Six Unusual Abraham Lincoln Facts and Rumors, Part II

  • Abraham Lincoln was an enthusiast of General Zachary Taylor.

Zachary Taylor would only serve for a brief sixteen months as President of the United States until his untimely death. On July 4, 1850, after consuming large quantities of green apples and cherries with cold milk on a hot day in Washington, he became severely ill with gastroenteritis. He became progressively worse until he died on the night of July 9, 1850. Before his death, it is said his last noble words were, “I have always done my duty. I am ready to die. My only regret is for the friends I leave behind me.”

Before he was president, he led a distinguished career as a general in the Mexican- American War. He delivered crushing blows to the Mexican Army at the battles of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterrey, and Buena Vista, gaining him national fame. Taylor was endeared to his men and junior officers for his modest attitude, fortitude, selflessness, and care for their welfare that also transcended to the public. His name became linked to George Washington and Andrew Jackson, viewed as a man of the people who took up the sword to protect the freedom of all Americans.

Zachary Taylor gained fame as an American commander during the Mexican-American War.  He won the presidency as a Whig in 1848 and died in office in July 1850.  Abraham Lincoln was a Whig before becoming a Republican in the 1850s.  (Library of Congress)

Zachary Taylor gained fame as an American commander during the Mexican-American War. He won the presidency as a Whig in 1848 and died in office in July 1850. Abraham Lincoln was a Whig before becoming a Republican in the 1850s. (Library of Congress)

On July 25, 1850, the forty-one year old Illinois Congressman, Abraham Lincoln, was asked to present the eulogy for the deceased general and president. In his eulogy, he pronounced that Taylor’s most admirable trait was his “dogged incapacity to understand that defeat was possible.”  Lincoln stated that, “His rarest military trait, was a combination of negatives—absence of excitement and absence of fear. He could not be flurried, and he could not be scared.”  Lincoln acclaimed Taylor had a knack to defy any odds stacked up against him, “It did not happen to Gen. Taylor once in his life, to fight a battle on equal terms, or on terms advantageous to himself—and yet he was never beaten, and never retreated. In all, the odds was greatly against him; in each, defeat seemed inevitable; and yet in all, he triumphed.”

Ulysses S. Grant was also an avid admirer of Zachary Taylor, serving as a young lieutenant in his army during the Mexican-American War. Grant commendably declared, “No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he.” Grant stated that he most admired Taylor because of his simplicity, lack of pretension, and directness of expression. He specified that these qualities are more rarely found than genius or physical courage. It is though-provoking to wonder that while Grant slugged away with General Lee in the spring of 1864, if his distinguished calm bearing and casual appearance described by fellow officers was emulated from his old idol.

  • Abraham Lincoln considered two promising candidates for command of the Army of the Potomac before the battle of Gettysburg in 1863. 

It took President Lincoln until 1864 to find the right commander to lead his Union armies. Is it possible he had the opportunity to select an efficient leader beforehand? The unsuccessful generals appointed to high command in the East Theater of the war read like a laundry list (McDowell, McClellan, Fremont, Banks, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker). Listed below are two possible candidates rumored to have been offered command of the Army of the Potomac, both killed before the end of the war. 

Major General John Fulton Reynolds (1820-1863)

Admiring Reynolds after the war, General Winfield Scott Hancock noted that, “I may take this occasion to state that, in my opinion, there was no officer in the Army of the Potomac who developed a character for usefulness and ability, in the highest grades of command, superior to that of General Reynolds, and had he lived to the close of the war he would most probably have attained the highest honor in that army.”

Reynolds graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1841, and later served in the Mexican-American War. He was brevetted to captain for gallantry at Monterrey and Buena Vista. By 1863, the “soldier general” had risen through the ranks of the Army of the Potomac to the command of the First Corps.

Lincoln offered the command of the Army of the Potomac to Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds before the battle of Gettysburg.  Fearing he would face too much political interference from Washington, Reynolds did not accept.  (Library of Congress)

Lincoln offered the command of the Army of the Potomac to Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds before the battle of Gettysburg. Fearing he would face too much political interference from Washington, Reynolds did not accept. (Library of Congress)

Following the defeat at Chancellorsville in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln contemplated the removal of Major General Joseph Hooker, the current commander of the Army of the Potomac. On May 31, Reynolds, whom Hooker described as “the ablest man officer under me,” took leave and travelled to Washington to discuss the leadership of the Army of the Potomac with Lincoln. He was most likely selected to meet with Lincoln due to his high esteem among his colleagues, and his reputation for staying out of politics. When bluntly asked by Lincoln if he would be interested in command of the Army of the Potomac, Reynolds made it apparent that unless he was given free rein from political control, he would prefer to decline. Unable at the time to comply with his demands, Lincoln reluctantly ordered the recommended choice of Reynolds, General George G. Meade, to replace Hooker on June 28.

