Meeting Mr. Lincoln: Daily Routines & Schedule
President Lincoln followed a daily routine, which varied according to the exigencies of the war and the weather. "He was an early riser and was apt to be at his toil before the humblest clerk on the national pay-rolls had eaten his breakfast. That of the Chief Magistrate was very frequently brought to him in his office that he might lose no time, for now, as always, from his log-house cradle, he was a hard student," wrote aide William Stoddard.1 Food played little role in his schedule. "Mr. Lincoln's habits were like himself odd & wholy irregular. He loved nothing and ate mechanically. I have seen him sit down at the table and never unless recalled to his senses, would he think of food," said his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Edwards.2
In the summer, the President's family spent nights at the Soldiers' Home and worked during the day at the White House. His travels to and from the Solders' Home exposed him to potential violence. However, President Lincoln disliked bodyguards because they interfered with his ability to make spontaneous visits around Washington. The President told Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was frequently concerned for his safety, 'I wish to be free to go at once, and not to have to notify the Adjutant General, and wait till he can get ready."3
Military and civil officials -- such as General Charles Stone and Marshal Ward Hill Lamon -- were constantly putting appropriate security measures into effect. The President was just as conscientiously dismissing them, treating as a joke an assassination attempt where a bullet pierced his hat. Stanton grew particularly worried when Confederate General J.E.B Stuart passed close to Washington in June 1863 just before the Battle of Gettysburg. He assigned soldiers to guard the President and the President typically objected. Shortly before Confederate troops invaded Washington in July 1864, the President once again dismissed an attempt to have 90 soldiers assigned to his protection.
The President did eventually grow fond of the "Bucktail" detail of Union troops that was assigned to guard him. But he never lost his belief that his life was in God's hands. When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton tried to increase his security just before his Second Inauguration, he replied: "Stanton, it is useless. If it is the will of Providence that I should die by the hand of an assassin, it must be so." Much of the President's schedule was obvious to the observant. One such observer was the poet Walt Whitman, who spent much of the war in Washington as a clerk and nurse. On August 12, 1863, Whitman wrote:
I see the President almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to and from his lodgings out of town. He never sleeps at the White House during the hot season, but has quarters at a healthy location some three miles north of the city - the Soldiers' Home - a United States military establishment.
Virtually all of his time as President was spent at Washington and the nearby battle fronts. He never ventured back to Illinois. His sole trips outside the capital area as President were to West Point to visit former Army commander Winfield Scott, to Baltimore for a fair to support the Sanitary Commission, and to Gettysburg to help dedicate the national cemetery there. Because so much of his official life was in the White House or its environs, the story of his presidency is really the story of the White House. According to family friend and journalist Noah Brooks:
"Probably no family that ever lived in the Executive Mansion was so irregular in its methods of living as were the Lincolns. Naturally, Mr. Lincoln was methodical in his habits; he was scrupulously exact in all the details of his office, and his care for written documents was sometimes carried to an extreme; he appeared to have the Chinese reverence for a written paper. But the exigencies of those stormy times prevented him from being regular in his manner of life in the White House; and the example of the head of the family could not fail to affect all the other members. Never very attentive to the demands or the attractions of the table, his incessant cares, his anxieties, and the engrossing calls upon his time (which he had not the skill to parry), left him with very little opportunity to attend to the simplest duties of the head of a family. Of his personal comfort he was so absolutely neglectful as to require constant prompting from other members of his household."5
Work dominated the President's life -- and his personal philosophy. He lacked the vices that were common in Washington such as drinking and gambling. His son Robert Todd Lincoln later wrote that Mr. Lincoln "was a total abstainer, but on two or three occasions in my life, not more. I have seen him take a sip of a glass of ale and also of a glass of champagne. On each occasion he was urged to do this as a tonic. I do not think it ever occurred to him of his own motion to drink anything except water or tea or coffee or milk."6 The President's twin devotion to work and meeting people caused great pressure. One secretary, John G. Nicolay wrote on April 2, 1861: "We still have plenty of hard work to do, although we are somewhat relieved from the 'outside pressure' by the President's having limited his reception hours from 10 to 1 o'clock. Under this arrangement we do get the bulk of the crowd shut out in the afternoon at least."7 Five days later, Nicolay wrote: "The President having limited his hours for seeing people on business, has relieved us very much, and given us time at least to eat and sleep, which is a considerable gain. The crowd however hangs on with a wonderful perseverance, and although it is five weeks since the inauguration, I cannot yet begin to estimate when we shall be free from them."8 In September 1866, presidential aide John Hay addressed a letter to William Herndon to answer Herndon's questions about President Lincoln's taxing schedule:
Lincoln used to go to bed ordinarily from ten to eleven o'clock unless he happened to be kept up by important news, in which case he would frequently Remain at the War Department until 1 or 2. He rose early. When he lived in the country at Soldiers Home, he would be up and dressed, eat his breakfast (which was extremely frugal an egg, a piece of toast Coffee &c) and ride into Washington, all before 8 o'clock. In the winter at the White House he was not quite so early. He did not sleep very well but spent a good while in bed. Tad usually slept with him. He would lie around the office until he fell asleep & Lincoln would shoulder him and take him off to bed.
