Abraham Lincoln and Soldiers and Sailors

Abraham Lincoln and Soldiers and Sailors


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(Free Press, 1999)

Abraham Lincoln had a strong and almost mystical devotion to ordinary Americans. In his July 4, 1861 special message to Congress, Lincoln described the loyalty of “common soldiers… and common sailors” who “have successfully resisted the traitorous efforts of those, whose commands, but an honor before, they obeyed as absolute law. This is the patriotic instinct of the plain people. They understand without an argument, that destroying the government, which was made by Washington, means no good to them.”1 Union soldiers honored President Lincoln and President Lincoln honored the soldiers – frequently speaking of his gratitude for their sacrifices. Writing to decline an invitation to speak at Cooper Institute on December 2, 1863, the President wrote: “Honor to the Soldier, and Sailor everywhere, who bravely bear his country’s cause. Honor also to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field, and serves, as he best can, the same cause – honor to him, only less than to him, who braves, for the common good, the storms of heaven and the storms of battle.”2

“Mr. Lincoln’s manner toward enlisted men with whom he occasionally met and talked, was always delightful in its bonhomie and its absolute freedom from anything like condescension,” recalled California journalist Noah Brooks. “Then, at least, the ‘common soldier’ was the equal of the chief magistrate of the nation. One day in the latter part of March, 1863, I was at the White House with the President, and he told me to tarry for a while, as a party of Ohio soldiers who had been lately exchanged after many harassing experiences were coming to see him. It appeared that these were the survivors of what was then known as the Marietta raid. Twenty-one men from Ohio regiments of the command of General O. M. Mitchell, then in northern Alabama, were sent on a dangerous mission to destroy the railroad communications of Chattanooga to the south and east. The expedition failed, and of the original number only six returned to Washington, after incredible hardships and suffering, – one third of the party having escaped, and another fraction having been hanged as spies, the rebel authorities deciding that the fact that these men wore citizen’s clothes within an enemy’s lines put them in that category.”

“The men, who were introduced to the President by General E. A. Hitchcock, then on duty in Washington, were Mason, Parrott, Pittenger, Buffum, Reddick, and Bensinger. Their names were given to the President, and, without missing the identity of a single man, he shook hands all round with an unaffected cordiality and good-fellowship difficult to describe. He had heard their story in all its details, and as he talked with each, asking questions and making his shrewd comments on what they had to say, it was evident that for the moment this interesting interview was to him of supreme importance. At that time we had great difficulty in effecting exchanges of prisoners, and General Hitchcock had compiled a series of papers of startling importance bearing on the question. The stories of these long-suffering men, and the cheerful lightness with which they narrated their courageous and hazardous deeds, impressed Mr. Lincoln very deeply. Speaking of the men afterward, he said, with much feeling, that their bearing, and their apparent unconsciousness of having taken their lives in their hands, with the chances of death all against them, presented an example of the apparent disregard of the tremendous issues of life and death which was so strong a characteristic of the American soldier.”3

Meeting President Lincoln was an important event for Union soldiers. Lincoln secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote that in late April, 1861, he greeted soldiers who had been hurt when their regiment was attached by a pro-secession mob while the troops were moving through Baltimore: “The wounded soldiers of the Sixth Massachusetts, including several officers, came to pay a visit to the President. They were a little shy when they entered the room – having the traditional New England awe of authorities and rulers. Lincoln received them with sympathetic kindness which put them at ease after the interchange of the first greetings. His words of sincere thanks for their patriotism and their suffering, his warm praise of their courage, his hearty recognition of their great service to the public, and his earnestly expressed confidence in their further devotion, quickly won their trust. He spoke to them of the position and prospect of the city, contrasting their prompt arrival with the unexplained delay which seemed to have befallen the regiments supposed to be somewhere on their way from the various States. Pursuing this theme, he finally fell into a tone of irony to which only intense feeling ever drove him. “I begin to believe,’ said he, ‘that there is no North. The Seventh [New York] regiment is a myth. Rhode Island is another. You are the only real thing.'”4

Historian William C. Davis wrote the General George B. McClellan invited President Lincoln to attend a three-day review of Union troops in August 1861: “The first review came on August 21, with eight regiments of infantry and several companies of cavalry and artillery, what a Pennsylvania soldier that evening described as ‘the finest sight I believe I ever seen.’ McClellan reviewed them first, riding along in front of and behind each line of the soldiers at attention. Then, to their surprise, they saw a carriage approach. As the vehicle passed the lines, Lincoln stood up and acknowledged their salute while the soldiers gave him three cheers. He joined McClellan as the men marched past in review, each taking the opportunity to have a quick look at the president.” One “private never forgot how he and his comrades felt at that moment, ‘each one feeling proud of his Chief.'”5

“Little Mac’s soldiers saw a lot of Lincoln on and off the parade ground that fall,” wrote Davis. “Whenever he could escape his office, he took his carriage to the camps ringing Washington. ‘Old Abe was on hand but he was in a carriage,’ became a frequent refrain in soldier letters home after a parade or review. On into October the army visits continued, and for a fortunate few there was that same personal moment with the president.”6 A year later, one 17-year-old soldier recalled: “My first view of Mr. Lincoln was soon after the battle of Antietam, in the fall of 1862. Mr. Lincoln had come to review the Army of the Potomac. Our regiment had marched a long distance in the early morning to reach the reviewing field and then came a long, long wait. I was tired, hungry, and thirsty. But finally there came the sound of bugles and loud cries of ‘Attention!’ from officers. A cloud of dust swept toward us from far down the line, and out of it gradually emerged a great number of field and staff-officers, their horses galloping rapidly. At the head rode Major General Gorge B. McClellan, and at his side a civilian, dressed in black and wearing a high silk hat. The contrast between the latter and those who were attired in all the glittering panoply of war was striking. In the passing glimpse that I obtained, about all that could be observed was that Mr. Lincoln was very tall and rode his horse with wonderful ease. But in the faction of the moment that my eyes rested on Mr. Lincoln, somehow my heart warmed toward the great man, and I whispered softly to myself: ‘I’m glad I enlisted!'”7

After reviewing thousands of soldier letters, historian Bell Irvin Wiley observed that “it is doubtful if any war president in American history ever elicited as pervasive and as enthusiastic admiration among the fighting forces as did the railsplitter from Illinois. The warmth with which he was regarded is suggested by the nick-names applied to him. Relatively few soldiers spoke of him as ‘President Lincoln,’ Mr. Lincoln,’ or ‘the President.’ But thousands referred to him as ‘Old Abe,’ ‘Father Abraham,’ or ‘Honest Abe…far and away the most widely used nickname for the president was the intimate and affectionate ‘Old Abe.’ This term appears in letter and diaries several times as frequently as any other.”8 Mr. Lincoln further endeared himself to some regiments when he “took a hand at target practice with them, impressing a sharpshooting regiment with his handling of a target rifle. ‘Boys, this reminds me of old-time shooting,’ he said as they cheered and waved their hats,” wrote William Davis.9 Historian Michael Burlingame observed: “The soldiers were pleased to have Lincoln in their midst. One observed that as he reviewed the ranks on October 3, the president’s ‘kindly smile…touched the hears of the bronzed, rough-looking men more than one can express. It was like an electric shock. It fled from elbow to elbow; and, with one loud cheer which made the air ring, the suppressed feeling gave vent, conveying to the good President that his smile had gone home, and found a ready response.’ A sergeant from Massachusetts reported that he ‘could easily perceive why and how he was called “Honest Abe”…I think his coming down, or up, to see us done us all good. Another soldier wrote: ‘We marched proudly away, for we all felt proud to know that we had been permitted to see and salute him.'”10 Ruth Painter Randall wrote: “After military reviews where President and Mrs. Lincoln appeared, the soldiers would write their impressions in letters home. ‘The Pres. Is not half so ugly as he is generally represented,’ wrote a cavalryman in the fall of ’61 – his nose is rather long but he is rather long himself so it is a Necessity to keep the proportion complete….The Crowd Cheered him loudly as he left the Camp bowing and waving his hat. His Lady is charming enough to make up for all his deficiencies.'”11

