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The Charge of the Pierce Brigade : Group Strives to Rescue the Reputation of 14th President

Charles Hillinger's America

November 18, 1988|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

CONCORD, N.H. — They call themselves the Pierce Brigade.

Once a month for the last 22 years, these 25 women have been getting together "to rescue the reputation" of Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, who served from 1853 to 1857.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 11, 1988 Home Edition View Part 6 Page 15 Column 4 View Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Due to an editing error, a Nov. 18 story about the Pierce Brigade misstated the location of Bowdoin College. Bowdoin is located in Brunswick, Me.

Most historians rate Pierce as one of the most inept Presidents ever to occupy the White House. In addition to running an inefficient Administration, he was blamed for waffling on the slavery issue, pulling the North and South even further apart, and bungling an attempt to purchase Cuba from Spain.

But brigade members like to emphasize the positives about Pierce's presidency.

"History has been most unkind to this man, considering the problems of his time," said Iyla Bonnecaze, 82, a brigade founder and curator of Concord's Franklin Pierce Manse. "He was, in fact, as good a President as anyone could be.

"Franklin Pierce was New Hampshire's only native son to make it to the White House. Most people in this state, like nearly all Americans, know very little if anything about him," said Bonnecaze, a retired teacher.

Margaret Gesen, 75, widow of Rear Adm. Carl Gesen and treasurer of the Pierce Brigade, said her daughter married a descendant of one of Pierce's brothers but "the family never acknowledged the relationship until just recently when the Pierce Brigade convinced them they had nothing to be ashamed of."

Son of a New Hampshire governor, Franklin Pierce was 24 when he was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Five years later he became speaker, the youngest person ever to hold that office.

He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate from New Hampshire. Novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, Pierce's classmate at Bowdoin College in Missouri, campaigned for his close friend when he ran for President. Hawthorne wrote: "He has in him many of the chief elements of a great ruler. He is deep, deep, deep." Pierce later appointed Hawthorne consul to Liverpool, England.

Pierce's opponent in the presidential election was Gen. Winfield Scott of the Whig Party. Pierce was "shallow, shallow, shallow," maintained the Whigs, who also spread rumors that Pierce was an alcoholic.

He was 47 when elected President. He and his wife, Jane Appleton Pierce, had three sons. The first son died when he was 3 days old and the second died of typhus at age 2. Their third son, Benny, was 11 when a train he was on with his parents derailed and tumbled down an embankment. President and Mrs. Pierce were not hurt but looked on in horror as the top of their son's head was sliced off.

His death put a cloud over the inauguration two months later and over Pierce's presidency. Mrs. Pierce did not attend the inauguration, nor was there an inaugural ball. In his spontaneous inaugural address, President Pierce began by expressing grief for his son: "It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself."

Pierce was described as a brooding, melancholy President. His wife remained in mourning and seclusion, wearing black throughout his presidency. Some called her the Ghost of the White House. Many of the letters she wrote Benny after his death still exist.

Pierce Manse was destined for demolition when the Brigade bought the home, restored it and decorated it with family furnishings and memorabilia, including the President's White House desk, a favorite sofa, and the hat he wore at his inauguration.

"The Pierce Brigade is a very persistent bunch of women," said Doug Scamman, 46, a dairy farmer and speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives. He noted the brigade worked 15 years to get Pierce's portrait moved from an obscure corner in the House to a place of prominence behind the speaker's dais.

Another brigade project is to persuade the Navy to name a ship after the 14th President.

The Brigade has 135 dues-paying members ($25 a year), but only about 25 show up for the monthly meetings at the Pierce Manse.

"Each month everyone at the meeting is expected to have a nugget about Pierce's life to share. A recent nugget of mine was that Franklin Pierce was the first President ever to sail on a U.S. Navy ship while in office," Gesen said.

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