President Lincoln Concerned that McClellan’s Army Has Not Advanced

February 8, 1862

While worried about son Willie’s health, President Lincoln was also concerned about the progress of the Army of the Potomac which was supposed to be on the verge of an offensive. General George B. McClellan wrote the president: “I had a long conversation with Genl Hooker about the roads etc in the region we were speaking of, & would beg until Monday morning [February 10] to give a final opinion.

I have not yet heard from the canal boats above.

The experiment of arranging the two will be completed on Monday, when I can make the necessary calculations with exactness.

I have nothing new from Halleck or Buell tonight.  Apologizing for the delay.

Published in: on February 8, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Willie’s Illness Preoccupies President Lincoln

February 7, 1862

President Lincoln is at the bedside of son Willie, has “absorbed pretty much all his attention,” wrote aide John G. Nicolay.  Son Tad “the youngest is now threatened with a similar sickness.”

The president also talks to congressmen  interested in resolving differences between General David Hunter and General James Lane in Kansas.

Published in: on February 7, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

President’s Sons Seriously Ill

Monday, February 6, 1862

Both of the President’s two youngest sons, Willie and Tad, who had fallen ill the previous day, continue to be ill.   About this time, presidential aide William O. Stoddard wrote of an evening call that the President paid on General George B. McClellan. “Mr. Lincoln and General McClellan have been differently educated.  They hold and have held adverse political opinions.  They are at variance, now, as to questions with which, strictly construing his position, a military chief has nothing to do in this country.”  Stoddard wrote: “General McClellan is indeed a striking figure, in spite of his shortness.  He is the impersonation of health and strength, and he is in the prime of early manhood.  His uniform is faultless and his stars are brilliant, especially the middle one on each strap.  His face is full of intelligence, of will-power, of self-assertion, and he, too, is in some respects a born leader of men.”

Returning to the White House, Stoddard wrote that Lincoln “paused before going into the house, and he is standing by the parapet at the eastern end of the front, gazing silently southward.  There is good moonlight, but no enough to see the Potomac.  The river is there, however, and in the camps and forts and works beyond it is the great army, which has been so well organized for war under the skilled supervision of General McClellan

A long-drawn breath and a smothered exclamation terminate the President’s long minute of absorbed pondering, and he turns away and strides on across the portico, but the door swings open as he approaches, and there si a serious tone in the voice of Old Edward [the doorkeeper].

“The doctor has been here, sir.”

What did he say?”

“The Madame would like to see you right away, sir.  Soon as you came in.”

Any remainder of Mrs. Lincoln’s message is cut short, for the President wheels to the right, and seems to vanish up the private stairway.

“Is Willie really sick, Edward?”

“I think he is, indeed; but she told me not to alarm the President.  We’ll know more in the morning.  Good night, sir!”

There is some good news on the war front.  Fort Henry surrenders on Tennessee River. As the New York Times reported two days later: “We have cheering news this morning from Tennessee. The United States soldiers and sailors have at last attained a foothold in that State, after a brilliant naval engagement, a foothold at a point, too, most important for operations, which will now very soon be begun, against Nashville, Memphis, and the whole of the rebel region of the Southwest.  As Gen. HALLECK says in his brief bulletin of victory: ‘The flag of the Union is reestablished on the soil of Tennessee.  It will never be removed.’”

Legal tender legislation passed the House of Representatives.  White House aide William O. Stoddard wrote in an anonymous newspaper dispatch: “The action of Congress on the ‘legal tender’ business, whatever the friends or enemies of the measure may say, has assuredly launched us on a sea of indefinite expansion, which has no other shore than financial ruin, unless a better one be speedily found for it by the success of our armies.”

