Abraham Lincoln and Music

Abraham Lincoln and Music


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Music appealed to Abraham Lincoln’s poetic and sentimental side. On the Eighth Circuit in Illinois, musical entertainment was often provided by Danville attorney Ward Hill Lamon, who sang as the lawyers crossed the prairie or talked around the fire after dinner. Whiskey helped mellow Lamon’s temper and voice – creating the proper ambience for the ballads he and Mr. Lincoln liked.1
But not all of Mr. Lincoln’s musical relaxation came with fellow lawyers. Attorney Henry C. Whitney recalled “Lincoln was fond of going all by himself to any little show or concert. I have known his going to a small show of magic lanterns. really for children.” One night in March 1860 while in Chicago, Whitney suggested they see a show by the Rumsey and Newcomb Minstrels. “Of all things in the world I should like that,” said Mr. Lincoln. “I never saw Lincoln happier than at that show which really was first rate.”2 According to Whitney: “He applauded as often as anybody, and with greater heartiness.”3
According to Whitney, Mr. Lincoln “would attend all entertainments, but really preferred going alone, and ensconcing himself in some nook or corner where he could see without being, himself, seen.” Whitney recalled one concert of the Newhall Family singing troupe: “In the spring of 1855, John T. Stuart, who was his first law partner, his wife’s cousin, and his neighbor, and Lincoln and myself were attending court at Bloomington, and all three staying at the Pike House, where we ate at the same table and went to court together, and, also, spent our leisure time together. One evening, a concert troupe was there, and when time came to attend, I went, and found Lincoln already there in one place and Stuart in another, and that was essentially Lincoln’s style of doing such things.”4
Usually, Mr. Lincoln let others do the singing. Attorney Milton Hay, recalling his early friendship with Mr. Lincoln, indicated that was not always the case: “There were some song singers amongst us, and Lincoln was without a rival in the singing of pathetic pieces. ‘Mary’s Dream,’ ‘Lord Ullin’s Daughter,’ the ‘Soldier’s Dream,’ and other pieces of this description he sang frequently with much effect. You will recollect he was just then recovering from the Ann Rutledge affair, and had not as yet gotten into the Mary Todd ’embrigglement’ as Uncle Jesse Dubois would term it.”5
Whitney, who came to know Mr. Lincoln more than a decade later, recalled Mr. Lincoln tell him that “all other pleasures had a utility, but that music was simply a pleasure and nothing more, and that he fancied that the creator, after providing all the mechanism for carrying on the world, made music as a simple, unalloyed pleasure…”6 Mr. Lincoln’s professed knowledge of music was limited. He claimed “I know only two tunes, one is ‘Old Hundred,’ and the other isn’t.”7 When a group of lawyers pressed him to sing a song one night, he responded to singer Lois Newhall Hillis: “Why, Miss Newhall, if it would save my soul, I couldn’t imitate a note that you would touch on that instrument. I never sang in my life, and those fellows know it. They are simply trying to make fun of me.”8 Instead he recited his favorite poem: “Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Man Be Proud.”
Whitney contended that Mr. Lincoln “did not know when music was artistic or in bad taste. He did know, however, if it suited him, and he had a certain taste in that direction, but it was not for anything classical, but something of a style to please the rustic ear.”9 Despite Lincoln’s lack of voice, he was not indifferent to poetry and song. It is said that during his Springfield days he stopped on the street to catch a tune that came through an open window. More than this, he even requested a copy of the song – and secured it. Perhaps the first few lines touched the melancholy in his nature.

“Tell me, ye winged winds
That round my pathway roar,
Do ye not know some spot
Where mortals weep no more?
Some lone and pleasant vale,
Some valley in the west,
Where, free from toil and pain,
The weary soul may rest?
The loud wind dwindled to a whisper low,
And sighed for pity when it answered, No.”10

Music was a strong frontier tradition. “On many pegged shelves rested a family Bible, a book of household medicine, and a pocket songster,” wrote historian Philip D. Jordan. “Traveling preachers sometimes tucked hymnals in saddlebags. Some New Salem settlers turned the leaves of the Missouri Harmony, ‘a choice collection of psalm tunes, hymns and anthems, selected from the most eminent authors and well adapted to all Christian churches, singing schools and private societies,’ to find there solace and escape from pioneer hardships. Perhaps Lincoln and Ann Rutledge lifted their voices in the hymn ‘New Salem’ which appeared in this little song book published in Cincinnati by Morgan, Lodge and Fisher as early as 1815, but there is little evidence that Abe was a singin’ man. There was deep cadence and melody in him, but it was not released in song. Yet in the end few inspired more music of love and of hate than did Lincoln. The man himself, the cause for which he came to stand, and the very times made for expression in song.”11
One sign of Mr. Lincoln’s love of music was his decision to invite Ward Hill Lamon to accompany him on his pre-inaugural trip to Washington in February 1861; Lamon provided some musical entertainment along the 14-day journey. When possible, Mr. Lincoln tried to avoid talking to assembled crowds by calling for music from a local band. Once in Washington, Lamon continued his practice of of providing musical diversion for Mr. Lincoln. “I had often recalled him from a pit of melancholy into which he was prone to descend, by a jest, a comic song, or a provoking sally of a startling kind; and Mr. Lincoln always thanked me afterward for my well-timed rudeness ‘of kind intent,'” wrote Lamon in his memoirs. “This reminds me of one or two little rhythmic shots I often fired at him in his melancholy moods, and it was a kind of nonsense that he always keenly relished. One was a parody on ‘Life on the Ocean Wave.'”

