The Boys: William G. Greene (1812-1894)

William Greene first met Mr. Lincoln in 1830 when he started working for Denton Offutt. At the Offut store, according to Herndon, “William G. Green[e] was hired to assist him, and between the two a life-long friendship sprang up. They slept in the store, and so strong was the intimacy between them that ‘when one turned over the other had to do likewise.”1 Historian Michael Burlingame described Greene as “a highly entertaining story teller. Green’s main duty at the store was to assess applicants for credit. The three young men [Lincoln, Greene, and Charles Maltby] slept at the store and took meals at Bowling Green’s home, three-quarters of a mile from the village. Greene found his tall colleague ‘attentive – Kind – generous & accommodating,’ and recalled that he and Lincoln ‘slept on the same cott & when one turned over the other had to do likewise.’”2

One day in 1833, William Greene was offered the contents of Reuben Radford's store in New Salem. He bought it for just $400 because owner Radford was at the end of his merchant's rope. A disagreement over the sale of liquor had resulted in the Clary's Grove Boys trashing his store. Later the day of the sale, Billy Greene himself sold the store's stock for $650 to Berry and Lincoln. Greene told how his father greeted him when he returned home: "When young Greene stepped into the fireplace room where his parents slept, Greene, Sr., said: 'Son, Billy, you are a merchant are ye? You git along to bed and in the morning I will thrash the merchant out of you mighty quick.' Young Bill held his peace until he had stirred up the coals and lighted the room with fresh kindling. Then, reaching into his pockets, he began stacking up his silver on the floor where it could be plainly seen from his father's bed, and remarked: 'Pap, I've sold out and cleared this.' His father raised up for a better view, reached under the pillow for his twist of tobacco, and remarked: 'I'll just take a chaw! Liz, (Billy's mother) git up and git Billy a fust rate supper. He's had a hard's day work." 1

Greene later recalled that Mr. Lincoln "paid me principal and interest in full."2 Greene clearly won that business bet but he had a weakness for more common forms of gambling, which Mr. Lincoln sought to cure on one occasion by helping Greene win back his lost wagers - in exchange for a promise to abstain from this vice in the future. New Salem chronicler Thomas V. Reep wrote how Mr. Lincoln handled one Greene bet:
"Shortly following the wrestling match, Lincoln's fellow clerk, Greene, complained of having lost a number of small bets on a game that a man named Estep worked by twisting the fingers of his hand together in a confusing way and challenging the onlooker to pick out the little finger. Lincoln advised Greene to bet Estep that he (Lincoln) could lift a barrel of whiskey from the floor and hold it while he took a drink out of the bung hole.
"Accordingly, Greene set out in search of Estep, bent upon winning back his losses, and soon succeeded in making his bet. The stake was a fur hat. Lincoln won the bet for Greene by sitting in a squatting position and rolling the barrel upon his knees until the bung hole was opposite his face. He reached over and, gradually tilting the barrel, took a drink, which he immediately spat out.
"Greene, who probably desired to credit Lincoln with some of his own shrewdness, claimed that, at Lincoln's suggestion, when he went to make the bet with Estep, he took up a small keg of liquor and holding it up in front of himself drink out of th bung hole, declaring that Lincoln could lift a barrel and take a drink the same way, leaving Estep to assume that Lincoln was to lift the barrel in the same manner."3

Clearly, some of the stories of Mr. Lincoln's strength may have become exaggerated in the retelling. New Salem resident Daniel Green Burner recalled: "Physically, Mr. Lincoln was the strongest man I ever knew. That is saying a good deal. Let me tell you what I saw him do. He took a full barrel of whisky, containing forty-four gallons, gripping each end with one hand, raised it deliberately to his face and drank from the bunghole. In doing this he won a $10 hat from Bill Green. In the grocery I have often seen him pick up a barrel of whisky, place it on the counter, and then lower it on the other side."4

