This friendly spirit on the part of the President made the captain think that he ought to reciprocate the courtesy; so on one occasion, when we were all sitting on the quarter-deck, the captain undertook to contribute some rather uninteresting personal reminiscences, that had no point whatever to them, – in fact, they merely related to the various positions he had held in the mercantile marine, and the amount of wages he had received from the different parties that had employed him, with various other insignificant items of information of no interest except to himself, – when the President, who, in spite of his uniform good-nature, began to feel extremely bored, suggested by way of checking the captain’s loquacity, that he, too, had been something of a sailor, and would give a little of his experience in that capacity. Whereupon he gave us his own version of an incident in his life that I have since heard repeated with a very different significance,
“When I was a young man,” said Mr. Lincoln, “about eighteen years of age, I was living in Kentucky, and, like everybody else in that part of the country at that time, I was obliged to struggle pretty hard for a living. I had been at work all winter helping a man distill a quantity of whisky, and as there was little or no money in the country, I was obliged to take the pay for my winter’s services in whisky.” Turning to Mr. Chase with a quizzical look, he added; “You were not around in those days. Chase, with your greenback printing-machine. Whisky,” he continued, “was more plentiful than almost anything else, and I determined, if possible, to find a market for my share in some other locality, so as to get the largest amount possible for my winter’s work. Hearing that a man living a short distance up the Ohio River was building a flat-boat to send to New Orleans as soon as the water in the river was at a proper stage, I paid him a visit and made an agreement with him that if he would take my whisky to that city I would go with him and work my passage. Before the boat was completed and ready to start, I made up my mind that I should find a good deal of whisky in New Orleans when I arrived there, and having found a man who had a lot of tobacco that he was sending to market, I made a trade with him for half of my whisky, so that if whisky should be down when I got there, tobacco might be up, or vice versa; at any rate, I should not have all my eggs in the same basket. The boat was ready at the proper time, and stopped at our landing for me and my whisky and tobacco.
My short experience as a sailor began from that moment. Our voyage down the river was not attended by much excitement or any catastrophe. Floating with the current during the day, we always tied up to a tree on the bank of the river at night. One evening, just after we had tied up the flat-boat, two men came down to the shore and asked me what I would charge them to row them out in the small-boat that we had with us into the middle of the river to meet a steamboat that was coming up the river, and on which they wanted to take passage. I told them I thought it would be worth a shilling apiece, and the bargain was made. I pulled out into the stream and delivered them safe on board the steamer, and, to my astonishment, received for my services a dollar. It was the first money I had had for some time. On my way back to the flat-boat, I made a calculation to myself that I had been gone about an hour, and that if I could earn a dollar every hour and live long enough, I would be a rich man before I died.” Here Mr. Lincoln’s story ended.
The captain, whose curiosity had been somewhat excited, inquired how the whisky and tobacco sold in New Orleans; but the President, with a peculiar twinkle in his eye, replied : “Captain, I was only relating to you my experience as a marine, not as a merchant,” which hint the captain had the good sense to understand. Lincoln did not refer to the subject again, and I never knew the result of his rather shrewd commercial venture.
Quoted in Egbert L. Viele, “A Trip with Lincoln, Chase, and Stanton,” Scribners Monthly 16 (October 1878), p. 816