Father Abraham spent hours comforting the wounded of both sides near the war’s end.
One of the most profoundly symbolic and emotionally intense moments of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency occurred at midday on April 8, 1865, near City Point, Va. In a move unequaled in American history, Abraham Lincoln undertook to honor the war’s wounded.
Lincoln knew that his stay at the Army of the Potomac’s supply base, which had begun on March 24, would have to end soon. He had hoped to hear from General Ulysses S. Grant that the Army of Northern Virginia had been defeated during his visit, but much as he wanted to linger at City Point until that happened, he could no longer justify remaining absent from the Oval Office. Before he left, however, there was one important duty he wanted to perform. The president had spoken during his second inaugural address of the importance of caring “for him who shall have borne the battle.” In December 1863, he had written of the honor due the citizen who “cares for his brother in the field, and serves, as he best can, the same cause.” On April 8, Lincoln was determined to turn his own words into deeds—on a grand scale.
Wounded troops were not unfamiliar with the president, whose lanky form had often been seen in hospital wards around the Northern capital. Now he was determined to visit one of the largest hospitals in the United States and personally greet every wounded soldier—at least 5,000 men, perhaps as many as 6,000. A chapter of history was nearing its end, and before he turned to the challenges of a postwar American nation he needed to meet with the men whose sacrifices had bought that victory. He had been waiting to do so for some time, and now the time had come.
Lincoln made his intentions known during his morning visit to the telegraph office, and word was passed to the medical director of the 200-acre Depot Field Hospital. Carriages were waiting when a little after midday, the president and his wife, plus Mary’s entourage, clambered aboard. Their route eased along the riverbank, crossing a special spur added to the military railroad to facilitate transporting wounded troops. Lincoln and his party could see a wooden boundary fence and, behind it, row after row of temporary buildings and tents.
Dr. George B. Parker, the surgeon in charge, met the procession and started steering the president toward one of the kitchens when Lincoln objected, saying he had come to visit the troops. Then several of Parker’s assistants started explaining how the place functioned, annoying Lincoln even more. “Gentlemen, you know better than I how to conduct these hospitals,” he exclaimed, “but I came here to take by the hand the men who have achieved our glorious victories.” When someone mentioned the large number of patients involved, Lincoln said that he “guessed he was equal to the task; at any rate he would try, and go as far as he could.” Parker promptly conducted the Lincolns and their group into the nearest ward, operated by the II Corps.
It would appear the party traveling with the president remained with him to varying degrees. Mrs. Lincoln appears to have dropped out early, prompting a disdainful observation from a regular nurse: “One lady in rich garb sauntered through our worn walks, leaning on the arm of a Congressman, noting what we lacked in our appointments. My bed-tick dress made a sorry contrast to her costly-attired figure, but I looked at my hands, which were not afraid to touch the dirty blouse of a wounded soldier, and wondered if her jeweled fingers would shrink from the contact.” The Marquis de Chambrun stayed the course, but not always alongside Lincoln. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner seems to have remained nearby the whole time. (There’s no mention of Tad Lincoln, who may have remained aboard the vessel River Queen, which had brought the Lincolns to City Point.)
By the time the president entered the II Corps compound, all the ambulatory patients had been lined up outside their tents to receive him. Sometimes it was a straight line, sometimes circular. Lincoln alternated between greeting those in line and ducking inside the tents to meet those who couldn’t stand. He was often preceded by a corps surgeon who announced, “Attention: the President of the United States!”
The II Corps had taken part in the actions against the White Oak Road and participated in the April 2 breakthrough of Confederate lines, suffering some 917 casualties, of which 628 were wounded. “Weather clear and pleasant,” wrote a II Corps Pennsylvanian. “Old Abe passed through on a shake hands with all the patients.” One New Yorker added that “Uncle Abe gave us each a word of cheer.” For many of those standing outside the tents, the president’s words were a simple “How do you do.” Some of those unable to stand heard him say, “I hope you will soon be able to go to your friends.” A Vermont man serving as a sharpshooter recalled that they were told we could uncover our wounds, but must not speak to him. I threw the blankets off so he could see that my right leg was gone, above the knee, and when he reached my bed he said: ‘What, a leg gone?’ I said: ‘Yes.’ He stopped at the head of my bed and looked at the card, saying, ‘and a Vermonter.’ I said: ‘Yes, sir, I pride myself on being a Green Mountain boy. I was born within seven miles of Mount Mansfield, the highest peak of the Green Mountain range.’ He then took my hand in both of his. I asked him:
‘Well, Father Abraham, have we done our work well.’
He said: ‘Very well, indeed, and I thank you.’
