Employees and Staff: William S. Wood

William S. Wood was the Interim Commissioner of Public Buildings at the beginning of the Lincoln Administration. Before the Civil War, Wood had been a hotel manager and a railroad official. At the suggestion of New York Senator William H. Seward and Congressman Erastus Corning, Wood was chosen to supervise the President-elect's train trip from Springfield to Washington in February 1861.

During the trip, he worked his way into the confidence of the President-elect's wife. In his memoirs, journalist Henry Villard wrote that Wood “was a man of comely appearance, greatly impressed with the importance of his mission and inclined to assume airs of consequence and condescension.”1 According to David Rankin Barbee, Wood was a ‘scoundrel’ who ‘was sent to Springfield by the Eastern Railroads to entice Lincoln to make that roundabout journey to Washington for the inauguration. By lies and other propaganda he worked on the imagination of Lincoln until Uncle Abe actually imagined that if he took the direct route to Washington, over the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, he would be assassinated.”2 One observer noted that on the journey to the capital, Wood’s ‘attentions were devoted exclusively to the whims and caprices of Mrs. Lincoln.’” 3

Wood was among a number of flattering but disreputable individuals to whom Mrs. Lincoln was drawn after they presented her with gifts. According to historian Michael Burlingame, “In March, Wood presented the First Lady with a gift of fine horses. She also urged Ward Hill Lamon to use his influence with the president to have Wood, whom she called ‘a clever man,’ well qualified to ‘make an efficient Commissioner,’ appointed despite Lincoln’s misgivings."4 As she sometimes did when she failed to get her way, Mary threw a fit of temper. Lincoln scholar H. Donald Winkler wrote: ‘Mary, in fact, had secured Wood’s appointment by locking herself in her room until Lincoln yielded.”5

Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “While serving as commissioner-of-public-buildings designate...Wood told one Samuel A. Hopkins: ‘I understand that you are here...trying to get work from the government in the way of engraving. I want to tell you, as a friend, that there is no use at all of trying; that the work will be given to the American Bank Note Copany and the National Bank Note Company. When Hopkins protest that his firm could do the work better and cheaper than those competitors, Wood explain the contract would not go to him because Wood himself had an interest in the American Bank Note Company...” Hopkins repeated his conversation to members of Congress, who repeated to President Lincoln, who dismissed Wood.6

Wood accompanied Mrs. Lincoln on her shopping trips to New York to pick out furnishings for the White House. Gossip followed these trips and raised strains in the Lincolns' marriage. "If he continues as commissioner, he will stab you in your most vital part," wrote an anonymous tipster to President Lincoln in June 1861. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: "The president evidently spoke sharply to his wife about the matter. Schuyler Colfax later recalled 'the war she had with Mr. Lincoln' about her relations with Wood. According to Colfax, the Lincolns 'scarcely spoke together for several days. An Iowan, evidently referring to Wood, claimed that Mary Lincoln 'used to often go from the White House to the Astor House in New York to pass the night with a man who held a high government office in Washington, given to him by her husband." 7

Lincoln scholar Daniel Mark Epstein wrote: “While her husband was consumed by urgent political and military business, Mrs. Lincoln was becoming enmeshed in the world of Washington influence peddling and intrigue, flattery and treachery. It is a world that no one can truly comprehend, because the rules of the game played there have never been agreed upon. She thought that William Wood had become indispensable to her, although he was both dishonest an dull-witted.”8 Lincoln scholar Donald Winkler wrote that “the president received an anonymous letter about ‘the scandal of your wife and William S. Wood,’ the commissioner who had traveled occasionally with Mary to Manhattan. If he continues as commissioner, he will stab you in your most vital part,” the unknown correspondent warned. An Iowa dignitary later claimed that Mary ‘used to often go from the White House to the Astor House in New York to pass the night with a man [presumably Wood] who held a high government office in Washington.’ Lincoln spoke sharply to Mary about it. The Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax, called it ‘the war she had with Mr. Lincoln.’ He said the Lincolns ‘scarcely spoke [to each other] for several days.’ Wood later resigned under fire.”9

Ward Hill Lamon defended Mrs. Lincoln from such attacks: "She was a thoroughly good woman; she was just imprudent."10 Whatever the cause, Mrs. Lincoln turned on Wood, perhaps because he tried to reign in her spending on her first trip to New York. She harshly criticized him in letters she wrote during the summer of 1861—while she herself was criticized in the newspaper for a second shopping trip she made in July 1861. It was a reversal of a position that Mrs. Lincoln in a note she sent Senator Orville Browning on July 29, 1861. According to Browning's diary, "Soon after I got back to the Senate a messenger arrived with a very beautiful bouquet from Mrs Lincoln, with a note to me, saying among other things that I would always find a very true friend in her if I would give my influence and support to Mr Woods [sic] when his name came up as Commissioner of public buildings—that he was very popular and very worthy". Two days later, Browning wrote in his diary that Assistant Secretary of the Interior John P. Usher "told me a great deal of scandal about Mrs. Lincoln."11 She also worked on others of Mr. Lincoln's friends, such as Ward Hill Lamon, to secure Wood's appointment. Mr. Lincoln learned enough about Wood, however, to tell Supreme Court Judge David Davis "it would be ruinous to appoint him—ruinous to him."12

Another perspective on Wood's dismissal is given by historian Margaret Leech, who contends that Wood discovered the thievery of gardener James Watt. The revelations "gravely angered Mrs. Lincoln, who wrote secretary Caleb B. Smith that the gardener was 'rigidly exact' in all his accounts. She turned spitefully against Wood, informing Smith that he was the last man who ought to bring a charge against any one, that he was either deranged or drinking." 13 In the summer of 1861, Watt had been padding the White House greenery and probably siphoning money off to give to Mrs. Lincoln. Wood became actively involved in seeking bribes for public contracts – which came to the attention of a House committee. According to Michael Burlingame, Wood was exposed as corrupt by a would-be government printer, Samuel A. Hopkins: "After Hopkins told this story on 30 August 1861 to a congressional committee investigating government contracts, members of the committee promptly informed Lincoln, and Wood was replaced on September 6."14

Mrs. Lincoln appeared pleased when Wood was replaced by Benjamin Brown French. She called Wood "unprincipled” and "a very bad man."15 Criticism followed their overspending of White House accounts, which included $6000 for annual maintenance and another $20,000 for a special redecoration. He was denied Senate confirmation and was out of job — having angered Congress, the President, merchants in Washington and even Mrs. Lincoln when he tried to dismiss gardener John Watt, who was complicit in Mrs. Lincoln's attempts to manipulate White House financial accounts.


Footnotes

    1. Henry Villard, Memoirs of Henry Villard, Volume I, p. 148.
    2. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln's Side: John Hay's Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 190.
    3. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 190.
    4. Michael A. Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 266.
    5. H. Donald Winkler, The Women in Lincoln’s Life, p. 158.
    6. Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 267-268.
    7. Michael A. Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 291-292.
    8. Daniel Mark Epstein, The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, p. 338.
    9. H. Donald Winkler, The Women in Lincoln’s Life, p. 160.
    10. Ruth Painter Randall, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage, p. 276.
    11. Michael A. Burlingame, Hay Letters, p. 186.
    12. Michael A. Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, p. 266.
    13. Margaret Leech, Reveille in Washington, p. 299-300.
    14. Burlingame, Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 192.
    15. Burlingame, Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 192.

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