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Biden and Buchanan, the Two Presidents With PA Roots

Only two presidents were born in Pennsylvania: Joe Biden and James Buchanan. And despite 160 years between the time they served, the two Democratic residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have a surprising amount in common.

And that’s not necessarily good news.

First, the obvious differences: Buchanan remained a lifelong Pennsylvanian, while Biden’s family moved from Scranton to Delaware when he was 13. And Buchanan is the only bachelor to serve as president, while Biden relies heavily, according to media reports, on his wife, Dr. Jill Biden.

But they also have similarities, too. Both were senators before becoming president. Both saw their popularity wane while in office. Buchanan pledged during his campaign to only serve one term. Many voters originally believed Joe Biden was only seeking a single term as well.

“Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” Biden said at a 2020 rally. Biden was already 77 years old at the time. Instead, he now wants to serve until 2029, at which time he would be 86 years old.

J. Mark Powell, author of the popular nationally syndicated “Holy Cow! History” column, said, “Historians often rank Buchanan as the worst president of all. And with good reason. When you allow the country to come apart on your watch, it doesn’t get any worse than that. It was the very definition of failure.”

“Apart from both being born in Pennsylvania, the closer you look at them, the more the two have in common,” said Powell. “Their last names both start with a B, both were Democrats, and both were highly unpopular presidents. Each was elected by voters who believed they would ease tensions in the country, yet divisions only deepened during their administrations. And in the final analysis, each did not live up to popular expectations.”

In fact, one notable difference is that while Buchanan failed to find common ground to bring Americans together during the debate over slavery, Biden has rejected the premise of national unity. Instead, he went to Philadelphia in 2022 to deliver a speech declaring former President Donald Trump and his “MAGA” supporters a threat to democracy. Biden said millions of Americans are “extremists” who don’t love America.

Buchanan didn’t even say that about southerners who were threatening to secede from the Union.

Arcadia University history Professor James Paradis said, “The one thing that stands out to me is the difference in attitude of the two presidents as they ended their first term. Both of them faced the problems of leading a strongly and passionately divided nation. Both of them, fairly or not, were also blamed for the economic difficulties of their times. Buchanan had to deal with the Panic of 1857 and, for Biden, a painful inflation rate.”

“With the nation splitting in two as his term approached its end, Buchanan looked forward to stepping down from the presidency. When Abraham Lincoln came to Washington to succeed him, Buchanan reportedly confided to Lincoln, ‘Sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed,’” Paradis said.

“For Biden, on the other hand, in spite of the pressures that he faces and the lukewarm support he is receiving from his own party for reelection, his desire for reelection seems unabated,” Paradis said.

Born in 1791 near Mercersburg, Buchanan studied at Dickinson College, passed the bar, and practiced law in Lancaster. Biden graduated from Syracuse University Law School, returned to Delaware, and served on the New Castle County Council. At 29, he became one of the youngest people ever elected to the U.S. Senate.

Buchanan served in the military during the War of 1812. Biden received deferments from military service during the Vietnam War for asthma.

Buchanan was elected to the state legislature in 1814 and continued his political career in Congress, serving as a representative and then a senator.

He was ambassador to Russia and Great Britain and did a stint as secretary of state.

Buchanan ran for president without winning three times before the Democrats tapped him in 1856 because of his reputation as someone who could find common ground.

Biden also ran for president unsuccessfully in 1988 and 2008 before obtaining the office in 2020. He had served as vice president for President Barack Obama from 2009 through 2016.

Shortly after Buchanan took office, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the infamous Dred Scott decision, which upheld slavery. Despite being a northerner, Buchanan favored it. He believed slavery was morally wrong but felt the issue should be decided by the states, not the federal government.

In 1858, Congress was divided among northern and southern Democrats and Republicans. The Panic of 1857 and John Brown’s antislavery raid on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry added to the turmoil. Amid all the division, Abraham Lincoln led the nascent Republican Party to victory in 1860.

