Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories

Vallandigham died in a most peculiar way some years after the
close of the War, and it was thought by many that his death was
the result of premeditation upon his part.

In August, 1864, the President called for five hundred thousand
more men. The country was much depressed. The Confederates had,
in comparatively small force, only a short time before, been to
the very gates of Washington, and returned almost unharmed.

The Presidential election was impending. Many thought another
call for men at such a time would insure, if not destroy, Mr.
Lincoln’s chances for re-election. A friend said as much to him
one day, after the President had told him of his purpose to make
such a call.

“As to my re-election,” replied Mr. Lincoln, “it matters not. We
must have the men. If I go down, I intend to go, like the
Cumberland, with my colors flying!”

The cartoon reproduced below was published in “Harper’s Weekly”
on January 31st, 1863, the explanatory text, underneath, reading
in this way:

MANAGER LINCOLN: “Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to say that the
tragedy entitled ‘The Army of the Potomac’ has been withdrawn on
account of quarrels among the leading performers, and I have
substituted three new and striking farces, or burlesques, one,
entitled ‘The Repulse of Vicksburg,’ by the well-known favorite,
E. M. Stanton, Esq., and the others, ‘The Loss of the Harriet
Lane,’ and ‘The Exploits of the Alabama’–a very sweet thing in
farces, I assure you–by the veteran composer, Gideon Welles.
(Unbounded applause by the Copperheads).”

In July, after this cartoon appeared, the Army of the Potomac
defeated Lee at Gettysburg, and sounded the death-knell of the
Confederacy; General Hooker, with his corps from this Army opened
the Tennessee River, thus affording some relief to the Union
troops in Chattanooga; Hooker’s men also captured Lookout
Mountain, and assisted in taking Missionary Ridge.

General Grant converted the farce “The Repulse of Vicksburg” into
a tragedy for the Copperheads, taking that stronghold on July
4th, and Captain Winslow, with the Union man-of-war Kearsarge,
meeting the Confederate privateer Alabama, off the coast of
France, near Cherbourg, fought the famous ship to a finish and
sunk her. Thus the tragedy of “The Army of the Potomac” was given
after all, and Playwright Stanton and Composer Welles were
vindicated, their compositions having been received by the public
with great favor.

Secretary of State Seward did not appreciate President Lincoln’s
ability until he had been associated with him for quite a time,
but he was awakened to a full realization of the greatness of the
Chief Executive “all of a sudden.”

Having submitted “Some Thoughts for the President’s
Consideration”–a lengthy paper intended as an outline of the
policy, both domestic and foreign, the Administration should
pursue–he was not more surprised at the magnanimity and kindness
of President Lincoln’s reply than the thorough mastery of the
subject displayed by the President.

A few months later, when the Secretary had begun to understand
Mr. Lincoln, he was quick and generous to acknowledge his power.

“Executive force and vigor are rare qualities,” he wrote to Mrs.
Seward. “The President is the best of us.”

Superintendent Chandler, of the Telegraph Office in the War
Department, once told how President Lincoln wrote telegrams. Said

“Mr. Lincoln frequently wrote telegrams in my office. His method
of composition was slow and laborious. It was evident that he
thought out what he was going to say before he touched his pen to
the paper. He would sit looking out of the window, his left elbow
on the table, his hand scratching his temple, his lips moving,
and frequently he spoke the sentence aloud or in a half whisper.

“After he was satisfied that he had the proper expression, he
would write it out. If one examines the originals of Mr.
Lincoln’s telegrams and letters, he will find very few erasures
and very little interlining. This was because he had them
definitely in his mind before writing them.

“In this he was the exact opposite of Mr. Stanton, who wrote with
feverish haste, often scratching out words, and interlining
frequently. Sometimes he would seize a sheet which he had filled,
and impatiently tear it into pieces.”

Several United States Senators urged President Lincoln to muster
Southern slaves into the Union Army. Lincoln replied:

“Gentlemen, I have put thousands of muskets into the hands of
loyal citizens of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Western North
Carolina. They have said they could defend themselves, if they
had guns. I have given them the guns. Now, these men do not
believe in mustering-in the negro. If I do it, these thousands of
muskets will be turned against us. We should lose more than we
should gain.”