Mr. Lincoln’s youngest son, Tad, helped draw soldiers to the President – just as soldiers were drawn to Tad, who liked to appear in an officer’s uniform. Mrs. Lincoln’s cousin, Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, recalled that at the beginning of the war: “The regiments were scattered in different parts of Washington, and between the White House and the War Department was quite a large encampment which had a peculiar charm for our little boys, and Taddie’s rollicking ways afford them quite a diversion. There was nothing in the way of fruit, flowers, books or papers Tad would withhold from ‘his good soldiers’, and our visits to the conservatory to which I had free access, were a frequent source of grief to the care-takers, who did not relish having their treasures despoiled for me.”12

Mrs. Grimsley wrote the boys visited the troops often: “We spent much time in visiting the encampments, and assisted on several occasions, in christening them. We were always recognized and welcomed with music and cheers, particularly if the President was with us. ‘Camp Mary Lincoln’ was the favorite with our little men. On one occasion a hamper of choice wines having been sent to Mrs. Lincoln, she took it to the hospital, and this the boys resented, claiming it should have been reserved for their camp.”13

Pennsylvania drummer-boy Harry M. Kieffer reported on a presidential review of the Army of the Potomac: “Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln in a carriage, escorted by a body of cavalry and groups of officers, and at the head of the cavalcade Master Tad, big with importance, mounted on a pony, and having for his especial escort a boy orderly, dressed in a cavalry-man’s uniform, and mounted on another pony! And the two little fellows, scarce restraining their boyish delight, outride the company, and come on the field in a cloud of dust and at a full gallop, – little Tad shouting to the men, at the top of his voice: ‘Make way, men! Make way, men! Father’s a-coming! Father’s a-coming!'”14

Kieffer, who was part of the President’s security detail, noted: “Many a mark of favor and kindness did we receive from the President’s family. Delicacies, such as we were strangers to then, and would be for a long time to come, found their way from Mrs. Lincoln’s hand to our camp on the green hillside; while little Tad, the President’s son, was a great favorite with the boys, fond of the camp, and delighted with the drill.”15

General Benjamin F. Butler recalled how President Lincoln asked to “ride along your lines and see them, and see the boys and how they are situated in camp.” General Butler provided the President with his own horse and rode a pony instead. “When we got the line of intrenchment, from which the line of rebel pickets was not more than 300 yards, he towered high above the works, and as we came to the several encampments the boys all turned out and cheered him lustily. Of course the enemy’s attention was wholly directed to this performance, and with the glass it could be plainly seen that the eyes of their officers were fastened upon Lincoln; and a personage riding down the lines cheered by the soldiers was a very unusual thing, so that the enemy must have known that he was there. Both [Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus] Fox and myself said to him, ‘Let us ride on the side next to the enemy, Mr. President. You are in fair rifle-shot of them, and they may open fire; and they must know you, being the only person not in uniform, and the cheering of the troops directs their attention to you.’ ‘Oh, no,’ he said laughing, ‘the commander-in-chief of the army must not show any cowardice in the presence of his soldiers, whatever he may feel.’ And he insisted upon riding the whole six miles, which was about the length of my intrenchments…”16

Union soldiers elicited Mr. Lincoln’s admiration, his humility and his gratitude. “With the soldiers who were fighting the battles of he country, he had the deepest sympathy,” wrote early biographer Josiah G. Holland. “Whenever he was congratulated upon a success in the field, he never failed to allude gratefully to the noble men who had won it. The trials of these men – their sacrifices of comfort and health, of limb and life – touched him with a sympathy that really sapped the foundations of his constitution. They were constantly in his thoughts; and not a battle was fought to whose sacrifices his own vitality did not contribute. He admired the fighting man, and looked upon him as, in one sense, his superior. Although he did not plead guilty to the weakness of moral cowardice, he felt that the battle-field was a fearful place, from which, unaided by its special inspirations, he should run.”17

In February 22, 1863, President Lincoln wrote the general superintendent of the U.S. Christian Commission, the Rev. Alexander Reed, “Whatever shall be sincerely, and in God’s name, devised for the good of the soldier and seaman, in their hard spheres of duty, can scarcely fail to be blest. And, whatever shall tend to turn thoughts from the unreasoning, and uncharitable passions, prejudices, and jealousies incident to a great national trouble, such as ours, and to fix them upon the vast and long-enduring consequences, for weal, or for woe, which are to result from the struggle; and especially, to strengthen our reliance on the Supreme Being, for the final triumph of the right, can not but be well for us all.”18

In many ways, President Lincoln was more comfortable with lower-ranking soldiers than high-ranking officers. He clearly enjoyed the company of the soldiers of Company K who guarded him at the Soldier’s Home where the Lincoln family spent much of each summer. Historian David Herbert Donald wrote: “To avoid eating alone in the empty fourteen-room cottage, he often invited officers to dinner or breakfast.”19 Nevertheless President Lincoln sometimes played catch-me-if-you-can with his New York cavalry guard. Historian Matthew Pinsker wrote that “Unlike the infantry soldiers who camped near the residence, the cavalrymen threatened to impair both the president’s mobility and his access to the public. He complained loudly at first over what he considered to be an unnecessary intrusion on his independence.” 20 One soldier who served in the Lincoln bodyguard, Robert McBride, recalled: “Occasionally Mr. Lincoln would go among the men and chat familiarly with them… Mr. Lincoln’s manner on such occasions was that of one having a genuine, kindly interest in the members of the company and a wish to learn how matters looked from their point of view. Their was nothing patronizing about it, nor anything savoring of condescension or superciliousness.”21

President Lincoln sometimes was accosted by soldiers on his way to and from the White House. One press report noted “an eye witness informs us that as he was passing through the little grove of trees between the President House and the War Department, early in the morning, he saw President Lincoln just ahead of him, sitting under a tree, talking to a soldier who had just presented his petition or claim for something. The President sat right down under the tree, took out his pencil, and then and there ‘acted upon it,’ by indorsing and referring it favorably to the proper department. After conversing a short time with the soldier, and encouraging him, the President proceeded to the Executive mansion, unconscious that this noble act had made that soldier’s heart beat with gratitude as great as if he had suddenly been presented with a fortune.”22 Indeed, noted historian William C. Davis, President “Lincoln could not step out of his office without encountering a soldier in the White House. ‘Every person has a right to go through these rooms,’ a New York soldier wrote home in December,” 1861.23

Mr. Lincoln often reviewed and greeted regiments passing through Washington on their way to or from the war front. He did so with the very first soldiers to arrive in Washington after the fall of Fort Sumter in the spring of 1861. The “First Defenders” to arrive in the capital were five Pennsylvania militia companies. They were mustered in Harrisburg on the morning of April 18 and arrived in Washington twelve hours later. Heber Thompson recalled that future General Irvin McDowell greeted them “and escorted by him to the Capitol by order of the Secretary of War. The Capitol buildings were illuminated, and the rumor spread throughout the city that fifteen thousand troops had arrived form Pennsylvania.”

