President Lincoln and Me ...

John Hartwell

Forum Host
Aug 27, 2011
Central Massachusetts
During the 1909 centenary of Lincoln’s birth newspapers across the country, printed literally thousands of accounts, short and long, from ordinary people who had seen, met, interacted with the great man. Many of these accounts are simple and unassuming: “I saw him passing in his carriage, and he nodded to me.” A memorable moment in an aging man’s memory. A few tell of historically noteworthy incidents. But most fall somewhere in between, and reveal a little bit about the long-dead President, and more, perhaps, about the man or woman telling the story. All of them, I think, reveal a great deal about how America have come to “remember” our 16th President.

The February 12, 1909 issue of the Boston Globe, for instance, printed four full 8-column pages, more than 110 individual stories from “Living New England Men who Saw Lincoln.” In this thread I’m going to post a selection of recollections from that issue. Old men remembering, sometimes, perhaps, misremembering a brief moment 45 or more years in the past … memories that they brought home with them, and helped shape our perception of Abraham Lincoln.


George S. Ayer of Saco, Maine, met Abraham Lincoln twice. The first time was in December, 1861, when he went to Washington escorting some prisoners from the post at Relay House, on the B&O railroad [Md]. He was accompanied by his brother, S. P. Ayer, and George Fernald, both members of his company, and both still living in Saco in 1909. They traveled all over the city, visiting points of interest, and finally were ushered into the White House.
President Lincoln arose, shook each man by the hand, gave him a kindly greeting and a smile, and then passed out of the room. Said Mr Ayer:
“He looked as if he was carrying a heavy weight on his shoulders. His face was sad, and when he stood up as he shook hands he seemed to be looking a long ways off, as if his mind was far away.”​
“The next time I saw him was when I was in White Church hospital in the fall of ‘62. He came along to my cot, placed my hand in his, and put his other hand over mine. He stooped down to my ear, and asked my name and where I was hurt. He seemed solicitous of my welfare, his voice was soft, but clear. He expressed the wish that I would soon be able to rejoin my regiment.​
“I shall never forget how he looked as he made the rounds of the ward. His face was different from any that I have seen before or since. Mrs Lincoln made frequent visits to the hospital and always brought fruit or flowers for the soldier boys. She came that time with Lincoln, and after he had spoken to each man she distributed fruit and flowers among the soldiers.”​

[That simple, intimate gesture, as he “placed my hand in his, and put his other hand over mine,” could seal a passing, otherwise insignificant moment, into any man's memory.]

Freeman E.Hodge

Freeman E. Hodge, of Amesbury, Mass., once a young soldier of Company K, 3rd Vermont Infantry, recalls:

“Yes, I have seen Lincoln on several occasions -- the first of which, however, if the most lasting in my memory, due to the circumstances under which I saw him. It was in the fall of 1861, on the Virginia side of Chain Bridge, which spanned the Potomac. William Scott, ‘the sleeping sentinel,’ a member of my company, had been sentenced to be shot. He had been on picket duty one night, and the following night one of the men who was to do similar duty having been ill, he offered to substitute for him, and while performing this duty under the strain of two nights in succession he fell asleep.​
“Scott was court-martialed and condemned to death. The day had arrived for his execution when President Lincoln drove out in an open barouche and suspended sentence, grantingthe man a pardon. It was on this visit of the President that I first saw and met him.​
“A number in the group, of which I, a boy of 16, was one, said that they would like to shake him by the hand as he alighted from his carriage. The President having been informed of the fact, stretched out both his hands and for a while was shaking hands with all. I pressed forward and grasped him by the hand at this time. He gave us soldiers who were near a most cordial greeting, and talked and laughed most heartily with us all.​
“I have seen it published not long ago that this story of William Scott was a myth. It appeared in a magazine article. I was a tent-mate of Scott all the following winter, and was with my company in a retreat at Lee’s Mills, when Scott in wading a stream was riddled with bullets by the rebs. Four companies were present at the time, and of 201men, 97 were killed.”​
Private William Scott [Wikimedia image]

We have had several discussions of the case of “The Sleeping Sentinel” here on CWT. I offer just one:
For the full story of William Scott, see: Sleeping Sentinel.htm

The Swampscott River, at Exeter, N.H.

