William O. Stoddard wrote a great deal about Mr. Lincoln over the five decades after President Lincoln’s death. Stoddard was a professional journalist when he met Mr. Lincoln and he became a professional writer after Mr. Lincoln died. Stoddard left more than one account of how he met Mr. Lincoln when he was the young editor of the Citizen Gazette in Champaign Illinois. The doctor who owned the paper interrupted Stoddard’s work to say: “Stoddard, Old Abe is here, and he wants to see you!”
“My reply to the doctor reflected my state of mind, but he insisted, ‘Come right down! But fix up a little. Why, Stoddard, you are looking like the devil!’
“I could well believe that I was not exactly presentable, but I had not quite recovered from my annoyance over the pied type. ‘All right,’ I agreed. ‘If Mr. Lincoln wishes to see me, I’ll go down. I’ll wash my hands, but I won’t roll down my sleeves.’
“The doctor was not at all satisfied, but I was aware of a chuckle in the room below. Up to that hour I had not met Mr. Lincoln, but I had heard a great deal of him and did not believe he would be bothered much by a little ink and light clothing. The doctor, on the other hand, considered this visit of so prominent a politician a great affair. He was a little afraid of big men, and he was also somewhat annoyed that Mr. Lincoln had asked for me and not for him.
“As I came downstairs, I found myself rolling down my sleeves in spite of my threat to the contrary. There before me stood the ‘tall, dark man with the high hat.’ He greeted me cordially as though we had known each other for a long time. There was no strangeness about him. He knew men on the instant. He wasted no time, but plunged at once into the causes of his coming. In a minute he had me not only interested but somewhat astonished. I had supposed that I knew the people and the politics of that county, and he had been told that I did, but so did he. He could ask about the different precincts and their leading me almost as if he had lived among them. I was glad enough to be able to set him right as to the drift of the voters, and out of all that driftwood he was proposed to organize a new political power.”1
Stoddard recalled another meeting with Mr. Lincoln: “I was having breakfast one cold March morning at the Doan House, the square hotel at the railway station. In the middle of the large lobby was an enormous egg stove, and in the corner was the office counter. Just beyond was the door to the dining room. Breakfast over, I passed out through that door into the lobby. Just as I did so, the street door opened, and Abraham Lincoln came in. He had been to the post office, and as he was without an overcoat, he walked toward the stove, drew up one of the much whittled armchairs which ornamented the hotel lobby, sat down in it, cocked his large feet against the base of the stove, took off his hat and settled it between his knees. He always wore a tall black hat, and one that was respectable with age. It was now so full of letters that I wondered how he had ever put it on. His law business was large, and he was here in attendance upon the court which was in session at Urbana.”2
Stoddard wrote: “On seeing him come in, I paused at the counter, and there I continued to stand, for there was something in the man’s face and manner that attracted me oddly. My old habit of studying remarkable men came back upon me with power, and I put away my first impulse to go forward and speak to him. It was much better to watch him. He appeared to be unaware of any other presence in the room. He and I were alone, and he was much more alone than I.”3
A year later, Stoddard wrote an editorial for the Central Illinois Gazette which endorsed Abraham Lincoln for President: “We, in Illinois, know him well; in the best sense of the word a true democrat, a man of the people, whose strongest friends and supporters are the hard-handed and strong-limbed laboring men, who hail him as a brother and who look upon him as one of their real representative men. A true friend of freedom, having already done important service for the cause, and proved his abundant ability for still great service; yet a staunch conservative, whose enlarged and liberal mind descends to no narrow view, but sees both sides of every great question, and of whom we need not fear that fanaticism on the one side, or servility on the other, will lead him to the betrayal of any trust.”4
Stoddard liked to think that this editorial appeared several months earlier than it did and that he had the honor of being the first Illinois newspaper to endorse Mr. Lincoln for President. This tendency to exaggerate his own self-importance apparently grated on the other two young men with whom he was destined to work with in the White House – John G. Nicolay and John Hay. Nicolay picked Hay to join the White House staff but Stoddard claimed that Mr. Lincoln himself asked him in November 1860. “Wouldn’t you like to take a clerkship or something?” Stoddard had not previously thought about a position, but quickly rejoined: “Mr. Lincoln, the only thing that would tempt me to go to Washington is a place on your personal staff!” The President-elect said: “Stoddard, do you go right back to Champaign and write me a letter to that effect. Then wait til you hear from me.” Mr. Lincoln subsequently instructed Stoddard to move to Washington, which he did.5
In actuality, Stoddard tried a variety of ways to obtain a White House position with President-elect Lincoln. “Stoddard urged Illinois senator Lyman Trumbull to help him secure a White House job,” wrote historian Michael Burlingame. Stoddard “assured Trumbull that he had the support of Herndon, of Lincoln’s good friend Leonard Swett, and of New York Senator Ira Harris. He later claimed that he won the spot because Senator Harris wrote a strong letter of recommendation. The president-elect was unsure whether to offer the job to Stoddard or to Benjamin F. James, a journalist who had been helpful to Lincoln in his quest for a seat in Congress in the 1840s.”
