Thursday, February 28, 2013

Expensive Waiting

During the late spring of 1863 when things were looking particularly gloomy for the North, Lincoln was informed that Grant was, essentially, going to disappear. “You may not hear from me for several days,” the crypticd ispatch read when he left Port Gibson.

For a full two weeks nobody in Washington heard a word from, or about, Grant. Then on May 25 came glorious news: Grant had won five straight battles in Mississippi, captured the state capital of Jackson, split the rebel forces, and driven to the very trenches of the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg itself.

I think it is safe to imagine that Lincoln spent those agonizing two weeks of bottomless silence digesting his stomach lining.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Understandably Gun-Shy of Lincoln's Stories

As a politician, Lincoln made excellent use of his humorous stories.

His long time political opponent Stephen A. Douglas complained that Lincoln’s jokes were "like a slap across my back. Nothing else—not any of his arguments or any of his replies to my questions—disturbs me. But when he begins to tell a story, I feel that I am to be overmatched."

More than once Douglas and other political opponents of Lincoln’s saw their eloquently presented arguments forgotten by the audience after Lincoln followed up their speeches with a homely story or anecdote.

At Alton, Illinois, during the last of the “great debates” with Douglas, Lincoln told a story that illustrated how he felt about a political feud that was currently raging between Democratic senator Douglas and the head of the Democratic Party. He said he felt like the old woman that, not knowing who was going to win a brawl between her husband and a bear, decided to cheer for both of them: "Go it husband, go it bear!"

Friday, February 22, 2013

The high price of vindication

As a lawyer, Lincoln often discouraged people from bringing unnecessary lawsuits.

Once, a man wanted him to bring a suit for $2.50 against a penniless man, and Lincoln could not talk him out of it. So Lincoln took the case, charged the client a retainer of $10.00, won the case, kept $5.00 for himself and gave the other $5.00 to the penniless defendant who promptly paid the $2.50 he owed and kept the rest for himself.

Thus everyone involved won including the angry client who, though he paid dearly for it, felt his revenge vindicated.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bigger than a hog!

Lincoln once told the story of an enterprising farmer who had a hog of tremendous size. In fact, the hog was of such tremendous size that people came from miles around to see it.

One of the people saw the hog’s owner and inquired about the animal. "W’all, yes," the old fellow said: "I’ve got such a critter, mighty big un, but I guess I’ll have to charge you a dollar for lookin’ at him."

The stranger glared at the old man, handed him the desired money, and started to walk away. "Hold on," said the old man, "don’t you want to see the hog?"

"No," said the stranger. "Lookin at you, I’ve seen as big a hog as I ever want to see!"

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Like water downhill

According to the poet Walt Whitman, "As is well known, story-telling was often with President Lincoln a weapon which he employed with great skill.

“Very often he would not give a point-blank reply or comment, and these indirections, (sometimes funny, but not always so,) were probably the best responses possible.”

They certainly flowed from him on a regular basis, like water down hill.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Lincoln as a Pain in the Neck

Lincoln, maybe like you and me, could be a real pain in the neck to deal with.

Suppose you were a member of his cabinet. Well, to reach that point in a snake-pit like Washington, D.C. all the following were true about you, although not necessarily in this order: you
•    were college educated;
•    were boundlessly ambitious;
•    were handsome;
•    knew the necessity of dressing stylishly and well;
•    had a sophisticated, urbane sense of humor;
•    knew how to work a room; and finally you
•    knew how to dodge time-bomb questions.

By contrast, Abraham Lincoln, your boss
•    had no more than a total aggregate 18 months of education at what were charitably called a “Blab Schools;”
•    looked like a 19th century male prototype for The Wicked Witch of the West;
•    capped off a 6’4” frame with a stove-pipe hat, as if this elongated bean-pole needed to add a little stature;
•    had an awe-shucks, corn-ball cracker-barrel sense of humor;
•    came from Podunk, Illinois.

Like I say, a real pain in the neck.

Monday, February 11, 2013

... Then You'd be Depressed Too!

If any contemporary psychotherapist were to spend 5 minutes in Lincoln’s presence he would readily conclude that Lincoln suffered from chronic clinical depression.


Perhaps because Lincoln’s childhood was plagued by a steady, unmitigated stream of frontier tragedy: his grandfather, named Abraham, was killed by Indians; his illiterate father more than once fell victim to shoddy surveying and land title practices that forced him and his family from his Kentucky farms; his nurturing mother died a slow, agonizing death in a one-room cabin [no place to hide] in front of her 9-year-old son; his beloved sister, a few short years later dead at childbirth, along with her child.

If your life or mine had been exposed to a similar barrage of negatives at such an impressionable age, surely our adult life, like his, would be deeply stamped by bottomless sadness, by yawning despair.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Grant and Bulldog Determination

The historian Stephen Oates tells the following story about a remarkable Ulysses S. Grant and his dramatic campaign to capture the impregnable fortress of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Rebel guns 300 feet above a perilous hair-pin turn in the Mississippi prevented Yankee shipping from use of The Father of Waters. By this point in the war Rebel fortifications both up- and down-stream were all in Union hands – all except Vicksburg.

“A cryptic telegram arrived from Grant. On May 11, 1863 he left Port Gibson – ‘you may not hear from me for several days,’ the dispatch read, and then he stormed northeast toward Vicksburg and Jackson, subsisting entirely off hostile country.

"For two weeks nobody in Washington knew for sure what was happening. Then on May 25 – a day to circle on the calendar – came a glorious report from Grant’s chief of staff. The general had won five straight battles in Mississippi, captured the state capital of Jackson, split the rebel forces, and driven to the very trenches of Vicksburg itself.”

After a horrendous siege of the defiant defenders inside Vicksburg, the town, and the Rebel guns, fell to the Yankees on the same day – July 4, 1863 – that Lee was to retreat from Gettysburg.

The Confederacy was to fight on for another 22 months, but their chances for ultimate success were doomed.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Lincoln's fondness for Grant's whiskey

During the Civil War, the story made the rounds that the real reason then-Lieutenant Grant out in Oregon Territory had resigned his army commission back in the 1850’s wasn’t loneliness for his family as he claimed but rather the prospect of a court-martial for drunkenness.

Of course, a story like that has remarkable staying power. At about that same time Edmund Stanton, the Secretary of War, told Lincoln pretty much the same thing, namely, that there were reports from the field that General Grant was overly fond of whiskey.

Lincoln was far from convinced, and replied, “Find out what kind of whiskey he is drinking.”

“Why is that, Mr. President?”

“Because I want to send a case of it to my other generals.”