Lincoln's Personal Life by Nathaniel Wright Stephenson - HTML preview

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If the politicians needed a definite warning, in addition to what the ground was saying, it was given by an incident that centered upon Chase. A few bold men whose sense of the crowd was not so acute as it might have been, attempted to work up a Chase boom. At the instance of Senator Pomeroy, a secret paper known to-day as the Pomeroy Circular, was started on its travels. The Circular aimed to make Chase the Vindictive candidate. Like all the other anti-Lincoln moves of the early part of 1864, it was premature. The shrewd old Senators who were silently marshaling the Vindictive forces, let it alone.

Chase's ambition was fully understood at the White House. During the previous year, his irritable self-consciousness had led to quarrels with the President, generally over patronage, and more than once he had offered his resignation. On one occasion, Lincoln went to his house and begged him to reconsider. Alone among the Cabinet, Chase had failed to take the measure of Lincoln and still considered him a second-rate person, much his inferior. He rated very high the services to his country of the Secretary of the Treasury whom he considered the logical successor to the Presidency.

Lincoln refused to see what Chase was after. "I have determined," he told Hay, "to shut my eyes as far as possible to everything of the sort. Mr. Chase makes a good secretary and I shall keep him where he is."[1] In lighter vein, he said that Chase's presidential ambition was like a "chin fly" pestering a horse; it led to his putting all the energy he had into his work.[2]

When a copy of the Circular found its way to the White House, Lincoln refused to read it.[3] Soon afterward it fell into the hands of an unsympathetic or indiscreet editor and was printed. There was a hubbub. Chase offered to resign. Lincoln wrote to him in reply:

"My knowledge of Mr. Pomeroy's letter having been made public came to me only the day you wrote but I had, in Spite of myself, known of its existence several days before. I have not yet read it, and I think I shall not. I was not shocked or surprised by the appearance of the letter because I had had knowledge of Mr. Pomeroy's committee, and of secret issues which I supposed came from it, and of secret agents who I supposed were sent out by it, for several weeks. I have known just as little of these things as my friends have allowed me to know. They bring the documents to me, but I do not read them; they tell me what they think fit to tell me, but I do not inquire for more. I fully concur with you that neither of us can be justly held responsible for what our respective friends may do without our instigation or countenance; and I assure you, as you have assured me, that no assault has been made upon you by my instigation or with my countenance. Whether you shall remain at the head of the Treasury Department is a question which I will not allow myself to consider from any standpoint other than my judgment of the public service, and in that view, I do not perceive occasion for a change."[4] But this was not the end of the incident. The country promptly repudiated Chase. His own state led the way. A caucus of Union members of the Ohio Legislature resolved that the people and the soldiers of Ohio demanded the reelection of Lincoln. In a host of similar resolutions, Legislative caucuses, political conventions, dubs, societies, prominent individuals not in the political machine, all ringingly declared for Lincoln, the one proper candidate of the "Union party"-as the movement was labeled in a last and relatively successful attempt to break party lines.

As the date of the "Union Convention" approached, Lincoln put aside an opportunity to gratify the Vindictives. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, the recruiting offices had been opened to negroes. Thereupon the Confederate government threatened to treat black soldiers as brigands, and to refuse to their white officers the protection of the laws of war. A cry went up in the North for reprisal. It was not the first time the cry had been raised. In 1862 Lincoln's spokesman in Congress, Browning, had withstood a proposal for the trial of General Buckner by the civil authorities of Kentucky. Browning opposed such a course on the ground that it would lead to a policy of retaliation, and make of the war a gratification of revenge.[5] The Confederate threat gave a new turn to the discussion. Frederick Douglas, the most influential negro of the time, obtained an audience with Lincoln and begged for reprisals. Lincoln would not consent. So effective was his argument that even the ardent negro, convinced that his race was about to suffer persecution, was satisfied.

