The north side of the White House was the official and ceremonial entrance. Outside, people gathered for weekly levees, inaugural receptions, an occasional presidential “serenade” and the review of troops. July 4, 1861 was celebrated by a grand review of troops by President Lincoln, General Winfield Scott and other officials. Presidential Secretary John Nicolay noted that among the most colorful of the soldiers reviewed were the “Garibaldi Guards” of foreign volunteers: “In preparing for the review each man had stuck a small sprig of box or evergreen into his hat, and as the successive ranks passed the platform on which stood the President and other officers, they took them out and threw them towards him, so that while the regiment was passing, a perfect shower of leaves and flowers was falling on the platform and the street, which latter was almost covered with them. It was unexpected, and therefore strikingly novel and poetical.”1
The White House was both the people’s house and the President’s house. Soldiers frequented camped on the south lawn. Cattle were not far away on the “white lot.” The President’s boys romped on the grounds. Indeed, it was a boys’ paradise — especially for two who enjoyed playing pranks as much as Willie and Tad Lincoln. Historian Mary Painter Randall wrote how their small band doubled in size:
One windy day in March, shortly after the inauguration, [Willie and Tad] were in the conservatory, which joined the White House on the west side, watching the goldfish in the water-lily tank, when three visitors came into the room. Willie and Tad, looking up, saw two promising boys about their ages and a small, pleasing, sixteen-year-old girl. They were the children of Judge and Mrs. Horatio Nelson Taft: [Bud and Holy Taft]. The girl was their sister Julia. Mrs. Lincoln had met their mother the day before and learning of Bud and Holly had said, ‘Send them around to-morrow, please, Mrs. Taft; Willie and Tad are so lonely and everything is so strange to them here in Washington.’ Julia had brought them over. Seeing Willie and Tad gazing at the goldfish, her first impression had been: ‘Such nice, quiet, shy boys.’ This impression lasted about five minutes, when all four boys disappeared. At dark her little brothers turned up at home so untidy they seemed completely unrelated to the well-groomed lads she had taken to the White House that morning. They reported they had had ‘the best time’ and Mr. Lincoln had ‘jounced’ them on his lap and told them stories.2
The Taft brothers and the Lincoln boys enjoyed this giant playground — from the attic to the anterooms — until Willie died in February 1862. After that, Tad had to find new friends — some his own age and some much older, including soldiers and many of the White House employees. The White House was Tad’s kingdom and Tad was a prince. One of Tad’s friends, guard William Crook, later wrote: “The White House and its surroundings during wartime had much the appearance of a Southern plantation — straggling and easy-going. On the east side of the house beyond the extension — since removed — which corresponded to the conservatory on the west, was a row of outhouses, a carriage-house and a woodshed among them. Back and east were the kitchen-garden and the stable where the president’s two horses were kept. South of the house was a short stretch of law bounded by a high iron fence. Still beyond was rough undergrowth and marsh to the river. North and to the west was a garden, divided from the rest of the grounds by tall fences. It was a real country garden, with peach-trees and strawberry-vines as well as flowers.”3
Next to his sons, the category of Americans who were most likely to evoke Mr. Lincoln’s interest and sympathy were “his” soldiers. “Thank God for my boys. They are the ones I must rely upon to crush the Rebellion,” the President once told the visitor. William Davis, author of Lincoln’s Men, wrote: “One afternoon in December 1864, a newspaper correspondent walked across the White House grounds, and saw there, in a little grove between the mansion and the War Department, Lincoln and a soldier sitting beneath a tree in conversation. Obviously the volunteer was stating a case and presenting his petition for some kind of action. Lincoln took the ever-present pencil from his pocket, scribbled something on the man’s papers, and sent him on his way with some encouraging words.”4
On another occasion, Davis wrote that “two Pennsylvania soldiers saw him leaning against a tree beside one of the White House gates, absent-mindedly swatting at the grass with his walking stick. Curious, they stopped at some distance just to have what one called ‘a good, quiet look at the great man.’ Lincoln raised his head and saw them, broke out into a smile, and took off his hat to them. ‘Good evening boys,’ he said, ‘What regiment?’ They called back, ‘116th Pennsylvania.’ ‘God bless you,’ answered Lincoln.”5
Soldiers in the Marine Band performed on the South Lawn and Lafayette Park. Other regimental bands also serenaded the President — as did private citizens on occasions of military and political victories. Historian David Rankin Barbee wrote that although “he liked all kinds of band music, his favorite piece was the ‘Soldiers’ Chorus’ from Gounod’s Faust, which was nearly always played when it was known that he was present.”6
Sergeant Smith Stimmel of the President’s security detail noted, “At times, when there was considerable activity at the front, it was a common thing to see him going alone from the White House to the War Department late at night, sometimes as late as midnight, and again early the next morning. At that time there was quite a space between the White House and the War Department on the west end of the same block, a distance of about half an ordinary city block or more. The passageway, paved with brick, was along the north side of a brick wall about four or five feet high, densely shaded by the trees in the park through which the pathway led, and was dimly lighted by a few flickering gas jets — that was before the days of electric lights.”7 William Crook often accompanied Mr. Lincoln on his late night walks from the White House to the War Department. He started work on January 9, 1865 and later described his first night on the job. Late at night, after a major White House reception, Mr. Lincoln decided to go to the War Department:
After they had all left, Mr. Lincoln wrapped himself in the rough gray shawl he usually wore out-of-doors, put on his tall beaver hat, and slipped out of the White House through the basement. According to my orders I followed him, and was alone with President for the first time.
