- Historic Sites
Lincoln And The Telegrapher
April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
You may like to know, as probably most of you do not, that his composition, in writing, was slow and apparently somewhat labored, and his writing itself was a comparatively slow process. While writing, as I have often seen him, sitting directly opposite me and at the same table, he was accustomed to look out of the window between his sentences, scratch his head, usually his right temple, for his sentences in his mind, often moving his lips in actual whisper of the words, and then write them out, rarely erasing, interlining, or correcting; and when he had finished, what simple and perfect diction it was! His style of composition was as peculiar and novel as himself, and always in simple, terse, and clear language. He sometimes read aloud, and in doing so would occasionally purposely mispronounce words and misplace inflection and accent, as if musing as he read.
His keen sense of the ridiculous extended to little things, and he was as perfect a mimic as his large frame would permit. A good example was this: Albert Johnson, Mr. Stanton’s private secretary and personal accountant, was a man of unusually small stature, weighing perhaps a hundred and ten pounds, and his deportment was extremely polite. On one occasion Mr. Lincoln wanted to refer to the Bible, and he asked Johnson to bring it. Johnson danced out of the room to get it; but not finding it quickly, and fearing that the President might become impatient, he ran back to explain that he had not found it yet, but would have it presently. He finally brought it, with an apology for the delay, and, with low repeated bows, retired. Alter Mr. Lincoln had made the desired use of the book, he ran nimbly into the adjoining room, just as Johnson had done, reappeared, then made his delivery of the book in the same fashion, greatly to his own and our amusement. This may not strike anybody as funny; but the extreme contrast in the size and movements of the two men, and the close imitation of the mimicry, made it decidedly appear so to us, for whose benefit he performed the bit of acting.
He came to our office, as he said, to “get rid of his persecutors,” most of whom wanted to see him “just a minute,” which meant that if he could hear their whole case arid decide just as they wanted him to do in a minute, then that was all the time they wanted; but that it did not often happen that way.
Peculiar names and alliterations seemed to have a charm tor him, and he would repeat them over and over to himself. He was in the habit of talking to himself, as I several times observed when he was walking between the White House and the department.
The Battle of Dranesville was, I believe, the first engagement of the Army of the Potomac under McClellan, and occurred after weeks of spirited picket firing. It, however, accomplished nothing of practical results, and it seemed that both armies were afraid to make a serious attack. After reading the reports, Mr. Lincoln said it reminded him of two puppy dogs he had seen barking furiously at each other through a paling fence. They kept up the most savage snarling as they ran along, until they came to an open gate, when each snapped its jaws at the other, turned quickly around, and ran away. The first news of the battle was to the effect that our forces had whipped the rebels, and among other things had captured fifty Colt’s revolvers. Mr. Lincoln read the message aloud, and asked the office messenger who handed it to him if he could tell when those Colt’s revolvers would grow to be horse pistols.
One morning after General Grierson’s celebrated raid, Mr. Lincoln came in, and as the raid was the most important recent military event, it was made the subject of conversation. Mr. Lincoln remarked that it was a most extraordinary movement. Grierson started into the rebel lines at Memphis, and nothing was heard of him for nearly three weeks, when he arrived safely at Baton Rouge with his command, having done serious damage to the Confederate railroads, machine-shops, mills, etc., along his route. The President said it reminded him of a story he once heard, of a person who had nui a needle into his hand and never knew anything of it again till it came out of one of his feet, fifteen years afterward.
When he finished reading the telegrams announcing the result of Sheridan’s last fight with Early in the Shenandoah Valley, he said he thought Early’s army was in about the same condition as the dog he once heard a man say he had killed. The hateful cur ran fiercely at him, snapping at his heels and annoying him provokingly every time he passed his owner’s house, and [the man] determined to be rid of him. So he one day filled a piece of punk with powder, set it on fire as he was about to pass his neighbor’s house, clapped it inside a biscuit, and when the dog rushed at him as usual, tossed the biscuit to him. In an instant the dog snapped it up and swallowed it. Presently the fire touched the powder and away went the dog, his head in one place, a leg here and another there, and the different parts of him scattered about; “but, said the man, “as for the dog, as a dog, I was never able to find him.” After this last fight, Early’s army, as an army, the President said he thought would be hard to find.