"I shall never forget," Douglas wrote, "the benignant expression of his face, the tearful look of his eye, the quiver in his voice, when he deprecated a resort to retaliatory measures. 'Once begun,' said he, 'I do not know where such a measure would stop.' He said he could not take men out and kill them in cold blood for what was done by others. If he could get hold of the persons who were guilty of killing the colored prisoners in cold blood, the case would be different, but he could not kill the innocent for the guilty."[6]

In April, 1864, the North was swept by a wild rumor of deliberate massacre of prisoners at Fort Pillow. Here was an opportunity for Lincoln to ingratiate himself with the Vindictives. The President was to make a speech at a fair held in Baltimore, for the benefit of the Sanitary Commission. The audience was keen to hear him denounce the reputed massacre, and eager to applaud a promise of reprisal. Instead, he deprecated hasty judgment; insisting that the rumor had not been verified; that nothing should be done on the strength of mere report.

"It is a mistake to suppose the government is indifferent in this matter, or is not doing the best it can in regard to it. We do not to-day know that a colored soldier or white officer commanding colored soldiers has been massacred by the Rebels when made a prisoner. We fear it--believe it, I may say-but we do not know it To take the life of one of their prisoners on the assumption that they murder ours, when it is short of certainty that they do murder ours, might be too serious, too cruel a mistake."[7]

What a tame, spiritless position in the eyes of the Vindictives! A different opportunity to lay hold of public opinion he made the most of. And yet, here also, he spoke in that carefully guarded way, making sure he was not understood to say more than he meant, which most politicians would have pronounced over-scrupulous. A deputation of working men from New York were received at the White House. "The honorary membership in your association," said he, "as generously tendered, is gratefully accepted. . . . You comprehend, as your address shows, that the existing rebellion means more, and tends to more, than the perpetuation of African slavery-that it is, in fact, a war upon the rights of all working people."

 After reviewing his own argument on this subject in the second message, he concluded:

"The views then expressed now remain unchanged, nor have I much to add. None are so deeply interested to resist the present rebellion as the working people. Let them beware of prejudices, working division and hostility among themselves. The most notable feature of a disturbance in your city last summer was the hanging of some working people by other working people. It should never be so. The strongest bond of human sympathy outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds. Nor should this lead to a war upon property, or the owners of property. Property is the fruit of labor; property is desirable; is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuming that his own shall be safe from violence when built."[8]

Lincoln was never more anxious than in this fateful spring when so many issues were hanging in the balance. Nevertheless, in all his relations with the world, his firm serenity was not broken. Though subject to depression so deep that his associates could not penetrate it, he kept it sternly to himself.[9] He showed the world a lighter, more graceful aspect than ever before. 'A precious record of his later mood is the account of him set down by Frank B. Carpenter, the portrait painter, a man of note in his day, who was an inmate of the White House during the first half of 1864. Carpenter was painting a picture of the "Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation." He saw Lincoln informally at all sorts of odd times, under all sorts of conditions. "All familiar with him," says Carpenter, "will remember the weary air which became habitual during his last years. This was more of the mind than of the body, and no rest and recreation which he allowed himself could relieve it. As he sometimes expressed it, 'no remedy seemed ever to reach the tired spot."[10]

A great shadow was darkening over him. He was more than ever convinced that he had not long to live. None the less, his poise became more conspicuous, his command over himself and others more distinguished, as the months raced past. In truth he had worked through a slow but profound transformation. The Lincoln of 1864 was so far removed from the Lincoln of Pigeon Creek-but logically, naturally removed, through the absorption of the outer man by the inner--that inevitably one thinks of Shakespeare's change "into something rich and strange."

Along with the weakness, the contradictions of his earlier self, there had also fallen away from him the mere grossness that had belonged to him as a peasant. Carpenter is unconditional that in six months of close intimacy, seeing him in company with all sorts of people, he never heard from Lincoln an offensive story. He quotes Seward and Lincoln's family physician to the same effect.[11]

 The painter, like many others, was impressed by the tragic cast of his expression, despite the surface mirth.

