Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories

Leonard Swett told this eminently characteristic story:

"I remember one day being in his room when Lincoln was sitting at
his table with a large pile of papers before him, and after a
pleasant talk he turned quite abruptly and said: 'Get out of the
way, Swett; to-morrow is butcher-day, and I must go through these
papers and see if I cannot find some excuse to let these poor
fellows off.'

"The pile of papers he had were the records of courts-martial of
men who on the following day were to be shot."

It took quite a long time, as well as the lives of thousands of
men, to say nothing of the cost in money, to take Richmond, the
Capital City of the Confederacy. In this cartoon, taken from
"Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper," of February 21, 1863,
Jeff Davis is sitting upon the Secession eggs in the "Richmond"
nest, smiling down upon President Lincoln, who is up to his waist
in the Mud of Difficulties.

The President finally waded through the morass, in which he had
become immersed, got to the tree, climbed its trunk, reached the
limb, upon which the "bad bird" had built its nest, threw the
mother out, destroyed the eggs of Secession and then took the
nest away with him, leaving the "bad bird" without any home at

The "bad bird" had its laugh first, but the last laugh belonged
to the "mudsill," as the cartoonist was pleased to call the
President of the United States. It is true that the President got
his clothes and hat all covered with mud, but as the job was a
dirty one, as well as one that had to be done, the President
didn't care. He was able to get another suit of clothes, as well
as another hat, but the "bad bird" couldn't, and didn't, get
another nest.

The laugh was on the "bad bird" after all.

Once, when asked what he remembered about the war with Great
Britain, Lincoln replied: "Nothing but this: I had been fishing
one day and caught a little fish, which I was taking home. I met
a soldier in the road, and, having been always told at home that
we must be good to the soldiers, I gave him my fish."

This must have been about 1814, when "Abe" was five years of age.

Lincoln was once associate counsel for a defendant in a murder
case. He listened to the testimony given by witness after witness
against his client, until his honest heart could stand it no
longer; then, turning to his associate, he said: "The man is
guilty; you defend him--I can't," and when his associate secured
a verdict of acquittal, Lincoln refused to share the fee to the
extent of one cent.

Lincoln would never advise clients to enter into unwise or unjust
lawsuits, always preferring to refuse a retainer rather than be a
party to a case which did not commend itself to his sense of

General Creswell called at the White House to see the President
the day of the latter's assassination. An old friend, serving in
the Confederate ranks, had been captured by the Union troops and
sent to prison. He had drawn an affidavit setting forth what he
knew about the man, particularly mentioning extenuating

Creswell found the President very happy. He was greeted with:
"Creswell, old fellow, everything is bright this morning. The War
is over. It has been a tough time, but we have lived it out,--or
some of us have," and he dropped his voice a little on the last
clause of the sentence. "But it is over; we are going to have
good times now, and a united country."

General Creswell told his story, read his affidavit, and said, "I
know the man has acted like a fool, but he is my friend, and a
good fellow; let him out; give him to me, and I will be
responsible that he won't have anything more to do with the

"Creswell," replied Mr. Lincoln, "you make me think of a lot of
young folks who once started out Maying. To reach their
destination, they had to cross a shallow stream, and did so by
means of an old flatboat. When the time came to return, they
found to their dismay that the old scow had disappeared. They
were in sore trouble, and thought over all manner of devices for
getting over the water, but without avail.

"After a time, one of the boys proposed that each fellow should
pick up the girl he liked best and wade over with her. The
masterly proposition was carried out, until all that were left
upon the island was a little short chap and a great, long,
gothic-built, elderly lady.

"Now, Creswell, you are trying to leave me in the same
predicament. You fellows are all getting your own friends out of
this scrape; and you will succeed in carrying off one after
another, until nobody but Jeff Davis and myself will be left on
the island, and then I won't know what to do. How should I feel?
How should I look, lugging him over?

"I guess the way to avoid such an embarrassing situation is to
let them all out at once."

He made a somewhat similar illustration at an informal Cabinet
meeting, at which the disposition of Jefferson Davis and other
prominent Confederates was discussed. Each member of the Cabinet
gave his opinion; most of them were for hanging the traitors, or
for some severe punishment. President Lincoln said nothing.