But, angered by Lincoln’s election, South Carolina and other states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America, leading to the Civil War.

In his final months in office, Buchanan tried to compromise with the secessionists. He remained somewhat passive, and some modern historians criticize him for not acting more firmly to quash the rebellion. However, at that time, presidents waited for Congress to weigh in rather than acting themselves, said Powell.

In a letter that is part of Powell’s collection of historical correspondence, Lewis S. Coryell, a 72-year-old successful businessman, and member of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party in New Hope, who was an active Buchanan supporter, praised him at the height of the secession crisis during Buchanan’s final 90 days in office.

Coryell wrote on Jan. 14, 1861: “Mr. Buchanan has, with a view to conciliation to avoid violence, practiced the most masterly inactivity. History will assign a proud page to his merits.” That was not to be the case.

“One last similarity remains to be seen. Buchanan was a one-term president,” said Powell. “We won’t know until November if Biden will add that to the list of things they shared.”

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HOLY COW! HISTORY: When Soldiers Traded Swords for Snowballs

The Bible speaks of beating swords into plowshares. More than 160 years ago, soldiers in the American Civil War briefly gave up guns for another weapon, courtesy of Mother Nature.

Before we delve too deep into this story, it’s important to understand that men on both sides of the battle spent most of their enlistment in army camps. Looking at the old photos from the war, it seems almost idyllic now. Glistening white canvas tents, fresh country air, green grass and trees all around. But as is so often the case, the reality was quite different.

Camp life was a case study in mind-numbing monotony. Wake up, fall in for roll call, maybe spend an hour in drills, perhaps pass another hour cleaning your gun and equipment. And that was it. Seven days a week with no interruption, sometimes for months. Remember, too, the majority of the troops were young guys in their late teens and 20s, an age group that considers inactivity a personal insult.

As one twentysomething Federal wrote to his girlfriend, “The talk here is that we will have a battle before too long. The sooner we do, the better, for I am mighty tired of staying here penned up in camp.”

Nature delivered a welcome distraction in the first days of February 1862, and Henry Seymour Lansing spotted an opportunity to shake up camp life’s tedious routine.

A big, burly man just days shy of turning 38, he was the colonel in command of the 17th New York Infantry. When northern Virginia was blanketed by more than a foot of fresh snow, he had an idea that could give his men a little excitement.

In a letter home, George Westfall, a private in Company D, described what happened next.

“The colonel got the men out on Monday morning and had us roll snowballs and build a snow fort. They worked all morning. In the afternoon, he had the men divided into two parties and put one party in the fort and the other party outside of the fort. There were eight hundred out in the whole besides the officers, and they had all them snowballs and were to see which party would whip the other.

“I was in the party outside the fort. We whipped the other party and drew them out of the fort. I got one black eye and was glad to get off with just that. It was the biggest snowball fight I ever saw. It was in the Washington papers the next day.”

Watching 800 men go at each other with snowballs was quite a spectacle. Word of the welcome diversion spread to other New York regiments, which soon hosted mock battles. In some cases, entire regiments attacked one another. The Sunday Dispatch newspaper in New York City carried this brief article on Feb. 23:

“SHAM BATTLES—The soldiers in Virginia have been amusing themselves with a snowball fight. A correspondent sends an account of one between the 31st and 32nd New York regiments on Feb. 4th, which lasted two hours and resulted in the victory of the latter. The 31st had their colonel taken prisoner by the 32nd and, despite every effort, failed to rescue him.”

Southerners also got in on the fun. Snow was a novelty to soldiers from the Deep South, who especially relished playing in it. A year later, South Carolinians serving in Virginia waded through the white stuff to take on their comrades in arms from Alabama and Mississippi in a sport the men called “snowballing.”

The Mother of All Snowball Battles was fought by the South the following year. An especially heavy late winter snowfall covered Dalton, Ga., in late March 1864.

On the 22nd, a handful of soldiers were horsing around in it. Someone dared a young Tennessee private named J.W. Mewborn to see if he could throw a snowball over a small creek. He did — hitting a Georgian in the back. Unamused, the Peach State warrior promptly patted out a snowball of his own and fired back.

