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.’
Mr. Lincoln was sitting, his back towards the door with one leg upon his desk, or table, his trouser-leg halfway down to his knee. I first noticed his foot which seemed very large as it pointed up from the table. He partly turned his head when Mr. Kellogg was announced and reaching his right hand backward over his left should took Mr. Kellogg’s hand saying, “My dear friend, I am glad to see you. Take a chair.” ” He dropped his leg and arose, still holding Mr. Kellogg’s hand. I was introduced, when he remarked to Mr. Kellogg: ‘I am glad to see that you know the kind of company to keep. I hardly feel respectable these days if I haven’t a soldier for a companion. Citizen’s dress doesn’t amount to much nowadays. Is this one of your constituents?”
“Yes,” replied Mr. Kellogg, introducing me, ‘his regiment was wholly raised in my district – they are all my boys.”,
I expressed my gratification at meeting my Commander-in-Chief and said to him that we called Mr. Kellogg the “Father of our Regiment.” He said to Mr. Kellogg, “That is a fine honor.”
We remained for at least half an hour, the President and Mr. Kellogg indulging in recollections and reminiscences of the Congress in which they had jointly served. Mr. Kellogg often laughed heartily, and while the President seemed to enjoy the things at which Mr. Kellogg laughed, he scarcely smiled. His expression was pleasant but his countenance changed very little during the conversation.
Cards kept coming in. He glanced at them and dropped them on the table as they came.
Finally Mr. Kellogg arose to go. “Don’t hurry,” the President said. Mr. Kellogg replied that he had taken considerable of his valuable time and the cards indicated that others were waiting to see him.
The President said, picking up some of the cards: ‘These gentlemen will wait; they all want something. You want nothing and I have enjoyed your call and this revival of our experiences in that Congress. We thought then that our responsibilities were considerable; but compare them with what confronts us now! You, me – event this young man,” putting his hand on my shoulder. “I am thankful that you will be in the next Congress. You are a friend I can depend upon, and, Kellogg, I need that sort.”4
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.
As I approached, the president hesitated a moment and asked me to take a seat, [while] he went on and said good-by to General Hooker, and said, ‘General, we shall expect to have some good news from you very soon.’ I saluted the general, which he returned and then passed out.
In my efforts to acknowledge the President’s invitation to take a seat I had finally blurted out that I would rather stand. The President then arose, and I did not think he would ever stop going up. He was the tallest man, John, I think I ever saw. He then turned around to me and extended a hand which was fully three times as large as mine, and said, ‘What can I do for you, my young friend?”
He had a grip on him like a vise, and I felt that my whole hand would be crushed. I had a small fit of coughing, during which time I regained my composure. Then I told him my case briefly as I could. He then signed my furlough, on which Mr. Hay had written across the face of it: ‘To any steamboat captain going to the front, please give bearer transportation,” and handed it to me and said, “If I have any influence with the steamboat captains, I think that will take you to the front.”
I thanked him and was taking my leave when he said to Senator Wade, ‘Senator, we have had the head of the Army here a few minutes ago, and learned from him all he cared to tell. Now we have here the tail of the Army, so let us get from him how the rank and file feel about matters. I mean no reflection on you, Sergeant, when I say the tail of the Army.”
I said I understood him and knew what he was driving at. He said a great many men had deserted in the last few months, and he was endeavoring to learn the cause. He said there must be some good reason for it. Either the Army was opposed to him, to their Generals or the Emancipation Proclamation, and he was very desirous of learning from the rank and file about the conditions in the Army. ‘None of the Generals desert or resign, and we could spare a number of them better than we can spare so many privates.”
Turning around to me, he asked if I could enlighten him on any of these points. In the meantime I had become perfectly cool, perfectly composed. The weakness had disappeared from my knees and the heat from under my collar. I braced myself to tell him things which I knew would not be pleasing to him. I however determined to tell him frankly and truthfully all I knew about the feeling in the Army, as far as I knew it.
First I said, “Mr. President, so far as I know, the Army has the utmost confidence in your honesty and ability to manage this war. So far as I can learn, the army had no faith in the ability of General Burnside. In fact it had but very little faith in him, and no respect for his ability. He appeared to us as a general who had no military genius whatever, and fought his battles like some people play the fiddle, by main strength and awkwardness. Not the most approved way of fighting a battle, surely.”
