The Journalists: Henry Villard (1835-1900)

Henry Villard
German-American journalist Henry Villard wrote: “I was introduced to Lincoln at Freeport, and met him frequently afterwards in the course of the [1858 Senate] campaign. I must say frankly that, although I found him most approachable, good-natured, and full of wit and humor, I could not take a real personal liking to the man, owing to an inborn weakness for which he was even then notorious and so remained during his great public career. He was inordinately fond of jokes, anecdotes, and stories. He loved to hear them, and still more to tell them himself out of the inexhaustible supply provided by his good memory and his fertile fancy.”1

Villard was an itinerant journalist, who was working for a German-language newspaper in New York during the 1858 Senate campaign in Illinois. Villard was usually on the prowl for a job that equated with his sense of place and class.Ohio editor Murat Halsted recalled: “I employed him for ten years, and he was a very good newspaper man. His letters from Springfield were exceptionally good and indicated pretty plainly Mr. Lincoln’s views. He sent me a manuscript editorial that Mr. Lincoln had written for the Springfield Journal afer he was elected President. It had been strongly contended by some that Lincoln should take into his Cabinet some men who were not Republicans. This letter was written in Lincoln’s quaint style, and, in a hypothetical way, showed that he could only take for his Cabinet advisers those who affiliated with the Republican Party.”2

Villard did not meet Lincoln under the best of circumstances. He was working for a Democratic newspaper, the Staats-Zeitung. Although Villard himself had Republican sympathies, he had little sympathy for Lincoln, who was too pedestrian for the patrician Villard. Lincoln simply did not meet Villard’s standards of elegance and sophistication. He didn’t look the part. But over time, Villard got to know and better respect the Illinois lawyer. The two got acquainted in the late summer of 1858 when they were caught in a thunderstorm while waiting for a train to Springfield. In his memoirs, Villard recalled that he met Mr. Lincoln “accidentally, about nine o’clock on a hot, sultry evening, at a flag railroad station about twenty miles west of Springfield, on my return from a great meeting at Petersburg in Menard County. He had been driven to the station in a buggy and left there alone. I was already there. The train that we intended to take for Springfield was about due. After vainly waiting for half an hour for its arrival, a thunderstorm compelled us to take refuge in an empty freight car standing on a side track, there being no buildings of any sort at the station. We squatted down on the floor of the car and fell to talking on all sorts of subjects. It was then and there he told me that, when he was clerking in a country store, his highest political ambition was to be a member of the state Legislature.

Mr. Lincoln proceeded to charm but not beguile Villard: “Since then, of course,” he said laughingly, “I have grown some, but my friends got me into THIS business [meaning the canvass]. I did not consider myself qualified for the United States Senate, and it took me a long time to persuade myself that I was. Now, to be sure,” he continued, with another of his peculiar laughs, “I am convinced that I am good enough for it; but, in spite of it all, I am saying to myself every day: ‘It is too big a thing for you; you will never get it.’ Mary [his wife] insists, however, that I am going to be Senator and President of the United States, too.” These last words he followed with a roar of laughter, with his arms around his knees, and shaking all over with mirth at his wife’s ambition. “Just think,” he exclaimed, “of such a sucker as me as President!”4

Villard, born Ferdinand Heinrich Tgustav Hilgard, was impetuous and spirited, aristocratic and ambitious. He came to America as a young and penniless immigrant. He had a talent for making well-placed and well-endowed friends – which he parlayed into extraordinary investments in the Northern Pacific railroad system. As a journalist, he had a talent for being where the action was and gaining the confidence of important generals. His friendship with William T. Sherman raised questions about the general’s mental stability – which when transmitted to a fellow journalist became a public controversy that precipitated Sherman’s departure from his Kentucky command in late 1861. Villard’s enthusiasms and sometimes outran his judgement – which in the case of humans, was often influenced by their appearance and dress. He seemed drawn to physical and financial challenges which repeatedly undermined his own health.

Mr. Lincoln had a way of drawing people out when he wanted. Villard recorded that Mr. Lincoln asked “questions regarding my antecedents, and expressed some surprise at my fluent use of English after so short a residence in the United States.” He then queried Villard on his ideas about religion. “He then fell to asking questions regarding my antecedents, and expressed some surprise at my fluent use of English after so short a residence in the United States. Next he wanted to know whether it was true that most of the educated people in Germany were “infidels.” I answered that they were not openly professed infidels, but such a conclusion might be drawn from the fact that most of them were not church-goers. “I do not wonder at that,” he rejoined; “my own inclination is that way.” I ventured to give expression to my own disbelief in the doctrine of the Christian Church relative to the existence of God, the divinity of Christ, and immortality. This led him to put other questions to me to draw me out. He did not commit himself, but I received the impression that he was of my own way of thinking. It was no surprise to me, therefore, to find in the writings of his biographers Ward Hill Lamon and W. H. Herndon that I had correctly understood him. Our talk continued till half-past ten, when the belated train arrived. I cherish this accidental rencontre as one of my most precious recollections, since my companion of that night has become one of the greatest figures in history.”4

