John Watt was a talented gardener and dishonest head groundskeeper. Mary Todd Lincoln protected Watt from the accusations of others about his expense padding, just as he abetted her in misallocation of public funds. He quickly ingratiated himself with Mrs. Lincoln through his agreeable demeanor and daily bouquets. He accompanied the First Lady to New York in 1861 to pick out place settings for the White House. His dishonesty was uncovered by Major Benjamin B. French during the administration of Franklin Pierce. He avoided dismissal at that time. French helped defend Watt, however, when he was accused of disloyalty in the autumn of 1861. Watt clashed with presidential secretary John Nicolay, who oversaw the expenditure of White House funds. Assistant Treasury Maunsell B. Field later wrote that he had learned “that a state dinner was paid for out of an appropriation for fertilizers for the grounds connected with the Executive Mansion.”1
By then, he had gained the confidence of Mrs. Lincoln after she quarreled with others over the administration of White House funds. Watt understood White House accounting and urged her to manipulate the funds. She in turn defended him from detractors and tried to keep him out of active military service. In a letter to Interior Secretary Caleb B. Smith on September 8, 1861, Mary Todd Lincoln wrote: “You will kindly excuse me for troubling you, but I much regret that Mr Wood still pursues the attack, and tries to bring charge of dishonesty upon Mr. Watts [sic] who in all his accounts with us, has been rigidly exact. Circumstances have proved, that Mr. Wood, is the last man, who should bring a charge against any one, very especially against one, who has been tried & always proven exact in his dealings. From remarks made by eyewitnesses, in reference to Wood, he is either deranged or drinking. Many testify, that he is acting very strangely, & as he is now known, not to be the right man, he is trying to place, a just man on a level with himself. Major French, who has long known Mr Watts, will bear testimony to his good name- I heard much of Wood, in N. York—and all agree that he is not a good man— He is bitterly disappointed, that we read him aright & that he is displaced—and is capable of saying any thing against those who tried to befriend him—when he was so undeserving.”2 The next day, Watt received an appointment as an infantry lieutenant. That appointment was not as useful to Watt as a cavalry appointment, which would have allowed him to be assigned to the Executive Mansion.
Three days later, Mrs. Lincoln wrote Secretary of War Simon Cameron to thank him for appointing Watt to the cavalry rather than the infantry and assigned him to the White House. She went on to say that William Wood “has been making some false charges against [Watt], his reputation has become so well established, we feel particularly grateful, he will no longer mortify us.”3 He avoided real military duty until February 1862, when his commission was revoked as a result of a congressional investigation into suspect government employees. Watt had become mixed up in the investigation into the theft and publication of parts of Mr. Lincoln’s annual message to Congress. Henry Wikoff, who worked for the New York Herald, was implicated in the theft. He hired General Daniel Sickles as his attorney. Journalist Ben Perley Poore later wrote:
The General vibrated between Wikoff’s place of imprisonment, the White House, and the residence of Mrs. Lincoln’s gardener, named Watt. The Committee finally summoned the General before them, and put some home questions to him. He replied sharply, and for a few minutes a war of words raged. He narrowly escaped Wikoff’s fate, but finally, after consulting numerous books of evidence, the Committee concluded not to go to extremities. While the examination was pending, the Sergeant-at-Arms appeared with Watt. He testified that he saw the message in the library, and, being of a literary turn of mind, perused it; that, however, he did not make a copy, but, having a tenacious memory, carried portions of it in his mind, and the next day repeated them word for word to Wikoff. Meanwhile, Mr. Lincoln had visited the Capitol and urged the Republicans on the Committee to spare him disgrace, so Watt’s improbable story was received and Wikoff was liberated.4
During the summer of 1861, a congressional committee, led by Congressman John F. Potter (R-WI) investigated the loyalties of government employees. Potter wrote his wife in September 1861 that he felt ‘sustained by the thought that [he was] doing something for [his] poor country, distracted and derided and surrounded by traitors within and without,’ but of the president and his cabinet he noted that ‘there is not the most perfect accord between us.’ Potter pressed charges against Watt but the White House ignored them and continued to find him employment.5 Shortly after Watt’s cavalry appointment, Benjamin B. French wrote in his diary: “I went to the Capitol about 8 o’clock and then to the President’s. Dan went with me and the President gave him an order for a pass to Alexandria. The President handed me the communication from Mr. Potter, of the special Committee of the investigation, as to the loyalty of public officers, in which Maj. Watt., Mr. Stackpole & Edward McManus are all implicated. I read it over carefully, and Watt gave me testimony per contra, which, considering it goes to prove a negative, is very strong. I do not believe Watt guilty. As to the others, no rebutting testimony yet appears.”6
