The White House Grounds & Entrance: The Stables

The stables on the East side of the White House housed several of the Lincoln pets as well as their horses. Although the President himself frequently rode on horse back and forth to the Soldiers' Home, when he went out for a ride with Mrs. Lincoln in the afternoons, it was in a convertible carriage that New York merchants had provided the Lincolns as a gift. Horses owned or provided for the President's secretaries were also kept here. Presidential aide William O. Stoddard wrote: "The War or some other department had assigned a pair of large bays to the White House 'for special duty,' that is, to drag the executive cab to the Capitol when the private secretary was going there with a presidential message, that he might get there quickly and not be robbed on the way. So another requisition was put in for saddles for horseback messages, and [John Hay] and I began to take morning rides. That lasted some time, but we found it too fatiguing in hot Washington weather."1

When the stables burned to the ground in February 10, 1864, Willie's former pony was killed along with another pony belonging to Tad, two horses belonging to the President and two belonging to John Nicolay. The loss of Willie's pony occurred despite the President's attempt to save it. According to Robert McBride, Mr. Lincoln "jumped over the boxwood hedge, threw open the stable doors to try to get the horses out. Willie had been riding that pony shortly before he fell ill with his fatal illness."2

The President had to be restrained by soldiers from rushing into the inferno. "Mr. President, this is no place for you," said the officer in charge of the security detail as he led Mr. Lincoln back to the White House. Later, the President was seen weeping at an East Room window. One of the president's bodyguard detail, Sergeant Smith Stimmel later wrote that he was on duty that night when he noticed the fire and decided to let the fire department handle it:
Just then the front door of the White House flew open with a jerk, and out came the President buttoning his coat around him, and said to me, 'Where's the fire, what's burning?' I said, 'It seems to be around in the vicinity of the stable.' With that he started off on a dog-trot down the steps and along the way leading to the stable. When he started to go to the fire, I thought to myself, 'Old fellow, you are the man we are guarding, guess I'll go along.' So I struck out on the double-quick and went with him, keeping close to his side; but he took such long strikes that his dog-trot was almost a dead run for me.

As soon as we got around where we could see what was burning, we saw that, sure enough, the White House stable was on fire. Quite a crowd had gathered by the time we got there, and the fire department was at work. Mr. Lincoln asked hastily if the horses had been taken out, and when told they had not, he rushed through the crowd and began to break open one of the large doors with his own hands; but the building was full of fire, and none of the horses could be saved. The ponies belonging to the little boys and the goats were all lost in the fire. It was a brick stable, and evidently had been burning for some time before it was discovered.3
Tad was equally distraught when he learned his pony had been burned to death. Francis Carpenter later reported: "Upon Tad's learning of the loss, he threw himself at full length upon the floor, and could not be comforted. The only allusion I ever heard the President make to Willie was on this occasion, in connection with the loss of his pony. John Hay, the assistant private secretary, told me that he was rarely known to speak of his son." The next day, the fire was the subject of a less emotional discussion:

The morning following the fire, Robert Lincoln came into his father's office, and said he had a point of law which he wished to submit. It appeared that one of the coachmen had two or three hundred dollars in greenbacks in his room over the stables, which were consumed. Robert said that he and John Hay had been having an argument as to the liability of the government for its notes, where it could be shown that they had been burned, or otherwise destroyed. The President turned the matter over in his mind for a moment, and said, 'The payment of a note presupposes its presentation to the maker of it. It is the sign or symbol of value received; it is not value itself, that is clear. At the same time the production of the note seems a necessary warrant for the demand; and while the moral obligation is as strong without this, governments and banking institutions do not recognize any principle beyond the strictly legal. It is an established rule that the citizen cannot sue the government; therefore, I don't see but that it is a dead loss for Jehu.'4
Patrick McGee, a coachman who had been fired shortly before the conflagration, was strongly suspected as the arsonist, but there was insufficient evidence to convict him. When Major French constructed a replacement for the stables, it was located farther from the White House near 17th Street. Sergeant Smith Stimmel joined Mr. Lincoln's security detail in 1864. He later wrote of the President:

The carriage he used for everyday purposes was about on a par with the average street hack, and his coach team was a pair of what anybody would call very common horses; but he had a barouche that was used on state occasions that was a pretty respectable vehicle. He did not have a saddle horse of his own at all, and when he wished to go out on horseback, as he sometimes did, he would send word to our quarters that when we came, to bring with us a saddle horse for him, and we would rig up one of our Company horses for his use. We had in the Company a long-legged, high-headed horse that was pretty well gaited and fairly well suited for the President's equestrian figure; and because of that horse's tail and angular make-up, the boys called him 'Abe,' after the President. Our greatest difficulty was in getting stirrup-straps adjusted for the president. We would let them out to the end hole, and then he would have to kink up his legs to get his feet in the stirrups. When he mounted that horse, with his tall hat extending high in the air, he was indeed an interesting figure. We enjoyed seeing him on his 'high horse,' as we used to say. He was a good rider, however, and if he had had a saddle horse of his own, properly equipped, with stirrup-straps of the right length, I am sure he could have held his own with the best riders.5



Footnotes

    1. William O. Stoddard, Jr., Lincolnís Third Secretary, p. 91-92.
    2. Missing
    3. Smith Stimmel, Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 37-39.
    4. Francis Carpenter, Six Months at the White House, p. 44-5.
    5. Smith Stimmel, Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 27-28.