Robert L. Wilson was a Pennsylvania native who was one of the “Long Nine of Whigs who was elected from Sangamon Count in 1836. They campaigned extensively together in 1836 and 1838. After changing his residence to Sterling in White County in 1840, he became the circuit court clerk there, but remained a friend of Lincoln through the Civil War.
“Col. Wilson was one of the most genial of men. He was never too busy for a chat with friend or stranger,” according to a history of White County. “Although most of his life was spent in politics and business, he retained the freshness of youth, and his love for the studies of his earlier years. He once told the writer of working in the garden till ten in the morning, and then taking a bath, and reviewing his Greek testament. Fond of travel, and no American tourist ever traversed the classic cities and scenes of the Old World with a keener appreciation.”1 Wilson toured Europe five years before his death.
In 1837 Wilson and Lincoln were key allies in the passage of legislation to move the Illinois state capital from Vandalia to Springfield. Wilson recalled: “The contest on this bill was long, and severe; its enemies laid it on the table twice, on the table till the fourth day of July and once indefinitely postponed it.”2 Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher challenged some of Wilson’s three-decades-old memories of this period (made in a letter to William H. Herndon): “He mentions, for instance, Lincoln’s serving on the Committee of Internal Improvements — which Lincoln did not. There are many such factual errors in Wilson’s letter, perhaps because Wilson’s attendance record was bad.”3
Wilson recalled: “A question of the division of the County was one of the local issues. Mr Lincoln and myself among others, residing in the portion of the county sought to be organized into a new County, and opposing the division, [i]t became necessary I should make a special canvas, through the North West part of the County, then known as Sand ridge. I made the canvass. Mr. Lincoln accompanied me being personally acquainted with every one. We called at nearly every house.”4
Wilson wrote in 1866:
I have often during my connection with Mr Lincoln in the Social circle alone, or as a member of the Legislature, Sat for hours and listened to his delineation of character; he appeared to possess but little malice or ill feeling against others; he had no animosities as other men have, although wary and vigilant in guarding his own rights, and the rights of his constituents….He was verrry slow to believe that men prominant in life, would Stoop to do a dishonest or dishonorable act.
He did not follow a system of ratiocination deducing conclusions from premises, laid down, and eliminated; but his mode of reasoning was purely analytical; his reasons and conclusions were always drawn from analogy. [H]is memory was a great Store house in which was Stored away all the facts, acquired by reading but principally by observation; and intercourse with men Woman and children, in their Social, and business relations; learning and weighing the motives that prompt each act in life. Supplying him with an inexhaustible fund of facts, from which he would draw conclusions, and illustrating every Subject however complicated with annecdotes drawn from all classes of Society, accomplishing the double purpose, of not only proving his Subject by the annecdote[.] But the annecdote itself possessing so much point and force, that no one ever forgets, after hearing Mr Lincoln tell a Story, either the argument of the Story, the Story itself, or the author.”5
predecessor had entered the Presidential Chair as the head of a Party; that was not true as to Mr[.] Lincoln he was comparitively [sic] unknown. Old Politicians looked upon him with the same distrust, and want of Confidence, that Regular Army officer look upon officers in the Volunteer Arm of the Service, and they Supposed they would control his administration, not only as a matter of right, but they thought that he would be compelled to lean upon them for support; but he was not the man they bargained for. Many men who had made up their minds to serve their country were disappointed.”6
Wilson wrote after the war: “I was with him one day in his office; parties were coming in, and doing business with him; he would send a card to the Department with which the business was being transacted. I remarked to him this reminds me of the office of the Justice of the Peace. Yes, says he, but it is hardly as respectable; he then went on to say that when he first commenced doing the duties, he was entirely ignorant not only of the duties, but of the manner of doing the business, he said he was like the Justice of the Peace, who would often speak of the first case he had ever tried, and called it, his ‘great first case least understood.'”7
When Fort Sumter fell, Wilson joined Clay Guards that were bivouacked in the White House. After northern troops started arriving in Washington, according to the History of Sangamon County, “Wilson returned to Sterling, Illinois, and assisted in raising Company A, Thirty-fourth Illinois Infantry, and was elected Captain, but declined in favor of the First Lieutenant. He started for Washington on the fourth of July, and called on President Lincoln on the seventh to tender his services in any capacity where he could be useful. Mr. Lincoln said he had made out a list of his old friends before leaving Springfield, that he might appoint them to office, and said, ‘I have appointed all down to your name. Now, what do you wish?’ Mr. Wilson said he thought he could discharge the duties of quartermaster. Mr. Lincoln said, ‘I can do better than that for you,’ and made him paymaster. His appointment was made out on the sixth, and he was confirmed by the Senate, August 7, 1861. He was placed on duty at Washington City, and was soon afterward ordered to St, Louis. In the two succeeding years he paid out nearly four million dollars, principally in the West and South.”8
Wilson recalled: “In 1862, after Gen[.] McClellan fell back on the Potomac, and the prospects were very dark, and uncertain; and Mr[.] Lincoln’s letters urging McClellan to strike and advance and taken Richmond. I was that Summer with the Army under [Don Carlos] Buell and [Henry W.] Halleck. The matter of placing Mr Lincoln at the head of the Army in the field, was generally advocated outside the Regular Army influence. It was conceded that he was not a military man. But he had proved to the world that he was equal to the exigencies of the times, and no man in the army appeared to be.”9
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 205 (Letter from Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon, February 10, 1866).
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 204-205 (Letter from Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon, February 10, 1866).
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements About Abraham Lincoln, p. 206 (Letter from Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon, February 10, 1866).
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements About Abraham Lincoln, p. 207 (Letter from Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon, February 10, 1866).
- History of Sangamon County, p. 509-510.
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements About Abraham Lincoln, p. 208 (Letter from Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon, February 10, 1866).
- William W. Davis, A History of White County, p. 148.
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 204 (Letter from Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon, February 10, 1866).
- Don E. Fehrenbacher, Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness, p. 82.