Office hours were not held on Sunday, but this stop the President from engaging in work or visitors from seeking to engage the President. Aide William O. Stoddard noted that Mr. Lincoln " never scrupled to give his attention to any necessary work on Sunday. This fact was generally well known, and some prominent men, of sufficient official or representative position to warrant them in disregarding the rules about 'receiving visitors,' were constantly in the habit of availing themselves of the chance offered by Sunday for finding the President disengaged, and this often to his extreme discomfort and dissatisfaction."10
President Lincoln's Schedule
6:00-7:00 A.M. The President began desk work and reading of correspondence and dispatches. His wife occasionally had coffee sent to the office. According to Elizabeth Grimsley, who recounted the early days of the administration: "Mr. Lincoln was often summoned as early as five o'clock in the morning to the Cabinet Room and Mrs. Lincoln had repeatedly to send his coffee there, nor would he get his breakfast until nine or ten o'clock. But this soon began to tell upon even his iron constitution, and only repeated protests brought about any degree of regularity."11 Indeed, noted William O. Stoddard, "There were no set hours for begining or ending work in the national business office. Mr. Lincoln kept no hours, and never once asked what his assistants were doing with their time."12
8:00 A.M. An egg and coffee was the President's usual breakfast -- with sometimes a little bacon. If he stayed at the Soldiers' Home, Mr. Lincoln had breakfast before he left for work on horseback. Early in his Administration, his wife tried to invite friends to breakfast for conversation and diversion. "Mr. Galloway of Ohio, 'Sam' as he was familiarly known, being very genial and merry, was a frequent visitor," Elizabeth Grimsley recalled. "Mr. Lincoln would come in looking so sad and harassed, seat himself, with a bare nod of recognition, saying 'Mother, I do not think I ought to have come.' Mr. Galloway would go on with some pleasant anecdote (often purposely begun, with Mr. Lincoln's entrance), for he also was an inveterate joker. Presently Mr. Lincoln's mouth would relax, his eye brighten, and his whole face lighten, as only those who had seen the transformation would believe, and we would be launched into a sea of laughter -- he himself falling in with his oft quoted expression 'And this reminds me'."13 Guard William Crook observed his breakfast habits at the end of his Administration: "He never lost his taste for the things a growing farmer's boy would like. He was particularly fond of bacon. Plentiful and wholesome food was one of the means by which he kept up his strength, which was taxed almost beyond endurance in those days."14
Between 9:00 and 10:00 A.M., the President reviewed his mail that had been organized by John Nicolay and John Hay, his secretaries. He wrote his own letters or ordered his secretaries to respond with correspondence that began "The President directs" under their own signature. The President was careful in committing his thoughts to paper. Much of his correspondence consisted of the briefest possible notes and references. At this time of day, the President also frequently made his first visit of the day to the War Department -- to check on the latest news from the fronts or confer with War Department officials like Secretary of War Stanton or General Halleck.
10 A.M.-12:30 or 1:00 P.M. Office Hours except on Tuesday or Thursday when they ended at noon. Visitors presented their cards to guards and the president selected whom he wished to see, starting with Cabinet members and congressmen. These limited visiting hours were only gradually imposed after the President's unlimited visiting hours at the beginning of his first term proved too burdensome.
About noon, the President generally opened the doors for a more public free-for-all. Noted John Hay, it was "the President custom [about noon] to order the doors to be opened and all who were waiting to be admitted. The crowd would rush in, thronging the narrow room, and one by one would make their wants know. Some came merely to shake hands, to wish him God-speed; their errand was soon done. Others came asking help or mercy; they usually pressed forward, careless in their pain, as to what ears should overhear their prayer. But there were many who lingered in the rear and leaned against the wall, hoping each to be the last, that they might unfold their schemes for their own advantage or their neighbor's hurt. These were often disconcerted by the President's loud and hearty, 'Well, friend, what can I do for you?' which compelled them to speak, or retire and wait for a more convenient season."15
When possible, lunch was at 1:00 P.M., but he had to escape through the horde of would-be office-holders and clemency-seekers. Lunch with family in the family quarters. Usually milk, fruit such as an apple, and a biscuit. Sometimes, the President skipped lunch. On those occasions, Mary Todd Lincoln might try to bring him a tray. George Templeton Strong, the New York lawyer who kept a valuable diary of Civil War activities wrote that the president of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Dr. Henry Bellows, advised the President "to take his meals at regular hours. His health was so important to the country. Abe Lincoln loquitur, 'Well, I cannot take my vittles regular. I kind o' just browze round.'"16 The president liked fruit and might indulge in a snack if a gift was presented to him by a visitor. Mr. Lincoln once explained his passion for fruit to a fellow Illinois lawyer: "Apples agree with me; a large percent of professional men abuse their stomachs by imprudence in drinking and eating, and in that way health is injured and ruined and life is shortened."17
Noon on Tuesdays and Fridays: Cabinet Meeting in Mr. Lincoln's Office.