Mr. Lincoln would always laugh immoderately when I sang this jingling nonsense to him. It reminded him of the rude and often witty ballads that had amused him in his boyhood days. He was fond of negro melodies, and ‘The Blue-Tailed Fly’ was a favorite. He often called for that buzzing ballad when we were alone, and he wanted to throw off the weight of public and private cares.
A comic song in the theatre always restored Mr. Lincoln’s cheerful good-humor. But while he had a great fondness for witty and mirth-provoking ballads, our grand old patriotic airs and songs of the tender and sentimental kind afford him the deepest pleasure. ‘Ben Bolt’ was one of his favorite ballads; so was ‘The Sword of Bunker Hill;’ and he was always deeply moved by ‘The Lament of the Irish Emigrant,’ especially the following touching lines:

“I’m very lonely now, Mary,
For the poor make no new friends;
But, oh, they love the better still
The few our Father sends!
And you were all I had, Mary,
My blessing and my pride;
There’s nothing left to care for now,
Since my poor Mary died.”12

Music was a tonic for Lincoln’s moodiness. Pennsylvania Republican leader Alexander K. McClure wrote that “when Lincoln was in one of his melancholy moods, [Lamon] would ‘fire a few rhythmic shots’ at the President to cheer the latter. Lincoln keenly relished nonsense in the shape of witty or comic ditties. A parody of ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’ was always pleasing to him: ‘Oh, a life on the ocean wave, And a home on the rolling deep! With ratlins fried three times a day And a leaky old berth for to sleep; Where the gray-beard cockroach roams, On thoughts of kind intent, And the raving bedbug comes, The road the cockroach went.’ Lincoln could not control his laughter when he heard songs of this sort.”13
McClure noted that President Lincoln particularly liked “The Blue-Tailed Fly. He “often called for that buzzing ballad when he and Lamon were alone, and he wanted to throw off the weight of public and private cares.” McClure wrote: “While humorous songs delighted the President, he also loved to listen to patriotic airs and ballads containing sentiment. He was fond of hearing “The Sword of Bunker Hill,” “Ben Bolt,” and “The Lament of the Irish Emigrant.” His preference of the verses in the latter was this: “I’m lonely now, Mary, For the poor make no new friends; But, oh, they love the better still The few our Father sends! And you were all I had, Mary, My blessing and my pride; There’s nothing left to care for now, Since my poor Mary died.”14
At least one member of the Lincoln family knew out to play the piano. Elizabeth Todd Grimsley recalled that on the Lincolns’ first Sunday in the White House, young Willie sat down at the piano in the Red Room, where there were quite a number of persons, and began strumming some popular air.”15 Mr. Lincoln appreciated musical talent. When he visited his oldest son Robert in Exeter, New Hampshire, a year earlier, he encouraged one of Bob’s friends to get out his banjo and play. “Robert, you ought to have one,” he told his son.16
Americans literally marched off to the Civil War – eventually with 32,000 drums to help the Union army keep time. President Lincoln almost literally marched into office. Scholar Larzer Ziff wrote: “The favorites of soldiers North and South were, for the most part, the sentimental melodies in vogue when they left home. ‘Lorena,’ Annie Laurie,’ ‘Juanita,’ ‘Lilly Dale,’ and ‘Sweet Evelina’ were very popular, all of them concerned in one way or another with the subject of still another favorite, ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me.’ The songs of Stephen Foster were often sung, and although the Confederate picket replied to the Yankee picket’s ‘Star Spangled Banner’ by singing a chorus of ‘Dixie,’ when the voice across the Rappahanock was raised in ‘Home Sweet Home’ he was more apt to harmonize than to compete.”17
Washington became a crossroads of sentimental and martial music. Kenneth A Bernard wrote in Lincoln and the Music of the Civil War that “it was not surprising that Southern tunes and Southern songs were not infrequently heard in and about the city – especially Dixie.’ Robert Lincoln, relaxing in the smoking room at Willard’s one evening after dinner, was favored with ‘Dixie,’ played by two harpists at the urging of a ‘group of disunionists’ after which, to even things up, the musicians played ‘Hail, Columbia’ ‘with all the extras.'”18 Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard noted that “in the spring of 1861…go up any street, past almost any house, and from the open windows you could hear the unwearied piano, in tune or out of tune, dinging away at ‘Maryland, my Maryland,’ ‘The Bonny Blue Flag,’ or ‘Dixie,’ until the days when the Twelfth New York marched down Pennsylvania avenue with a full brass and, expressing the wish of the regiment that they were ‘in Dixie,’ and the Second and Fourth New Jersey, or Rhode Island, I forget which [the Twelfth New York] broke out into ‘Maryland,’ in the same place, with the new words of loyalty.”19
At the end of April and again on May 1, New York’s Seventh Regiment band performed at the White House. A week later on May 9th, the 12thRegiment’s band performed again at the Navy Yard – with President Lincoln and his Cabinet in attendance. “There was a very fine matinee at the Navy Yard given by some musical members of the 12th New York,” wrote John Hay in his diary. “They sang well the Band played well and the President listened well. After the programme, the President begged for the Marseillaise. The prime gentleman gave the first verse and then generously repeated it, interpolating nonchalantly ‘Liberty or Death’ in place of ‘Abreuve nos sillons,’ which he had forgotten.'”20 A few days Hay reported: “The Seventh Regiment Band played gloriously on the shaven lawn at the south front of the Executive Mansion. The scene was very beautiful. Through the luxuriant grounds the gaily dressed crowd idly strolled, soldiers loafed in the promenades, the martial music filled the sweet air with vague suggestions of heroism, & Carl Schurz and the President talked war.”21