On the morning of July 1, 1863, Reynolds was commanding the “left wing” of the Army of the Potomac, on its march toward Gettysburg. He was supervising the placement of the Second Wisconsin Regiment, when a rebel bullet smashed into the back of his head, killing him instantly. When Meade heard of the death of Reynolds, he was almost brought to tears. It is fascinating to wonder how history may have been altered if the aggressively-minded Reynolds had been in command of the Army of the Potomac following the defeat of General Lee at Gettysburg.

Major General Israel Bush Richardson (1815-1862)

Israel Richardson graduated in the same West Point class as Reynolds, the class contributing twenty-three generals to the war. He served in both the Seminole Indian War in Florida and the Mexican-American War. He earned the nickname “Fighting Dick” during the Mexican-American War for his fortitude in battle. Richardson, also a “soldier’s general” had risen from regimental command to division command by 1862. He was said to have a voice that “rang out above the shrilling of trumpets.” While in battle, he was remembered to have “went under fire with as much nonchalance as ordinary people go to breakfast.”

During the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, Richardson’s division was tasked with breaking the Confederate center at the Sunken Road. While supervising his artillery fire near the front, he was gravely wounded from an enemy shell fragment.

Following the battle of Antietam, President Lincoln arrived to meet with General McClellan. He was visibly frustrated with the cautiousness McClellan exhibited in following up to destroy Robert E. Lee’s army. The displeased president felt that the Army of the Potomac acted only as “McClellan’s bodyguard.” On October 4, Lincoln made a special visit to the wounded Richardson, who was housed at McClellan’s HQ.

Gen. Israel B. Richardson was a West Point graduate and Mexican-American War veteran.  He was wounded by a shell fragment at the September 1862 battle of Antietam and died two months later.  (Wikipedia)

Gen. Israel B. Richardson was a West Point graduate and Mexican-American War veteran. He was wounded by a shell fragment at the September 1862 battle of Antietam and died two months later. (Wikipedia)

Captain Charles Stuart Draper, one of Richardson’s aides, was also wounded and housed in the same bedroom as Richardson. Draper recalled the conversation that took place between Richardson and Lincoln. He claimed that Richardson spoke to Lincoln on such topics as the future of the nation, and that he gave his opinions on strategy and army personnel. They also spoke on the cautiousness of McClellan. Draper recorded that during their conversation, Lincoln assured Richardson, that if he lived, he would be selected to succeed McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac.

If Draper’s testimony holds true, Lincoln would have certainly found his “fighting general” as early as 1862. However, on November 3, Richardson died of his wounds. Remarkably, Lincoln waited almost six weeks until the death of Richardson before convincing the timid Ambrose Burnside to take the job. The consequence of this selection ended in the December 13, 1862 battle of Fredericksburg and the useless waste of 12,000 Union soldiers’ lives.

  • President Lincoln offered the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi a field command. 

In the summer of 1861, Abraham Lincoln was interested in seeing if the Italian revolutionary leader Giuseppe Garibaldi would be willing to offer his services to the Union cause. Garibaldi would be able to play a critical role in the war effort by helping to “lend the power of his name, his genius, and his sword to the Northern cause.” Garibaldi was internationally known as the “Hero of Two Worlds” taking part in revolutionary movements in South America and Italy. In 1860, Garibaldi had led his “red shirts” in military campaigns on the Italian mainland hoping to initiate the formation of a unified Italy.

President Lincoln thought he might lure Garibaldi to the United States to fight for the Union, but Garibaldi's demands were far too high.  America would have no Italian Lafayette during the Civil War.  (Wikipedia)

President Lincoln thought he might lure Garibaldi to the United States to fight for the Union, but Garibaldi’s demands–including immediate emancipation of slaves–were far too high. America would have no Italian Lafayette during the Civil War. (Wikipedia)

Rumors began to circulate in Union newspapers that Garibaldi was on his way to take command of the Union army by 1861. James W. Quiggle, the American consul in Belgium, sent a letter to Garibaldi in June 1861 presenting this interest. He stated that “the papers report that you are going to the United States to join the Army of the North in the conflict of my country. If you do, the name of La Fayette will not surpass yours. There are thousands of Italians and Hungarians who will rush to join your ranks and there are thousands and tens of thousands of Americans who will glory to be under the command of the ‘Washington of Italy.’” Garibaldi politely denied such a claim, but the thought of it appealed to the Italian general.

