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Chapter 41:

The Grants and the Lincolns.

The account of Lincoln's love-making, in his history by Nicolay and Hay, seems almost ominous when read by the light of later knowledge. The anxieties and forebodings and absolute agony of the future President on the eve of marriage—the most incredulous might say—presaged the destiny that impended. For no one knows the character of Abraham Lincoln, his godlike patience, his ineffable sweetness, his transcendent charity amid all the tremendous worries of war and revolution and public affairs, who is ignorant of what he endured of private woe; and no one rightly judges the unfortunate partner of his elevation and unwitting cause of many of his miseries, who forgets that she had ‘eaten on the insane root that takes the reason prisoner.’

The country knows something of the strangeness of Mrs. Lincoln's conduct after her husband's death; but many of the most extraordinary incidents in her career were not revealed at the time, out of delicacy to others and tenderness to one who had been the sharer of Abraham Lincoln's fortunes and the mother of his family. Enough, however, was apparent to shock and pain the public sense, when finally the conflict with her own son, so highly respected, the dragging of their affairs into a public court, the necessary supervision of the poor lady's finances, the restraint of her actions, if not of her person, disclosed the fact that her mind had been diseased. This threw a light on circumstances until then inexplicable. It relieved Mrs. Lincoln herself from the charge of [356] heartlessness, or mercenary behavior, or indifference to her husband's happiness. It approved the action of the son, which, in some quarters, had been gravely misunderstood; and, above all, it showed the suffering Abraham Lincoln must have endured all through those years in which he bore the burden of a struggling nation upon his shoulders, whether he knew or only feared the truth, or whether he went on calmly in the sad thought that his worst forebodings before the marriage were fulfilled.

The first time that I saw Mrs. Lincoln was when I accompanied Mrs. Grant to the White House, for her first visit there as wife of the General-in-Chief. The next occasion that I recall was in March, 1864, when Mrs. Lincoln, with the President, visited City Point. They went on a steamer, escorted by a naval vessel of which Captain John S. Barnes was in command, and remained for several weeks in the James River under the bluff on which the headquarters were established. They slept and usually took their meals aboard, but sometimes both ascended the hill and were entertained at the mess of General Grant.

On the 26th of March a distinguished party from Washington joined them, among whom I remember, especially, Mr. Geoffroi, the French Minister. It was proposed that an excursion should be made to the front of the Army of the Potomac, about ten or twelve miles off, and Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Grant were of the company. A military railroad took the illustrious guests a portion of the way, and then the men were mounted, but Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Lincoln went on in an ambulance, as it was called—a sort of half-open carriage with two seats besides that for the driver. I was detailed to escort them, and of course sat on the front seat facing the ladies, with my back to the horses.

In the course of conversation, I chanced to mention that all the wives of officers at the army front had been ordered to the rear—a sure sign that active operations were in contemplation. [357] I said not a lady had been allowed to remain, except Mrs. Griffin, the wife of General Charles Griffin, who had obtained a special permit from the President. At this Mrs. Lincoln was up in arms, ‘What do you mean by that, sir?’ she exclaimed. ‘Do you mean to say that she saw the President alone? Do you know that I never allow the President to see any woman alone?’ She was absolutely jealous of poor, ugly Abraham Lincoln.

I tried to pacify her and to palliate my remark, but she was fairly boiling over with rage. ‘That's a very equivocal smile, sir,’ she exclaimed: ‘Let me out of this carriage at once. I will ask the President if he saw that woman alone.’ Mrs. Griffin, afterward the Countess Esterhazy, was one of the best known and most elegant women in Washington, a Carroll, and a personal acquaintance of Mrs. Grant, who strove to mollify the excited spouse, but all in vain. Mrs. Lincoln again bade me stop the driver, and when I hesitated to obey, she thrust her arms past me to the front of the carriage and held the driver fast. But Mrs. Grant finally prevailed upon her to wait till the whole party alighted, and then General Meade came up to pay his respects to the wife of the President. I had intended to offer Mrs. Lincoln my arm, and endeavor to prevent a scene, but Meade, of course, as my superior, had the right to escort her, and I had no chance to warn him. I saw them go off together, and remained in fear and trembling for what might occur in the presence of the foreign minister and other important strangers. But General Meade was very adroit, and when they returned Mrs. Lincoln looked at me significantly and said: ‘General Meade is a gentleman, sir. He says it was not the President who gave Mrs. Griffin the permit, but the Secretary of War.’ Meade was the son of a diplomatist, and had evidently inherited some of his father's skill.

