James B. Conroy

Lincoln's White House

The People’s House in Wartime

First Pages

"Gulliver Abe in the White House, Attacked by the Lilliputian Office Seekers." Frank Leslie's Budget of Fun, March 26, 1861

Late on a winter night in 1864, the massive White House gates on Pennsylvania Avenue stood open to the world. Just inside both entrances, a pair of stoic cavalrymen sat mounted face to face across the gravel carriageway on the matched black horses of the Union Light Guard. It was not an easy watch. “Sitting quietly on horseback for two hours on a cold night is, to say the least, disagreeable,” a guardsman later said, but the view was agreeably calm. Barren trees spread their limbs in the dark, a few of the house’s windows shone with yellow-tinged gaslight, and flickering jets of flame lit the curved stone path to the white-pillared portico, washed in a pale gold glow. Two sentries paced their beat a few feet in front of the mansion, starting at opposite ends and crossing in the middle with muskets on their shoulders and deer tails on their hats. Said to be “more ornamental than useful,” neither the Pennsylvania Bucktails nor the Union Light Guard challenged any sober citizen who approached the President’s House.

Leaning on a pillar under the portico, a bright young corporal named Robert McBride, fresh from Ohio with the rest of the Union Light Guard, heard the front door open, and a tall, thin, awkwardly moving man came out alone, looking weary in a long black coat and a poorly kept stovepipe hat. McBride had seen his face in Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, but the gaslight caught the furrows that the portraits left out.

Indian Chiefs in the White House Conservatory. Mrs. Lincoln is on the right.

As Lincoln closed the door, clasped his hands behind him, and slowly crossed the portico with his head bent forward and his eyes cast down, McBride drew his saber to his chin, and the nearest Bucktail sentry presented arms, but the Commander in Chief noticed neither man’s salute. Alone with his burdens, directly under the gaslight as if he were on stage, he paused at the top of the steps for what seemed like minutes, long enough for McBride’s arm to quiver. Then he absently lifted his hat to his guards and walked to his left toward the War Department down a wooded, brick-paved path barely lit by a single flame. McBride sheathed his sword, the sentry resumed his beat, and they both watched the President anxiously as he passed “into the shadows of the trees.”

Back on duty the next morning, McBride saw Lincoln leave the White House again and start toward the War Department. The Bucktail sentry swung his musket to his chest in a rigid salute, but the President passed him by as if he were invisible. Lincoln had walked a dozen paces down the path before he stopped short, turned around, raised his hat, and bowed like “one gentleman apologizing to another for an unintentional slight.” Only then did the soldier resume his beat.

“Colonel" Tad Lincoln

After Lincoln was out of earshot, McBride asked the Bucktail why he had held his position after the President passed. Lincoln ignored his salute all the time, the sentry said, but he always stopped and returned it before he had gone very far, alone on his walk through the trees at the height of a civil war.

Later that year, a British writer and a fellow Englishman approached the White House with an editor of the New York Times and found not a “dog on the watch.” Lincoln had not yet arrived for their meeting, but his wartime home and headquarters were as open as a barn. Passing freely through the portico, the editor took the Londoners into the lobby, led them up the stairs past a servant who was cleaning them, and walked them into the office of the President of the United States as if it were a shop. His British companions followed “in mute amazement, half ashamed of treading unasked on this sacred ground,” but the American had no such qualms. “The people paid for this house,” he said, “and they had a right to see the inside of it; they paid the President to live there, and they had a right to see him in it.”

Lincoln’s White House Office

The President’s House is not his castle, the Englishman told his readers; “it is not even his house.”

* * * * *

Many years ago, a distinguished professor of medieval history wrote a note on a paper I had worked hard to write, a rare event in my misspent youth. He called it a “very good” job. Faint praise, it seemed to me. “You have done your research carefully,” he wrote, “and written it quite well, though so many short paragraphs indicate a little weakness in organization.” I could have lived with a little weakness, and I still like digestible paragraphs. It was the last line that stung: “History is inquiry, engaging with the past, which we engage in because it has a purpose. You have not indicated your purpose. B+.”

The professor was a kindly man, and he made me a generous offer. If I gave him a revision that stated and served a purpose, the paper might earn an A. I cannot recall the purpose, but I do recall the A, and the lesson that went with it. Thousands of books on Lincoln, including one of my own, have blessed and burdened the world. No one should write another unless it has a purpose.

When I started researching this one, curiosity about the Civil War White House was purpose enough. No book had ever captured in one place how it looked, felt, and smelled; its plumbing, heat, and light; its servants, guards, and aides; their alliances of power and convenience; their collisions over jealousy, integrity, and race; what Lincoln was like to work for and how he used his staff; his literally open door in a city full of angry men; his wife’s lavish refurbishments and entertainments; the shady company she kept and the scandals they provoked; the mobs of persistent job-seekers ranging up the scale from madmen to Herman Melville; a host of guests and callers as diverse as Nathaniel Hawthorn, Sojourner Truth, P. T. Barnum, a dozen Plains Indian chiefs, a magician called Hermann the Prestidigitator, assorted generals, thieves, and spiritualists, Walt Whitman, Julia Ward Howe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a nine year-old Venezuelan piano prodigy. Many of their observations of the President’s House and its residents, upstairs and down, had not seen print since the 19th century, some had never been published at all, and no one had woven them together to bring Lincoln’s White House to life.

As my work on the book progressed, a deeper purpose worked its way through the material, revealing Lincoln’s growth as he made “this big white house” a rallying point for the war, a sounding board for the people, a platform for social change, and an engine for racial progress. In the short and long paragraphs that follow, the men, women, and children who knew his White House best speak plainly for themselves, shedding light on him and his times and perhaps a glint on our own.