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“What a Man it is!”

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April 30, 1864.

A little after midnight as I was writing those last lines, the President came into the office laughing, with a volume of Hood’s Works in his hand, to show Nicolay and me the little caricature, ‘An Unfortunate Bee-ing; seemingly utterly unconscious that he, with his short shirt hanging about his long legs, and setting out behind like the tail feathers of an enormous ostrich, was infinitely funnier than anything in the book he was laughing at. What a man it is! Occupied all day with matters of vast moment, deeply anxious about the fate of the greatest army of the world, with his own plans and future hanging on the events of the passing hour, he yet has such a wealth of simple bonhommie and good fellowship that he gets out of bed and perambulates the house in his shirt to find us, that we may share with him the fun of poor Hood’s queer little conceits.

Quoted in John Hay, Inside Lincoln’s White House, p. 194.

“He Played on a Boy’s Harp all the Way”

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Next day he made some arrangement about his horse and buggy, and took the train to fill an appointment somewhere up north-west. I saw him start for the train: being obliged to ride over two miles in an old dilapidated omnibus, he was the sole occupant of the nondescript conveyance he had somehow procured, and had in his hand a small french harp, which he was making most execrable music with. I rallied him on this, to which, stopping his concert, he replied, “This is my band; Douglas had a brass band with him in Peoria, but this will dome:” and he resumed his uncouth solo as the vehicle drove off: and the primitive strains, somewhat shaken up by the jolting conveyance, floated out upon the air till distance intervened.

Quoted in Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, introduction and notes by Paul M. Angle (Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxon Printers, 1940), pp.31

“I shall never Forget his Reply”

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“Dear Herndon: “One morning, not long before Lincoln’s nomination-a year perhaps-I was in your office and heard the following! Mr. Lincoln, seated at the baize-covered table in the center of the office, listened attentively to a man who talked earnestly and in a low tone. After being thus engaged for some time Lincoln at length broke in, and I shall never forget his reply. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘we can doubtless gain your case for you; we can set a whole neighborhood at loggerheads; we can distress a widowed mother and her six fatherless children and thereby get for you six hundred dollars to which you seem to have a legal claim, but which rightfully belongs, it appears to me, as much to the woman and her children as it does to you. You must remember that somethings legally right are not morally right. We shall not take your case, but will give you a little advice for which we will charge you nothing. You seem to be a sprightly, energetic man; we would advise you to try your hand at making six hundred dollars in some other way.’ “Yours, “Lord.” From undated MS., about 1866.

Quoted in Herndon’s Lincoln: A True Story of a Great Life Written by William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, ed.    Herndon-332-203-11-24

“He Offered the Hand of Friendship to those who had opposed him”

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I called upon Mr. Lincoln on a hot afternoon late in July. He greeted me cordially, and asked me to wait in the office until he should be through with the current business of the day, and then to spend the evening with him at the cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, which he occupied during the summer. In the carriage on the way thither he made various inquiries concerning the attitude of this and that public man, and this and that group of people, and we discussed the question whether it would be good policy to attempt an active campaign before the Democrats should have “shown their hand” in their National Convention. He argued that such an attempt would be unwise unless some unforeseen change in the situation called for it. Arrived at the cottage, he asked me to sit down with him on a lounge in a sort of parlor which was rather scantily furnished, and began to speak about the attacks made upon him by party friends, and their efforts to force his withdrawal from the candidacy. The substance of what he said I can recount from a letter written at the time to an intimate friend.

