Reminiscences of Lincoln (Article 54)

Charles Allen Thorndike Rice wanted to publish a book to mark the twentieth anniversary of President Lincoln’s death. He wrote to numerous individuals who had known and worked with Lincoln and asked if they would share their recollections of the man. The book, first published in 1885, eventually was titled “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time.” When Rice began to read the responses he had received from some of the men who had known Lincoln, he said he was quickly moved by the kindness and fairness of the man they described. He also noticed that many appreciated his wit, integrity, and friendly nature. A few said they were not initially impressed but only began to understand his leadership qualities after they witnessed his actions and demeanor during crisis.

Although it had been twenty years since their friend died, most of these remembrances seemed, to Mr. Rice, to be eulogies. They offered numerous reflections about Lincoln’s personal attention to an individual who might not have expected it, his objectivity and political tolerance, and his astute political and diplomatic instincts. And, as would be expected, some commented on his penchant for humorous story telling as a means to emphasize a point, which one respondent called “preaching by parables.”

The book became a treasure trove to historians and other authors as soon as it was published because it offered insights into events and conversations that were not widely known at the time. However, after more than a century, many of the anecdotes have been repeated numerous times and now are part of the Lincoln legend and, unfortunately, many of those have been edited over time into more modern vocabulary.  By reading from the original editions, the reader will soon notice the differences in the use of words and phrases between the mid-nineteenth century and today.  The quotations presented herein are printed in the verbiage from Mr. Rice’s manuscript and the anecdotes which are included were chosen because they seem to have escaped multiple repetitions by historians and, therefore, are not as well known.

Kindness and personal attention: One person  recalled a widow from Tennessee, whose son, a 17 year-old Confederate private, was a prisoner of war and lay seriously wounded at Fort McHenry in a make-shift hospital. She gathered letters from friends verifying that her son had enlisted only after the urging of an overly persuasive recruiter for the Confederate army and without her permission, which should have been required as the boy was only sixteen at the time. Further, the letters were testimonies that her family was not secessionist. She had traveled to Washington DC, taking the letters in a large envelope, to appeal to Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War to release the young boy to her care. However, the unsympathetic Stanton, with a brusqueness unusual even for him, ordered the woman out of his office. Through a mutual acquaintance, she was encouraged to try to see President Lincoln and, surprising to her, she was granted a meeting, which  she described in her own words. “The President received me with the kindness of a brother. He immediately rose and pointed to a chair and said, ‘Take this seat madam and then tell me what I can do for you.’ I took the envelope and asked if he would read the enclosures. When he finished reading he turned to me and with great emotion said, ‘Are you madam, the unhappy mother of this wounded and imprisoned son?’ I replied that I was. ‘And do you believe he will honor his parole if I permit him to take it and go with you.’ I replied, I am ready Mr. President to peril my personal liberty upon it. Then the President said, ‘You shall have your boy. To take him from the ranks of rebellion and give him to a loyal mother is a better investment for this government … And God grant that he may prove a great blessing to you and an honor to his country.’ Then taking my envelope, he wrote with his own pencil the order you see upon it.”

Lincoln had written, “To the Commander at Ft. McHenry. You will deliver to Mrs. Winston, her son now held a prisoner of war upon his taking the proper parole (oath) never again to take up arms against the United States. A. Lincoln”

Mrs. Winston took her son back to Nashville where he recuperated; and kept his oath to the Union.

Another respondent to Mr. Rice recalled that he was invited to ride on the President’s train to Gettysburg for the dedication of the new national graveyard. He was with Lincoln when a man approached and said to the President, “My only son fell on Little Round Top at Gettysburg and I am going to look at that spot.” Andrews described Lincoln’s sad face and emotional response to the grieving father: “You have been called upon to make a terrible sacrifice. But, oh my dear sir, if we had reached the end of such sacrifices and had nothing left for us to do but place garlands on the graves of those already fallen, we would give thanks even amidst our tears; but when I think of the sacrifices of life yet to be offered and the hearts and homes yet to be made desolate before this dreadful war, so wickedly forced upon us, is over, my heart is like lead within me and I feel, at times, like hiding in deep darkness.” The following day, President Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address, dedicating the hallowed ground to those lost, including the young boy at Little Round Top.

