The Life, Public Services and State Papers of Abraham Lincoln

By Henry J. Raymond

Anecdotes and Reminiscences of President Lincoln


A large number of those whom he saw every day came with appeals  to his feelings in reference to relatives and friends in confinement and  under sentence of death. It was a constant marvel to me that, with all his other cares and duties, he could give so much time and be so  patient with this multitude. I have known him to sit for hours lis  tening to details of domestic troubles from poor people--much of which,  of course, irrelevant--carefully sifting the facts, and manifesting as  much anxiety to do exactly right as in matters of the gravest interest.  Poorly-clad people were more likely to get a good hearing than those  who came in silks and velvets. No one was ever turned away from his  door because of poverty. If he erred, it was sure to be on the side  of mercy. It was one of his most painful tasks to confirm a sentence  of death. I recollect the case of a somewhat noted rebel prisoner,  who had been condemned to death, I believe, as a spy. A strong application had been made to have his sentence commuted. While this  was pending, he attempted to escape from confinement, and was shot  by the sentinel on guard. Although he richly deserved death, Mr.  Lincoln remarked in my presence, that "it was a great relief to him  that the man took his fate into his own hands."

"No man in our era," says Mr. Colfax, "clothed with such vast power,  has ever used it so mercifully. No ruler holding the keys of life and  death, ever pardoned so many and so easily. When friends said to  him they wished he had more of Jackson's sternness, he would say,  'I am just as God made me, and cannot change.' It may not be generally known that his door-keepers had standing orders from him that  no matter how great might be the throng, if either senators or representatives had to wait, or to be turned away without an audience, he  must see, before the day closed, every messenger who came to him with  a petition for the saving of life."

A touching instance of his kindness of heart was told me incidentally by one of the servants. A poor woman from Philadelphia had  been waiting, with a baby in her arms, for three days to see the President. Her husband had furnished a substitute for the army, but some  time afterwards became intoxicated while with some companions, and  in this state was induced to enlist. Soon after he reached the army  he deserted, thinking that, as he had provided a substitute, the Government was not entitled to his services. Returning home, he was, of  course, arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to be shot. The sentence was to be executed on Saturday. On Monday his wife left her  home with her baby, to endeavor to see the President. Said old  Daniel, "She had been waiting here three days, and there was no chance  for her to get in. Late in the afternoon of the third day the President  was going through the back passage to his private rooms, to get a cup  of tea or take some rest." (This passage-way has lately been constructed, and shuts the person passing entirely out of view of the  occupants of the ante-room.) "On his way through he heard the  baby cry. He instantly went back to his office and rang the bell.  'Daniel,' said he, 'is there a woman with a baby in the ante-room?' I  said there was, and if he would allow me to say it, I thought it was a  case he ought to see; for it was a matter of life and death. Said he,  'Send her to me at once.' She went in, told her story, and the President pardoned her husband. As the woman came out from his presence, her eyes were lifted and her lips moving in prayer, the tears  streaming down her cheeks." Said Daniel, "I went up to her, and  pulling her shawl, said, 'Madam, it was the baby that did it!'"

Another touching incident occurred, I believe, the same week. A  woman in a faded shawl and hood, somewhat advanced in life, at length  was admitted, in her turn, to the President. Her husband and three sons  all she had in the world, enlisted. Her husband had been killed, and  she had come to ask the President to release to her the oldest son.  Being satisfied of the truthfulness of her story, he said, "Certainly, if  her prop was taken away she was justly entitled to one of her boys."  He immediately wrote an order for the discharge of the young man.  The poor woman thanked him very gratefully, and went away. On  reaching the army she found that this son had been in a recent engagement, was wounded, and taken to a hospital. She found the hospital,  but the boy was dead, or died while she was there. The surgeon in  charge made a memorandum of the facts upon the back of the President order, and, almost broken-hearted, the poor woman found her  way again into his presence. He was much affected by her appearance  and story, and said, "I know what you wish me to do now, and I shall  do it without your asking: I shall release to you your second son."  Upon this he took up his pen and commenced writing the order.  While he was writing the poor woman stood by his side, the tears  running down her face, and passed her hands softly over his head,  stroking his rough hair, as I have seen a fond mother caress a son.  By the time he had finished writing his own heart and eyes were full.  handed her the paper. "Now," said he, "you have one and I one  of the other two left; that is no more than right." She took the paper,  and reverently placing her hand again upon his head, the tears still  upon her cheeks, said, "The Lord bless you, Mr. President! May you  live a thousand years, and always be the head of this great nation!"

