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

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

“A Certain Fatality”: Robert Todd Lincoln and Presidential Assassinations

Status

Robert Todd Lincoln, eldest son of President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, felt cursed. One of his brothers, Edward, died as a boy in Springfield, Illinois long before their father became president. A second brother, William, died in the White House on February 20, 1862. The death of “Willie” made the Civil War’s dark days that much darker for the Lincoln family. Robert Lincoln’s last brother, Thomas, whom their father had called “Tad,” died at age 18 in 1871. In the years after his father’s death, Robert Lincoln also watched his mother, Mary, descend into financial hardship and manic depression. At one point, he committed her to an asylum. His mother died at age 63 in 1882.

Sadly, Robert Lincoln was very familiar with death. However, it was not the deaths of his brothers or his mother for which he is most famous or for which he believed himself to be cursed. Rather, it was his close connection to three presidential assassinations in just 36 years.

A young Robert Todd Lincoln in 1865, the year his father was assassinated.  Robert was not present when President Lincoln was shot, but was by his father's sided when he died.  (Library of Congress)

A young Robert Todd Lincoln in 1865, the year his father was assassinated. Robert was not present when President Lincoln was shot, but was by his father’s side when he died. (Library of Congress)

President and Mrs. Lincoln invited their son, then Capt. Robert T. Lincoln of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s staff, to Ford’s Theater to see a performance of Our American Cousin on the night of April 14, 1865. The younger Lincoln declined, telling his father that he planned to retire early that night. Several different people claimed to have been the one to inform him of John Wilkes Booth’s attack on his father at the theater, and Lincoln himself remembered only that numerous people came to him that night with the awful news. He immediately left for the Petersen house, where his father, unconscious but alive, had been taken after Booth shot him. Future Secretary of State John Hay, one of Abraham Lincoln’s private secretaries and a lifelong friend of Robert’s, wrote that, “After a natural outburst of grief, young Lincoln devoted himself the rest of the night to soothing and comforting his mother.” Robert was there at 7:22 a.m. on April 15 when President Lincoln died.

Over the next decade-and-a-half, many Republicans tried to talk Robert Lincoln into running for political office. Lincoln always declined, partially due to lack of interest but also because he knew his greatest appeal to the Republican Party was not his ability but his surname. In early 1881, however, he relented and agreed to serve as Secretary of War under President James A. Garfield.

Robert T. Lincoln as U.S. Secretary of War.  He was about 40 feet away when President James A. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881.  (Library of Congress)

Robert T. Lincoln as U.S. Secretary of War. He was about 40 feet away when President James A. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881. (Library of Congress)

On July 2, 1881, President Garfield was scheduled to leave for a trip to New England. While some cabinet members and their wives were scheduled to go on the trip, Lincoln was unable to depart until the following day. He went to Washington, D.C.’s Baltimore and Potomac train station that morning to meet the President and let him know that the Lincolns would be along on July 3. He was about forty feet away and walking toward President Garfield and Secretary of State James G. Blaine when Charles Guiteau approached from behind and shot Garfield twice. By Lincoln’s own recollection, “I think I reached him in fifteen seconds.” Secretary Lincoln immediately sent for Dr. D.W. Bliss, then ordered four companies of soldiers to immediately come to the train depot for security. When Garfield was moved back to the White House, Lincoln made sure that “all intruders were out of the grounds and a strong military guard on duty there and another at the jail to prevent lynching and a reserve between.” As historian Jason Emerson notes, Lincoln’s decisive actions after the attack on Garfield were reminiscent of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s on the night Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. However, the memory of his father’s murder sixteen years before haunted him. “My god,” he said to a New York Times reporter the day after the shooting. “How many hours of sorrow I have passed in this town.”

President James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881, eighty days after being shot. Vice President Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as the 21st President of the United States and traveled to Elberon, New Jersey, where Garfield died, to escort his predecessor’s body back to the capital. After Garfield’s late September funeral and once Congress convened in December 1881, Arthur kept only one cabinet officer appointed by Garfield: Robert Todd Lincoln, who served as Secretary of War until the end of the Arthur presidency.

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881.  Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked.  Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield.  (

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881. Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked. Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

After finishing his time as Secretary of War, Lincoln returned to private legal practice, then served as U.S. Minister to the Court of Saint James (the United Kingdom) under President Benjamin Harrison from 1889-1893. While living in England, Lincoln’s son, Abraham Lincoln II, called “Jack,” died of a post-surgery infection at just 16 years old.

