Hannibal Hamlin

(30 Jan 1809 - 13 Nov 1862)

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Photo of Hamlin's tombstone at Congressional Cemetery.
Hannibal Hamlin, cousin of Lincoln's first vice president, was a founder and first president of the National Freedman's Relief Association of DC. The Association raised money and managed the distribution of goods and services to destitute contrabands arriving in the city. His colleagues attributed his early death to illness contracted while assisting contrabands at Fortress Monroe. Hannibal Hamlin, is interred in Congressional Cemetery at Range 64 Site 75.

Hannibal's grandfather, Eleazer Hamlin, was a Revolutionary War hero and was well read on the history of war. When his twin sons were born in 1769 he named them Hannibal and Cyrus in honor of the Carthaginian and Persian generals. Hannibal, son of Hannibal and subject of this essay, was born January 30, 1809. Hannibal, son of Cyrus, was born 8 months later. Throughout their childhoods the two families lived only a few miles apart in southwestern Maine. The cousins met frequently. Hannibal, son of Cyrus, went into politics, served many years in the U.S. Congress and was chosen as President Lincoln's first Vice President.

Hannibal, son of Hannibal was just 2 years old when his father died. Hannibal (sr.) left his wife and 4 surviving children a comfortable house and a small farm. Susannah, his wife, managed the farm well, and expected much of her children both in academics and labor on the farm. As soon as he was old enough, Hannibal took over managing the farm which he did until his mother died in 1840. At that time he moved his young family to Union, Maine where he set up shop as a merchant. In 1842 he removed to Boston where he remained until 1861. He continued in business as a merchant for several years. The 1850 census lists his occupation as “Provisions”. The city directories of 1852 and 1853 list him as a clerk in the Post Office, and from 1855 to 1861 he is listed as an agent for the American and then the New England Mutual Life Insurance Co.

Little is known of Hannibal's middle years other than the information found in the census and city directories. In his autobiography, Cyrus, Hannibal's brother, wrote that in 1830 he and his brother played a leading role in establishing the Total Abstinence Society of Waterford. Cyrus wrote of his brother: “He was very conscientious and independent. He dared to do right.” It is known that the family was deeply religious and devout Congregationalists. Hannibal is remembered in a family history as “a man of exemplary Christian character, with literary tastes and modest nature. ”. The obituary that appeared in the Boston Recorder adds that “He was an occasional contributor to the Recorder.”

Hannibal's duties in managing the farm prevented his obtaining a college education, but he was well read. Rev. Lyman Abbott wrote of his father-in-law: “He was a man of fine literary taste and good literary judgment, and was a natural but kindly and sympathetic critic. With a literary education, he would have admirably filled an editorial position on a weekly or monthly publication.“

No direct evidence has as yet been found to show that Hannibal participated in the anti-slavery movement in Boston, but a tribute at his death refers to “his well known sympathy with the oppressed colored race, and . . . his extensive acquaintance with those who are interested in their welfare.” The death notice that appeared in the Boston Herald states that he was well known in Boston. His family was clearly anti-slavery and well connected with others of the same sentiment. His younger brother, Cyrus, as a theological student at Bowdoin, was well informed on current trends in the anti-slavery movement. Cyrus and Benjamin Tappan, jr., second cousin of Arthur and Lewis Tappan, chose to share a room during their final years at the seminary. Hannibal's cousin, the future Vice President, had been a prominent opponent of the extension of slavery from the time he was first elected to Congress. As VP he had little authority but he urged the Emancipation Proclamation and the enlistment of African Americans in the military. Hannibal's son-in-law, Rev. Lyman Abbott was a protege and successor of Henry Ward Beecher and expressed his anti-slavery feelings in his autobiograhy. Later he served as general secretary of the American Freedmen's Union Commission.

By 1861, Hannibal no longer had any strong family ties in Boston. His wife had died in 1857, his daughter had married Rev. Abbott in the same year and was living in Indiana, and his son, who was studying to be a minister of the Congregational church, was also residing in Indiana. His financial condition was poor as evidenced by his son-in-law who wrote of his wedding day that “we were married on the 14th day of October, 1857, at her home in Waverley, Massachusetts. . . . The house was heavily encumbered and was to be sold. “ Later he wrote: “he [Hannibal] was not fitted for a business life in the fierce competition of his time.”

In March 1861, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine was inaugurated Vice President of the United States. It is likely he used his influence with Salmon P. Chase to obtain a position for his cousin, Hannibal of Boston, in the Treasury Department which, under Secretary of the Treasury Chase, had become a “hotbed” of republican sentiment. Hannibal is listed in the U.S. Official Register (vol. 1861) as a clerk working in the 3rd Auditor's Office, earning $1,400 per year.

By early April 1862 it was generally believed that President Lincoln would sign the bill to emancipate the slaves living in the District. Already freedom seekers from Virginia and Maryland were arriving in large numbers in the hope of obtaining freedom and seeking work in the military units occupying the city. Republican citizens began discussing means for providing food and clothing to the refugees and preparing them for freedom. In late March/early April Hannibal Hamlin served as chairman of a committee to discuss the formation of the National Freedman's Relief Association (NFRA) of D.C. The group met on April 9th to formalize the organization. They elected Hannibal as its first President. Given his literary talents, Hannibal most likely wrote the document declaring the objectives of the association. It states, in part:

     “A new state of things exists in this community, and important events seen to be rapidly approaching. The blessings of freedom are springing up in the path of a war of rebellion and treason. The contrabands in this District are already numerous, and their numbers are constantly increasing, as others come in from the adjacent rebel State of Virginia, some fleeing from rebel masters to avoid being sent further South; others escaping from the want and privation now being so severely felt on those portions of the country devastated by the rebels themselves, or by contending armies.
     They are of both sexes and of all ages, from the tender infant to men and women grown gray and feeble in Slavery. They flee to this District in all the wretchedness and poverty incident to their former condition as chattels, hungry and in rags, their whole appearance piteously appealing for succor. Ignorant of the world, long trained to concealment and deception, they are fearful of every white face until assured of sympathy and kindness.
     It is a work of true philanthropy and christian benevolence to relieve the wants and educate the minds of this people – children of that God who 'hath made of one blood all nations of men;' and for this purpose this Association has been formed.”

The executive committee, consisting of the 4 officers and 5 managers, met weekly to transact business and set priorities. In the first year the Association raised $1,830.42, $500 of which was received from the Education Commission of Boston. This contribution may well have been the result of Hannibal calling upon his friends in Boston. In addition to his position at the Treasury, Hannibal found time to visit Fortress Monroe in late summer of 1862 to see what could be done for the contrabands situated there. As a result of what he observed there and in Washington, he contacted other acquaintances to request assistance. Two such letters are documented in Quaker periodicals.

In the letter to the Women's Aid Committee of Friends of Philadelphia in May 1862, he wrote:

     “The sick have as yet, had no cotton sheets or clothing. The heat of the weather absolutely requires it, and our physicians say it must be supplied. We have already done something and are still doing. Among other articles, we need as soon as possible 100 plain cotton sheets, 50 shirts for the sick, 50 pair of drawers, 50 night-gowns for women, girls and children, 50 cotton pillow cases. The articles named are but a small part of what we need, but our benevolent friends in other cities are aiding us, and we ask you to join with them.
     I visited our hospital last evening and saw a poor man dying, whom his master had beaten nearly to death. Some good Samaritan found him, put him in a wagon and brought him to this city and to our rooms. His flesh wounds were terrible, but he was injured internally about the chest . . . I presume he died during the night.”