Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/10

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With Lincoln at Springfield.—1860-1

I WENT from Chicago to New York partly for a few weeks' rest and enjoyment, to which I was certainly entitled after my arduous labors during the summer and fall, and partly to renew my former efforts to secure a permanent connection with the metropolitan press.[1] The thorough practical training as a reporter I had acquired since my last attempts in the same direction, promised to make the attainment of my object much easier. An offer came to me in the last days of November in an entirely unexpected form. The New York Associated Press proposed to me[2] that I should go to Springfield, Illinois, and remain there till the departure of the President-elect for Washington, supplying it with regular despatches about current events in that place, which was to become for a time the centre of political gravitation. As a fair remuneration was offered, and my condition that I should be permitted to correspond by mail with Western papers was agreed to, I accepted this novel and important mission.

I started at once for Springfield. Having frequently visited the place in 1858 and during the Presidential campaign, I had a good many local acquaintances, including Lincoln; his law-partner, Judge Logan; Richard Yates, the Governor-elect; Jesse K. Dubois, the State Auditor; and other politicians, and the writers on the two daily papers. Among the latter was William M. Springer, who afterwards attained considerable prominence as a member of Congress of many years' service. Later on, R. R. Hitt turned up as a shorthand reporter of the proceedings of the Legislature. Springfield was then a small but attractive town of some nine thousand inhabitants. The business part centred in the square in which stood the State-house, with the offices of the Governor and of the heads of departments and the legislative chambers. The residence streets extended at right angles from the square. None of the streets were paved, and in wet weather, of which a good deal prevailed during that winter, they were simply impassable. There was but one decent hotel, where I put up, and this became the principal stopping-place of thousands of visitors, who, from curiosity or for political consultation and place-hunting, made a pilgrimage to this transient Mecca during the succeeding months.

When I made the object of my stay known to Mr. Lincoln, he gave me a very friendly welcome, and authorized me to come to him at any time for any information I needed. He introduced me to his private secretary, John G. Nicolay, who owes a very successful career to him. Mr. Lincoln had engaged him only after his election, previous to which he had been a simple clerk on a small salary in one of the State offices. I also then met John Hay for the first time. I do not remember whether he was already in the employ of Mr. Lincoln as assistant private secretary when I arrived or not. But he became such before Mr. Lincoln left Springfield. He was very young—barely twenty-two—handsome and of engaging manners. He had been acting as a correspondent of the St. Louis Missouri Democrat for some time. He wrote with much fluency and in a florid style. His career as littérateur and diplomat is well known. He has borne the title of Colonel, though he never saw any actual service. Nicolay and he have shown their gratitude to Abraham Lincoln in their voluminous Life of him, which is certainly a most valuable source of original information, but which cannot be said to be a model of historical justice.

Mr. Lincoln soon found, after his election, that his modest two-story frame dwelling was altogether inadequate for the throng of local callers and of visitors from a distance, and, accordingly, he gladly availed himself of the offer of the use of the Governor's room in the Capitol building. On my arrival, he had already commenced spending a good part of each day in it. He appeared daily, except Sundays, between nine and ten o'clock, and held a reception till noon, to which all comers were admitted, without even the formality of first sending in cards. Whoever chose to call, received the same hearty greeting. At noon, he went home to dinner and reappeared at about two. Then his correspondence was given proper attention, and visitors of distinction were seen by special appointment at either the State-house or the hotel. Occasionally, but very rarely, he passed some time in his law office. In the evening, old friends called at his home for the exchange of news and political views. At times, when important news was expected, he would go to the telegraph or newspaper offices after supper, and stay there till late. Altogether, probably no other President-elect was as approachable for everybody, at least during the first weeks of my stay. But he found in the end, as was to be expected, that this popular practice involved a good deal of fatigue, and that he needed more time for himself; and the hours he gave up to the public were gradually restricted.

