Mr. Lincoln's Office: Military Visitors
Soldiers were particularly welcome at the White House. “Lincoln’s reception of the soldiers who were among the crowd could not have been more impressive. Small wonder the army adored him,” recalled Grant aide John Eaton.1 Journalist Noah Brooks observed: “Mr. Lincoln’s manner toward enlisted men, with whom he occasionally met and talked, was always delightful in its bonhomie and its absolute freedom from anything like condescension. Then, at least, the ‘common soldier’ was the equal of the chief magistrate of the nation.”2 The President could take a light approach with visiting soldiers, telling one crippled soldier “What, no papers, no credentials, nothing to show how you lost your leg? How am I to know that you lost it in battle, or did not lose it by a trap after getting into somebody’s orchard?”3
Union officer John Cunningham recalled being taken to the White House by his congressman, Orlando Kellogg. “It was a pleasant, warm spring morning and after sitting [in Lafayette Park] a while Mr. Kellogg proposed that we call on the President. I hesitated but he had little trouble in persuading me. Mr. Kellogg had served in the same Congress with Mr. Lincoln and, of course, had met him since he became President.
We found several waiting to see the President; but Mr. Kellogg sent in his card and soon Mr. Kellogg’s name was called. He followed the usher and I ‘toddled after.’
As they departed his office Mr. Lincoln said to the New York officer: “I count you and every soldier a friend. I trust you will survive the war and see a reunited country and be happy in the fact that you did your part to make it so.”5
Union officer Gilbert C. Kniffin recalled being sent by General William S. Roscrans to brief the President on Rosecrans’ need for cavalry after the Battle of Stone’s River in early 1863: “Arriving in Washington I proceeded at once to the White House, which I found blocked to its entrance by a mob of Army officers and civilians, each intent upon gaining access to the President. By a lucky chance I caught the eye of the usher who, making his way through the crowd, tapped my neighbor on the shoulder and said in a low tone ‘The President.’ Quick to take advantage of my opportunity I handed the usher my card, on which, below my name and rank, I had written the words ‘Army of the Cumberland.’”
It proved a talisman, for in a few minutes, to my great delight, the usher appeared again, and repeated to me the magic words ‘The President.’ I followed him through a lane lined on each side by envious and very weary men who had held tightly to their places in the line, hoping, against the experience of days of waiting, that the welcome words’ The President’ would fall upon their ears.”
Kniffin had seen President-elect Lincoln on his way to Washington in February 1861, “The man who met me with bent form and sunken eyes, yet with outstretched hand, appeared to be twenty years older than the Abraham Lincoln I had seen less than three years before. His clothes hung loosely upon his wasted form. An intense earnestness exhibited itself in his anxious inquiry, ‘Are you from Murfreesboro?’ ‘Yes, Mr. President, and I am the bearer of an important dispatch from General Rosecrans,’ which I handed to him at once, and noting the legend ‘Personal’ written on the envelope, he placed it in his pocket. We were alone in the room, Taking his seat at the head of the table in what I later found to be the cabinet room, he motioned me to a seat on his right, my back to door through which I had entered. He pushed a sheet of paper toward me with the remark ‘Now tell me all about it.’”
Kniffin proceeded to describe in detail the Battle of Stone’s River and to draw a map of the engagement. “The President took an absorbing interest in the work as it progressed, asking questions with regard to the strength of organizations, which I answered as intelligently as possible,” wrote Kniffin four decades later. “To have seen the two heads bent over the map the observer would hardly have thought that one was that of the President of the United States and the other belonged to a simple staff captain in his Army.” Kniffin recalled: “I spoke rapidly, at the recollection of the awful scenes of carnage, of the dashing courage, and the steadfast devotion of our men, the headlong charge of the enemy, and its bloody repulse, I grew vehement, not considering the exalted rank of my auditor.”
