Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories

A. B. Chandler, chief of the telegraph office at the War
Department, occupied three rooms, one of which was called "the
President's room," so much of his time did Mr. Lincoln spend
there. Here he would read over the telegrams received for the
several heads of departments. Three copies of all messages
received were made--one for the President, one for the War
Department records and one for Secretary Stanton.

Mr. Chandler told a story as to the manner in which the President
read the despatches:

"President Lincoln's copies were kept in what we called the
'President's drawer' of the 'cipher desk.' He would come in at
any time of the night or day, and go at once to this drawer, and
take out a file of telegrams, and begin at the top to read them.
His position in running over these telegrams was sometimes very

"He had a habit of sitting frequently on the edge of his chair,
with his right knee dragged down to the floor. I remember a
curious expression of his when he got to the bottom of the new
telegrams and began on those that he had read before. It was,
'Well, I guess I have got down to the raisins.'

"The first two or three times he said this he made no
explanation, and I did not ask one. But one day, after he had
made the remark, he looked up under his eyebrows at me with a
funny twinkle in his eyes, and said: 'I used to know a little
girl out West who sometimes was inclined to eat too much. One day
she ate a good many more raisins than she ought to, and followed
them up with a quantity of other goodies. They made her very
sick. After a time the raisins began to come.

"She gasped and looked at her mother and said: 'Well, I will be
better now I guess, for I have got down to the raisins.'"

"'Honest Abe' Taking Them on the Half-Shell" was one of the
cartoons published in 1860 by one of the illustrated periodicals.
As may be seen, it represents Lincoln in a "Political Oyster
House," preparing to swallow two of his Democratic opponents for
the Presidency--Douglas and Breckinridge. He performed the feat
at the November election. The Democratic party was hopelessly
split in 1860 The Northern wing nominated Stephen A. Douglas, of
Illinois, as their candidate, the Southern wing naming John C.
Breckinridge, of Kentucky; the Constitutional Unionists (the old
American of Know-Nothing party) placed John Bell, of Tennessee,
in the field, and against these was put Abraham Lincoln, who
received the support of the Abolitionists.

Lincoln made short work of his antagonists when the election came
around. He received a large majority in the Electoral College,
while nearly every Northern State voted majorities for him at the
polls. Douglas had but twelve votes in the Electoral College,
while Bell had thirty-nine. The votes of the Southern States,
then preparing to secede, were, for the most part, thrown for
Breckinridge. The popular vote was: Lincoln, 1,857,610; Douglas,
1,365,976; Breckinridge, 847,953; Bell, 590,631; total vote,
4,662,170. In the Electoral College Lincoln received 180;
Douglas, 12; Breckinridge, 72; Bell, 39; Lincoln's majority over
all, 57.

Judge H. W. Beckwith of Danville, Ill., said that soon after the
Ottawa debate between Lincoln and Douglas he passed the Chenery
House, then the principal hotel in Springfield. The lobby was
crowded with partisan leaders from various sections of the state,
and Mr. Lincoln, from his greater height, was seen above the
surging mass that clung about him like a swarm of bees to their
ruler. The day was warm, and at the first chance he broke away
and came out for a little fresh air, wiping the sweat from his

"As he passed the door he saw me," said Judge Beckwith, "and,
taking my hand, inquired for the health and views of his 'friends
over in Vermillion county.' He was assured they were wide awake,
and further told that they looked forward to the debate between
him and Senator Douglas with deep concern. From the shadow that
went quickly over his face, the pained look that came to give way
quickly to a blaze of eyes and quiver of lips, I felt that Mr.
Lincoln had gone beneath my mere words and caught my inner and
current fears as to the result. And then, in a forgiving, jocular
way peculiar to him, he said: 'Sit down; I have a moment to
spare, and will tell you a story.' Having been on his feet for
some time, he sat on the end of the stone step leading into the
hotel door, while I stood closely fronting him.

" You have,' he continued, 'seen two men about to fight?'

"'Yes, many times.'

"'Well, one of them brags about what he means to do. He jumps
high in the air, cracking his heels together, smites his fists,
and wastes his wreath trying to scare somebody. You see the other
fellow, he says not a word,'--here Mr. Lincoln's voice and manner
changed to great earnestness, and repeating--'you see the other
man says not a word. His arms are at his sides, his fists are
closely doubled up, his head is drawn to the shoulder, and his
teeth are set firm together. He is saving his wind for the fight,
and as sure as it comes off he will win it, or die a-trying.'"