Political Tolerance: One respondent, E.W. Andrews, related a story which described Lincoln’s objectivity when he encountered someone who held a different political point of view. Andrews was an officer in the Adjutant’s office in Washington DC and had met the President on several occasions. As the election of 1864 neared, Andrews attended a Democratic rally where several speakers promoted the candidacy of George B. McClellan, the former union General who was the party’s nominee to oppose Lincoln. In their official duties, Andrews had also met with McClellan while he was still the Commanding General of the Army. Andrews was well known in the city and one of the speakers, recognizing that Andrews was in the audience, pointed him out to the crowd and asked for his thoughts on McClellan.  A bit embarrassed by the unwelcome recognition and question, Andrews felt he could not dodge the issue and said that he held high regard for McClellan and would vote for him. Andrews never mentioned Lincoln and said nothing disparaging about the current President; then he hurried out of the hall. Someone in attendance reported Andrews’ comments to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who then, in a rage, signed an order rescinding Andrews’ commission and mustering him out of the Union Army.

Andrews knew that Stanton would never change his mind and decided to try to reach President Lincoln. Andrews wrote a letter explaining the Democratic gathering and the context of his remarks and asked a friend who was close to Lincoln to appeal to the President. When Lincoln read the letter, he replied to Andrews’ friend. “I know nothing about this. Of course, Stanton does a thousand things in his official character which I can know nothing about and which it is not necessary that I should know anything about.” Andrews’ friend replied that he did not believe that Stanton’s retaliation against the officer was warranted and hoped that the President would over-ride Stanton’s order and restore Andrews’ commission and his position at the Adjutant’s office.  After reading the letter and listening to the friend’s explanation, Lincoln replied: “Well that is no reason. Andrews has as good a right to hold onto his Democracy, if he chooses, as Stanton has to throw his overboard. (Stanton had once been a Democrat!) If I should muster out all my generals who avow themselves Democrats there would be a sad thinning out of commanders in the Army. No! When the military duties of a soldier are fully and faithfully performed, he can manage his politics in his own way. Tell this officer he can return to his post. Supporting (former) General McClellan for the Presidency is no violation of army regulations. And, as a question of taste in choosing between him and me, well I’m the longest but he’s better looking.”

President Lincoln notified Stanton of his decision and Andrews remained in the military. He later wrote, “I resumed my service and was never afterward molested by the Secretary of War.” It is interesting to note that, in his response to Mr. Rice, Andrews did not disclose whether he voted for McClellan as President or for Lincoln, the man who stepped in to preserve his military career.

Political and diplomatic instincts: Charles Dana, an Assistant Secretary of War, related an unusual decision Lincoln made concerning a Union spy who was so trusted by the Confederates that he was asked to deliver a message from a Southern sympathizer in Canada to a Confederate official in Virginia. The letter explained activities in Canada which supported the Confederacy. The spy/courier realized the importance of the document and took it to Mr. Dana, who immediately showed it to Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War. Stanton’s instinct was to use the letter to reproach the Canadian government, but wanted Dana to first take the letter to President Lincoln for his concurrence. Immediately, Lincoln had a different idea. He told Dana to have the man “arrested” and taken to prison; however, Dana was also instructed to orchestrate an escape. Lincoln said that, if the ruse worked, the Confederates might use the man’s talents again and the Union could likely obtain another correspondence between Confederates in Canada and Virginia. The escape did not go exactly as planned as a Union soldier shot at, and slightly wounded the Union spy; an unexpected, but fortuitous, occurrence that must have helped convince the Confederates that the man had truly escaped through cunning. As a result of Lincoln’s plan, the Union kept a very useful, and courageous, spy active within the Confederacy.

Mr. Dana also recalled a conversation with Lincoln as the Confederacy was crumbling in early April 1865. Dana reported to Lincoln that he had learned, through another Union spy, that a troublesome Confederate operative named Jacob Thompson was planning to escape into Canada. Secretary of War Stanton wanted to arrest Thompson before he could get away, but again, asked Dana to first check with the President. After hearing Dana’s explanation of the situation, Lincoln indicated he did not think arresting Thompson was worth the effort saying, “When you have an elephant on hand, and he wants to run away, better let him run.” After Lincoln was assassinated, Stanton wanted Dana to arrest Thompson, if he was still in the United States, but Dana never pressed the matter. About five years after the war, Dana and Thompson met and Dana explained how President Lincoln initially prevented Thompson’s arrest; and the fact that Dana, honoring Lincoln’s stance, later chose to not pursue him.  Unfortunately, Mr. Dana did not relate what, if anything, Mr. Thompson said about the episode.

