Lower Peachtree Street, Atlanta, in 1910, 56 years after ex-President Millard Fillmore visited. Library of Congress photo via Chamblee54
Chamblee54, in a history of Peachtree Street studded with interesting photographs, notes Atlanta’s first-time brush with any ex-president:
In 1854, Atlanta entertained, for the first time, a man who had been President. On May 2, Millard Fillmore arrived from Augusta on a private rail car.
Two years after the Whigs refused to nominate Fillmore for a term of his own, he was out touring the country?
Several accounts explain that Fillmore and his wife Abigail wanted to tour the U.S. after his presidency. Unfortunately, she died shortly after he left office. He pined through the rest of 1853, but by February 1854 had decided to tour by himself, without his children, accompanied by friends he could persuade to join him.
That same month, Fillmore decided to take the trip southward that he and Abigail had not been able to take. Given the timing, some observers believed that Fillmore had a political motive in making the journey. They suspected that he might be planning to speak out against the Nebraska Bill [proposed by Illinois’s U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas]. Others were convinced that it was a leisure tour. But whatever Fillmore’s intentions may have been, his speeches to southern audiences were relatively neutral. He restated his faith in the [Missouri] Compromise, but he spent mos tof his time enjoying a series of receptions, dinners, and parades in his honor throughout the region. A marching band escorted him through the streets of Louisville, Kentucky. Girls scattered his path with flowers in Montgomery, Alabama. A row of trains blew their whistles in greeting in Atlanta, Georgia. Fillmore returned home refreshed and with renewed faith in his fellow Americans.
Alison Behnke, Millard Fillmore (a child’s history of the man), 2005, page 92.
A longer description came out of Robert J. Scarry’s 1982 biography:
By late February 1854 Fillmore had resumed his plans to travel. He perceived that a southern trip would do him good and that the journey would divert his mind from the loss of Abigail.
Fillmore hoped Francis Granger, John P. Kennedy, and Washington Irving would go with him on the trip. Granger lost interest, and Irving, who had been asked by his friend Kennedy, was in no mood for politics.
En route to Atlanta from Augusta on the Georgia Railroad, they stopped at Greensboro where a large crowd of teachers and students of the Female College greeted Fillmore and Kennedy. They dined at Madison. At Stone Mountain an escort committee from Atlanta met them.
At the Atlanta Depot a novel reception welcomed them. A large number of locomotives were present with their steam up. When the Augusta engineer signalled their arrival they all opened up their valves and whistled out a welcome the like of which, reported a newspaper, “no mortal man had heard before.” The shouts from the crowd and locomotive whistles were deafening to one reporter. By carriage the party went from the depot to the Atlanta Hotel where a reception was held.
Fillmore had become hoarse. Nonetheless, he managed to say that he was impressed by the large population and that he had heard that it was a beautiful village in the center of the state. He also admonished the state legislature to to take note “of the array of female loveliness before me” seated at the reception. If they did so, he joked, they wouldn’t hesitate to locate the state capital at Atlanta. At that time the capital was at Milledgeville. Atlanta became the capital in 1877. In the evening, after dinner, a ball was held. Fifty young ladies dressed in white with bouquets of flowers were a highlight of the occasion.
Robert J. Scarry, Millard Fillmore, 1982, pages 247-252 variously.
Any photos of Fillmore in Atlanta?
Millard Fillmore is in some ways the ultimate exemplar of American civic boosterism. These accounts tend to be softball, even when the potential political effects of his trip to Atlanta are discussed. One gets a sense that contemporary accounts of the trip were equally bland and uncontroversial. Fillmore’s trip offered a lot of local chamber of commerce precursors a chance to plug their local industry, development and pride. Fillmore seems incapable of not offering pride-stoking flattery to these group of people. That’s not necessarily bad.
Within a dozen years the nation would be engulfed in the Civil War. Atlanta would be burned. The railroads Fillmore rode would be torn up by Union armies.
What a snapshot, even without photos.
A not-often seen image of Millard Fillmore. Via Accessible Archives.