Where men bred in courts, accustomed to the world, or versed in
diplomacy, would use some subterfuge, or would make a polite
speech, or give a shrug of the shoulders, as the means of getting
out of an embarrassing position, Lincoln raised a laugh by some
bold west-country anecdote, and moved off in the cloud of
merriment produced by the joke. When Attorney-General Bates was
remonstrating apparently against the appointment of some
indifferent lawyer to a place of judicial importance, the
President interposed with: "Come now, Bates, he's not half as bad
as you think. Besides that, I must tell you, he did me a good
turn long ago. When I took to the law, I was going to court one
morning, with some ten or twelve miles of bad road before me, and
I had no horse.

"The judge overtook me in his carriage.

"'Hallo, Lincoln! are you not going to the court-house? Come in
and I will give you a seat!'

"Well, I got in, and the Judge went on reading his papers.
Presently the carriage struck a stump on one side of the road,
then it hopped off to the other. I looked out, and I saw the
driver was jerking from side to side in his seat, so I says

"'Judge, I think your coachman has been taking a little too much
this morning.'

"'Well, I declare, Lincoln,' said he, 'I should not much wonder
if you were right, for he has nearly upset me half a dozen times
since starting.'

"So, putting his head out of the window, he shouted, 'Why, you
infernal scoundrel, you are drunk!'

"Upon which, pulling up his horses, and turning round with great
gravity, the coachman said:

"'Begorra! that's the first rightful decision that you have
given for the last twelvemonth.'"

While the company were laughing, the President beat a quiet
retreat from the neighborhood.

After the War was well on, and several battles had been fought,
a lady from Alexandria asked the President for an order to
release a certain church which had been taken for a Federal
hospital. The President said he could do nothing, as the post
surgeon at Alexandria was immovable, and then asked the lady why
she did not donate money to build a hospital.

"We have been very much embarrassed by the war," she replied,
"and our estates are much hampered."

"You are not ruined?" asked the President.

"No, sir, but we do not feel that we should give up anything we
have left."

The President, after some reflection, then said: "There are more
battles yet to be fought, and I think God would prefer that your
church be devoted to the care and alleviation of the sufferings
of our poor fellows. So, madam, you will excuse me. I can do
nothing for you."

Afterward, in speaking of this incident, President Lincoln said
that the lady, as a representative of her class in Alexandria,
reminded him of the story of the young man who had an aged father
and mother owning considerable property. The young man being an
only son, and believing that the old people had outlived their
usefulness, assassinated them both. He was accused, tried and
convicted of the murder. When the judge came to pass sentence
upon him, and called upon him to give any reason he might have
why the sentence of death should not be passed upon him, he with
great promptness replied that he hoped the court would be lenient
upon him because he was a poor orphan!


It is true that Lincoln did not drink, never swore, was a
stranger to smoking and lived a moral life generally, but he did
like horse-racing and chicken fighting. New Salem, Illinois,
where Lincoln was "clerking," was known the neighborhood around
as a "fast" town, and the average young man made no very
desperate resistance when tempted to join in the drinking and
gambling bouts.

"Bap." McNabb was famous for his ability in both the raising and
the purchase of roosters of prime fighting quality, and when his
birds fought the attendance was large. It was because of the
"flunking" of one of "Bap.'s" roosters that Lincoln was enabled
to make a point when criticising McClellan's unreadiness and lack
of energy.

One night there was a fight on the schedule, one of "Bap."
McNabb's birds being a contestant. "Bap." brought a little red
rooster, whose fighting qualities had been well advertised for
days in advance, and much interest was manifested in the outcome.
As the result of these contests was generally a quarrel, in which
each man, charging foul play, seized his victim, they chose
Lincoln umpire, relying not only on his fairness but his ability
to enforce his decisions. Judge Herndon, in his "Abraham
Lincoln," says of this notable event:

"I cannot improve on the description furnished me in February,
1865, by one who was present.

"They formed a ring, and the time having arrived, Lincoln, with
one hand on each hip and in a squatting position, cried, 'Ready.'
Into the ring they toss their fowls, 'Bap.'s' red rooster along
with the rest. But no sooner had the little beauty discovered
what was to be done than he dropped his tail and ran.

