Mr. Lincoln’s Office: Visitors

Lincoln Visitors

Visiting hours in the days after the President’s inauguration in March 1861 lasted all day. “They dont want much, and they don’t get but little,” said the President to Senator Henry Wilson. 1 Gradually, Mr. Lincoln cut back his public schedule so that visitors were restricted to three hours on Monday, Wednesdays and Thursday until 1 P.M. On days when the cabinet met — Tuesdays and Fridays, visiting hours were limited to two hours, ending at noon. John Nicolay’s daughter wrote: “His secretary found this ‘a great improvement,’ though the kindly president was constantly breaking his own rule to oblige importunate visitors. He was so sympathetic, and disliked so sincerely to say, ‘No,’ but had to say it so often, that one is tempted to believe the story that credits him with exclaiming, when told that he had a slight case of variloid.” 2

Mr. Lincoln was direct and to the point, “Well” or “What can I do for you?” was how he frequently greeted visitors. When the President’s patience was taxed, he could be equally direct – as when he told a soldier: “Now, my man, go away! I cannot attend to all these details.”3 French writer Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne observed a woman seeking a favor from the president: “Mingling pertness with humility, she favored him with her sweetest smiles and most penetrating glances; but the President, a grave and somewhat hurried judge, urged her to come to the point, questioned her briefly and rather brusquely, diligently scribbling at his notes all the while, his attitude clearly indicating by his manner that she was wasting his time and that he was neither stupid nor easygoing enough to be taken in by her wiles.”4

Mr. Lincoln himself explained why the reception of visitors was important to administration of the government: “For myself, I feel–though the tax on my time is heavy–that no hours of my day are better employed than those which thus bring me again within the direct contact and atmosphere of the average of our whole people. Men moving only in an official circle are apt to become merely official–not to say arbitrary–in their ideas, and are apter and apter, with each passing day, to forget that they only hold power in a representative capacity. Now this is all wrong. I go into these promiscuous receptions of all who claim to have business with me twice each week, and every applicant for audience has to take his turn, as if waiting to be shaved in a barber’s shop. Many of the matters brought to my notice are utterly frivolous, but others are of more or less importance, and all serve to renew in me a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage out of which I sprung, and to which at the end of two years I must return. I tell you, Major,’ he said,–appearing at this point to recollect I was in the room, for the former part of these remarks had been made with half-shut eyes, as if in soliloquy,–‘I tell you that I call these receptions my ‘public-opinion baths;’ for I have but little time to read the papers and gather public opinion that way; and though they may not be pleasant in all their particulars, the effect, as a whole, in renovating and invigorating to my perceptions of responsibility and duty.'”5

Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard wrote: “It is hard work for the President, but he receives and dismisses these varied hundreds of people with wonderful dexterity, the trained result of his natural tact and wit and long practice.” 6 In June 1863, the Washington Intelligencer reported: “It is one of the tribulations which must greatly add to the fatigues of office at his juncture, that our amiable President has to give so much of his time and attention to persons who apparently having no business of their own, expend a large degree of their surplus energy in benevolently minding the business of the President.”7 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Many callers armed themselves with an appropriate speech to be delivered on these occasions, but unless it was compressed into the smallest possible space, it never got utterance; the crowd would jostle the peroration out of shape.” Sometimes, even brief speeches led to abrupt responses from the president, according to Burlingame: “An allegedly loyal Southerner asked Lincoln to sign papers permitting him to recover substantial sums for property damaged int eh war. The president heatedly observed that the claimant’s documents did not prove that he deserved the money. ‘I know what you want,’ Lincoln snapped, ‘you are turning, or trying to turn me itno a justice of the peace to put your claims through. There are a hundred thousand men in the country, every one of them as good as you are, who have just such bills as you present; and you care nothing of what becomes of them, so you get your money.”8