Snowballs were rapidly rolled and lobbed. Friends on both sides ran over and jumped into the action as the fighting escalated. Officers rushed up to take command with battle flags unfurled, bugles blaring, and drums pounding.

The battle eventually had snowballs flying between 6,000 men stretched out for over two miles in a division strength contest that lasted all day. As often happens when roughhousing gets out of control, dozens of soldiers were sent to the hospital with injuries. In an army already desperately deficient in troops, such needless losses could not be tolerated. The Confederate high command issued an order the next day, essentially saying, “Knock it off!”

Still smaller, less dramatic snowball fights continued through the war’s final winter in 1865. Proving then as now the truth in the old saying, “Boys will be boys.”

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HOLY COW! HISTORY: A Brother’s Wedding Rescue

The requirements are simple for a bride on her wedding day. They are so simple, in fact, children can recite them. Before heading down the aisle, she needs:

“Something old,

something new;

something borrowed,

something blue.”

But what about the groom? What should he have? Believe it or not, having a prosthetic limb handy can be a good idea. That’s the moral of an oddly-inspiring story from the Civil War.

That conflict is often called “The Brothers War.” It was literally true for siblings Henry and Levi Walker. They were extremely close. Both worked with their dad in a wool mill in Mecklenburg, N.C. They seemed destined to lead typically quiet, tranquil small-town lives.

Until the spring of 1861, which Abraham Lincoln later summed up with eloquent simplicity. “And the war came.”

Henry was 24, and Levi was 19 when they volunteered to serve in the Confederate army on May 20, 1861. You can’t help wondering how the news was received in their camp when their regiment was designated the 13th North Carolina Infantry. Heading into battle bearing the unlucky number 13 must have felt like an extra burden for the young recruits.

They received their baptism of fire at the Battle of First Manassas (also known as First Bull Run) in Virginia. And the fighting 13th was in the thick of it every step of the way from then on.

The affection the Walker boys shared for each other grew stronger as they endured the hardships of soldiering. Yet, it was also comforting having someone special there to share it.

They marched north in the summer of 1863 when Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to roll the dice and ordered them into Pennsylvania in what came to be known as the South’s “high water mark.”

Levi was carrying the 13th’s battle flag when the regiment marched into Gettysburg on July 1. It was both a big distinction and an equally big risk. Being entrusted to carry the colors into battle was a huge honor. It also made the flagbearer a conspicuous target. Sure enough, he was shot that afternoon. Levi’s left leg was amputated below the knee at field hospital the next day. Unable to be moved, he became a federal prisoner after the battle.

In one of those incredible ironies that sometimes happen, Henry was shot in Maryland two weeks later. His left leg was likewise amputated below the knee.

Despite their injuries, both brothers survived to return home and became successful. Henry graduated from New York Medical College, established a practice and opened a drug store. He married, had seven children, and lived to be 92.

Levi did well, too. He also married after the war, became a prosperous merchant, and reached the ripe old age of 93.

The bond that developed between the brothers in childhood and was cemented during wartime lasted into their old age. But one incident revealed the depth of feeling each had for the other. Which brings us back to weddings.

That ceremony is meaningful for both bride and groom, a unique mixture of extreme joy and intense jitters. Levi must have been battling a bout of the latter when his big day arrived. Because he slipped and fell that morning, shattering his cork leg. It was a major crisis; without the artificial limb, he couldn’t stand at the altar and exchange vows with his fiancee, Lenora Montgomery.

Then Henry came to the rescue. Since both brothers had sustained the same wound on the same leg, they used the same prosthetic device to get around. So Henry unstrapped his limb and gave it to Levi.

And so it was that Levi Walker can be said to be the only man in history to get married while standing on the leg of another!

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HOLY COW! HISTORY: The Gift That Killed General Grant

Watch out for unintended consequences. They’ll get you every time.

