The Politicians: Anson G. Henry (1804-1865)

Anson G. Henry
Mrs. Anson G. Henry

“My acquaintance with Mr. Lincoln began in 1834 in Springfield Ills. and I was in almost daily intercourse with him from that time up to 1852, when I emigrated to Oregon,” wrote Dr. Anson G. Henry two months after President Lincoln’s murder.1 Although they didn’t see each for the next decade, throughout Mr. Lincoln’s long friendship with Anson G. Henry, the two men remained frequent correspondents. Mr. Lincoln wrote Dr. Henry after the 1858 Senate campaign: “I am glad I made the late race. It gave me a hearing on the great and durable question of the age, which I could have had in no other way; and though I now sink out of view, and shall be forgotten, I believe I have made some marks which will tell for the cause of civil liberty long after I am gone.”2

By that time, Dr. Henry had been gone from Springfield for more than six years. During his life, he split his time between politics and medicine – professions which Springfield had an oversupply in the 1830s and 1840s. Eventually in 1852, that oversupply drove him West to Oregon in search of greater opportunity. As in Illinois, he combined his medical practice with the pursuit of political positions. And as in Illinois, he gained both political friends and political enemies. Dr. Henry’s practice had been based in Springfield – but he visited other locales afflicted by cholera epidemics and was sought as an expert in its treatment. When he met Mr. Lincoln in Springfield in the early 1830s – before he had become a lawyer, Dr. Henry was impressed by his potential and recommended him to others. Others in Springfield were not so blessed by Henry’s approval. Historian Paul M. Angle wrote that Dr. Henry had “a capacity for making two bitter enemies for each warm friend.”3

The two colleagues combined to make enemies in Henry’s 1837 race for probate justice against Democrat James Adams. “Lincoln excoriated Adams as a forger, a whiter, a fool, and a liar. It is not clear whether he wrote the series of anonymous letters in the Sangamo Journal that skewered Adams, but it seems likely,” wrote historian Michael Burlingame.4 Evidently, the race brought out the nastier side of both Dr. Henry and Mr. Lincoln, but without a favorable outcome. Henry lost the race and Mr. Lincoln lost face.

Nevertheless, Dr. Henry became a close political ally of Mr. Lincoln, who relied on him for medical as well as political help. Mr. Lincoln also sought to augment Dr. Henry’s income by seeking political appointments. In January 1841, Mr. Lincoln wrote Congressman John T. Stuart: “What I wish now is to speak of our Post-Office. You know I desired Dr. Henry to have that place when you left; I now desire it more than ever. I have, within the last few days, been making a most discreditable exhibition of myself in the way of hypochondriaism and thereby got an impression that Dr. Henry is necessary to my existence. Unless he gets that place he leaves Springfield. You therefore see how much I am interested in the matter.”5

Mr. Lincoln had fallen into a depression after his broken engagement and the departure of friend Joshua Speed for Kentucky. H.W. Thornton, who served in the State Legislature with Mr. Lincoln, told biographer Ida Tarbell: “Mr. Lincoln boarded at William Butler’s, near to Dr. Henry’s, where I boarded. The missing days, from January 13th to 19th, Mr. Lincoln spent several hours each day at Dr. Henry’s; a part of these days I remained with Mr. Lincoln. His most intimate friends had no fears of his injuring himself. He was very sad and melancholy, but being subject to these spells, nothing serious was apprehended.”6 Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg noted that Mr. Lincoln “took Dr. Henry’s advice and wrote a long statement of his case for a doctor in Louisville. And the doctor answered that in this kind of case he could do nothing without first a personal interview.”7

Mr. Lincoln made another patronage recommendation for Dr. Henry in 1850: “I understand you have under consideration the question of appointing Dr. A.G. Henry to some Indian Agency,” Mr. Lincoln wrote the new Interior Secretary. “I wish now merely to say that of all those whom I have desired should receive appointments from this Administration, Dr. Henry was at first, has always been, and still is, No. One with me. I believe, nay, I know he [Henry] has done more disinterested labor in Whig cause, than any other one, two, or three men in the state.”8 Although Mr. Lincoln’s doctor did not get this position, he eventually was named Indian Agent for Oregon later that year, but he didn’t actually move to Oregon until two years later.