Arriving in the Capital, Stoddard claimed he “did not even try to see the President for several days, but I did go to admire the dense pack of office-seekers which had taken possession of the White House. It was two or three days later that I worked my way among them and struggled as far as the bottom of the main stairway. The stairs were a sweltering jam, but an usher at the top was managing to receive cards in some inscrutable manner. He obtained mine and it went in, and in a few minutes Nicolay came to the bannisters to shout my name, while three or four eager patriots tugged at his coattails. I ‘hollered back.'” When Nicolay asked if Stoddard wanted to see President Lincoln, he replied: “No, I don’t! Tell him I’m here, ‘cording to orders. That’s all. He’ll know what to do. I won’t bother him.” A few days later, Stoddard was appointed to a clerkship to sign land patents at the Interior Department – a job from which he was delegated to assist Nicolay and Hay at the White House.6
Along with Nicolay and Hay, Stoddard did battle with the crush of visitors and patronage-seekers at the White House and also sought briefly to do battle in the army, which he joined. “I doubt if there was any spot in the United States in those days, outside of a battlefield, that was more continually interesting than was the correspondence desk of the Executive Mansion.” Mr. Lincoln at one point “ordered me to make a daily digest of the course and comments of the leading journals, east and west, and I made one. It was wasted work and was discontinued, for Mr. Lincoln never found time to spend an hour upon those laborious condensations.”7
Although Stoddard thought he worked hard, his colleague John Hay disagreed, describing Stoddard as “worthless. I can scarcely rely upon him for anything.”8 Historian Michael Michael Burlingame noted that Hay took frequent potshots at Stoddard in his letters to John G. Nicolay “Hay thought Stoddard asinine as well as stuffy. ‘Stod[dard] has been extensively advertising himself in the Western Press,’ he told Nicolay in August 1864. ‘His asininity which is kept a little dark under your shadow at Washington blooms & burgeons in the free air of the West.'”9 Stoddard himself was publicly laudatory of Hay in later sketches of the White House years written for the New York Citizen. He recalled that he was assigned to a White House room “in companionship with the versatile and brilliant Hay.”10
Like the other assistants, Stoddard had to be on call to do special duty – such as accompanying President Lincoln to test some new version of military firearms, to listen to some humorist’s doggerel or more refined poetry, or to attend the theater with him. Stoddard recalled: “I was sitting at my work one evening when the door opened and Mr. Lincoln came in. ‘I reckoned I’d find you here. I am going to the theatre to see [actor James] Hackett play Falstaff, and I want you to come with me. I’ve always wanted to see him in that character. Come to my room. It’s about time to go.”
Stoddard wrote: “We went over to his office I believed that he was all the while trying to put away from him his load of thoughts. If he had landed his cares upon the Cabinet table they would have been stacked ten feet high. I do not now remember anything else that took place until we were seated in the Executive box at the theatre. There were some persons, even then, who criticized the President severely for his heartlessness in ever going to a theatre or listening to music at a time when the affairs of the nation required his devotion.” At the theater that night one critic arose and denounced the President before the performance began. A German-American soldier came to the President’s defense: “De President haf a right to his music! Put out dot feller! De President ees all right! Let him haf his music!” And Mr. Lincoln’s military admirers in the audience evicted the impromptu critic.11
Like Nicolay and Hay, Stoddard regularly contributed articles on politics and life in Washington to northern newspapers. One of the features of his contributions to the New York Examiner (under the pen name “Illinois”) were periodic updates on the state of the Presidency, e.g.:
- “For a few weeks the President has been looking pale and careworn, as if the perpetual wear-and-tear of the load which presses upon him were becoming too much even for his iron frame and elastic mind. We hope that ere long he and all of us may have such cheering news as shall ‘do good like a medicine.’ and smooth away a few of the deep wrinkles of this long suspense.”12
- “As nothing which relates to him is without its interest, your correspondent is glad to be able to say that our worthy Chief Magistrate is in excellent spirits, and looks much better than he did a fortnight since. He is gathering his strength for the labor and excitement of the coming Congress. I am told that he enters into the plans and arrangements of the campaign in all their varied details with the keenest zest, and that the military chiefs have been indebted to his strong and practical good sense for more than one valuable hint and suggestion.”13
- “The White House is deserted, save by our faithful and untiring Chief Magistrate, who, alone of all our public men, is always at his post. He looks less careworn and emaciated than in the spring, as if, living only for his country, he found his own vigor keeping pace with the returning health of the nation.”14
- “A few days since the President’s horse ran away with him during a morning ride, scared by the cheering of a marching regiment, and for a short time the Commander-in-Chief was in danger of serious accident. Thanks however, to his long limbs and strong arms, he succeeded in retaining his place in the saddle, and in calming his furious and plunging Bucephalus, with no other injury than a slightly sprained ankle. However, we were suddenly shocked into an appreciation, momentarily, of how deep an interest we all had in the safety of our wise Chief Magistrate. Strong men turned to each other with an involuntary shudder. ‘If he had been thrown and killed!’ After that, indeed, even the most hopeful could discern little beside clouds and thick darkness.”15