Villard did not experience a political conversion, however. In both 1858 and 1860, he preferred Mr. Lincoln’s opponents. Villard biographers Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen wrote: “As had been the case with Douglas, Villard’s support of Seward was probably as much a function of the antipathy he felt toward Lincoln as anything else. Villard’s position on slavery and ‘the negro question’ had indeed moved further to the left since the 1858 debates, but his reaction to Lincoln sprang from considerations that were more aesthetic, social, and emotional than political. It seemed to Villard outrageous that this ‘uncouth, common Illinois politician’ should triumph over ‘the foremost figure…in the country.’ In 1858, Villard had praised Douglas in similarly extravagant terms, opposing Lincoln elevated a man in his eyes.”5

After the presidential election, the New York Herald’s James Gordon Bennett hired Villard to cover the President-elect and follow him to Washington. Some of the most insightful reports from that period come from Villard’s pen. He reported a reception on November 20, 1860:

Today’s work was the hardest ‘Old Abe’ did since his election. He had hardly appeared at the State House when he was beset by an eager crowd that had been on the lookout for him ever since daylight. They gave him no time to occupy himself the usual two hours previous to the morning receptions with his private secretary, but clung to his coat tails with an obstinacy worthy of a better cause. He had to admit them at once into his apartment, and then submit for nearly ten long, weary hours to the importunities of a steady tide of callers. Limited as the space required by the lean proportions of the President is, he found it it a most difficult task to find sufficient standing room. By constant entreaties to make room he maintained himself in close proximity to the door, which position he had chosen with a view to facilitating the inevitable hand shakings. But he found to his intense bodily inconvenience that this deference to the comfort of his callers was not the most practical plan he might have adopted. The curious defiled past him, after squeezing the Presidential fingers into the room, and settled either on the sofa or chairs or remained standing for protracted observations. Only after having stared with open mouths to their heart’s content – many employed hours in that agreeable past time – would they move out of the room and enable others to gain admittance. A tight jam prevailed, therefore, all day, around the President, who found himself frequently “driven to the wall.”6

It was Villard who approached Mr. Lincoln on the train after it left Springfield on February 10, 1861 and requested a copy of his “farewell address.” Mr. Lincoln wrote it out and Villard telegraphed it to the New York Herald along with the report: “The cheers are always for Lincoln and the Constitution. The President-elect continues reserved and thoughtful, and sits most of the time alone in the private saloon prepared for his special use.”7

Villard was often a pointed critic of Mr. Lincoln. Describing the pre-inaugural train trip to Washington, Villard wrote in his memoirs: “The least creditable performance en route was his attempt to say something on the question of tariff legislation in his Pittsburgh speech. What he said was really nothing but crude, ignorant twaddle, without point or meaning. It proved him to be the veriest novice in economic matters, and strengthened my doubts as to his capacity for the high office he was to fill. So poor was his talk that most of the Republican papers, while they printed it, abstained from comment.”8

Like many journalists, Villard was a useful conduit of information for President Lincoln. The President often received rather than distributed information to reporters who visited him. Although skeptical of Mr. Lincoln’s abilities, Villard believed in his goals. On the eve of the Civil War, noted James M. Perry in The Bohemian Brigade, “Villard wasn’t so sure he wanted to remain on Bennett’s payroll. He must have been especially outraged by Bennett’s editorial on April 10 attacking Lincoln for plunging the nation into ‘an abyss of ruin.’ The Herald called for the overthrow of Lincoln and the Republican Party.”9 But after the attack on Fort Sumter, Villard was summoned to New York to meet with publisher James Bennett. He went with Bennett to his Washington Heights home for dinner with Bennett’s son, James, Jr.

Villard wrote in his memoirs: “After dinner he disclosed his true purpose in sending for me. First, he wanted me to carry a message from him to Mr. Lincoln that the Herald would hereafter be unconditionally for the radical suppression of the Rebellion by force of arms, and in the shortest possible time, and would advocate and support any ‘war measures’ by the Government and congress. “I was, of course, very glad to hear this, and promised to repeat these assurances by word of mouth to the President.” According Villard, Bennett also “wanted me to offer to secretary [of the Treasury Salmon] Chase his son’s famous sailing yacht, the Rebecca, as a gift to the Government for the revenue service, and to secure in consideration thereof for its owner the appointment of lieutenant in the same service.”10 (Chase accepted both the yacht and Bennett’s service.)

Villard returned to Washington with difficulty; it had been cut off from the North by secessionists in Baltimore. Loyal troops had trouble getting through. “As it was, our darkness was not broken by a ray of light till the 25th [of April], and, in the meantime, the impatience, gloom, and depression were hourly increasing. No one felt it more than the President. I saw him repeatedly, and he fairly groaned at the inexplicable delay in the advent of help from the loyal States. I heard him say, too, when he reviewed the men of the Sixth Massachusetts, the very words that Nicolay and Hay quote [in their multi-volume biography]: ‘I begin to believe there is no North. The Seventh New York Regiment is a myth. The Rhode Island troops [reported to be on the way up the Potomac] are another. You are the only real thing.”11

After covering the beginning of the war in the East, Villard spent most of 1862 covering the western campaign for the Tribune – and becoming an expert on Generals Buell, Grant, Rosencrans and Sherman. In November 1862, Villard came to Washington to cover the eastern campaign. As often happened when President Lincoln discovered a reporter who had more information about current military affairs than he had, he summoned that reporter to the White House – in this case the situation in Tennessee.

