Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories

Stanton had little or no sense of humor.

When Secretary Stanton was making a trip up the Broad River in
North Carolina, in a tugboat, a Federal picket yelled out, "What
have you got on board of that tug?"

The severe and dignified answer was, "The Secretaty of War and
Major-General Foster."

Instantly the picket roared back, "We've got Major-Generals
enough up here. Why don't you bring us up some hardtack?"

A story told by a Cabinet member tended to show how accurately
Lincoln could calculate political results in advance--a faculty
which remained with him all his life.

"A friend, who was a Democrat, had come to him early in the
canvass and told him he wanted to see him elected, but did not
like to vote against his party; still he would vote for him, if
the contest was to be so close that every vote was needed.

"A short time before the election Lincoln said to him: 'I have
got the preacher, and I don't want your vote.'"

When General Halleck was Commander-in-Chief of the Union forces,
with headquarters at Washington, President Lincoln unconsciously
played a big practical joke upon that dignified officer. The
President had spent the night at the Soldiers' Home, and the next
morning asked Captain Derickson, commanding the company of
Pennsylvania soldiers, which was the Presidential guard at the
White House and the Home--wherever the President happened to be
--to go to town with him.

Captain Derickson told the story in a most entertaining way:

"When we entered the city, Mr. Lincoln said he would call at
General Halleck's headquarters and get what news had been
received from the army during the night. I informed him that
General Cullum, chief aid to General Halleck, was raised in
Meadville, and that I knew him when I was a boy.

"He replied, 'Then we must see both the gentlemen.' When the
carriage stopped, he requested me to remain seated, and said he
would bring the gentlemen down to see me, the office being on the
second floor. In a short time the President came down, followed
by the other gentlemen. When he introduced them to me, General
Cullum recognized and seemed pleased to see me.

"In General Halleck I thought I discovered a kind of quizzical
look, as much as to say, 'Isn't this rather a big joke to ask the
Commander-in-Chief of the army down to the street to be
introduced to a country captain?'"

A gentleman, visiting a hospital at Washington, heard an occupant
of one of the beds laughing and talking about the President, who
had been there a short time before and gladdened the wounded with
some of his stories. The soldier seemed in such good spirits that
the gentleman inquired:

"You must be very slightly wounded?"

"Yes," replied the brave fellow, "very slightly--I have only lost
one leg, and I'd be glad enough to lose the other, if I could
hear some more of 'Old Abe's' stories."

William B. Wilson, employed in the telegraph office at the War
Department, ran over to the White House one day to summon Mr.
Lincoln. He described the trip back to the War Department in this

"Calling one of his two younger boys to join him, we then started
from the White House, between stately trees, along a gravel path
which led to the rear of the old War Department building. It was
a warm day, and Mr. Lincoln wore as part of his costume a faded
gray linen duster which hung loosely around his long gaunt frame;
his kindly eye was beaming with good nature, and his
ever-thoughtful brow was unruffled.

"We had barely reached the gravel walk before he stooped over,
picked up a round smooth pebble, and shooting it off his thumb,
challenged us to a game of 'followings,' which we accepted. Each
in turn tried to hit the outlying stone, which was being
constantly projected onward by the President. The game was short,
but exciting; the cheerfulness of childhood, the ambition of
young manhood, and the gravity of the statesman were all injected
into it.

"The game was not won until the steps of the War Department were
reached. Every inch of progression was toughly contested, and
when the President was declared victor, it was only by a hand
span. He appeared to be as much pleased as if he had won a

Because of the blockade, by the Union fleets, of the Southern
cotton ports, England was deprived of her supply of cotton, and
scores of thousands of British operatives were thrown out of
employment by the closing of the cotton mills at Manchester and
other cities in Great Britain. England (John Bull) felt so badly
about this that the British wanted to go to war on account of it,
but when the United States eagle ruffled up its wings the English
thought over the business and concluded not to fight.

"Harper's Weekly" of May 16th, 1863, contained the cartoon we
reproduce, which shows John Bull as manifesting much anxiety
regarding the cotton he had bought from the Southern planters,
but which the latter could not deliver. Beneath the cartoon is
this bit of dialogue between John Bull and President Lincoln: MR.
BULL (confiding creature): "Hi want my cotton, bought at fi'pence
a pound."

MR. LINCOLN: "Don't know anything about it, my dear sir. Your
friends, the rebels, are burning all the cotton they can find,
and I confiscate the rest. Good-morning, John!"

As President Lincoln has a big fifteen-inch gun at his side, the
black muzzle of which is pressed tightly against Mr. Bull's
waistcoat, the President, to all appearances, has the best of the
argument "by a long shot." Anyhow, Mr. Bull had nothing more to
say, but gave the cotton matter up as a bad piece of business,
and pocketed the loss.

President Lincoln's first conclusion (that Mason and Slidell
should be released) was the real ground on which the
Administration submitted. "We must stick to American principles
concerning the rights of neutrals." It was to many, as Secretary
of the Treasury Chase declared it was to him, "gall and
wormwood." James Russell Lowell's verse expressed best the
popular feeling:

We give the critters back, John,
Cos Abram thought 'twas right;
It warn't your bullyin' clack, John,
Provokin' us to fight.

The decision raised Mr. Lincoln immeasurably in the view of
thoughtful men, especially in England.