In the end, Garibaldi’s demands were too much for the Lincoln administration. Garibaldi wanted to be appointed to the supreme command of all the Union armies, ranking even above the aging Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. The Lincoln administration was only willing to offer him the rank of major general. He also demanded that all slaves in North American be immediately emancipated. He desired to wage a war for equal rights in North America. Emancipation was not of primary importance to President Lincoln this early in the war. The love affair between the Italian revolutionary and the American public was not meant to be.

-Frank Jastrzembski, Volunteer

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Six Unusual Abraham Lincoln Facts and Rumors, Part I

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most studied individuals in human history and is ranked by most historians as the greatest American president.  He and James A. Garfield knew one another; in fact, President Lincoln may have encouraged Garfield to resign from the Union Army and take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in late 1863 when Garfield was trying to decide between staying in the Army or going to Congress.

President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.  (Library of Congress)

President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. (Library of Congress)

Here are some interesting, fun, and little-known tidbits about Abraham Lincoln.

  • Abraham Lincoln presented a pair of engraved Colt pistols to a revolutionary Algerian religious and military leader.

Abd el-Kader (1808-1883) was a religious and military leader who led the struggle against French colonialism in Algeria during the 1830s-1840s. He delivered a number of stunning defeats to the French Army, and forced them to commit a tremendous amount of manpower and material to suppress his revolution. After he was finally captured and imprisoned, he renounced the war and was later pardoned by Napoleon III. He was exiled to Damascus to live out the remainder of his life.

In July 1860, conflict erupted in Damascus between the Muslim and Christian populations. The Christian quarter was targeted and attacked, leading to the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. Abd el-Kader had previously warned the French consul of an imminent eruption of violence. When violence broke out, the Muslim former freedom fighter sheltered large numbers of Christians, including the heads of several foreign consulates, in his own home. He sent his eldest sons into the streets to offer any surviving Christians shelter. Many survivors testified that Abd el-Kader was instrumental in saving them from certain death.

Reports soon spread through the Christian world of the prominent role Abd el-Kader had played in sheltering the Christian refugees. The international community applauded his effort. The French government bestowed on him the Legion of Honor, and the Order of Pius IX was given to him from the Vatican. Two Colt pistols were delivered from Abraham Lincoln to Abd el-Kader in a box made of bird’s eye maple bearing the inscription, “From the President of the United States, to his Excellency, Lord Abdelkader.” They are currently on display in an Algerian museum.

These two Colt pistols were delivered to Algerian leader Abd el-Kader from Abraham Lincoln.  (Wikipedia)

These two Colt pistols were delivered to Algerian leader Abd el-Kader from Abraham Lincoln. (Wikipedia)

  • Abraham Lincoln offered the Texas governor and former general, Sam Houston, a commission as a major general and command of all the U.S. forces in Texas. 

The man that had fought so hard to bring Texas into the Union twenty-six years before appealed to his fellow Texans to not let it secede in 1861. The pro-union governor of Texas, Sam Houston, refused to swear allegiance to Confederacy and was subsequently unseated from his position. Before he was removed from office, Abraham Lincoln had attempted to win Sam Houston over to the Union cause. Abraham Lincoln sent a secret message to Houston offering military assistance, carried by George H. Giddings, a San Antonio merchant. The message revealed that President Lincoln was offering to appoint Houston a major general in the United States Army. He also authorized Houston to recruit 100,000 men, and if possible, hold Texas in the Union until naval and army support arrived. 

Houston summoned four of his closest friends together at his mansion and read them Lincoln’s offer. Only one of the men advised him to accept Lincoln’s commission and attempt to hold Texas in the Union. Following the advice of his other three friends, the 68-year old Houston tossed the letter into the fireplace. He then proclaimed, “Gentlemen, I have resolved to act in this manner on your advice, but if I was ten years younger I would not.” In an attempt to avoid bloody conflict on the subject of secession in Texas, Houston and his wife quietly left for Huntsville, Texas. Houston soon after died there on July 26, 1863.

In a speech on April 19, 1861, Houston had forewarned a crowd of the destruction that the war would bring to the South. “Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it.”

This image of Sam Houston was taken around 1859, just two years before the start of the Civil War.  (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

This image of Sam Houston was taken around 1859, just two years before the start of the Civil War. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

  • Abraham Lincoln nearly fought a broadsword duel! 