At 9 o’clock P.M. of the day of their arrival in Washington, April 18, 1861, the five companies of the First Defenders, then quartered in the committee rooms and corridors of the Senate and House of Representatives, were marched to the basement of the Capitol and there turned over the muskets with which some of them were equipped and received from the United States Government new Springfield rifles, accoutrements and ammunition. These arms were brought fresh from the arsenal, packed in cases, which were opened in the presence of the First Defenders.

The President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln; the secretary of State, William H. Seward, and the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, were present during this distribution of arms, and Abraham Lincoln, passing down the lines as they were drawn up to receive the new rifles, shook hands with all the members of the companies.24

After seeing President Lincoln at Harrison’s Landing in Virginia in early July 1862, Sergeant Felix Brannigan wrote: “Old Abe was here a few days ago and saw for himself the state of things. He, we are all convinced, is the soldier’s friend, and the man above all men in the right place. We felt that he takes an interest in us, that he has done what not one of ten thousand in a similar position would have brains enough to think of doing, i.e. to take nobody’s word or reports got up for effect. He came and saw for himself. Talk of McClellan’s popularity among the soldiers – It will never measure 1/100th part of Honest Abe’s. Such cheers as greeted him never tickled the ears of Napoleon in his palmiest days.”25

Mr. Lincoln was affected by their dedication and patriotism. Journalist Murat Halstead recalled: “Once I saw him in the White House yard when a Wisconsin regiment was marching along. The special thing that attracted my attention was that, as they were passing along, he shed tears.”26 After his speech at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, President Lincoln greeted a group of about four dozen Union soldiers gathered near the speakers’ platform. “Descending from the platform, Lincoln went over to the soldiers, saying that ‘The men upon their crutches were orators; their very appearance spoke louder than tongues.’ That’s what he had said, more eloquently, in his speech,” wrote historian Gabor Boritt.27

In a short address to a Sanitary Fair in Washington in March 1864, President Lincoln said: “This extraordinary war in which we are engaged falls heavily upon all classes of people, but the most heavily upon the soldier. For it has been said, all that a man hath will he give for his life; and while all contribute of their substance the soldier puts his life at stake, and often yields it up in his country’s cause. The highest merit, then is due to the soldier.” 28 President Lincoln voiced similar sentiments two months later in response to a group of serenader’s gathered outside the White House: “I am, indeed, very grateful to the brave men who have been struggling with the enemy in the field, to their noble commanders who have directed them, and especially to our Maker….While we are grateful to all the brave men and officers for the events of the past few days, we should, above all, be very grateful to Almighty God, who gives us victory.”29

As President, belabored as he was by patronage requests, Mr. Lincoln believed that veterans of the Union army and their survivors should be given preference for government jobs. In July 1863, President Lincoln wrote the Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair: “Yesterday little endorsements of mine went to you in two cases of postmaster ships, sought for widows whose husbands have fallen in the battles of this war. “These cases, occurring on the same day, brought me to reflect more attentively than what I had before done as to what is fairly due from us here in dispensing of patronage toward the men who, by fighting our battles, bear the chief burden of saving our country. “My conclusion is that, other claims and qualifications being equal, they have the right, and this is especially applicable to the disabled soldier and the deceased soldier’s family.”30

George H. Stuart, the chairman of the U.S. Christian Commission, told a story which reflected President Lincoln’s influence with the common soldier: “I remember once meeting a soldier from Philadelphia. – over in Virginia, near Washington, who refused to take a book I offered him -, expressing his little regard for such things. I was able to tell him as an inducement to receive it, that I had commenced my work early in the morning by calling on Mr. Lincoln – and among other things presenting him with a little book similar to the one he was receiving – & that he said to me that he would take pleasure in reading it. The soldier then took the book I offered him!”31

Painter Francis B. Carpenter related that in the winter of 1864, President Lincoln became worn out by shaking hands at one White House reception: “The President had been standing for some time, bowing his acknowledgments to the thronging multitude, when his eye fell upon a couple who had entered unobserved, – a wounded soldier, and his plainly dressed mother. Before they could pass out, he made his way to where they stood, and taking each of them by the hand, with a delicacy and cordiality which brought tears to many eyes, he assured them of his interest and welcome. Governors, senators, diplomats, passed with simply a nod; but that pale young face he might never see again. To him, and to others like him, did the nation owe its life; and Abraham Lincoln was not the man to forget this, even in the crowded and brilliant assembly of the distinguished of the land.”32 The President could take a light approach as well, telling a crippled soldier “What, no papers, no credentials, nothing to show how you lost your leg? How am I to know that you lost it in battle, or did not lose it by a trap after getting into somebody’s orchard?”33

President Lincoln was a master of public opinion and he proved able to master soldier opinion as well. Journalist Noah Brooks observed that President Lincoln “was often waylaid by soldiers importunate to get their back-pay, or a furlough, or a discharge; and if the case was not too complicated, would attend to it then and there.”34 Historian Richard Carwardine noted: “Quite apart from his offering impromptu remarks to particular units passing by the executive mansion, he [met] very many Union volunteers individually. Early in the war he earnestly promised his troops that he would take care of them, urging even the lowliest privates to bring their problems and grievances to him. He and his secretaries found themselves bombarded by letters and speculative visitors, as soldiers and their families sought help in cases that most often related to sickness, pay, furlough or military punishment. Lincoln held perhaps 2,000 or more private interviews with Union soldiers. This was a tiny proportion of the enlisted men, but it did not take long for the impressions of those who had seen or met the president to be broadcast throughout the close-knit regimental communities that made up the Federal army.”35

Historian Bell Irvin Wiley noted: “Some of the soldiers who saw Lincoln at long intervals noted with concern the unhappy effects on his appearance of the enormous burdens imposed by war. A New York sergeant who in escorting a review party through camp in December, 1861, ‘Managed to spur my horse Enough to have him show off some by dancing in order that the president might think were ‘some pumpkins,’ said of Lincoln only that he was ‘unable to see anything but a blank smile on his rough physiog.’ But after another presidential review sixteen months later this soldier reported: ‘Oh! He has changed so much… that he really has the sympathy of the soldiers who never can doubt that he is ably and honestly struggling with them for the suppression of this Great Rebellion.'” 36 William C. Davis noted that increasingly, “Lincoln did look haggard and wan, and almost every noticed it” by 1862. When he visited General Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac in April 1863, his face drew comments. Davis wrote: “One company officer commented on ‘the sweet and comely face of the President,’ but most saw far more. They would have laughed, said a soldier, ‘had it not been for that sad, anxious face, so full of melancholy foreboding, that peered forth from his shaggy eyebrows.’ In front of the V Corps he impressed some as ‘care-worn and anxious, and we thought there must be a heap of trouble on the old man’s mind.”‘” Davis noted that “care worn” was a phrase much applied to the President.37 Davis concluded that “in seeing Lincoln so visibly carrying the weight of responsibility for the war, the soldiers saw that in his way he suffered as they did, and though he did not face death in battle or disease and discomfort in the camps, still that landscape of cares in his face let them know that he, too, was a casualty. It bound them to him in a way they never experienced with any commander of their army.”38

Lincoln’s impact extended beyond the army. Naval officer John S. Barnes wrote: “When I first met Mr. Lincoln was singularly drawn to him; and brief as had been our intercourse, it was at such meetings and in the privacy of his own family, to which he admitted me, that I came to feel an affection for him that none other has ever inspired.”39 In August 1862, President Lincoln wrote a note to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles: “Lieutenant Commanding James W. A. Nicholson, now commanding the Isaac Smith, wishes to be married, and from evidence now before me, I believe there is a young lady who sympathizes with him in that wish. Under these circumstances, please allow him the requisite leave of absence, if the public service can safely endure it.”40

President Lincoln took a special interest in young soldiers applying for admission to the academies at West Point and Annapolis. Pennsylvania Congressman William D. Kelley told the story about a young boy who served aboard the Ottawa as a powder-money. Kelley recommended him to the President for appointment to the Naval Academy. “He at once wrote on the back of a letter from the commander of the Ottawa, which I had handed him, to the Secretary of the Navy: ‘If the appointments for this year have not been made, let this boy be appointed.’ The appointment had not been made, and I brought it home with me. I directed the lad to report for examination at the school in July. Just as he was ready to start, his father, looking over the law, discovered that he could not report until he was fourteen years of age, which he would not be until September following. The poor child sat down and wept. He feared that he was not to go to the Naval School. He was, however, soon consoled by being told that ‘the President could make it right.’ It was my fortune to meet him the next morning at the door of the Executive Chamber with his father.'”

