Members of Congress: Elihu B. Washburne (1816-1887)

Elihu B. Washburne
Elihu B. Washburne
Elihu B. Washburne
Elihu B. Washburne

Elihu B. Washburne

When President Lincoln arrived in Washington in the early morning of February 23, 1861 after a stealthy train ride through Baltimore, Congressman Elihu B. Washburne surprised Mr. Lincoln, Ward Hill Lamon and detective Allan Pinkerton by suddenly emerging from behind a pillar in the railroad station: “How are you, Lincoln?” Mr. Lincoln and his friend Ward H. Lamon and bodyguard Allen Pinkerton were temporarily surprised. “This is only Washburne!” reassured the President-elect.1

Pinkerton’s report of the event was somewhat more violent: “I hit the gentleman a punch with my elbow as he was close to me, staggering him back, but he recovered himself, and again took hold of Mr. Lincoln remarking that he knew him. I was beginning to think that we were discovered, and we might have to fight, and drew back clenching my fist, and raising it to take the gentleman a blow, when Mr. Lincoln took hold of my arm saying ‘Don’t strike him Allan, don’t strike him – that is my friend Washburne – don’t you know him?”2 Pinkerton later apologized to Congressman Washburne.

Washburne’s presence on this occasion illustrated the way he turned up at pivotal points in Mr. Lincoln’s career. Washburne later wrote that “Pinkerton, a man who had [Mr. Lincoln’s] entire confidence, had been some time in Baltimore, with several members of his force, in unraveling rebel plots, produced to him the most conclusive evidence of a conspiracy to assassinate him. General Scott’s detectives had discovered the same thing, and there was a great deal of individual testimony tending to establish the same fact. While Mr. Lincoln would have confronted any danger in the performance of duty, he was not a man given to bravado and quixotic schemes, and what he subsequently stated touching this matter comprises really all there is in it. He declared:

“‘I did not believe then, nor do I now believe I should have been assassinated had I gone through Baltimore as first contemplated, but I thought it wise to run no risk where no risk was necessary.'”3

Once greetings were exchange at the train station, according to Lamon, “The detective admonished Washburne to keep quiet for the present, and we passed on together. Taking a hack, we drove toward Willard’s Hotel. Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Washburne, and the detective got out in the street, and approached the ladies’ entrance, while I drove on to the main entrance, and sent the proprietor to meet his distinguished guest at the side door. A few minutes later Mr Seward arrived, and was introduced to the company by Mr. Washburne. He spoke in very strong terms of the great danger which Mr. Lincoln had so narrowly escaped, and most heartily applauded the wisdom of the ‘secret passage.”4

“I was the first man to see him after his arrival in Washington and talk with him of the incidents of his journey, and I know he was neither ‘mortified’ nor ‘chagrined’ at the manner in which he reached Washington,” wrote Congressman Washburne of the President-elect’s arrival. “He expressed to me in the warmest terms his satisfaction at the complete success of his journey; and I have it from persons who were about him in Philadelphia and Harrisburg that the plan agreed upon met his hearty approval, and he expressed a cheerful willingness to adapt himself to the novel circumstances. I do not believe that Mr. Lincoln ever expressed a regret that he had not, ‘according to his own desire, gone through Baltimore in open day,’ etc. It is safe to say he never had any such ‘desire.'”5

Washburne defended Mr. Lincoln against charges that he had sneaked through Baltimore wearing a “Scotch cap” and “big shawl” because of threats against his life. He later wrote that when the train “came to a stop I watched with fear and trembling to see the passengers descend. I saw every car emptied, and there was no Mr. Lincoln. I was well-nigh in despair, and when about to leave I saw slowly emerge from the last sleeping car three persons. I could not mistake the long, lank form of Mr. Lincoln, and my heart bounded with joy and gratitude. He had on a soft low-crowned hat, a muffler around his neck, and a short-bob-tailed overcoat. Any one who knew him at that time could not have failed to recognize him at once, but I must confess, he looked more like a well-to-do farmer from one of the back towns of Joe Davies County coming to Washington to see the city, take out his land warrant and get the patent for his farm, than the President of the United States.”6