He spoke as if he felt a pressing need to ease his heart by giving voice to the sorrowful thoughts distressing him. He would not complain of the fearful burden of care and responsibility put upon his shoulders. Nobody knew the weight of that burden save himself. But was it necessary, was it generous, was it right, to impeach even the rectitude of his motives? “They urge me with almost violent language,” he said, “to withdraw from the contest, although I have been unanimously nominated, in order to make room for a better man. I wish I could. Perhaps some other man might do this business better than I. That is possible. I do not deny it. But I am here, and that better man is not here. And if I should step aside to make room for him, it is not at all sure – perhaps not even probable -that he would get here. It is much more likely that the factions opposed to me would fall to fighting among themselves, and that those who want me to make room for a better man would get a man whom most of them would not want in at all. My withdrawal, therefore, might, and probably would, bring on a confusion worse confounded. God knows, I have at least tried very hard to do my duty – to do right to everybody and wrong to nobody. And now to have it said by men who have been my friends and who ought to know me better, that I have been seduced by what they call the lust of power, and that I have been doing this and that unscrupulous thing hurtful to the common cause, only to keep myself in office! Have they thought of that common cause when trying to break me down? I hope they have.”
So he went on, as if speaking to himself, now pausing for a second, then uttering a sentence or two with vehement emphasis. Meanwhile the dusk of evening had set in, and when the room was lighted I thought I saw his sad eyes moist and his rugged features working strangely, as if under a very strong and painful emotion. At last he stopped, as if waiting for me to say something, and, deeply touched as I was, I only expressed as well as I could, my confident assurance that the people, undisturbed by the bickerings of his critics, believed in him and would faithfully stand by him. The conversation, then turning upon things to be done, became more cheerful, and in the course of the evening he explained to me various acts of the administration which in the campaign might be questioned and call for defense. As to his differences with members of Congress concerning reconstruction, he laid particular stress. upon the fact that, looked at from a constitutional standpoint, the Executive could do many things by virtue of the war power, which Congress could not do in the way of ordinary legislation. When I took my leave that night he was in a calm mood, indulged himself in a few humorous remarks, shook my hand heartily, and said : “Well, things might look better, and they might look worse. Go in, and let us all do the best we can.”

The campaign did not become spirited until after the Democratic National Convention. But then it started in good earnest, and the prospects brightened at once. The Democrats, made overconfident by the apparent lethargy of the popular mind and the acrimonious wrangling inside of the Union party, had recklessly overshot the mark. They declared in their platform that the war against the rebellion was a failure, and that immediate efforts must be made for a cessation of hostilities, with a view to an ultimate convention of all the States for a peaceable settlement on the basis of reunion. Considering the fact that the leaders of the rebellion vociferously, defiantly insisted upon the independence of the Southern Confederacy as a condition sine qua non of any settlement, this proposition looked like a complete surrender. It was too much, not only for the malcontents within the Union party, but also for many Democrats. Even the candidate of their own party, General McClellan, who had been nominated for the purpose of conciliating the patriotic war-spirit still alive in the Democratic ranks, found it necessary to repudiate that part of the platform – first, in justice to his own feelings, and secondly to save the last chance of success in the election. Then came the inspiring tidings of Sherman’s victorious march into the heart of Georgia and the capture of Atlanta, kindling all over the North a blaze of jubilant enthusiasm, and covering the declaration that the war was a failure, with contemptuous derision. And, finally, more potent perhaps than all else, the tender affection of the popular heart for Abraham Lincoln burst forth with all its warmth. This tender affection, cherished among the plain people of the land, among the soldiers in the field, and their “folks at home,” was a sentimental element of strength which Lincoln’s critical opponents in the Union party had wholly ignored. Now they became aware of it, not without surprise. I believe that, had the Democratic Convention been more prudent, and had no victories happened to cheer the masses, even then “Father Abraham’s” personal popularity alone would have been sufficient to give him the victory in the election of 1864!. I made many speeches in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Western States as far as Wisconsin, three of which were printed in the collection which was published in 1865. While writing these reminiscences I read them over – let me confess it – with much satisfaction. But that they contributed much to Lincoln’s success, I candidly do not believe. They were well meant, but, although they had a wide circulation and much praise at the time, they were really superfluous. In fact, during its last two months, the presidential campaign of 1864 seemed to run itself. With a thoroughly reunited Union party, it became more and more a popular jubilee as the election approached. However, the size of his majority did not come up to the expectation of Lincoln’s friends.

A few days after the election I read in the papers the report of a speech delivered by Lincoln in response to a serenade, in which he offered the hand of friendship to those who had opposed him in these words : “Now that the election is over, may not all, having a common interest, reunite in a common effort to save our common community? For my own part, I have striven, and will strive, to place no obstacle in the way. So long as I have been here, I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom. While I am deeply sensible of the high compliment of a re-election, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man may be pained or disappointed by the result. May I ask those who were with me to join with me in the same spirit towards those who were against me?” When I read those noble words, which so touchingly revealed the whole tender generosity of Lincoln’s great soul, the haggard face I had seen that evening in the cottage at the Soldiers’ Home rose up vividly in my memory.

