18 Little Known Facts about America's Presidential Sweetheart, Abraham Lincoln
18 Little Known Facts about America’s Presidential Sweetheart, Abraham Lincoln

18 Little Known Facts about America’s Presidential Sweetheart, Abraham Lincoln

Larry Holzwarth - October 7, 2018

18 Little Known Facts about America’s Presidential Sweetheart, Abraham Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln, seen here circa 1846, was emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive to her husband, including striking him with sticks and dishes. Wikimedia

11. Abraham Lincoln suffered physical abuse at the hands of his wife

Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd were married in November, 1842, and eventually the couple had four sons together, only one of which, Robert Todd Lincoln, would live to adulthood. Mary Todd was socially ambitious, a daughter of the south whose brothers served in the Confederate army. She was both verbally and physically abusive of her husband, beginning as early as the 1840s, when her violent fits of temper arose with alarming frequency. Lincoln’s law partner wrote of an incident in which Lincoln was attempting to lay a fire in their Springfield home when she struck him across the face with a piece of firewood, unhappy that he was taking so long to light the fire. She threw food at him during tirades at table, and once through a cup of coffee in his face.

Even in the White House Lincoln was not free from his wife’s burst of temper, which bordered on insanity according to some biographers. She launched several spending sprees, rehabilitating the White House and her wardrobe at the President’s expense, incurring his anger at the profligate spending, for which he could do little but admonish her, though he tightened his control of his accounts. His increased attention to her spending their savings led her to open credit accounts with merchants outside of Washington, away from the President’s increasingly watchful eye. A decade after Lincoln’s death, her only surviving son, Robert, had her committed to an asylum due to her erratic behavior. She began a letter campaign to publicly embarrass the family, which led her to be allowed to live in the home of a sister. Modern scholars have postulated that Mrs. Lincoln may have been bipolar, others have attributed her behavior to physical disorders, but there is no question that Abraham Lincoln endured life with an abusive spouse throughout their marriage.

18 Little Known Facts about America’s Presidential Sweetheart, Abraham Lincoln
William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and one of his earliest biographers, wrote of his many conversations he had with Lincoln on the subjects of religion and Christianity. Library of Congress

12. More on Lincoln’s religious beliefs and positions

Following Lincoln’s murder in April 1865 he became a secular martyr almost immediately, one of the last casualties of the American Civil War. In the years since many Christian groups have tried to make him into a Christian martyr as well, noting, among other things, his death on Good Friday (it was actually the following day) and the many professions to God and Providence in his speeches and writings. Decades after his death many Christian ministers wrote of meetings with Lincoln as president in which he confessed to a conversion to Christianity, cited without evidence other than anecdotal commentary, often in meetings which could not be documented as having taken place. Those who knew Lincoln best during his lifetime before and during his presidency denied that he accepted Christian doctrine, and the divinity of Christ.

Judge David Davis, one of Lincoln’s closest friends and the executor of his estate, said of him, “He had no faith in the Christian sense of the term”. Colonel Ward Lamon, a friend from Illinois who was with Lincoln throughout his presidency, often as his personal bodyguard, wrote, “Never in all that time did he let fall from his lips or his pen an expression which remotely implied the slightest faith in Jesus as the son of God and the Savior of men”. Though many claimed otherwise, arguing that Lincoln was a pious Christian, nothing in his voluminous writings indicates that he was, and much indicates that he wasn’t. The argument over Lincoln’s religious beliefs has continued since his death and will no doubt continue for decades more, fed by the desire to adopt him as a member of a sect, rather than the desire to understand his true faith and its application to his life.

18 Little Known Facts about America’s Presidential Sweetheart, Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln meets with Union commander George McLellan in 1862. Lincoln continued to hire and fire generals until he found those who adopted his strategy for victory. Library of Congress

13. Lincoln the Civil War general

When the American Civil War erupted in the spring of 1861, Abraham Lincoln became the first American president to act as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Lincoln assembled the first truly modern General Staff at the war department, in reaction to Union defeats in the east, and successes in the west, and communicated directly with all of his commanding generals, in particularly close communication with his commanders of the Army of the Potomac, usually located in Virginia unless responding to Confederate incursions in Maryland and later in Pennsylvania. It was Lincoln who throughout the war stressed that the destruction of the Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee was the true goal of the war, rather than the capture of the Confederate Capital at Richmond. When generals allowed opportunities for that destruction to slip through their fingers, it was Lincoln who fired them.

Lincoln’s hands on approach to the conducting of the war was present in all theatres of operations. The latter stages of Grant’s operations during the siege of Vicksburg coincided with Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania and Lincoln remained in nearly constant communication with his commanders in both areas, even firing Joseph Hooker in Pennsylvania for his lack of aggression, replacing him with George Gordon Meade. When Grant used tactics with which Lincoln disagreed, the president later sent his general a letter in which he acknowledged his doubts and then informed Grant, “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong”. Lincoln suffered from incompetent generals in the field early in the war, including McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker, but by the end of the conflict he had created a reflexive and professional general staff on a stage not seen again until the Second World War.