After returning from England, Robert Lincoln became general counsel of the Pullman Palace Car Company. When founder George Pullman died in 1897, Lincoln was elevated to the company’s presidency. In 1901, the Lincolns vacationed all summer in New Jersey. As they traveled back to Chicago in early September, they decided to make a stop in Buffalo, New York to visit the Pan-American Exposition, a world’s fair intended to promote trade and friendship between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The Lincolns’ train pulled into the Buffalo train station on the evening of Friday, September 6. A Pullman employee was waiting and immediately handed Lincoln a telegram that read: “President McKinley was shot down by an anarchist in Buffalo this afternoon. He was hit twice in the abdomen. Condition serious.”

Lincoln immediately went to the home of John G. Milburn, president of the Pan-American Exposition, where McKinley was resting after a seemingly successful surgery to repair internal damage caused by Leon Czolgosz’s bullets. Lincoln spent a few minutes with the President and was convinced that McKinley would be fine. Lincoln saw the President again two days later and still believed he was improving, saying, “My visit has given me great encouragement” for McKinley’s recovery. He and his family left Buffalo for Chicago having enjoyed a visit to the Exposition and glad that McKinley was on the mend.

A week later, McKinley was dead of infection. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt had visited the wounded president at the same time as Robert Lincoln the previous week and then departed for a trip to the Adirondacks. Roosevelt hurried back to Buffalo and was sworn in as the 26th President of the United States on September 14, 1901. Shortly afterwards, Lincoln sent President Roosevelt a letter that read in part, “I do not congratulate you, for I have seen too much of the seamy side of the Presidential Robe to think of it as an enviable garment.”

Leon Czolgosz shoots President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901.  Robert Lincoln and his family were approaching Buffalo via train when the shooting occurred.  (

Leon Czolgosz shoots President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901. Robert Lincoln and his family were approaching Buffalo via train when the shooting occurred. (Library of Congress)

Amazingly, Robert Todd Lincoln had very close ties to three presidential assassinations. While the rational mind scoffs at the idea of any human as “cursed,” the emotions lead us to wonder if such a thing might actually be possible. However, the popular old stories about Robert Lincoln being “present” at the three murders are certainly untrue. He was not with his father when Booth attacked on April 14, 1865, though he was at the Petersen house when the elder Lincoln died the next morning. He was across the room but walking toward the President when Charles Guiteau felled Garfield on July 2, 1881. Lincoln personally attended and spoke with Garfield while the President lay on the train station floor. Finally, he was just entering the city of Buffalo when McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901.

While Robert Lincoln was certainly not cursed, it is understandable that many people-including Lincoln himself-feared he may be. More likely, however, is that Lincoln’s last name and his positions in life put him in close proximity to presidents far more often than most people. Also, Lincoln lived a very long life in times of great social and political upheaval that often resulted in violence. The cataclysmic Civil War, passionate debates over patronage and civil service reform, fears of government growing so powerful that anarchy seemed a plausible alternative—all of these issues came to the fore during Lincoln’s life and resulted in murders of American presidents. That his name was Lincoln and he attained high office and business success made Lincoln far more likely to be near presidents than most people, and the upheavals of the era made attacks on presidents far more likely. In other words, it was something of a macabre numbers game.

That certainly and understandably did not ease Robert Lincoln’s mind, though the idea that after McKinley’s death Lincoln refused to ever go around presidents again is a myth. Supposedly he once scoffed at an invitation to an event at the White House by saying, “If only they knew, they wouldn’t want me there. There is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.” While there is no direct evidence that Lincoln ever actually said this, it certainly seems like a thought that might have crossed his mind.

Robert Lincoln’s last public appearance was on May 30, 1922, when he attended the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. President Warren G. Harding presided over that dedication. Harding, of course, died in office just fourteen months later. Since he was not assassinated, however, it does not appear that anyone tried very hard to attribute his death to having shared a platform with Robert Lincoln just over a year earlier.

Robert Todd Lincoln (right) at the May 30, 1922 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.  At left is William Howard Taft, former President of the United States and then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  At center is President Warren G. Harding.  (National Park Service)

Robert Todd Lincoln (right) at the May 30, 1922 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. At left is William Howard Taft, former President of the United States and then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. At center is President Warren G. Harding. (National Park Service)

Robert Todd Lincoln died on July 26, 1926, just six days before his 83rd birthday. He was seemingly surrounded by death his entire life, yet persevered to carve out his own successes and legacy while also honoring his famous name. His was a long, extraordinary, and accomplished life, and he certainly deserves to be remembered as more than just his father’s son or the subject of silly myths about curses.