At night, when we were back in camp, Mrs. Grant talked over the matter with me, and said the whole affair was so distressing [358] and mortifying that neither of us must ever mention it; at least, I was to be absolutely silent, and she would disclose it only to the General. But the next day I was released from my pledge, for ‘worse remained behind.’

The same party went in the morning to visit the Army of the James on the north side of the river, commanded by General Ord. The arrangements were somewhat similar to those of the day before. We went up the river in a steamer, and then the men again took horses and Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Grant proceeded in an ambulance. I was detailed as before to act as escort, but I asked for a companion in the duty; for after my experience, I did not wish to be the only officer in the carriage. So Colonel Horace Porter was ordered to join the party. Mrs. Ord accompanied her husband; as she was the wife of the commander of an army she was not subject to the order for return; though before that day was over she wished herself in Washington or anywhere else away from the army, I am sure. She was mounted, and as the ambulance was full, she remained on her horse and rode for a while by the side of the President, and thus preceded Mrs. Lincoln.

As soon as Mrs. Lincoln discovered this her rage was beyond all bounds. ‘What does the woman mean,’ she exclaimed, ‘by riding by the side of the President? and ahead of me? Does she suppose that he wants her by the side of him?’ She was in a frenzy of excitement, and language and action both became more extravagant every moment. Mrs. Grant again endeavored to pacify her, but then Mrs. Lincoln got angry with Mrs. Grant; and all that Porter and I could do was to see that nothing worse than words occurred. We feared she might jump out of the vehicle and shout to the cavalcade. Once she said to Mrs. Grant in her transports: ‘I suppose you think you'll get to the White House yourself, don't you?’ Mrs. Grant was very calm and dignified, and merely replied that she was quite [359] satisfied with her present position; it was far greater than she had ever expected to attain. But Mrs. Lincoln exclaimed; ‘Oh! you had better take it if you can get it. 'Tis very nice.’ Then she reverted to Mrs. Ord, while Mrs. Grant defended her friend at the risk of arousing greater vehemence.

When there was a halt Major Seward, a nephew of the Secretary of State, and an officer of General Ord's staff, rode up, and tried to say something jocular. ‘The President's horse is very gallant, Mrs. Lincoln,’ he remarked; ‘he insists on riding by the side of Mrs. Ord.’ This of course added fuel to the flame. ‘What do you mean by that, sir?’ she cried. Seward discovered that he had made a huge mistake, and his horse at once developed a peculiarity that compelled him to ride behind, to get out of the way of the storm.

Finally the party arrived at its destination and Mrs. Ord came up to the ambulance. Then Mrs. Lincoln positively insulted her, called her vile names in the presence of a crowd of officers, and asked what she meant by following up the President. The poor woman burst into tears and inquired what she had done, but Mrs. Lincoln refused to be appeased, and stormed till she was tired. Mrs. Grant still tried to stand by her friend, and everybody was shocked and horrified. But all things come to an end, and after a while we returned to City Point.

That night the President and Mrs. Lincoln entertained General and Mrs. Grant and the General's staff at dinner on the steamer, and before us all Mrs. Lincoln berated General Ord to the President, and urged that he should be removed. He was unfit for his place, she said, to say nothing of his wife. General Grant sat next and defended his officer bravely. Of course General Ord was not removed.

During all this visit similar scenes were occurring. Mrs. Lincoln repeatedly attacked her husband in the presence of officers because of Mrs. Griffin and Mrs. Ord, and I never suffered greater humiliation and pain on account of one not a [360] near personal friend than when I saw the Head of the State, the man who carried all the cares of the nation at such a crisis—subjected to this inexpressible public mortification. He bore it as Christ might have done; with an expression of pain and sadness that cut one to the heart, but with supreme calmness and dignity. He called her ‘mother,’ with his old-time plainness; he pleaded with eyes and tones, and endeavored to explain or palliate the offenses of others, till she turned on him like a tigress; and then he walked away, hiding that noble, ugly face that we might not catch the full expression of its misery.

General Sherman was a witness of some of these episodes and mentioned them in his memoirs many years ago. Captain Barnes, of the navy, was a witness and a sufferer too. Barnes had accompanied Mrs. Ord on her unfortunate ride and refused afterward to say that the lady was to blame. Mrs. Lincoln never forgave him. A day or two afterward he went to speak to the President on some official matter when Mrs. Lincoln and several others were present. The President's wife said something to him unusually offensive that all the company could hear. Lincoln was silent, but after a moment he went up to the young officer, and taking him by the arm led him into his own cabin, to show him a map or a paper, he said. He made no remark, Barnes told me, upon what had occurred. He could not rebuke his wife; but he showed his regret, and his regard for the officer, with a touch of what seemed to me the most exquisite breeding imaginable.

