Lincoln and his Secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay

Elmer Ellsworth

John Hay

John G. Nicolay

William O. Stoddard

James Harrison Wilson

The Sons

"My Father's life was of a kind, which gave me but little opportunity to learn the details of his early career. During my childhood and early youth he was almost constantly away from home, attending courts or making political speeches. In 1859 when I was sixteen and when he was beginning to devote himself more to practice in his own neighborhood, and when I would have had both the inclination and the means of gratifying my desire to become better acquainted with the history of his struggles, I went to New Hampshire to school and afterward to Harvard College, and he became President. Henceforth any great intimacy between us became impossible. I scarcely even had ten minutes quiet talk with him during his Presidency, on account of his constant devotion to business," recalled Robert Todd Lincoln, the President's oldest son.1

Historian Michael Burlingame noted: "Robert remembered with some bitterness one of the few occasions when the president carved time from a busy schedule to see him: 'I returned [after graduating] from college in 1864 and one day I saw my father for a few minutes. He said: 'Son, what are you going to do now?' I said: 'As long as you object to my joining the army, I am going back to Harvard to study law.'' Lincoln cooly replied, 'If you do, you should learn more than I ever did, but you will never have so good a time.' Robert added resentfully,'That is the only advice I had from my father as to my career.'"2 But the President was not completely negligent; Mr. Lincoln successfully sought to place Robert on the staff of commanding General Ulysses S. Grant in early 1865.

Robert may indeed have exaggerated a bit about his father's paternal neglect, but certainly there were other young men during the Civil War years who received more paternal time with the President. Mr. Lincoln's oldest son did not have the kind of free and frequent association with his father that other young men scarcely older than himself enjoyed. But that did not stop Mr. Lincoln from adopting a paternal attitude toward Robert's friends: "I have scarcely felt greater pain in my life than on learning yesterday from Bob's letter, that you had failed to enter Harvard University. And yet there is very little in it, if you will allow no feeling of discouragement to seize, and prey upon you. It is a certain truth, that you can enter, and graduate in, Harvard University; and having made the attempt, you must succeed in it. 'Must' is the word," Mr. Lincoln wrote George C. Latham, a Phillips Exeter classmate of Robert Lincoln, in July 1860. "I know not how to aid you, save in the assurance of one of mature age, and much severe experience, that you can not fail, if you resolutely determine, that you will not." Mr. Lincoln signed the letter "Very truly your friend."

Years before, Mr. Lincoln had adopted a somewhat fatherly attitude toward many of the would-be lawyers who studied in his Springfield law office. "The work he could accomplish in the way of preparing briefs for presenting before the Supreme Court, during the few hours after the rest of us had left the office and gone home, was a surprise the next morning to us all who had participated in the details of their preparation up to the night before, preparatory to Lincoln's arrangement and final statements," wrote lawyer Henry Rankin, who claimed to have clerked in the Lincoln-Herndon Law office in the late 1850s. Mr Lincoln, Rankin wrote "desired to be left alone after having once gone over these cases. It irritated him, he said, to thresh over straw a second time. Any young man in the office whose zeal for a client's case led him into any restatement of evidence would be sure to get some quaint reproof that we all were careful not to merit again."5

More significant than these Springfield examples was the fact that Mr. Lincoln brought three young men from Illinois to the White House - all less than a decade older than Robert. John G. Nicolay's daughter Helen reported how Hay came to join Nicolay at work in the Executive Mansion. Nicolay had been working for Mr. Lincoln for more than eight months before the President-elect left for Washington:
"My father appears to have been entirely responsible for John Hay's presence in Washington. In Springfield, when the time of departure for Washington neared, he asked his chief if John might go with them. An odd expression crossed Mr. Lincoln's face, turning all its ruggedness into lines of perplexity, as he answered: 'But I can't take all Illinois with me!'

He did, however, decide he could take John Hay, and nobody ever regretted the decision, even though - as is recorded - Mr. Hay's family disapproved at the time because, they said, such a move would 'necessarily interfere with his law-studies.'6


President Lincoln relied on his assistants to share his agenda and priorities and to act on his behalf with complete loyalty. A year after Mr. Lincoln's death, John Hay wrote William Herndon, "When the President had any rather delicate matter to manage at a distance from Washington, he rarely wrote, but sent Nicolay or me."7 Another aide, William O. Stoddard, observed that the "chief qualification" of John Nicolay for the office of chief secretary "was his devotion to the President and his incorruptible honesty Lincoln-ward. He measured all things and all men by their relations to the President, and was of incalculable service in fending off much that would have been unnecessary labor and exhaustion to his overworked patron."8

Both Nicolay and Hay shared the duties of White House gatekeepers. Stoddard said that "the impassable Mr. Nicolay" who "has a fine faculty for explaining to some men the view he takes of any untimely persistency. Hay does it equally well, in some cases, but he is even too fine about it, and there are fellows who went away and did not know how much he told them."9