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation & Education

Presidential Postage

The subject of this blog is postage stamps that commemorate President Garfield and other presidents he knew. Enjoy!

The first stamps to commemorate the President were issued in 1882, the year after his assassination and death. Here are images of the three versions.

GarfieldStamp1

GarfieldStamp2GarfieldStamp3He was commemorated on U. S. postage stamps in 1888, 1890, 1894, and 1898 in the following design.

GarfieldStamp4

A new depiction of the President appeared in 1902.

GarfieldStamp5

In 1938, an American Presidents series was created, depicting all the deceased presidents up through Calvin Coolidge. Included here are stamps from that series that illustrate President Garfield and several other presidents with whom he was familiar. Chester A. Arthur, his Vice President, succeeded him.

Lincoln StampAJohnsonStampUSGrantStamp

HayesStamp

       GarfieldStamp6          ArthurStamp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

Was the Civil War a “War of Choice?”

        David Goldfield, a historian at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, recently penned a column that has appeared in several major newspapers this summer, including the July 22 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (Link is to fredericksburg.com, where Goldfield’s article first appeared.) http://fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/2012/062012/06242012/707305

        In the column, entitled “Give Peace a Chance: Avoid the Carnage of War,” Goldfield bluntly states, “The Civil War was not a just war. It was a war of choice brought on by the insidious mixture of politics and religion that caused our political process and, ultimately, the nation to disintegrate.” As the U.S. commemorates the war’s 150th anniversary with battle reenactments, scholarly lectures, new books, and feature films, the question Goldfield poses is a legitimate one: was the Civil War truly necessary?

        Obviously, Goldfield believes it was not. His objection to the war stems from his belief that by the year 1861, “the Bible had replaced the Constitution as the arbiter of public policy, particularly over the issue of extending slavery in the Western territories.” The Second Great Awakening had swept across the United States in the early nineteenth century, and the evangelical Protestantism that resulted was a leading cause of the rise of social reform movements, including abolitionism. At the same time, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant groups emerged as well, eventually resulting in the creation of the so-called “Know Nothing” political party. Evangelicals and Know Nothings sought to spread democracy across North America, and to do so meant that, in Goldfield’s words, “America must expiate its sins, foremost among them slavery and the Roman Catholic Church—two forms of despotism that undermined democracy and Christianity.”

Camp Meeting by A. Rider, ca. 1835. Collection of the New York Historical Society.

        Professor Goldfield makes some very compelling points about the ties between early political parties and evangelicals, and such observations are still relevant today. But are these ties the only reasons the nation went to war with itself in April 1861? To argue that they are greatly oversimplifies a century of conflict over the presence of slavery in America. It also seems to place the blame for the war directly at the feet of Republicans like Abraham Lincoln simply because they were Republicans. While Lincoln the politician was deft with his pen and able to incorporate biblical ideas and verses into many of his speeches, Lincoln the man was not an overly devout Christian and was certainly no evangelical. He is also the president that told the South in his March 4, 1861 inaugural address, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.” However, according to Goldfield, “When the Republicans, avowedly evangelical and proudly sectional, took control of the government in March 1861, Southerners were rightly concerned to expect the worst. And the worst happened.”

Bombardment of Fort Sumter by Currier and Ives. University of California-Davis.

        The worst did happen, and the war began on April 12, 1861. If one reads Goldfield’s assessment, one might be led to believe that Lincoln ordered the U.S. Army to invade the South as soon as he finished his inaugural speech. In fact, southerners fired on Fort Sumter, a federal bastion in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor. Regardless of how “evangelical” or “sectional” the Republicans were, the South fired the first shot of the war that would last four years and claim approximately 750,000 lives. And for what? Why did the Confederates in Charleston attack Fort Sumter? Why did southerners feel compelled to secede in the first place? In sum, for what did the South fight? Perhaps understanding this will shed light as to whether or not the war was truly necessary.

Lincoln as President-elect, Chicago, Ill., November 25, 1860. Photograph by Samuel G. Alschuler, courtesy of Library of Congress.