Finally, Joshua F. Speed, his old and confidential friend, who
had been invited to the meeting, said, "I have heard the opinion
of your Ministers, and would like to hear yours."

"Well, Josh," replied President Lincoln, "when I was a boy in
Indiana, I went to a neighbor's house one morning and found a boy
of my own size holding a coon by a string. I asked him what he
had and what he was doing.

"He says, 'It's a coon. Dad cotched six last night, and killed
all but this poor little cuss. Dad told me to hold him until he
came back, and I'm afraid he's going to kill this one too; and
oh, "Abe," I do wish he would get away!'

"'Well, why don't you let him loose?'

"'That wouldn't be right; and if I let him go, Dad would give me
h--. But if he got away himself, it would be all right.'

"Now," said the President, "if Jeff Davis and those other fellows
will only get away, it will be all right. But if we should catch
them, and I should let them go, 'Dad would give me h--!'"

Don Piatt, a noted journalist of Washington, told the story of
the first proposition to President Lincoln to issue
interest-bearing notes as currency, as follows:

"Amasa Walker, a distinguished financier of New England,
suggested that notes issued directly from the Government to the
people, as currency, should bear interest. This for the purpose,
not only of making the notes popular, but for the purpose of
preventing inflation, by inducing people to hoard the notes as an
investment when the demands of trade would fail to call them into
circulation as a currency.

"This idea struck David Taylor, of Ohio, with such force that he
sought Mr. Lincoln and urged him to put the project into
immediate execution. The President listened patiently, and at the
end said, 'That is a good idea, Taylor, but you must go to Chase.
He is running that end of the machine, and has time to consider
your proposition.'

"Taylor sought the Secretary of the Treasury, and laid before him
Amasa Walker's plan. Secretary Chase heard him through in a cold,
unpleasant manner, and then said: 'That is all very well, Mr.
Taylor; but there is one little obstacle in the way that makes
the plan impracticable, and that is the Constitution.'

"Saying this, he turned to his desk, as if dismissing both Mr.
Taylor and his proposition at the same moment.

"The poor enthusiast felt rebuked and humiliated. He returned to
the President, however, and reported his defeat. Mr. Lincoln
looked at the would-be financier with the expression at times so
peculiar to his homely face, that left one in doubt whether he
was jesting or in earnest. 'Taylor!' he exclaimed, 'go back to
Chase and tell him not to bother himself about the Constitution.
Say that I have that sacred instrument here at the White House,
and I am guarding it with great care.'

"Taylor demurred to this, on the ground that Secretary Chase
showed by his manner that he knew all about it, and didn't wish
to be bored by any suggestion.

"'We'll see about that,' said the President, and taking a card
from the table, he wrote upon it

"'The Secretary of the Treasury will please consider Mr.
Taylor's proposition. We must have money, and I think this a
good way to get it.


Among the men whom Captain Lincoln met in the Black Hawk campaign
were Lieutenant-Colonel Zachary Taylor, Lieutenant Jefferson
Davis, President of the Confederacy, and Lieutenant Robert
Anderson, all of the United States Army.

Judge Arnold, in his "Life of Abraham Lincoln," relates that
Lincoln and Anderson did not meet again until some time in 1861.
After Anderson had evacuated Fort Sumter, on visiting Washington,
he called at the White House to pay his respects to the
President. Lincoln expressed his thanks to Anderson for his
conduct at Fort Sumter, and then said:

"Major, do you remember of ever meeting me before?"

"No, Mr. President, I have no recollection of ever having had
that pleasure."

"My memory is better than yours," said Lincoln; "you mustered me
into the service of the United States in 1832, at Dixon's Ferry,
in the Black Hawk war."

In February, 1860, not long before his nomination for the
Presidency, Lincoln made several speeches in Eastern cities.
To an Illinois acquaintance, whom he met at the Astor House,
in New York, he said: "I have the cottage at Springfield,
and about three thousand dollars in money. If they make me
Vice-President with Seward, as some say they will, I hope
I shall be able to increase it to twenty thousand, and that
is as much as any man ought to want."