Washburne had been the president-elect’s confidential informant in the Capital – keeping him abreast of developments in Washington and in Illinois when he was there. Shortly after Mr. Lincoln received the Republican nomination for President, he wrote Washburne: “I hope you will write often; and as you write more rapidly than I do, don’t make your letters so short as mine.”7
He told secretary John G. Nicolay in mid-November: “Among the letters you saw me mail yesterday was one to Washburne (of Ill.) who had written me that he had just had a long conversation with Gen. Scott, and that the General felt considerably outraged that the President would not act as he wished him to in reenforcing the forts, &c. I wrote to Washburne to tell General Scott confidentially that I wished him to be prepared, immediately after my inauguration, to make arrangements at once to hold the forts, or, if they had been taken, to take them back again.”8

Washburne conversed with Gen Scott and reported on the conspiracy to seize the capitol and Scott’s preparations to prevent it. “On the 8th of this month a force leaves Charleston to capture one of the most important forts on the Coast of Florida, and a U.S. sloop of war is on the way now to protect it. ‘The little band at Fort Sumpter is in fine spirits,’ and Scott says that is all he can say now about matters in Charleston harbor. These things he authorized me to say to you, although he will keep you officially advised, of many of these matters.”9 Washburne said he and others had hired two detectives to get to investigate rumors. In a letter at the end of January, Washburne reassured President-elect Lincoln about Washington’s safety:

There is a great deal said in the newspapers and a great deal said outside the newspapers about an attempt to seize this city, and a great many people are very much alarmed. I do not suppose you will be alarmed by all the talk. I think I am in a position to know as much as anybody about this whole matter. I am in consultation with Genl. Scott and with Col. Stone, who is organizing the militia of the district. Our friends from N.Y. three of the best and most skilful men ever in that service are still here, and I am posted every day in regard to their information. I am satisfied there does not NOW exist any organization to amount to anything, anywhere, the object of which is either to prevent your inauguration. I say now — what may take place I will not say, but I do not believe any attempt at all will be made at any time. I have just left Scott — he is very vigilant and active and will make every preparation he can to meet any emergency. I am sorry to say, however, old Buck is hanging back, though the Secretary of War is up to ‘high water mark’ (to use Scott’s own language) at the time. Scott has this day sent a paper to the President saying unless he is permitted to bring more troops here, he will not hold himself responsible for the peace of the District. I presume the President will now permit the troops to be brought here. The N.Y. friends are entirely certain there is no nucleus of a conspiracy in this city. The Mayor, although suspected of being a secessionist, was up before the special committee to-day and swore there was nothing of the kind going on.
When in Scott’s room, Genl. Dix the next Sec’y of the Treasury came in to consult about certain matters. He is clear up to the handle for the enforcement of the laws and the protection of the public property. The old General was hugely pleased at his firmness and the high ground he took. The only trouble now in the cabinet is Yancey, who is believed to sympathize with the traitors.
If Mrs. Lincoln entertain any fears, tell her my opinion is that there is to be no trouble and no danger. I may be mistaken, but do not think I am.10

Washburne served in the House of Representatives from 1853 to 1869. Unlike Illinois Congressman William Kellogg, Washburne was a strong opponent of any compromise with the seceding states about slavery. Washburne wrote President-elect Lincoln on January 7: “Great commotion and excitement exist to-day in our ranks in regard to a compromise that is supposed to be hatching by the Weed-Seward dynasty. Weed is here and one great object now is to obtain your acquiescence in the scheme to sell out and degrade the republicans. Leonard Swett is the agent to be employed to get you into it. He is acting under the direction of Weed, and it is said writes a letter to you dictated by Weed. No word of caution from me to you can be necessary. If you waver, our party has gone.”11

Washburne also acted to secure lodging in Washington for the Lincoln family for the period before the inauguration. With the approval of other Illinois Republicans, he arranged for President-elect Lincoln to stay in a private home rather than at a hotel. But on the way to Washington, other Republicans argued that such a residence might compromise Mr. Lincoln and he was better off staying in a hotel. Washburne’s views actually proved prophetic: “At the hotel, you would be literally run over [by visitors and office-seekers], but in your own house these things can be much better controlled.”12

In Congress, Washburne’s strong personality interfered with his ambitions and deprived him of a chance to be speaker of the House. Journalist Noah Brooks described Washburne as “one of the abler men in the House, of indomitable and imperious will; a governing mind, he leads men captive at his will by sheer semibrute force and not by force of logic or sweet persuasion. There is no softness of sentiment about that hard, iron-gray head.”13 But Washburne himself was a controversial figure – often at odds with other Republican members of the House. Brooks wrote that one of Washburne’s legislative maneuvers at the end of the 1864 session “was floored once more. Some men never will learn anything.”14