Being still further urged, President Lincoln gave them this

“Gentlemen,” he said, “I can’t do it. I can’t see it as you do.
You may be right, and I may be wrong; but I’ll tell you what I
can do; I can resign in favor of Mr. Hamlin. Perhaps Mr. Hamlin
could do it.”

The matter ended there, for the time being.

The President took a lively interest in all new firearm
improvements and inventions, and it sometimes happened that, when
an inventor could get nobody else in the Government to listen to
him, the President would personally test his gun. A former clerk
in the Navy Department tells an incident illustrative.

He had stayed late one night at his desk, when he heard some one
striding up and down the hall muttering: “I do wonder if they
have gone already and left the building all alone.” Looking out,
the clerk was surprised to see the President.

“Good evening,” said Mr. Lincoln. “I was just looking for that
man who goes shooting with me sometimes.”

The clerk knew Mr. Lincoln referred to a certain messenger of the
Ordnance Department who had been accustomed to going with him to
test weapons, but as this man had gone home, the clerk offered
his services. Together they went to the lawn south of the White
House, where Mr. Lincoln fixed up a target cut from a sheet of
white Congressional notepaper.

“Then pacing off a distance of about eighty or a hundred feet,”
writes the clerk, “he raised the rifle to a level, took a quick
aim, and drove the round of seven shots in quick succession, the
bullets shooting all around the target like a Gatling gun and one
striking near the center.

“‘I believe I can make this gun shoot better,’ said Mr. Lincoln,
after we had looked at the result of the first fire. With this he
took from his vest pocket a small wooden sight which he had
whittled from a pine stick, and adjusted it over the sight of the
carbine. He then shot two rounds, and of the fourteen bullets
nearly a dozen hit the paper!”

General McClellan, aside from his lack of aggressiveness, fretted
the President greatly with his complaints about military matters,
his obtrusive criticism regarding political matters, and
especially at his insulting declaration to the Secretary of War,
dated June 28th, 1862, just after his retreat to the James River.

General Halleck was made Commander-in-Chief of the Union forces
in July, 1862, and September 1st McClellan was called to
Washington. The day before he had written his wife that “as a
matter of self-respect, I cannot go there.” President Lincoln and
General Halleck called at McClellan’s house, and the President
said: “As a favor to me, I wish you would take command of the
fortifications of Washington and all the troops for the defense
of the capital.”

Lincoln thought highly of McClellan’s ability as an organizer and
his strength in defense, yet any other President would have had
him court-martialed for using this language, which appeared in
McClellan’s letter of June 28th:

“If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks
to you or to any other person in Washington. You have done your
best to sacrifice this army.”

This letter, although addressed to the Secretary of War,
distinctly embraced the President in the grave charge of
conspiracy to defeat McClellan’s army and sacrifice thousands of
the lives of his soldiers.

Lincoln was averse to being put up as a military hero.

When General Cass was a candidate for the Presidency his friends
sought to endow him with a military reputation.

Lincoln, at that time a representative in Congress, delivered a
speech before the House, which, in its allusion to Mr. Cass, was
exquisitely sarcastic and irresistibly humorous:

“By the way, Mr. Speaker,” said Lincoln, “do you know I am a
military hero?

“Yes, sir, in the days of the Black Hawk War, I fought, bled, and
came away.

“Speaking of General Cass’s career reminds me of my own.

“I was not at Stillman’s defeat, but I was about as near it as
Cass to Hull’s surrender; and like him I saw the place very soon

“It is quite certain I did not break my sword, for I had none to
break, but I bent my musket pretty badly on one occasion.

“If General Cass went in advance of me picking whortleberries, I
guess I surpassed him in charging upon the wild onion.

“If he saw any live, fighting Indians, it was more than I did,
but I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes, and
although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say that
I was often very hungry.”

Lincoln concluded by saying that if he ever turned Democrat and
should run for the Presidency, he hoped they would not make fun
of him by attempting to make him a military hero.