The President asked me if I was in the battle of Fredericksburg. I replied in the affirmative. ‘Did you see much of the battle?” I replied that when the fog lifted we could see nearly the whole line. I explained to him that the battleground consisted of a long and level plain and was what they call in Virginia ‘bottom land.” The rebels were entrenched on a number of low hills skirting this plain on the south while at the foot of Mary’s Heights was a sunken road. Their batteries and more infantry were entrenched on the heights proper, while the sunken road was full of infantry and sharpshooters. This was the position against which General Burnside launched General Hooker’s corps, the flower of the army. ‘You know too well the result, for I can observe the great gloom which still hangs around you on account of that battle.”
Senator Wade then asked me if I thought there was any excuse for such a blunder. I replied that if it was agreeable, I would give my views about the matter. The President spoke up and said, “this is very interesting to me, so please go ahead.”
I said the country was an open one. There were no mountains or large rivers to cross, but both flanks of the rebel army were susceptible of being turned, and Lee flanked out of his strong position. Even we privates wondered why such an attack was made. General Burnside must have known of the sunken road, for we of the cavalry had been over this road with General Bayard in 1862, and he must have informed General Burnside all about it. If General Burnside had possessed any military genius, he would have flanked Lee out of that strong position, and fought him where he could have had at least an equal chance. All of those present listened very attentively, when the President said, “What you have stated, Sergeant, seems very plausible to me. When General Hooker left us but a few minutes ago he said, ‘Mr. President, I have the finest army that was ever assembled together, and I hope to send you good news very soon.’ That is just the language General Burnside used when he left me shortly before the battle of Fredericksburg. And such a disaster that followed still makes my heart sick.” (I wonder if the President has visions of future disasters to follow.)
I said, “Mr. President, even privates when on the ground cannot help seeing and wondering why certain movements are made. I refer to the charges of General Hooker on our right. Our duty, however, is not to criticise, but to obey even if we get our heads knocked off. I have found that soldiers are willing to obey without hesitation and take the chances when they feel that their show is equal to that of the enemy.”7
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.”
“Well, Mr. President,” said Colonel Larned, “be seated, and I will send a clerk to look the matter up, and relieve you from further trouble.”
“Oh, no, that won’t do,” said Mr. Lincoln pleasantly, “I must see to this myself, as she is my client for the time being.”
So the President was sent to another room with a clerk, the old lady going with them.
We waited their return to see the outcome of the matter. In a little while they returned, when on an inquiry from Colonel Larned, Mr. Lincoln said:
“Yes Colonel, that is all right, and she will get her money tomorrow, but,” dropping his voice and holding his hand to the side of his mouth, he continued jocosely, “How am I to get shut of the old lady?”
“That, Mr. President, is not in the line of my duty, and I fear I cannot assist you,” was the response.
“Well, well,” said the President, “then I’ll have to manage it somehow.”
He then turned to the group of officers standing near, and, after greeting each one pleasantly, he said to the old lady: “Come along, Aunty, let’s go over home,” and he escorted her from the room, down the stairway and across to the White House with all the courtesy due to the most distinguished lady, chatting familiarly with her by the way.”11
- John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, pp. 183-184.
- Herbert Mitgang, editor, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, Noah Brooks, p. 77.
- Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 451.
- John L. Cunningham, Three Years with Adirondack Regiment: 118th New York Volunteers Infantry, p. 51.
- Cunningham, Three Years with Adirondack Regiment: 118th New York Volunteers Infantry, pp. 50-51.
- Gilbert Crawford Kniffin, “Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, War Papers 47: An Interview with Abraham Lincoln,” March 6, 1903, pp. 6-12.
- James M. Stradling, His Talk with Lincoln, being a Letter written by James M. Stradling, pp. 13-24 (Letter from John M. Stradling to John W. Gilbert, March 6, 1863).
- William E. Doster, Lincoln and Episodes of the Civil War, pp. 27-28.
- Princess Felix Salm-Salm, Ten Years of My Life, p.58.
- Abram J. Dittenhoefer, How We Elected Lincoln, p. 52.
- Benjamin Rush Cowen, Abraham Lincoln: An Appreciation, pp. 26-27.