Published in: on February 6, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mrs. Lincoln Hosts Grand Reception at the White House

February 5, 1862

White House party is held which the Washington Star calls the “Most superb affair of its kind ever seen.”  Invitations to 600-700 people had been issued so that Mrs. Lincoln could show off White House, whose redecoration had cost more than $20,000.  Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning wrote that the party was  a very large and very brilliant one.  Did not get home til 2 Oclock in the morning.”   Lincoln assistant William O. Stoddard wrote that “it was an exceedingly brilliant and distinguished assembly.  Seldom, indeed, on this Continent, have so many men of mark been gathered at one time under one roof….It was almost strictly ‘official,’ few, indeed, obtaining admission, who had no official claim to an invitation.”

The event was described by residential aide John G. Nicolay as a “very respectable if not a brilliant success.  Many of the invited guests did not come, so that the rooms were not at all over-crowded.  Of course the ladies were all beautifully dressed having no doubt brought all their skill and resources to a culmination for this event….the East Room was filled with well dressed guests, looking very beautiful and the supper was magnificent.”  Guests came from congressional, military and diplomatic circles and were admitted only with their invitations in hand.  Nicolay noted that begging for tickets was such that attendees “will be forever happy in the recollection of the favor enjoyed, because their vanity has been tickled with the thought that they have attained something which others have not.”

Nicolay wrote his fiancé: “The grand party came off last night according to programme, and was altogether a very respectable if not a brilliant success.  Many of the invited guests did not come, so that the rooms were not at all over-crowded.  Of Course the ladies were al beautifully dressed having no doubt brought all their skill and resources to a culmination for this event.  A lamentable spirit of flunkeyism pervades al the higher classes of society, they worship power and position with a most abject devotion, and cringe in most pitiable slavishness to all social honors and recognitions.  Those who were here, therefore, (Some of them having sought, and almost begged their invitations,) will be forever happy in the recollection of the favor enjoyed, because their vanity has been tickled with the thought that they have attained something which others have not.

I will not attempt the labor of a detailed description of the affair…Suffice it to say that the East Room was filled with well dressed guests, looking very beautiful and the supper was magnificent, and that when all else was over, by way of an interesting finale the servants (a couple of them) much moved by wrath and wine had a jolly little knock-down in the kitchen damaging in its effects to sundry heads and champagne bottles….”

Boston journalist Ben Perley Poore reported more extensively on the reception: “Washington ‘society’ refused to be comforted.  Those within its charmed circle would not visit the White House, or have any intercourse with the members of the Administration.   This gave great annoyance to Mr. Seward, who used diplomatic and consular appointments, commissions, and contracts unsparingly for the purchase of a friendly feeling.   At his urgent solicitation the President consented to an evening reception at the White House, by invitation. ‘I don’t fancy this pas business,’ said the President, good-naturedly, but the metropolitan practicians could not refrain from applying for them.  The evening of February 5th, 1862, found the court-yard of the White House filled with carriages and ambulances brining ‘fair women and brave men.’”

“The President and Mrs. Lincoln received their guests in the East Room, where he towered above all around him, and had a pleasant for those he knew.  Mrs. Lincoln was dressed in a white satin dress with low neck and short sleeves.  It was trimmed with black lace flounces, which were looped up with knots of ribbon, and she wore a floral head-dress, which was not very becoming.   Near her was her eldest son, Mr. Robert Lincoln (known as the Prince of Rails), and Mr. John Hay, the President’s intellectual private secretary.  In addition to the East Room, the Red, Green, and Blue Parlors (so named from the color of their paper-hangings and the furniture) were open, and were ornamented with a profusion of rare exotics, while the Marine Band, stationed in the corridor, discoursed fine music.

“Mr. Seward was in his element, escorting, as in duty bound, the ladies of the Diplomatic Corps.  Mr. Chase, the dignified and statesman-like Secretary of the Treasury, seemed to have forgotten for the moment that his coffers were ‘short.’  Mr. Stanton, vigorous and thoughtful, was the object of much attention, and the patriarchal locks and beard of the not over-scintillant Secretary of the Navy were, of course, a feature.  The other members of the Cabinet were present, as were Justices Clifford, Wayne, and Grier, of the Supreme Court.

