Americans have been marking Veterans Day to commemorate the wartime sacrifices made by members of the U.S. Armed Forces ever since the first anniversary of the November 11, 1918 end of World War I ended, what was once called “Armistice Day.”
First Ladies, however, have been focusing their attention on not just war veterans and active members of the military, whether serving in wartime or not, since the inception of the U.S. Presidency. During the first century of the presidency, a number of First Ladies had a general interest with those who served in the American Revolution, War of 1812, Mexican War, Civil War and Spanish-American War. Two of them had an especially strong bond with veterans.
In fact, the very title of “First Lady” may owe something to the attachment formed between American Revolutionary soldiers and the wife of the first president, dating back to the time he led colonial American troops in the war for independence from England.
All through the American Revolution, Martha Washington determined to live in camp with her husband during his winter military campaigns as he led the Continental Army into battling the British “redcoat” troops sent across the Atlantic to prevent the colonists from becoming an independent nation.
Her most famous winter was the legendary one at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where soldiers were exposed to the bitter winter snow, ice and frigid temperatures without enough clothing to protect them or enough food to eat.
Martha Washington made the rounds of the sick tents, doing what she could to keep the men alive with rudimentary medicinal foods and broths, and spending her time organizing clothing drives among village women.
When a wealthy group of Philadelphia women came to call on her one day, they found her dressed in simple clothes, as if a servant, working at making clothing and encouraging them to follow suit.
Her devotion to the Continental Army won her their respect and admiration and they soon began to call her “Lady Washington,” as if she were an American version of a British noblewoman.
The unofficial title was the one that would be used by the general public after her husband was unanimously made President in 1789. Referring to a presidential spouse as “Lady,” rather than “Mrs.” seemed to especially designate their unique status even among other powerful women and the custom seems to be the derivation of the title “First Lady” still in use today.
Along the route Martha Washington journeyed from her home in Virginia to the first capital city of New York, she was saluted and cheered by Revolutionary veterans, often with an “All hail Lady Washington!”
Once established in the series of presidential mansions she would occupy with the President, Martha Washington let it be known that any Revolutionary War veteran who was indigent, physically ill or in any other way suffering were always welcome to see her. While largely anecdotal, the claim that was repeatedly made was that the First Lady would strive to personally aide the veteran or turn to someone with greater resources who could help them.
During the John Adams Administration when there was fear the fledgling nation might engage itself in war with France, local militia groups began organizing in preparation. Abigail Adams, a strident advocate seeking to influence her husband in declaring such a war, became especially concerned with the potential military that would meet an enemy nation.
During one of her lengthy stagecoach journeys from the then-capital city of Philadelphia to her home in Quincy, Massachusetts, Mrs. Adams stopped in New Jersey to formally review a militia group that had formed there and named itself the “Lady Adams Rangers” in her honor.
In the end, President Adams resisted the exhortations of his wife and others and kept the U.S. out of war, but his First Lady’s troop review was the first known ceremonial role assumed by a presidential spouse on behalf of servicemen.
Honored to attend one of First Lady Dolley Madison’s famous open house “Wednesday crushes” receptions, a sailor, who had been on a ship along the American eastern seaboard which battled the British during the War of 1812
Sarah Polk was First Lady during the Mexican War and on one occasion, when a private serving with the U.S. Army traveled from the fighting on the Rio Grande to Washington, D.C. and appeared at a reception she was hosting, she stopped all the chatter and socializing, calling the attention of her guests so all could listen as the man gave a first-hand account of the fighting.
Although by the time her husband, future President and General Zachary Taylor was leading troops into battle during the Mexican War, Peggy Taylor was no longer living in camp with him as she had done during his entire military career, she remained especially concerned with the well-being of those stationed near their permanent home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
In all the forts where her husband had been stationed, Peggy Taylor did her best to ensure all the officers and soldiers with whom she shared the primitive living spaces and rough conditions. Now, in Baton Rouge, she also oversaw the planting and harvesting of a large vegetable garden so fresh produce was available to them and also looked after their spiritual sustenance, working to establish a nearby Episcopalian chapel.
So little is known about the remote Mrs. Taylor’s tenure as First Lady that it is unclear whether she made herself available to those Mexican War veterans who came to see her husband in the White House; her history of concern for them, however, would suggest she well might have.
Despite having brothers, brothers-in-law and half-brothers who fought in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Mary Lincoln devoted her loyalties to the Union Army, led by her husband President Abraham Lincoln.
During her tenure, Mrs. Lincoln was surrounded by soldiers, dozens of them stationed in the White House itself. She was a regular visitor to the Union Army hospitals in the region, and also frequently sent them gifts of food, such as oranges to prevent scurvy and hampers of wine which were not used for White House entertaining.
While Mary Lincoln’s tragic widowhood, following her husband’s assassination, is well-chronicled what remains unknown is to what degree she interacted with Union Army Civil War veterans.
Perhaps no First Lady in the first century of the presidency was as devoted as Martha Washington had been to veterans as was Lucy Hayes.
She herself had been on battlefields of the Civil War, there to join her husband, General Rutherford Hayes and worked as a nurse in a field hospital. Becoming a strong maternal figure to all the young men under his command, she was soon dubbed “Mother Lucy.”
Civil War veterans and their families were an especial focus for Mrs. Hayes while her husband was serving as governor of Ohio and she helped to establish a home for those left orphaned by the war. In the White House, Lucy Hayes continued to focus not only on veterans aid organizations but individual veterans who might be ill or unemployed and who desperately needed some support.
One day, she was even found sitting on the floor sewing and repairing some articles of clothing for an aging vet who otherwise had no kind of help.
Among those Civil War veterans who regularly joined the frequent reunions of the Union Army division led by Hayes was future President William McKinley, who was often joined by his wife Ida. As a teenager during the Civil War, Ida McKinley had aided her mother who was the Canton, Ohio leader of the women’s voluntary organization which provided supplies to local divisions at the front.
She also organized a massive welcoming in Canton for the tens of thousands of Ohio Union Army veterans who gathered there in 1880 for a large reunion.
It was during her husband’s presidency that Ida McKinley became a wartime First Lady herself.
Following the President’s declaration of war with Spain in 1898, his First Lady insisted on joining him as he visited the large training camps in Virginia, and Pennsylvania, despite the fact that her compromised immune system would make her especially vulnerable there to infections and viruses.
On occasion, Mrs. McKinley interceded on behalf of friends and family members who either wanted in or out of military service.
She also headed up a fundraising theater event intended to raise funds for a memorial to those sailors killed on the Maine, which had explored in Havana Harbor and prompted her husband to declare the Spanish-American War.
Following the assassination of her husband in September of 1901, Ida McKinley retreated to her home in Canton, Ohio. Although she received very few members of the public who were unknown to her, she let it be known that not only Civil War but Spanish-American War veterans were always encouraged to pay a call on the presidential widow.