One day the Hon. Thaddeus Stevens called with an elderly lady, in  great trouble, whose son had been in the army, but for some offence had been court-martialled, and sentenced either to death or imprisonment at hard labor for a long term, I do not recollect which. There  were some extenuating circumstances, and after a full hearing the President turned to the representative and said: "Mr. Stevens, do you  think this is a case which will warrant my interference?""With my  knowledge of the facts and the parties," was the reply, "I should  have no hesitation in granting a pardon.""Then," returned Mr. Lin  coln, "I will pardon him," and he proceeded forthwith to execute the  paper. The gratitude of the mother was too deep for expression, save  by her tears, and not a word was said between her and Mr. Stevens until  they were half way down the stairs on their passage out, when she suddenly broke forth in an excited manner with the words, "I knew it was  a copperhead lie!""What do you refer to, madam?" asked Mr. Stevens. "Why, they told me he was an ugly-looking man," she replied, with vehemence. "He is the handsomest man I ever saw in  my life!" And surely for that mother, and for many another throughout the land, no carved statue of ancient or modern art, in all its  symmetry, can have the charm which will forevermore encircle that  care-worn but gentle face, expressing as was never expressed before,  "Malice towards none--Charity for all."

M. Laugel, in the Revue des Deux Mondes, relates from personal  observation one or two interesting incidents:--

"A soldiers wife reduced almost to destitution by the absence  of her husband, sought to obtain his discharge from the army-this, Mr. Lincoln told her was beyond his power; but he listened  patiently to the poor creature's tale of suffering and sorrow, cheered  her and comforted her, reminded her how not herself alone, but  the nation generally, were passing through a season of trial, and  dismissed her not only with many kind and thoughtful words, but  with substantial proofs of sympathy." A beautiful and touching  picture M. Laugel places before us of Mr. Lincoln, in that fatal  theatre -- months before the real tragedy which ended his life-listening to that representation of manly sorrow in "King Lear"--with  his little son pressed close to his ample breast, at times answering  patiently the little prattling fellow--then showing in ever feature how  keenly he felt the great dramatist's representation of the sorrows of  paternity. To him Shakspeare was, as to all true men, a great teacher,  whose words cannot be heard too often, and cannot be rendered more  powerful by any extrinsic circumstances. "It matters not to me," he  said one day, "whether Shakspeare be well or ill acted; with him, the  thought suffices."

Here is a characteristic touch of humor as well as pathos;--the incident is strictly true:--

A distinguished citizen of Ohio had an appointment with the President one evening at six o'clock. As he entered the vestibule of the  White House, his attention was attracted by a poorly-clad young woman  who was violently sobbing. He asked her the cause of her distress.  She said she had been ordered away by the servants, after vainly waiting many hours to see the President about her only brother, who had  been condemned to death. Her story was this:--She and her brother  were foreigners, and orphans. They had been in this country several  years. Her brother enlisted in the army, but, through bad influences,  was induced to desert. He was captured, tried, and sentenced to be  shot--the old story. The poor girl had obtained the signatures of  some persons who had formerly known him, to a petition for a pardon,  and alone had come to Washington to lay the case before the President. Thronged as the waiting-rooms always were, she had passed  the long hours of two days trying in vain to get an audience, and had  at length been ordered away.