In September, 1864, a New York paper printed the following brutal

"A few days after the battle of Antietam, the President was
driving over the field in an ambulance, accompanied by Marshal
Lamon, General McClellan and another officer. Heavy details of
men were engaged in the task of burying the dead. The ambulance
had just reached the neighborhood of the old stone bridge, where
the dead were piled highest, when Mr. Lincoln, suddenly slapping
Marshal Lamon on the knee, exclaimed: 'Come, Lamon, give us that
song about "Picayune Butler"; McClellan has never heard it.'

"'Not now, if you please,' said General McClellan, with a
shudder; 'I would prefer to hear it some other place and time.'"

President Lincoln refused to pay any attention to the story,
would not read the comments made upon it by the newspapers, and
would permit neither denial nor explanation to be made. The
National election was coming on, and the President's friends
appealed to him to settle the matter for once and all. Marshal
Lamon was particularly insistent, but the President merely said:

"Let the thing alone. If I have not established character enough
to give the lie to this charge, I can only say that I am mistaken
in my own estimate of myself. In politics, every man must skin
his own skunk. These fellows are welcome to the hide of this one.
Its body has already given forth its unsavory odor."

But Lamon would not "let the thing alone." He submitted to
Lincoln a draft of what he conceived to be a suitable
explanation, after reading which the President said:

"Lamon, your 'explanation' is entirely too belligerent in tone
for so grave a matter. There is a heap of 'cussedness' mixed up
with your usual amiability, and you are at times too fond of a
fight. If I were you, I would simply state the facts as they
were. I would give the statement as you have here, without the
pepper and salt. Let me try my hand at it."

The President then took up a pen and wrote the following, which
was copied and sent out as Marshal Lamon's refutation of the
shameless slander:

"The President has known me intimately for nearly twenty years,
and has often heard me sing little ditties. The battle of
Antietam was fought on the 17th day of September, 1862. On the
first day of October, just two weeks after the battle, the
President, with some others, including myself, started from
Washington to visit the Army, reaching Harper's Ferry at noon of
that day.

"In a short while General McClellan came from his headquarters
near the battleground, joined the President, and with him
reviewed the troops at Bolivar Heights that afternoon, and at
night returned to his headquarters, leaving the President at
Harper's Ferry.

"On the morning of the second, the President, with General
Sumner, reviewed the troops respectively at Loudon Heights and
Maryland Heights, and at about noon started to General
McClellan's headquarters, reaching there only in time to see very
little before night.

"On the morning of the third all started on a review of the Third
Corps and the cavalry, in the vicinity of the Antietam
battle-ground. After getting through with General Burnside's
corps, at the suggestion of General McClellan, he and the
President left their horses to be led, and went into an ambulance
to go to General Fitz John Porter's corps, which was two or three
miles distant.

"I am not sure whether the President and General McClellan were
in the same ambulance, or in different ones; but myself and some
others were in the same with the President. On the way, and on no
part of the battleground, and on what suggestions I do not
remember, the President asked me to sing the little sad song that
follows ("Twenty Years Ago, Tom"), which he had often heard me
sing, and had always seemed to like very much.

"After it was over, some one of the party (I do not think it was
the President) asked me to sing something else; and I sang two or
three little comic things, of which 'Picayune Butler' was one.
Porter's corps was reached and reviewed; then the battle-ground
was passed over, and the most noted parts examined; then, in
succession, the cavalry and Franklin's corps were reviewed, and
the President and party returned to General McClellan's
headquarters at the end of a very hard, hot and dusty day's work.

"Next day (the 4th), the President and General McClellan visited
such of the wounded as still remained in the vicinity, including
the now lamented General Richardson; then proceeded to and
examined the South-Mountain battle-ground, at which point they
parted, General McClellan returning to his camp, and the
President returning to Washington, seeing, on the way, General
Hartsoff, who lay wounded at Frederick Town.

"This is the whole story of the singing and its surroundings.
Neither General McClellan nor any one else made any objections to
the singing; the place was not on the battle-field; the time was
sixteen days after the battle; no dead body was seen during the
whole time the President was absent from Washington, nor even a
grave that had not been rained on since the time it was made."

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