April 13, 1865 (Thursday)
Abraham Lincoln was up early as usual. He made his way first to the telegraph office in the War Department. There, as so often before, he was greeted by Charles Tinker, one of Washington’s few entrusted telegraphers. When the President arrived, Tinker was in the middle of copying a dispatch. Lincoln saw the message, which, as Tinker later wrote, “conveyed important information on two subjects and that was couched in very laconic terms.”
And as was usual for Lincoln, this idea brought up an anecdote which he then shared with the telegrapher:
“Mr. Tinker, that reminds me of the old story of the Scotch country girl on her way to market with a basket of eggs for sale. She was fording a small stream in scant costume, when a wagoner approached from the opposite bank and called: ‘Good morning, my lassie; how deep’s the brook, and what’s the price of eggs?’ ‘Knee deep and a sixpence,’ answered the little maid, who gave no further attention to her questioner.”
The President, “with a smile still on his sunny face,” then left the office to enter Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s office. There, he found the Secretary with General Grant. The general had come to Washington “with a view to putting a stop to the purchase of supplies, and what I now deemed other useless outlay of money.” Soon an order to that effect was written. The war was, it seemed, now finishing.
The government was to end conscription and recruiting, as well as cease the buying of arms and ammunition. The number in the service was now, of course, far too many, and they had to start shedding the extra weight. Both the number of soldiers as well as officers were to be reduced. Trade and commerce was also to be returned to normal where and when possible.
With the fall of Richmond and the surrender of Lee’s army, all of Virginia was again in Federal hands. Prior to leaving the Richmond area, President Lincoln had given General Godfrey Weitzel, left in command of the city, the authorization “to permit the body calling itself the Legislature of Virginia to meet for the purpose of recalling the Virginia troops from the Confederate armies.”
Weitzel, it seems, took this to mean that the Virginia Legislature was to come together for a new session. That was not, however, was Lincoln had in mind. Stanton had no taste at all for such a thing. These men were Rebels. They had no authority, and most certainly should not be recognized. After leaving Stanton’s office, Lincoln met with Gideon Welles, Naval Secretary. He asked Welles thoughts on the matter.
Welles believed that once the legislature was convened, “they would, with their hostile feelings, be inclined, perhaps, to conspire against us.” But Lincoln claimed to hold no fear of this. “They were too badly beaten, too much exhausted,” he replied before clarifying his meaning.
“His idea was,” related Welles in his diary, “that the members of the legislature, comprising the prominent and influential men of their respective counties, had better come together and undo their own work.” Lincoln was certain they would do this. He believed that the civil government had to be reestablished as soon as possible – “there must be courts, and law, and order, or society would be broken up, the disbanded armies would turn into robber bands and guerrillas, which we must strive to prevent.”
Lincoln now saw that the members of his cabinet disagreed with him. He was willing to concede, wrote Welles, that “he had perhaps made a mistake, and was ready to correct it if he had.”
And with that, he left matters of government and war behind him. He had been in poor health since returning from Richmond, and desperately needed some kind of break. That afternoon, he mounted his horse and, accompanied by the cavalry employed as bodyguards, rode toward the Soldier’s Home on the outskirts of the city. Riding at a good clip, he soon overtook Maunsell Bradhurst Field, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, who later recalled this meeting:
“Presently I heard a clatter behind me, and, looking out of the carriage-window, I saw Mr. Lincoln approaching on horseback, followed by the usual cavalry escort. He soon came up to me, and, while he rode for some time at my side, we conversed together upon indifferent subjects. I noticed that he was in one of those moods when ‘melancholy seemed to be dripping from him,’ and his eye had that expression of profound weariness and sadness which I never saw in other human eye. After a while he put spurs to his horse and hurried on, and he and his followers were soon lost to view.1
- Sources: Lincoln in the Telegraph Office by David Homer Bates; Life of Abraham Lincoln by Josiah Gilbert Holland; Memories of Many Men and of Some Women by Maunsell Bradhurst Field; Diary by Gideon Welles; Memoirs by Ulysses Grant; The Lincolns by Daniel Mark Epstiein. [↩]