“Taking by the hand the little fellow, – short for his age, dressed in the sailor’s blue pants and shirt, – I advanced with him to the President, who sat in his usual seat, and said: ‘Mr. President, my young friend, Willie Bladen, finds a difficulty about his appointment. You have directed him to appear at the school in July; but he is not yet fourteen years of age.’ But before I got half this out, Mr. Lincoln, laying down his spectacles, rose and said: ‘Bless me! Is that the boy who did so gallantly in those two great battles? Why, I feel that I should bow to him, and not he to me.'”
“The little fellow had made his graceful bow. The President took the papers at once, and as soon as he learned that a postponement till September would suffice, made the order that the lad should report in that month. Then putting his hand on Willie’s head, he said: ‘Now, my boy, go home and have good fun during the two months, for they are about the last holiday you will get.’ The little fellow bowed himself out, feeling that the President of the United States, though a very great man, was one that he would nevertheless like to have a game of romps with.”41

President Lincoln’s aversion to military executions was well known. U.S. Marshal Ward Hill Lamon wrote: “Upward of twenty deserters were sentenced at one time to be shot. The warrants for their execution were sent to Mr. Lincoln for his approval; but he refused to sign them. The commanding general to whose corps the condemned men belonged was indignant. He hurried to Washington. Mr. Lincoln had listened to moving petitions for mercy from human persons who, like himself, were shocked at the idea of the of the cold-blooded execution of more than a score of misguided men. His resolution was fixed, but his rule was to see every man who had business with him. The irate commander, therefore, was admitted into Mr. Lincoln’s private office. With soldierly bluntness he told the President that mercy to the few was cruelty to the many; that Executive clemency in such a case would be a blow at military discipline; and that unless the condemned men were made examples of, the army itself would be in danger. ‘General,’ said Mr. Lincoln, ‘there are too many weeping widows in the United States now. For God’s sake don’t ask me to add to the number; for, I tell you plainly, I won’t do it!’ He believed that kind words were better for the poor fellows than cold lead; and the sequel showed that he was right.”42

Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller wrote: “Faced with an enormous stack of [pardon] cases early in his presidency, Lincoln asked Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt whether the power could be delegated, and the answer came back: No. This power is his alone, at this sole discretion.”43 The result was a tremendous burden on the President. Describing the pardon process, General Joseph Holt wrote: “The President would call me to go over them with him – occupying hours at a time. He was free and communicative in his criticism and comment on them, and his true nature showed itself in these interviews. He shrank with evident pain from even the idea of shedding human blood. (In a great army like ours these cases came by hundreds, and the carrying out of all these many sentences impressed him as nothing short of ‘wholesale butcher.’) In every case he always leaned to the side of mercy. His constant desire was to save life. There was only one class of crimes I always found him prompt to punish – a crime which occurs more or less frequently about all armies – namely, outrages upon women. He never hesitated to approve the sentences in these cases. This was the only class of cases I can now recall in which he was unhesitating in his action.”44 President Lincoln told Holt: “I don’t believe it will make a man any better to shoot him, while if we keep him alive, we may at least get some work out of him. You have no doubt heard the story of the soldier and asked why he deserted. ‘Well, Captain,’ said the man, ‘it was not my fault. I have got just as brave a heart as Julius Caesar, but these cowardly legs of mine will always run away with me when the battle begins.’ I have no doubt that is true of many a man who honestly meant to do his duty but who was overcome by a physical fear greater than his will.”45

New York Times editor Henry Raymond recalled: “One night [House Speaker] Schuyler Colfax left all other business to ask him to respite the son of a constituent, who was sentenced to be shot, at Davenport, for desertion. He heard the story with his usual patience, though he was wearied out with incessant calls, and anxious for rest, and then replied: – ‘Some of our generals complain that I impair discipline and subordination in the army by my pardons and respites, but it makes me rested, after a hard day’s work, if I can find some good excuse for saving a man’s life, and I go to bed happy as I think how joyous the signing of my name will make him and his family and his friends.’ And with a happy smile beaming over that care-furrowed face, he signed that name that saved my life.”46 President Lincoln checked with the War Department one night to see that a teenage sentry would not be executed for falling asleep on duty: “I could not think of going into eternity with the blood of that poor young man on my skirts,” said the President. “It is not to be wondered at that a boy raised on the farm, probably in the habit of going to bed at dark, should, when required to watch, fall asleep; and I cannot consent to shooting him for such an act.”47

Mr. Lincoln’s patience was not inexhaustible, however. He received a card from a soldier while he visited with Illinois Republican Henry P. H. Bromwell: “Tell him I can’t see him any more about the matter. I’ve seen him as many times as I can. I wish that man would let me alone. I’ve seen him again and again, and I’ve done everything for him that I can do, and he knows it just as well as I do…There is no end of these cases of people that come to me for something or other that nobody else can do for them. I do everything I can for them, but I can’t do everything; and some of them are so unreasonable about it, they won’t let me off after I’ve talked it over with them time after time. It seems to me sometimes they will wear the very life out of me; but then all these other matters are nothing to these cases of life and death – and there are so many of them, and they all fall on me. I reckon there never was a man raised in the country, on a farm, where they are always butchering cattle and hogs and think nothing of it, that ever grew up with such an aversion to bloodshed as I have and yet I’ve had more questions of life and death to settle in four years than all the men who ever sat in this chair put together.” 48

New York Congressman Francis Kernan told of visiting President Lincoln on behalf of a man charged with desertion. Kernan “called on Mr. Lincoln. He found him very much occupied, but, sending in word that it was an urgent matter, the President saw him. My father gave the President the facts in the case. It seems that the man had been absent a year form his family and, without leave, had gone home to see them. On his way back to the army he was arrested as a deserter and sentenced to be shot. The sentence was to be carried out that very day. The wife had come on to intercede for her husband.”