18 Little Known Facts about America’s Presidential Sweetheart, Abraham Lincoln
Homesteaders pose in front of their sod house in Nebraska circa 1886. The Homestead Act was an achievement of the Lincoln Administration in 1862. Library of Congress

14. The forgotten achievements of the Lincoln Administration

The Lincoln Administration was dominated by the Civil War, and its other goals which Lincoln had hoped to attain when campaigning for office were overwhelmed by the struggle to save the Union. Nonetheless, during his first term and the five weeks of his second, Lincoln achieved many other goals, forgotten due to the catastrophe which the war became. Numerous fiscal achievements included the issuance of paper money (called greenbacks) which were backed not by gold and silver reserves but rather than by the good faith and credit of the federal government. The first federal income tax was enacted. Congress established a tax on banknotes issued by private and state banks, and federal banknotes became the dominant paper currency in the United States.

The Homestead Act of 1862 opened the lands of the west to settlement, with federal land holdings made available for purchase under favorable terms and low costs. The same year the executive branch Department of Agriculture was created to address the issues of farmers across the United States. Congress passed, at the urging of the president, the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864 to provide funding for the first railroad across the continent, completed in 1869 as the Transcontinental Railroad. In 1863 Lincoln designated the final Thursday of November as National Thanksgiving Day. Lincoln also supported and approved the designation of Yosemite as a protected land grant, the precursor for what eventually became Yosemite National Park. Two new states, Nevada and West Virginia, were admitted to the Union even as it struggled for its existence during the Civil War under Abraham Lincoln.

18 Little Known Facts about America’s Presidential Sweetheart, Abraham Lincoln
After Allen Pinkerton (left) thought he had discovered a plot to kill the president-elect as he passed through Baltimore, Lincoln was forced to change his itinerary and slip through town on another train, to the derision and ridicule of the press. Library of Congress

15. He had to be smuggled into Washington when arriving to enter the presidency

Maryland was a slave state in which a large faction was bitterly opposed to the election of Abraham Lincoln. For the president-elect, who remained in Springfield, Illinois during his election and for several weeks following, his route to Washington would be through Baltimore, Maryland, a city where anti-Lincoln (and Republican) sentiment seethed. Lincoln publicly announced that he would travel to the nation’s capital openly, with an announced itinerary which included stops during which he would speak to the electorate, including one in Baltimore, where he was scheduled to arrive at Calvert Street Station on February 23, departing from Camden Station ninety minutes later. It was to be his last stop before arriving at Washington.

In those days there was no Secret Service to provide protection to Presidents and Presidents-elect (Lincoln would sign legislation creating it on the last day of his life in 1865), and private security was called upon to protect Lincoln during his journey. In Baltimore, the Pinkerton Detective Agency uncovered a plot to assassinate the President-elect as he passed through the city. Lincoln, in disguise, slipped through the city on an earlier train than his own special, which arrived as scheduled but without its expected passenger. Newspapers, especially those which had opposed Lincoln during the election, ridiculed the president-elect, and accusations of cowardice were joined with the celebratory cheers for the new president before he took the oath of office in Washington the following month.

18 Little Known Facts about America’s Presidential Sweetheart, Abraham Lincoln
When Confederates attacked well defended Fort Stevens, one of the fortifications protecting Washington in 1864, Lincoln was present and briefly under fire. National Archives

16. He was the second president to observe American troops in battle while in office

In 1814 James Madison became the first American president to view American troops on the field of battle while serving in office, though the battle was a short one. Madison watched an army made up of mostly militia, supported by American sailors and a few regulars, as it was routed by British troops at the Battle of Bladensburg. The defeat of the Americans was so resounding and the flight of the troops so brisk that the battle came to be known as the Bladensburg races. So when Lincoln went to Fort Stevens to observe an attack by Confederate troops under Confederate general Jubal Early it was not without precedent for a president to be on a battlefield. It was Lincoln’s first opportunity to view a battle since his militia days during the Black Hawk War, when he served as a Captain of the militia.

Lincoln watched the assault from a parapet atop Fort Stevens, conspicuous as the tall, lean figure wearing a tall, stovepipe hat. The president came under fire, a Union officer, a surgeon with whom the president had been conversing was wounded, and the president was immediately ordered to take cover. Some accounts state that he was pushed back from the exposed position on the parapet. The attack on Fort Stevens remains the only time the President of the United States has been under fire on a battlefield while serving in office. Lincoln returned to the White House later that afternoon, after stopping at the Soldier’s Home to visit wounded. The story that while there he discovered a bullet hole in his hat is most certainly apocryphal.