The gentleman's feelings were touched. He said to her that he had  come to see the President, but did not know as he should succeed. He  told her, however, to follow him up-stairs, and he would see what could  be done for her. Just before reaching the door, Mr. Lincoln came out,  and meeting his friend said good-humoredly, "Are you not ahead of  time?" The gentleman showed him his watch, with the hand upon the  hour of six. "Well," returned Mr. Lincoln, "I have beer! so busy  to-day that I have not had time to get a lunch. Go in, and sit down;  I will be back directly."

The gentleman made the young woman accompany him into the  office, and when they were seated, said to her, "Now, my good girl, I  want you to muster all the courage you have in the world. When the  President comes back, he will sit down in that arm-chair. I shall get up  to speak to him, and as I do so you must force yourself between us,  and insist upon his examination of your papers, telling him it is a case  of life and death, and admits of no delay." These instructions were  carried out to the letter. Mr. Lincoln was at first somewhat surprised  at the apparent forwardness of the young woman, but observing her  distressed appearance, he ceased conversation with his friend, and commenced an examination of the document she had placed in his hands.  Glancing from it to the face of the petitioner, whose tears had broken  forth afresh, he studied its expression for a moment, and then his eye  fell upon her scanty but neat dress. Instantly his face lighted up.

"My poor girl," said he, "you have come here with no governor, of  senator, or member of Congress, to plead your cause. You seem  honest and truthful; and you don't wear hoops--and I will be whipped  but I will pardon your brother."

Though kind-hearted almost to a fault, nevertheless he always endeavored to be just. A member of Congress called upon him one day  with the brother of a deserter who had been arrested. The excuse  was that the soldier had been home on a sick-furlough, and that he  afterwards became partially insane, and had consequently failed to  return and report in proper time. He was on his way to his regiment  at the front to be tried. The President at once ordered him to be  stopped at Alexandria and sent before a board of surgeons for examination as to the question of insanity. "This seemed to me so proper,"  said the representative, "that I expressed myself satisfied. But on  going out, the brother, who was anxious for an immediate discharge,  said to me, 'The trouble with your President is, that he is so afraid  of doing something wrong.'"

A correspondent of the New York Times, writing from Kentucky,  gives the following:--

"Among the large number of persons waiting in the room to  speak with Mr. Lincoln, on a certain day in November last, was a  small, pale, delicate-looking boy about thirteen years old. The  President saw him standing, looking feeble and faint, and said  'Come here, my boy, and tell me what you want.' The boy advanced,  placed his hand on the arm of the President's chair, and with bowed  head and timid accents said: 'Mr. President, I have been a drummer  in a regiment for two years, and my colonel got angry with me and  turned me off; I was taken sick, and have been a long time in hospital. This is the first time I have been out, and I came to see if you  could not do something for me.' The President looked at him kindly  and tenderly, and asked him where he lived. 'I have no home,' answered  the boy. 'Where is our father?''He died in the army,' was the  reply. 'Where is your mother?' continued the President. 'My  mother is dead also. I have no mother, no father, no brothers, no  sisters, and,' bursting into tears, 'no friends--nobody cares for me.'  Mr. Lincoln's eyes filled with tears, and he said to him, 'Can't you sell  newspapers?''No,' said the boy, 'I am too weak, and the surgeon  of the hospital told me I must leave, and I have no money, and no  place to go to.' The scene was wonderfully affecting. The President  drew forth a card, and addressing on it certain officials to whom his request was law, gave special directions 'to care for this poor boy.'  The wan face of the little drummer lit up with a happy smile as he  received the paper, and he went away convinced that he had one good  and true friend, at least, in the person of the President."

Mr. Van Alen, of New York, writing to the Evening Post, relates  the following:--

"I well remember one day when a poor woman sought, with the  persistent affection of a mother, for the pardon of her son condemned to death. She was successful in her petition. When she  had left the room, he turned to me and said: 'Perhaps I have done  wrong, but at all events I have made that poor woman happy.'"