2:00 - 4:00 P.M. Office work. Sometimes, between 2:00-3:00 P.M., the President opened the doors of his office for what he called the "Beggar's Opera" for waiting supplicants.
4:00 P.M. Ride around Washington in the Lincolns' open carriage, usually with Mary Lincoln when she was in town. She decided upon this regime early in his administration as a way of getting him into fresh air. A carriage was one of her first purchases for the White House. The President was on such a ride when disastrous news came in about the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Sometimes, their son rode on his pony along side his father's barouche. Guard William Crook wrote of these rides
He had very little outdoor life. An occasional drive with Mrs. Lincoln in the afternoon, a more occasional horseback ride, a few moments to fill his lungs with outside air while he walked the few paces to the War Department, was the sum of it. Mrs. Lincoln was anxious that he should have some recreation. I have carried messages to him for her when he was lingering in his office, held by some business. One beautiful afternoon she sent for him so many times that she became impatient, and told me to tell him that he must come. He got up with an expression of great submission and said:
6:00 P.M. or 7:00 P.M. Dinner with the family in the Family Dining Room, usually without guests. It included soup, potatoes and meat. Apple pie was a presidential favorite. The President was not particular about his food or particularly hungry. (With such a limited intake of food, the President understandably lost weight.) He drank water although something stronger might be served to guests.
Coffee might be served in the Red Room. If guests were present, the President might read to them. British journalist Edward Dicey wrote about his experience at the White House in 1862: "Some of the party began smoking, and Mr. Seward, who was present, remarked laughingly, 'I have always wondered how any man could ever get to be President of the United States with so few vices. The President, you know, I regret to say, neither drinks nor smokes.' 'That,' answered the President, 'is a doubtful compliment. I recollect once being outside a stage in Illinois, and a man sitting by me offered me a cigar. I told him I had no vices. He said nothing, smoked for some time, and then grunted out, 'It's my experience in life that folks who have got no vices have plaguey few virtues.' 19
Alternatively, the President would move upstairs to his office. Historian Allan Nevins wrote "His happiest moments were the rare occasions when a few intimates gathered after dinner in his office and he relaxed in political gossip and general talk, telling stories and giving his humor and surprisingly ready wit - for he spoke of himself as a slow thinker - free scope. In such a group he would talk of critical military and political affairs with complete candor, stating his opinion of men and events in plain prairie language, and it speaks well for his judgment of friends that his confidence was never abused. Sometimes he was glad to be repeated. When he told a correspondent of S. L. M. Barlow, 'My idea of this war is that it should always have a peace in its belly,' he knew that the statement would soon be circulated in the Barlow-Manton Marble-Samuel J. Tilden circle. It amounted to a declaration that, once assured of maintenance of the Union, he would gladly consider a negotiated peace."20
7:00 P.M. The President usually visited the War Department to read telegraphs and then did more work in office, sometimes ending his work by reading from a work of humor or Shakespeare. Sometimes, he indulged his love of Shakespeare and comedy by going to the theater. Occasionally, he might join his wife and her visitors in the Blue or Red Rooms on the first floor but nocturnal guests were more likely to find him in his office. Aide John Hay wrote:
...occasionally he remained in the drawing-room after dinner, conversing with visitors or listening to music, for which he had an especial liking, though he was not versed in the science, and preferred simply ballads to more elaborate compositions. In his office he was not often suffered to be alone; he frequently passed the evening there with a few friends in frank and free conversation. If the company was all of one sort he was at his best; his wit and rich humor had free play; he was once more the Lincoln of the Eighth Circuit, the cheeriest of talkers, the riskiest of story-tellers; but if a stranger came in he put on in an instant his whole armor of dignity and reserve. He had a singular discernment of men; he would talk of the most important political and military concerns with a freedom which often amazed his Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Intimates, but we do not recall and instance in which this confidence was misplaced.
11:00 P.M. or later. Visits to telegraph office at War Department, especially if major military movements were underway. His visits to the telegraph room were so frequent -- up to four times a day -- that he sometimes called it his 'office."