- “The president is steadily recovering his health and strength, and his friends say that he will be rather improved than otherwise by his brief struggle with fever. He received his guests at the Reception the other day with a good deal of his usual hearty cheerfulness, though compelled to avail himself of occasional opportunities for a brief resting-spell.”16
Stoddard’s intense admiration for his boss shown through his newspaper dispatches: “The President is almost a mystery. Men no longer query whether such or such a General or statesman directs his actions, but ‘what will he do with’ this statesman or that General. He is the most perfect representative of the purely American character now in public life – perhaps the most perfect that ever has existed. This is why the mutual understanding between him and the people is so perfect. This it is which enables him to exercise powers which would never by any possibility be entrusted to another man, though his equal in other respects.” He sensed a special bond between the people and their president:
“The people know that they can trust their great chief, and so they bid him ‘see to it that the Republic suffers no detriment,’ and put in his hands untold treasure and uncounted lives, and the temporary disposal of their time-honored rights. The habeas corpus act is suspended – ‘Lincoln would not do it if it was not needed.’ The press is muzzled – ‘Good for him! Why don’t the old man shut off the Herald and the Tribune?’ Favorite generals are superseded, favorite measures curtailed or disapproved, prejudices rubbed or snubbed, but the President is the strong for it all. Pardon me if I dwell on this too much, but it impresses me as one of the most essential elements of all that we retain of steady purpose or united action.”17
In contrast to Nicolay and Hay, Stoddard’s relations with Mrs. Lincoln were generally good because he handled her correspondence without becoming involved in questions of administration and protocol which caused conflicts with the two senior secretaries. After one particularly memorable confrontation over whether Salmon Chase, his daughter and son-in-law should be invited to a White House dinner in mid-January 1864, Nicolay wrote Hay that Stoddard “fairly cowered at the violence of the storm, and I think for the first time begins to appreciate the awful sublimities of nature. Things have subsided somewhat, but a day or two must of course bring them to a head.”18
Like Nicolay and Hay, Stoddard’s health suffered in the White House; he nearly died of typhoid in 1863. After a second bout in 1864, he asked President Lincoln: first, to undertake an investigative tour of military affairs along the Mississippi, and second, for an appointment as U.S. Attorney in Arkansas. He was stationed there when Mr. Lincoln was assassinated. Stoddard wrote John Hay: “The terrible news was some time in reaching us. Now that the first stunning effects are over, I feel for the first time how much I loved and venerated Abraham Lincoln. I cannot write about him, even to you. I only wish to say that something of personal sympathy for you and Nicolay weighs tonight with my sorrow for the man who has done more for me than all my other friends. Men who had never seen him wept when the news came. How shall we say our sorrow, – who knew him as he really was. To others, the President is dead. I can only remember my benefactor.”19
Despite ill health, Stoddard lived for another 50 years and among his books were three about President Lincoln and his relationship to the President.
- William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, p. 52-62.
- William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, p. 52-62.
- William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, p. 55-62.
- William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, p. 55-62.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 227 (William O. Stoddard, Atlantic Monthly, February-March, 1925).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 226 (William O. Stoddard, Atlantic Monthly, February-March, 1925).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 228 (William O. Stoddard, Atlantic Monthly, February-March, 1925).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, p. xxii-xxiii.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln’s Secretary, p. xii.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln’s Secretary, p. 143 (Sketch 1, New York Citizen).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 235 (William O. Stoddard, Atlantic Monthly, February-March, 1925).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, p. 32 (New York Examiner, September 5, 1861).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, p. 38 (New York Examiner, October 17, 1861).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, p. 166 (New York Examiner, September 3, 1863).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, p. 103 (New York Examiner, September 18, 1862).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, p. 197 (New York Examiner, December 10, 1863).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, p. 88-89 (New York Examiner, July 7, 1862).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 124 (Letter to John Hay, January 18, 1864).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, p. xxv (Letter from William O. Stoddard to John Hay, April 22, 1865).
Elmer E. Ellsworth
Elmer E. Ellsworth (Mr. Lincoln’s White House)
John Hay (Mr. Lincoln’s White House)
Mary Todd Lincoln (Mr. Lincoln’s White House)
John G. Nicolay
John G. Nicolay (Mr. Lincoln’s White House)
William O. Stoddard (Mr. Lincoln’s White House)
John Hay’s Office (Mr. Lincoln’s White House)
Abraham Lincoln’s Secretaries (Abraham Lincoln’s Classroom)