I never shall forget the pressure he gave my hand, nor can I forget that sad, careworn face.
Recollecting that day 50 years later, the soldier wrote: “I often see that sad and worn face in memory, and I can hardly keep back the tears.”
Also witness to Lincoln’s visit were members of the Depot Field Hospital support staff, both army and civilian. An aide known to the readers of a hospital newspaper only as “Frank” said the president “passed around and cordially shook hands with nearly all the boys. It pleased them greatly. He had, as ever, kind words for all, and now and then found utterance in some jokes, for which he is so well known, and thereby would arise the sounds of mirthful laughter.”
“He had the manner of a gentleman—I may say of a gentle gentleman;” added an agent for the U.S. Christian Commission, “his voice as we heard it was subdued and kindly; his eyes were mild but all-observing; and his face that he once himself described as ‘poor, lean and lank,’ was a strong face marked with lines of a mingled gentleness and sadness that redeemed it from being homely. The close grasp of his hand attested the sympathetic great heartedness of the great man.”
Many of those in the V Corps wards had fought at Quaker Road, White Oak Road and Five Forks, where the totals for killed and wounded exceeded 2,800. A soldier with a shoulder wound remembered the Lincoln mantra, “Be of good cheer, boys; we are at the beginning of the end at last.” To another he said that “the war will soon be over and then we’ll all go home.” In one tent the president encountered 12 officers of the Maryland Brigade, 2nd Division. With them was a Confederate major who had fallen at the same time as the Union men. According to one of the Marylanders, Lincoln “gave this officer a hearty grasp of the hand and inquired what State he was from and where he resided before entering the Army….He then…wished him a speedy and hasty recovery from his wounds and [told him] that in a few days the war would be over and he would be able to see his dear ones at home.” After Lincoln left, the dazed Rebel asked who the man was who had spoken to him and was stunned by the answer. “My God, is that so?” he exclaimed. “Is that the kind of a man that we have been fighting for four long years?”
There was an even more distinguished Confederate officer in the V Corps wards, Colonel Harry L. Benbow, who had been captured at Five Forks. Benbow later recalled that the president walked down the long aisle between the rows of cots on each hand, bowing and smiling….Arriving at length opposite where I lay, he halted beside my bed and held out his hand. Looking him in the face, as he stood with extended hand: Mr. President, I said, do you know to whom you offer your hand?
‘I do not,’ he replied.
Well, I said, you offer it to a Confederate colonel, who has fought you as hard as he could for four years.
‘Well,’ said he, ‘I hope a Confederate colonel will not refuse me his hand.’
No, sir, I replied, I will not, and I clasped his hand in both mine.
I tell you, sir, he had the most magnificent face and eye that I have ever gazed into. He had me whipped from the time he first opened his mouth.
Dr. George Mendenhall was not present when Lincoln visited the Depot Field Hospital, arriving just minutes after he departed. “It was like the visit of a father to his children and was appreciated in the same kindly spirit by the soldiers,” he wrote. “They loved to talk of his kindness and unaffected manner & to dwell upon the various incidents of this visit as a green spot in the soldier’s hard life.” From Surgeon Parker, in charge of the facility, he learned that at “one point in his visit he observed an axe which he picked up & examined & made some pleasant remark that he was once considered to be a good chopper. He was invited to try his hand upon a log of wood lying near from which he made the chips fly in primitive style.” According to another doctor, Lincoln was “swinging the ax around in a powerful manner, which I would hardly have expected in a man of his sedentary habits.”
Those hospitalized from the IX Corps had seen hard fighting at Fort Stedman and in the April 2 attacks along the Jerusalem Plank Road, which had resulted in over 2,500 killed and wounded. One Pennsylvanian who had been hit on March 25 remembered when “Abraham Lincoln came along, took off his hat, grasped him by the hand, asking if there was anything he could do or any word he could send for him to the folks back home.” Massachusetts officer Cyrus T. Goodwin would write home that the president “looks very thin and as though he has not much rest. [H]e must have had a good deal on his mind the last four years and it would broke many a tougher looking man than what he is. He had a kind word for us all[.] The Dr told me he said the war would be over in six weeks [but] we can tell better about that when the times comes around.” Lincoln was a bit more definite speaking with a New York colonel, telling him to “cheer up, and get well…for this dreadful war is coming to a close.” Another man whose hand he shook was Sergeant John H. Strickler, struck down on April 2, who afterward said that he felt he was “in part…recompensed for the wound.” A young medical aide trailing the president through the wards was deeply impressed by his “genuine interest in the welfare of the soldiers.”