Senator Sumner, as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, was the centre of a diplomatic circle, where all the ‘great powers,’ and some the smaller ones, were represented.  Ladies from the smaller ones, were disappointed in not seeing the gorgeous court costumes, having forgotten that our court-dress is the undertaker-like suit of black broadcloth so generally worn.   But they gazed with admiration upon the broad ribbons and jeweled badges worn on the breasts of the Chevaliers of the Legion of Honor, Knights of the Bath, etc., ‘with distinguished consideration.’  Vice-President Hamlin might have called the Senate to order and had more than a quorum of members present, who, like himself, had their wives here to cheer their labors. Mr. Speaker Grow could not see around him so large a proportion of the ‘Lower House,’ but there was — so a Kentucky lady said — ‘a right smart chance of Representatives.’

General McClellan, in full uniform, looked finely.  Among his staff officers were the French Princes, each wearing a captain’s uniform.  The Comte de Paris was tall and very handsome, while the Duc de Chartres was taller, thinner, less handsome than his brother.  Both were remarkably cordial and affable, and, as they spoke English perfectly, they enjoyed the gay scene.  General Fremont, in a plain undress suit, seemed rather downcast, although his devoted wife, ‘Jessie,’ more than made up for his moodiness by her animated and vivacious conversation.   There were, besides Generals McDowell, Stone, Heintzelman, Blenker, Hancock, Hooker, Keyes, Doubleday, Casey, Shields, and Marchy, with Captain Dahlgren and the Prince Salm-Salm.  Of those present many fought, and some fell on the various fields of the next three dreadful years.   There were others who were destined to do their duty and yet be mistaken and defrauded of their just inheritance of glory.   Such was the fortune of war.

An incident of the evening was the presentation of General Fremont to General McClellan by President Lincoln.   General Fremont was in the hall, evidently about to leave, as Mrs. Fremont had her shawl on, and Senator Sumner was escorting her toward the door, when the President went after them, and soon turned toward the East Room, with the Pathfinder at his side, Senator Sumner and Mrs. Fremont following.   The presentation was made, and a few remarks were exchanged by the Generals, two men who were destined to exert a marked influence on the future destiny of the nation.

A magnificent supper had been provided in the state dining-room by Maillard, of New York, but when the hour of eleven came, and the door should have been opened, the flustered steward had lost the key, so that there was a hungry crowd waiting anxiously outside the unyielding portal.  Then the irrepressible humor of the American people broke forth — that grim humor which carried them through the subsequent misery.   ‘I am in favor of a forward movement!’ one would exclaim.  ‘An advance to the front is only retarded by the imbecility of commanders,’ said another, quoting a speech just made in Congress.   To all this General McClellan, himself modestly struggling with the crowd, laughed as heartily as anybody.  Finally the key was found, the door opened, and the crowd fed.

The table was decorated with large pieces of ornamental confectionery, the centre object representing the steamer ‘Union,’ armed and bearing the ‘Stars and Stripes.’  On a side table was a model of Fort Sumter, also in sugar, and provisioned with game.   After supper promenading was resumed, and it was three o’clock ere the guests departed.  The entertainment was pronounced a decided success, but it was compared to the ball given by the Duchess of Richmond, at Brussels, the night before Waterloo.  People parted there never to meet again.  Many a poor fellow took his leave that night of festivity forever, the band playing, as he left, ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me.’

The Abolitionists throughout the country were merciless in their criticisms of the President and Mrs. Lincoln for giving this reception when the soldiers of the Union were in cheerless bivouacs or comfortless hospitals, and a Philadelphia poet wrote a scandalous ode on the occasion, entitled ‘The Queen Must Dance.’