It happened 160 years ago when a simple act of courtesy set in motion a chain of events that wound up taking a famous American’s life.


When you hear “Ulysses S. Grant,” what comes to mind? The more scholarly-minded probably think, “Victor at Appomattox” or “18th President of the United States.” Big drunk, and even bigger cigar smoker, are top answers, too.

Yes, the old Yankee could drink to excess. Though in fairness, he only drank when he was lonely, depressed, and stuck with too much time on his hands. Whenever that happened they sent for Mrs. Grant and the boozing stopped.

As for his love of stogies, he was history’s original Cigar Aficionado. Here’s how it began.

For the first half of his life, Grant smoked something different. A woman who had been a slave on the farm he worked outside St. Louis later recalled, “He smoked a pipe, which his wife threw away whenever she could find it. She detested the pipe … At that time he chewed tobacco excessively also.”

Fast forward to Winter 1862. Grant cooked up a bold plan for a combined army-naval assault on the Confederate strongholds of Forts Henry and Donelson. They protected the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, the gateway to Nashville.

The brass in Washington green-lighted the operation. Fort Henry easily fell after a naval bombardment on February 6. Most of its men retreated a dozen miles to the other fort.

Donelson was a different story. Bigger and stronger with more defenders, it was a tougher nut to crack.

The naval flotilla tried again on February 14, but the gunboats were pushed back. Their commander, Flag Officer Andrew Foote, was seriously wounded in his foot. (Foote’s foot; how’s that for irony?)

The next day Foote asked Grant to confer with him on his flagship as he recovered. Foote offered the general a cigar, which Grant lit up as he rode back to headquarters. Years later, Grant described what came next.

“I was met by a staff officer, who announced the enemy was making a vigorous attack. I galloped forward and while riding among the troops giving directions for repelling the assault, I carried the cigar in my hand. It had gone out, but it seems I continued to hold it between my fingers throughout the battle.”

The Yankees repulsed the Confederates and the next morning the Rebels surrendered.

Capturing Fort Donelson was a big deal. Grant had won the Union’s first major victory, also becoming the first general since Washington to capture an entire enemy army. People celebrated across the North. The Chicago Tribune said the Windy City “reeled mad with joy.”

But amid the elation there was a major error. As Grant himself explained, “In the account published in the papers I was represented as smoking a cigar in the midst of the conflict; and many persons, no doubt thinking tobacco was my chief solace, sent me boxes of the choicest brands. As many as ten thousand were soon received.”

Think about that: 10,000 cigars! They came with notes of appreciation. One said, “You keep winning victories and I’ll keep sending cigars.”

Grant “re-gifted” them on a wholesale basis. But he couldn’t keep pace with the deluge. A practical man, he eventually decided, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Grant put away his pipe explaining, “I naturally smoked more (cigars) than I would have under ordinary circumstances, and have done so ever since.”

That was an understatement. From then on, soldiers rarely saw Grant without a cigar clamped in his mouth. It reached the point where he was smoking 20 stogies every day (almost one per hour). When the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg fell the following year Grant was smoking a cigar as he rode off to accept its surrender.

Ironically, as word of his cigar addiction spread, Grant took pains to avoid being photographed while smoking. In fact, only one such image is known to exist.

Meanwhile, the gift boxes kept coming. Grant told a fellow general, “There is one good thing about being the Commanding General. You get the best cigars.”

And yet, some people had problems with Grant’s habit. Consider the open letter to him in a Massachusetts newspaper: “We pray you to abandon your cigar on behalf of young America … Our boys, General! What shall we do with these expanding millions? We had a sufficiency of these young volcanoes before, but your example, running like wildfire, has kindled ten thousand more.”

Still, by the time Grant ran for president in 1868 his supporters sang a popular campaign song called, “A’smokin’ My Old Cigar.” (They just don’t write ditties like that anymore.)

All that puffing eventually took its toll. And the illness it produced brought out the best in Grant as a man.

After leaving the White House in 1877, Grant was swindled out of his life savings by fraudulent investors. It left him flat broke.