About March, 1862, General Benjamin F. Butler, in command at
Fortress Monroe, advised President Lincoln that he had determined
to regard all slaves coming into his camps as contraband of war,
and to employ their labor under fair compensation, and Secretary
of War Stanton replied to him, in behalf of the President,
approving his course, and saying, “You are not to interfere
between master and slave on the one hand, nor surrender slaves
who may come within your lines.”

This was a significant milestone of progress to the great end
that was thereafter to be reached.

Mr. Lincoln being found fault with for making another “call,”
said that if the country required it, he would continue to do so
until the matter stood as described by a Western provost marshal,
who says:

“I listened a short time since to a butternut-clad individual,
who succeeded in making good his escape, expatiate most
eloquently on the rigidness with which the conscription was
enforced south of the Tennessee River. His response to a question
propounded by a citizen ran somewhat in this wise:

“‘Do they conscript close over the river?’

“‘Stranger, I should think they did! They take every man who
hasn’t been dead more than two days!’

“If this is correct, the Confederacy has at least a ghost of a
chance left.”

And of another, a Methodist minister in Kansas, living on a small
salary, who was greatly troubled to get his quarterly instalment.
He at last told the non-paying trustees that he must have his
money, as he was suffering for the necessaries of life.

“Money!” replied the trustees; “you preach for money? We thought
you preached for the good of souls!”

“Souls!” responded the reverend; “I can’t eat souls; and if I
could it would take a thousand such as yours to make a meal!”

“That soul is the point, sir,” said the President.

On February 5th, 1865, President Lincoln formulated a message to
Congress, proposing the payment of $400,000,000 to the South as
compensation for slaves lost by emancipation, and submitted it to
his Cabinet, only to be unanimously rejected.

Lincoln sadly accepted the decision, and filed away the
manuscript message, together with this indorsement thereon, to
which his signature was added: “February 5, 1865. To-day these
papers, which explain themselves, were drawn up and submitted to
the Cabinet unanimously disapproved by them.”

When the proposed message was disapproved, Lincoln soberly asked:
“How long will the war last?”

To this none could make answer, and he added: “We are spending
now, in carrying on the war, $3,000,000 a day, which will amount
to all this money, besides all the lives.”

In his youth, Mr. Lincoln once got an idea for a thrilling,
romantic story. One day, in Springfield, he was sitting with his
feet on the window sill, chatting with an acquaintance, when he
suddenly changed the drift of the conversation by saying: “Did
you ever write out a story in your mind? I did when I was a
little codger. One day a wagon with a lady and two girls and a
man broke down near us, and while they were fixing up, they
cooked in our kitchen. The woman had books and read us stories,
and they were the first I had ever heard. I took a great fancy to
one of the girls; and when they were gone I thought of her a
great deal, and one day when I was sitting out in the sun by the
house I wrote out a story in my mind. I thought I took my
father’s horse and followed the wagon, and finally I found it,
and they were surprised to see me. I talked with the girl, and
persuaded her to elope with me; and that night I put her on my
horse, and we started off across the prairie. After several hours
we came to a camp; and when we rode up we found it was the one we
had left a few hours before, and went in. The next night we tried
again, and the same thing happened–the horse came back to the
same place; and then we concluded that we ought not to elope. I
stayed until I had persuaded her father to give her to me. I
always meant to write that story out and publish it, and I began
once; but I concluded that it was not much of a story. But I
think that was the beginning of love with me.”

Lincoln’s reply to a Springfield (Illinois) clergyman, who asked
him what was to be his policy on the slavery question was most

“Well, your question is rather a cool one, but I will answer it
by telling you a story:

“You know Father B., the old Methodist preacher? and you know Fox
River and its freshets?

“Well, once in the presence of Father B., a young Methodist was
worrying about Fox River, and expressing fears that he should be
prevented from fulfilling some of his appointments by a freshet
in the river.

“Father B. checked him in his gravest manner. Said he:

“‘Young man, I have always made it a rule in my life not to
cross Fox River till I get to it.’

“And,” said the President, “I am not going to worry myself over
the slavery question till I get to it.”

A few days afterward a Methodist minister called on the
President, and on being presented to him, said, simply:

“Mr. President, I have come to tell you that I think we have got
to Fox River!”

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