Dear Mr. Lincoln …


On March 3, 1865, the day before Abraham Lincoln was to be sworn in for the second time as President, a New York private named William Johnson, just one of the thousands of Federal troops who had voted for their Commander-in-Chief, mailed him a gift, along with a painfully scrawled (and spectacularly misspelled) letter:

“mister ole Abe.

“herbi Plese find inclosed won (1) Pare of reeinlistment Stripes I am a vetren which hev Bin warin sed Stripes, thinkin that as how U had reeinlisted i thot i wood Cut em Off & Send em to U hopin they ma cum handy, they Cost Forty (40) Sents i wood send U A pare with gold Stuf on the Ege of em if I cood git em them wons Costs A good Ele more tho. hev em Sode on with Blu thred.

“my Resins For Sendin em is these Firstly U Air my Stile of A man & Besides is Onist. Seconly U Air intitled to Sed Stripes For inlistin Again & things is verry hi now. I mus put Out my lite in a fu minuts. dont let up on them jonnys A Darn bit lle sta by U til the darn Cuses is used up for won … [ P.S. ] i Rote this On A hull Sheat Becos the Captin says it is Bisness Stile & this is Bisiness.”

Friendly letters like that one surely pleased Lincoln. He was as interested in evidence of his own popularity as any other politician and would go to Ford’s Theatre carrying in his wallet nine complimentary newspaper editorials that had cheered him when the battlefield news was bad. But on the evidence offered in Harold Holzer’s fascinating new compilation, Dear Mr. Lincoln: Letters to the President (Addison Wesley, $25), friendly letters were few and far between. What is remarkable about this collection is how little praise Lincoln got and how much abuse he endured without complaint.

Better than 250 letters arrived every day in the second-story office Lincoln liked to call his “shop,” and there were specially labeled pigeonholes in his upright desk for such influential and frequent correspondents as Horace Greeley and “W & W”—the prominent New York politicians Thurlow and Fernando Wood. But his secretaries—a tiny, shifting cast of young men headed by John Hay and John G. Nicolay—sifted through the rest of what one of them remembered as a “very curious department of American literature” in search of the handful of letters the President actually needed to see.

Some letters accompanied gifts. A Washington resident sent Lincoln a “highly reputed” laxative as “[t]his is the season when you and I are apt to be afflicted with disordered bowels.” Others sent him hand-knitted socks, a pair of live eagles, and a “mammoth Ox” named “General Grant,” meant to be auctioned off for the benefit of wounded sailors. And when a repentant (but carefully anonymous) Brooklyn citizen returned to him $860, which he had stolen from the government before “the Holy Spirit” made him see the error of his ways, the President carefully wrote out his own receipt: “Received, March 5,1863, of A. Lincoln, President of the United States the sum mentioned within, in ‘Green-backs.’”

There was a scattering of letters of encouragement too, including one from the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, who told Lincoln he was the “Heir of the thought of Christ and of [John] Brown, you will pass down to posterity under the name of the Emancipator more enviable than any crown and any human treasure!” And there were threats on Lincoln’s life: “May the hand of the devil strike you down before long—You are destroying our country[.] Damn you—every breath you take.”

Lunatics wrote regularly. So did harmless eccentrics and a host of inventors eager for Army contracts, including one from Illinois who claimed to have devised a “cross-eyed gun” with divergent barrels with which he offered to arm a body of cross-eyed soldiers so that they could proceed down the Potomac “to clean out the Rebels from both sides of the river at once.” He added: “I know enough cross-eyed men to make a regiment, and by thunder, Mr. Lincoln, I’m cross-eyed enough to be their colonel.”

There were letters criticizing Lincoln’s manners too. A New Yorker wrote from his Wall Street office to warn that officers were muttering about the President’s lack of military bearing: “They say when you are on horseback, and platoons of men marching by you, that you lean about and turn your head to talk with people behind you, when they claim that you should sit erect & talk to nobody and look straight at the saluting soldiers. … For God’s sake consult somebody, some military man, as to what you ought to do on these occasions … you will do well by paying more attention to your manners and make less effort at wit and story telling—All well enough in private but publicly it is a nuisance. … [B]e a gentleman and courtly in your manners when you ought to be. …”