“I had a long conversation with Mr. Lincoln,” reported Villard in his Memoirs. “It took place after the publication of my review of Buell’s campaigns, a reference to which the President make it the exclusive subject discussed. He asked my opinion of the principal commanders under [Don Carlos] Buell, which I expressed with entire frankness. He surprised me by his familiarity with details of movements and battles which I did not suppose had come to his knowledge. As he kept me talking for over half an hour, I flattered myself that what I had to say interested him. This impression was confirmed by his intimation that he should be glad to see me again, after I had told him, in response to his question as to my future movements, that I should be with the Army of the Potomac.”12 Biographers de Borchgrave and Cullen wrote: “Villard was pleased and flattered by this meeting; Lincoln listened closely to what he had to say, complimented him on his printed review of Buell’s campaign, and looked forward to his opinions concerning the Army of the Potomac. This evidence of the president’s discernment raised him higher in Villard’s esteem than ever before, and as he left the White House he was filled with confidence in the success of Lincoln’s policies and the Union cause.”13

After the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Villard snuck through Union lines and back to Washington to file his dispatch. There in Willard’s Hotel, Villard encountered Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson, who went to the White House. He returned with a request that Villard come with him to go to the White House to report to the President.

We found Mr. Lincoln in the old reception room on the second floor, opposite the landing. He greeted me with a hearty handshake, saying, ‘I am much obliged to you coming for I am very anxious and have heard very little.’ He then asked me to give him, as far as my personal knowledge permitted, a general outline of what had happened, which I did as fully, as I could in a few minutes. He followed up my account with one question after another for over half an hour. He inquired regarding the defences of the rebels on our right front, their command of the town and river, the physical and moral condition of our troops before and after the fight, the chances of success of another attack from either of our wings, the extent of our losses, and the feeling among the general officers. He was very careful not to ask anything so as to imply criticism of anybody, although I ventured to mingle a good deal of censure with my statements of facts. But his questions and the expression of his face showed that he believed I was aiming to tell the truth, and that he felt growing anxiety. When he ended the interview by repeating his thanks, I made bold to say as earnestly as I could: ‘Mr. President, it is, of course, not for me to offer advice to you, but I hope my sincere loyalty may be accepted as my excuse for taking the liberty of telling you what is not only my conviction but that of every general officer I saw during and after the fighting, that success is impossible, and that the worst disaster yet suffered by our forces will befall the Army of the Potomac if the attack is renewed, and unless the army is withdrawn at once to the north side. Pardon me, Mr. President but I cannot help telling you further that you cannot render the country a greater service than by ordering General Burnside to withdraw from the south bank forthwith, if he has not already done so.”

The President responded: “I hope it’s not so bad as all that, Henry.”14

“Villard never thought seriously of making a career in journalism. Deep down, he was an aspiring capitalist, and he would go on to become a very wealthy railroad tycoon. As a reporter, he did sometimes seem to side with management,” noted 20th century journalist James Perry. “If he had been a general, he once said, he would have been the first to impose strict censorship on the press. No Bohemian, Henry Villard.”15 After the Civil War, Villard became a multimillionaire, eventually assuming control of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. The mansion he built on Madison Avenue is now a part of the Palace Hotel and home of one of New York City’s finest restaurants.


  1. Henry Villard, “Recollections of Lincoln”, Atlantic Monthly, February 1904.
  2. Allen C. Clark, “Abraham Lincoln in the National Capital,” Journal of the Columbia Historical Society, Volume XXVII, p. 59
  3. Henry Villard, “Memoirs of Henry Villard”, Volume I, p. 96.
  4. Henry Villard, “Recollections of Lincoln”, Atlantic Monthly, February 1904, .
  5. Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen, Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan, p. 125.
  6. Henry Villard, Lincoln on the Eve of ‘61, p. 18-19.
  7. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 254 (Henry Villard).
  8. Henry Villard, Memoirs of Henry Villard, Volume I, p. 152.
  9. James M. Perry, A Bohemian Brigade: The Civil War Correspondents, p. 53.
  10. Henry Villard, Memoirs of Henry Villard, Volume I, 1835-1862, p. 162.
  11. Henry Villard, Memoirs of Henry Villard, Volume I, 1835-1862, p. 169-170.
  12. Henry Villard, Memoirs of Henry Villard, Volume I, 1835-1862, p. 340.
  13. Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen, Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan, p. 2-6.
  14. Henry Villard, Memoirs of Henry Villard, Volume I, 1835-1862, p. 390-391.
  15. James M. Perry, A Bohemian Brigade: The Civil War Correspondents, p. 205.