The complications which John Watt caused for White House management are reflected in a letter from John G. Nicolay to his fellow presidential secretary John Hay on October 21, 1861: “Enclosed I send you a check on Riggs & co for One Hundred Dollars; also two unsigned receipts, a duplicate and original. If, on the first of the month, Major Watt comes to you, and says that he must have Mrs. Watt’s salary for this month, then take this check to the bank, get the money, and pay it to Mrs. Watt, after she has signed these two receipts. Before doing all this, ask the Major if he cannot get along without the money until I return; if he can, then delay the matter until that time…”7
President Lincoln wrote the Army on November 17, 1861, saying he should be returned to army service: “Lieut. John Watt who, I believe, has been detailed to do service about the White House, is not needed for that purpose and you assign him to his proper place in Regiment.”8 But the posting never occurred. Watt eventually was fired in February 1862 when Henry Wikoff accused him of being the source of information published in the New York Herald. John Hay reported on the President’s response to these problems: “Hell is to pay about Watt’s affairs. I think the Tycoon begins to suspect him. I wish he could be struck with lighting. He has got William and Carroll turned off, and has his eye peeled for a pop at me, because I won’t let Madame have our stationery fund. They have gone off to New York together.”9
Lincoln scholar C.A. Tripp wrote: “Mary Lincoln and John Watt…became as thick as thieves and operated in full support of each other. In fact, their affiliation was to last not only through the exposure of many of Watt’s misdeeds, but even survived Lincoln’s effort to get rid of him by assigning him overseas to buy seeds for the agricultural division of the patent office.”10 Historian Jean H. Baker wrote: “Whatever their relationship, John Watt had met his match in Mary Lincoln. Thirty years later he asked Simon Cameron, who had been secretary of war during his tenure on the presidential grounds, for a letter of recommendation, explaining that he had once paid for Mary Lincoln’s trip to Boston — an outlay for which he had never been reimbursed.”11
Although he maintained good relations with Mrs. Lincoln, his relations with Willie and Tad Lincoln were strained by their irreverence towards his flowers and vegetables. On occasion, Tad devoured the strawberries that Major Watt had carefully cultivated for a state dinner. Willie told his mother. Julia Taft recalled seeing both the “despoiled plants” and Major Watt, who stormed about telling Mrs. Lincoln. Julia informed him: “The Madam knows it. Willie told her. He is the Madam’s son, remember.” In his fury, Watt replied: “The Madam’s wildcat.”12
Watt was dismissed in February 1862 when he attempted to blackmail the First Family for $20,000. He was threatened with imprisonment by an emissary from the Agricultural Bureau and paid off with $1500—after he turned over three letters which supposedly incriminated Mrs. Lincoln in financial irregularities. One misdeed with which she and Watt were associated was the misuse of money meant to buy organic fertilizer. Watt was initially hired as a “steward” to replace a man who Mrs. Lincoln wanted to remove. In the end, both Watt and his wife Jane were terminated. Watt later got a job with the Agriculture Division, doing research in Europe during late 1862 and early 1863. In August 1863, Watt enlisted as an army private and rose to the rank of lieutenant with the U.S. Colored Troops.
- Maunsell B. Field, Personal Recollections: Memories of Many Men and Some Women, p. 284.
- Justin G. Turner & Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 102.
- Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 103.
- Ben Perley Poore, Perley’s Reminiscences, Volume II, p. 143.
- Allan G. Bogue, The Congressman’s Civil War, p. 76.
- Benjamin Brown French, Witness to the Young Republic, p. 376.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 60 (Letter to John Hay, October 21, 1861).
- Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 25.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 14.
- Julia Bayne Taft, Tad Lincoln’s Father, p. 111.
- C. A. Tripp, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 165.
- Jean H. Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln, p. 191.
Mary Todd Lincoln
Chevalier Henry Wikoff
John G. Nicolay
Thomas D. Lincoln
William S. Wood
Mrs. Lincoln’s Shopping (Mr. Lincoln and New York)