The Day President Lincoln Became a Firefighter

Abraham Lincoln White House stable fire 1864
The White House stables (pictured lower left) caught fire in 1864.
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.”

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Fiery Words from the Great Emancipator

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President Abraham Lincoln

A recent post on one of our favorite blogs, Rachel Being Chatty, reminded us of an anger management technique practiced by the 16th President. 

Abraham Lincoln was no stranger to dealing with difficult people. He frequently encountered individuals who would fan the flames of Presidential irritation, causing Lincoln to want to tell the offenders exactly what he thought of them. 

On such occasions the President would sit down and compose something he called a “hot letter.” Holding nothing back, he would put all of his angry responses on paper, leaving no doubt as to what he thought about the person in question. 

Having given voice to his anger, Lincoln then set it aside for a while, waiting to cool down. Once his temper subsided, he’d write, “Never sent. Never signed” on the letter and set it in the fireplace, watching his fiery words and passions be consumed by the flames. 

For another example of a President following this practice, look here. 

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2 D’s, or Not 2 D’s…

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Mary Todd Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln liked to joke about the well-to-do background of his wife’s family. “The Todds spell their name with two d’s, which is pretty impressive, considering one d is good enough for God.”

Surprise Witness

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First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and President Abraham Lincoln

In the early days of the US Civil War, rumors began to circulate that the Confederacy had a highly-placed spy within the US government — none other than the First Lady, herself, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Mrs. Lincoln was blamed for the string of military disasters experienced by the Union. The fact that she was born in Kentucky to a slaveholding family and had relatives who were loyal to the Confederate cause only fueled the suspicions against her.

The rumors were so widely-spread and believed that a secret morning session was set by the Senate Committee on the Conduct of the War to inquire as to the charge that Mrs. Lincoln was disloyal.

The committee had just convened when something truly remarkable happened. According to one of the committee members:

“We had just been called to order by the chairman when the officer stationed at the committee door came in with a half-frightened expression on his face. Before he had an opportunity to make explanation, we understood the reason for his excitement and were ourselves almost overwhelmed with astonishment. For at the foot of the committee table, standing solitary, his hat in his hands, his form towering, Abraham Lincoln stood. Had he come by some incantation, thus of a sudden appearing before us unannounced, we could not have been more astounded.”

Carl Sandburg wrote of the incident in The War Years and said, “There was an almost unhuman sadness in his eyes, and above all an indescribable sense of his complete isolation which the committee member felt had to do with fundamental senses of apparition.”

The witness went on:

“No one spoke, for no one knew what to say. The President had not been asked to come before the committee, nor was it suspected that he had information that we were to investigate reports which, if true, fastened treason upon his family in the White House.”

At last, the Presidential witness spoke. Slowly, with control, and with deep sorrow in the tone of voice, he said:

“I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, appear of my own volition before this committee of the Senate to say that I, of my own knowledge, know that it is untrue that any of my family hold treasonable communication with the enemy.”

Having attested this, he went away as silent and solitary as he had come. The Committee member later recalled:

“We sat for some minutes speechless. Then by tacit agreement, no word being spoken, the committee dropped all consideration of the rumors that the wife of the President was betraying the Union. We were so greatly affected that the committee adjourned for the day.”

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Lincoln’s Method of Cleaning House

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Arrest of Clement Vallandigham

Clement Vallandigham apparently never did anything unless he would be remembered for it. His memorable death while defending a client in a courtroom has already been chronicled on these pages. (You can read all about it here.) Years before this dubious claim to fame, he had already made a name for himself by getting on President Abraham Lincoln’s bad side.

Vallandigham served as a congressman from the state of Ohio from 1858 to 1863. He made a name for himself as an agitator, and made speeches from the floor of the House of Representatives denouncing Lincoln’s policies. He referred to the President as “King Lincoln,” declared that the Civil War was a “wicked, cruel, and unnecessary war,” and said that the primary purpose of the war was to sacrifice the liberty of all Americans.

Narrowly losing reelection in 1862, he continued to give voice to the anti-war movement, making the same kinds of remarks at every opportunity.  On May 1, 1863 Vallandigham spoke at Mount Vernon, Ohio, denouncing the President’s war policies. Four days later he was arrested and charged with violating General Order Number 38, issued by General Ambrose Burnside, which stated:

The habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed…. Persons committing such offenses will be at once arrested with a view of being tried… or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends. It must be understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated….

Vallandigham was promptly tried and found guilty. President Lincoln was reluctant to keep a “wily agitator” around — even if he was in custody, so he had him delivered to the Confederate States of America, along with a message that said, in effect, “We don’t want him — so here you go.”

As it turns out, the South wasn’t overly enamored with having Vallandigham around either. Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent him to Wilmington, North Carolina, where he was held for a time as an “alien enemy.”

Finally allowed to leave the South, but under orders not to return to the North, Vallandigham made his way to Canada, where he declared himself a candidate for the governorship of Ohio. The Ohio Democrats nominated him at their convention by a vote of 411 to 11, and Vallandigham set to work campaigning for the job — from a hotel room in Windsor, Canada. He lost the election by a margin of 288,374 to 187,492.

Eventually he was allowed to return to the United States. He tried to return to politics, but was unsuccessful, thus necessitating his return to the practice of law, and ultimately his untimely death, as documented here.

