Face to Face With Lincoln
EDITED BY WILLIAM O. STODDARD, JR.
AFTER I secured a good boarding-house I went to my desk at the Department of the Interior. A large pile of patents had accumulated and I began to sign the President’s name at the rate of about nine hundred times per diem. Shortly I received orders to transfer myself to the correspondence desk in the northeast room of the White House. At first I had to make visits to my old office to sign patents, but that was ended by an order to have them all sent up to the White House, for my presence there was needed hourly.
The business of Private Secretary, per se, was pretty well absorbed by Nicolay and Hay, but there were odd days when I had to go over and take Nicolay’s place in the opposite room. That gave me more than a little instruction. Among other things, I learned that the House and Senate did not recognize any individual, but knew the Private Secretary only by the practical fact of his bringing a message from the President. It was therefore an important day for me when I proudly appeared at the doors of the Houses and was led in to be loudly announced to the Vice-President and the Speaker as ‘The President’s Private Secretary with a Message.’ From that hour onward, by rule, I was free of the floor of both Houses.
I doubt if there was any spot in the United States in those days, outside of a battlefield, that was more continually interesting than was the correspondence desk of the Executive Mansion. I took pains, at one time, to strike an average of the number of daily arrivals, other than newspapers, and was surprised to find that it was not far from two hundred and fifty. These were of every imaginable character, with quite a number that could not be reasonably imagined. The newspapers themselves were interesting. The majority of them contained marked columns, — editorials or letters, — abusive, complimentary, or advisory, which the authors fondly hoped might reach the eyes of the President. They did not do so. At one time he ordered me to make a daily digest of the course and comments of the leading journals, East and West, and I made one. It was wasted work and was discontinued, for Mr. Lincoln never found time to spend an hour upon those laborious condensations.
The letters were a study. Large packages of documents were all the while coming, relating to business before one or another of the departments. Some were in law cases. Some were in relation to claims. In any event, it was my duty to know where they properly belonged and to endorse them with the necessary reference from the President, favorable or otherwise. There was a river of documents relating to appointments to office and these too were referred to the President, except such as belonged in my custody. The larger number of the epistles belonged in one or another of the two tall wastebaskets which sat on either side of me, and their deposits were as rapid as my decisions could be made. It had to be swift work. It did seem to me as if the foulest blackguards on earth had made up their minds that they could abuse the President through the mails and they tried to do so. Added to these were the lunatics.
One day I and my paper-cutter and my wastebaskets were hard at work when in came a portly, dignified, elderly man who sat down near me while waiting for an audience with Mr. Lincoln. He appeared to be some kind of distinguished person, perhaps a governor or something of that sort, and he watched me with an interest which evidently grew upon him. He became uneasy in his chair; he waxed red in the face. At last he broke out with: —
’Is that the way you treat the President’s mail? Mr. Lincoln does not know this! What would the people of the United States think, if they knew that their communications to their Chief Magistrate were dealt with in this shameful manner? Thrown into the wastebasket! What does Lincoln mean? Putting such a responsibility into the hands of a mere boy! A boy!
I had been all the while watching him as he fired up. Now there had been an uncommonly dirty mail that morning and I had put aside as I opened them a number of the vile scrawls. My critic had risen from his chair and was pacing up and down the room in hot indignation when I quietly turned and offered him a handful of the selected letters.
‘Please read those, sir,’ I said, ‘and give me your opinion of them. I may be right about them. Do you really think that the President of the United States ought to turn from the affairs of the nation to put in his time on that sort of thing?'
He took the awful handful and began to read, and his red face grew redder. Then it was white with speechless wrath. Perhaps he had never before perused anything quite so devilish in all his life.
‘You are quite right, sir,’he gasped, as he sank into his chair again. ‘ Young man, you are right! He ought not to see a line of that stuff! Burn it, sir! Burn it! What devils there are!’