One night Schuyler Colfax left all other business to ask him to  respite the son of a constituent, who was sentenced to be shot, at  Davenport, for desertion. He heard the story with his usual patience,  though he was wearied out with incessant calls, and anxious for rest,  and then replied:--"Some of our generals complain that I impair discipline and subordination in the army by my pardons and respites, but  it makes me rested, after a hard day's work, if I can find some good  excuse for saving a man's life, and I go to bed happy as I think how  joyous the signing of my name will make him and his family and his  friends." And with a happy smile beaming over that care-furrowed  face, he signed that name that saved that life.

Said the Rev. Dr. Storrs, in his eulogy upon Mr. Lincoln, pronounced  at the Brooklyn Academy of Music:--

"Of course his sensibilities came gradually to be under the control of his judgment, and the councils of others constrained him  sometimes to a severity which he hated; so that at length the  order for the merited restraint or punishment of public offenders  was frequently, though always reluctantly, ratified by him. But  his sympathy with men, in whatever condition, of whatever opinions,  in whatever wrongs involved, was so native and constant, and so controlling, that he was always not so much inclined as predetermined  to the mildest and most generous theory possible. And something of peril as well as promise was involved to the public in this  element of his nature. He would not admit that he was in danger of  the very assassination by which at last his life was taken, and only  yielded with a protest to the precautions which others felt bound to  take for him; because his own sympathy with men was so strong that  he could not believe that any would meditate serious harm to him.

The public policy of his administration was constantly in danger of  being too tardy, lenient, pacific toward those who were combined for  deadly battle against the Government, because he was so solicitous to  win, so anxious to bless, and so reluctant sharply to strike. 'Sic semper tyrannis!' shouted his wild theatric assassin, as he leaped upon the  stage, making the ancient motto of Virginia a legend of shame forevermore. But no magistrate ever lived who had less of the tyrant in his  natural or his habitual temper. In all the veins of all his frame no  drop of unsympathetic blood found a channel. When retaliation  seemed the only just policy for the Government to adopt to save its  soldiers from being shot in cold blood or being starved into idiocy, it  was simply impossible for him to adopt it. And if he had met the  arch-conspirators face to face, those who had racked and really enlarged  the English vocabulary to get terms to express their hatred and disgust toward him individually--those who were striking with desperate  blows at the national existence--it would have been hard for him not  to greet them with open hand and a kindly welcome. The very element of sadness, which was so inwrought with his mirthfulness and  humor, and which will look out on coming generations through the  pensive lines upon his face and the light of his pathetic eyes, came  into his spirit or was constantly nursed there through his sympathy  with men, especially with the oppressed and the poor. He took upon  himself the sorrows of others. He bent in extremest personal suffering  under the blows that fell upon his countrymen. And when the bloody  rain of battle was sprinkling the trees and the sod of Virginia during  successive dreary campaigns, his inmost soul felt the baptism of it, and  was sickened with grief. 'I cannot bear it,' he said more than once,  as the story was told him of the sacrifice made to secure some result.  No glow even of triumph could expel from his eyes the tears occasioned  by the suffering that had bought it!"

Too much has not been said of his uniform meekness and kindness  of heart, but there would sometimes be afforded evidence that one  grain of sand too much would break even this camel's back. Among  the callers at the White House one day, was an officer who had  been cashiered from the service. He had prepared an elaborate defence of himself, which he consumed much time in reading to the  President. When he had finished, Mr. Lincoln replied, that even upon  his own statement of the case the facts would not warrant executive  interference. Disappointed, and considerably crest-fallen, the man  withdrew. A few days afterward he made a second attempt to alter.  the President's convictions, going over substantially the same ground, and occupying about the same space of time, but without accomplish  ing his end. The third time he succeeded in forcing himself into Mr.  Lincoln's presence, who with great forbearance listened to another repetition of the case to its conclusion, but made no reply. Waiting for a  moment, the man gathered from the expression of his countenance that  his mind was unconvinced. Turning very abruptly, he said: "Well,  Mr. President, I see that you are fully determined not to do me justice!" This was too aggravating even for Mr. Lincoln. Manifesting,  however, no more feeling than that indicated by a slight compression  of the lips, he very quietly arose, laid down a package of papers he  held in his hand, and then suddenly seizing the defunct officer by the  coat-collar, he marched him forcibly to the door, saying, as he ejected  him into the passage: "Sir, I give you fair warning never to show  yourself in this room again. I can bear censure, but not insult!" In  a whining tone the man begged for his papers which he had dropped.  "Begone, sir," said the President; "your papers will be sent to you.  I never wish to see your face again!"