There is evidence, wrote biographer Carl Sandburg that President Lincoln prefered Washburne over Schuyler Colfax for election as speaker in December 1863. Gideon Welles wrote in his diary: “Blair tells me his opinion ofW[ashburne] is pretty much the same as mine and that he suggested and spoke of him at the instigation of the President, who, while he has not a very high opinion of Washburne, wants confidence in Colfax, whom he considers a little intriguer, – plausible, aspiring beyond his capacity, and not trustworthy.”15 About this time, Washburne himself visited the White House and reported: “‘Old Abe’ has a well developed case of varioloid. I was with him an hour and a half the other day and we went over many things. He did what he said he had done to no other person outside of his cabinet, he read me his message [to Congress]. The Madam was very gracious when I saw her….”16

Even without such honors Washburne had developed a trump card in his career – he was the primary political sponsor for General Ulysses Grant, who had lived in Washburne’s home town of Galena before rejoining the army at the outbreak of the Civil War. In early 1864 Washburne was the sponsor of legislation making Grant a lieutenant general. “Washburne had the pleasure of delivering Grant’s commission as Lieutenant General into the hero’s own hand; but he might have saved the journey which he took for that purpose, as Grant arrived in this city last evening about dusk,” wrote Brooks of Grant’s arrival in the nation’s capital in March.17 But Washburne was primarily a Lincoln loyalist, noted Grant’s top aide, General John A. Rawlins. About the time Grant was promoted, Rawlins wrote another military officer: “The Honorable E.B. Washburne I am sure is not in favor of Grant for the Presidency. He is for Mr. Lincoln.”18 At one point before the capture of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 even Washburne had wavered on Grant. President Lincoln told Ward Hill Lamon that ‘even Washburne, who has always claimed Grant as his by right of discovery, had deserted him and demands his removal.”19

Washburne “from the outset was opposed to any contraband traffic from the outset was opposed to any contraband traffic with the Confederates. Lincoln had given permits and passes through the lines to two persons, – Mr. Joseph Mattox, of Maryland, and General [James] Singleton, of Illinois, – to enable them to bring cotton and other Southern products from Virginia. Washburne heard of it, called immediately on Mr. Lincoln, and after remonstrating with him on the impropriety of such a demarche, threatened to have General Grant countermand the permits if they were not revoked. Naturally, both became excited. Lincoln declared that he did not believe General Grant would take upon himself the responsibility of such an act. ‘I will show you, sir, I will show you whether Grant will do it or not,’ responded Mr. Washburne as he abruptly withdrew.”

So in late winter of 1865, Washburne went to visit Grant and had the cotton permits countermanded. General Grant also suspended all trade permits in the area of military operations in Virginia. Ward Hill Lamon wrote: “Under all the circumstances it was a source of exultation to Mr. Washburne and his friends, and of corresponding surprise and mortification to the President.” Mr. Lincoln was particularly taken aback because Grant had once issued a cotton trading permit to his own father, but he didn’t reverse the general. He later said: “It made me feel my insignificance keenly at the moment; but if my friends Washburne, [Senator] Henry Wilson, and others derive pleasure from so unworthy a victory over me, I leave them to its full enjoyment.” However, Lamon suggested that “there was little cordiality between the President and Messrs. Washburne and Wilson afterwards.”20

Years before, Washburne greeted Mr. Lincoln when he had first come to Washington as a Congressman. “Mr. Lincoln took his seat in Congress on the first Monday in December, 1847. I was in attendance on the Supreme Court of the United States at Washington that winter, and as he was the only member of Congress from the State who was in harmony with my own political sentiments, I saw much of him and passed a good deal of time in his room,” recalled Washburne. “He belonged to a mess that boarded at Mrs. Spriggs, in ‘Duff Green’s Row’ on Capitol Hill. At the first session, the mess was composed of John Blanchard, John Dickey, A. R. McIlvaine, James Pollock, John Strohm, of Pennsylvania; Elisha Embree, of Indiana; Joshua R. Giddings, of Ohio; A. Lincoln, of Illinois, and P.W. Tompkins, of Mississippi. The same members composed the mess at Mrs. Spriggs’ the short session, with the exception of Judge Embree and Mr. Tompkins….He sat in the old hall of the House of Representatives, and for the long session was so unfortunate as to draw one of the most undesirable seats in the hall. He participated but little in the active business of the House, and made the personal acquaintance of but few members. He was attentive and conscientious in the discharge of his duties, and followed the course of legislation closely. When he took his seat in the House, the campaign of 1848 for President was just opening. Out of the small number of Whig members of Congress who were favorable to the nomination of General Taylor by the Whig Convention, he was one of the most ardent and outspoken.”21

