Shortly after the Civil War broke out, one of the pumps in the basement of the White House that supplied water to the upper levels broke down. No one knew how to fix it so the President got in his carriage and hunted down a Union officer who was supposed to be familiar with that particular kind of Worthington pump.
“Jump into the carriage and we will drive over,” ordered Mr. Lincoln. They drove directly to the south entrance to the White House, entered the basement and proceeded to the pump room. Captain Benjamin Church told the President “that with two monkey wrenches and some thin strips of lead he could himself put it in working order. The tools were brought and Mr. Lincoln said, ‘Take off your coat, Captain,’ as he proceeded to remove his own; and wrenches in hand, the President of the United States and the young officer fell to work tinkering with valve-rod screws. The steam was put on and off for frequent trials until adjustment was finally secured. The President readily caught the idea and followed directions with absolute docility.” But when it became clear that the repair mission had been a success, Captain Church recalled, Mr. Lincoln “grew exuberant, waving the monkey wrench over his head, just as a boy would rejoice who had made a good stroke at marbles.”1 The President then insisted that Captain Church join him for lunch before driving him back to his encampment.
On another occasion at the beginning of the war, Mrs. Lincoln recruited four soldiers from the 12th New York militia to repair a kitchen stove. According to historian William Davis, they “soon had the stove torn apart in the middle of the room. Just then the president wandered in and half sat, half leaned on a table, holding one raised knee in his clasped hands. ‘Well, boys, I am certainly glad to see you,’ he said with a grin. ‘I hope you can fix that thing right off; for if you can’t, the cook can’t use the range, and I don’t suppose I’ll get any ‘grub’ to-day!'”2
Mr. Lincoln’s mind always had a practical side and in addition to food and water, the basement was a useful source of escape when Mr. Lincoln wanted to enter or leave the White House without encountering the hoards of people who often laid in wait on the first and second floors. But perhaps Mr. Lincoln wished that he had paid more attention to former President James Buchanan when he told the new President on a pre-inaugural tour of the White House: “I think you will find the water of the right-hand well at the White-House better than that at the left.” According assistant John Hay, Buchanan “went on with many intimate details of the kitchen and pantry. Lincoln listened with that weary, introverted look of his, not answering, and the next day, when I recalled the conversation, admitted he had not heard a word of it.”3
Normally, however, the basement, attic and roof of the White House were the haunts of the two youngest Lincoln boys, Tad and until he died, his older brother Willie. While the roof and attic were playgrounds for the boys and their playmates, the basement was a recruiting station for White House staff to be employed in Tad’s mischief.
- Emanuel Hertz:Lincoln: A New Portrait, pp. 321-322.
- William Davis,Lincoln and His Men, p. 31.
- Michael Burlingame, editor,At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. xv.