Shortly before these occurrences Mrs. Stanton had visited City Point, and I chanced to ask her some question about the President's wife. ‘I do not visit Mrs. Lincoln,’ was the reply. But I thought I must have been mistaken; the wife of the Secretary of War must visit the wife of the President; and I renewed my inquiry. ‘Understand me, sir?’ she repeated; ‘I do not go to the White House; I do not visit Mrs. Lincoln.’ I was not at all intimate with Mrs. Stanton, [361]


[362] and this remark was so extraordinary that I never forgot it; but I understood it afterward.

Mrs. Lincoln continued her conduct toward Mrs. Grant, who strove to placate her, and then Mrs. Lincoln became more outrageous still. She once rebuked Mrs. Grant for sitting in her presence. ‘How dare you be seated,’ she said, ‘until I invite you.’ Altogether it was a hateful experience at that tremendous crisis in the nation's history, for all this was just before the army started on its last campaign.

But the war ended and the President and Mrs. Lincoln had already returned to Washington when General Grant arrived from Appomattox, bringing Mrs. Grant with him. On the 13th of April, Washington was illuminated in honor of the victories, and Mrs. Lincoln invited General Grant to drive about the streets with her and look at the demonstration; but she did not ask Mrs. Grant. The next night, April 14th, was the saddest in American history. Not only GeneralGrant and Mrs. Grant, but the Secretary of War and Mrs. Stanton, were invited to accompany the President and his wife to the theatre. No answer had yet been sent when Mrs. Stanton called on Mrs. Grant to inquire if she meant to be of the party. ‘For,’ said Mrs. Stanton, ‘unless you accept the invitation, I shall refuse. I will not sit without you in the box with Mrs. Lincoln.’ Mrs. Grant also was tired out with what she had endured, and decided not to go to the play, little dreaming of the terrible experience she was thus escaping. She determined to return that night to Burlington, in New Jersey, where her children were at school, and requested the General to accompany her. Accordingly a note of apology was sent to Mrs. Lincoln, and Mrs. Stanton also declined the invitation. These ladies thus may both have saved their husband's lives.

After the murder of the President, the eccentricities of Mrs. Lincoln became more apparent than ever, and people [363] began to wonder whether her mind had not been affected by her terrible misfortune. Mr. Seward told me that she sold the President's shirts with his initials marked on them, before she left the White House; and learning that the linen was for sale at a shop in Pennsylvania Avenue, he sent and bought it privately. She lingered at the Executive Mansion a long while after all arrangements should have been made for her departure, keeping the new President out of his proper residence. Afterward she made appeals to public men and to the country for pensions and other pecuniary aid, though there was no need for public application. She went abroad doing strange things and carrying the honored name of Abraham Lincoln into strange and sometimes unfit company, for she was greatly neglected, and felt the neglect. While I was Consul-General at London, I learned of her living in an obscure quarter, and went to visit her. She was touched by the attention, and when I invited her to my house, for it seemed wrong that the widow of the man who had done so much for us all, should be ignored by any American representative, she wrote me a note of thanks, betraying how rare such courtesies had become to her then.

The next I heard of the poor woman was the scandal of the courts in Chicago, when the fact was made clear that she was insane. It was a great relief to many to learn it, and doubtless the disclosure of the secret which her son must have long suspected—though like the Spartan boy, he cloaked his pain—was to him a sort of terrible satisfaction. It vindicated his conduct; it told for him what he had concealed; it proved him a worthy son of that great father who also bore his fate so heroically.

The revelation not only showed these two as noble sufferers, but redeemed the unfortunate woman herself from the odium for which she was not responsible. The world had known that she seemed to defy and malign her son, that she had appeared to do things unworthy of the wife or widow of [364] the great martyr of our history, and even seemed to blot the nation's fame; but the pitiful story of Miramar casts no reflection on Maximilian's Empress, and the shadow of insanity thrown across the intelligence of Mrs. Lincoln, relieves her from reproach or blame. Instead of a mocking figure, disgracing her name and station and country, she too becomes an object of commiseration, not knowing the purport of her own words or the result of her own deeds, or perhaps vainly struggling to restrain them both, and regretting in her saner intervals the very acts she was at other times unable to control. And Lincoln—who that reveres and loves his memory will not respect his character more profoundly, and feel that he has another and a tenderer claim upon our sympathy and honor, since we know that even this cup did not pass from him. Amid the storms of party hate and rebellious strife, amid agonies—not irreverently be it said, like those of the Cross—for he also suffered for us—the hyssop of domestic misery was pressed to his lips, and he too said: ‘Father, forgive: they know not what they do.’

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