Billy Greene was present for most of Mr. Lincoln's most significant events in New Salem - the building of the flat boat for merchant Dennis Offut and service in the Black Hawk War. He said that Mr. Lincoln was "popular as an officer in campaign - also on account of his athletic powers."5 Greene was a fellow clerk with Mr. Lincoln in the Offut general store and mill. He helped set up the famous wrestling match between Mr. Lincoln and Jack Armstrong, the leader of the Clary's Grove Boys. He was around when Mr. Lincoln was mourning the death of Anne Rutledge and recalled that Mr. Lincoln told him "that the snows and rains fall upon her grave filled him with indescribable grief."6 He later became wealthy in real estate and banking and was president of the Tonica and Petersburg railroad line. According to one local woman, Greene was considered "one of the beaux of the neighborhood - and there were none too many to go around."7

Richard Yates recalled: "My friend Green, who introduced me, told me the first time he ever saw Lincoln, he was in the Sangamon River, with his pants rolled up some five feet more or less, trying to pilot a flat boat over a milldam. The boat had got so full of water that it was very difficult to manage and almost impossible to get it over the dam. Lincoln finally contrived to get her prow over so that it projected a few feet, and there it stood. But he then invented a new way of bailing a flat boat. He bored a hole through the bottom to let the water run out, and then corked her up and she launched right over. I think the Captain who proved himself so fitted to navigate the broad horn over the dam, is no doubt the man who is to stand upon the deck of the old ship, 'the Constitution,' and guide her safely over the billows and breakers that surround her."8

Greene himself recalled bringing some friends home from Illinois College and taking them to meet "a talented and interesting young man by the name of Lincoln. When we approached I was mortified to find that Abe was lying stretched outflat on his back on a cellar door reading a paper. I introduced him and he appeared so awkward and ruff, that I was afraid my College friends would be ashamed of him. We made him go down to dinner with us. At the table he upset his large bowl of milk and when my mother was trying to apologize for the accident L remarked that he would try and not let it trouble him hereafter."9

Yates described his visit to the Greene home in a similar fashion: "You know very well that we all lived in a very plain way those times. The house was a rough log house, with a puncheon floor and clapboard roof, and might have been built like Solomon's Temple 'without the sound of hammer or nail,' for there was no iron in it. The old lady whose house it was soon provided us with a dinner, the principal ingredient was a great bowl of milk which she handed to each. Somehow in serving Lincoln there was a mistake made, and his bowl tipped up and the bowl and milk rolled over the floor. The good old lady was in deep distress, and burst out 'Oh dear me! That's all my fault.' Lincoln picked up the bowl in the best natured way in the world, remarking to her, 'Aunt Lizzy we'll not discuss whose fault it was — only if it don't worry you, it don't worry me.' The old lady was comforted and gave him another bowl of milk."10

Thomas G. Onstott recalled: "In 1835, I had taken my brother back to college, and met many of the boys who had been at home to help take care of the harvest, among them William G. Green, who while at home, said a young man named Abe Lincoln, from Salem, had come on to help them. He said that Lincoln could pitch more hay than any hand his father had. When Lincoln found that Green had been to college he asked if he had brought his books home with him. He said he never had the advantage of an educator and would like to study grammar and arithmetic, and asked Green if he would assist him and Green consented to do so."11

Lincoln had a warm place in his heart for Green and showed him many favors after he was elected president. He went to see him at Washington while he was president. Lincoln was very glad to see him and introduced him to his cabinet officers and told them that he was the young man who had taught him grammar and arithmetic. W. G. Green has been dead several years, but was more intimately acquainted with 'Honest Old Abe' than any other living person."12

Lincoln scholar H. Donald Winkler wrote: “Greene knew the financial standing of people in the community and could tell Lincoln whose credit was good. Most settlers bought on credit and paid with produce. Greene had an exceptionally keen mind, especially in financial matters. Some called him ‘Slicky Bill.’ He lived with his father, a drinking and illiterate man, on a farm two miles from town, but he often stayed overnight at the store, sharing a bed with Lincoln. They developed a lifelong friendship.”13