Lincoln aide Stoddard mused: “The same unceasing throng in the ante-rooms of the President’s house, bent on dragging him ‘for a few minutes only,’ away from his labors of state to attend to private requests, often self, often frivolous, sometimes corrupt or improper, and not so often worthy of the precious time and strength thus wasted. The President belongs to the nation – it is seldom that the affairs of any one man cannot be righted, save by bringing to his aid the delegated power of a whole people. No man, however, will see this, when his eyes are veiled by his interest. But who can doubt that our worthy and wise Chief Magistrate would do better, to bring to the grand yet delicate questions which must be finally decided by him alone, a mind unwearied by listening to private griefs or wishes, and unexhausted by pouring out his too ready sympathies upon misfortunes which, powerful as he is, he cannot remedy.”9

One petitioner for an appointment recalled: “Upon the sudden death of Mr. [John] Gurley, which he much deplored, I went with one of the judges of Arizona to ask the appointment of Mr. Goodwin, then chief justice of the territory, to the vacancy. We were at the White House by 8 A.M., while William, the colored servant who had attended Mr. Lincoln from Springfield, was in the act of shaving him. He looked up and said: ‘Is it the best judgment of you all (referring to the territorial officers) that Mr. Goodwin should be appointed?’ Being told that it was, and that prompt action in the matter was important, that the staring of our party, already delayed might not be seriously retarded, he said: ‘Well, see the members of the Cabinet, and we will try to fix it at the meeting at noon today.’ It was so fixed, and at two o’clock we had the new governor’s commission from the State Department.” 10

Massachusetts attorney Robert S. Rantoul recalled a visit to the President office in January 1863 when he accompanied Congressman John B. Alley to an early where “Mr. Lincoln, in absolute disregard of all conventionalisms whether of speech or bearing, allowed his conversation to ramble on from topic to tpic in a way that gave more insight into the workings of his mind than an hour passed in his presence under any other circumstances could have afforded….Much of the time of the interview was consumed in questioning me as to public men in Massachusetts. After renewing his inquiries about y father, who died in 1862, he passed to Rufus Choate, who had died in 1859, and in whom he seemed gratly interested. He then took up in turn, [abolitionists] Garrison and Wendell Phillips – then living leaders of thought – and I think I am right in adding, Theodore Parker, who had died two years before. Upon all these he asked questions and made comments which showed so great an insight into the personal politics of our section as to be truly astonishing.”11

Sometimes, the President’s patience was tried by groups of visitors who came to tell him how to do his job or how God wanted him to do his job. On one occasion, the President used a metaphor to respond to a group of Midwestern ministers who lectured him about Union war policy: “Gentlemen, suppose all the property you possess were in gold, and you had placed it in the hands of Blondin to carry across the Niagara River on a rope. With slow, cautious, steady step he walks the rope, bearing your all. Would you shake the cable, and keep shouting to him, ‘Blondin! Stand up a little straighter! Blondin! Stoop a little more; go a little faster; lean more to the south! Now lean a little more to the north!’ – would that be your behavior in such an emergency? No; you would hold your breath, every one of you, as well as your tongues. You would keep your hands off until he was safe on the other side. This government, gentlemen, is carrying an immense weight; untold treasures are in its hands. The persons managing the ship of state in this storm are doing the best they can. Don’t worry them with needless warnings and complaints. Keep silence, be patient, and we will get you safe across. Good day, gentlemen. I have other duties pressing upon me that must be attended to.'”12

A woman annoyed Mr. Lincoln by seeking the return to religious purposes of a church in Alexandria, Virginia that was being used as a Union hospital. After being told that the woman had applied unsuccessfully to the Union surgeon for relief, President Lincoln told her “Well, madam, that is an end of it then. We put him there to attend to just such business, and it is reasonable to suppose that he knows better what should be done under the circumstances than I do.” Mr. Lincoln often used humor to dismiss such troublesome visitors, but in this case he used humor later to dismiss the case, according to U.S. Marshal Ward Hill Lamon: “Afterward, in speaking of this incident, Mr. Lincoln said that the lady as a representative of her class in Alexandria reminded him of the story of the young man who had an aged father and mother owning considerable property. The young man being an only son, and believing that the old people had lived out their usefulness, assassinated them both. He was accused, tried, and convicted of the murder. When the judge came to pass sentence upon him, and called upon him to give any reason he might have why the sentence of death should not be passed upon him, he with great promptness replied that he hoped the court would be lenient upon him because he was a poor orphan!” 13

