Presidential Aide Sings a Song that Will Cause Controversy

October 3, 1862

President Lincoln and Illinois Secretary of State Ozias M. Hatch take an early morning walk.  recalled “Early next morning,” Hatch later reported, “I was awakened by Mr. Lincoln.  It was very early – daylight was just lighting the east – the soldiers were all asleep in their tents.  Scarce a sound could be heard except the notes of early birds, and the farm-yard voices from distant farms. Lincoln said to me, ‘Come, Hatch, I want you to take a walk with me.’  His tone was serious and impressive.  I arose without a word, and as soon as we were dressed we left the tent together.  He led me about the camp, and then we walked upon the surrounding hills overlooking the great city of white tents and sleeping soldiers. Very little was spoken between us, beyond a few words as to the pleasantness of the morning or similar casual observations.  Lincoln seemed to be peculiarly serious, and his quiet, abstract way affected me also.  It did not seem a time to speak.  We walked slowly and quietly, meeting here and there a guard, our thoughts leading us to reflect on that wonderful situation.  A nation in peril – the whole world looking at America – million men in arms – the whole machinery of war engaged throughout the country, while I stood by that kind-hearted, simple-minded man who might be regarded as the Director-General, looking at the beautiful sunrise and the magnificent scene before us.  Nothing was to be said, nothing needed to be said.  Finally, reaching a commanding point where almost that entire camp could be seen – the men were just beginning their morning duties, and evidences of life and activity were becoming apparent – we involuntarily stopped.  The President, waving his hand towards the scene before us, and leaning towards me, said in an almost whispering voice: ‘Hatch – Hatch, what is all this?’  ‘Why, Mr. Lincoln ,’ said I, ‘this is the Army of the Potomac.’  He hesitated a moment, and then, straightening up, said in a louder tone: ‘No, Hatch, no.  This is General McClellan’s body-guard.’  Nothing more was said.  We walked to our tent, and the subject was not alluded to again.”

The October 1862 visit to the front became a campaign issue two years later.   Ward Hill Lamon, the U.S. marshal for the District of Colombia and former Llincoln law associate in Illinois, would recall:

In the autumn of 1862 I chanced to be associated with Mr. Lincoln in a transaction which, though innocent and commonplace in itself, was blown by rumor and surmise into a revolting and deplorable scandal.  A conjectural life, although mean, misshapen, and very small at its birth, grew at length into a tempest of defamation, whose last echoes were not heard until its noble victim had yielded his life to a form of assassination only a trifle more deadly.

Mr. Lincoln was painted as the prime mover in a scene of fiendish levity more atrocious than the world had ever witnessed since human nature was shamed and degraded by the capers of Nero and Commodus.  I refer to what is known as the Antietam song-singing; and I propose to show that the popular construction put upon that incident was wholly destitute of truth.

Mr. Lincoln persistently declined to read the harsh comments of the newspaper press and the fierce mouthings of platform orators; and under his advice I as persistently of platform orators; and under his advice I as persistently refused to make any public statement concerning that ill-judged affair.  He believed with Sir Walter Scott, that, if a cause of action is good, it needs no vindication from the actor’s motives; if bad, it can derive none.  When I suggested to him that the slander ought to be refused,–that a word form him would silence his defamers,–Mr. Lincoln replied with great earnestness: ‘No, Hill; There has already been too much said about this falsehood.  Let the thing alone.  If I have not established character enough to give the lie to this charge, I can only say that I am mistaken in my own estimate of myself.  In politics, every man must skin his own skunk.  These fellows are welcome to the hide of this one.  Its body has already given forth its unsavory odor.’

The newspapers and the stump-speakers went on ‘stuffing the ears of men with false reports’ until the fall of 1864, when I showed Mr. Lincoln a letter, of which the following is a copy.  It is far sample of hundreds of letters received by me about that time, the Antietam incident being then discussed with increased virulence and new accessions of false coloring.

PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 10, 1864.

