Lincoln's Last Friend in Muskegon, Michigan
Updated: Aug 24
Note: When I originally wrote this article, I had hoped to soon be able to visit the Fort Reno site, which is now a city park and part of the National Park Service's Civil War Defenses of Washington driving tour. Five years later, I finally made that visit. There are only two reasons to visit the "park"—really more of a green space. 1. You are a die hard Civil War buff. 2. One of your ancestors served there. Many of the other sites on the driving tour are more interesting, including Fort Foote, which I wrote about in David Stevenson's Civil War.
Fact checking family traditions can be pretty simple, especially when they are related to well-documented events. Several family traditions surround the Civil War military service of my great-great-great-grandfather, William Wallace Davey (if you care to know, he is my father's father's mother's mother's father) the validity of which I've been curious about for some time. I recently took several hours to see what I could uncover.
Davey was born in Bellville, Richland County, Ohio, on September 25, 1842, the third of eight children. Apparently my own grandfather, Alson Pusey, never took the time and effort to verify this information. Grandpa claimed that Davey was the youngest of three brothers who, when the Civil War started, all joined the Union army. According to Grandpa, Davey was under age so he lied about his age in order to join. However, checking birth and military records show that of all the brothers (there were four), William Wallace Davey was the eldest. And when he enlisted on May 2, 1864, in Company D of the 163rd Ohio Infantry Regiment, he was actually 21 years old. Not under age at all. He's also the only one of the brothers with a Civil War military record, although his father, George Davey served in the western theater with the 64th Regiment Ohio Infantry at the ripe old age of 51. Perhaps family lore confused George, the father, with William's younger brother Joseph George who would have been underage if he had attempted to join the army.
According to Helen Wollersheim, Davey was stationed in Washington, DC, during the Civil War and became personally acquainted with Abraham Lincoln. Wollersheim claims, he often shared his memories of Lincoln's striking posture and determination to end slavery in the United States. When Davey died in 1921, his obituary in the Muskegon Chronicle (Michigan) also claimed he was the last "friend of Abraham Lincoln" in Muskegon County. In addition, Wollersheim claims that Davey, when a soldier, slept on the floor of the Capitol Building. These claims are difficult to substantiate, but seem highly unlikely.
Union troops were famously housed in the United States Capitol Building for a short time in the spring of 1861 before adequate accommodations were constructed. As Davey did not enlist until three years later, and when the 163rd arrived in Washington, DC, on May 13, 1864, they were assigned to Fort Reno, one of the many forts ringing the District of Columbia in order to protect that nation's capital, it is impossible to believe Davey ever slept in the Capitol Building. The regiment stayed only until June 8, 1864, when at Grant's demand it was among the troops pulled from Washington's defense to join the army at Petersburg, Virginia.
During its little more than three months of service, the regiment saw duty in tidewater Virginia at White House, Bermuda Hundred, Point of Rocks (June 12), along the Petersburg and Richmond Railroad (where there was a skirmish on June 15), Wilson's Landing (June 16), and along the James River.
So could Davey have met Lincoln anywhere?
Not likely at Fort Reno. In July, after the regiment had already left, Lincoln visited nearby Fort Stevens when Confederate troops came close to that fort. The alarm was raised first at Fort Reno when lookouts there discovered the Confederates approaching. But most of the action happened at Fort Stevens and that is where Lincoln went to watch. It is possible, but not likely, that Davey could have seen Lincoln in Washington, DC, as they passed through or during any leave time soldiers were given. But there is no way to document this.
A more probable opportunity for Davey to have seen, but probably not met, Lincoln was during the president's June 20-23, 1864, visit to Grant in the James River area. During this visit, Lincoln traveled from Grant's headquarters at City Point (Hopewell, Virginia) up the James River, visiting fortifications at Bermuda Hundred and then Point of Rocks on the Appomattox River in the vicinity of today's Chester, Virginia. According to the regimental history, the 163rd was conducting reconnaissance along the west side of the James River during this time, although specific locations are not mentioned.
By the end of August 1865, the regiment returned to Camp Chase, Ohio, and Davey, who had been transferred to Company K at some point, was mustered out on September 10, 1865.
Ironically, it is great great-grandfather, David Stevenson (my father's mother's father's father) who is more likely to have encountered Abraham Lincoln in person. Stevenson enlisted in the 9th Regiment New York Heavy Artillery on January 26, 1863. Like Davey, Stevenson was also 21 years old. Originally named the 138th when the regiment formed at Auburn, New York, on September 8, 1862, the 9th was renamed in December of that year while on garrison duty in Washington. The 9th helped build and garrison Forts Mansfield, Bayard, Gaines, and Foote. It was during this time that Stevenson would have joined the regiment. The regiment later saw action when it was called south in May 1864. What is more unusual though is that the regiment's lieutenant colonel and later full colonel was William H. Seward, Jr., son of the secretary of state. While garrisoned in Washington, DC, the secretary of state is reported to have frequently visited the regiment, sometimes in the company of the president.
Lisa Saunders: New York 9th Heavy Artillery