“Little Bertie” was just 11 years old when he scored a ringside seat to history.
For at least a half century before little Albert S. Pillsbury arrived in the House, young boys, known as Pages, had served as messengers and errand runners on the floor. They performed many tasks essential to making the institution run—from relaying amendments on the floor to delivering copies of debates, hauling firewood to heat the chamber, and providing creature-comforts for Members by lighting cigars, filling snuff boxes, or topping off water glasses. They also got a first-class political education, and witnessed turning-point legislative moments.
In 1862, during the 37th Congress, amidst the Civil War, Pillsbury of Chelsea, Massachusetts, joined the Page ranks, following his older brother, Elliott, who had paged from 1859 to 1862. Letters and photographs sent between the pre-teen Albert and his family recently became part of the House Collection. These letters tell the stories of ordinary and extraordinary days for a Page during a tumultuous time in U.S. history.
Like Pages in years past, Albert distributed paperwork among Members, copied speeches, and ran messages across town. He once even helped an inebriated Senator James McDougall of California get home after he fell off his horse after overindulging during an afternoon recess. Albert later recounted the story to his mother, writing, “He didn’t know what he was saying he was so drunk.” Although most of Albert’s letters to his mother are updates on his daily life, such as how often he was brushing his teeth and requests for new blue pants for his Page uniform, some letters remind us that he was no average 11-year-old boy. Wartime Washington exposed young Albert to the effects of the Civil War—hospitals overflowed with injured soldiers, General Burnside’s troops marched through the streets, and embalming businesses filled Pennsylvania Avenue. On January 31, 1865, the day the House passed the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, Albert wrote:
My Dear Mother,
The vote was taken upon the amendment to the Constitution this afternoon, two-thirds having voted for it, it passed. When the speaker announced that it had passed everybody in the galleries cheered, waved their handkerchiefs, the members hurrahed, threw up their hats, threw up books, papers, anything they could lay their hands upon just then. The galleries were completely white with the waving of handkerchiefs; they were crowded to a jam. I never saw such thundering applause before since I have been here.
To remember this historic day, Albert obtained his own copy of the text of the 13th Amendment, and had it signed by all the Congressmen who supported it. After President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated that same year, Albert was present as the nation’s leaders grieved. From his rented room across from Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot, Albert wrote to his mother that George Bancroft, Secretary of the Navy, was to deliver a eulogy to a Joint Session of Congress, 10 months after President Lincoln’s death. Once again, Albert witnessed history as it happened.
In 1867, Albert concluded his service as a Page. During five years on the floor of the House Chamber, Albert looked on as Members celebrated victories and struggled with tragedies. His letters—spanning his personal transition from adolescence to near-adulthood—provide new perspectives on the unfolding of everyday life and history-making events in the capital, as the divided nation made its own way from war to reunion.
Sources: Letter from House Page Albert Pillsbury to his Mother, Elizabeth Pillsbury, April 30, 1864, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gift of Mrs. Kathleen Rutledge, 2015.100.016; Letter from House Page Albert Pillsbury to his Mother, Elizabeth Pillsbury, January 31, 1865, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gift of Mrs. Kathleen Rutledge, 2015.100.018.
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