WARD H. LAMON:

Dear Sir,–Enclosed is an extract from the New York ‘World’ of Sept. 9, 1864:—

‘ONE OF MR. LINCOLN’S JOKES.–The second verse of our campaign song published on this page was probably suggested by an incident which occurred on the battle-field of Antietam a few days after the fight.  While the President was driving over the field in an ambulance, accompanied by Marshal Lamon, General McClellan, and another officer, heavy details of men were engaged in the task of burying the dead.  The ambulance had just reached the neighborhood of the old stone bridge, where the dead were piled highest, when Mr. Lincoln, suddenly slapping Marshal Lamon on the knee, exclaimed: ‘Com, Lamon, give us that song about Picayune Butler: McClellan has never heard it.’  ‘Not now, if you please,’ said General McClellan, with a shudder; ‘I would prefer to hear it some other place and time.”

This story has been repeated in the New York ‘World’ almost daily for the last three months.  Until now it would have been useless to demand its authority.  By this article it limits the inquiry to three persons as its authority,–Marshal Lamon, another officer, and General McClellan.  That is a damaging story, if believed, cannot be disputed.  That it is believed by some, or that they pretend to believe it, is evident by the accompanying verse from the doggerel, in which allusion is made to it:–

‘Abe may crack his jolly jokes

O’er bloody fields of stricken battle,

While yet the ebbing life-tide smokes

From men that die like butchered cattle;

He, ere yet the guns grow cold,

To pimps and pets may crack his stories,’ etc.

I wish to ask you, sir, in behalf of others as well as myself, whether any such occurrence took place; or if it did not take place, please to state who that ‘other officer’ was, if there was any such, in the ambulance in which the President ‘was driving over the field [of Antietam] whilst details of men were engaged in the task of burying the dead.’  You will confer a great favor by an immediate reply.

Most respectfully your obedient servant,

A. J. PERKINS.

Along with the above I submitted to Mr. Lincoln my own draft of what I conceived to be a suitable reply.  The brutal directness and falsity of the ‘World’s’ charge, and the still more brutal and insulting character of the doggerel with which it was garnished, impelled me to season my reply to Mr. Perkin’s letter with a large infusion of ‘vinegar and gall.’  After carefully reading both letters, Mr. Lincoln shook his head.  ‘No, Lamon,’ said he, ‘I would not publish this reply; it is too belligerent in tone for so grave a matter.  There is a heap of cussedness’ mixed up with your usual amiability, and you are at times too fond of a fight.  If you were, I would simply state the facts as they were.  I would give the statement as you have here, without the pepper and salt.  Let me try my hand at it.’  He then took up a pen and wrote the following.  It was to be copied by me and forwarded to Mr. Perkins as y refutation of the slander.

‘The President has known me intimately for nearly twenty years, and has often heard me sing little ditties.  The battle of Antietam was fought on the 17th day of September, 18652.  On the first day of October, just two weeks after the battle, the President, with some others including myself, started from Washington to visit the Army, reaching Harper’s Ferry at noon of that day.  In a short while General McClellan came from his headquarters near the battle-ground, joined the President, and with him reviewed the troops at Bolivar Heights that afternoon, and at night returned to his headquarters, leaving the President at Harper’s Ferry.  On the morning of the second the President, with General Sumner,  reviewed the troops respectively at Loudon Heights and Maryland Heights, and at about noon started to General McClellan’s headquarters, reaching there only in time to see every little before night.  On the morning of the third all started on a review of the third corps and the cavalry, in the vicinity of the Antietam battle-ground.  After getting through with General McClellan he and the President left their horses to be led, and went into an ambulance or ambulances to go to General Fitz John Porter’s corps, which was two or three miles distant.  I am not sure whether the President and General McClellan were in the same ambulance, or in different ones; but myself and some others were in the same with the President.  One the way, and on no part of the battleground, and on what suggestions I do not remember, the President asked me to sing the little sad song that follows, which he had often heard me sing, and had always seemed to like very much.  I sang it.  After it was over, some one of the party (I do not think it was the President) asked me to sing something else; and I sang two or three little comic things, of which ‘Picayune Butler’ was one.  Porter’s corps was reached and reviewed; then the battle-ground was passed over, and the most noted parts examined; then, in succession, the cavalry and Franklin’s corps were reviewed, and the President and party returned to General McClellan’s headquarters at the end of a very hard, hot, and dusty day’s work.  Next day, the 4th, the President and General McClellan visited such of the wounded as still remained in the vicinity, including the now lamented General Richardson; then proceeded to and examined the South-Mountain battleground, at which point they parted,–General McClellan returning to his camp, and the President returning to Washington, seeing, on the way, General Hartsoff, who lay wounded at Frederick.