Comedian-in-Chief

Four Chief Executives Sharing a Laugh. From left to right, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter
Four Chief Executives Sharing a Laugh. From left to right, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter

Not a lot of people were laughing on September 22, 1862. The Civil War was about a year and a half old, and it was proving to be much more trying than either side had imagined. When President Abraham Lincoln called his War Cabinet into session that day, his advisors arrived in a grim and determined mood, prepared to deal with the serious business of the war.

They found President Lincoln already seated in the meeting room, reading a book. When everyone had gathered, he turned to them and asked, “Gentlemen, did you ever read anything of Artemus Ward? Let me read a chapter that is very funny.”

He then read from a skit entitled Highhanded Outrage at Utica. (read the chapter here) Upon finishing the reading, Lincoln laughed heartily, but his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was furious that Lincoln would waste valuable time with such a trivial thing. Lincoln shook his head sadly and asked, “Gentlemen, why do you not laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night, if I did not laugh, I should die. And you need this medicine as much as I do.”

With that, he pulled out a piece of paper from his stovepipe hat and asked the cabinet’s opinion on the matter. That piece of paper became the Emancipation Proclamation.

Humor and the presidency do not, at first glance, appear to go together. History has proven the truth of Lincoln’s claim about the necessity of laughter and how much it can help in difficult times. We have become accustomed to hearing jokes from our modern presidents, but it has not always been that way.

Our culture has formed an image of our Founding Fathers as stern, serious, patriarchs who rarely cracked a smile. It is for that reason that one may have difficulty picturing George Washington laughing so hard that he had tears running down his face, as he did when he saw two respected clergymen lose their hats in a lake due to an unexpected gust of wind. It is also difficult to imagine that he was the inspiration for a much-quoted statement made popular by Mark Twain. This occurred when he wrote to his brother after the Battle of Monongahela (1755), “The report of my death was an exaggeration” and continued, “As I heard . . . a circumstantial account of my death and dying Speech, I take this early opportunity of contradicting the first, and of assuring you that I have not, as yet, composed the latter.”

John Adams retains the image of a curmudgeon, even though his wit is evident in many of his writings. It was, for example, rumored by his political opponents that his vice president, Charles Pinckney, acted as a pimp, traveling to England to “procure four pretty girls as mistresses, a pair for each elderly gentleman.” Adams laughed heartily upon hearing the report, and wrote to a friend, saying, “I do declare upon my honor, if this be true, General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two.”

Despite this wealth of wit, presidential historians strive in vain to find evidence of humor from some of our chief executives. One historian completed his study of the wit of President James Polk, by concluding that the funniest thing he ever did was to have gallstone surgery without the benefit of anesthesia.

Polk’s solemnity, however, proves to be the exception, rather than the rule. Even the reserved, aloof academician Woodrow Wilson had his moments of mirth. His Secret Service Agent, Col. Edmund Starling, reported seeing the president embrace his bride on the day of their wedding, and spin her around, while singing, “We’re getting married! We’re getting married!” Later, after the ceremony, the president was again overheard singing to his bride, “Oh, you wonderful girl!”

Perhaps no president summed up the need for a good sense of humor better than President Richard Nixon, who expressed frustration with the constant demands of the press by saying, “People in the media say they must look … at the president with a microscope. Now, I don’t mind a microscope, but boy, when they use a proctoscope, that’s going too far!”

 

Pardon Me, Mr. President

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An order signed by President Abraham Lincoln, commuting a death sentence to life imprisonment.

President Abraham Lincoln personally reviewed over 1,600 cases of military convictions during his 1,503 days in office and issued many pardons and commutations to soldiers who were convicted of desertion. Lincoln referred to these cases as “Leg Cases.” He said, “If Almighty God gives a man a cowardly pair of legs, how can he help their running away with him?” When in doubt, President Lincoln tended to delay his decision, stating, “I must put this by until I can settle in my mind whether this soldier can better serve the country dead than living.”

In one case the President observed, “If a man had more than one life, I think a little hanging would not hurt this one; but after he is once dead we cannot bring him back, no matter how sorry we may be; so the boy shall be pardoned.”

The number of pardons had risen to such a level that his military commanders pleaded with him not to issue any more. The President had just received one such plea from General Benjamin Butler when he received a visit from the father of a solider who was facing a death sentence. The man came to the White House to plead for his son’s life. A cloud of sorrow came over the President’s face as he replied, “I am sorry to say I can do nothing for you. Listen to this telegram received from General Butler yesterday: ‘President Lincoln, I pray you not to interfere with the courts-martial of the army. You will destroy all discipline among our soldiers.’ – B.F. Butler.”

Seeing the resulting despair settle upon the father’s face, Lincoln made up his mind and said, “By jingo, Butler or not Butler, here goes!” He snatched up a pen and a piece of paper, wrote a few words, and handed the note to the man, who read the words, “Job Smith is not to be shot until further orders from me – ABRAHAM LINCOLN.” The father started to cry, and said, “I thought it was to be a pardon; but you say, ‘not to be shot till further orders,’ and you may order him to be shot next week.”

President Lincoln smiled at the man and said, “I see you are not very well acquainted with me. If your son never looks on death till further orders come from me to shoot him, he will live to be a great deal older than Methuselah.”

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