The President listened attentively, becoming more and more interested in the story. Finally he said: ‘Why, Kernan, of course this man wanted to see his family; and they oughtn’t to shoot him for that.” So he immediately rang his bell, called his secretary and gave him orders to send off telegrams suspending the sentence and ordering the record of the case to be sent to him. As he went on dictating to his secretary he became more and more anxious about the matter. He exclaimed: “For God’s sake, get that off just as quick as you can, or they will shoot this man in spite of me!” The result was that the man got a pardon and took his place again in the army.”49

Fellow Illinois attorney Joseph Gillespie visited with President Lincoln at the Soldiers Home in mid-1864 and witnessed the President deal with a group of petitioners who were seeking pardons for Union army deserters. Mr. Lincoln delayed his response until the following morning at the White House. “Before retiring, I told Mr. Lincoln I could not sleep unless I had some inkling as to how he was going to decide in regard to these poor fellows.” Mr. Lincoln replied: “I can’t tell you; but I will say this, that I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.'”50

Union chaplain John Eaton recalled a visit to the White House: “One afternoon, in the midst of our conversation, we heard the discharge of musketry. The wind, blowing from the Virginia side, wafted the sound from across the river. Mr. Lincoln arose, and, stepping past his chair, looked out of the open window toward the Virginia shore. When he turned again, the tears were running down his cheeks. ‘This is the day,’ said he, ‘when they shoot deserters. I am wondering whether I have used the pardoning power as much as I ought. I know some of our officers feel that I have used it with such much freedom as to demoralize the army and destroy the discipline.’ The President felt especially lenient toward those who had slept at their posts when on picket duty. ‘I feel,’ he went on, more to himself, I thought, than to me, ‘that the picket who sleeps at his post is imperiling, it may be, the entire army, and I know how serious that is. But the officers only see the force of military discipline; perhaps it is right, but I see other things. I feel how the man may have been exposed to long watches with no opportunity for proper rest, and so sleep steals upon him unawares. I would not relax the discipline of the army, but I do want to be considerate of every case.’ As he talked, his great, good heart seemed to open itself and allow one to observe its workings. For a man so relentless with himself in the performance of his own duty, Lincoln’s charity toward others was little short of phenomenal.”51

Lincoln scholar J. T. Dorris wrote: “Lincoln’s reasoning always went back to first premises. The nature of a case and the circumstances pertaining to it were certain to influence his decision.” 52 Dorris wrote “that all petitions for clemency did not receive the President’s consideration. His pardon clerk, Edmund Stedman, who examined such applications to determine which should be brought to the executive attention, said: ‘My chief, Attorney General [edward] Bates, soon discovered that my most important duty was to keep all but the most deserving cases from coming before the kind Mr. Lincoln at all; since there was nothing harder for him to do than to put aside a prisoner’s application and he could not resist it when it was urged by a pleading wife and a weeping child.” Lincoln himself seemed to be aware of his susceptibility to yield to a woman’s entreaty. On one occasion when he was reproached for his leniency in dealing with deserters and told that Congress had assumed all responsibility for any miscarriage of justice, he retorted: ‘Yes, Congress has taken the responsibility and left the women to how all about me.”53 After New York Congressman William A. Wheeler persuaded him to postpone an execution, he told Wheeler: “Now you just telegraph that mother that her boy is safe, and I will go home and go to bed. I guess we shall all sleep better for this night’s work.” 54 After Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson said he recalled “talking early one Sabbath morning with a wounded Irish officer who came to Washington to say that a soldier who had been sentenced to be shot in a day or two for desertion had fought bravely by his side in battle. I told him that we had come to ask him to pardon the poor soldier. After a few moments reflection he said, ‘My officers tell me the good of the service demands the enforcement of the Law, but it makes my heart ache to have the poor boys shot. I will pardon him, and then you will all join in blaming me for it. You all censure me for granting pardons, and yet you all ask me to do so.'”55

John Hay wrote fellow Lincoln aide John G. Nicolay in mid-July 1863: “I am in a state of entire collapse after yesterday’s work I ran the Tycoon through One hundred Court martials! a steady sitting of six hours!”56 Hay wrote in his diary: “Today we spent 6 hours deciding on Court martials, the President Judge Holt & I. I was amused at the eagerness with which the President caught at any fact which would justify him in saving the life of a condemned soldier. He was only merciless in cases where meanness or cruelty were shown.

Cases of cowardice he was specially averse to punishing with death. He said it would frighten the poor devils too terribly to shot them. On the case of a soldier who had once deserted & reenlisted he endorsed, “Let him fight instead of shooting him.”
One fellow who had deserted & escaped after conviction into Mexico, he sentenced, saying “We will condemn him as they used to sell hogs in Indiana, as they run.”57

Lincoln scholar Roy Dwight Packard wrote: “Not all those who sought President Lincoln’s assistance, however, were acting for a condemned soldier. Many matters of small importance, some quite ridiculous, received his attention, proving his championship of personal rights and his sympathetic interest in the troubles of individuals, of whatever nature.”58 Packard wrote: “About one third of all Union soldiers were less than twenty-one years of age, thousands but fifteen or sixteen. As a result very young boys were often tried by military courts, some receiving a death sentence. It was soon known that the Commander in Chief would always decide against such executions and these cases usually reached the White House.”59 Union soldiers had his sympathy, but that empathy was not boundless. When one Union soldier requested a favor, President Lincoln told him: “I could as easily bail out the Potomac River with a teaspoon as attend to all the details of the army.”60

Mr. Lincoln took his pardoning power seriously. Historian Packard noted: “Several telegrams not only stayed the execution but also requested a record of the trial. Still others asked for an acknowledgment of the suspension and when this was not forthcoming promptly, another wire was invariably sent. Reprieves were often followed with either a full pardon or a commutation to a lesser punishment. A typical dispatch deferring the execution of one Jesse Broadway for two weeks was trailed by another; ‘The sentence of Jesse Broadway has been commuted by the President to imprisonment at hard labor for three years.'”61 The pardoning process sometimes enervated the President. Journalist William A. Croffut wrote: “One day Marshall Ward Lamon, Lincoln’s close and courageous friend, called to get a pardon for some deserter. When Lincoln was about to write his name, he looked up and said ‘Lamon, “I’m overdoing this pardon business. Did you ever hear how Patagonians eat oysters?…They open them and throw the shells out of the window till the shells get higher than the house, then they move. I think of it often, now-a-days.”62

President and Mrs. Lincoln often visited Union Army hospitals in and around Washington – together, separately or with their son Tad. Lincoln scholar Ronald C. White, Jr., wrote: “Washington, which had been transformed into an armed camp in the early days of the war, had now become a gigantic hospital. White buildings and tents dotted the city. Many hospitals were new structures, like the Stanton Hospital at New Jersey and I Street. Others, such as the Douglass Hospital, had taken over former private mansions on Minnesota Row. Many of the forty or so hospitals were makeshift single-story wooden sheds. All were crowded. Often hundreds, sometimes thousands of wounded soldiers lay in adjoining beds.”63

Mrs. Lincoln made regular trips to the hospitals when she was in Washington – although she suspended the visits after her son Willie died in February 1862. According to biographer Ruth Painter Randall, “it was June of ’62 before she was physically able to make these almost daily visits to the hospitals, where she would pass through the long rows of cots distributing with her own hands fruits, flowers, and delicacies cooked in the White House kitchen. She would talk with the patients, asking in a soft gentle voice questions showing her personal interest, and they knew they had the sympathy of this motherly woman.” 64 But, noted Randall, “The ghastly hospitals of the Civil War had their rules and restrictions and Mrs. Lincoln sometimes found her ministrations ‘treated by surgeons as impertinent meddling.’ Speaking to a visitor about her work, she said she was ready and willing to do ‘anything she could do without incurring the displeasure of the Surgeons and others in authority…'”65

The suffering of the wounded soldiers had a profound effect on the President. Congressman Isaac Arnold recalled President Lincoln’s reaction after the Battle of the Wilderness. He wrote that “the lines of ambulances, conveying the wounded from the steamers on the Potomac to the great field hospitals on the heights around Washington, would be continuous, – one unbroken line from the wharf to the hospital. At such a time, I have seen the President, in his carriage, driving slowly along the line, and he looked like one who had lost the dearest members of his own family. On one such occasion, meeting me, he stopped and said, ‘I can not bear this; this suffering, this loss of life – is dreadful.”66