Over the next 18 years, Washburne’s path often intersected with Mr. Lincoln. He and Washburne exchanged letters frequently when Mr. Lincoln was seeking the Illinois Senate seat in 1854 and 1858. Washburne related how he renewed his friendship with Mr. Lincoln at numerous meetings in Washington, Chicago and Springfield. He supported Mr. Lincoln in his effort in 1855 to be elected to the U.S. Senate. “Allied to him by the strongest ties of personal and political friendship, I did all in my power to secure for him, which I did, the support of the members of the Legislature from my Congressional District.”22 Mr. Lincoln’s gratitude was reflected in a letter which Mr. Lincoln sent Washburne after his defeat. He closed the letter: “With my grateful acknowledgments for the kind, active, and continual interest you have taken for me in this matter, allow me to subscribe myself, Yours, forever, A. Lincoln.”23

Mr. Lincoln trusted Washburne but kept him in political alignment. In the midst of the 1858 campaign, Mr. Lincoln sent Washburne a frank and diplomatically confrontational letter”

I am rather a poor correspondent, but I think perhaps I ought to write you a letter just now. I am here at this time, but I was at home during the sitting of the two democratic conventions. The day before the conventions I received a letter from Chicago having, among other things, on other subjects, the following in it:
“A reliable republican, but an old line whig lawyer, in this city told me to-day that he himself had seen a letter from one of our republican congressmen, advising us all to go for the re-election of Judge Douglass. He said he was injoined to keep the author a secret & he was going to do so. From him I learnt that he was not an old line democrat, or abolitionist. This narrows the contest down to the congressmen from the Galena and Fulton Dists.

The above is a litteral copy of all the letter contained on that subject. The morning of the conventions Mr. Herndon showed me your letter of the 15th. to him, which convinced me that the story in the letter from Chicago was based upon some mistake, misconstruction of language, or the like. Several of our friends were down from Chicago, and they had something of the same story amongst them, some half suspecting that you were inclined to favor Douglas, and others thinking there was an effort to wrong you.

I thought neither was exactly the case; that the whole had originated in some misconstruction, coupled with a high degree of sensitiveness on the point, and that the whole matter was not worth another moment’s consideration.
Such is my opinion now, and I hope you will have no concern about it. I have written this because Charley Wilson told me he was writing you, and because I expect Dr. Ray, (who was a little excited about the matter) has also written you; and because I think, I perhaps, have taken a calmer view of the thing than they may have done. I am satisfied you have done no wrong, and nobody has intended any wrong to you.24

The congressman remained loyal. Washburne recalled the Freeport Debate later in the campaign: “The Freeport discussion was held in August. The day was bright, but the wind sweeping down the prairies gave us a chilly afternoon for an out-of-door gathering. In company with a large number of Galena people, we reached Freeport by train, about ten o’clock in the morning. Mr. Lincoln had come in from the south the same morning, and we found him at the Brewster House, which was a sort of rallying-point for the Republicans. He had stood his campaign well, and was in splendid condition. He was surrounded all the forenoon by sturdy Republicans, who had come long distances, not only to hear him speak, but to see him, and it was esteemed the greatest privilege to shake hands with ‘Honest Old Abe.’ He had a kind word or some droll remark for every one, and it is safe to say that no one who spoke to him that day will ever have the interview effaced from memory. The meeting was held on a vacant piece of ground, not far from the center of the town. The crowd was immense and the enthusiasm great. Each party tried to outdo the other in the applause for its own candidate. The speaking commenced, but the chilly air dampened the ardor of the audience. Mr. Lincoln spoke deliberately, and apparently under a deep sense of the responsibility which rested upon him.25