I was present almost daily for more or less time during his morning receptions. I generally remained a silent listener, as I could get at him at other hours when I was in need of information. It was a most interesting study to watch the manner of his intercourse with callers. As a rule, he showed remarkable tact in dealing with each of them, whether they were rough-looking Sangamon County farmers still addressing him familiarly as “Abe,” sleek and pert commercial travellers, staid merchants, sharp politicians, or preachers, lawyers, or other professional men. He showed a very quick and shrewd perception of and adaptation to individual characteristics and peculiarities. He never evaded a proper question, or failed to give a fit answer. He was ever ready for an argument, which always had an original flavor, and, as a rule, he got the better in the discussion. There was, however, one limitation to the freedom of his talks with his visitors. A great many of them naturally tried to draw him out as to his future policy as President regarding the secession movement in the South, but he would not commit himself. The most remarkable and attractive feature of those daily “levees,” however, was his constant indulgence of his story-telling propensity. Of course, all the visitors had heard of it and were eager for the privilege of listening to a practical illustration of his pre-eminence in that line. He knew this, and took special delight in meeting their wishes. He never was at a loss for a story or an anecdote to explain a meaning or enforce a point, the aptness of which was always perfect. His supply was apparently inexhaustible, and the stories sounded so real that it was hard to determine whether he repeated what he had heard from others, or had invented himself.

None of his hearers enjoyed the wit—and wit was an unfailing ingredient of his stories—half as much as he did himself. It was a joy indeed to see the effect upon him. A high-pitched laughter lighted up his otherwise melancholy countenance with thorough merriment. His body shook all over with gleeful emotion, and when he felt particularly good over his performance, he followed his habit of drawing his knees, with his arms around them, up to his very face, as I had seen him do in 1858. I am sorry to state that he often allowed himself altogether too much license in the concoction of the stories. He seemed to be bent upon making his hit by fair means or foul. In other words, he never hesitated to tell a coarse or even outright nasty story, if it served his purpose. All his personal friends could bear testimony on this point. It was a notorious fact that this fondness for low talk clung to him even in the White House. More than once I heard him “with malice aforethought” get off purposely some repulsive fiction in order to rid himself of an uncomfortable caller. Again and again I felt disgust and humiliation that such a person should have been called upon to direct the destinies of a great nation in the direst period of its history. Yet his achievements during the next few years proved him to be one of the great leaders of mankind in adversity, in whom low leanings only set off more strikingly his better qualities. At the time of which I speak, I could not have persuaded myself that the man might possibly possess true greatness of mind and nobility of heart. I do not wish to convey the idea, however, that he was mainly given to trivialities and vulgarities in his conversation; for, in spite of his frequent outbreaks of low humor, his was really a very sober and serious nature, and even inclined to gloominess to such an extent that all his biographers have attributed a strongly melancholic disposition to him.

I often availed myself of his authorization to come to him at any time for information. There were two questions in which the public, of course, felt the deepest interest, and upon which I was expected to supply light, viz., the composition of his Cabinet, and his views upon the secession movement that was daily growing in extent and strength. As to the former, he gave me to understand early, by indirection, that, as everybody expected, William H. Seward and S. P. Chase, his competitors for the Presidential nomination, would be among his constitutional advisers. It was hardly possible for him not to recognize them, and he steadily turned a deaf ear to the remonstrances that were made against them as “extreme men” by leading politicians from the Border States, particularly from Kentucky and Missouri. As to the remaining members of his Cabinet, they were definitely selected much later, and after a protracted and wearisome tussle with the delegations of various States that came to Springfield to urge the claims of their “favorite sons.” I shall refer again to this subject.