Military music became an integral part of life at the White House. Historian Ronald Rietveld noted: “The Marine Band played for Mr. Lincoln before he became President, at his inauguration and at his inaugural ball. It played every Wednesday and Saturday evening, when the grounds were opened to everybody.”22 The 32-member ensemble also performed at White House receptions. Other regimental bands also serenaded the President — as did private citizens on occasions of military and political victories.
“Although Lincoln never studied music, as president he probably heard more than any other occupant of the White House,” wrote Douglas Jimerson. “While president he went to the theater at every possible opportunity to hear operas and musical concerts.”23 Civil War music scholar Kenneth A. Bernard wrote that President Lincoln “would not always listen to what was being played or even be conscious of it, for much of the time he would be too preoccupied – or distracted – by matters ever pressing for attention. Yet there would be times when he would hear and would listen, times when he would be deeply thrilled and deeply moved, times when he could relax and be soothed by the familiar tunes, times when he would make requests for particular pieces, times when he would compliment the players, times when he would be sustained, and times when he would be brought to tears.”24
Some music came with the job – such as “Hail to the Chief” which ushered in Mr. Lincoln’s presidency. Serenades were a Washington institution. Prompted by an event, a victory, a holiday – Washingtonians paraded to the home of a local dignitary, brought along their own band and expected a speech in return. Mr. Lincoln was greeted with his first evening serenade on February 28 after a banquet in his honor at the National Hotel. Kenneth A. Bernard wrote that on May 13, 1861: “A large crowd in the mood for serenading had stopped before the White House…and amid cheers and music by an accompanying band had called for the Chief Executive. The President appeared and immediately there were requests for a speech. Having no speech to make, he was somewhat embarrassed. Nevertheless, he turned the request off rather adroitly. After a few apologetic remarks, he excused himself by saying: ‘I am one of those who believe that the best should come last; I should have made the speech first and had the music afterwards, and I therefore, again thanking you for this honor, will retire in order that I may hear a little more of your excellent music.’ The crowd cheered, the band played, and the serenaders moved off to pay their respects elsewhere.”
Every time a new regiment arrived in Washington, it was tempted to parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to be reviewed by the President. Other groups also came by or came to the residence to “serenade the President. President aide Edward D. Neill noted that on May 31, 1864: “Yesterday four or five thousand Sunday School children, with banner and bands of music[,] marched by the President’s House, while he stood at the window and received their hearty cheers with smiles…”26
Other music was invented to fit the White House occasion. On February 5, 1862, there was a major ball at the White House to show off Mary Lincoln’s redecoration of the interior. As part of the night’s festivities, the Marine Band, under the direction of Francis Scala, premiered one of his works, “The Mary Lincoln Polka.” Upstairs, Willie and Tad Lincoln lay feverish with typhoid. Tad survived, but Willie did not. After his death on February 20, Mrs. Lincoln could not bear the thought of the semi-weekly concerts. “It is our especial desire that the Band, does not play in these grounds, this Summer. We expect our wishes to be complied with,” Mrs. Lincoln wrote to Lincoln aide John Hay in late May 1862.27 After Hay wrote Mary Lincoln asking if the Marine Band could resume its concerts in Lafayette Square, she replied: “It is hard that in this time of our sorrow, we should be thus harassed. The music in Lafayette square, would sound quite as plainly here. For this reason, at least, our feelings should be respected.”28
The Marine Band concerts were moved that summer. In August 1862, Stoddard wrote: “The Saturday evening musical promenades are held in the Capitol, instead of the White House grounds, this summer, and the Marine Band discourses sweet music to gay and wandering crowds; but the striking features are changed. The swarm of army officers, brilliant in new uniforms, and heroic with battles yet to be fought and won, has disappeared.”29 The South Lawn concerts were resumed in May 1863. In 1864, painter Francis B. Carpenter recalled: “One Saturday afternoon, when the lawn in front of the White House was crowded with people listening to the weekly concert of the Marine Band, the President appeared upon the portico. Instantly there was a clapping of hands and clamor for a speech. Bowing his thanks, and excusing himself, he stepped back into the retirement of the circular parlor, remarking to me, with a disappointed air, as he reclined upon the sofa, ‘I wish they would let me sit out there quietly, and enjoy the music.'”30
Under normal circumstances, the First Lady enjoyed hosting musical entertainment. Mrs. Lincoln frequently held an evening salon in the Red Room. Sometimes entertainers, like 19-year-old Madame Adelina Patti, were invited to perform. Madame Patti was an acclaimed opera soprano born in Spain of Italian parents but raised in America. When the erstwhile child prodigy came to the White House, Mrs. Lincoln told her,’I have wanted to see you; — to see the young girl who has done so much, who has set the whole world talking of her wonderful singing.'” Madame Patti accompanied herself on the piano while singing, ‘The Last Rose of Summer.’ She realized afterwards that she had “made an awkward choice.’ Mary has “risen from her seat and was standing at a window in the back part of the room with her back toward me. I could not see her face but I knew she was weeping.” Mr. Lincoln broke the tension by asking for “Home Sweet Home.”31
According to Lincoln scholar David Rankin Barbee, Madame Patti’s accompanist “did not know the air, and Patti, who knew it, did not know the words, and had never sung them. Seeing her dilemma, ‘the President rose from his seat, went quickly to a small stand at the foot of the piano, took from it a small music book, with a vivid green color, and placed it on the piano rack, opened to the music of Home, Sweet Home. Then he returned to his seat without a word and resumed his former posture. ‘Well, I sang the song the very best I could do it,’ Patti concluded,’and when Mr. Lincoln thanked me his voice was husky and his eyes were full of tears. By that time I was so wrought up over the situation myself that I was actually blubbering when we were taking leave of the recently bereaved parents.'”32