“While Mr. Lincoln had the most logical of minds and his letters and speeches on political controversies were the most convincing of any statesman of his period, he rarely would enter into a long discussion in conversation; he either would end the argument by an apt story or illustration enforcing his ideas,” wrote New York politician Chauncey Depew. “John Ganson of Buffalo, was the leader of the bar in western New York. Though elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat, he supported the war measures of the administration. He was a gentleman of the old school, of great dignity, and always immaculately dressed. He was totally bald and his face also devoid of hair. It was a gloomy period of the war and the reports from the front very discouraging. Congressman Ganson felt it his duty to see the president about the state of the country. He made a formal call and said to Mr. Lincoln: ‘Though I am a Democrat, I imperil my political future by supporting your war measures. I can understand that secrecy may be necessary in military operations, but I think I am entitled to know the exact conditions, good or bad, at the front.’ Mr. Lincoln looked at him earnestly for a minute and then said: ‘Ganson, how clean you shave!’ That ended the interview.” 14

Colonel James Grant Wilson was present at this interview and understood that Ganson wanted him to leave. However, the President intervened, saying, “It’s all right, John, turn on your oratory.” Wilson reported that after the “close shave” remark, everyone left “in the best of spirits” and he accompanied Mr. Lincoln to an army hospital. On the way, Wilson asked: “Mr. President, is that the manner in which you manage the politicians?” Mr. Lincoln replied: “Well, Colonel, You must not think you have got all the strategy in the army; we have to have a little bit for Washington.” Noted Wilson: “And that was his strategy. He did not argue with his people, but made some droll remark of that character, or told some funny story, and so he evaded discussions with these people on the claims of their constituents. That is the way he talked to the politicians.”15

As a rule, Mr. Lincoln did not stand on ceremony for visitors. In fact, he often sat or lounged. Treasury official Maunsell B. Field recalled: “With civility the President was not overburdened, and his manners were any thing but acceptable to the fair sex. I used constantly to observe in Washington during the war, that, whereas all men appeared more or less abashed on approaching, at least for the first time, the nation’s leaders, the ladies shared in none of this diffidence. On one occasion a lady was talking to Mr. Lincoln, asking a favor at that, and he remained sitting while she stood. After a while he arose and drew up another chair, as she supposed with the intention of offering it to her. Nothing of the sort. He stretched out his own long legs upon it. This was more than female patience could endure. ‘Mr. Lincoln,’ exclaimed the lady, ‘I think you are the worst-bred man in the world.’ ‘Halloo,’ asked the President, ‘what have I done now?’ The lady explained, and Mr. Lincoln, in the best temper, admitted that he believed she was right.'”16

Some women achieved their objectives with the President through sheer persistance. Cordelia Perrine Harvey, the widow of the governor of Wisconsin, paid several visits to Mr. Lincoln in early 1863 in pursuit of a hospital for wounded soldiers to be located in Wisconsin. She argued unsuccessfully with the President that such soldiers would be more likely to recuperate in a healthful atmosphere away from the front; Mr. Lincoln worried that soldiers would be more likely to desert near home. Mrs. Harvey argued that dead soldiers couldn’t desert. Mr. Lincoln argued it was “A fine way, a fine way to decimate the army; we should never get a man of them back, not one, not one.” Although they disagreed, the President sent Mrs. Harvey to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton with a note: “Admit Mrs. Harvey at once; listen to what she says; she is a lady of intelligence and talks sense. A. Lincoln.”

Stanton put Mrs. Harvey off so she returned to the President, who promised to speak to Stanton. Mr. Lincoln told her “I believe this idea of northern hospitals is a great humbug, and I am tired of hearing about it.” His impatience flashed as she argued that soldiers were more likely to recover quicker in northern air and weather. She retorted that she had toured many hospitals, “and I come to you from the cots of men who had died, who might have lived had you permitted. This is hard to say, but it none the less true.” At point one, he threatened to dismiss all Wisconsin soldiers from army service “and have no more trouble with them!” Mrs. Harvey later wrote:

The silence was painful, and I said as quietly as I could: ‘They have been faithful to the government; they have been faithful to you; they will still be loyal to the government, do what you will with them; but if you will grant my petition you will be glad as long as you live. The prayer of grateful hearts will give you strength in the hour of trial, and strong and willing arms will return to fight your battles.’
The President bowed his head, and with a look of sadness I can never forget said: ‘I never shall be glad any more.’ All severity had passed from his face. He seemed looking backward and heartward, and for a moment to forget he was not alone; a more than mortal anguish rested on his face.
The spell must be broken, so I said: ‘Do not speak so, Mr. President. Who will have so much reason to rejoice when the government is restored, as it will be?’
‘I know, I know,’ he said placing a hand on each side and bowing forward, ‘but the springs of life are wearing away.’

The President had still not granted Mrs. Harvey’s wish at the end of the meeting but agreed to see her the next day at noon. When he finally saw her about 3 P.M., Mr. Lincoln apologized for keeping her waiting and announced: “Mrs. Harvey, I only wish to tell you that an order equivalent to granting a hospital in your State has been issued nearly twenty-four hours.” The Wisconsin widow was overcome with emotion. To help her collect herself, Mr. Lincoln changed the subject and bade her come again the next day. “I suppose you would have been mad if I had no?’ Mr. Lincoln told her when she arrived. When Mrs. Harvey said she would not have gotten angry but only persisted in her persuasion, he said: “Well, I think I acted wisely, then. Don’t you ever get angry? I know a little woman not very unlike you who gets mad sometimes.” He then named the new hospital after her late husband. As she expressed her thanks, he said: “You almost think me handsome, don’t you?” Impulsively, Mrs. Harvey replied: “You are perfectly lovely to me, now, Mr. Lincoln.”17

Many people pretended to have influence with Mr. Lincoln but “the number of men who really had influence with the President, or could obtain favors from him by purely personal application, was by no means large, although the contrary statement has been frequently made. I could name them all upon my fingers. They were, moreover, with two or three exceptions, a class of men who seldom troubled him with personal applications, and when they did come, or write, we knew very well that what they came for, if reasonable, was pretty sure of accomplishment,” said William O. Stoddard. 18

Soldiers almost always had influence with the President – particularly younger, non-commissioned soldiers. Historian William C. Davis noted that such visitors were an important element in President Lincoln’s popularity with soldiers:

Inevitably it was the face-to-face contact that Lincoln had with many that cemented the bond, the understand among these, his children, that ‘Father Abraham’ would take care of them. Every day that he held open office hours, the line of callers and petitioners coursed through the hallways of the White House, sometimes down to the front door itself, and in every line there were soldiers, officers and enlisted men alike. Though neither he nor his secretaries ever had time or inclination to prepare a tally, it is certain that Lincoln must have given brief private interviews to at least two thousand soldiers during the war, and probably substantially more. Lincoln himself explained his policy of maintaining an open door to all to a British journalist in 1864. ‘This ready means of access is, I may say, under our form of government, the only link or cord which connects the people with governing power.’ In short, the volunteers had a right as citizens to a private audience, and by making himself as accessible as possible, he was twining extra strands into that binding cord between citizen and administration. “However unprofitable much of it is,’ he said of th inevitable time wasted on petty matters, ‘it must be kept us.’ What Lincoln did not say was that every soldier who called, whether he left entirely satisfied or not, went away with an experience he would relive and retell for the rest of his life. More immediately, every soldier who felt that at least he had been given a fair hearing went back to his regiment a living ambassador for Lincoln.”19

Often, of course, the problems of sodiers had to be resolved through intermediaries, many of whom first went to the office of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and were rebuffed. Mr. Lincoln had a much softer heart – which often resulted in conflicts between his office and Stanton’s. Congressman James F. Wilson told of bringing the case of a young Iowa soldier to the War Department. The soldier has been sent home on sick furlough, which he overstayed because of continued illness. He returned to his regiment as soon as he recovered but a doctor’s letter failed to have been delivered to army officials and he was officially listed as a deserter. Wilson took the case to Stanton who rebuffed him, stating: “We had better make a few examples by shooting a deserter now and then.”

