Wednesday, March 27, 1861
William Howard Russell
British journalist William H. Russell writes: “This morning, after breakfast, Mr. Sanford called, according to his promise, and took me to the State Department. It is a very humble — in fact, dingy — mansion, two stories, high, and situated at the end of the magnificent line of colonnade in white marble, called the Treasury, which is hereafter to do duty as the headquarters of nearly all the public departments.
“In a moderately sized, but very comfortable, apartment, surrounded with bookshelves, and ornamented with a few engravings, we found the Secretary of State seated at his table, and enjoying a cigar; he received me with great courtesy and kindness, and after a time said he would take occasion to present me to the President, who was to give audience that day to the minister of the new kingdom of Italy, who had hitherto represented the kingdom of Sardinia.
“I have already described Mr. Seward’s personal appearance; his son, to whom he introduced me, is the Assistant Secretary of State, and is editor or proprietor of a journal in the State of New York, which has a reputation for ability and fairness. Mr. Frederick Seward is a slight, delicate-looking man, with a high forehead, thoughtful brow, dark eyes, and amiable expression; his manner is very placid and modest, and, if not reserved, he is by no means loquacious. As we were speaking, a carriage drove up to the door, and Mr. Seward exclaimed to his father, with something like dismay in his voice, ‘Here comes the Chevalier in full uniform!’ — and in a few seconds in effect the Chevalier Bertinatti made his appearance, in cocked hat, white gloves, diplomatic suit of blue and silver lace, sword, sash and riband of the Cross of Savoy. I thought there was a quiet smile on Mr. Seward’s face as he saw his brilliant companion, who contrasted so strongly with the more than republican simplicity of his own attire. ‘Fred, do you take Mr. Russell round to the President’s whilst I go with the Chevalier. We will meet at the White House.’ We accordingly set out through a private door leading to the grounds, and within a few seconds entered the hall of the moderate mansion, White House, which has very much the air of a portion of a bank or public office, being provided with glass doors and heavy chairs and forms. The domestic who was in attendance was dressed like any ordinary citizen, and seemed perfectly indifferent to the high position with whom he conversed, when Mr. Seward asked him, ‘Where is the President?’ Passing through one of the doors on the left, we entered a handsome spacious room, richly and gorgeously furnished, and rejoicing in a kind of demi-jour, which gave increased effect to the gilt chairs and ormolu ornaments.
“Soon afterward there entered, with a shambling, loose, irregular, almost unsteady gait, a tall, lank, lean man, considerably over six feet in height, with stooping shoulders, long pendulous arms, terminating in hands of extraordinary dimensions., which, however, were far exceeded in proportion by his feet. He was dressed in an ill-fitting, wrinkled suit of black, which put one in mind of an undertaker’s uniform at a funeral; round his neck a rope of black silk was knotted in a large bulb, with flying ends projecting beyond the collar of his coat; his turned-down shirt-collar disclosed a sinewy muscular yellow neck, and above that, nestling in a great black mass of hair, bristling and compact like a riff of mourning pins, rose the strange quaint face and head, covered with its thatch of wild republican hair, of President Lincoln. The impression produced by the size of his extremities, and by his flapping and wide projecting ears, may be removed by the appearance of kindliness, sagacity, and the awkward bonhomie of his face; the mouth is absolutely prodigious; the lips; straggling and extending almost from one line of black bear to the other; are only kept in order by two deep furrows from the nostril to the chin; the nose itself — a prominent organ — stands out from the face with an inquiring, anxious air, as though it were sniffing for some good thing in the wind; the eyes dark, full, and deeply set, are penetrating, but full of an expression which almost amounts to tenderness; and above them projects the shaggy brow, running into the small hard frontal space, the development of which can scarcely be estimated accurately, owing to the irregular flocks of thick hair carelessly brushed across it. One would say that, although the mouth was made to enjoy a joke, it could also utter the severest sentence which the head could dictate, but that Mr. Lincoln would be ever more willing to temper justice with mercy, and to enjoy what he considers the amenities of life, than to take a harsh view of men’s nature and of the world, and to estimate things in an ascetic or puritan spirit. A person who met Mr. Lincoln in the street would not take him to be what — according to the usages of European society — is called a ‘gentleman’; and, indeed, since I came to the United States, I have heard more disparaging allusions made by Americans to him on that account than I could have expected among simple republicans, where all should be equals; but at the same time, it would not be possible for the most indifferent observer to pass him in the street without notice.
“As he advanced through the room, he evidently controlled a desire to shake hands all round with everybody, and smiled good-humouredly till he was suddenly brought up by the staid deportment of Mr. Seward, and by the profound diplomatic bows of the Chevalier Bertinatti. Then, indeed, he suddenly jerked himself back, and stood in front of the two ministers, with his body slightly drooped forward, and his hands behind his back, his knees touching, and his feet apart. Mr. Seward formally presented the minister, whereupon the President made a prodigiously violent demonstration of his body in a bow which had almost the effect of a smack in its rapidity and abruptness, and, recovering himself, proceeded to give his utmost attention, whilst the Chevalier, with another bow, read from a paper a long address in presenting the royal letter accrediting him as ‘minister resident’; and when he said that ‘the king desired to give, under your enlightened administration, all possible strength and extent to those sentiments of frank sympathy which do not cease to be exhibited every moment of frank sympathy which do not cease to be exhibited every moment between the two peoples, and whose origin dates back as far as the exertions which have presided over their common destiny as self-governing and free nations,’ the President gave another bow still more violent, as much as to accept the allusion.
“The minister forthwith handed his letter to the President, who gave it into the custody of Mr. Seward, and then, dipping his hand into his coat pocket, Mr. Lincoln drew out a sheet of paper, from which he rad his reply, the most remarkable part of which was his doctrine ‘that the United States were bound by duty not to interfere with the differences of foreign governments and countries.’ After some words of compliment, the President shook hands with the minister, who soon afterwards retired, Mr. Seward then took me by the hand and said — ‘Mr. President, allow me to present to you Mr. Russell of the London Times.’ On which Mr. Lincoln put out his hand in a very friendly manner, and said, ‘Mr. Russell, I am very glad to make your acquaintance, and to see you in this country. The London Times is one of the greatest powers in the world — in fact, I don’t know anything which has much more power, — except perhaps the Mississippi. I am glad to know you as its minister.’ Conversation ensued for some minutes, which the President enlivened by two or three peculiar little sallies, and I left agreeably impressed with his shrewdness, humour, and natural sagacity.”