But he was correct about the responsibility, for it was a big one for any fellow, old or young. It included many of the applications for pardons and all of these were at one time in my keeping. I remember some of them and what became of them. There were those who grumbled at Mr. Lincoln’s strong objection to any kind of capital punishment and his tendencies toward mercy for all sinners. I may have been one of these. There came, one day, a pile of influential petitions on behalf of a southwestern guerrilla. He was unquestionably a red-handed murderer, but the movement in his favor was a strong one. It included even loyal politicians, and next day a gang of big men of several kinds came up to see the President about it. They spoke of the high character of the papers in the case and t hese were sent for, but they were not in my possession. They may have been duly referred and transferred to the War Office, as was sometimes the custom. Inquiry was made there, but the papers could not be found. The delegation went its way and that application for pardon was hung up. So was the guerrilla who was the most interested person in the case; hardly had that fact been telegraphed before all the missing papers arrived at the White House. I think Mr. Lincoln did no more than look sidewise at me and I am sure he made no verbal commentary.
Nor have I forgotten the almost daily communications from ‘The Angel Gabriel,’ who professed to write in blood that appeared to me more like an inferior variety of cheap red ink. Besides, the angel mixed his inspiration terrifically and some of his work would have read well in Puck. One day there came a really curious paper which afterward perished with my collection of autographs in Arkansas. It purported to come from the spirits of a score or more of the old worthies of the Republic and it was certainly a strong and dignified document of advice and encouragement which would not have disgraced any of them. It was signed with the signatures of George Washington, John Hancock, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others, as perfectly as the most expert forger could have done it if he had traced the names over the printed copy of the Declaration of Independence. It was a queer thing and so were all the letters from simple people who wished that the President would kindly step around among the several departments and attend to their business for them. Even inventors asked him to see about their patents and hurry them up.
Naturally, one of the important problems before the Administration was the procuring of guns and ammunition for the armies it was gathering. With the general perplexities of the War Department I had nothing to do, but a part of them speedily drifted into my northeast room. Every proposed vender of condemned European firelocks was possessed by the idea that he might make a sale of them if he could induce the President to overrule the decisions of the Bureau of Ordnance. In each case of that kind, I was likely to have a specimen gun deposited in the corner. At the same time there came to the front a large number of inventors, and some of them had practical ideas and some had not.
At the first, however, I had an opportunity for studying quite a number of out-and-out cranks. I remember in particular one enthusiast who had invented a curious kind of far-shooting rifle the weight of which required it to be mounted upon a spider wheel as high as your shoulder. Oh, how that genius did abuse the President for his inability to appreciate the spider-wheel gun and for his general bad management of the war!
Then there came other curiosities, one after another, until my room looked like a gunshop. On my table at one time were specimens of steel cuirasses, designed for the loading-down of our volunteers on forced marches in hot weather. Another item was a devilish kind of hand grenade, made to burst on striking and to scatter bits of iron in all directions. Swords were on hand in several patterns and so were various descriptions of cannon. Mr. Lincoln was really deeply interested in the gunnery business and had ideas of his own far in advance of some which were entertained by a few venerable gentlemen in the War Department.
‘Stoddard,’ he said one evening, ‘ they say you are a pretty good marksman. I want you to be here early tomorrow morning; say half-past six. We ‘ll go out to the Mall and try some of these guns.’
The Mall is the wide grassy slope from the White House grounds to the Potomac and at that time it was badly littered with rubbish. Out in the middle of it was a huge pile of old building lumber. This was just the thing to set up a target on. I was at my room good and early and I did not have to wait long before in came the President.
‘Well,’ he remarked, ‘you did n’t keep me waiting. Now you take that thing and I ‘ll take this and we ‘ll go right along.’
The weapon assigned to me was a breechloader made over from an old Springfield smoothbore musket. The new arrangement was a kind of screw twist and was fitted somewhat loosely. It carried the old cartridges, of which he brought a supply. His own gun was a well-made affair, resembling the Spencer carbine.