Another musical guest early in Mr. Lincoln’s presidency was Larooqua, sometimes call the ‘aboriginal Jenny Lind.” She had come east from Oregon with John Beeson, who had championed the area’s native Americans. They attended a Saturday afternoon reception at the White House, where she was called upon to sing. The reviews were restrained: “…the Indian songstress gave a specimen of her capabilities, showing a voice somewhat thin, but pleasant and of considerable cultivation.”33
Mr. Lincoln left a sentimental mark on those musicians who performed in the Red or East Rooms. One such troop was the Hutchinson Family (actually two related groups operating by the same name) who same anti-slavery and pro-union songs. Indiana Congressman George W. Julian recalled: “Early in the war, after the Hutchinson family had been ordered out of the Army of the Potomac by General [George B.] McClellan for the offense of singing Whittier’s songs, he repeatedly welcomed them to the White House and listened to the music which had been considered detrimental to the service. He was delighted with it, selecting his favorite songs, and testifying his satisfaction by alternate laughter and tears. He said that if these were the songs they had been singing, he wished them to continue in the business, and that they should have a pass wherever they desired to go.”34
The Hutchinsons were social activists with a musical message who had been touring America for two decades before they gave an informal concert for the Lincolns in January 1862. It was not the first time that the President had heard them sing. Mr. Lincoln told them: “I remember one song that you sung when you were in Springfield. It was a good while ago – ten years, perhaps – but I never have forgotten it. It was about a ship on fire, and I want to hear it again.” Among the other songs they sung that night was an abolitionist poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. The performance of “We Wait Beneath the Furnace Blast” had gotten the group banned by Union General George B. McClellan. Among the other tunes that the group frequently sang was “The Battle Cry of Freedom.”35
Lincoln music scholar Douglas Jimerson wrote: “Lincoln also welcomed talented young musicians to the White House. In the fall of 1863, he invited the 9-year-old Venezuelan piano prodigy Teresa Carreno to perform for him. Knowing of his fascination with the music of the American composer [Louis Moreau] Gottschalk, she played several of his challenging piano pieces. She complained about the White House piano, and in her words, ‘I jumped off the piano stool and declared that I would play no more – that the piano was too badly out of tune to be used. My unhappy father looked as if he would swoon.’ Lincoln had an easy way of healing wounds. ‘But Mr. Lincoln patted me on the cheek and asked me if I could play ‘The Mockingbird’ with variations.”36
Sad songs and sad poems appealed to Mr. Lincoln’s melancholy nature. Journalist Noah Brooks recalled: “Like many men who have a keen sense of humor, Lincoln was easily moved by the pathos which is so nearly allied to jocularity. This is the reason, I suppose, why he liked best the minor poems of Thomas Hood and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Few men ever passed from grave to gay with the facility that characterized him. He liked, too, sad and pensive songs. I remember that, one night at the White House, when a few ladies visiting the family were singing at the piano-forte, he asked for a little song in which the writer describes his sensations when revisiting the scenes of his boyhood, dwelling mournfully on the vanished joys and the delightful associations of forty years ago. It is not likely that there was anything in Lincoln’s lost youth that he would wish to recall; but there was a certain melancholy and half-morbid strain in that song which struck a responsive chord in his heart. The lines sunk into his memory, and I remember that he quoted them, as if to himself, long afterwards.”37
Visits to the dramatic or musical theater were meant to be a tonic for a President worn down by the pressures of his office. He enjoyed occasional trips to the opera. On the way to Washington, he attended a performance of Verdi’s opera “A Masked Ball” at the Academy of Music in New York. The opera was a success but Mr. Lincoln was criticized for wearing black rather than white gloves. Douglas Jimerson wrote: “For the only time in American history, the president in 1865 attended an inaugural opera, Flotow’s ‘Martha.’ Lincoln enjoyed many operas, including Gounod’s ‘Faust,’ whose famous ‘Soldiers’ Chorus’ was a special favorite. The president was criticized for attending the opera during conflicts at Bull Run and Harpers Ferry, but he retorted, ‘The Truth is, I must have a change of some sort or die.'”38
Much as he loved music, it could be hard to get Mr. Lincoln out of his office and into his carriage for the short ride to the theater. William O. Stoddard related how difficult it was to get President Lincoln to attend an opera concert: “There is to be a concert of music to-night, instead of a theatrical performance, at Ford’s. A prima donna will sing there, with much help. She is one of the long procession of queens of song who are great for a season and then cease to be immortal, but she is advertised as the equal of any queen who has preceded her. Mrs. Lincoln has been urged to go, and to take the President with her, and she has succeeded in obtaining his assent. Down in the Red Room, just now, she was relating to two or three of us what a task it was, in spite of the fact that he is fond of music. He is also strongly averse to a swallow-tailed coat and kids, and the battle was nearly lost of the latter [gloves].” The occasion was a concert by opera soprano Clara Louise Kellogg on May 28, 1862. The presidential party arrived late but were greeted enthusiastically with “a round of cheers, after vigorously stamping at the first indication of his presence. He has but just seated himself when a harsh, croaking voice in the middle aisle, loud enough to be heard all over the house, exclaims:

‘He hasn’t any business here! That’s all he cares for his poor soldiers!’ There was a second of angry silence. Voices all over the house cried: ‘Put him out! Put him out!’ Above all this clamor the wrathful note of a German soldier was heard, shouting; ‘De Bresident has a right to hees music! He is goot to come! He shall haf hees music! Dot is vot I shay! He shall haf hees music!’ The somebody in the middle aisle is discovered not to be a soldier, but the discovery is made by soldiers, and they are not making any noise over it whatever. They do not hurt him. They only hoist him up bodily and carry him to the door, and as John Bunyan says, ‘I saw him no more.'”

Stoddard wrote: “The President has seemingly paid no attention to the unpleasant little incident. The orchestra took a hint from somebody and struck up a storm of patriotic music and now, as that dies away, out walks the prima donna, and Mr. Lincoln and all the volunteers present will have their music. Whether or not he will listen to it successfully it quite another matter.”39 It may have been this same incident that biographer Isaac N. Arnold wrote of: “One evening he was prevailed upon to attend the opera. He was very tired, and quite inclined to remain at home; but at the close of the evening’s entertainment, he declared himself so much rested that he felt as if he could go home and work a month. Simple heart-songs pleased him, however, much more than the elaborate music of the opera.”40
On occasion at public functions, Mr. Lincoln exercised his executive prerogatives. Philip Jordan wrote that one” bit of verse set to music of which Lincoln was fond was ‘Your Mission,’ written by Ellen N. H. Gates. At an anniversary celebration of the United States Christian Commission held in the Hall of the House of Representatives on January 29, 1864. Lincoln, it is said, joined in heartily with the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ and toward the close of the exercises, sent a penciled note, written on the back of the envelope, which read: ‘Near the close, let us have ‘Your Mission’ repeated by Mr. Phillips. Don’t say I asked for it.’ Philip Phillips thereupon honored the President’s request.”

If you cannot on the ocean
Sail among the swiftest fleet,
Rocking on the highest billows,
Laughing at the storms you meet;
You can stand among the sailors,
Anchor’d yet within the bay,
You can lend a hand to help them,
As they launch their boats away.41

George H. Stuart, chairman of the U.S. Christian Commission may have been speaking of the same meeting when he spoke an event “held in the early of 1864, [where President Lincoln] was very much impressed by the Story of Rev. Chaplain [Charles] McCabe, who had not long returned from Libby Prison – and who, in a graphic manner, told how the prisoners in Libby, when they heard of Gettysburg, sung J. W. Howe’s magnificent lyric, ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’ After the chaplain had sung it in the meeting, President Lincoln requested its repetition.”42
>Not every special request for music ended happily for President Lincoln. One request of Ward Hill Lamon, then U.S, marshal for the District of Columbia in October 1862 became a campaign issue in September 1864. In his memoirs, Lamon laid out the campaign issue as printed by the New York World, whose owner and editor were close to Democratic presidential candidate George B. McClellan, and how President Lincoln handled it: “In the autumn of 1862 I chanced to be associated with Mr. Lincoln in a transaction which, though innocent and commonplace in itself, was blown by rumor and surmise into a revolting and deplorable scandal. A conjectural life, although mean, misshapen, and very small at its birth, grew at length into a tempest of defamation, whose last echoes were not heard until its noble victim had yielded his life to a form of assassination only a trifle more deadly. ”