"The crowd cheered, while 'Bap.,' in disappointment, picked him
up and started away, losing his quarter (entrance fee) and
carrying home his dishonored fowl. Once arrived at the latter
place he threw his pet down with a feeling of indignation and

"The little fellow, out of sight of all rivals, mounted a
woodpile and proudly flirting out his feathers, crowed with all
his might. 'Bap.' looked on in disgust.

"'Yes, you little cuss,' he exclaimed, irreverently, 'you're
great on dress parade, but not worth a darn in a fight."'

It is said, according to Judge Herndon, that Lincoln considered
McClellan as "great on dress parade," but not so much in a fight.

When Lincoln was a candidate of the Know Nothings for the State
Legislature, the party was over-confident, and the Democrats
pursued a stillhunt. Lincoln was defeated. He compared the
situation to one of the camp-followers of General Taylor's army,
who had secured a barrel of cider, erected a tent, and commenced
selling it to the thirsty soldiers at twenty-five cents a drink,
but he had sold but little before another sharp one set up a tent
at his back, and tapped the barrel so as to flow on his side, and
peddled out No. 1 cider at five cents a drink, of course, getting
the latter's entire trade on the borrowed capital.

"The Democrats," said Mr. Lincoln, "had played Knownothing on a
cheaper scale than had the real devotees of Sam, and had raked
down his pile with his own cider!"

Judge H. W. Beckwith, of Danville, Ill., in his "Personal
Recollections of Lincoln," tells a story which is a good example
of Lincoln's way of condensing the law and the facts of an issue
in a story: "A man, by vile words, first provoked and then made a
bodily attack upon another. The latter, in defending himself,
gave the other much the worst of the encounter. The aggressor, to
get even, had the one who thrashed him tried in our Circuit Court
on a charge of an assault and battery. Mr. Lincoln defended, and
told the jury that his client was in the fix of a man who, in
going along the highway with a pitchfork on his shoulder, was
attacked by a fierce dog that ran out at him from a farmer's
dooryard. In parrying off the brute with the fork, its prongs
stuck into the brute and killed him.

"'What made you kill my dog?' said the farmer.

"'What made him try to bite me?'

"'But why did you not go at him with the other end of the

"'Why did he not come after me with his other end?'

"At this Mr. Lincoln whirled about in his long arms an imaginary
dog, and pushed its tail end toward the jury. This was the
defensive plea of 'son assault demesne'--loosely, that 'the other
fellow brought on the fight,'--quickly told, and in a way the
dullest mind would grasp and retain."

The President had decided to select a new War Minister, and the
Leading Republican Senators thought the occasion was opportune to
change the whole seven Cabinet ministers. They, therefore,
earnestly advised him to make a clean sweep, and select seven new
men, and so restore the waning confidence of the country.

The President listened with patient courtesy, and when the
Senators had concluded, he said, with a characteristic gleam of
humor in his eye:

"Gentlemen, your request for a change of the whole Cabinet
because I have made one change reminds me of a story I once heard
in Illinois, of a farmer who was much troubled by skunks. His
wife insisted on his trying to get rid of them.

"He loaded his shotgun one moonlight night and awaited
developments. After some time the wife heard the shotgun go off,
and in a few minutes the farmer entered the house.

"'What luck have you?' asked she.

"'I hid myself behind the wood-pile,' said the old man, 'with
the shotgun pointed towards the hen roost, and before long there
appeared not one skunk, but seven. I took aim, blazed away,
killed one, and he raised such a fearful smell that I concluded
it was best to let the other six go."'

The Senators laughed and retired.

The following story was told by Mr. Lincoln to Mr. A. J. Conant,
the artist, who painted his portrait in Springfield in 1860:

"One day a man who was migrating to the West drove up in front of
my store with a wagon which contained his family and household
plunder. He asked me if I would buy an old barrel for which he
had no room in his wagon, and which he said contained nothing of
special value. I did not want it, but to oblige him I bought it,
and paid him, I think, half a dollar for it. Without further
examination, I put it away in the store and forgot all about it.
Some time after, in overhauling things, I came upon the barrel,
and, emptying it upon the floor to see what it contained, I found
at the bottom of the rubbish a complete edition of Blackstone's
Commentaries. I began to read those famous works, and I had
plenty of time; for during the long summer days, when the farmers
were busy with their crops, my customers were few and far
between. The more I read"--this he said with unusual
emphasis--"the more intensely interested I became. Never in my
whole life was my mind so thoroughly absorbed. I read until I
devoured them."

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