Friday, May 8, 2015

A 1915 Spring in Washington

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the Lusitania. You heard about the tragic deaths that resulted in this attack, but how about another view? Director Robert Enholm at the President Woodrow Wilson House explains what was happening in President Woodrow Wilson's life during this tragedy.

The azaleas and dogwoods are abloom as spring erupts across Washington, D.C.

President Wilson’s wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, had died in the White House that previous summer, the very week that the German Empire invaded Belgium to commence the “Great War.” The fall and winter were hard as Wilson dealt with his personal grief and witnessed the growing tragedy of the global war and strained to keep the United States out of the cataclysm.

The arrival of springtime is always greeted with a smile in Washington, and it must have been especially so for President Wilson in 1915. The longer days and bright flowers were accompanied by a personal turn of events: The President had fallen in love! In late March, through serendipitous circumstances, President Wilson had been introduced to a Washington widow named Edith Bolling Galt. They fell for each other immediately.

The circumstances for this budding romance were difficult. How does a sitting President woo a lady in the early twentieth century? There were no tweets or email. Telephones were still novel, and telephone conversations were not confidential. Prevailing rules of decorum prevented the couple from even meeting together without a chaperon.

The answer in 1915 was handwritten letters. Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling Galt commenced a flurry of romantic correspondence, much of which has survived to the modern day.

Mr. Woodrow Wilson and Edith Wilson
on their Wedding Day in 1916
President Woodrow Wilson House
President Woodrow Wilson even sent a letter on the day that the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo. The passenger ocean liner on her way from New York to Liverpool sank in 18 minutes. Nearly 1,200 died, 127 of them Americans.

Many thought the sinking of the Lusitania would plunge the United States immediately into The Great War. Instead, it took two years, until April 1917, before President Wilson sought a declaration of war.

President Wilson relied on diplomacy in responding to the Lusitania sinking. His love for Edith Bolling Galt surely provided emotional strength to him in this time. By Sunday, May 9, President Wilson was writing to her:

“My love for you passes current expression. I need you. … Do you think it an accident that we found one another at this time of my special need and that it meant nothing that we found each other so immediately and so joyously? … I hope that you will be thinking of me to-night. I shall be working on my speech for to-morrow and on our note to Germany. Every sentence of both would be freighted with greater force and meaning if I could feel that your mind and heart were keeping me company!” 
-(The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Arthur Link, ed., vol. 33, 1980) 


It was an amazing spring in Washington.
-Director Robert Enholm

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