The job of President of the United States can often be described as one of constantly putting out fires. Of course, we expect that to be a figurative description. For one President, however, that was literally the truth.
On February 10, 1864 Sergeant Smith Stimmel was standing guard for President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Around 8:30 pm, Sgt. Smith described the following spectacle:
Just then the front door of the White House flew open with a jerk, and out came the President. buttoning his coat around him, and said to me, “Where’s the fire, what’s burning?” I said, “It seems to be around in the vicinity of the stable.” With that he started off on a dog-trot down the steps and along the way leading to the stable. When he started to go to the fire, I thought to myself, “Old fellow, you are the man we are guarding, guess I’ll go along.” So I struck out on the double-quick and went with him, keeping close to his side; but he took such long strikes that his dog-trot was almost a dead run for me.
As soon as we got around where we could see what was burning, we saw that, sure enough, the White House stable was on fire. Quite a crowd had gathered by the time we got there, and the fire department was at work. Mr. Lincoln asked hastily if the horses had been taken out, and when told they had not, he rushed through the crowd and began to break open one of the large doors with his own hands; but the building was full of fire, and none of the horses could be saved. The ponies belonging to the little boys and the goats were all lost in the fire. It was a brick stable, and evidently had been burning for some time before it was discovered.
Another guard, Robert W. McBride, observed the President after the incident:
After posting the sentinels, I went inside. Mr. Lincoln, with others, was standing in the East room, looking at the still burning stable. He was weeping. Little ‘Tad,’ his youngest son, explained his father’s emotion. His son Willie had died a short time before. He was his father’s favorite, and the stable contained a pony that had belonged to the dead boy. The thought of his dead child had come to his mind as soon as he learned the stables were on fire, and he had rushed out to try to save the pony from the flames.
The next day President Lincoln consoled Tad by saying that the horses had “gone where the good horses go.”