Washburne and his politically important brothers were in the good graces of the president. On October 26, 1863, President Lincoln wrote Congressman Washburne, enclosing a leave for his brother, Major General Cadwallader C. Washburn, affected by “malarial dysentery.” In the same letter, President Lincoln wrote: “Without knowing whether he would accept it, I have tendered the collectorship of Portland, Maine, to your other brother, the Governor.” Meanwhile, Washburne had begun efforts to assure President Lincoln’s reelection – “a great honor and a great labor, which together, perhaps I would not decline, if tendered,” the President wrote Washburne.26

On April 8, shortly before the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Congressman Washburne spent an evening with President Lincoln after he had returned from visiting liberated Richmond. “In the evening Mr. Blaine and myself went on board the steam to pay our respect to the President. I never passed a more delightful evening. Mr. Lincoln was in perfect health and exuberant spirits. His relation of his experiences and of all he saw at Richmond had all of that quaintness and originality for which he was distinguished.”27 Shortly before President Lincoln returned to Washington, he used Washburne as a postman to take a letter to his son Robert at the Union front.

Historian Brooks D. Simpson wrote: “The next morning Grant showed how unruffled he was. Elihu Washburne, about to return to Washington, asked Grant if he could carry any message back to Lincoln and Stanton. Grant remarked that while he was pleased with his progress so far, he didn’t want to raise false hopes of an early success. He then entrusted the congressman with dispatches for Halleck and Stanton – the first time he had written the war secretary during the campaign. He puffed away at a cigar as he scribbled out his messages, his head almost enveloped in smoke before he paused to blow it away – a process that he repeated several times as he thought and wrote. ‘We have now entered the sixth day of very hard fighting,’ he began his message to Stanton. ‘The result to his time is much in our favor. Our losses have been heavy as well as those of the enemy….I purpose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.’ The words were written without flourish; Grant buried similar language in his description of the situation to Halleck. Nor did they convey the sense that there had been missed opportunities to do so much more. Instead they stood out to anyone who read the message as a statement of his deep determination to see the thing through.28

Washburne had one more service to perform. Although her relations with the congressman had at times been strained, several months after her husband’s murder, Mrs. Lincoln sought to prevail on Washburne’s “great personal affection, for my beloved & most deeply lamented husband & your kind friendship, for me” to get payment of her husband’s presidential salary to her.29


  1. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 38.
  2. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 286 (Report of Allan Pinkerton, February 23, 1861).
  3. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 40 (Lincoln qote is from Lossing’s Pictorial History of the Rebellion, Volume I, p. 279).
  4. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 46.
  5. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 40 (Elihu B. Washburne).
  6. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 37-38.
  7. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, (Letter to Elihu B. Washburne, May 26, 1860).
  8. Helen Nicolay, Lincoln’s Secretary, p. 55-56.
  9. David C. Mearns, editor, The Lincoln Papers, p. 379 (Letter of Elihu B. Washburne to Mr. Lincoln, January 4, 1861).
  10. David C. Mearns, editor, The Lincoln Papers, p. 427-428 (Letter of Elihu B. Washburne to Mr. Lincoln, January 30, 1861).
  11. David C. Mearns, editor, The Lincoln Papers, p. 390 (Letter from Elihu B. Washburne to Mr. Lincoln, January 7, 1861).
  12. David C. Mearns, editor, The Lincoln Papers, p. 441 (Letter from Elihu B. Washburne, February 19, 1861).
  13. P. J. Staudenraus, editor, Mr. Lincoln’s Washington: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 307-308.
  14. Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 121 (July 5,1864).
  15. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 501.
  16. Gaillard Hunt, Israel, Elihu and Cadwallader Washburn, p. 230.
  17. Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 103 (March 9,1864).
  18. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 539 (Letter of John A. Rawlins to James Harison Wilson).
  19. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 185.
  20. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 187-189.
  21. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 17-18 (Elihu B. Washburne).
  22. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 22.
  23. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 306 (Letter to Elihu B. Washburne, February 9, 1855).
  24. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 443-444 (Letter to Elihu Washburne. April 26, 1858).
  25. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 26 (Elihu B. Washburne).
  26. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 540 (Letter to Elihu Washburne, October 26, 1863).
  27. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 43-44 (Elihu B. Washburne).
  28. Brooks D. Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865, p. 307-308.
  29. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editor, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 288 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Elihu B. Washburne, November 29, 1865).