President Lincoln was a rapt listener. “During my recital the President sat motionless. I noticed that he occasionally raised his hands as if in warning, toward the door at my back, but I was too much absorbed in my theme to notice the cause. When I had finished, I for the first time raised my head and looked about me. Standing, peering over each other’s shoulders at the map of the battle-field which I had drawn, listening so intently that I was not aware of their presence, was an August assembly – the various members of the cabinet, several members of the House and Senate – all of sufficient prominence to be admitted to the President’s room without the formality of an introductory card. I was greatly embarrassed, but was speedily reassured by the kind-hearted President, who introduced me to each gentleman present, few of whom I have ever seen since.”6
President Lincoln routinely pumped military visitors for information – regardless of their rank or the purpose of their visit. Sergeant James M. Stradling recalled arriving in Washington, D.C. in early1863 on his way back from a furlough only to discover that he could not get transportation back to his unit and was in danger of arrest for an expired furlough. He decided that President Lincoln might be able to solve his problem “and I started for the ‘White House.’ I supposed that all I would have to do would be to go down to the ‘White House,’ knock on the front door, and if the President was not in, Mrs. Lincoln could tell me where he was and probably invite me in to wait until he returned.”
Stradling waited first in the reception room on the second fllor and then in John Hay’s office. “While waiting there, Mr. Hay was passing in and out all the time, but he found time to tell me that he had given my furlough to the President, with the statement that I was endeavoring to get to the front, while most of them were trying their best to get away from the front. I told Mr. Hay that the fact the President was warmly inclined towards those soldiers who remained in the army and at the front had trickled down through the army. For that reason I had no fear about making an effort to see him. While sitting there waiting I began to realize where I was and what I would have to go through, and what I would have to say to the President. I became, as thee used to say,, John, weak in the knees and warm under the collar.
I did not have long to wait, however, for in a few minutes Mr. Hay came in and said, ‘The President will see you.’ I followed him into the President’s room, when he announced, ‘Sergeant Stradling,’ and passed out. As I came abreast of the people in the room, there sat [Senator] Ben Wade and two other gentlemen I did not recognize, and General Hooker was standing up and saying good-by to the President.
Another Pennsylvania supplicant did seek a leave, according to Provost Marshall William E. Doster: “On one occasion, I was in the War Office, when a judge of the courts of an interior county of Pennsylvania came in with his son, a colonel of volunteers, to ask for an extension of sick leave, which Dr. Clymer, the examining surgeon, had refused. The judge and the son earnest assured Mr. Stanton that the son was unfit for the field, and the latter offered to resign rather than go to the front. Mr. Stanton insisted the son was shamming, pushed him to the door, and said: ‘To your regiment, sir, or I shall dismiss you.’ The judge drew himself up and said: ‘Sir, he shall not go to the front, but he shall go with me to your superior, the President, who, I know, will treat him and me with decency.’ They went to the President, who heard them patiently, and then extended the leave, on expiration of which, the colonel went to the front.”8
German Prince Felix Salm-Salm went to the President with a plan to raise 20,000 soldiers in Europe by paying for the passage of immigrants in return for service in the Union army. As his wife recalled the meeting: “President Lincoln, his knees drawn up, his head in both hands, and his elbows resting on his knees, listened attentively for about a quarter of an hour. When the colonel had finished, Mr. Lincoln remained for a time silent, then at once he threw up his long arms, calling out in his peculiar manner, ‘Well, gentlemen, that’s a very great affair! But mind, I do not promise you anything for certain, I must first speak to the Secretary of War!’” The President however perceived problems with the plan – namely with diplomatic relations in Europe and with funding, which he could not authorize. The plan died when it excited Secretary of War Stanton’s fervent opposition.”9
The welfare of soldiers – and their survivors – was a particular concern for Mr. Lincoln. New York Republican Abram J. Dittenhoefer wrote: “I once heard Mr. Lincoln telling a number of Congressmen in the anteroom of the White House that in the distribution of patronage care should be taken of the disabled soldiers and the widows and orphans of deceased soldiers, and these views were subsequently conveyed to the Senate in a message...””10 Ohio’s Adjutant General Benjamin Rush Cowen was present one day “in the office of the Paymaster General, Colonel [Benjamin Franklin] Larned, when the President came in escorting an old lady, who from her garb and general appearance must have been very poor, and of the humblest class.”
“Colonel,” said he to the Paymaster General, ‘this is Mrs. Jones, who has retained me to look after a claim she has for the back pay of her soldier boy, and I have come over to see about it.”