Mr. Lincoln was painted as the prime mover in a scene of fiendish levity more atrocious than the world had ever witnessed since human nature was shamed and degraded by the capers of Nero and Commodus. I refer to what is known as the Antietam song-singing; and I propose to show that the popular construction put upon that incident was wholly destitute of truth.
Mr. Lincoln persistently declined to read the harsh comments of the newspaper press and the fierce mouthings of platform orators; and under his advice I as persistently refused to make any public statement concerning that ill-judged affair. He believed with Sir Walter Scott, that, if a cause of action is good, it needs no vindication from the actor’s motives; if bad, it can derive none. When I suggested to him that the slander ought to be refused, – that a word form him would silence his defamers, – Mr. Lincoln replied with great earnestness: ‘No, Hill; There has already been too much said about this falsehood. Let the thing alone. If I have not established character enough to give the lie to this charge, I can only say that I am mistaken in my own estimate of myself. In politics, every man must skin his own skunk. These fellows are welcome to the hide of this one. Its body has already given forth its unsavory odor.’
The newspapers and the stump-speakers went on ‘stuffing the ears of men with false reports’ until the fall of 1864, when I showed Mr. Lincoln a letter, of which the following is a copy. It is fair sample of hundreds of letters received by me about that time, the Antietam incident being then discussed with increased virulence and new accessions of false coloring.
PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 10, 1864.
Dear Sir,–Enclosed is an extract from the New York ‘World’ of Sept. 9, 1864:—
‘ONE OF MR. LINCOLN’S JOKES.–The second verse of our campaign song published on this page was probably suggested by an incident which occurred on the battle-field of Antietam a few days after the fight. While the President was driving over the field in an ambulance, accompanied by Marshal Lamon, General McClellan, and another officer, heavy details of men were engaged in the task of burying the dead. The ambulance had just reached the neighborhood of the old stone bridge, where the dead were piled highest, when Mr. Lincoln, suddenly slapping Marshal Lamon on the knee, exclaimed: ‘Come, Lamon, give us that song about Picayune Butler: McClellan has never heard it.’ ‘Not now, if you please,’ said General McClellan, with a shudder; ‘I would prefer to hear it some other place and time.'”
This story has been repeated in the New York ‘World’ almost daily for the last three months. Until now it would have been useless to demand its authority. By this article it limits the inquiry to three persons as its authority,–Marshal Lamon, another officer, and General McClellan. That is a damaging story, if believed, cannot be disputed. That it is believed by some, or that they pretend to believe it, is evident by the accompanying verse from the doggerel, in which allusion is made to it:–
‘Abe may crack his jolly jokes
O’er bloody fields of stricken battle,
While yet the ebbing life-tide smokes
From men that die like butchered cattle;
He, ere yet the guns grow cold,
To pimps and pets may crack his stories,’ etc.
I wish to ask you, sir, in behalf of others as well as myself, whether any such occurrence took place; or if it did not take place, please to state who that ‘other officer’ was, if there was any such, in the ambulance in which the President ‘was driving over the field [of Antietam] whilst details of men were engaged in the task of burying the dead.’ You will confer a great favor by an immediate reply.
Most respectfully your obedient servant,
Along with the above I submitted to Mr. Lincoln my own draft of what I conceived to be a suitable reply. The brutal directness and falsity of the ‘World’s’ charge, and the still more brutal and insulting character of the doggerel with which it was garnished, impelled me to season my reply to Mr. Perkin’s letter with a large infusion of ‘vinegar and gall.’ After carefully reading both letters, Mr. Lincoln shook his head. ‘No, Lamon,’ said he, ‘I would not publish this reply; it is too belligerent in tone for so grave a matter. There is a heap of cussedness’ mixed up with your usual amiability, and you are at times too fond of a fight. If you were, I would simply state the facts as they were. I would give the statement as you have here, without the pepper and salt. Let me try my hand at it.’ He then took up a pen and wrote the following. It was to be copied by me and forwarded to Mr. Perkins as a refutation of the slander.
‘The President has known me intimately for nearly twenty years, and has often heard me sing little ditties. The battle of Antietam was fought on the 17th day of September, 1862. On the first day of October, just two weeks after the battle, the President, with some others including myself, started from Washington to visit the Army, reaching Harper’s Ferry at noon of that day. In a short while General McClellan came from his headquarters near the battle-ground, joined the President, and with him reviewed the troops at Bolivar Heights that afternoon, and at night returned to his headquarters, leaving the President at Harper’s Ferry. On the morning of the second the President, with General Sumner, reviewed the troops respectively at Loudon Heights and Maryland Heights, and at about noon started to General McClellan’s headquarters, reaching there only in time to see every little before night. On the morning of the third all started on a review of the third corps and the cavalry, in the vicinity of the Antietam battle-ground. After getting through with General McClellan he and the President left their horses to be led, and went into an ambulance or ambulances to go to General Fitz John Porter’s corps, which was two or three miles distant. I am not sure whether the President and General McClellan were in the same ambulance, or in different ones; but myself and some others were in the same with the President. On the way, and on no part of the battleground, and on what suggestions I do not remember, the President asked me to sing the little sad song that follows, which he had often heard me sing, and had always seemed to like very much. I sang it. After it was over, some one of the party (I do not think it was the President) asked me to sing something else; and I sang two or three little comic things, of which ‘Picayune Butler’ was one. Porter’s corps was reached and reviewed; then the battle-ground was passed over, and the most noted parts examined; then, in succession, the cavalry and Franklin’s corps were reviewed, and the President and party returned to General McClellan’s headquarters at the end of a very hard, hot, and dusty day’s work. Next day, the 4th, the President and General McClellan visited such of the wounded as still remained in the vicinity, including the now lamented General Richardson; then proceeded to and examined the South-Mountain battleground, at which point they parted,–General McClellan returning to his camp, and the President returning to Washington, seeing, on the way, General Hartsoff, who lay wounded at Frederick.
“This is the whole story of the singing and its surroundings. Neither General McClellan nor any one else made any objections to the singing; the place was not on the battlefield; the time was sixteen days after the battle; no dead body was seen during the whole time the President was absent from Washington, nor even a grave that had not ben rained on since it was made.”
This perfectly truthful statement was written by Mr. Lincoln about the 12th of September, 1864, less than two years after the occurrence of the events therein described. It was done slowly, and with great deliberation and care. The statement, however, was never made public. Mr. Lincoln said to me: ‘You know, Hill, that this is the truth and the whole truth about that affair; but I dislike to appear as an apologist for an act of my own which I know was right. Keep this paper, and we will see about it.’ The momentous and all-engrossing events of the war caused the Antietam episode to be forgotten by the President for a time; the statement was not given to the press, but has remained in my possession until this day.
Mark how simple the explanation is! Mr. Lincoln did not ask me to sing ‘Picayune Butler.’ No song was sung on the battlefield. The singing occurred on the way from Burnside’s corps to Fitz John Porter’s corps, some distance from the battle-ground, and sixteen days after the battle. Moreover, Mr. Lincoln had said to me, ‘Lamon, sing one of your little sad songs,’–and thereby hangs a tale which is well worth the telling, as it illustrates a striking phase of Mr. Lincoln’s character which has never been fully revealed.
I knew well what Mr. Lincoln meant by “the little sad songs.” The sentiment that prompted him to call for such a song had its history, and one of deep and touching interest to me. One ‘little sad song’–a simple ballad entitled ‘Twenty Years Ago’–was, above all others, his favorite. He had no special fondness for operatic music; he loved simple ballads and ditties, such as the common people sing, whether of the comic or pathetic kind; but no one in the list touched his great heart as did the song of ‘Twenty Years Ago.’ Many a time, in the old days of our familiar friendship on the Illinois circuit, and often at the White House when he and I were alone, have I seen him in tears while I was rendering, in my poor way, that homely melody. The late Judge David Davis, the Hon. Leonard Swett, and Judge Corydon Beckwith were equally partial to the same ballad. Often have I seen those great men overcome by the peculiar charm they seemed to find in the sentiment and melody of that simple song. The following verses seemed to affect Mr. Lincoln more deeply than any of the others:–

I’ve wandered to the village, Tom; I’ve sat beneath the tree
Upon the schoolhouse play-ground, that sheltered you and me:
But none were left to greet me, Tom, and few were left to know
Who played with us upon the green, some twenty years ago.
Near by the spring, upon the elm you know I cut your name,–
Your sweetheart’s just beneath it, Tom; and you did mine the same.
Some heartless wretch has peeled the bark,–‘t was dying sure but slow,
Just as she died whose name you cut, some twenty years ago.
My lids have long been dry, Tom, but tears came to my eyes;
I thought of her I loved so well, those early broken ties:
I visited the old churchyard, and took some flowers to strew
Upon the graves of those we loved, some twenty years ago.