During the war, William Wainwright of Lawrence, Mass., had been a member of the crew of the U.S.S. Kearsarge. But, his recollection of Abraham Lincoln dates from before the war, when he was a young lad living in Exeter, N.H.

“I cannot remember the exact year. Lincoln came to Exeter to see his son, Bob, who was a student at the academy. I was fishing on the bulkhead of the raceway of the mill on the river, which runs through Exeter. I had two poles and the eels were biting pretty fast. I heard someone climbing over the fence which surrounded the property. I thought that it was one of the boys, until a strange man came along side of me and sat down on the bulkhead. He said that he had been watching me from the bridge and that I seemed to be pretty busy.​
“I replied that I was and when he said that he enjoyed fishing I offered him one of my alder poles. He remained about 20 minutes pulling out the eels until the pole, which he was using, broke. The stranger offered to pay for it, but I would accept nothing. He then went away.​
“That night there was a meeting in the town hall and when I went I found that my fellow fisherman of the afternoon was Abraham Lincoln, speaker of the occasion.”​

Of Mr Wainwright, the newspaper notes, “to his regret he failed to retain the broken alder pole.”

Robert Todd Lincoln had flunked his entrance exam to Harvard in 1859, so he spent a year “rusticating” at Phillips Exeter Academy. Lincoln took time from his speaking tour early in 1860 to visit his son in Exeter. He spent three days in the town speaking at a Republican rally as well as, pulling eels from the Swampscott River. Robert entered Harvard that fall with a 93% score on his exam.

William Wainwright left an account of his time on the U.S.S. Kearsarge; it is frequently quoted in William Marvel’s The Alabama and the Kearsarge.

William F. Thayer

To some aging veterans their friendship with Abraham Lincoln seemed to grow with the passing years. Their enthusiasm for the great man sometimes seemed to run away with them … just a little bit. 95 year-old William F. Thayer, of Cohasset, Mass., for instance …

“Did I know Abe Lincoln? Well, I guess I did. I can remember just how he looked and acted. He was the finest man I ever met except Grant. As commissary sergeant and later butcher of the regiment, I came in direct and constant contact with both of them for months, because they were always interested in the boys having good grub.​
“Abe used to come down to camp very often and look over things. When he was pleased he just smiled, and such a kindly smile, you could never forget it. He used to chat with me and tell stories, which he was a dabster at. At first I naturally felt a little shy, he being the President, but he drove that away pretty quick. One had to get familiar with him. He always had his head full of something in the way of fun. But when he was serious it was the genuine article.​
“I mounted a heap of rails with him many a time, while he looked over the camp. The rails were piled up from fences to get them out of the way of maneuvers. He liked to get on something high to get a view.​
“Abe was anything but a still man; he was always on the move. But he always took time to talk and joke with the men and tell them stories. Everyone always had a good laugh, which acted like a tonic. The men always welcomed him to the camp, in fact looked forward to his coming with great pleasure. I know I did.​
“”I have treated him with cigars many a time, though he was not an excessive smoker. He put them in his pocket, and doubtless gave them away to the boys before he left camp. Grant, however, smoked all the cigars I gave him.”​

I expect many a youngster enjoyed listening to old Mr Thayer tell his tales.

More to come!
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John Hartwell

Forum Host
Aug 27, 2011
Central Massachusetts
Soldiers whittling

Henry Watson, of Oakland, Maine was a young volunteer in the 5th Maine Regiment:

“I saw Lincoln twice during the war. Each time I saw him I hoped I would see him again. The first time he visited us I looked to see a farmerish looking man, as homely as a stump fence and as awkward as a boy with his first pair of skates.​
“When he stepped up to a soldier, called him ’Boy,’ and shook hands with him he seemed to tower above us all like a giant man of courage, a big man in character, a master of refined strength, a natural leader and advocate of honesty. His voice was was that of a man who is conscious of the great burden he has been given, gentle but not weak, sympathetic but not childish or put on, and his eye looked right down into your soul and drew you toward him for all there was in you, He was not homely or farmerish. He was firm of step and erect in bearing.​
“He had passed among the tents and came suddenly upon a number of boys who had seen him,and returned to the company street. They were discussing the President when he came around the corner of the tent.​
“One soldier was whittling, drawing the jackknife towards his hand. That fellow caught the President’s eye, and going to him Lincoln said:​
“‘Boy, my father taught me never to stand astride of a rail when splitting or draw a knife toward me. Always whittle like this.’​
“Lincoln stooped and took the stick and knife and began whittling, pushing the knife from him as any man should whittle. All of us but the whittler had taken the position of attention. When the President handed back the stick and knife, the soldier sprang quickly to his feet and, saluting, said:​
“‘The commander-in-chief is right. He is always right, and d__d the man who says he aint!’​
“There was a slight twinkle in the eye of Lincoln as he made an effort not to notice the swear word and he said to us as he turned away:​
“‘Boys, if we are right we will win. If we are wrong we will lose. Your country appreciates your patriotism and let us hope the result of this war will be a just reward to us all.’​
“Then the tall form swept off down the camp and many of us followed him for a long distance, just to listen to his words as he spoke to the boys.”​
William M. Wires in 1892
William M. Wires of Lynn, Mass. had enlisted in 1861 in the 5th Vermont Infantry, but soon transferred to the Army Signal School in Georgetown.

“I think that was one of the proudest moments of my life when I had the pleasure of meeting President Abraham Lincoln and he took me by the hand and expressed his pleasure at meeting me. I was only a soldier boy, but the pleasure was greater than in perhaps any other ordinary case because there was an incident with it that I have never forgotten.​
“In 1861 and ‘62 I was attached to the U.S. signal corps, under Maj. Myer, and we were stationed on Red Hill in Georgetown. Nearly every morning. Nearly every morning it was one of my duties to carry messages to the President’s house. One morning President Lincoln was holding a reception in the blue room when I arrived, and I determined to shake hands with him, although I had often seen him at a distance.​
The Blue Room in Lincoln's day
“I took my place in the long line, and while working my way toward him I noticed a big man with side whiskers and red hair, who wore a very showy uniform and I made up my mind that he was an officer of some high rank. He evidently felt himself too good to take his place in line with the rest of us for he shuffled about in an uneasy manner.​
“When I had reached the President and was about to put out my hand to shake his, this officer seeing that I was only a boy, jumped in ahead of me. President Lincoln witnessed the act, and as the man put out his hand Lincoln raised his arm and addressing the officer said to him, ‘This young man,’ meaning me, ‘has got something very important to say to me, so wait a moment, please.’ I then handed Lincoln the message and he said in a very soft and kind manner, ‘I thank you.’ I then shook hands with him and also thanked him for the privilege of meeting him.​
“I shall always remember the manly manner Lincoln assumed in this case. His face was one of the pleasantest I have looked on, his voice was soft and his figure was very attractive.”​
Maj. Jonathan Price Cilley

Jonathan Price Cilley, of Rockland, Maine, had the distinction of being the first man to enlist in the 1st Maine Cavalry, the first man of the reiment to be injured, and one of the last to be discharged from the service. In 1863, he was judge advocate on the staff of Gen. Martindale, military governor of Washington, having been rendered unfit for service on account of injuries received in battle. Although he ended the war with the rank of Major, he is in the newspaper referred to as "Gen. Cilley" due to his postwar service as Adjutant General of the Maine Militia. He recalls:

“At the close of the battle of Gettysburg, on July 3, 1863, the streets of Washington were crowded with jubilant throngs, expressing in many ways their joy at the result. When the news was confirmed, the crowd involuntarily turned toward the White House, where with persistent calls, it strove to bring President Lincoln out to speak.​
“It seemed a vain effort, but finally Mr Lincoln appeared at an open window and stepped out upon the balcony of the second story. As soon as the cheering had subsided the sound of Mr Lincoln’s voice stilled any further demonstration. So great an impression did the incident makeup on me that I am able to repeat almost verbatim the President's brief remarks.​
“‘I am in no physical condition to make a speech,’ said Mr Lincoln. ‘For three days and three nights the stress of battle has claimed my attention and exhausted my strength. I can only say that we have met the enemy and they have turned tail and fled.’​
“And then the President performed a characteristic act. Suiting his actions to his last words, he turned his back upon the crowd, and spreading his coattails wide apart, he stooped and made a hasty departure through the window whence he had come.”​

On New Year’s Day, 1864, Gen. Cilley was one of the officers who paid respects to the President at a reception in the White House. He still carried his right arm in a sling and apologized for using his left when they shook hands. “Don’t apologize, major,” said Mr. Lincoln, “I can assure you that it is most commendable under the circumstances.”