A hundred yards were paced off and a target was set against the lumber. We took turns in firing and I soon discovered two things. One was that the old Springfield barrel carried first-rate and the other was that Mr. Lincoln was anything but a crack shot.
But there was trouble on the way. Washington was then little better than a fortified camp, and stringent military orders were out, forbidding all kinds of firing within the city or camp limits. There were guards set everywhere and one had been posted on the avenue at the entrance to the Mall. It consisted of a very short corporal and four men and it was now coming after us at a double-quick — and swearing. The guard came within talking range just before the piece went off.
‘Stop that firing! Stop that firing!' shouted the corporal. But at that moment the gun went off.
The corporal was within a few paces when the President slowly uncoiled himself and rose to his feet. He looked like a very tall man and he may have looked even taller to the angry little warrior who put out a hand to take the culprit in charge. The other soldiers were first in catching the joke, as Air. Lincoln looked smilingly down into the face of the corporal. It was ‘ ‘bout face ‘ in a twinkling and they set out toward the avenue at a better pace than that at which they had come. I only heard, as they went, some confused ejaculations, ‘We’ve been cussin’ Old Abe himself!'
He was laughing in his half-silent, peculiar way.
‘Well, Stoddard,’ he said, ‘they might have stayed to see the shooting.’
The fact that Mr. Lincoln was a total-abstinence man was well known in Illinois, but not so well elsewhere. Of that fact I received a somewhat peculiar illustration. Very naturally it was understood all over the country that the Executive Mansion was a place of necessarily expensive hospitality. It may have been with this idea in their heads that several of his admirers in New York clubbed together to send him a fine assortment of wines and liquors without letting him know precisely from whom it came. It was an altogether unexpected kind of elephant and Mrs. Lincoln at once sent for me in a good deal of a quandary as to what she was to do. I went down to look at it, but all I could discover was that the assortment was miscellaneously generous.
‘But, Mr. Stoddard,’ said Mrs. Lincoln in evident dismay, ‘what is to be done? Mr. Lincoln never touches any and I never use any. Here it all is, and these gentlemen — what is to be said to them? ‘
I had to laugh at her discomfiture, but advised that the only course I could see was to acknowledge the gift in due form to the only address that was provided. As for the wines and liquors, she had better send them to her favorite hospitals and let the nurses and doctors take the responsibility of their future.
‘That’s what I’ll do!’ she exclaimed, and that was the end of it, for she was positive that her husband would not allow it to remain in his own house.
There came an evening, a dark one, not long before the army was called upon to march up the river to Antietam Creek and meet the invading force under General Lee, when a fine opportunity was given me for understanding the real nature of the truce between the civil and the military powers of the country. I was sitting at my desk. The hall door was open and I was so absorbed in some epistle or other that I heard no sound of anyone coming in to interrupt me until a low voice at my shoulder said to me: —
‘ Leave that and come with me. I am going over to McClellan’s house.’ I arose at once, but did so without any reply whatever, for there was something in Mr. Lincoln’s voice and manner that seemed to forbid any remarks on my part. He was arrayed in a black frock uniform. Down we went and out, and the distance to be traveled was not long. He did not utter one word nor did I, for I was strongly impressed with the fact that there was something on his mind. All the while a kind of rebellious feeling was growing within me, for I inwardly growled because the President ought to have sent for his subordinate, commanding him to come, instead of going to call upon him.
The house was reached and we were shown into a well-furnished front parlor with the usual fireplace and mantel and a centre table. I went over to the right and sat down in a chair, but the President took a seat in the middle of the room. He was calm, steady, even smiling, but in half a minute there was no room there at all. Only Abraham Lincoln, filling the place brim full. Our names had been carried upstairs, I knew, but long minutes went by and I felt the hot blood surging into my cheeks, hotter and hotter with every moment of what seemed to me a disrespectful waiting-time. Not so the great man over there beyond the table, for he was as cool and solid as ice. Then — for the hall door was open — a kind of jingle, and slow, descending footsteps were heard from the stairs. It was the great general himself, in full uniform, followed by his chief of staff, General Marcy, and an army colonel. In dress uniform with their swords they were a brilliant trio. General McClellan may have thought that he had come downstairs to receive the President formally and impressively, but he was altogether mistaken. He entered that parlor to be received there, very kindly, by President Abraham Lincoln, who somehow had taken possession and was the only man in the room.
