May 19

This Day in History

Presidential

May 19, 1864:

Lincoln proposes equal treatment of soldiers' dependents

President Abraham Lincoln writes to anti-slavery Congressional leader Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on this day in 1864, proposing that widows and children of soldiers should be given equal treatment regardless of race.

Lincoln shared many of his friend Sumner's views on civil rights. In an unprecedented move, Lincoln allowed a black woman, the widow of a black Civil War soldier, Major Lionel F. Booth, to meet with him at the White House. Mary Booth's husband had been killed at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in April 1864 by a Confederate sniper. The massacre of African-American Union forces that followed the subsequent fall of the fort was considered one of the most brutal of the Civil War. After speaking with Mrs. Booth privately, Lincoln sat down and wrote a letter of introduction for Mrs. Booth to carry to Sumner and asked him to hear what she had to say about the hardships imposed on families of black soldiers killed or maimed in battle. The letter introduced Booth's widow and said she makes a pointwidows and children of colored soldiers who fall in our service [should receive the same] benefit of the provisions [given] to widows and orphans of white soldiers.

As a result of his meeting with Mrs. Booth, Senator Sumner influenced Congressional members in 1866 to introduce a resolution (H.R. 406, Section 13) to provide for the equal treatment of the dependents of black soldiers. According to the Library of Congress, though, there are no records that Mrs. Booth ever applied for or received a widow's pension after the bill's passage.

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