No one who heard him talk upon the other question could fail to discover his “other side,” and to be impressed with his deep earnestness, his anxious contemplation of public affairs, and his thorough sense of the extraordinary responsibilities that were coming upon him. He never refused to talk with me about secession, but generally evaded answers to specific interrogatories, and confined himself to generalizations. I was present at a number of conversations which he had with leading public men upon the same subject, when he showed the same reserve. He did not hesitate to say that the Union ought to, and in his opinion would, be preserved, and to go into long arguments in support of the proposition, based upon the history of the republic, the homogeneity of the population, the natural features of the country, such as the common coast, the rivers and mountains, that compelled political and commercial unity. But he could not be got to say what he would do in the face of Southern secession, except that as President he should be sworn to maintain the Constitution of the United States, and that he was therefore bound to fulfil that duty. He met in the same general way the frequent questions whether he should consider it his duty to resort to coercion by force of arms against the States engaged in attempts to secede. In connection there with I understood him, however, several times to express doubts as to the practicability of holding the Slave States in the Union by main force, if they were all determined to break it up. He was often embarrassed by efforts of radical antislavery men to get something out of him in encouragement of their hopes that the crisis would result in the abolition of slavery. He did not respond as they wished, and made it clear that he did not desire to be considered an “abolitionist,” and that he still held the opinion that property in slaves was entitled to protection under the Constitution, and that its owners could not be deprived of it without due compensation. Consciously or unconsciously, he, like everybody else, must have been influenced in his views by current events. As political passion in the South rose higher and higher, and actual defiance of Federal authority by deeds of violence occurred almost daily after his election, culminating in the formal secession of seven States and the establishment of the Southern Confederacy under Jefferson Davis at Montgomery, Alabama, the belief, which he doubtless had originally, that by a conciliatory course as President he could pacify the rebellious States, must have become shaken. Still, I think I interpret his views up to the time of his departure for Washington correctly in saying that he had not lost faith in the preservation of peace between the North and the South, and he certainly did not dream that his principal duty would be to raise great armies and fleets, and the means to maintain them, for the suppression of the most determined and sanguinary rebellion, in defence of slavery, that our planet ever witnessed.

The Jacksonian “doctrine” that to the “victors belong the spoils,” was still so universally the creed of all politicians that it was taken for granted there would be a change not only in all the principal, but also in all the minor, Federal offices. It was also expected that the other time-honored party practice of a division of executive patronage among the several States would be carried out. Accordingly, there appeared deputations from all the Northern and Border States at Springfield to put in their respective claims for recognition. Some of them came not only once, but several times. From a number of States several delegations turned up, representing rival factions in the Republican ranks, each pretending to be the rightful claimant. Almost every State presented candidates for the Cabinet and for the principal diplomatic and departmental offices. The hotel was the principal haunt of the place-hunters. The tricks, the intrigues, and the manœuvres that were practised by them in pursuit of their aims, came nearly all within the range of my observation, as it was my duty to furnish the earliest possible news of their success or failure. As a rule, the various sets of spoilsmen were very willing to take me into their confidence, but it was not always easy to distinguish what was true in their communications from what they wished me to say to the press purely in furtherance of their interests. Among the political visitors, the most prominent I met were: Simon Cameron, S. P. Chase, Thurlow Weed, Lyman Trumbull, N. B. Judd, Richard J. Oglesby, Francis P. Blair, Sr. and Jr., B. Gratz Brown, William Dennison, D. C. Carter of Ohio, Henry J. Winter, and Oliver P. Morton. Thurlow Weed was by far the most interesting figure and the most astute operator among them all.

From what I have said, it will be understood that the President-elect had a hard time of it with the office-seekers. But as he himself was a thorough believer in the doctrine of rotation in office, he felt it his duty to submit to this tribulation. The Cabinet appointments, other than those already named, were especially troublesome to him. There was an intense struggle between Indiana and Illinois, most embarrassing inasmuch as there were several candidates from his own State, all intimate personal friends. Then came the bitter contest between the Border States of Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland, and the Pennsylvania cabal pro and contra Simon Cameron. Amid all his perplexities, Lincoln displayed a good deal of patience and shrewdness in dealing with these personal problems. His never-failing stories helped many times to heal wounded feelings and mitigate disappointments. But he gradually showed the wear and tear of these continuous visitations, and finally looked so careworn as to excite one's compassion.

Not a little was added to his trials by the early manifestation of the inordinate greed, coupled with an utter lack of sense of propriety, on the part of Mrs. Lincoln, whose local reputation had repressed in me all desire to know her. I could not, however, avoid making her acquaintance towards the end of my stay in Springfield, and subsequently saw much of her in Washington. How the politicians found out Mrs. Lincoln's weakness, I do not know, but it is a sorry fact that she allowed herself to be persuaded, at an early date, to accept presents for the use of her influence with her husband in support of the aspirations of office-seekers.