Quoted in Carl Schurz, The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz. Vol. II: 1852-1863 (New York: McClure Co., 1907), p. 102. 

“I have never Served a President”

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It may well be supposed that President Lincoln suffered great anxiety during that eventful Sunday;but General Scott talked confidently of success, and Lincoln bore his impatience without any visible sign, and quietly went to church at eleven o’clock.Soon after noon copies of telegrams began to come to him at the Executive Mansion from the War Department and from army headquarters. They brought, however, no certain information, as they came only from the nearest station to the battlefield,and simply gave what the operator saw and heard. Towards three o’clock they became more frequent, and reported considerable fluctuation in the apparent course and progress of the cannonade.The President went to the office of General Scott,where he found the general asleep, and woke him to talk over the news. Scott said such reports were worth nothing as indications either way -that the changes in the currents of wind and the variation of the echoes made it impossible for a distant listener to determine the course of a battle.He still expressed his confidence in a successful result, and composed himself for another nap when the President left.

Dispatches continued to come about every ten or fifteen minutes, still based on hearing and hearsay;the rumors growing more cheering and definite.They reported that the battle had extended along nearly the whole line; that there had been considerable loss; but that the secession lines had been driven back two or three miles, some of the dispatches said, to the Junction. One of General Scott’s aides also brought the telegram of an engineer, repeating that McDowell had driven the enemy before him, that he had ordered the reserves to cross Bull Eun, and wanted reenf orcements without delay.

Quoted in John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Vol. 4 (New York: Century Co., 1917), p. 352.


A few days after the battle, in a conversation at the White House with several Illinois Members of Congress, in the presence of the President and the Secretary of War, Greneral Scott himself was so far nettled by the universal chagrin and fault-finding that he lost his temper and sought an entirely uncalled-for self-justification. “Sir, I am the greatest coward in America,” said he. “I will prove it. I have fought this battle, sir, against my judgment; I think the President of the United States ought to remove me to-day for doing it. As God is my judge, after my superiors had determined to fight it, I did all in my power to make the army efficient. I deserve removal because I did not stand up, when my army was not in a condition for fighting, and resist it to the last.”

The President said, “Your conversation seems to imply that I forced you to fight this battle.” General Scott then said, “I have never served a President who has been kinder to me than you have been.” Representative William A. Richardson, who in a complaining speech in Congress related the scene, then drew the inference that Scott intended to pay a personal compliment to Mr. Lincoln, but that he did not mean to exonerate the Cabinet; and when pressed by questions, further explained: “Let us have no misunderstanding about this matter. My colleagues understood that I gave the language as near as I could. Whether I have been correctly reported or not I do not know. If I did not then make the correct statement, let me do it now. I did not understand General Scott, nor did I mean so to be understood, as implying that the President had forced him to fight that battle.”

The incident illustrates how easily history may be perverted by-hot-blooded criticism. Scott’s irritation drove him to an inaccurate statement of events; Richardson’s partisanship warped Scott’s error to a still more unjustifiable deduction, and both reasoned from a changed condition of things. Two weeks before, Scott was confident of victory, and Richardson chafing at military inaction.

Quoted in John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Vol. 4 (New York: Century Co., 1917), p. 358.

“He was as Guileless and Single-hearted as a Child”

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The President, of course, was the center of the group, – kind, genial, thoughtful, tender – hearted, magnanimous Abraham Lincoln! It was difficult to know him without knowing him intimately, for he was as guileless and single-hearted as a child; and no man ever knew him intimately who did not recognize and admire his great abilities, both natural and acquired, his large-heartedness and sincerity of purpose. With a mind well stored with the grandest and most beautiful in English literature, and a memory so wonderful that he could repeat, almost word for word, whatever he had read, he would sit for hours during the trip repeating the finest passages of Shakspere’s best plays, page after page of Browning and whole cantos of Byron. He was as familiar with belles lettres as many men who make much more pretension to “culture.” His inexhaustible stock of anecdotes gave to superficial minds the impression that he was not a thoughtful and reflecting man, whereas the fact was directly the reverse. These anecdotes formed no more a part of Mr. Lincoln’s mind than a smile forms a part of the face. They came unbidden and like a forced smile were often employed to conceal a depth of anxiety in his own heart and to dissipate the care that weighed upon the minds of his associates.