Mr. Lincoln’s letters to Dr. Henry often accompanied important political events in his life – and closed with the expression Lincoln used when he meant it: “Your friend, as ever.” After the loss in 1858 Senate race, he wrote Dr. Henry in Oregon: “Of course I wished, but I did not much expect a better result….I am glad I made the late race. It gave me a hearing on the great and durable question of the age, which I could have had in no other way; and though I now sink out of view, and shall be forgotten, I believe I have made some marks which will tell for the cause of civil liberty long after I am gone.”9 On July 4, 1860, Lincoln wrote Dr. Henry a more cheery letter than combined political and family news:

Long before this you have learned who was nominated at Chicago. We know not what a day may bring forth; but, to-day, it looks as if the Chicago ticket will be elected. I think the chances were more than equal that we could have beaten the Democracy united. Divided, as it is, it’s chance appears indeed very slim. But great is Democracy in resources; and it may yet give it’s fortunes a turn. It is under great temptation to do something; but what can it do which was not thought of, and found impracticable, at Charleston and Baltimore? The signs now are that Douglas and Breckenridge will each have a ticket in every state. They are driven to this to keep up their bombastic claims of nationality, and to avoid the charge of sectionalism which they have so much lavished upon us.

It is an amusing fact, after all Douglas has said about nationality, and sectionalism, that I had more votes from the Southern section at Chicago, than he had at Baltimore! In fact, there was more of the Southern section represented at Chicago, than in the Douglas rump concern at Baltimore!!
Our boy, in his tenth year, (the baby when you left) has just had a hard and tedious spell of scarlet-fever; and he is not yet beyond all danger. I have a head-ache, and a sore throat upon me now, inducing me to suspect that I have an inferior type of the same thing.

Our eldest boy, Bob, has been away from us nearly a year at school, and will enter Harvard University this month. He promises very well, considering we never controlled him much.

Write again when you receive this. Mary joins in sending our kindest regards to Mrs. H. yourself, and all the family.”10

One of Mr. Lincoln’s early presidential appointments was to name his doctor as surveyor-general of Oregon, where he acted as the Administration’s eyes and ears. Dr. Henry visited Washington in the spring of 1863 to try to prevent the dismissal of a friend, Robert J. Stevens, from his job as superintendent of the San Francisco mint and to try to obtain the dismissal of a political rival, Victor Smith, from his job in Oregon. Henry was unsuccessful on the first mission and successful on the second. President Lincoln wrote Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to “remove Victor Smith as collector of the customs at the Puget Sound district. Yet in doing this I do not decide that the charges against him are true; I only decide that the degree of dissatisfaction with him there is too great for him to be retained.”11 Despite Mr. Lincoln’s willingness to find another job for Smith, Chase took offense and submitted his resignation, which was rejected. At issue, noted biographer Carl Sandburg, was not just a test of strength between Smith and Henry, but a test of strength between Chase and President Lincoln.12

When Dr. Henry attempted to depart back to Oregon, President Lincoln “ordered [him] to take up [his] headquarters at the White House” until he could go accompany President Lincoln on a visit to the Army of the Potomac in early April aboard the steamer Carrie Martin. According to journalist Noah Brooks: “Though the trip had been postponed for several days on account of unfavorable weather, it was snowing furiously soon after the special steamer left Washington Navy Yard, and before night the wind blew a gale, so that we were obliged to come to anchor in a little cove on the Potomac, opposite Indian Head, where we remained quietly until the morning of 5th instant.” The unarmed and unescorted group which included Attorney General Edward Bates rode at anchor while Henry, Brooks and President Lincoln talked until after midnight. Brooks reported that “the Chief Magistrate of this mighty nation was seated familiarly chatting with his undistinguished party, telling stories, or discussing matters military and political, in just such a free and easy way as might be expected of a President who was out on a trip of relaxation from care and toil.”13