Union officer William E. Doster recalled: “In my daily inspections of the guards at the hospitals at Washington, I often met the President quietly going through the wards, giving a kind word to one, and a cheerful message to another, and it was impossible not to be convinced that the suffering and tragedies of this great struggle touched a tender chord in his nature, and that he felt deeply the crippling and slaughter of so many fine young men, the disease, bereavements, funerals and mourning on both sides, very much as an affectionate father would feel that in his own family.”67 Returning to Washington after visiting a hospital at the war front at the very end of the war, President Lincoln told the bed-ridden Secretary of State William H. Seward that he attempted to shake hands with several thousand wounded and “worked as hard at it as sawing wood.”68

The number of army hospitals in Washington exploded with the war effort. “When war began, the city had only one established hospital, the Washington Infirmary, a three-story brick building on E Street, behind the courthouse on Judiciary Square. Other smaller hospital were in use in Georgetown and Alexandria,” wrote Ernest B. Furgurson. 69 Lincoln scholar Milton Shutes wrote that by late in the war: “In Washington alone there were twenty-five hospitals, totaling 21,426 beds aside from some post hospitals; two of the latter were located on the grounds of the Executive Mansion, and one was close by. In addition to his great interest in the boys themselves, the President gave much thought to hospital construction and one hospital in particular was he anxious to see erected as a model for others. To the doctors in charge, he offered suggestions for various aids to comfort, contributing from his own purse for that purpose. He sent the White House gardener with seeds and plants to embellish the bare surroundings.”70 Mr. Lincoln was also concerned to get Union soldiers out of the hospital and back to the war front. Only reluctantly did he agree to a proposal by Cordelia Harvey, widow of a Wisconsin governor, that army hospitals be established back in soldiers’ home states, where they could recover in more healthful environments.

President Lincoln was also concerned about the overall welfare of the troops. He told Pennsylvania Congressman Kelley that “the successful management of an army requires a good deal of faithful housekeeping. More fight will be got out of well-fed and well-cared-for soldiers and animals than can be got out of those that are required to make long marches with empty stomachs, and whose strength and cheerfulness are impaired by the failure to distribute proper rations at proper seasons.”71 Historian Mark E. Neely, Jr., wrote that “About the time of his October [1862] visit to McClellan’s army after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln apparently became alarmed with the great disparity between the actual number of troops present for duty as compared with the numbers listed on the army’s rolls”72 President Lincoln wrote a memo in which he stated: “The Army is constantly depleted by company officers who give their men leave of absence in the very face of the enemy, and on the eve of an engagement, which is almost as bad as desertion. At this very moment there are between seventy and one hundred thousand men absent of furlough from the Army of the Potomac. The army, like the nation, has become demoralized by the idea that the war is to be ended, the nation united, and the peace restored, by strategy, and not by hard desperate fighting.”73

But as concerned as he was about the success of the war effort, Mr. Lincoln was also concerned about the welfare of individual soldiers. Army surgeon John H. Britton recalled: “Once I amputated at the shoulder joint the arm of a soldier in a hospital in Washington, which the President was visiting at the time. He was greatly interested but evidently had little fondness for surgery. At the conclusion of the operation, a younger surgeon, who had been watching me, expressed with some enthusiasm and in a voice audible to the President, his congratulations upon the operation and I remember well being startled by the voice of the President behind my back making the solemn inquiry, ‘But how about the soldier?'”74

The President could walk for hours through hospitals, comforting soldiers and shaking their hands. He followed this practice even when he visited the war front. Journalist Lawrence A. Gobright recalled: “President Lincoln, accompanied by Mrs. Lincoln, Senators Harlan and Sumner, and others, paid a visit to City Point early in April [1865]. While there, the President passed through the wards of the several hospitals, giving a word of comfort to the invalids. He looked feeble, and was, for this reason, met with remonstrance from all the surgeons in charge for attempting the hand-shaking of several thousand of men; but, in answer, he said, ‘Gentlemen, the war seems about over, and I must shake the hand of and say a good word to every brave fellow who has aided in the glorious work.”75

President Lincoln outlined his attitude toward soldier voting in a letter to Major General William S. Rosecrans, the Union commander in Missouri, after Mr. Lincoln had received complaints about his handling of political matters in the state:

“One can not always safely disregard a report, even which one may not believe. I have a report that you incline to deny the soldiers the right of attending the election in Missouri, on the assumed ground that they will get drunk and make disturbance. Last year I sent Gen. Schofield a letter of instruction, dated October 1st, 1863, which I suppose you will find on the files of the Department, and which contains, among other things, the following.”
“At elections see that those and only those, are allowed to vote, who are entitled to do so by the laws of Missouri, including as of those laws, the restrictions laid by the Missouri Convention upon those who may have participated in the rebellion.”
“This I thought right then, and think right now; and I may add I do not remember that either party complained after the election, of Gen. [John] Schofield’s action under it. Wherever the law allows soldiers to vote, their officers must also allow it. Please write me on this subject.”76

In 1864, Union soldiers were an important part of Mr. Lincoln’s re-election strategy. In replying to the delegation from the Union-Republican National Convention in Baltimore that notified him of his nomination, President Lincoln wrote: “I am especially gratified that the soldier and the seaman were not forgotten by the convention, as they forever must and will be remembered by the grateful country for whose salvation they devote their lives.”77 Historian Jennifer L. Weber wrote: “After so many years and so much hardship, a number of soldiers had come to have a strong bond with the president. Especially in the Army of the Potomac, the only army Lincoln was able to visit personally, soldiers noticed that Lincoln suffered as they did; his face showed the wear. On this particularly happy day, one private marveled again at Lincoln’s presence. ‘Mr. Lincoln presides over millions of people, and each individual share of his attention must necessarily be very small, and yet he wouldn’t slight the humblest of them all….The men not only reverence and admire M. Lincoln, but they love him. May God bless him, and spare his life to us for many years.”78

At the end of August, President Lincoln told soldiers of the 148th Ohio Regiment: “I am most happy to meet you on this occasion. I understand that it has been your honorable privilege to stand, for a brief period, in the defense of your country, and that now you are on your way to your homes. I congratulate you, and those who are waiting to bid you welcome home from the war; and permit me, in the name of the people, to thank you for the part you have taken in this struggle for the life of the nation. You are soldiers of the Republic, everywhere honored and respected. Whenever I appear before a body of soldiers, I feel tempted to talk to them of the nature of the struggle in which we are engaged. I look upon it as an attempt on the one hand to overwhelm and destroy the national existence, while, on our part, we are striving to maintain the government and institutions of our fathers, to enjoy them ourselves, and transmit them to our children and our children’s children forever.”79

In response to a serenade by Maryland residents in mid-October 1864, Mr. Lincoln said that “Something said by the Secretary of State in his recent speech at Auburn, has been construed by some into a threat that, if I shall be beaten at the election, I will, between then and the end of my constitutional term, do what I may be able, to ruin the government.”