        Despite former Confederates’ postwar assessments that the South fought merely to defend itself from a tyrannical North or for the always vaguely-defined “states’ rights,” the war was fought primarily because the South wanted no part of a nation that questioned the value, morality, or legality of slavery. When Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860, southern leaders—despite Lincoln’s constant assurances that he sought only to contain slavery in the South, not abolish it—convinced themselves and their constituents that the so-called “Black Republicans” would soon cross the Potomac and march through the South, freeing slaves and encouraging the twin horrors of black civil rights and miscegenation. Secession movements began in earnest before Lincoln’s election but picked up steam after it was confirmed that Lincoln would become president in 1861. Regardless of how passionately abolitionist they may have been, few northerners had ever openly threatened secession in response to outrages such as slaveholders being elected to the presidency or appointed to the Supreme Court.

        The South fought to preserve and expand the institution of slavery. While it is true that the majority of Confederate soldiers and sailors were not slave owners, they did fight for a government and a socioeconomic system built on slavery. If a war to preserve the world’s only working democracy and free people from bondage is not necessary or justified, then what war is? “I believe the war will soon take the shape of Slavery and Freedom,” wrote future Union General and President of the United States James A. Garfield just two days after Fort Sumter. “The world will so understand it, and I believe the final outcome will redound to the good of humanity.” Garfield also shared his opinion that “I hope we will never stop short of complete subjugation. Better lose a million men in battle than allow the government to be overthrown.”

        As further proof of his opinion that the Civil War was a conflict of choice, Goldfield includes this statement: “And what of the former slaves, on whose behalf this carnage was allegedly undertaken? The Civil War sealed their freedom, but little else. It would be more than a century before African-Americans attained the basic rights of that freedom.” True, but does Goldfield actually believe that the failures of the post-war era—which, of course, no one could know or envision before or during the conflict—negate the war’s necessity in the first place? Based on this line of reasoning, African Americans would have been better off to remain as slaves than to be free in an admittedly imperfect and unfriendly atmosphere at war’s end. One wonders how many slaves would have volunteered to stay in bondage had they known how difficult their path to equality under the law would be after the war. Goldfield appears to believe that since the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln spoke of in the Gettysburg Address was not immediate, it was not worth fighting for at all.

Union soldier reads Emancipation Proclamation to newly freed slaves. National Archives.

        Finally, Goldfield asks if peace, not war, might have ended slavery sooner and guaranteed the legal and political equality of African Americans. He does not define what he believes “peace” to be. Is it merely the absence of war? Or is there more to it than that? Consider that the North and South argued (relatively) peacefully about the existence, boundaries, and morality of slavery from before the Constitutional Convention until “Bleeding Kansas” in 1856—a period of 70 years. During that time, Congress forged many compromises that appeased both northerners and southerners, but none ever permanently held. Peaceful legislative compromises and solutions were pretty well exhausted by 1856, when pro- and anti-slavery settlers in Kansas brutally fought over whether that territory’s constitution would allow or outlaw slavery. This mini civil war was merely a preview of things to come on a national scale five years later. “Give peace a chance” is a great slogan and a great John Lennon song, but peace merely for the sake of avoiding war was tried for three-quarters of a century before the Civil War. As John Brown—one of the most violent of those who fought on either side in Bleeding Kansas—predicted on his way to the gallows in December 1859, “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Confederate dead on the field at Gettysburg, July 5, 1863. Photo by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, courtesy of Library of Congress.

        This blog post does not mean to glorify or advocate war. David Goldfield is correct when he writes “Wars are easily made, difficult to end and burdened with unintended consequences and unforeseen human casualties.” As the Union General William T. Sherman told the citizens and leaders of Atlanta in 1864, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” This quote would help make Goldfield’s case if it ended there. But Sherman continued: “…but you cannot have peace and a division of our country…I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war.”

        Perhaps David Goldfield is appalled by war in general and not just the Civil War specifically. If so, few would disagree. Based on his criticisms of the early Republicans’ ties to evangelicalism, he also appears to be repelled by religion. He is certainly not alone in that, either. However, is it possible that he is taking his personal distastes for war and religion in 2012 and using them to oppose the Civil War, which started over 150 years ago?

        The United States has unquestionably fought wars during its history for dubious reasons and unclear goals, but the Civil War was not one of them. That war began as a fight to preserve this union, but evolved into a conflict that sought to ensure that union’s liberties and freedoms were and are made available to everyone—thereby making it better by forcing it to live up to the promise of its Constitution. That is worth fighting for.

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation & Education