Late one afternoon a lady with two gentlemen were admitted. She  had come to ask that her husband, who was a prisoner of war, might  be permitted to take the oath and be released from confinement. To  secure a degree of interest on the part of the President, one of the  gentlemen claimed to be an acquaintance of Mrs. Lincoln; this, however, received but little attention, and the President proceeded to ask  what position the lady's husband held in the rebel service. "Oh,"  said she, "he was a captain. "A captain," rejoined Mr. Lincoln;  "indeed, rather too big a fish to set free simply upon his taking the  oath! If he was an officer, it is proof positive that he has been a  zealous rebel; I cannot release him." Here the lady's friend reiterated  the assertion of his acquaintance with Mrs. Lincoln. Instantly the  President's hand was upon the bell-rope. The usher in attendance  answered the summons. "Cornelius, take this man's name to Mrs.  Lincoln, and ask her what she knows of him." The boy presently  returned, with the reply that "the Madam" (as she was called by the  servants) knew nothing of him whatever. "It is just as I suspected,"  said the President. The party made one more attempt to enlist his  sympathy, but without effect. "It is of no use," was the reply. "I  cannot release him!" and the trio withdrew in high displeasure.



Book Navigation Title Page Preface Illustrations Memorandum Table of Contents   ► Chapter I.   ► Chapter II.   ► Chapter III.   ► Chapter IV.   ► Chapter V.   ► Chapter VI.   ► Chapter VII.   ► Chapter VIII.   ► Chapter IX.   ► Chapter X.   ► Chapter XI.   ► Chapter XII.   ► Chapter XIII.   ► Chapter XIV.   ► Chapter XV.   ► Chapter XVI.   ► Chapter XVII.   ► Chapter XVIII.   ► Chapter XIX.   ► Chapter XX.   ► Chapter XXI. Anecdotes and Reminiscences of President Lincoln.   ► Mr. Lincoln's Sadness   ► His Favorite Poem   ► His Religious Experience   ► His Sympathy   ► His Humor, Shrewdness, and Sentiment   ► The Emancipation Proclamation Appendix. Letters on Sundry Occasions.   ► To Mr. Lodges, of Kentucky   ► To General Hooker   ► To John B. Fry   ► To Governor Magoffin   ► To Count Gasparin   ► The President and General McClellan   ► Warnings Against Assassination Reports, Dispatches, and Proclamations Relating to the Assassination.   ► Secretary Stanton to General Dix   ► The Death-Bed   ► The Assassins   ► Reward Offered by Secretary Stanton   ► Flight of the Assassins   ► The Conspiracy Organized in Canada   ► Booth Killed. Harold Captured   ► Reward Offered by President Johnson   ► The Funeral Official Announcements   ► Acting Secretary Hunger to Minister Adams   ► Acting Secretary Hunter to his Subordinates   ► Orders from Secretary Stanton and General Grant   ► Orders from Secretary "Welles   ► Order from Secretary McCulloch   ► Order from Postmaster-General Dennison   ► Proclamation by President Johnson of a Day of Humiliation and Mourning.   ► Secretary Stanton to Minister Adams   ► Important Letter from J. Wilkes Booth   ► Indictment of the Conspirators   ► The Finding of the Court