Quoted in Egbert L. Viele, “A Trip with Lincoln, Chase, and Stanton,” Scribners Monthly 16 (October 1878), p. 813

“This little Scrap Amused him Exceedingly”

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He never liked to be waited upon, or to ask any one to do anything for him that he could possibly do himself. This showed itself on one occasion, when, being struck with an amusing rhyme which I showed to him in a number of “Harper’s Weekly,” instead of requesting me to cut it out for him, he borrowed my knife, and, extending himself at half length on the deck, spread the paper before him and cut the piece out, remarking at the same time that it was not precisely the attitude for the President of the United States to assume, but it was a good position for a man who merely wanted to cut a piece out of a newspaper.

This little scrap amused him exceedingly. It was a very absurd idea, absurdly expressed; but there was something about it that pleased his fancy, and he was not satisfied until he had read it to each one of the party, appearing to enjoy it the more the oftener he read it. He even called up the captain of the cutter and read it to him.

Quoted in Egbert L. Viele, “A Trip with Lincoln, Chase, and Stanton,” Scribners Monthly 16 (October 1878), p. 816

“I Should not have all my Eggs in the Same Basket”

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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

“How I Earned my First Dollar”

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In the Executive Chamber one evening, there were present a number of gentlemen, among them Mr. Seward.
A point in the conversation suggesting the thought, the President said: “Seward, you never heard, did you, how I earned my first dollar?” “No,” rejoined Mr. Seward. “Well,” continued Mr. Lincoln,

I was about eighteen years of age. I belonged, you know, to what they call down South, the “scrubs;” people who do not own slaves are nobody there. But we had succeeded in raising, chiefly by my labor, sufficient produce, as I thought, to justify me in taking it down the river to sell.

After much persuasion, I got the consent of mother to go, and constructed a little flatboat, large enough to take a barrel or two of things that we had gathered, with myself and little bundle, down to New Orleans. A steamer was coming down the river. We have, you know, no wharves on the Western streams; and the custom was, if passengers were at any of the landings, for them to go out in a boat, the steamer stopping and taking them on board.

I was contemplating my new flatboat, and wondering whether I could make it stronger or improve it in any particular, when two men came down to the shore in carriages with trunks, and looking at the different boats singled out mine, and asked, “Who owns this?” I answered, somewhat modestly, “I do.” “Will you,” said one of them, “take us and our trunks out to the steamer?” “Certainly,” said I. I was very glad to have the chance of earning something. I supposed that each of them would give me two or three bits. The trunks were put on my flatboat, the passengers seated themselves on the trunks, and I sculled them out to the steamboat.

They got on board, and I lifted up their heavy trunks, and put them on deck. The steamer was about to put on steam again, when I called out that they had forgotten to pay me. Each of them took from his pocket a silver half-dollar, and threw it on the floor of my boat. I could scarcely believe my eyes as I picked up the money. Gentlemen, you may think it was a very little thing, and in these days it seems to me a trifle; but it was a most important incident in my life. I could scarcely credit that I, a poor boy, had earned a dollar in less than a day,–that by honest work I had earned a dollar. The world seemed wider and fairer before me. I was a more hopeful and confident being from that time.

Quoted in Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House (New York:Hurd and Houghton, 1867), p96


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.

In the admirable oration on the life of Lincoln, delivered by Mr. Bancroft before the two houses of Congress, he alluded to this incident as the beginning of the President’s career, – “commencing life as a flat-boatman on the Mississippi,” etc.; but I think Mr. Bancroft was somewhat in error in his conclusions. Mr. Lincoln was never a “flat-boatman.” Flat-boatmen are a peculiar class in the West, – rough, uncouth, almost uncivilized, they are unlike any other class of laborers, and lead a reckless, “devil-may-care” sort of existence. I went up the Mississippi on one occasion when a lot of men from the Wabash were returning home from a flatboat service down the river, and although I have been four years among the Indian tribes, I never saw or heard anything more like savage life than these young fellows exhibited. Mr. Lincoln was not like one of these; and to compare a man of earnest purpose working his way from a youth of privation and penury to the head of a great nation, making the means that presented themselves secure the ends he sought, adapting himself to the situation with a skill akin to genius, – to compare such a man with a class of mere physical toilers is a great error.

Quote in Egbert L. Viele, “A Trip with Lincoln, Chase, and Stanton,” Scribners Monthly 16 (October 1878), p. 816