More to come.

John Hartwell

Forum Host
Aug 27, 2011
Central Massachusetts
Rev. Isaac H. Beman of Wilton, New Hampshire, recalled another instance of President Lincoln pardoning a private who had been sentenced to be shot.

“In 1864 I was 14 years of age and being too young to enlist, I joined the ranks as an orderly under Maj. B. B. Bennett, leaving my home in Avoca, N.Y., and was attached to Co. G, 22nd N.Y. [cavalry] vols. A year later, while stationed at Fredericksburg, Va., a private by the name of William Carr had been found guilty of sleeping on his picket post and sentenced to be shot on a certain morning. About 36 hours before the execution was to take place, Maj. Slick, a relative of the unfortunate man, asked Maj. Bennett if he had a trusty orderly he would send to Washington, a distance of some 54 miles, with a petition for the man’s pardon, for the President's Signature.​
“He replied that he had just the man, and detailed me. I started immediately, riding all night. At that season of the year, February, the roads were in bad condition. I reached Washington at 10 a.m., covered with mud.​
“After making known my business, I was ushered into the presence of the great man, who received me in the kindest manner, and placing his hand on my head gave me words of commendation and encouragement, and assured me that it would afford him pleasure to pardon the man under the circumstances, it being shown that the man was completely exhausted before going on duty. He advised me to lose no time in returning, and provided me with a fresh horse. I reached the camp in season, but not before the officers with the prisoner had left the guard house for the place of execution.​
“I have met many great and good men since that time, but none that could equal the greatness, the nobility, the almost motherly sympathy that emanated from him, and impressed me so forcibly with his greatness in that brief few moments’ interview.​
“I met Mr Carr in the Albany depot after the war, and as soon as he saw me he rushed to me and, grabbing me in his arms, kissed me. He was extremely grateful for saving his life.”​
Nathan K. Sprague

Nathan K. Sprague of Milford, Mass., had not spoken with nor been himself addressed by Lincoln, yet he had a unique memory in connection with the President, and a singular keepsake as well.

The 36th Mass. Infantry was a brand-new, very green regiment in the early fall of 1862, when they were ordered to join the Army of the Potomac. It was soon after the great battle, and they went into camp near the Antietam Ironworks. On October 3rd, President Lincoln arrived, accompanied by Gen. McClellan and staff, to review the army.

“Our company, Co. F, in command of Capt., later Gen. W[illiam] F. Draper, had been on duty on picket all that night, and had just been relieved, when we were ordered into line for review. President Lincoln rode a splendid black horse and came close to our lines. He wore his black tall hat and long black frock coat, so well known from pictures. His seat on horseback seemed ungainly, but firm.​

“Hardly had he got near our regimental line than he espied our company, mud-bedraggled with the rain and night exposure. He said to an orderly near, ‘What company is that in such a condition?' Naturally answer went that it was Co. F, 36th Mass. infantry, and had just come into line for review after an all-night tour of picket duty.​
“His reply was characteristic of the humane heart and one of the treasured memories of the command and regiment. ‘Dismiss the company at once that the boys may have the rest that they need more than this review.’ The company was relieved from parade duty at once and went to quarters.​
“By some whim I don’t now account for, I went without delay to the tent of a transient photographer and had a daguerreotype taken of myself just as I was, all mud and slush, from picket duty. The picture is the only personal memento I have of the only time I saw and came near Mr. Lincoln.”​

Where, we wonder, is that daguerrotype today? And, if it still exists, does its owner have and hint as to the story behind it?

In 1909, John Haley, of Saco, Maine, could fill in the details of his most memorable encounter with Lincoln, many years before, by recourse to the diary he kept at the time. It centeredaround another presidential review, just six months later.