There was no dancing, nor was it generally known that after the invitations had been issued Mrs. Lincoln’s children sickened, and she had been up the two nights previous to the reception watching with them.  Both the President and Mrs. Lincoln left the gay throng several times to go up and see their darling Willie, who passed away a fortnight afterward.  He was a fine-looking lad, eleven years of age, whose intelligence and vivacity made him a general favorite.   Some of his exercises in literary composition had been so creditable that his father had permitted their publication.  This bereavement made Mr. Lincoln and his wife very indulgent toward their youngest son, who thenceforth imperiously ruled at the White House.

Published in: on February 5, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

President Lincoln Remains Committed to the Execution of Slavetrader

February 4, 1862

President grants a convicted slavetrader, Capt. Nathaniel Gordon, a stay of execution until February 21, 1862 – after asking Attorney General Edward Bates to be sure that it not impact Gordon’s eventual execution.  Lincoln wrote:

Whereas, it appears that at a Term of the Circuit Court of the United States of America for the Southern District of New York held in the month of November A.D. 1861, Nathaniel Gordon was indicted and convicted for being engaged in the Slave Trade, and was by the said Court sentenced to be put to death by hanging by the neck, on Friday the 7th. day of February, A.D. 1862;

And whereas, a large number of respectable citizens have earnestly besought me to commute the said sentence of the said Nathaniel Gordon to a term of imprisonment for life, which application I have felt it to be my duty to refuse;

And whereas, it has seemed to me probable that the unsuccessful application made for the commutation of his sentence may have prevented the said Nathaniel Gordon from making the necessary preparation for the awful change which awaits him:

Now, therefore, be it known, that I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, have granted and do hereby grant unto him, the said Nathaniel Gordon, a respite of the above recited sentence, until Friday the twenty‑first day of February, A.D. 1862, between the hours of twelve o’clock at noon and three o’clock in the afternoon of the said day, when the said sentence shall be executed.

In granting this respite, it becomes my painful duty to admonish the prisoner that, relinquishing all expectation of pardon by Human Authority, he refer himself alone to the mercy of the common God and Father of all men.

Bates wrote in his diary: “The Prest. is in trouble about granting a reprieve for Gordon – the pirate – the first conviction under the law making the African slave trade piracy – I , being confined at home, sick, he wrote a note for y legal opinion whether he could grant a reprieve without entirely remitting the death penalty!  Of course I answered that there was no doubt about the power.”

I told the Prest. – verbally, that I did not see any good reason for interfering at all unless he meant to pardon or commute – that there were men watching opportunities against him, and that byinterfering at all he might give them a handle.

“He sd. he had no intention to pardon Gordon but was willing to give him a short respite, and that yesterday at C[abinet] C.[ouncil] all the members present, (tho’ not asked as a cabinet) agreed to it – And said he’d consider it a little more.

Published in: on February 4, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Commander-in-Chief Disputes General McClellan’s Plan of Attack

February 3, 1862

Tired of the procrastination of General George B. McClellan, President Lincoln wrote McClellan a sharp letter that followed up on his Special War Order #1 of January 31: Lincoln was responding to a 22-page memo from McClellan: “You and I have distinct, and different plans for a movement of the Army of the Potomac yours to be down the Chesapeake, up the Rappahannock to Urbana, and across land to the terminus of the Railroad on the York River , mine to move directly to a point on the Railroad South West of Manassas.If you will give me satisfactory answers to the following questions, I shall gladly yield my plan to yours.

1st. Does not your plan involve a greatly larger expenditure of time, and money than mine?

2nd. Wherein is a victory more certain by your plan than mine?

3rd. Wherein is a victory more valuable by your plan than mine?

4th. In fact, would it not be less valuable, in this, that it would break no great line of the enemie’s communications, while mine would?

5th. In case of disaster, would not a safe retreat be more difficult by your plan than by mine?


President Lincoln’s memo asked another series of questions:

1. Suppose the enemy should attack us in force before we reach the Ocoquan, what? In view of the possibility of this, might it not be safest to have our entire force to move together from above the Ocoquan.