This is the song Mr. Lincoln called for, and the one I sang to him in the vicinity of Antietam. He was at the time weary and sad. As I well knew it would, the song only deepened his sadness. I then did what I had done many times before: I startled him from his melancholy by striking up a comic air, singing also a snatch from “Picayune Butler,” which broke the spell of “the little sad song,” and restored somewhat his accustomed easy humor. It was not the first time I had pushed hilarity–simulated though it was–to an extreme for his sake. I had often recalled him from a pit of melancholy into which he was prone to descend, by a jest, a comic song, or a provoking sally of a startling kind; and Mr. Lincoln always thanked me afterward for my well-timed rudeness “of kind intent.”43

Music played an important part of the wider Civil War. In 1861 Julia Ward Howe wrote the “Battle of the Republic” to the music of the popular “John Brown’s Body”” In 1862, “Yes, We’ll Rally ‘Round the Flags Boys” became a popular sensation. Also in 1862 James Sloan Gibbons wrote: “We Are Coming Father Abraham” as a poem. Its author once appeared at the White house to sing it in person to the President. The song became soldier anthem after being set to music by L.O. Emerson:

“We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more.
From Mississippi’s winding stream and from New England’s shore;
We leave our ploughs and workshops, our wives and children dear,
With hearts too full for utterance, with but a single tear;
We dare not look behind us, but steadfastly before;
We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more.
We are coming, we are coming, our Union to restore;
We are coming, Father Abraham three hundred thousand more
We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more.”44

Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg wrote: “Once in ’64 Tad quietly slipped away from his father, seated in a box at Grover’s. The next the father saw of Tad his boy walked out on the stage with a chorus singing ‘The Battle Cry of Freedom,’ Tad half lost in a Union Army blue uniform blouse. The play titled The Seven Sisters was billed as a ‘spectacular extravaganza’ depicting ‘the birth of Cupid’ and showing the pranks of ‘the seven daughters of Satan’ who had escaped from the lower regions. The star John McDonough recognized Tad, walked over and placed a large silk flag in his hands. And the boy waved it before the cheering audience as the chorus sang, ‘We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more.'”45 The tune inspired made pieces of caustic satire, such as:

“We are coming, Abraham Lincoln,
From mountain, wood, and glen;
We are coming, Abraham Lincoln,
With the ghosts of murdered men.
Yes! We’re coming, Abraham Lincoln,
With curses loud and deep.
That will haunt you in your waking,
And disturb you in your sleep.”46

Among the music Mr. Lincoln enjoyed was the singing of former slaves. He often stopped by a contraband camp when going to or from the Soldiers Home. One day, he asked contraband leader Mary Dines, who worked at the White House: “Well, Mary, what can the people sing for me today? I’ve been thinking about you all since I left here and am not feeling so well.”47 Among the songs they sang were “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” On another occasion the songs included “I”ve Been in the Storm So Long.”48
Mr. Lincoln undoubtedly preferred to “Dixie” to songs written about himself. It was the song he while attending a minstrel show by the Rumsey and Newcomb’s Minstrel in Chicago and according to Henry C. Whitney, “he was especially fond of that.”49 Mr. Lincoln clapped and shouted: “Let’s have it again! Let’s have it again!” Whitney wrote: “The nondescript song and dance of Dixie was sung and acted by this troupe, the first time I ever saw it, and probably the first time it was sung and acted in Illinois. I can remember well the spontaneity of Lincoln’s enthusiasm, and the heartiness of his applause at the music and action of this rollicking and eccentric performance. Little did we then think that this weird and harmless melody would ere long be transformed into a fierce battle cry by whose inspiration slaughter and carnage would be carried into the ranks of those who bared their bosoms to save the nation’s life.”50
The Civil War never dimmed Mr. Lincoln’s love of “Dixie” and as the war came to a close, he actively revived its use. “We were to leave City Point on Saturday, April 8th [1865],” wrote French writer, the Marquis de Chambrun. “A few hours previous to departure, a military band from Headquarters came on board the River Queen. After they had given us several pieces, Mr. Lincoln thought of the Marseillaise, for which he professed great liking, and asked to have it played. The French anthem was performed a second time; while turning toward me, Mr. Lincoln remarked: ‘You have to come over to America to hear it.’ He then asked me if I had ever heard the rebel song Dixie, to the sound of which all the Southern attacks had been conducted. I replied in the negative. The President continued: ‘That tune is now Federal property and it is good to show the rebels that, with us in power, they will be free to hear it again.’ So he told the surprised musicians to play it for us. Thus ended our last evening.”51
On April 10, according to John Brigham, “”Some two hundred youths, mostly employed in the departments, headed by the band of music engaged for the occasion, armed to the White House to welcome President Lincoln back from the front…After listening to the music, the President good naturedly complied with our demand for speech.”52 When President Lincoln spoke to the serenade, he asked the band that accompanied the serenading group to play Dixie: “I see you have a band of music with you. [Voices, ‘We have two or three.’] I propose closing up this interview by the band performing a particular tune which I will name. Before this is one, however, I wish to mention one or two little circumstances connected with it. I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appreciate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. [Applause.] I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. [Laughter and applause.] I now request the band to favor me with its performance.'”53 When Dixie was played, recalled Brigham, “The President kept time with his foot, and a genial smile made his strong, homely face almost beautiful.”54 Mr. Lincoln told Noah Brooks: “I just feel like marching, always, when that tune is played.”55 For an encore, the band played “Yankee Doodle.”56