Stoddard, himself halfway in age between Nicolay and Hay, wrote: "The President showed his good judgment of men when he put Mr. Nicolay just where he is, with a kind and amount of authority which it is not easy to describe. The ill-natured people call us all boys, and John Hay is nominally only twenty-four, and Mr. Nicolay is only a few summers farther on, if you count by the almanac; but is not this a time when a day is as a year often, and men grow gray internally?"10

By virtue of their position and intimacy with Mr. Lincoln, these young men were privy to some of Mr. Lincoln's thinking. "I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail, it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves," Mr. Lincoln told them one day.11

Of course, it wasn't just the young men in his office in Springfield or Washington who took a paternal attitude toward Mr. Lincoln. Thousands of young soldiers called him "Father Abraham" and sang songs like "We're Coming, Father Abraham, Three Hundred Thousand More." "When the soldiers in the field or their folks at home spoke of 'Father Abraham,' there was no cant in it," wrote Carl Schurz. "They felt that their President was really caring for them as a father would, and that they could go to him, every one of them, as they would go to a father, and talk to him of what troubled them, sure to find a willing ear and tender sympathy. Thus, their President, and his cause, and his endeavors, and his success gradually became to them almost matters of family concern."12

The President's secretaries were present for both important serious moments with President Lincoln and lighter ones as well. On May 7, 1861, Nicolay recorded: "Going into the P[residents]'s room this morning found Hay with him. The conversation turning on the subject of the existing contest he remarked that the real question involved in it, (as he had about made up his mind, though he should still think further about it, while writing his message [to be delivered to Congress on 4 July]) was whether a free and representative government had the right and power to protect and maintain itself."13 Two days later, Nicolay participated in a different kind of event: "We (I mean the President and four [or] five others of us from the White House) spent a very agreeable afternoon from about 3 to 6 o'clock P.M. yesterday. The 71st Regiment New York Volunteers are quartered at the Navy Yard, and having several good musicians in the ranks, and a fine regimental band, by way of pastime improved a regular concert...in one of the large store-rooms in the Navy Yard, which they occupy as barracks. They had an elegant audience of some two or three hundred invited guests and made the enterprise a great success."14 Later, they witnessed some cannon practice and a dress parade of the New York regiment.

There were some other relaxing moments with the President. Early in Mr. Lincoln's presidency, Nicolay recorded: "After dinner the President expressed a wish to go out riding; so I had the carriage got up, and he and I and the little boys took a ride. The ride last till near supper-time...."15 They also occasionally visited troops with the President. "Went out to-day to see the grand review at Munson's Hill - President and others in his carriage - Hay and I in coupť."16

Although Robert Todd Lincoln may not have spent much time with his father, when Robert was home from Harvard, he himself spent time with his father's surrogate sons. Less than three months into the Administration, John Nicolay reported: "In company with John Hay and Bob Lincoln who is here on a short visit from College, I took, on yesterday afternoon my second horseback ride since I have been here..."17 When Robert was home on vacations, he socialized with Hay - going to horseback rides and to the theater. Hay wrote to Nicolay in July 1863: "Bob [Lincoln] & I had a fearful orgie here last night on whiskey and cheese."18

Life at the White House could be a drab and difficult existence. Less than a month after the inauguration, Nicolay wrote: "Last night I got the President (it still seems queer to speak of Mr. Lincoln in that way although I am becoming used to it) to agree to let me have his business hours limited to from 10 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. This will be a very great improvement, as he has heretofore worked, on an average full twelve hours a day. And it will relieve not him alone but all the rest of us, from a burden of labor which it would be impossible to sustain for a great length of time."19 Even White House public events required their presence, as Stoddard described the usual mid-week reception: "How very tall the President looks, standing there in the foreground, between his two secretaries. That is their customary post of duty upon reception evenings, and we know by experience that it means an evening of hard work."20

Nor were the White House assistants well appreciated by visitors. "The ill-natured people call us all boys, and John Hay is nominally only twenty-four, and Mr. Nicolay is only a few summers farther on," wrote aide William O. Stoddard.21 Another frequent White House visitor, journalist Noah Brooks, was only a few years older but he described Nicolay and Hay as "snobby and unpopular."22

Nicolay wrote his fiancťe in the spring of 1861: ""So far the extra labor and fatigue to which I am subjected seems to have no immediate bad effects. The intense pressure does not seem to abate as yet but I think it cannot last more than two or three weeks longer. I am looking forward with a good deal of eagerness to when I shall have time to at least read and write my letters in peace and without being haunted continually by some one who 'wants to see the President for only five minutes.' At present this request meets me from almost every man woman and child I meet - whether it be by day or night - in the house or on the street...."23

"John and I are moping the day away here in our offices like a couple of great owls in their holes," wrote Nicolay again in December 25, 1861, "and expect in an hour or two to go down to Willards and get our 'daily bread' just as we do on each of the other three hundred and sixty four days of the year....."24 Both Nicolay and Hay had to take occasional extended vacations to recover from illnesses which their long hours encouraged. In August 1861, their paths crossed in New York as Nicolay returned from a recuperative vacation and Hay left for Illinois. "From present appearance it will keep John I both pretty busy to keep one well Secretary here all the time," wrote Nicolay.25