Thomas G. Onstott recalled working for Greene whom he said “always had a tact and talent for making money – what the world terms shrewdness.... He was the money king of this county, and any man who needed money could always be accommodated, though the rate was often 5 per cent a month. He told us that he scarcely ever lost a debt, and that the man would always find him on hand early in the morning. He was identified with early religious organizations in this section, and when the first Sunday school was organized here, at a private house, Mr. Green, by his presence and financial aid, helped the good work along. Born and raised a Democrat, he voted that ticket until the beginning of the war when his personal friendship for Lincoln made him an ardent Republican; and during the war he was one of the President’s trusted advisors. As a business man he was strict and exacting; as a neighbor he was kind and accommodating...”14

Greene said Mr. Lincoln was “the center of attraction on all occasions.” He was “always appointed one of Judges when at horse race and was never objected to by either party.” According to Onstott, “Green said that Lincoln could pitch more hay than any other hand his father had. When Lincoln found that Green had been to college he asked him if he had brought any books home with him. Green replied that he had, and Lincoln told him that he never had the advantage of an education and said he would like to study grammar and arithmetic. He asked Green if he would assist him and Green said that he would.”15 Green thereafter helped Lincoln study before breakfast and after work Lincoln scholar C.A. Tripp wrote: “Day after day Billy held the book and checked for accuracy as time and again Abe reeled off technical rules.”16 Onstott recalled:“Green said he never saw anyone who could learn as fast as Lincoln.”17

In March 1858, Lincoln wrote to Richard Yates that “Butler says you rather have an eye to getting our old friend Bill Green on the track.....Nothing would please me better, whenever he got on to ground that would suit you, except it would give us no access to the Fillmore votes....Don’t you see? We must have some one who will reach the Fillmore men, both for the direct and the incidental effect.'"18(Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Richard Yates, March 9, 1858)

Onstott wrote “that Green and a few of his Menard friends went, in one of the dark periods of the war, to see the president. The White House was guarded by a cordon o[f] soldiers. Green and his friends were unable to gain entrance, but Green’s wit never failed him. Going to another entrance Green and his friends locked arms and marched up. Green waved his hand [and] said:, ‘Make way, gentlemen, for Gov. Yates and his staff.’ The crowd parted and Green and his friends marched in.”19

Greene had a high opinion of his friend: "Mr Lincoln was considered an Intelligent well Read young man when he first Located at New Salem especially for those Times."11 Greene said Mr. Lincoln was fond of reading Shakespeare, Byron & Burns. He described Mr. Lincoln as "a man of kindness - Courtesy - sincerity & honor, having a mind of great force & depth, and was as much a centre of attraction that Early day as he was while President. He grasped the Peoples affections through simplicity of his good nature - his honesty - his integrity - his virtue - his high moral & noble qualities and when he once had a man's or a woman's love he never willingly let go its hold."20

Greene himself had a role in Mr. Lincoln's education, according to Harvey Lee Ross, whose brother went to Jacksonville College with Green and Richard Yates. While the college boys were helping with the harvest when Mr. Lincoln came by. Greene "said Lincoln could pitch more hay than any man his father had. When Lincoln found out that young Green (sic) had been to college he asked him if he had brought his books home with him. He said he had never had the advantage of an education, and said he would like to study grammar and arithmetic and asked if Green would assist him, and he told him that he would." The two young men worked together on mathematics and grammar. Greene "said he never saw another person who could learn as fast as Lincoln did."21

