By Carla Christiano
It is one of those stories that have entered Manassas lore: “President William Howard Taft’s Wild Ride” to give a speech at the Manassas National Jubilee of Peace in 1911. Scott Harris, Executive Director of the University of Mary Washington Museums and an editorial advisor and frequent contributor to the White House Historical Association’s journal, White House History Quarterly, had served as Curator of the Manassas Museum and Director of Historic Resources for the City of Manassas and knew the story well.
As the Quarterly was planning an edition about the presidency and the South, Harris thought Taft’s eventful 30-mile, seven-hour journey would be a good fit. Although that edition was not published, his story of Taft’s adventures has been published in the latest edition entitled Behind the Scenes at the White House. “I discovered what a striking experience it was for President Taft and his traveling companions making what turned out to be a very arduous 30-mile trip out to Manassas,” said Harris.
Using eyewitness accounts and digitized newspaper stories, Harris pieced together what happened after Taft’s White Model M steamer and three other automobiles with Secret Service, politicians and reporters left Washington, D.C. “There were furious thunderstorms that came up. They turned the roads into quagmires of mud. They turned even little streams into raging torrents. Cars were getting stuck in the streams or getting stuck in the mud. They were breaking down,” said Harris.
The Peace Jubilee’s Importance to Manassas
In the article, Harris was able to bring more attention to the Peace Jubilee, which is an important event that is often overlooked. “It was a moment when the veterans of the First Battle of Manassas came together both in the city and on the battlefield site to celebrate reconciliation, reunion.” The focus was on the veterans and would predate Gettysburg’s event by two years. Some of the leading citizens who helped organize the event were in fact veterans themselves—George Carr Round had been a Union soldier and Edmund Berkeley had been a Confederate soldier.
“It was at that time, the biggest thing that had happened in Manassas since the Civil War. [In the article] there are wonderful photographs to show just how much the community embraced the whole thing. It provided an illustration of something that was a big milestone in the community,” said Harris. “In my notes in the article, I reference a couple of studies of those types of reunions and commemorations. If the reader is interested in learning more about those commemorations and how they fit into history and society, they can do so,” he said.
The Trip’s End
Taft and the others finally made it to Manassas hours late, covered in mud, looking horrible. Despite the ordeal, the president delivered his speech and even managed to crack some jokes. Taft was quoted as saying, “I am glad to be on the soil of Virginia—some of it has adhered to me. Virginia is a hospitable state. Its soil and its streams gather about you and cling to you.”
In the end, Taft opted to return to Washington, D.C. by train—his automobile adventure over.
Where to Read the Article
“President William Howard Taft’s Wild Ride” is published in the White House History Quarterly for the White House Historical Association at shop.whitehousehistory.org/collections/journals/products/behind-the-scenes-70. This issue is available to subscribers or can be purchased through the Quarterly’s website.
The White House Historical Association is a charitable nonprofit, nonpartisan institution. “It helps support the preservation of the collection of the White House and the interpretation of it as a historic site,” Harris said.
The White House’s First Automobiles
Although subsequent presidents would own automobiles, Harris discovered “Taft is really the first U.S. president to full embrace and really enjoy automobiles.” It was Taft who “got an appropriation from Congress at the very start of his administration to convert the White House stables into a garage and purchase the first fleet of official White House vehicles for them including the White Model M steamer that he used to make this trip,” Harris said. “By the president of the United States riding in cars regularly and acquiring them for the White House, that sent a signal that it was more open to the common person.”
Carla Christiano is a native of Prince William, admitted history geek and a technical writer for SAIC.