Just when things couldn’t get worse for the aging general and ex-president, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Thousands upon thousands of cigars had finally caught up with him.

Terminally ill and nearly destitute, there was nothing he could leave his wife. (That was decades before former presidents received a pension.) But Grant had one last thing of value.

Battling increasingly intense pain, he set about writing “The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant,” finishing it just days before his death at age 62 in 1885. It sold more than 300,000 copies, earning nearly half a million dollars and guaranteeing his widow, Julia, would spend the rest of her life in comfort.

Thus ended the journey that had begun 23 years earlier with the innocent question, “Care for a cigar, general?”

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HOLY COW! HISTORY: The Original ‘Son of a Gun’

Every so often, history offers a story that is so improbable there is no way it could be true. Yet once in the proverbial blue moon, a tale defies the odds and turns out to have really happened.

This story isn’t one of them.

It was, in fact, a prank that people accepted as fact for over a century. But the story behind the story is enjoyable, and the whole bizarre incident is a hoot and a half, so here goes.

Doctors got a big surprise when they opened the November 7, 1874, edition of “The American Medical Weekly.” A headline breathlessly announced, “ATTENTION GYNECOLOGISTS! — NOTES FROM THE DIARY OF A FIELD AND HOSPITAL SURGEON, C.S.A.” It was written by a former Confederate army doctor named L.G. Capers.

He was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1834, practiced as a ship physician at sea, and served in the Confederate medical service. His article described an incident 11 years earlier during the Battle of Raymond, Miss. 

As Capers recalled, “I beheld a noble, gallant young friend staggering closer, and then fall to the earth. In the same moment, a piercing scream from the house reached my ear!” The doctor said he examined the wound and found a minie ball (the war’s misnamed and widely used cone-shaped bullet) had struck the shinbone, ricocheted upward, and exited the body via the soldier’s private parts. Then things got strange.

Capers continued, “Scarcely had I finished dressing the wounds of this poor fellow when the estimable matron came running to me in the greatest distress, begging me to go to one of her daughters who, she informed me, had been badly wounded a few minutes before.”

The young woman had also been hit in her private area. “Believing there was little or no hope of her recovery, I had only time to prescribe an anodyne when our army fell back.” 

Six months later, the army returned and, according to the good doctor, he discovered the patient was pregnant. “A short time later, I delivered this same young lady of a fine boy, weighing eight pounds.”

As if all this hadn’t been enough, the story ended with a weird twist. “About three weeks from the date of this remarkable birth, I was called to see the child, the grandmother insisting there was ‘something wrong.’” 

Capers said he examined the infant and immediately performed surgery. He “extracted a minie ball, mashed and battered as if it had met in its flight some hard, unyielding substance.”

Bottom line: The minie ball that had wounded the soldier carried some of his male essences as it exited his body and slammed into the young woman’s womb. The result was known from then on as the Minie Ball Pregnancy.

I will spare you the medical mumbo jumbo but suffice it to say it is physically impossible for conception to occur this way. Which makes it all the stranger that men of science perpetuated the absurdity.

The highly respected British medical journal The Lancet reprinted parts of the original article. In 1896, its piece was cited as a footnote in a book called “Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine.” The tale later gained fresh traction in an influential 1959 article in the New York State Journal of Medicine. From then on, it was cited as a “documented case” and was mentioned in everything from American Heritage magazine to the popular Dear Abby column.

Yet it never happened.

A few weeks after the publication of the original 1874 article that started it all, the editors acknowledged in a subsequent edition that the whole thing had been in jest. “Dr. L.G. Capers, of Vicksburg, Miss., disclaims responsibility for the truth of that remarkable case of impregnation by a minie ball, as reported in … this Journal. He tells the story as it was told to him. He does not say it is untrue but is disposed to appositely remember the truth of the old adage, that ‘accidents may happen in the best-regulated families.’ The joke is, that the doctor reported the case without any signature.”

You saw it: It was all a joke.

