Upstairs at the White House: Mr. Lincoln's Bedroom

President Lincoln was a light and often troubled sleeper. "His White House bed, nine feet long, nearly nine feet high at the headboard, had bunches of grapes, and flying birds carved in its black walnut. Nearby was a marble-topped table with four stork-shaped legs; under its center was a bird's nest of black walnut filled with little wooden bird eggs," noted Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg.1 His bedroom was one of the few places in the White House in which he could escape the opportuning of politicians, but Mr. Lincoln once remarked that New York Senator Ira Harris was so persistent that he had to check beneath his bed every night before retiring to see if Harris was lurking there. One White House guest recalled waking the President late one night. When he apologized to Mr. Lincoln, “He replied in a good humored manner, saying: ‘No, no! You did right: you may waken me up whenever you please. I have slept with one eye open ever since I came to Washington; I never close both, except when an office-seeker is looking for me.’”2

The Presidency was a grueling experience for Mr. Lincoln and his health suffered. Often, he did not sleep well. Historian Stephen B. Oates wrote that his health worsened in early 1865: Orville Browning, "who saw him in late February, recorded that Lincoln 'looked badly and felt badly – apparently more depressed that I have seen him since he became President.' Joshua Speed came by for a visit and found Lincoln contending with the usual crowds. 'I am very unwell,' Lincoln admitted to his old friend. 'My feet and hands always cold – I suppose I ought to be in bed.'"3 In November 1863, President Lincoln rested here after contracting variloid, a mild form of small pox. Mr. Lincoln found humor even in his illness, saying, "'At last I have something I can give everybody!"4 On March 14, 1865, a sick President conducted a cabinet meeting here from his bed.

The room was also the site of some notable events in the Lincoln presidency since the President paid particular attention to his dreams. Secretary John Hay noted in December 1863: "The President last night had a dream. He was in a party of plain people and as it became know who he was they began to comment on his appearance. One of them said. "He is a very common-looking man." The President replied, 'Common-looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them.'" Hay then deleted one additional note: "Waking, he remembered it, and told it as rather a neat thing."5

In the last month of his life, Mr. Lincoln had several strange dreams, one of which he related to his wife and Ward Hill Lamon shortly before he was assassinated: "About ten days ago I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully, 'Who is dead in the White House?' I demanded of one of the soldiers. 'The President,' was his answer; 'he was killed by an assassin!' Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd." Mrs. Lincoln was shocked by the story: "That is horrid! I wish you had not told it."6

Tad frequently slept with his father in this room. On the night President Lincoln was assassinated, Tom Pendel put Tad Lincoln to bed here. Writing in Thirty Six Years in the White House, Pendel observed: "At nearly twelve o'clock that night I got Tad somewhat pacified, and took him into the President's room, which is in the southwest portion of the building. I turned down the cover of his little bed, and he undressed and got in. I covered him up and laid down beside him, put my arm around him, and talked to him until he fell into a sound sleep. While I was putting little Tad to bed other men had taken my place at the door, but after he went to sleep I returned to my duty."7

Historian Margaret Leech described how one external observer watched Mr. Lincoln get dressed: "On the Saturday evening of August [1861], when the dinner party took place, Mr. [Nathaniel] P. Willis, proprietor of the successful magazine, the Home Journal, was in the White House grounds, enjoying the open-air concert of the Marine band with the rest of the Washington crowd. Willis was a foppish, middle-aged gentleman, admired for the grace of his literary style in prose and verse, and recently noted for dancing attendance on Mrs. Lincoln. Though he disclaimed any intention of catching a glimpse of the royal entertainment, he had his eyes firmly fixed on the mansion. He was rewarded only by the sight of the President, who, with his knees to his chin, was reading his letters at the window in full view of the south lawn. At half past six, Mr. Willis began to wonder whether 'Abe' would be able to change his gray coat in time for a seven o'clock dinner. At that moment, a servant entered the room, draped a napkin around the President's throat, expeditiously shaved him, and shook the napkin out of the window. Mr. Lincoln's long arms moved about his head. He stooped--'for biforked disencumberment.' Mr. Willis guessed. Presently there came a gleam of white linen. The President's elbows shot out as he tied his cravat. He donned his black coat, and Mr. Willis checked the time by his watch – twenty-two minutes flat." 8

One day, artist Francis Carpenter overheard a conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln as they argued in Mr. Lincoln’s bedroom — as Mrs. Lincoln sought to extort a promise from the President. “You need to be taught a lesson! Promise me what I asked for, or I won’t let go of them,” said Mrs. Lincoln. “Mother, come now! Be reasonable. Look at the clock. I’m already late; let me have them – please! How do you reckon I can go to a cabinet meeting – without my pants!’”.9

Adjacent to the President's bedroom was his dressing room.


Footnotes

    1. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years, p. 389.
    2. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-Day Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 469.
    3. Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 409-410.
    4. Augustin Stucker, Lincoln & Davis: A Dual Biography of America's Civil War Presidents, p. 378.
    5. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln's White House: The complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 132.
    6. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 115-118.
    7. H. Donald Winkler, The Women in Lincoln’s Life, p. 177.
    8. Tom Pendel, Thirty Six Years in the House, p.
    9. Margaret Leech, Reveille in Washington, p. 289.

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