Ross said Greene told him about a Civil War visit to President Lincoln in Washington. "He said Lincoln was glad to see him, throwing his arms about his neck and showing him many marks of kindness while he remained in the city. Before he came away Mr. Lincoln introduced him to some of his cabinet officers, telling them that he was the young man who taught him grammar and arithmetic in his father's barn."22 Thomas V. Reep wrote that William Greene told him: "During Lincoln's presidency, while Green was internal revenue collector for the Peoria district, he was called to Washington by Lincoln. Being admitted to Lincoln's office, he found William Henry Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, present. Lincoln, after saluting and shaking hands with Greene, turned to Seward and said, 'Seward, shake hands with Bill Greene of Illinois, the man who taught me grammar.' The statement embarrassed Greene, who himself knew little about grammar and in whose conversation grammatical rules were not always adhered to. Consequently, he did not engage in the conversation for fear Seward would notice his deficiencies and wonder at Lincoln's statement." Greene related the conversation after Mr. Seward left the room:
Greene: 'Abe, what did you mean by telling Seward that I taught you grammar? Lord knows I don't know any grammar myself, much less could I teach you.'
Mr. Lincoln: 'Bill, don't you recollect that when we stayed in the Offut store in New Salem, you would hold the book and see if I could give the correct definitions and accurate answers to the questions?'
Greene: 'Yes, Abe, I remember that, but that was not teaching you grammar.'
Mr. Lincoln: "Bill that was all the teaching of grammar I ever hand.23


President Lincoln appointed Greene as Treasury Department Collector for the 8th District in Illinois - with the backing of local Congressman William Kellogg but over the opposition of Senator Orville H. Browning and the Chicago Tribune's Charles Ray, who supported another candidate. Earlier in 1862 Richard Yates wrote President Lincoln: "Strong letters will be sent you by Mssrs Butler & Dubois, urging appointment of W. G. Greene1 of Menard Co. as agent to go through Tennessee & some other States to promote growth of union sentiments. I think the appointment would be most judicious. I regard Bill Green as the shrewdest man in Illinois. You know him well but undoubtedly underrate him because you have not seen him as I have in emergencies in our Railroad business."24

Mr. Lincoln "grasped the Peoples affections through simplicity of his good nature - his honesty - his integrity - his virtue - his high moral & noble qualities and he once had a man's or a woman's love he never willingly let go its hold," wrote Greene a few months after his death.25

 

Footnotes

  1. Thomas P. Reep, Abraham Lincoln and the Frontier Folk of New Salem, p. 69.
  2. Roy P. Basler, editor, “James Quay Howard’s Notes on Lincoln”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume IV, December 1947, No. 8, p. 398.
  3. Thomas P. Reep, Abraham Lincoln and the Frontier Folk of New Salem, p. xxx.
  4. Daniel Green Burner, “Lincoln and The Burners at New Salem”, The Many Faces of Lincoln, p. 190-191.
  5. Roy P. Basler, editor, “James Quay Howard’s Notes on Lincoln”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume IV, December 1947, No. 8, p. 399.
  6. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 113.
  7. Douglas L. Wilson, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, p. 114.
  8. John H. Krenkel, Richard Yates, Civil War Governor, p. 211-213 (from a speech Yates gave on June 7, 1860 in Springfield).
  9. Roy P. Basler, editor, “James Quay Howard’s Notes on Lincoln”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume IV, December 1947, No. 8, p. 400.
  10. John H. Krenkel, Richard Yates, Civil War Governor, p. 211-213 (from a speech Yates gave on June 7, 1860 in Springfield).
  11. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 175 (Letter from William G. Green to William H. Herndon, January 23, 1866).
  12. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 21 (William G. Greene statement for William H. Herndon, May 30, 1865).
  13. Harvey Lee Ross, The Early Pioneers and Pioneer Events of the State of Illinois, p. 97-98.
  14. Harvey Lee Ross, The Early Pioneers and Pioneer Events of the State of Illinois, p. 98.
  15. Thomas P. Reep, Abraham Lincoln and the Frontier Folk of New Salem, p. 50.
  16. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Richard Yates to Abraham Lincoln, April 9, 1862).
  17. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 21 (Letter from W G. Greene to William H. Herndon, May 30, 1865).