Just before Thanksgiving Day in 1929, the Senate mourned the loss of one of its best-known members. When he died on November 24, 1929, Wyoming’s Francis E. Warren had served in the Senate longer than any person in history—37 years. Warren held two other distinctions. He was the last senator to have served on the Union side in the Civil War and the first to have hired a woman staff member.
Born in Massachusetts in 1844, Warren enlisted in a home-state regiment at the start of the Civil War. During the siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana, in 1863, a Confederate bombardment killed most of his squad’s members, but left Warren with a scalp wound and the congressional medal of honor.
After the war, he moved to Wyoming, where he invested successfully in livestock and real estate. Warren’s career in Republican politics blossomed along with his financial success. When Wyoming entered the Union in 1890, he became its first governor and, weeks later, one of its first two U.S. senators.
The freshman senator landed choice legislative assignments, including chairmanship of the Committee on Irrigation and Reclamation. From that panel, the shrewd, hard-working, behind-the-scenes operator shaped land use policies vital to the arid West.
In 1905, the year Warren became chairman of the Senate’s Military Affairs Committee, his daughter married an aspiring young army captain named John Pershing. The following year, President Theodore Roosevelt promoted the chairman’s son-in-law from captain to general, jumping him ahead of nearly 900 more senior officers. Tragically, in 1915, Warren’s daughter and three of his four grandchildren died in a fire at a military base.
The widowed General Pershing went on to become commander of American forces in World War I. As chair or ranking minority member of the Appropriations Committee from 1911 to 1929, Warren had a major role in funding the war effort.
Earlier, in 1900, Warren set a controversial precedent when he hired Leona Wells as the first female Senate staff member. The idea that a woman secretary would sit behind a committee’s closed doors, listening in on confidential proceedings, scandalized his colleagues. Over the next nearly three decades, Wells demonstrated the groundlessness of those concerns, displaying a competence equal to that of the best male secretaries. By the time of Warren’s death, more than 200 women had joined Wells on the Senate payroll, assuming responsibilities that few would have imagined possible in 1900.