Firm Hand of Friendship

Not all old acquaintances brought Mr. Lincoln joy. ” I am constrained to say it is difficult to answer so ugly a letter in good temper,” Mr. Lincoln wrote on December 31, 1861 in response to a letter from General David Hunter. Hunter, like many Union generals, had a prickly ego and easily bruised sensitivities. He had joined the presidential entourage to Washington in February 1861 and tried to use a weak personal relationship to his advantage. Hunter created more problems for President Lincoln than he solved, but Mr. Lincoln closed the letter in a fatherly – and friendly way: “I have been, and am sincerely your friend; and if, as such, I dare to make a suggestion, I would say you are adopting the best possible way to ruin yourself. “Act well your part, there all the honor lies.” He who does something at the head of one Regiment, will eclipse him who does nothing at the head of a hundred.”1

Mr. Lincoln dispensed such advice even to “friends he had never met.” He wrote a young West Point cadet: “I am older than you, have felt badly myself, and know, what I tell you is true. Adhere to your purpose and you will soon feel as well as you ever did. On the contrary, if you falter, and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution, and will regret it all your life. Take the advice of a friend, who, though he never saw you, deeply sympathizes with you, and stick to your purpose.”

And President Lincoln continued to view those who disagreed with him as friends. General Hunter caused Mr. Lincoln further trouble in the spring of 1862 when he unilaterally issued a proclamation freeing slaves in his South Carolina command. In July, Mr. Lincoln told a group of Border State representatives whom he was pressing to back compensated emancipation: “Gen. Hunter is an honest man. He was, and I hope, still is, my friend. I valued him none the less for his agreeing with me in the general wish that all men everywhere, could be free. He proclaimed all men free within certain states, and I repudiated the proclamation. He expected more good, and less harm from the measure, than I could believe would follow. Yet in repudiating it, I gave dissatisfaction, if not offence, to many whose support the country can not afford to lose.”

General Hunter continued to be difficult and in June 1863, he wrote to complain about his replacement. In reply, Mr. Lincoln patiently said: “I assure you, and you may feel authorized in stating, that the recent change of commanders in the Department of the South was made for no reasons which convey an imputation upon your known energy, efficiency and patriotism; but for causes which seemed to me sufficient, while they were in no degree incompatible with the respect and esteem in which I have always held you, as a man or an officer. I cannot, by giving my consent to a publication of whose details I know nothing, assume the responsibility of whatever you may write. In this matter your own sense of military propriety must be your guide, and the regulations of the service your rule of conduct. I am very truly Your friend.”2

Mr. Lincoln did not confuse friendship with concession, however. He could act firmly where his friends were involved, regardless what were their objections to his actions. Two decades before the Civil War, in January 1841, Mr. Lincoln wrote very sternly to Andrew McCormick about a political dispute and signed the letter “your friend”:

I have just learned, with utter astonishment, that you have some notion of voting for Walters. This certainly can not be true. It can not be, that one so true, firm, and unwavering as you have ever been, can for a moment think of such a thing. What! support that pet of all those who continually slander and abuse you, and labour, day and night, for your destruction. All our friends are ready to cut our throats about it. An angel from Heaven could not make them believe, that we do not connive at it. For Heaven’s sake, for your friends sake, for the sake of the recollection of all the hard battles we have heretofore fought shoulder, to shoulder, do not forsake us this time. We have been told for two or three days that you were in danger; but we gave it the lie whenever we heard it. We were willing to bet our lives upon you. Stand by us this time, and nothing in our power to confer, shall ever be denied you. Surely! Surely! you do not doubt my friendship for you. If you do, what under Heaven can I do, to convince you. Surely you will not think those who have been your revilers, better friends that I. Read this & write me what you will do.3

There was no false compassion in Mr. Lincoln’s nature. When Maryland Democrat Reverdy Johnson wrote him from New Orleans in July 1862 to complain of the actions of the military governor, President Lincoln did not yield: “You are ready to say I apply to friends what is due only to enemies. I distrust the wisdom if the sincerity of friends, who would hold my hands while my enemies stab me. This appeal of professed friends has paralyzed me more in this struggle than any other one thing. You remember telling me the day after Baltimore mob in April 1861, that it would crush all Union feeling in Maryland for me to attempt bringing troops over Maryland soil to Washington. I brought the troops notwithstanding, and yet there was Union feeling enough left to elect a Legislature the next autumn which in turn elected a very excellent Union U.S. Senator! I am a patient man – always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance; and also to give ample time for repentance. Still I must save this government if possible. What I cannot do, of course, I will not do; but it may as well be understood, once for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed.”4

Such tolerance was extended in Mr. Lincoln’s reply to Horace Greeley’s Prayer of Twenty Millions” which charged that President Lincoln had been “strangely and disastrously remiss” in the performance of his duties. Mr. Lincoln began his famous letter of August 22, 1862 by saying: “I have just read yours of the 19th, addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely draw, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.”5

Mr. Lincoln frequently evidenced his sensitivity to slights or blame that others might feel. “I sincerely regret that the failure of the late attempt to provision Fort-Sumpter, should be the source of any annoyance to you. The practicability of your plan was not, in fact, brought to a test,” President Lincoln wrote Gustavus V. Fox, assistant secretary of the navy in May 1861. “I most cheerfully and truly declare that the failure of the undertaking has not lowered you a particle, while the qualities you developed in the effort, have greatly heightened you, in my estimation. For a daring and dangerous enterprize, of a similar character, you would, to-day, be the man, of all my acquaintances, whom I would select.” He signed the letter: “Very truly your friend.”6

