished. He would suffer through-out his life for representing Dred Scott.


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