The conference began almost immediately, for a kind of report of the situation and of plans was plainly called for. It was given, in a masterly way, by McClellan. He was a man of nerve strength, and I admired him as he went on into what was made more and more evidently a grand wrestling-match, with the control of the armies for the prize. Also the future control of the political situation or field and the next Presidency of the United States. That important point was really settled before the match was over — for it was a long one. Lincoln listened well and he said little, at first. Then, a word at a time, he began to open, expanding visibly as he went on, and the match became intensely interesting. Grapple after grapple, tug, strain — down you go! Perfect accord, perfect good will, perfect good manners, not a trace of excitement on either side. There was, in fact, a mutual yielding of many points under discussion, but at the end of it they had all been surrendered by General McClellan, with the courteous assistance of that handsome and capable chief of staff, General Marcy. Silence was my stronghold, and I held it tenaciously. A close came, and Mr. Lincoln and I were ceremoniously shown to the door. The parlor we left behind us was still, to my mind, full of Mr. Lincoln, although he had walked out. Never before had I so fully appreciated the human will in its greatest power.
Not many days afterward, General McClellan led his forces up the valley to the battles of South Mountain and Antietam. Both were reported as victories and General Lee was driven back into Virginia, but there was believed to be a fault, somewhere, in the very fact that he was permitted to got away. However that may be, the echoes of our first really great victory in a contested field were still reverberating over the country and finding their sonorous way back to Washington when, one afternoon, as I sat at my table, John Hay came hastily in with a sheet of foolscap paper in his hand and a flush on his face.
‘Stod,’ he said, ‘the President wants you to make two copies of this right away. I must go back to him — ‘
I took the paper and some fresh sheets and went at it, mechanically, in the ordinary course of business. Then, as I went on from sentence to sentence, word for word, I wrote more slowly and with a queer kind of tremor. I was copying from Abraham Lincoln’s own draft of the first Emancipation Proclamation. The copies went back to him, care of John Hay, and the original remained in my drawer, until one day John came for it to send it to Chicago for use at the great patriotic Fair there, where it was subsequently burned up in the great fire.
I was sitting at my work one evening when the door opened and Mr. Lincoln came in. ‘I reckoned I’d find you here. I am going to the theatre to see Hackett play Falstaff, and I want you to come with me. I ‘ve always wanted to see him in that character. Come to my room. It’s about time to go.’
I was already in evening dress. We went over into his office and I believed that he was all the while trying to put away from him his load of thoughts. If he had landed his cares upon the Cabinet table they would have been stacked ten feet high. I do not now remember anything else that took place until we were seated in the Executive box at the theatre. There were some persons, even then, who criticized the President severely for his heartlessness in ever going to a theatre or listening to music at a time when the affairs of the nation required his devotion. They were represented at Ford’s that night in a peculiar and offensive manner which would have given them complete satisfaction. The house was crowded and there were many soldiers in uniform who had obtained furloughs for an evening’s relief from the dull monotony of camp life.
Hackett had not yet made his appearance when there came a brief and unexpected experience. One of the President’s critics had a seat back toward the entrance. He arose upon his feet, and shouted out: —
‘There he is! That’s all he cares for his poor soldiers!’ And other words were added which I cannot now recall.
The President did not move a muscle, but a soldier instantly sprang up, declaring vociferously: —
‘De President haf a right to his music! Put out dot feller! De President ees all right! Let him haf his music!’
There was a confused racket for a few seconds and then the luckless critic went out of the theatre, borne upon the strong arms of several others in uniform who agreed with their German comrade.
‘Stanton says this is the darkest day of the war. It seems as if the bottom had dropped out,’ John Hay called into my room one eventful day.
