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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