In 1842, Abraham Lincoln became engaged in a heated debate with James Shields over the defaulted state bank in Illinois. In one instance, Lincoln publically accused Shields of womanizing. Lincoln stated, “His very features, in the ecstatic agony of his soul, spoke audibly and distinctly–Dear girls, it is distressing, but I cannot marry you all. Too well I know how much you suffer; but do, do remember, it is not my fault that I am so handsome and so interesting.” Public slandering was viciously conducted between the two politicians.

This caused the hot-headed Shields to challenge Lincoln to a duel. The duel was scheduled to be held in Missouri, where dueling was still legal. Since Lincoln was challenged by Shields, he was allowed to choose the weapons used in the duel. Lincoln’s first choice was a cavalry broadsword! This choice did have some rational foundation. Lincoln was aware that he would be able to handle a broadsword better than a pistol. He stated, “I didn’t want the d—-d fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols.” Lincoln,who stood 6’4″ tall, against Shields at 5’9″ tall, would hold the advantage with the cumbersome weapon.

On September 22, the combatants met at Bloody Island, Missouri. In a demonstration before the duel was scheduled to commence, Lincoln swung his sword high above his head and sliced a tree branch in two. This act was mean to display the immensity of Lincoln’s reach and strength to the smaller, but fearless, Shields. The men eventually surrendered to reason, and the two level-headed men called a truce.

James Shields, who nearly fought a broadsword duel with Abraham Lincoln.  (National Archives)

James Shields, who nearly fought a broadsword duel with Abraham Lincoln. (National Archives)

Shields would go on the serve as a general in the Mexican-American War, where he was severely wounded at the battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847. He also served as a general in the American Civil War (appointed by Lincoln), where he was also gravely wounded at the battle of Kernstown in 1862. When a naïve army officer questioned Lincoln about the incident in 1865, he was said to have replied, “If you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.” It would be interesting to wonder how history would have been altered if Lincoln would have killed Shields, or vice versa. Lincoln would not have been the only future president to have killed a man in a duel. That honor was bestowed on Andrew Jackson.

(Check back soon for Part II of this article!)

-Frank Jastrzembski, Volunteer

James A. Garfield and the Lincoln Assassination

One hundred and fifty years ago, on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth committed what many consider the last tragic and violent act of the American Civil War.  That evening, he snuck into the presidential box at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., where President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln were enjoying the third act of the comedy Our American Cousin.  Booth was a well-known actor from a family of well-known actors, and he had little trouble gaining access to the box.  He drew a small Derringer pistol, pointed it at the back of Lincoln’s head, and pulled the trigger.

As the theater erupted into noise and chaos, Booth leapt from the box onto the stage, supposedly screaming “sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants) as he jumped.  Despite breaking his leg when he landed, Booth escaped.  He was tracked down and killed by federal troops in Virginia almost two weeks later.  The mortally wounded President Abraham Lincoln was carried across the street to the Petersen House, where he died about nine hours after being shot.  His hopes and plans for a lenient, easy Reconstruction of the South died with him.  Radical Republicans in Congress quickly wrested control of Reconstruction from President Andrew Johnson and inflicted a harsh, punitive program on the South that led to more than a century of hard feelings and distrust.

John Wilkes Booth murdered President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865.  Booth hailed from Maryland and was a Confederate sympathizer.  His plan to avenge the South by killing Lincoln failed since Lincoln intended to offer the South a lenient Reconstruction policy.  Lincoln's death allowed Radical Republicans in Congress to impose a harsh, punitive Reconstruction instead.  (Wikipedia Commons)

John Wilkes Booth murdered President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Booth hailed from Maryland and was a Confederate sympathizer. His plan to avenge the South by killing Lincoln failed since Lincoln intended to offer the South a lenient Reconstruction policy. Lincoln’s death allowed Radical Republicans in Congress to impose a harsh, punitive Reconstruction instead. (Wikipedia Commons)

James A. Garfield was a 33-year old freshman congressman when Lincoln was murdered.  A former Union general, Garfield had been nominated by Ohio Republicans and won election to the House of Representatives while still in the field with the army.  He left the military at the end of 1863 to take his seat in the House.  On April 14, 1865, Garfield was on a trip to New York City.  He learned of Lincoln’s death the next morning and wrote to his wife, Lucretia: “I am sick at heart, and feel it to be almost like sacrilege to talk of money or business now.”  Though Garfield had disagreed with President Lincoln on several issues, he was clearly distressed by the violent death of the man whose leadership had seen the United States through its darkest days.