The Secretaries often undertook confidential political and military missions for the President. In 1864, for example, Hay was sent to Florida in February and March, Nicolay to New York in March, Nicolay went to Baltimore in June, Nicolay to Missouri in June and July and New York in August. Nicolay reported from Springfield to the President in October 1861 about Fremont's actions in Missouri. He closed his letter: "Please keep this confidential, as it renders all these officers liable to a reprimand, if it is ascertained that they communicate with you in any other way than through their superiors)."26

Along with his White House crew, Mr. Lincoln also encouraged the friendship of several young military officers - some of them the sons of friends. The first Union casualty of the war was Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, a young man who had clerked in Mr. Lincoln's law office and whom he valued and "mourned as a son."27 When Colonel Edwin D. Baker, a longtime friend, died in the Battle of Balls Bluff in October 1861, President Lincoln took a personal interest in promoting the career of Baker's son.

Mr. Lincoln also subsequently took an interest in the career of Ulric Dahlgren, son of Navy Captain John D. Dahlgren. When Ulric Dahlgren was killed in a Union cavalry raid on Richmond in March 1864, John G. Nicolay wrote that "He was decidedly the most gallant and daring cavalry officer of the war and his loss will be mourned here as widely and deeply almost as was Ellsworths...."28 In one of his memoirs of his days in the White House, William O. Stoddard wrote about a White House reception that Ulric Dahlgren attended:
It is a dancing party; but there is one handsome young fellow who will not dance. He came in on crutches, and young as he is, he wears the uniform of a colonel of cavalry. He is decorated forever with the costly prize-mark of valor in battle. No, he will not dance; but he is not to be left alone for one moment. You heard what that sweet-faced young woman said: 'He used to be such a beautiful waltzer! Poor fellow! We must not let him feel neglected;' and the reply from another voice as sympathetic as her own is:
"Is it not cruel! He is splendid!"
There they go, and one of them will be forever associated with the story of the White House; but she does not know it yet. They cluster around him merrily, as if they were trying to keep him from thinking of his lost leg and his vanished dancing days. Only one is left at this moment, and one of the young gentleman ornaments of society, who is not in uniform, is bending before her. You wonder at him, but can barely catch the words, "This set with you?"
There is an indignant flush upon her face, and something in her surprised eye remarks: 'You ought to know better, sir;' but her tongue says only: "Thank you; I'm engaged."
It is none the less a pretty manifest snub for his stupidity, and he is compelled to look elsewhere for a partner. It was a very pretty picture.
"But what became of him? Of Ulric Dahlgren?
Why, the surgeons were even then fitting him with an artificial leg so perfectly that he could rejoin his regiment. It was only a few days before he mounted and rode again. He rode away toward Richmond, and he did not return; but a sort of vision of splendid, generous youth, bright young manhood and brilliant young womanhood, will always come up in company with your memory of the hero could not dance.29

 

Footnotes

  1. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 499 (Letter of Robert T. Lincoln to Dr. J.G. Holland, June 6, 1865).
  2. Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 61.
  3. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 87 (Letter to George C. Latham, July 22, 1860).
  4. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 87 (Letter to George C. Latham, 1861).
  5. Henry Rankin, Abraham Lincoln: First American, p. 144.
  6. Helen Nicolay, Lincoln's Secretary, p. xxx.
  7. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndonís Informants, p. 331 (Letter from John Hay to William H. Herndon, September 5, 1866).
  8. Michael Burlingame, editor, William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincolnís Secretary, Sketch 2, p. 151.
  9. Michael Burlingame, editor, William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times, Memoirs and Reports of Lincolnís Secretary, p. 109.
  10. Michael Burlingame, editor, William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincolnís Secretary, p. 57.
  11. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincolnís White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 20 (May 7, 1861).
  12. Carl Schurz, Abraham Lincoln: An Essay, p. 14 (http://members.aol.com/sofdisk/alaessay.html).
  13. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 41 (Memorandum, May 7, 1861).
  14. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 41-42 (Letter to Therena Bates, May 10, 1861).
  15. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 34 (Letter to Therena Bates, April 14, 1861).
  16. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 61 (Memorandum, November 20, 1861).
  17. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 43 (Letter to Therena Bates, May 31, 1861).
  18. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincolnís Side: John Hayís Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 45.
  19. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 32 (Letter to Therena Bates, March 31, 1861).
  20. Michael Burlingame, editor, William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times, Memoirs and Reports of Lincolnís Secretary, p. 49.
  21. Michael Burlingame, editor, William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times, Memoirs and Reports of Lincolnís Secretary, p. 57.
  22. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 269.
  23. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 31 (Letter to Therena Bates, March 24,1861).
  24. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 64 (Letter to Therena Bates, December 25, 1861).
  25. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 54 (Letter to Therena Bates, August 31, 1861).
  26. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 60 (Letter to President Lincoln, October 21, 1861).
  27. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincolnís Journalist: John Hayís Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, p. 355.
  28. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 129 (Letter to Therena Bates, March 1864).
  29. Michael Burlingame, editor, William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times, Memoirs and Reports of Lincolnís Secretary, p. 128.