"His complexion, at this time, was inclined to sallowness his eyes were bluish gray in color--always in deep shadow, however, from the upper lids which were unusually heavy (reminding me in this respect of Stuart's portrait of Washington) and the expression was remarkably pensive and tender, often inexpressibly sad, as if the reservoir of tears lay very near the surface--a fact proved not only by the response which accounts of suffering and sorrow invariably drew forth, but by circumstances which would ordinarily affect few men in his position."[12] As a result of the great strain to which he was subjected "his demeanor and disposition changed-so gradually that it would be impossible to say when the change began. . . . He continued always the same kindly, genial, and cordial spirit he had been at first; but the boisterous laughter became less frequent, year by year; the eye grew veiled by constant meditation on momentous subjects; the air of reserve and detachment from his surroundings increased. He aged with great rapidity."[13]

Every Saturday afternoon the Marine Band gave an open-air concert in the grounds of the White House. One afternoon Lincoln appeared upon the portico. There was instant applause and cries for a speech. "Bowing his thanks and excusing himself, he stepped back into the retirement of the circular parlor, remarking (to Carpenter) with a disappointed air, as he reclined on a sofa, 'I wish they would let me sit there quietly and enjoy the music.'His kindness to others was unfailing. it was this harassed statesman who "came into the studio one day and found (Carpenter's) little boy of two summers playing on the floor. A member of the Cabinet was with him; but laying aside all restraint, he took the little fellow in his arms and they were soon on the best of terms." While his younger son "Tad" was with his mother on a journey, Lincoln telegraphed: "Tell Tad, father and the goats are well, especially the goats."[14] He found time one bright morning in May to review the Sunday-school children of Washington who filed past "cheering as if their very lives depended upon it," while Lincoln stood at a window "enjoying the scene... making pleasant remarks about a face that now and then struck him."[15] Carpenter told him that no other president except Washington had placed himself so securely in the hearts of the people. "Homely, honest, ungainly Lincoln," said Asa Gray, in a letter to Darwin, "is the representative man of the country."

However, two groups of men in his own party were sullenly opposed to him--the relentless Vindictives and certain irresponsible free lances who named themselves the "Radical Democracy." In the latter group, Fremont was the hero; Wendell Phillips, the greatest advocate. They were extremists in all things; many of them Agnostics. Furious against Lincoln, but unwilling to go along with the waiting policy of the Vindictives, these visionaries held a convention at Cleveland; voted down a resolution that recognized God as an ally; and nominated Fremont for the Presidency. A witty comment on the movement--one that greatly amused Lincoln--was the citation of a verse in first Samuel: "And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men."

If anything was needed to keep the dissatisfied Senators in the party ranks, it was this rash "bolt." Though Fremont had been their man in the past, he had thrown the fat in the fire by setting up an independent ticket. Silently, the wise opportunists of the Senate and all their henchmen, stood aside at the "Union convention"--which they called the Republican Convention--June seventh, and took their medicine.

 There was no doubt of the tempest of enthusiasm among the majority of the delegates. It was a Lincoln ovation.

In responding the next day to a committee of congratulation, Lincoln said: "I am not insensible at all to the personal compliment there is in this, and yet I do not allow myself to believe that any but a small portion of it is to be appropriated as a personal compliment. . . . I do not allow myself to suppose that either the Convention or the [National Union] League have concluded to decide that I am the greatest or best man in America, but rather they have concluded that it is best not to swap horses while crossing the river, and have further concluded that I am not so poor a horse that they might not make a botch of it trying to swap."[16]