Wilson then went to the White House, where the President listened and endorsed an order to reverse the charge of desertion. As Wilson left Mr. Lincoln’s office, the president said: “Your persistence in this case is right. There is the order, and I guess it will be obeyed…I know it is a small thing, as some would look at it, as it only relates to a private soldier, and we have hundreds of thousands of them. But the way to have good soldiers is to treat them rightly. At all events that is my order in this case. Let me know what comes of it.” Wilson went back to the War Department where Stanton again rebuffed him. But when he heard that the congressman was going back to see the President, Stanton backed down, saying: “It seems to me that the President would rather have a fuss with anybody than miss a chance to do a kindness to a private soldier. But I suppose this case is all right.”20

Young soldiers brought out Mr. Lincoln’s paternal instincts. “When one young soldier wanting to be an officer called in the spring of 1862, the president told him. ‘My son, go back to the army, continue to do your duty as you find it to do and, with the zeal you have hitherto shown, you will not have to ask for promotion. It will seek you.,'” noted historian Davis. “There was always a compliment for the man’s good service thus far, and the expressed wish that he had more like this particular soldier in his armies. ‘Shake hands with me,’ he would conclude the interview, ‘and go back the little man and brave soldier that you are.’ Sometimes the young faces had no great favor to ask other than to go home. When a lad of the 140th Pennsylvania who was obviously not recovering well from a battle wound called, the president observed to [Secretary of War Edwin Stanton], ‘He is nothing but a boy…but I believe he is made of the right kind of stuff,’ and suggested letting him go home to recuperate.”21

According to Interior Secretary John Palmer Usher, “Mr. Lincoln gained much of information, something of cheer and encouragement, from these visits. He particularly enjoyed conversing with officers of the army and navy, newly arrived from the field or from sea. He listened with the eagerness of a child over a fairy tale to [Congressman James Garfield’s] graphic account of the battle of Chickamauga; he was always delighted with the wise and witty sailor talk of John A. Dahlgren, Gustavus V. Fox, and Commander Henry A. Wise. Sometimes a word fitly spoken had its results. When R.B. Ayres called on him in the company with Senator [Ira] Harris, and was introduced as a captain of artillery who had taken part in a recent unsuccessful engagement, he asked, ‘How many guns did you take in?’ ‘Six,’ Ayres answered. ‘How many did you bring out?’ the President asked, maliciously. ‘Eight.’ This unexpected reply did much to gain Ayres his merited promotion.” 22

Other visitors were less welcom. Speaking of the contractors who tried to sell the President on doing business with them, William O. Stoddard portrayed a typical visitor who “will go into the President’s room, and he will come out; and when he then comes through the door there will be a strange vision of a large foot just behind him, suggesting to any naval constructor the idea of a propeller. Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole affairs is the fact that he did not, for the twinkling of an eye, succeed in deceiving Mr. Lincoln as to his real character. He was received from the first as a rogue, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but his criminal audacity went beyond the limits of patient endurance – and so he was also sent beyond the limits.”23


  1. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 562
  2. Helen Nicolay, Lincoln’s Secretary, p.83.
  3. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, p. 254.
  4. Harold Holzer, editor, Lincoln as I Knew Him, p.116.
  5. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 194.
  6. Michael Burlingame Editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p. .
  7. Allen C. Clark, “Abraham Lincoln in the National Capital,” Journal of the Columbia Historical Society, Volume XXVII, p. 38 (Washington Intelligencer, June 15, 1863).
  8. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 259, 255.
  9. Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, p. 141.
  10. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 255 (Richard Cunning McCormick, New York Evening Post, May 3, 1865)
  11. Robert S. Rentoul.
  12. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 93.
  13. Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 89-90
  14. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 503 (from Chauncey M. Depew, My Memories of Eighty Years)
  15. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intitmate Memories of Lincoln, p. 421-422.
  16. Maunsell B. Field, Personal Recollections: Memories of Many Men and Some Women, p. 312
  17. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Wilson, p. 557-569.
  18. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times, p. 178 from William Stoddard, White House Sketches, No. 8.
  19. William C. Davis, Lincoln’s Men, p. 130.
  20. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 497-498.
  21. Davis, Lincoln’s Men, p. 131.
  22. Rufus Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 397-398.


Military Visitors