‘This is the whole story of the singing and its surroundings.  Neither General McClellan nor any one else made any objections to the singing; the place was not on the battlefield; the time was sixteen days after the battle; no dead body was seen during the whole time the President was absent from Washington, nor even a grave that had not ben rained on since it was made.’

This perfectly truthful statement was written by Mr. Lincoln about the 12th of September, 1864, less than two years after the occurrence of the events therein described.  It was done slowly, and with great deliberation and care.  The statement, however, was never made public.  Mr. Lincoln said to me: ‘You know, Hill, that this is the truth and the whole truth about that affair; but I dislike to appear as an apologist for an act of my own which I know was right.  Keep this paper, and we will see about it.’   The momentous and all-engrossing events of the war caused the Antietam episode to be forgotten by the President for a time; the statement was not given to the press, but has remained in my possession until this day.

Mark how simple the explanation is!  Mr. Lincoln did not ask me to sing ‘Picayune Butler.’  No song was sung on the battlefield.  The singing occurred on the way from Burnside’s corps to Fitz John Porter’s corps, some distance from the battle-ground, and sixteen days after the battle.  Moreover, Mr. Lincoln had said to me, ‘Lamon, sing one of your little sad songs,’–and thereby hangs a tale which is well worth the telling, as it illustrates a striking phase of Mr. Lincoln’s character which has never been fully revealed.

I knew well what Mr. Lincoln meant by ‘the little sad songs.’  The sentiment that prompted him to call for such a song had its history, and one of deep and touching interest to me.  One ‘little sad song’–a simple ballad entitled ‘Twenty Years Ago’–was, above all others, his favorite.  He had no special fondness for operatic music; he loved simple ballads and ditties, such as the common people sing, whether of the comic or pathetic kind; but no one in the list touched his great heart as did the song of ‘Twenty Years Ago.’  Many a time, in the old days of our familiar friendship on the Illinois circuit, and often at the White House when he and I were alone, have I seen him in tears while I was rendering, in my poor way, that homely melody.  The late Judge David Davis, the Hon. Leonard Swett, and Judge Corydon Beckwith were equally partial to the same ballad.  Often have I seen those great men overcome by the peculiar charm they seemed to find in the sentiment and melody of that simple song.  The following verses seemed to affect Mr. Lincoln more deeply than any of the others:–

I’ve wandered to the village, Tom; I’ve sat beneath the tree

Upon the schoolhouse play-ground, that sheltered you and me:

But none were left to greet me, Tom, and few were left to know

Who played with us upon the green, some twenty years ago.

Near by the spring, upon the elm you know I cut your name,–

Your sweetheart’s just beneath it, Tom; and you did mine the same.

Some heartless wretch has peeled the bark,–‘t was dying sure but slow,

Just as she died whose name you cut, some twenty years ago.

My lids have long been dry, Tom, but tears came to my eyes;

I thought of her I loved so well, those early broken ties:

I visited the old churchyard, and took some flowers to strew

Upon the graves of those we loved, some twenty years ago.

This is the song Mr. Lincoln called for, and the one I sang to him in the vicinity of Antietam.  He was at the time weary and sad.  As I well knew it would, the song only deepened his sadness.  I then did what I had done many times before: I startled him from his melancholy by striking up a comic air, singing also a snatch from ‘Picayune butler,’ which broke the spell of ‘the little sad song,’ and restored somewhat his accustomed easy humor.  It was not the first time I had pushed hilarity–simulated though it was–to an extreme for his sake.  I had often recalled him from a pit of melancholy into which he was prone to descend, by a jest, a comic song, or a provoking sally of a startling kind; and Mr. Lincoln always thanked me afterward for my well-timed rudeness ‘of kind intent.’

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Published in: on October 3, 2012 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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