Over the years, a story emerged about Garfield’s actions in New York after learning of Lincoln’s death.  Like so many other places across the North, New York City was in chaos after the news of the President’s murder began to spread.  Anger, sadness, and fear gripped many of the city’s residents as suspicions of a conspiracy and the expectation of more killings ran rampant.  Supposedly, a mob of some 50,000 people filled Wall Street and screamed for the heads of southern sympathizers.  As the story goes, the crowd had just resolved to destroy the offices of The World, a Democratic newspaper, when a single figure appeared above them on a balcony and began to speak:  “Fellow citizens!  Clouds and darkness are round about Him!  His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies!  Justice and judgment are the establishment of His throne!  Mercy and truth shall go before His face!  Fellow citizens!  God reigns, and the Government at Washington still lives!”

These are the words supposedly spoken that day by Congressman James A. Garfield.  A supposed eyewitness to this event reported “The effect was tremendous,” and that Garfield’s words brought calm to the crowd (and saved The World’s office from destruction, one assumes).  This witness then turned to someone close to ask who the speaker was, and was told, “It is General Garfield of Ohio!”

James A. Garfield entered the Union army as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1861.  In December 1863, Major General Garfield left the army to enter the U.S. House of Representatives.  He wore his general's uniform when he first arrived in Congress.  In April 1865, Garfield was in New York City when he learned of Lincoln's assassination.  (Dickinson College)

James A. Garfield entered the Union army as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1861. In December 1863, Major General Garfield left the army to enter the U.S. House of Representatives. He wore his general’s uniform when he first arrived in Congress. In April 1865, Garfield was in New York City when he learned of Lincoln’s assassination. (Dickinson College)

This story became famous and, as historian Allan Peskin relates, “an enduring aspect of the Garfield mythology.”  Regularly re-told by newspapers under the heading “Garfield Stills the Mob,” it was widely circulated in Garfield’s later political campaigns, including his 1880 run for the presidency.  Sadly and ironically, it was also regularly mentioned in memorial pieces after Garfield was, like Lincoln, murdered by an assassin.  However, like so many great stories, there is little reliable evidence to suggest that it happened as reported.

Several things about the story make it unlikely to be completely true.  First and foremost, despite being a lifelong diarist and letter writer, James A. Garfield himself never mentioned it.  Surely some version of it would have made it into a letter or diary entry at some point.  There was also no spoken or written tradition within the Garfield family that lent any authority to this event.  (Garfield himself may have elected not to discount the story after he saw how valuable it was during campaigns.)  Secondly, the same story with nearly the same quotes from Garfield later gained traction as having taken place during the Gold Panic of 1869.  James A. Garfield was nowhere near New York City during that event, but eyewitnesses still claimed to have watched him speak from a balcony and calm thousands of panicked stockbrokers.  Finally, Garfield’s eldest son, Harry A. Garfield, tried unsuccessfully to authenticate the story by searching the archives of New York newspapers.  Allan Peskin writes: “Both the Tribune and the Herald covered the Wall Street meeting and gave what purported to be verbatim accounts of a speech delivered by Garfield.  Although both versions contain echoes of the famous speech, neither version matches the eloquence or brevity of the speech of the legend, nor is there any indication that Garfield’s words pacified an angry mob although, according to the Herald, a lynch mob was calmed shortly before the meeting by Moses Grinnell.”

New Yorkers reading the New York Herald were greeted by this Saturday, April 15, 1865 front page announcing the murder of President Abraham Lincoln.  Supposedly, James A. Garfield "stilled the mob" later that day with a speech that, in all likelihood, he did not actually deliver but that has grown over time  to be part of the Garfield legend.  (historicpages.com)

New Yorkers reading the New York Herald were greeted by this Saturday, April 15, 1865 front page announcing the murder of President Abraham Lincoln. Supposedly, James A. Garfield “stilled the mob” later that day with a speech that, in all likelihood, he did not actually deliver but that has grown over time to be part of the Garfield legend. (historicpages.com)

So what are we to make of this story?  In all likelihood, it is just that: a story.  Garfield may very well have offered a few words to the New York crowd that day, but the image of him calming an angry mob with religious allegories and assurances that the federal government would survive the calamity of Lincoln’s death is very likely a myth.  Like so many events in history, the story took on a life of its own, especially when Garfield became both a presidential candidate and then a martyred leader.  While the story makes Garfield a more appealing and attractive historical figure, it ultimately does him a disservice by making us appreciate him for something that never happened.  There is plenty to admire about James Garfield; we don’t need apocryphal stories to make him more appealing.

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation & Education