I must mention a remarkable occurrence in Springfield, of which I was myself an eye-witness. Early in January, the State Legislature met, and, according to custom, the newly elected Republican Governor was to read the inaugural message to that body in person. The lawmakers assembled in the Lower Chamber at the appointed hour, but the Governor failed to appear. Search was made for him, and, after a delay of half an hour, the doorkeeper formally announced him, and he was escorted through the middle aisle to the Speaker's chair. He seemed hardly able to walk. His attempt to read the first sentences of the message disclosed the nature of the trouble. He was too drunk to stand or to read. He fell back into his chair, and the Clerk of the House read the message in his place. Of course, the scandal was great in the Legislature, in the town, and throughout the State.

During the month of January, 1861, there appeared in Springfield one W. S. Wood, a former hotel manager and organizer of pleasure excursions, I believe, from the interior of New York State, who, on the recommendation of Thurlow Weed, was to take charge of all the arrangements for the journey of the President-elect to Washington. He was a man of comely appearance, greatly impressed with the importance of his mission and inclined to assume airs of consequence and condescension. As he showed a disposition to ignore me, I made a direct appeal to Mr. Lincoln, who instructed him that I was to be one of the Presidential party. In fact, I was the only member of the press forming part of it as far as Cincinnati, although Messrs. Nicolay and Hay, for some unexplained reason, fail to mention me in naming the members of the party.

The start on the memorable journey was made shortly after eight o'clock on the morning of Monday, February 11. It was a clear, crisp winter day. Only about one hundred people, mostly personal friends, were assembled at the station to shake hands for the last time with their distinguished townsman. It was not strange that he yielded to the sad feelings which must have moved him at the thought of what lay behind and what was before him, and gave them utterance in a pathetic formal farewell to the gathering crowd, as follows:

My Friends: No one not in my position can appreciate the sadness I feel at this parting. To this people I owe all that I am. Here I have lived more than a quarter of a century; here my children were born, and here one of them lies buried. I know not how soon I shall see you again. A duty devolves upon me which is, perhaps, greater than that which has devolved upon any other man since the days of Washington. He never would have succeeded except for the aid of Divine Providence, upon which he at all times relied. I feel that I cannot succeed without the same Divine aid which sustained him, and in the same Almighty Being I place my reliance for support; and I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may receive that Divine assistance, without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain. Again I bid you all an affectionate farewell.

I reproduce this here, as but for me it would not have been preserved in the exact form in which it was delivered. It was entirely extemporized, and, knowing this, I prevailed on Mr. Lincoln, immediately after starting, to write it out for me on a “pad.” I sent it over the wires from the first telegraph station. I kept the pencil manuscript for some time, but, unfortunately, lost it in my wanderings in the course of the Civil War.

Our travelling companions at the start were (besides Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln and the three sons) W. S. Wood; J. G. Nicolay and John Hay; two old personal friends of Mr. Lincoln, Judge David Davis, of Bloomington, afterwards Associate Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, and N. B. Judd, of Chicago, who had the promise of the Secretaryship of the Interior; Dr. W. S. Wallace, a brother-in-law; Lockwood Todd, a relative of Mrs. Lincoln, who was employed on several important political missions during the next few months; and Ward Hill Lamon, a lawyer of Bloomington, who afterwards became United States Marshal for the District of Columbia, and as such a sort of majordomo at the White House, and finally the author of a biography of Abraham Lincoln. For describing him in this as an infidel, Lamon was much and unjustly attacked. He brought a banjo along, and amused us with negro songs. There was also a military escort, consisting of Colonel Edwin Vose Sumner, the white-haired commander of a cavalry regiment of the regular army, and of Major David Hunter, Captain John Pope, and Captain Hazard of the same service. Colonel Sumner, Major Hunter, and Captain Pope became well-known commanding generals during the war. Another "military" character, a sort of pet of Mr. Lincoln, was Colonel E. E. Ellsworth, who, though a mere youth, of small but broad figure, curly black head, and handsome features, had achieved considerable local notoriety as a captain of a crack “Zouave” militia company in Chicago. He was one of the first victims of the Civil War, being shot by a rebel while raising the United States flag at Alexandria, Virginia.