18 Little Known Facts about America’s Presidential Sweetheart, Abraham Lincoln
Ward Hill Lamon was Lincoln’s long time friend, personal bodyguard, and an early biographer of the late president. Library of Congress

17. His sense of humor was legendary among his colleagues

Ward Hill Lamon related the story that once, when he was prosecuting a case before the circuit court in Bloomington, Illinois, he split the seat of his trousers. Without time to change he appeared before the court, where it was quickly apparent to the other circuit court riders in attendance that his attire was somewhat disheveled. One of the other lawyers present started a petition for each of the attending to donate a small sum with which the unfortunate Lamon could purchase new trousers, a joke on the embarrassed and exposed young attorney, which referred to his inability to properly wardrobe himself on his legal earnings. When the petition reached Lincoln, he scribbled on the paper, “I can contribute nothing to the end in view”.

Lincoln’s humor and wit remained with him through all but the darkest days of his lifetime, departing when he fell into depressive states, as when his sons died, or after another calamity on the battlefields of the Civil War. His taste for what some considered coarse tales contributed to his enemies depicting him as an uncultured and uneducated lout (he once called his own education “deficient”), but he continued to disarm and amuse visitors with tall tales and jokes, and loved hearing new stories from others. He once held up a receiving line of several hundred visitors when he encountered a visitor who had related a joke several days before, holding a lengthy whispered conversation. Later the visitor said that Lincoln remembered the joke, but had forgotten the punch line, and had desired his visitor to repeat it for his later use.

18 Little Known Facts about America’s Presidential Sweetheart, Abraham Lincoln
A circa 1900 slide depicting the Good Friday, April 14 1865 murder of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln died early the following day. Wikimedia

18. The last day of Abraham Lincoln’s life

April 14, 1865, should have been a day of triumph for Abraham Lincoln. He had recently visited the captured Confederate capital of Richmond, and Lee’s surrender, though not ending the war, promised that it would end soon. His meetings of that day were focused on the reconstruction of the South and the reentry of the southern states into the Union. His health was good, he didn’t need to take the mercury based blue mass pills which he used to control his chronic constipation, as the condition eased as he relaxed. He signed a few papers at his desk, one a pardon for a captured Union army deserter sentenced to death by a court martial, another legislation creating the Secret Service, which would protect currency from counterfeiting as its first role.

It has been written by many biographers and historians that Lincoln had premonitions of his own death. But that day, Good Friday, Lincoln enjoyed an afternoon carriage ride in Washington with his wife, and spoke of his desire to visit the Holy Land after leaving the White House, before returning to Springfield and the practice of law. That night he was shot in the back of his head as he watched a play. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had the derringer used by his assassin misfired, as that particular model had a habit of doing. How would John Wilkes Booth have dealt with the former wrestler, who had once fought off river pirates with little but his hands and wits, and avoided a duel by intimidating his more diminutive opponent? Unfortunately, there is no answer.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“What Lincoln Had. John Sotos reckons that Lincoln had a rare, cancer-causing genetic disease”. Brendan Maher, Nature International Weekly Journal of Science. November 30, 2007

“Lincoln the Lawyer”. Brian Dirck. 2007

“Congressman Lincoln”. Chris DeRose. 2014

“Lincoln’s Opposition to the Mexican War”. G. S. Boritt, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, February, 1974

“Lincoln as a Leader of Men”. Elihu Root. Teaching American History. August 28, 1920

“There I Grew Up: Remembering Abraham Lincoln’s Indiana Youth”. William E. Bartelt. 2008

“Riding the Circuit with Lincoln”. Willard King, American Heritage Magazine. February, 1955

“Broadswords and Banks”. Kelsey Johnston, Civil War History, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“Abraham Lincoln: A Biography”. Benjamin P. Thomas. 1952

“Abraham Lincoln’s Religious Uncertainty”. Dan Gilgoff, US News and World Reports. February 12, 2009

“Did life with abusive wife push Lincoln into politics?” Associated Press, Deseret News. September 7, 1994

“Abraham Lincoln and the Doctrine of Necessity”. Allen C. Guelzo, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. Winter, 1997

“Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac”. Stephen W. Sears. 2017

“Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”. Doris Kearns Goodwin. 2005

“The Unsuccessful Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln”. Daniel Stashower, Smithsonian Magazine. February, 2013

“The Battle in our Backyard: Remembering Fort Stevens”. Leah Binkovitz, Smithsonian Magazine. July 11, 2012

“The life of Abraham Lincoln: From his Birth to his Inauguration as President”. Ward Hill Lamon. 1872

“The Day Lincoln was Shot”. Jim Bishop. 1955

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