Use of humor: Titian Coffin was an Assistant Attorney General, whose office defended Army Officers against lawsuits brought in local courts by citizens either for confiscation of property or possible improper arrests. Generally, the courts found for the Army officers, and even if not, there was usually no monetary compensation awarded. Congress, wanting to show local constituents their generosity, provided a large fund for future compensation to such aggrieved citizens. Suddenly, the complaints increased dramatically and the officers began settling the cases out of court by simply paying the citizen (and his lawyer) directly from the new fund. Mr. Coffin raised the issue with Lincoln and recalled the President’s reply. “Yes, Coffin, they will now all be after the money and be content with nothing else. They are like a man in Illinois whose cabin burned down and, according to the kindly custom, his neighbors all contributed to start him again. But, they had been so liberal that he found himself better off than before the fire, and he got proud. One day a neighbor brought him a bag of oats but the fellow refused it with scorn. ‘No, said he, I don’t take oats now, I take nothing but money.’ So it is with our Officers.”

And, sometimes Lincoln could make a point; very pointedly! Mr. Coffin recalled a meeting where Lincoln was being “hounded” by three weapons manufacturers who kept arguing their case long past the appointment time, but Lincoln continued to listen to their “over-long, inappropriate and impolite” demands. Then the President interrupted and said; “You three gentlemen remind me of a poor little boy. His father wanted him to have a religious education and placed him with a clergyman. Every day the boy was required to commit to memory a Bible story. Things proceeded smoothly until the story of the trials of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. He was asked to give their names but he had forgotten them. The teacher said he must learn them and gave him another day. The next day he had again forgot them. The teacher then said ‘I will give you one more day and if you do not repeat the names I will punish you.’ The third time, the boy got to the stumbling block and said, ‘Here come those three infernal bores. I wish the Devil had them!’ At that, (Mr. Coffin wrote) the three patriots retired; the President had dismissed his untimely visitors.”

For each person who responded to Mr. Rice’s inquiry the fact that he had known Abraham Lincoln and was left with these recollections was obviously a source of personal pride.

For Charles Allen Thorndike Rice, his book “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished men of His Time” gave him the satisfaction of helping preserve the memory of a man he very much admired. And, coincidentally, cemented his own place in history.

And for me, I am very fortunate to have an original edition of the book and have the privilege and enjoyment of reading these “Reminiscences” from pages which carry the feel and fragrance which can only be found in very old books.

But whether reading Mr. Rice’ book from an original edition or from a modern reprint, we can appreciate that he helped maintain the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

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Remembrances of Lincoln, a Deferred Eulogy (Article 53)

The young man carefully addressed the last envelope:

“Ulysses S. Grant

City of  New York”

He placed it with the fifty other envelopes which he had recently completed. Each contained a letter which, besides introducing himself and outlining his proposed project, requested either a written reply or a personal interview and posed one primary question.

“Sir, as we near the twentieth anniversary of the loss of President Abraham Lincoln, what are the remembrances of him which still fill your mind?”

He was not confident that many of the carefully chosen recipients of his letters would ever respond, and even less hope that any would actually agree to a meeting or provide meaningful observations. He was aware that some of the senior members of Lincoln’s cabinet and other acquaintances had already passed away. Further, many of Lincoln’s living contemporaries were in their seventies or eighties, an advanced age in 1885; and he was unsure if their recollections would be real or imagined.  Also, they had likely given numerous interviews over the years and might not want to indulge his request. And, for some others, the loss of their friend, although so long ago, might still stir sadness best left unmentioned. Further limiting likely responses, was the fact that a few, like Ulysses S. Grant, were writing their personal memoirs and might want to withhold information to protect the value of their own projects.

But Charles Allen Thorndike Rice was on a mission, which he deemed as sacred as those with a religious fervor. He wanted to record for posterity the recollections of Abraham Lincoln by those who were close to him, especially during his political years. He sought to offset the mythical figure created by some devoted admirers soon after the President’s death as well as the picture of a tyrant which continued to be painted by southern sympathizers, who referred to “Lincoln’s War of Northern Aggression” against their homeland.

Over the next few weeks, Rice was pleased by the responses. Although very ill, former President (and former General) Grant responded; as did Walt Whitman (poet and friend), Henry Ward Beecher (minister), Frederick Douglass (writer/orator who was born a slave), Charles Coffin (war correspondent), and Leonard Swett (friend). And, Thurlow Weed, a famous (some say infamous) political operative from New York, who served Lincoln on several confidential matters, was eager to be interviewed. In all, 44 friends, acquaintances, and even a couple political adversaries, responded with reflective commentary.

But, almost as important as the list of those who did respond, was the list of people who did not. Among those were Robert Lincoln (the President’s only surviving son), Hannibal Hamlin (his first Vice-President), William Herndon (law partner), and John Nicolay and John Hay (his two secretaries). Nicolay and Hay had controlled most of Lincoln’s personal and official papers since his death and planned to publish a comprehensive biography; which turned out to be a ten-set edition offered in 1890. William Herndon, in order to prepare for his own biography of Lincoln, had traveled throughout the North during the first few years following Lincoln’s death, to interview acquaintances. This was several years prior to Rice’s effort, and many were the same people now approached by Mr. Rice; but Herndon was also able to interview some who had died before Rice conceived his book. Herndon’s biography was finally published in 1889.