The party had a special train, composed at first only of an ordinary passenger car — there were no parlor or drawing-room or sleeping cars in those days — a baggage-car and engine. The first day's journey took us from the capital of Illinois to that of Indiana. Until we reached the boundary of the latter State, the demonstrations along the route were insignificant, except at Decatur, where a great crowd, headed by Richard J. Oglesby, then a hotel-keeper, but subsequently a general in the war, Governor, and United States Senator, greeted the future Chief Magistrate, who delivered another farewell speech. At the boundary, the train was boarded by a large delegation of leading Indianians, including Schuyler Colfax, Henry S. Lane, Caleb B. Smith, and Thomas H. Nelson. At Lafayette, a great crowd awaited our coming, and the President-elect had to appear and speak to them. At Indianapolis, where the first day's journey ended, he was formally welcomed by Governor Oliver P. Morton, and replied to him at length. His speech was remarkable for the first public intimation that he should consider it his duty as President to retake the properties of the United States, including the forts unlawfully seized by the rebellious States, and otherwise reëstablish the authority of the Federal Government.

The next stage of the journey was from Indianapolis to Cincinnati; the third, from Cincinnati to Columbus; the fourth, from Columbus to Pittsburg; the fifth, from Pittsburg to Cleveland; the sixth, from Cleveland to Buffalo, where a rest was taken over Sunday. The eighth day the journey was continued as far as Albany, and on the following day we reached New York. Everywhere there were formal welcomes by the State or municipal authorities and by great crowds of people, with brass bands, and public and private receptions. In different localities pleasant variations were offered in the way of serenades, torchlight processions, and gala theatrical performances. Altogether, the President had every reason to feel flattered and encouraged by the demonstrations in his honor. But the journey was a very great strain upon his physical and mental strength, and he was well-nigh worn out when he reached Buffalo. He must have spoken at least fifty times during the week. In the kindness of his heart — not from any love of adulation, for he really felt very awkward about it — he never refused to respond to a call for his appearance wherever the train stopped. While he thus satisfied the public curiosity, he disappointed, by his appearance, most of those who saw him for the first time. I could see that impression clearly written on the faces of his rustic audiences. Nor was this surprising, for they certainly saw the most unprepossessing features, the gawkiest figure, and the most awkward manners. Lincoln always had an embarrassed air, too, like a country clodhopper appearing in fashionable society, and was nearly always stiff and unhappy in his off-hand remarks. The least creditable performance en route was his attempt to say something on the question of tariff legislation in his Pittsburg speech. What he said was really nothing but crude, ignorant twaddle, without point or meaning. It proved him to be the veriest novice in economic matters, and strengthened my doubts as to his capacity for the high office he was to fill. So poor was his talk that most of the Republican papers, while they printed it, abstained from comment.

After ten days of the wearisome sameness of the “performances” at the several halting-places, I was very sick of the “travelling show,” and I therefore asked to be relieved from my duties on reaching New York. My request was granted, and I remained behind. It turned out that I lost only the reception in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, as the journey was cut short by the incognito night run of the President from Harrisburg to Washington. This sudden move on his part created at the time considerable disappointment, even among his warmest political followers, being regarded as an evidence of unwarranted fear. But subsequent events and developments proved his course to have been a wise one.

  1. He brought with him a long article on the development of mining in the Rocky Mountains in 1860, which was finally accepted by the Herald. This renewed his acquaintance with Frederic Hudson, the managing editor.
  2. Or, rather, the Herald, through Mr. Hudson, on hearing of his experience in the Lincoln-Douglas campaign and his acquaintance with Lincoln. By the rules of the Associated Press, his despatches had to be shared by the Herald with the other members of the Association.