General John C. Fremont, with headquarters at St. Louis,
astonished the country by issuing a proclamation declaring, among
other things, that the property, real and personal, of all the
persons in the State of Missouri who should take up arms against
the United States, or who should be directly proved to have taken
an active part with its enemies in the field, would be
confiscated to public use and their slaves, if they had any,
declared freemen.

The President was dismayed; he modified that part of the
proclamation referring to slaves, and finally replaced Fremont
with General Hunter.

Mrs. Fremont (daughter of Senator T. H. Benton), her husband's
real chief of staff, flew to Washington and sought Mr. Lincoln.
It was midnight, but the President gave her an audience. Without
waiting for an explanation, she violently charged him with
sending an enemy to Missouri to look into Fremont's case, and
threatening that if Fremont desired to he could set up a
government for himself.

"I had to exercise all the rude tact I have to avoid quarreling
with her," said Mr. Lincoln afterwards.

Lincoln's attempt to make a lawyer of himself under adverse and
unpromising circumstances--he was a bare-footed farm-hand
--excited comment. And it was not to be wondered. One old man,
was yet alive as late as 1901, had often employed Lincoln to do
farm work for him, and was surprised to find him one day sitting
barefoot on the summit of a woodpile and attentively reading a

"This being an unusual thing for farm-hands in that early day to
do," said the old man, when relating the story, "I asked him what
he was reading.

"'I'm not reading,' he answered. 'I'm studying.'

"'Studying what?' I inquired.

"'Law, sir,' was the emphatic response.

"It was really too much for me, as I looked at him sitting there
proud as Cicero. 'Great God Almighty!' I exclaimed, and passed
on." Lincoln merely laughed and resumed his "studies."

In a political campaign, Lincoln once replied to Colonel Richard
Taylor, a self-conceited, dandified man, who wore a gold chain
and ruffled shirt. His party at that time was posing as the
hard-working bone and sinew of the land, while the Whigs were
stigmatized as aristocrats, ruffled-shirt gentry. Taylor making a
sweeping gesture, his overcoat became torn open, displaying his
finery. Lincoln in reply said, laying his hand on his jeans-clad

"Here is your aristocrat, one of your silk-stocking gentry, at
your service." Then, spreading out his hands, bronzed and gaunt
with toil: "Here is your rag-basin with lily-white hands. Yes, I
suppose, according to my friend Taylor, I am a bloated

Soon after hostilities broke out between the North and South,
Congress appointed a Committee on the Conduct of the War. This
committee beset Mr. Lincoln and urged all sorts of measures. Its
members were aggressive and patriotic, and one thing they
determined upon was that the Army of the Potomac should move. But
it was not until March that they became convinced that anything
would be done.

One day early in that month, Senator Chandler, of Michigan, a
member of the committee, met George W. Julian. He was in high
glee. "'Old' Abe is mad," said Julian, "and the War will now go

During one of the periods when things were at a standstill, the
Washington authorities, being unable to force General McClellan
to assume an aggressive attitude, President Lincoln went to the
general's headquarters to have a talk with him, but for some
reason he was unable to get an audience.

Mr. Lincoln returned to the White House much disturbed at his
failure to see the commander of the Union forces, and immediately
sent for two general officers, to have a consultation. On their
arrival, he told them he must have some one to talk to about the
situation, and as he had failed to see General McClellan, he
wished their views as to the possibility or probability of
commencing active operations with the Army of the Potomac.

"Something's got to be done," said the President, emphatically,
"and done right away, or the bottom will fall out of the whole
thing. Now, if McClellan doesn't want to use the army for awhile,
I'd like to borrow it from him and see if I can't do something or
other with it.

"If McClellan can't fish, he ought at least to be cutting bait at
a time like this."

After Mr. Lincoln's nomination for the Presidency, the Executive
Chamber, a large, fine room in the State House at Springfield,
was set apart for him, where he met the public until after his

As illustrative of the nature of many of his calls, the following
incident was related by Mr. Holland, an eye-witness: "Mr. Lincoln
being in conversation with a gentleman one day, two raw,
plainly-dressed young 'Suckers' entered the room, and bashfully
lingered near the door. As soon as he observed them, and saw
their embarrassment, he rose and walked to them, saying: 'How do
you do, my good fellows? What can I do for you? Will you sit
down?' The spokesman of the pair, the shorter of the two,
declined to sit, and explained the object of the call thus: He
had had a talk about the relative height of Mr. Lincoln and his
companion, and had asserted his belief that they were of exactly
the same height. He had come in to verify his judgment. Mr.
Lincoln smiled, went and got his cane, and, placing the end of it
upon the wall, said" 'Here, young man, come under here.' "The
young man came under the cane as Mr. Lincoln held it, and when it
was perfectly adjusted to his height, Mr. Lincoln said:

"'Now, come out, and hold the cane.'

"This he did, while Mr. Lincoln stood under. Rubbing his head
back and forth to see that it worked easily under the
measurement, he stepped out, and declared to the sagacious fellow
who was curiously looking on, that he had guessed with remarkable
accuracy--that he and the young man were exactly the same height.
Then he shook hands with them and sent them on their way. Mr.
Lincoln would just as soon have thought of cutting off his right
hand as he would have thought of turning those boys away with the
impression that they had in any way insulted his dignity.

An Ohio Senator had an appointment with President Lincoln at six
o'clock, and as he entered the vestibule of the White House his
attention was attracted toward 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 upstairs, 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

"Well," returned Mr. Lincoln, "I have been 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 armchair. 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.

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