We crossed the garden, which lay to the west, where the executive offices are now. Mr. Lincoln was bent on his nightly visit to Secretary Stanton at the War Department. I stole a glance up at him, at the homely face rising so far above me. The strength of it is not lessened in my memory by what would seem to me now a grotesque setting of rough shawl and silk hat. He looked to me just like his picture, but gentler. I will confess that I was nervous when I accompanied him that first time. I hope it was not from any fear for myself. I seemed to realize suddenly that there was only myself between this man and possible danger. The feeling wore off in time, though it was not to come back at any moment of special responsibility, as, for instance, on the entrance into Richmond – but I mustn’t get ahead of my story.
That night, as I said, I was a little nervous. The President noticed it. He seemed to know how I felt, too. I had fallen into line behind him, but he motioned me to walk by his side. He began to talk to me in a kindly way, as though I were a bashful boy whom he wanted to put at his ease, instead of a man appointed to guard him. In part, of course, his motive must have been the dislike of seeming to be guarded, of which I have spoken. But his manner was due to the intuitive sympathy with every one, of which I afterward saw so many instances. It was shown particularly toward those who were subordinate to him. The statesmen who came to consult him, those who had it in their power to influence the policy of the party which had chosen him, never had the consideration from Mr. Lincoln that he gave the humblest of those who served him. A few strides of the President’s long legs – a few more of mine – brought us to the old-fashioned turnstile that divided the White House grounds from the enclosure of the War Department. Mr. Lincoln talked, in his slow, soft voice, chiefly about the reception through which he had just gone.
‘I am glad it over,’ he said.
I ventured to ask if he was tired.
‘Yes, it does tire me to shake hands with so many people,’ he answered.
‘Especially now when there is so much other work to do. And most of the guests come out of mere curiosity.’
With these words and the half-sigh which followed we entered the east door of the War Department. In those days that was a small, mean, two-story building, just in front of the Navy Department. We went immediately to Mr. Stanton’s office, which was on the second floor, on the north front, and overlooked Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House. There, at the door, I waited for him until his conference with Secretary Stanton was over. Then I accompanied him back to the White House. From the moment Mr. Lincoln spoke to me so kindly I felt at home in my new duties. I never lost the feeling which came then that, while the President was so great, he was my friend. The White House never awed me again.8
Historian Thomas F. Schwartz noted that “everyday dangers” also threatened President Lincoln “Benjamin French, the Commissioner of Public Buildings, record in a matter-of-fact manner on Friday September 9, 1864 ‘…I have been on my feet nearly all day. At the President’s all morning with gasfitters, trying to find a leak of gas, which almost suffocated the President in his own office!’ French was not eager for such news to be made public.9
- Helen Nicolay, Lincoln’s Secretary, p. 107.
- Ruth Painter Randall, Lincoln’s Sons, p. 72.
- Margarita Spalding Gerry, Through Five Administrations, Reminiscences of Colonel William H. Crook, p. 16.
- William C. Davis, Lincoln’s Men: How President Lincoln became Father to an Army and a Nation, p. 175.
- Davis, Lincoln’s Men: How President Lincoln became Father to am Army and a Nation, p. 84.
- David Rankin Barbee, “The Musical Mr. Lincoln,” The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, December 1949, Volume V, No 8, p. 445-446.
- Smith Stimmell, Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 43-44
- Gerry, editor, Through Five Administrations: Reminiscences of Colonel William H. Crook, pp. 5-10.
- Thomas F. Schwartz, “Hurrah for Jeff Davis and…God Damn Lincoln to Hell’: Abraham Lincoln’s Death Threats, Lincoln Lore, Summer 2008