2. Suppose the enemy, in force, shall dispute the crossing of the Ocoquan, what? In view of this, might it not be safest for us to cross the Ocoquan at Colchester rather than at the village of Ocoquan? This would cost the enemy two miles more of travel to meet us, but would, on the contrary, leave us two miles further from our ultimate destination.

3. Suppose we reach Maple valley without an attack, will we not be attacked there, in force, by the enemy marching by the several roads from Manassas? and if so, what?


In his diary, Attorney General Edward Bates worried about the implication of inaction by the Union Army on the Lincoln Administration: “If we fail to do something effectual in the next 30 days, the adm[inistratio]n. Will be shaken to pieces – the Cabinet wil be re-modelled, and several of its members must retire. But the scene will be changed and confidence restored, if the Prest’s orders be carried out – that is, if on or before the 22d Feb; the armies, simultaneously, assume the aggressive upon the Potomac; upon the Miss[issipp]i and in Tennee; upon N. Orleans; and upon Eastern Va.”


Published in: on February 3, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Preparations Underway for a Major White House Party

February 2, 1862

Lincoln aide John G. Nicolay wrote to his fiancé: “Mrs. Lincoln has determined to make an innovation in the social customs of the White House, and accordingly has issued tickets for a party of six or seven hundred guests on Wednesday evening next. For years past dinners and receptions have been the only ‘Executive’ social diversions or entertainments.  But from what I can learn ‘La Reine’ has determined to abrogate dinners and institute parties in their stead.  How it will work remains yet to be seen.  Half the city is jubilant at being invited, while the other half is furious at being left out in the cold.”

Presidential aide William O. Stoddard wrote that a standing room alone party was expected and that there would be no dancing even though it was billed as a ball: “The Cabinet, the Supreme Court, the heads of Departments, some lesser judges, the entire Diplomatic Corps, Senators, Congressmen, generals and admirals, Governors of states – have you got that list in your head?  Well, now add to each man of it from one to three women, and then come with me.  I’ve procured a tape-line, and I’m to measure all the floors for Mrs. Lincoln, to see if there is going to be standing-room.  There won’t be a chance for any man or woman to stumble and fall down.  Dance? I’d say not!”

The president meanwhile labored under conflicting pressures regarding emancipation and the scheduled execution of a convicted slave trade.   Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner wrote  to Orestes A. Brownson “I think the President will rise.  Unless hostile influences should prevail, you will be satisfied with him.  Inter nos.  He has counselled with [-[Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P.] Chase & myself on a proposition of greater magnitude than was ever yet submitted to a deliberative assembly.  I say to him constantly–Courage!  Courage!”   One of the issues faced by President Lincoln faced was pressure to pardon Nathaniel Gordon, “convicted of for being engaged in the Slave Trade.”   Sumner wrote: “Yesterday I told the Presdt. that though I am against capital punishment, I am yet for hanging that slave-trader condemned in New York.  It must be done (1) to deter slave-traders, (2) to give notice to the world of a change of policy & (3) to shew that the Govt. can hang a man.”

Published in: on February 2, 2012 at 7:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Weather Slushy; Army Stalled

February 1, 1862

Snow and slush blanketed Washington before turning to rain.  White House aide William O. Stoddard wrote in an anonymous newspaper dispatch two days later: “The city is still crowded with visitors, and many, ladies as well as gentlemen, brave all the horrors of rainstorms and Virginia mud, to take a fleeting glance through the fog at the white tents which they hope will so soon be struck.  We are sometimes surprised at the strength of the conviction among our Northern visitors that an advance is to be made at any early day, and wonder if the impression continues as vivid after they have gone the rounds of the fortifications through the mud.”

Washington was becoming an increasing magnet for escaped slaves.  The U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia, Ward Hill Lamon, was a personal friend of President Lincoln, who instructed Lamon “to refrain from arresting or committing fugitive slaves.”

Published in: on February 1, 2012 at 6:57 pm  Leave a Comment