“I saw President Lincoln several times, two of which gave me a better chance of studying his face and figure than if I had met him in a crowd.​

“At this late day, 46 years after, while many things and happenings of that time have passed from my mind, I have the keenest recollection of how Mr Lincoln looked, and the impression he made upon me. But, lest I may be suspected of confusing my imagination and the facts, I will speak of him by quoting from my diary -- written less than 24 hours after I saw him.​
“My diary reads as follows:​
“‘April 8, 1863. An event of an unusually interesting nature occurred today: A review by President Lincoln, who was accompanied by Mrs Lincoln and 'Tad,' their son, besides many prominent public men and all the distinguished generals of the army of the Potomac. The 90,000 were all in sight at once on the plain near Falmouth.​
"90,000 were all in sight at once" [Harper's Weekly,Oct. 10, 1863]

“‘April 9, 1863. This morning Mr Lincoln and suite went to Stafford Court House, to review the 11th and 12th Corps. Our brigade -- Haman’s, formerly Gen Berry’s -- was detailed to do escort duty a part of the way. We went down the road a mile or more, and formed in two ranks on either side of the road, and waited for the Presidential Party as it came down from Gen Hooker’s headquarters. This time the President, his wife and son “Tad” were in a carriage​
“‘As the carriage came near where we were in line, it was noticed that Mr Lincoln was weeping, and continually wiping his eyes. What thoughts were in his mind to produce this emotion we can never know, but we can surmise. War is enough to make anyone of ordinary sensibilities weep, much more one ofMr Lincoln’s extraordinary tenderness of heart. He might have intermingled thoughts of the terrible slaughter of our men, or it might be that he was moved at the demonstration we were making, for we cheered him lustily and heartily.’”​

John Hartwell

Forum Host
Aug 27, 2011
Central Massachusetts
[Harper's, Nov. 26, 1864]
Many of these old soldiers’ recollections are very brief and simple, indeed. Not all were as eloquent, nor their memory as fertile, as Sgt. Thayer of post #1 above. Yet their brief encounters with the President clearly meant a great deal to the ageing veterans:


Ens. Henry F. Curtis, on the other hand, was too busy with his duties to form a personal impression of the President. He commanded the picket boat USS Gamma on the James River. Writing from his home in Kennebunk, Maine, he admits:

“My recollections of President Lincoln are rather indistinct. I saw him for so short a time many years ago, and at a busy time for me. On Sunday, March 26, 1865, I took President Lincoln and wife, Admiral Porter and wife, from the flagship Onondaga, lying in James River, nine miles below Richmond, with a fleet of about 20 vessels, which fleet Lincoln came to review.​
“I took them up past all the vessels, which were in holiday array. The monitors, with all hands on deck, saluting President Lincoln as he passed. Vessels with masts had their yards and rigging swarming with men, caps off, cheering. President Lincoln was engaged all the time talking with Admiral Porter and the ladies, acknowledging the applause from the fleet. I flew the union jack by special order denoting a passenger of note.”​

Others had more personal memories of the President. Such a one was John W. Fairbanks of Westboro, Mass. 48 years before, he had been a very young private in Company D, 1st Mass. Volunteers, when he had a chance meeting with Lincoln and his son Tad.

“We left Boston June 15, 1861, and arrived in Washington June 17. We were placed in the top story of a building on Pennsylvania Ave.​
“The following morning I started off by myself for a walk, and in the course of time reached the White House and went through the building as far as allowed.​
Approaching the State Department from the direcion of the White House.

“As I left the White House I turned to the left, going in the direction of the state department, and as I passed along down, saw a man coming up leading a little boy by the hand, from the pictures we had seen through the campaign I at once recognized him as President Lincoln.​
“I saluted him as a soldier should, and to my surprise he stopped and held out his hand which was the largest hand I ever saw, but when I saw his eyes, they were the kindest eyes I ever saw, and you can imagine the impression he made on me, a boy, 17 years of age.​
“He held out his hand and said ‘Good Morning, my boy,’ and for only one instant I felt embarrassed, as I felt free to talk to him after one glance at those kindly eyes.​
“He inquired what regiment I belonged to and when I arrived. I informed him I had travelled a good many miles for him in the campaign of the fall of 1860, and expected to travel a good many more. He said, ‘O, no, my boy; I hope you will be home in three months.”​