June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
Americans like their “first dogs.” Barney, Spot, Buddy, Millie, King Timahoe, and Fala all have been celebrities. So you can imagine my pleasure when I discovered the story of a hitherto unknown canine that supplied comfort and diversion to an earlier President. I found him among old letters saved by Margaret Lynch Suckley, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s distant cousin (it was she who gave him Fala). While rummaging through trunks of documents in the attic of Wilderstein, Miss Suckley’s ancestral home in Rhinebeck, New York, looking for material on which to base a family history, I came upon the tale of a stray dog that made the household of President Abraham Lincoln his own.
In mid-October 1861, during the bleak months after the Union defeat at Bull Run, President and Mrs. Lincoln were driven across the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia, to present flags to newly formed volunteer regiments assembled there. On their return to the capital, a sleek black hunting dog trailed their carriage all the way to the White House, trotted after the President right through the front door, and, to the delight of the Lincoln children, quickly made himself at home.
Lincoln, a famously indulgent father, was as pleased as his young sons Willie and Tad that the errant dog had joined the household. But as it happened, this dog possessed a devoted master. He was a New Yorker named Dr. George Suckley. Having served as a resident at New York Hospital, he had recently signed on as the chief surgeon of Brig. Gen. Philip Kearny’s 1st New Jersey Brigade, and his tent hospital had been praised in The New York Times for its efficiency and cleanliness. On his tour of inspection, the President had stopped by to congratulate the doctor.
Afterward, Suckley had noticed his black pointer, named Jet, chasing after the Executive carriage, but he was sure his pet would soon return. When it became clear that Jet had in fact run away, Suckley sent a friend to the White House to inquire if a pointer had been seen in the vicinity. The answer came back a decisive no.
The increasingly worried Suckley was on the verge of posting lost-dog notices when, thumbing through a local paper called Willis’s Home Journal , he came across a gossipy news item about a “black refugee from Virginia,” not an escaped slave but a pointer “of the very finest breed and qualities.” The breezy account went on to relate how the dog, accompanying Mrs. Lincoln’s barouche on one of her excursions to the Gardes Lafayette, an elegant French regiment then stationed near the Chain Bridge, had “coursed through the hills and glens of Rock Creek, returning to the carriage at short distances, as if for hunting orders,” and of how while Mrs. Lincoln was enjoying the officers’ conversation, he “made the rounds of the encampment inquisitively looking into every tent.” Sure that the “little black secessionist” was his own beloved Jet, Suckley hurried to Washington to claim him. He described the event for his family in a playlet.
Drove up to the White House. Walked in. Saw the usher (whom I knew). Said I came for the black pointer that followed the President’s carriage about 2 weeks ago. Oh! you can’t have that dog Doctor. But I am going to have him. Well wait ‘till I see the President. Usher to Pres. Mr. President, a gentleman is outside who says you have stolen his dog. Show him in. Good morning, Mr. President. Good morning, Sir. I came after my black dog, Sir. He followed you about a fortnight ago, and is now here. I will not part with jet on any consideration. … President (looking as if he had been caught sheepstealing) Well (drawled), I don’t want to take anybody’s dog, or property. If he is your dog you must have him—but the children are very fond of him—and—and—you’ll probably lose him again! Mr. President, I don’t want to part with him—but sir I’ll propose a Compromise. What Compromise? I’ll give you a pup—one of his own children as black as himself. The President laughed —or rather uncoiled — straightened himself to his full length, & chuckled. Probably of all the compromises that ever were made in the private offices of our Presidents none ever equaled this. He made me let Jet stay there two or three weeks longer, promising to take good care of him. At the expiration of the time I shall visit his Excellency with the compromise, which I now have with me, fattening, and learning. He is a perfect little facsimile of the old dog; very sagacious & tractable, and, altho’ but two months old, already fetches sticks.
In late December, Suckley rode to the White House to repossess Jet and deliver the compromise. Alas, the pointer had run away, apparently seeking his master. “I am put out with the President,” Suckley wrote home. “He has lost Jet, & in consequence I will not give him the pup.”
Suckley would not see Jet again, for within days he was ordered to Cumberland, Maryland, to reorganize the scandalously deficient hospital there. But he sent the promising pup to his family’s farm in Rhinebeck. During four years on the front lines, the doctor was promoted to the rank of colonel and became one of General Grant’s personal surgeons. Afterward he returned to New York, where he spent a happy retirement. Still, he may have regretted not having left the “Compromise” with the President. In February 1862 Willie Lincoln died of a sudden fever, and as his father struggled through the griefs and anxieties of his last years, he might have found respite in the antics of a smart, romping pup.