Their relaxation was short-lived. Within a month, the three men were depressed by news from the Army of the Potomac. Dr. Henry had stayed on at the White House as a guest after the visit to the front. Noah Brooks recalled being at the White House on May 6 when news of the Union defeat at Chancellorsville began to filter back to Washington. “The President asked me to go into the room then occupied by his friend Dr. Henry, who was a guest in the house, saying possibly we might get some news later on,” Brooks later wrote. “In an hour or so, while the doctor and I sat talking, say about three o’clock in the afternoon, the door opened, and Lincoln came into the room. I shall never forget that picture of despair. He held a telegram in his hand, and as he closed the door and came toward us I mechanically noticed that his face, usually sallow, was ashen in hue. The paper on the wall behind him was of the tint known as ‘French gray,’ and even in that moment of sorrow and dread expectation I vaguely took in the thought that the complexion of the anguished President’s visage was almost exactly like that of the wall. He gave me the telegram, and in a voice trembling with emotion, he said, ‘Read it – news from the Army.’ The dispatch from was General Butterfield, [Joseph] Hooker’s chief of staff, addressed to the War Department, and was to the effect that the Army had been withdrawn from the south side of the Rappahannock, and was then ‘safely encamped’ in its former position. The appearance of the President, as I read aloud these fateful words, was piteous. Never, as long as I knew him, did he seem to be so broken, so dispirited, and so ghostlike. Clasping his hands behind his back, he walked up and down the room, saying, ‘My God! My God! What will the country say! What will the country say!'”

Brooks wrote that the President moved quickly from agony to action: “He seemed incapable of uttering any other words than these, and after a little time he hurriedly left the room. Dr. Henry, whose affection for Lincoln was deep and tender, burst into a passion of tears. I consoled him as best I could, and while we were talking and trying to find a gleam of sunshine in this frightful darkness, I saw a carriage drive up to the entrance of the White House, and, looking out, beheld the tall form of the President dart into the vehicle, in which sat General Halleck, and drive off. Immediately after, an attendant came to tell us that the President and General Halleck had gone to the Army of the Potomac, and that Mr. Lincoln would return the next day, and would like to see me in the morning.”14

From his privileged position as Mr. Lincoln’s guest in the White House, Dr. Henry observed the pressure of visitors upon the President. He wrote that “nine times out of ten not half the Senators get in unless several go in to-gether & this is very often done, and they can take in with them as many of their friends and constituents as they please. It is no uncommon thing for Senators to try for ten days before they get a private interview.”15

After the 1864 election, Mr. Lincoln again acted quickly – to appraise his friend of the results. Dr. Henry, reported Noah Brooks “had been promised that he should receive a despatch from Mr. Lincoln when the result of the Presidential election of that year should be definitely ascertained. Accordingly, on this day, which was November ninth, President Lincoln dictated a despatch, the terms of which were as follows: ‘With returns and states of which we are confident, the reelection of the President is considered certain, while it is not certain that McClellan has carried any State, though the chances are that he has carried New Jersey and Kentucky.’ When I had written the despatch at the President’s dictation, I passed it to him for his signature; but he declined to ‘blow his own horn,’ as he expressed it, and said: ‘You sign the message, and I will send it.’ A day or two later, when Delaware, whose vote had been uncertain, declared for McClellan, Lincoln sent a second despatch in order to give his friend on the far-off Pacific Coast a clear and exact idea of what had happened, explaining that he took it for granted that Dr. Henry would hear all the news, but might think it odd that the President should leave him without clearing up the situation thus left somewhat undecided in the uncertainties of the election returns.”16

Dr. Henry was also invited to return to Washington, where he was anxious to take up residence if appointed to a high-ranking position in the Interior Department. “On his arrival at the Capitol, Doctor Henry escorted Mrs. Lincoln to the Hall of Congress for the official counting of electoral votes.” wrote Harry Blair in a monograph on Dr. Henry’s life.17 Mrs. Lincoln, who shared Dr. Henry’s belief in spiritualism sought to help him gain appointment as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. In addition to Mrs. Lincoln, Dr. Henry had a friend and ally in Noah Brooks. Brooks and Dr. Henry apparently had forged a firm friendship during the 1863 visit which they renewed as they maneuveured to get a new patronage position for Dr. Henry in Washington and the job of presidential secretary for Brooks – an appointment which Mrs. Lincoln also desired. Brooks reported in a dispatch to the Sacramento Daily Union on March 12 that “the name of A.G. Henry, Surveyor General of Washington Territory, has been secondarily presented to the President as the candidate of our Pacific delegation for a Bureau in the Interior Department – that of Indian Affairs or Land being preferred. Dr. Henry is an old-time friend of the President’s and his chances of success are thought to be good.”18 Historian Paul M. Zall wrote: “Mrs. Lincoln’s intimacy with Henry could have been based on a mutual interest in spiritualism she had acquired since the death of young Willie three years earlier. Henry said that because he was ‘a half way spiritualist,’ he could be ‘the best comforter she finds, and I spend several hours a day with her. Just as likely, her dependence on Dr. Henry could have been connected to his dispensing pills laced with mercury or opium for her husband’s depression or for the migraines she had suffered since childhood.”19