Two of the IX Corps boys seen by the president were struggling to survive—a fight that would claim the life of one. Pennsylvania Lieutenant Levi R. Robb had been terribly wounded on April 2. A less severely injured soldier lying next to him recalled the moment when the president stopped by: “Suddenly his eyes opened wide and his face lit up with a happy expression of recognition as he spoke in a clear but feeble voice, ‘The President.’…When he reached Lieutenant Robb’s cot he grasped his feebly extended hand as he cheerily said, ‘God bless you.’ Slowly and deliberately came the reply, ‘He has, Mr. President, and may it be your happy portion, too.’ The President paused just a moment; as he looked with compassion into the wan face of the wounded officer, and said, ‘It is, but cheer up, my boy, we’ll meet again,’ and then passed on to cheer others.” Robb died on April 9.
One of the others was Captain Charles H. Houghton, who had been wounded three times during the Fort Stedman fighting, after which he lost part of his left leg. Another wounded officer lying next to Houghton recorded how Lincoln paused at the captain’s cot, bent over and gently kissed him on the cheek. Then in voice so tender and so low that only my near proximity enabled me to hear, he began to talk to him, telling him how he had heard from Dr. McDonald all the story of his bravery in battle, his heroic fight for life and quiet cheerfulness in hospital.
…Poor Houghton could only reply with faint smiles and whispers that were too low to reach my ears, but Mr. Lincoln heard, and a smile came to his grave face. Turning to the surgeon the President asked to be shown the major’s wounds, especially the amputated limb. Dr. McDonald tried to dissuade him by saying the sight…would be too shocking. But the President insisted, turned down the light coverings, and took a hasty look. Straightening up, with a deep groan of pain, and throwing up both his long arms, he cried out, ‘Oh, this awful, awful war!’ Then bending again to Houghton with the tears cutting wide furrows down his dust-stained cheeks, and with great sobs shaking him, he exclaimed, ‘Poor boy! Poor boy! You must live! You must!’ This time…[his] whispered answer,
‘I intend to, sir,’ was just audible.”
Captain Houghton survived his wounds.
The final ward contained soldiers from the VI Corps, whose breakthrough on April 2 had cost them 958 wounded or missing. When the president stopped at the bed of amputee patient C. Hull Grant of the 43rd New York, Grant reminded him that he had previously greeted the then president-elect in 1861, during a stop in Albany en route to Washington. As Grant’s friends like to tell it, “On the first occasion he shook hands with his own good right hand, but on the second occasion he was obliged to use his left, for the other was on the field.”
A Vermont soldier recalled years afterward that Lincoln’s “tall form and loving face bent over every one of us. Not one did he pass by. And to every one he had some word of good cheer tenderly spoken, while his homely face became absolutely beautiful as it beamed with love and sympathy. He would say to each, ‘God bless you, my boy! Keep up a good heart. You’ll come through all right. We’ll never forget you!’
Ah, I tell you, boys, we felt like reaching up our weak arms to clasp his neck yes, even to press our lips to his rough cheek. We all felt impatient to get well as fast as possible that we might fight as never before for our President, the great heart who came to cheer and love us while we lay disabled from our wounds.”
One soldier who had a more comprehensive view of the proceedings was Private Wilbur Fisk, a hospital guard. “Everything passed off in a very quiet manner,” he wrote the next day, “there was no crowding or disorder of any kind….Mr. Lincoln presides over millions of people, and each individual share of his attention must necessarily be very small, and yet he wouldn’t slight the humblest of them all.”
It was late afternoon by the time the president finished greeting the wounded warriors, each of whom, as he said, “bravely bears his country’s cause.” Senator Sumner remarked, “Mr. President, you have taken the hand of some thousands of men to-day: you must be very tired.” When he afterward recalled that day while speaking to Secretary of State William Seward, the president described it as having ‘worked as hard at it as sawing wood.’ Only when he returned to the privacy of his stateroom on River Queen did Elizabeth Keckly hear him admit to Mary Lincoln: “Mother, I have shaken so many hands to-day that my arms ache tonight. I almost wish that I could go to bed now.”
In an age when people were as apt to bow as clasp hands when they met, Lincoln’s hand-shakings were an integral part of the man. His actions at the hospital were not perfunctory, but rather an expression of sympathy and honor from the heart to men who had sacrificed so much. In taking their hands, Lincoln was affirming for each Union soldier the righteousness of their cause. And for the Southerners he encountered, the president’s firm grip said clearly, “Welcome back to the Union.”
Noah Andre Trudeau is the author of numerous award-winning books on the war, including Bloody Roads South and Like Men of War. This article is adapted from his latest, Lincoln’s Greatest Journey: Sixteen Days That Changed a Presidency, March 24 – April 8, 1865, published by Savas Beatie LLC.