Carpenter records another sort of congratulation a few days later that brought out the graceful side of this man whom most people still supposed to be hopelessly awkward. It happened on a Saturday. Carpenter had invited friends to sit in his painting room and oversee the crowd while listening to the music. "Towards the close of the concert, the door suddenly opened, and the President came in, as he was in the habit of doing, alone. Mr. and Mrs. Cropsey had been presented to him in the course of the morning; and as he came forward, half hesitatingly, Mrs. C., who held a bunch of beautiful flowers in her hand, tripped forward playfully, and said: 'Allow me, Mr. President, to present you with a bouquet!' The situation was momentarily embarrassing; and I was puzzled to know how 'His Excellency' would get out of it. With no appearance of discomposure, he stooped down, took the flowers, and, looking from them into the sparkling eyes and radiant face of the lady, said, with a gallantry I was unprepared for 'Really, madam, if you give them to me, and they are mine, I think I can not possibly make so good use of them as to present them to you, in return!'"[17]

In gaining the nomination, Lincoln had not, as yet, attained security for his plans. Grant was still to be reckoned with. By a curious irony, the significance of his struggle with Lee during May, his steady advance by the left flank, had been misapprehended in the North. Looking at the map, the country saw that he was pushing southward, and again southward, on Virginia soil. McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, with them it had been:

"He who fights and runs away

May live to fight another day."

But Grant kept on. He struck Lee in the furious battle of the Wilderness, and moved to the left, farther south. "Victory!" cried the Northern newspapers, "Lee isn't able to stop him." The same delusion was repeated after Spottsylvania where the soldiers, knowing more of war than did the newspapers, pinned to their coats slips of paper bearing their names; identification of the bodies might be difficult. The popular mistake continued throughout that dreadful campaign. The Convention was still under the delusion of victory.

Lincoln also appears to have stood firm until the last minute in the common error. But the report of Grant's losses, more than the whole of Lee's army, filled him with horror. During these days, Carpenter had complete freedom of the President's office and "intently studied every line and shade of expression in that furrowed face. In repose, it was the saddest face I ever knew. There were days when I could scarcely look into it without crying. During the first week of the battles of the Wilderness he scarcely slept at all. Passing through the main hall of the domestic apartment on one of these days, I met him, clad in a long, morning wrapper, pacing back and forth a narrow passage leading to one of the windows, his hands behind him, great black rings under his eyes, his head bent forward upon his breast-altogether such a picture of the effects of sorrow, care, and anxiety as would have melted the hearts of the worst of his adversaries, who so mistakenly applied to him the epithets of tyrant and usurper."[18]

Despite these sufferings, Lincoln had not the slightest thought of giving way. Not in him any likeness to the -sentimentalists, Greeley and all his crew, who were exultant martyrs when things were going right, and shrieking pacifists the moment anything went wrong. In one of the darkest moments of the year, he made a brief address at a Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia.

"Speaking of the present campaign," said he, "General Grant is reported to have said, 'I am going to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.' This war has taken three years; it was begun or accepted upon the line of restoring the national authority over the whole national domain, and for the American people, as far as my knowledge enables me to speak, I say we are going through on this line if it takes three years more."[19] He made no attempt to affect Grant's course. He had put him in supreme command and would leave everything to his judgment. And then came the colossal blunder at Cold Harbor. Grant stood again where McClellan had stood two years before. He stood there defeated. He could think of nothing to do but just what McClellan had wanted to do--abandon the immediate enterprise, make a great detour to the Southwest, and start a new campaign on a different plan. Two years with all their terrible disasters, and this was all that had come of it! Practically no gain, and a death-roll that staggered the nation. A wail went over the North. After all, was the war hopeless? Was Lee invincible? Was the best of the Northern manhood perishing to no result?

Greeley, perhaps the most hysterical man of genius America has produced, made his paper the organ of the wail. He wrote frantic appeals to the government to cease fighting, do what could be done by negotiation, and if nothing could be done-at least, stop "these rivers of human blood."

 The Vindictives saw their opportunity. They would capitalize the wail. The President should be dealt with yet.