  1. Albert A. Woldman, Lawyer Lincoln, pp. 102-103.
  2. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 648 (Henry C. Whitney statement for William H. Herndon, ca. 1887).
  3. Henry C. Whitney, Life on the Eighth Circuit, p. 161.
  4. Henry C. Whitney, Life on the Eighth Circuit, p. 71.
  5. “Recollections of Lincoln: Three Letters of Intimate Friends,”Bulletin of the Abraham Lincoln Association, December 1931, p. 9 (Letter from Milton Hay to John Hay, February 8, 1887).
  6. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Eighth Circuit, p. 156.
  7. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 354 Henry A. Pearson).
  8. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 354 (Lois Newhall Hillis).
  9. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Eighth Circuit, p. 72.
  10. Philip D. Jordan, “Some Lincoln and Civil War Songs,”Abraham Lincoln Quarterly,, September 1942, p. 138.
  11. Philip D. Jordan, “Some Lincoln and Civil War Songs,” Abraham Lincoln Quarterly,, September 1942, p. 127.
  12. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865, 1847-1865, p.151-152.
  13. Alexander K. McClure, Lincoln’s Own Yarns and Stories, p. 248.
  14. Alexander K. McClure, Lincoln’s Own Yarns and Stories, po. 248-249.
  15. Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, “Six Months in the White House,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1926-27, 1926-27, p. 49.
  16. Elwin L. Page, Abraham Lincoln in New Hampshire, p. 113.
  17. Larzer Ziff, Songs of the Civil War, September 1956, p. 7.
  18. Kenneth A. Bernard, Lincoln and the Music of the Civil War,” Civil War History, September 1958, p. 12.
  19. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times, Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln’s Secretary, William O. Stoddard, p. 145 (White House Sketch No. 1).
  20. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay,p. 21 (May 9, 1861)
  21. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 23 (May 11, 1861)
  22. Ronald D. Rietveld, Ronald D. Rietveld, Summer 1999, p. 44.
  23. Douglas Jimerson, Music Played a Notable Part in Lincoln’s Life, March 22, 1997, p. 5.
  24. Kenneth A. Bernard, “Lincoln and the Music of the Civil War,” Civil War History, September 1958, p. 270.
  25. Kenneth A. Bernard, “Lincoln and the Music of the Civil War”, Civil War History, September 1958 p. 21.
  26. Ronald D. Rietveld, “The Lincoln White House Community,” The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Summer 1999, p. 44.
  27. Thomas F. Schwartz and Kim M. Bauer, “Unpublished Mary Todd Lincoln,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Summer 1996, p. 4. (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln, May 23, 1862).
  28. Thomas F. Schwartz and Kim M. Bauer, “Unpublished Mary Todd Lincoln,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Summer 1996, pp. 4-5 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln, May 25, 1862).
  29. Michael Burlingame, editor Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, p. 96 (August 18, 1862).
  30. Francis B. Carpenter, Six Months at the White House, p. 143.
  31. Katherine Helm, Mary, Wife of Lincoln, p. 200.
  32. David Rankin Barbee, “The Musical Mr. Lincoln,” The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, December 1949, pp. 437-439 (from an interview in the Montgomery Advertiser, February 12, 1911).
  33. Kenneth A. Bernard, Lincoln and the Music of the Civil War, p. 17.
  34. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguised Men of his Time, p. 240 (George W.Julian).
  35. Charles C. Coffin, Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 293-294.
  36. Douglas Jimerson, “Music Played a Notable Part in Lincoln’s Life,”Washington Times, March 22, 1997.
  37. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, Noah Brooks, p. 260.
  38. Douglas Jimerson, “Music Played a Notable Part in Lincoln’s Life,”Washington Times, March 22, 1997.
  39. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times, pp. 38-39.
  40. Josiah G, Holland, Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 432.
  41. Philip D. Jordan, “Some Lincoln and Civil War Songs,” Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, September 1942, p. 130.
  42. Allen C. Guelzo, “Holland’s Informants: The Construction of Josiah Holland’s ‘Life of Abraham Lincoln,'” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association Winter 2002, p. 42. (Letter from George H. Stuart to Josiah G. Holland, July 13, 1865)
  43. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865, pp. 144-148.
  44. Ray B. Browne, Lincoln-Lore: Lincoln in the Popular Mind, p. 212.
  45. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, The War Years, p. 442.
  46. Philip D. Jordan, Some Lincoln and Civil War Songs, p. 130.
  47. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 142.
  48. John E. Washington, They Knew Lincoln, pp. 83-87.
  49. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 648 (Henry C. Whitney statement, ca. 1887.
  50. Henry C. Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 161.
  51. Marquis de Chambrun, Impressions of Lincoln and the Civil War, pp. 82-83.
  52. John E. Boos (edited by William R. Feeheley and Bill Snack), Rare Personal Accounts of Abraham Lincoln, p. 249.
  53. Roy P. Basler, editor,The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln p. 393 (Response to Serenade, April 10, 1865).
  54. John E. Boos (edited by William R. Feeheley and Bill Snack), Rare Personal Accounts of Abraham Lincoln, p. 249.
  55. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 57.
  56. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: the War Years, p. 208.