Death interfered with both appointments. Dr. Henry’s medical rather than political skills were required to help Mrs. Lincoln through her grief after Mr. Lincoln’s assassination. A few months later, both Brooks and Henry returned to California via Panama. Henry was killed when his ship sank off the California coast. Prior to his departure, Dr. Henry had ministered to Mrs. Lincoln, who had been bed-ridden after her husband’s murder. He then accompanied her by train from Washington to Chicago in late May before returning himself to Washington. Mrs. Lincoln greatly lamented his departure, writing Dr. Henry in July 1865 that Secretary of the Interior James Harlan “said he had intended, doing something for you.” She added that she believed “in my heart, that you are really, the only disinterested, sincere friend, left us. It was very painful to us, I assure you, to find that you had to return home. I had fondly hoped, that you, would have been settled in W[ashington] and we would have received frequent visits from you & Mrs Henry, whom I remember with much affection. Alas, alas, our families, are both situated alike, nothing but disappointments before us…”20

In May 1866, Mrs. Lincoln wrote Noah Brooks in California – asking him to try to sell some “wild cat” stock and share the proceeds with Mrs. Henry, who was destitute. “I hope you will be able to visit Mrs. Henry the coming summer. I sometimes, in my wildness and grief, am tempted to believe that it is some terrible, terrible dream, and that my idolized husband will return to me. Poor Dr. Henry! He who wept so truly and freely with us in our great misfortune, how soon he was called to join the beloved one who had so recently ‘gone before’!”21

Henry’s untimely death deprived historians of his insights into Mr. Lincoln. An attempt by an early biographer to get information was rebuffed. Historian Allen Guelzo noted: “Anson Henry flatly refused to share anything with [Josiah] Holland until he had ‘the approbation & approval of the family of Mr. Lincoln.'” With Henry’s death also disappeared the “many letters” from Mr. Lincoln that Henry said he retained.22


  1. Allen C. Guelzo, “Holland’s Informants: The Construction of Josiah Holland’s ‘Life of Abraham Lincoln,’”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2002, p. 25 (Letter of Anson G. Henry to Josiah G. Holland, June 16, 1865).
  2. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 339 (Letter to Anson G. Henry, November 9, 1858).
  3. Paul M. Angle, Here I Have Lived: A History of Lincoln’s Springfield, p. 65.
  4. Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 151.
  5. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 228 (Letter to John T. Stuart, January 20, 1841).
  6. Ida M. Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 180.
  7. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years, p. 70.
  8. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 78 (Letter to Thomas Ewing, March 22, 1850).
  9. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 339 (Letter to Anson G. Henry, November 19, 1858).
  10. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 81-82 (Letter to Anson G. Henry, July 4, 1860).
  11. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 202 (Letter to Salmon P. Chase, May 8, 1863).
  12. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years, p. 487.
  13. Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 237, 36 (Letter of Anson Henry to his wife, April 12, 1863).
  14. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 60-61.
  15. Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, p. 457-458.
  16. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 198.
  17. Harry C. Blair, Dr. Anson G. Henry: Physician, Politician, Friend of Abraham Lincoln, p. 19 (Portland, Oregon, 1950).
  18. Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 171.
  19. Richard W. Etulain, editor, Lincoln Looks West: From the Mississippi to the Pacific, p. 185 (Paul M. Zall, “Dr. Anson G. Henry (1804-65): Lincoln’s Junkyard Dog”).
  20. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editor, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 260-261 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Anson G. Henry, July 17, 1865).
  21. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 117-118.
  22. Allen C. Guelzo, “Holland’s Informants: The Construction of Josiah Holland’s ‘Life of Abraham Lincoln,’”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2002, p. 14, 17 (Letter of Anson G. Henry to Josiah G. Holland, June 16, 1865).