But to this very day, some Civil War buffs adamantly insist the Minie Ball Pregnancy actually happened.

It’s a shame it didn’t. If it had, the baby indeed would have been the world’s only “son of a gun.”

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HOLY COW! HISTORY: The Pictures That Never Made It Home

The Yankee soldier stares at us with a hard glint in his eyes. Wiry and weathered, he’s ready for action. No name, no date, no unit. Just a young man whose face shows the strain of war.

What makes this photo remarkable is the “971” in faded red ink in the lower-left corner, two empty slots at the top and bottom, and “Alexandria, VA” in period handwriting.

They indicate the Civil War image came from the post office’s Dead Letter Office (DLO).

Postal workers stayed incredibly busy from 1861 to 1865. Some 2.5 million men served in the Union army alone. Many wrote letters home. And the folks there wrote back. Meaning tens of thousands of pieces moved through the mail every day.

But there were logistical headaches. Some soldiers were barely literate. Others had sloppy handwriting. They didn’t always affix adequate postage. And many letters were improperly addressed. By the time some letters reached their destination, they were so badly marked up by various postmasters they looked like they had come through combat themselves.

Whenever one couldn’t be delivered, it wound up in the DLO in Washington. Operating since 1825, for much of the 19th century it was, along with the Pension Bureau and Patent Office, a “must-see” stop for D.C. tourists. It was so popular, it even had a small museum displaying oddities discovered inside letters whose owners were never located. Such as a loaded pistol and a human skull.

By war’s end, some 4.5 million pieces of mail had piled up in the DLO. Special clerks examined each one for clues about the addressee that local postmasters had missed. When external examination failed, clerks had authority under a law passed by Congress to open an envelope to see if the letter contained hints about the recipient’s identity. Those clerks were often women and ordained ministers since it was believed they were more trustworthy when handling sensitive data. They were so skilled at their work, more than 40 percent of DLO letters were eventually delivered.

Soldiers’ letters sometimes contained photos meant for mothers, wives, sweethearts, and friends. They were saved and the pictures added to the DLO’s mini-museum.

Each soldier’s photo was numbered in red ink and attached with two brass clips to a cardboard display panel. Four rows containing nine pictures each, or 36 per page. It is estimated there were somewhere been 5,000 and 7,500 images in all.

Visitors scanned the pages. If they came upon someone they knew, they got the letter.

The display was such a hit, a special wooden case was built to hold the photo panels. Emotions often bubbled to the surface during the viewing; women frequently sobbed while looking for a lost loved one’s face.

The photos were even taken to world fairs where tens of thousands of attendees saw them. Consider the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exhibition in Omaha, Neb., where a woman spotted an image of her father taken 35 years earlier. (That letter was returned to the elderly veteran in Indiana.)

In 1902, another aging veteran claimed the letter he had mailed exactly 40 years earlier!

Veterans’ organizations, such as the Grand Army of the Republic (similar to today’s VFW and American Legion), and newspaper and magazine feature stories were also used to publicize the effort.

A newspaper article reported that in all, some 2,000 letters were eventually delivered thanks to the photos.

But thousands more went unclaimed. When the post office moved into its new Washington building in 1911 (now a Trump hotel, by the way), the DLO went with it. Its little museum, however, didn’t. With the Civil War becoming a distant memory, fewer people asked to see the pictures. The display was put in storage. It was decided to sell the images in the 1940s. (Nobody knows what happened to the letters that inspired the display. They seem to have simply vanished over the decades.)

One group of 300 DLO photos wound up in a New York bookseller’s hands after World War II. They were later sold to the George Eastman Museum. A second batch was acquired by a Sons of Union Veterans commander. Those images were eventually auctioned off in the 1980s.

Where did the Dead Letter Office photos originate? We’ll never know. The identity of the soldiers shown in them, or who they intended to receive their photographs, went to the grave with them. Maybe that’s why they glare at us so unhappily nearly 160 years later. In their own small way, their pictures were also a casualty of that saddest of all wars.

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