A month earlier on April 1, 1861, President Lincoln had masterfully handled a presumptuous letter from Secretary of State William H. Seward which had suggested a series of needed policy actions and concluded: “Either the President must do it himself, and be all the while active on it, or Devolve it on some member of his cabinet”. The clear presumption was that Mr. Lincoln should turn over the active management of the government to someone better qualified like Seward himself. President Lincoln responded:

Since parting with you I have been considering your paper dated this day, and entitled ‘Some thoughts for the President’s consideration.’ The first proposition in it is, ‘1st. We are at the end of a month’s administration, and yet without a policy, either domestic or foreign.’
At the beginning of that month, in the inaugeral, I said ‘The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties, and imposts.’ This had your distinct approval at the time; and, taken in connection with the order I immediately gave General Scott, directing him to employ every means in his power to strengthen and hold the forts, comprises the exact domestic policy you now urge, with the single exception, that it does not propose to abandon Fort Sumpter.
Again, I do not perceive how the re-inforcement of Fort Sumpter would be done on a slavery, or party issue, while that of Fort Pickens would be on a more national, and patriotic one.
The news received yesterday in regard to St. Domingo, certainly brings a new item within the range of our foreign policy; but up to that time we have been preparing circulars, and instruction to ministers, and the like, all in perfect harmony, without even a suggestion that we had no foreign policy.
Upon your closing propositions, that ‘whatever policy we adopt, there must be an energetic prossecution of it”
‘For this purpose it must be somebody’s business to purse and direct it incessantly’
‘Either the President must do it himself, and be all the while active in it, or’
‘Devolve it on some member of his cabinet’
‘Once adopted, debates on it must end, and all agree and abide’ I remark that if this must be done, I must do it. When a general line of policy is adopted, I apprehend there is no danger of its being changed without good reason, or continuing to be a subject of unnecessary debate; still, upon points arising in its progress, I wish, and suppose I am entitled to have the advice of all the cabinet.7

President Lincoln extended his notion of friendship in his December 1862 Message to Congress. In discussing compensated emancipation, President Lincoln said: “Among the friends of the Union there is great diversity, of sentiment, and of policy, in regard to slavery, and the African race amongst us. Some would perpetuate slavery; some would abolish it suddenly, and without compensation; some would remove the freed people from us, and some would retain them with us; and there are yet other minor diversities. Because of these diversities, we waste much strength in struggles among ourselves. By mutual concession we should harmonize, and act together. This would be compromise; but it would be compromise among the friends, and not with the enemies of the Union.”8

Mr. Lincoln’s firmness in friendship came through clearly in his January 1863 letter to Joseph Hooker, whom he had just appointed to lead the Army of the Potomac. Hooker was a dynamic leader in the field and an intriguing one in camp. He was ambitious, vain, critical and insubordinate. “I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac,” President Lincoln wrote. “Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during Gen. Burnside’s command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer.”9

The Hooker letter has long been considered a model of Lincolnian diplomacy, but it was not then so considered by Hooker. “It must be said that this brotherly and almost affectionate letter, while it was appreciated by its recipient, did not strike him as being particularly pertinent and well-deserved,” wrote journalist Noah Brooks. “Just before the battle of Chancellorsville, while Lincoln and a few personal friends were at the head-quarters of the Army of the Potomac on a visit, General Hooker said to one of the party, in the privacy of his tent, late at night: ‘I suppose you have seen this letter, or a copy of it?’ The gentleman replied that he had, and Hooker, with that magnificent air that characterized him, said: ‘After I have been to Richmond I shall have the letter published in the newspapers. It will be amusing.’ When this was told to Lincoln, he said, with a sigh: ‘Poor Hooker! I am afraid he is incorrigible.'”1-

Mr. Lincoln’s paternal tone was again evident in a May 14 letter to Hooker just after the Battle of Chancellorsville: “I must tell you that I have some painful intimations that some of your corps and division commanders are not giving you their entire confidence. This would be ruinous if true, and you should therefore, first of all, ascertain the real facts beyond all possibility of doubt.”11

Friendship required loyalty but loyalty to the Presidency was surprisingly rare at times in Washington. Richard Henry Dana wrote to a friend on March 9, 1865: “As to the politics of Washington, the most striking thing is the absence of personal loyalty to the President. It does not exist. He has no admirers, no enthusiastic supporters, none to be on his head.”12 Although Dana certainly overstated the case, in the months before the 1864 election, Mr. Lincoln’s “friends” sometimes seemed as scarce as Union military victories.


  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 318 (July 12, 1862).
  2. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 310 (Letter to David Hunter, June 30, 1863).
  3. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, First Supplement, p. 5-6 (Letter to Andrew McCormick, January 1841).
  4. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 343 (Letter to Reverdy Johnson, July 26, 1862).
  5. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 388-389 (Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862).
  6. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 350-351 (Letter to Gustavus V. Fox, May 1, 1861).
  7. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 316-317 (Letter to William H. Seward, April 1, 1861).
  8. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 518-537 (December 1, 1862).
  9. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 78-79 (Letter to Joseph Hooker, January 26, 1863).
  10. Noah Brooks, Abraham Lincoln: The Nation’s Leader in the Great Struggle Through Which was Maintained the Existence of the United States, p. 356-357.
  11. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 217 (Letter to Joseph Hooker, May 14, 1863).
  12. Don C. Seitz, Lincoln the Politician, p. 410.