“Others regard the fact that the Chicago Convention adjourned, not sine die, but to meet again, if called to do so by a particular individual, as the intimation of a purpose that if their nominee shall be elected, he will at once seize control of the government. I hope the good people will permit themselves to suffer no uneasiness on either point. I am struggling to maintain government, not to overthrow it. I am struggling especially to prevent others from overthrowing it. I therefore say, that if I shall live, I shall remain President until the fourth of next March; and that whoever shall be constitutionally elected therefore in November, shall be duly installed as President on the fourth of March; and that in the interval I shall do my utmost that whoever is to hold the helm for the next voyage, shall start with the best possible chance to save the ship.”
“This is due to the people both on principle, and under the constitution. Their will, constitutionally expressed, is the ultimate law for all. If they should deliberately resolve to have immediate peace even at the loss of their country, and their liberty, I know not the power or the right to resist them. It is their own business, and they must do as they please with their own. I believe, however, they are still resolved to preserve their country and their liberty; and in this, in office or out of it, I am resolved to stand by them.”
“I may add that in this purpose to save the country and it’s liberties, no classes of people seem so nearly unanimous as the soldiers in the field and the seamen afloat. Do they not have the hardest of it? Who should quail while they do not?”
“God bless the soldiers and seamen, with all their brave commanders.”80

Artist Francis B. Carpenter wrote that: “Just after the presidential nominations had been made in 1864, a discussion arose in a certain regiment in the Army of the Potomac as to the merits of the two candidates. Various opinions had been warmly expressed, when at length a German spoke. “I goes,’ said he, ‘for Fader Abraham. Fader Abraham, he likes the soldier-boy. Then he serves three years he gives him four hundred dollar, and reenlists him von veteran. Now Fader Abraham, he serve four years. We reenlist him four years more and make von veteran of him.”81

Near the end of the 1864 presidential campaign, President Lincoln told the 189th New York Volunteers: “Soldiers: I am exceedingly obliged to you for this mark of respect. It is said that we have the best Government the world ever knew, and I am glad to meet you, the supporters of that Government. To you who render the hardest work in its support should be given the greatest credit. Others who are connected with it, and who occupy high positions, their duties can be dispensed with, but we cannot get along without your aid. While others differ with the Administration, and, perhaps, honestly, the soldiers generally have sustained it; they have not only fought right, but, as far as could be judged from their actions, they have voted right, and I for one thank you for it. I know you are en route for the front, and therefore do not expect me to detain you long, and will therefore bid you good morning.”82

Democratic opposition to the war had tended to alienate Union soldiers who were risking their lives on the battlefield. Union soldiers initially differed on emancipation – with many opposing the President’s policy in 1862-1863. Historian Hans L. Trefousse wrote that many soldiers were “less favorably impressed. Allen Morgan Geer of the 20th Illinois Volunteer Regiment thought it a ‘fearful experiment.’ Colonel David Hunter Strother of West Virginia, commenting that Lincoln had neither sense nor principle, was afraid the proclamation would make a speed peace impossible, a fear shared by others, George Whitman, stationed near Antietam, thought Lincoln would have to lick the rebels before he could free the Negroes.” 83 Another Massachusetts soldier John Chase wrote his brother: “I suppose you have seen Georges order [General George B. McClellan] prohibiting political discussions but that [doesn’t] prevent our giving an opinion and the general opinion is this. That first we catch the hare or in other words that first we better conquer some of the slaves states and then it will be time enough to talk about freeing the Slaves.”84

Union soldiers were not free of racist attitudes. Historian Armstead L. Robinson wrote: “Lincoln, unlike his Southern counterpart, was coping directly with class-and race-based concerns. The resulting positive effects on Union morale are apparent in an open letter from a Northern soldier, James K. Wells, to his hometown Indiana newspaper:

“Now I want to ask you if negro equality is established in Indiana yet. Some of you tried to make the soldiers wives believe that their husbands were fighting to free the slaves and send them into Indiana by the 1st of April. I want some of you smart educated Knights of the Golden Circle to let me know when you see the first squad of negroes coming from the south to become citizens in own county….The majority of the union soldiers are in favor of restoring [sic] the Union and the Constitution if it frees every slave in the south….You know as well as I do that the rebels have had a chance to save their slaves and property too by coming back to the Union in due time but they did not so who is to blame but themselves.”

With an abatement of Yankee anxieties, Grant’s army could transform emancipation from a mere proclamation into a military weapon of immense effectiveness.”85

Historian Richard J. Carwardine wrote: “The unified political purpose that Lincoln encouraged amongst his troops by arousing ‘their slumbering patriotism’, as one private put it, was challenged but not fundamentally compromised by his role as the Great Emancipator. The president recognized that the army was not a political monolith, that slavery was a devisive issue and that an emancipation policy would alienate many serving men.”86 As one soldier wrote home, “I doubt if any other man than Lincoln could have issued…[the Emancipation Proclamation] and had it so generally received with good nature as it was coming from him.” Noted historian Bell Irvin Wiley: “Soldier opinion of Lincoln and his policies had opportunity for a thorough airing in the campaign of 1864. While Lincoln’s strength from the beginning seems to have been much greater in the army than among civilians, considerable opposition to the president’s reelection was voiced by soldiers in the spring and summer of 1864. His prospects as far as the army was concerned seemed to have hit bottom about late August, 1864.”87

Union Sergeant James M. Stradling visited President in early 1863 and was quizzed about the views of his comrades regarding the Emancipation Proclamation. Although Stradling voiced his support, he said many comrades opposed it and sought to get out of the war as a result. “The issuing of the proclamation caused many to desert, no doubt, and the presence of General [Ambrose] Burnside at the head of the army caused many others to leave the army,” Stradling told President Lincoln. “The President sat still a moment or two, when he said, ‘Sergeant, I am very glad indeed to have had your views. I am glad to know how many of your comrades feel about slavery, and I am exceedingly glad you have mentioned the Emancipation Proclamation, for I shall take this opportunity to make a few remarks which I desire you to convey to your comrades.” In a letter to a friend, Stradling recalled the President’s remarks:

“The proclamation was, as you state, very near to my heart. I thought about it and studied it in all its phases long before I began to put it on paper. I expected many soldiers would desert when the proclamation was issued, and I expected many who care nothing for the colored man would seize upon the proclamation as an excuse for deserting. I did not believe the number of deserters would materially affect the army. On the other hand, the issuing of the proclamation would probably bring into the ranks many who otherwise would not volunteer.”
“After I had made up my mind to issue it, I commenced to put my thoughts on paper, and it took me many days before I succeeded in getting it into shape so that it suited me. Please explain to your comrades that the proclamation was issued for two reasons. The first and chief reasons was this, I felt a great impulse moving me to do justice of five or six millions of people. The second reason was that I believed would be a club in our hands with which we could whack the rebels. In other words, it would shorten the war. I believed that under the Constitution I had a right to issue the proclamation as a ‘Military Necessity.’ I have faith that it will shorten the war by many months.”88

Historian Jennifer Weber observed opposition to emancipation among Copperhead Democrats helped change the minds of some soldiers: “The Copperheads became a negative reference point for many Yankees. They responded by reconsidering their political loyalties, and a slow but irreversible changed began to take hold in the army.” Over the next few months, increasing numbers of soldiers strayed from the Democratic Party and lined up behind Lincoln.” 89 That was bad news for the Democratic party which had counted on the popularity of General George B. McClellan with Union rank and file to defeat President Lincoln for reelection in 1864.