The Army of the Potomac, after its weary history on the Peninsula, had been reënforced and put under the command of ‘ Fighting Joe ‘ Hooker. It is of no use here to put in any mention of the difficulties and jealousies, or even of the military errors, which were said to have interfered with the efficiency of that magnificent army. It is enough to say that it fought the battle of Chancellorsville splendidly, heroically, and that it was defeated, as many a gallant army has been. The losses on either side were severe. I recall those of the Confederates at about twelve thousand, ‘ killed and wounded,’ and those of our army at about seventeen thousand, ‘killed, wounded, and prisoners.’ The figures were appalling. That was an awful day in Washington. In the minds of all were the protests and the mourning which would quickly come down from the North for this one more lost battle and for its dead. I remember that upon my table, that very day, lay a perfect mass of letters, from friends and foes, telling the discontent, the anger, the despondency, of the American people, and I had not wished to tell the President one word of their contents. The whole city seemed dead, that day. Men and women went hither and thither as usual, but there were no crowds lingering around the telegraph bulletins. Men came and looked at them and shook their heads and walked away. At the White House it was as still as the grave. My mail was a large one. I had been hindered greatly by other duties and it had accumulated, compelling me, as it often did, to toil on into late hours.
I had been out to my dinner long ago. I do not know what had become of Nicolay and Hay. My door was open, however, and at last I saw men come out of Lincoln’s office and walk slowly away. I can recall Seward, Halleck, Stanton, but after they had departed I believed myself to be alone on that floor of the Executive Mansion except for the President in his room across the hall. It was then about nine o’clock, for I looked at my watch. It seemed as if the rooms and hall were full of shadows, some of which came in and sat down by me to ask me what I thought would become of the Union cause and the country. Not long afterward a dull, regularly repeated sound came out of Lincoln’s room through its half-open door. I listened, listened, and became aware that this was the measured tread of the President’s feet, as he walked steadily to and fro, up and down, on the farther side, beyond the Cabinet table, from wall to wall. He must have been listening to a great many weird utterances, as he walked and as he turned at the wall at either end of his ceaseless promenade.
Ten o’clock came and found me still busy with my papers, but whenever I paused to endorse one of them I could hear the tread of the feet in that other room. The sound had become such a half-heard monotony that when, just at twelve o’clock midnight, it suddenly ceased, the silence startled me into listening. I did not dare to go and look in upon him, but what a silence that was! It may have continued during many minutes. Then the silence was broken and the sound of the heavy feet began again. One o’clock came and I still had much work before me. At times Mr. Lincoln’s pace quickened as if under the spur of some burst of feeling.
Two o’clock came, for I again looked at my watch, and Lincoln was walking still. It was a vigil with God and with the future, and a long wrestle with disaster and, it may be, with himself — for he was weary of delays and sore with defeats. It was almost three o’clock when my own long task was done and I arose to go, but I did not so much as peer through the narrow opening of the President’s doorway. It would have been a kind of profanity. At the top of the stairway, however, I paused and listened before going down, and the last sound that I heard and that seemed to go out of the house with me was the sentry-like tread with which the President was marching on into the coming day.
I went home weary enough, but did not go to bed. I remember taking a bath and then a breakfast at Gautier’s restaurant on the avenue. My table was still heavily loaded and I knew fresh duties were at hand. It was therefore not yet eight o’clock when I was once more at the White House, letting myself in with my latchkey. It was a bright sunlit morning, without a cloud in the sky.
On reaching the second floor I saw the President’s door wide open and looked in. There he sat, near the end of the Cabinet table, with a breakfast before him. Just beyond the cup of coffee at his right lay a sheet of foolscap paper, covered with fresh writing in his own hand. They were the orders under which General Meade shortly took Hooker’s place and marched on to Gettysburg. That long night vigil and combat had been a victory, for he turned to me with a bright and smiling face and talked with me as cheerfully as if he had not been up all night in that room, face to face with — Chancellorsville.