As Rice began to compile the different reflections from the respondents, most seemed to him to be eulogies; but twenty years after the subject’s death. The result was a fascinating book, first published in 1885, titled “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time.” Evidently, long titles were in vogue in the 19th century.

Critics of his book, then and over the years, complained that he edited some of the responses to fit his agenda, and failed to contact several acquaintances; especially certain political opponents who were known to grant such interviews. But, no biographer is above such criticism, as all authors will construct and edit their narrative, not only to fit a point of view, but also simply because of space limitations. Another complaint by some historians is that Rice did not require his subjects to document their recollections, so the book is almost devoid of the verifying footnotes which most historians consider almost as important as the narrative. But, Rice made no illusions that this was to be a historian’s account; he called it “Reminiscences” for a reason.

On the other hand, he did want his book to be as accurate as possible. As his respondents shared their recollections about Mr. Lincoln, Charles quickly noted differences in their descriptions of the same incident. In some cases, he just left their individual recollections alone and let the future reader sort out which was likely more accurate. In other cases, however, he contacted both parties (or multiple parties in a few instances) to try to determine which was historically the most correct. His willingness to shuttle back and forth among these acquaintances of Lincoln helped bring clarity to a few issues that had been debated since Lincoln’s death.

Since he was so involved in the publishing business, Rice was keenly aware that there were several biographies of Lincoln scheduled to be published within the next few years (1885-1890) and some critics claim that he rushed his book to assure it came to market before others. There is no question that he did move quickly to compose and publish his narrative, but there may have been a more profound reason he was in such a hurry. At the time he was approaching his subjects, Rice was not well. He completed his initial work in late 1885 and assured it would be promptly published. Two years later, although his health was rapidly deteriorating, he revised and updated a few sections and re-issued the book. Mr. Rice died in 1889 at the age of only thirty-seven.

We know he was fascinated by the life of Abraham Lincoln, however, Charles Allen Thorndike Rice, Charlie to his parents and close friends, also led an unusual life.

He was an only child and when he was five years old his wealthy parents divorced; but not amicably! Both sued for divorce and both sought sole custody of young Charlie; but after two years of court proceedings, the New York Supreme Court ruled that custody was to be awarded to Mr. Rice. In most cases the story might have ended there; however, Mrs. Rice , who was wealthy in her own right, spirited away (her words) or kidnapped (his father’s words) the boy and escaped first to Canada and then to Europe. Over the next six years, they moved several times among different countries, usually so that his mother could avoid surrendering Charlie to local authorities after his father obtained court rulings affirming his right to custody. Charlie’s father never gave up chasing his former wife and son, filing numerous appeals to the English, German, and French courts.

But she and Charlie always stayed a step ahead.

Charlie’s mother had allowed him to periodically correspond with his father, but insisted that he use the addresses of a group of European aristocrats who sympathized with her cause and who would transfer the messages. Charlie and his mother lived an elegant lifestyle in Europe and he received his early education from outstanding tutors. But, in 1866, his mother became ill and died. His father then quickly arranged for Charlie to be brought back to the United States where he spent the rest of his childhood living with his father. He was a gifted and enthusiastic student and, as a young gentleman of social stature (and wealth), was able to attend the most advanced private schools in New York. Then, at nineteen years of age, Charles returned to England and, over the next five years, received undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Oxford.

He began his professional career in the United States when he purchased the “North American Review” and assumed the position of Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He became a prolific writer, often assessing the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, especially his administration during the Civil War; which had occurred while Charlie lived in Europe with his mother.  And, unusual for the times, he was not intensely partisan, often presenting counter-arguments to current popular political thought.

Mr. Rice regarded Abraham Lincoln to be the most consequential political leader of the century and supported that thesis in many of his articles, editorials, and speeches. He also realized that the acquaintances of Abraham Lincoln were aging, that many had already died, and he wanted to capture as many first- hand recollections as possible.  So, he embarked on his mission; and left us “Reminiscences.”

He took great pride in this compilation of anecdotes and he wanted it to be a gift to future generations about Abraham Lincoln’s legacy; but he must have also hoped that it might enshrine, if only in a small way, his own legacy as a writer and publisher.

It seems that Mr. Rice wanted to be remembered too.

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(Note: a future article will include a few of those “Reminiscences.”)