Lincoln biographers John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: “As the votes of the soldiers in the different camps in the vicinity of Washington began to be reported they were found to be nearly unanimous in favor of the Republican candidate, the proportion among Western troops being generally that of ten to one: among the Eastern troops, although there was everywhere a majority, it was not so large. Carver hospital, by which Lincoln and Stanton passed every day on their way to the country, gave the heaviest opposition vote reported – about one out of three. Lincoln turned to the Secretary and said, ‘That’s hard on us, Stanton! They know us better than the others.'”90

When President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, noted historian William C. Davis, “Most [soldiers] felt that the president had been cheated. ‘President Lincoln was stricken down while in the height of glory, popularity and personal happiness,’ said a cavalryman. “His work was nearly completed, would to God he had been able to finish it and been spared to complete his remaining days in quiet and peace. – Enjoying the love and respect of the American people.'” Davis quoted a Wisconsin soldier: “No man, not even Grant himself, possesses the entire love of the army as did President Lincoln…We mourn him not only as a President but as a man, for we have learned to love him.'”91


  1. CWAL, Volume IV, p. CHECK (Special Message to Congress, July 4,1861)
  2. Harold Holzer, editor, Dear Mr. Lincoln, p. 290. (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to George Opdyke, Joseph Sutherland, Benjamin F. Manierre, Prosper M. Wetmore and Spencer Kirby, December 2, 1863)
  3. Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time, pp. 77-78.
  4. Michael Burlingame, editor, Abraham Lincoln: The Observations of John G. Nicolay and John Hay, p. 71 (From John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume IV, p. 140-157).
  5. William C. Davis, Lincoln’s Men, pp. 53-54.
  6. William C. Davis, Lincoln’s Men, p. 54.
  7. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 485 (Thomas S. Hopkins, St. Nicolas, May 1922).
  8. Bell Irvin Wiley, “Billy Yank and Abraham Lincoln,” The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, June 1950, pp. 103-104.
  9. William C. Davis, Lincoln’s Men, p. 57.
  10. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 425
  11. Ruth Painter Randall, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage, p. 205.
  12. Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, “Six Months in The White House”, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. XIX, October 1926, January 1927), p. 53.
  13. Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, “Six Months in The White House”, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. XIX, October 1926, January 1927, p. 56.
  14. Harry M. Kieffer, Recollections of a Drummer Boy, p. 61.
  15. Harry M. Kieffer, Recollections of a Drummer Boy, p. 48.
  16. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time, p. 146-147 (Benjamin F. Butler).
  17. Josiah G. Holland, Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 431.
  18. CWAL, Volume VI, p. 114 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Alexander Reed,February 22, 1863).
  19. David Herbert Donald, “We Are Lincoln Men” Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, p. 144.
  20. Matthew Pinsker, Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Home, p. 60.
  21. McBride, Robert W., “Lincoln’s Body Guard: The Union Light Guard o, the Seventh Independent Company of Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, 1863-1865,” Indiana Historical Society Publications, 1911, pp. 28-29
  22. Bell Irvin Wiley, “Billy Yank and Abraham Lincoln,” The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, June 1950, p. 105.
  23. William C. Davis, Lincoln’s Men, p. 59
  24. Heber S. Thompson, The First Defenders, pp. 14-15.
  25. Bell Irvin Wiley, “Billy Yank and Abraham Lincoln,” The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, June 1950, p. 103.
  26. Allen C. Clark, Abraham Lincoln in the National Capital, Journal of the Columbia Historical Society, Volume XXVII, p. 58.
  27. Gabor Boritt, The Gettysburg Gospel, p. 122.
  28. CWAL, Volume VII, pp. 253-254 (Remarks at Sanitary Fair, Washington, D.C. March 18, 1864).
  29. CWAL, Volume VII, p. 334 (Response to serenade, May 9, 1864).
  30. CWAL, Volume VI, p. 346 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Montgomery Blair, July 27, 1863).
  31. 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).
  32. Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, p. 170.
  33. Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 451.
  34. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 207.
  35. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 65.
  36. Bell Irvin Wiley, “Billy Yank and Abraham Lincoln,” The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, June 1950, p. 109.
  37. William C. Davis, Lincoln’s Men, pp. 141-142
  38. William C. Davis, Lincoln’s Men, p. 144.
  39. John S. Barnes, “With Lincoln from Washington to Richmond in 1865,” Appleton’s Magazine, May 1907, p. 742.
  40. CWAL, First Supplement, p. 145 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Gideon Welles, August 1862).
  41. Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, pp. 294-295.
  42. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln 1847-1865, pp. 102-103.
  43. Charles M. Hubbard, editor, Lincoln Reshapes the Presidency (William Lee Miller, “Lincoln’s Pardons and What They Mean”), pp. 99-100.
  44. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, pp. 69-70 (Joseph Holt, October 29, 1875).
  45. Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 259.
  46. Henry Raymond, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 741
  47. Carl Sandburg, Lincoln: The War Years, Volume III, p. 528.
  48. Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 40. (Denver Tribune, May 18, 1879).
  49. Abraham Lincoln: Tributes from His Associates, p. 155-156 (John D. Kernan, “Lincoln’s Kindness of Heart”)
  50. Matthew Pinsker, Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Home, p.152.
  51. John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 180.
  52. J. T. Dorris, “President Lincoln’s Clemency,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, January 1928, p. 553.
  53. J. T. Dorris, “President Lincoln’s Clemency,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, January 1928, pp. 550-551.
  54. Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 487. (New York Times, May 10, 1885).
  55. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 562 (Letter from Henry Wilson to William H. Herndon, May 27, 1867).
  56. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 45 (Letter from John Hay to John G. Nicolay, July 19, 1863).
  57. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 64 (July 18, 1863).
  58. Roy Dwight Packard, War President Lincoln, the Pardoning Commander in Chief, p. 1.
  59. Roy Dwight Packard, War President Lincoln, the Pardoning Commander in Chief, p. 3.
  60. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 393 (James B. Fry).
  61. Roy Dwight Packard, War President Lincoln, the Pardoning Commander in Chief, p. 3.
  62. William A. Croffut, “Now I Recollect Souvenirs of the Sanctum” Lincoln as I Saw Him, p. 9.
  63. Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 27.
  64. Ruth Painter Randall, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage, p. 266.
  65. Ruth Painter Randall, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage, p. 267.
  66. Isaac N. Arnold: Abraham Lincoln: A Paper Read Before the Royal Historical Society, London, June 16th, 1881,” p. 188.
  67. William E. Doster, Lincoln and Episodes of the Civil War, p. 24.
  68. Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 396.
  69. Ernest B. Furgurson, Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War, p.123
  70. Milton H. Shutes, Lincoln and the Doctors: A Medical Narrative of the Life of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 97-98.
  71. Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 276.
  72. Mark E. Nelly, Jr., The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North, p. 77.
  73. CWAL, Volume V, p. 484 (Memorandum on Furloughs, November 1862).
  74. Milton H. Shutes, Lincoln and the Doctors: A Medical Narrative of the Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 96.
  75. Lawrence A. Gobright, Recollections of Men and Things at Washington During the Third of a Century, p. 344.
  76. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to William R. Rosecrans, September 26, 1864).
  77. CWAL, Volume VII, p. 411 (Letter to William Dennison et al, June , 1864).
  78. Jennifer L. Weber, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North, p. 213.
  79. CWAL, Volume VII, p. 512 (Speech to 148th Ohio, August 31, 1864).
  80. CWAL, Volume. VIII, pp. 52-53 (Response to a Serenade, October 19, 1864).
  81. Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, p. 231.
  82. CWAL, Volume VIII, p. 75 (Speech to 189th New York Volunteers, October 24, 1864).
  83. Hans L. Trefousse, “First Among Equals”, Abraham Lincoln’s Reputation During His Administration, pp. 50-51.
  84. John S. Collier and Bonnie B. Collier, Yours for the Union: The Civil War Letters of John W. Chase, First Massachusetts Light Artillery, pp. 156-157 (Letter from John Chase, October 11, 1862).
  85. Armstead L. Robinson, Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865, p. 200.
  86. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 277.
  87. Bell Irvin Wiley, “Billy Yank and Abraham Lincoln,” The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, June 1950, p. 115.
  88. James M. Stradling, His Talk with Lincoln, being a Letter written by James M. Stradling, pp. 27-30 (Letter from John M. Stradling to John W. Gilbert, March 6, 1863)
  89. Jennifer L. Weber, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North, pp. 69-70.
  90. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume IX, p. 370.
  91. William C. Davis, Lincoln’s Men, pp. 244-245.