Telling Stories in Wartime

Abraham Lincoln’s Stories and Humor

Mr. Lincoln’s Stories

“They say I tell a great many stories,” said President Lincoln in 1864. “I reckon I do, but I have found in the course of a long experience that common people take them as they run, are more easily influenced and informed through the medium of a broad illustration than in any other way, and as to what the hypocritical few may think, I don’t care.”1 Lincoln noted that “for many years he traveled the circuit when Illinois was sparsely settled. The judge, counsel, clients, witnesses, and jurymen would be at the same hotel. They were all storytellers. The experiences of a virile frontier people in new and original environment furnished more and better anecdotes than were ever invented.”2

“You cannot think of Lincoln without thinking at the same time of that very American trait which he possessed and which seems to spring from and within the soil of the land—homely humor,” recalled Russell Herman Conwell, who visited the White House as a young man. “One day when I was at the White House in conversation with Lincoln a man bustled in self-importantly and whispered something to him. As the man left the room Lincoln turned to me and smiled.”

“He tells me that twelve thousand of Lee’s soldiers have just been captured,” Lincoln said. “But that doesn’t mean anything; he’s the biggest liar in Washington. You can’t believe a word he says. He reminds me of an old fisherman I used to know who got such a reputation for stretching the truth that he bought a pair of scales and insisted on weighing every fish in the presence of witnesses.

“One day a baby was born next door, and the doctor borrowed the fisherman’s scales to weigh the baby. It weighed forty-seven pounds.”

Lincoln threw back his head and laughed; so did I. It was a good story. Now what do you think of this? Only recently I picked up a newspaper and read that same Lincoln anecdote, and it was headed, “A New Story.”3

Mr. Lincoln’s stories were anecdotal and apocryphal. Winston Churchill’s stories were based on events he had lived, observed and read about. Lincoln never claimed to make up all his stories, not did he claim to have told half the stories attributed to him.4 “I do generally remember a good story when I hear it,” he told journalist Noah Brooks, “but I never did invent anything original; I am only a retail dealer.”5 Lincoln was an entertaining raconteur. Presbyterian minister Andrew H. Goodpasture recalled: “About the A.D. 1846 Mr. Lincoln visited Petersburg and as usual quite a number of citizens gathered near to him; evinceing [sic] great pleasure in hearing him talk, and ever now and then he would tell some joke causing all to manifest pleasure in his society; after some time in his company I passed on giving attention to the business of the day, and after an hour or so I returned back along the street, and still there was quite [a] croud [sic] with Mr. Lincoln, all in good glee, and as I was passing them, I thought I would say something, and remarked that Where the great ones are there will the peopel [sic] be. Mr. Lincoln replyed…. Parson a little more Scriptural; ‘Where the carces [carcuses] is there will be the eagels [sic] be gathered together.[‘] There was quite a laugh and so I passed on.”6

Attorney Henry C. Whitney recalled that “Lincoln very rarely told stories in his speeches. In both his forensic and political speeches, he got down to serious business, and threw aside the mask of Momus altogether. I never heard him narrate but one story in a speech, which was this: ‘A man on foot, with his clothes in a bundle, coming to a running stream which he must ford, made elaborate preparations by stripping off his garments, adding them to his bundle, and tying all to the top of a stick, which enabled him to raise the bundle high above his head to keep them dry during the crossing. He then fearlessly waded in and carefully made his way across the rippling stream, and found it in no place up to his ankles.” Whitney added that Lincoln “was prolific of wisdom in wit like this, to illustrate a point: ‘If there be three pigeons on a fence, and you fire and kill one of them, how many will be left?’ ‘Why, two, of course,’ you say innocently. ‘No, there won’t,’ says this philosopher in disguise, ‘for the other two will fly away.’” Whitney recalled that “Lincoln was sui generis in his pleasantry as in all else. There was a philosophy in his humor which segregated it out from the mass of humor and made it acceptable to the people.” Whitney wrote: “He combined the consideration of the movement of armies, or grave questions of international concern, with Nasby’s feeble jokes or Dan Rice’s clownish tricks. As I have shown, his prelude to the cabinet consideration of the emancipation proclamation was a dull jeu d’esprit about Judas Iscariot. In the chief drawer of his cabinet table, all the current joke books of the time were in juxtaposition with official commissions, lacking only the final signature, applications for pardons from death penalties, laws awaiting executive action, and orders, which, when launched, would control the fate of a million men and the destinies of unborn generations.”7

Union Navy commander David Dixon Porter recalled that at the beginning of the Civil War when Secretary of State William H. Seward interfered in the Union Navy’s provisioning and relief of Fort Sumter, Lincoln declared: “This looks to me very much like the case of two fellows I once knew: one was a gambler, the other a preacher. They met in a stage, and the gambler induced the preacher to play poker, and the latter won all the gambler’s money. ‘It’s all because we have mistaken our trades,’ said the gambler; ‘you ought to have been a gambler and I a preacher, and, by ginger, I intend to turn the tables on you next Sunday and preach in your church,’ which he did.”8 While Churchill used stories to entertain and instruct, Lincoln often used stories to evade controversy and dismiss visitors. Henry C. Whitney reported: “A gentleman of high character and of patriotic resolve once called, highly accredited, on the President, to instruct him how affairs might be better managed than they were. He committed the not uncommon blunder of supposing that Lincoln had not thoroughly digested all “union saving” plans, and could not be aided by outside and irresponsible advisers.”

As soon as he broached his subject, Lincoln interrupted him by the most silly, grotesque and inapplicable anecdote— as far away from the subject of conversation as possible. The visitor was shocked and indignant; he had thoroughly matured a plan to expedite the return of peace and save thou sands of human lives, as well as the nation, and had traveled a thousand miles at his own expense to impart it to the President and to make it personally certain that it would be adopted; and then, in that solemn crisis of the nation’s fate, to behold the President assume the role of a clown and turn grotesque somersaults; why, it was worse than Nero fiddling at the conflagration of Rome! The result was that he retired, utterly astounded and discomfited, from the presence of the jester who sat in the Presidential chair, and went to one of the Secretaries, who was a neighbor, and narrated the incident. But instead of receiving condolence, his neighbor burst into a long and boisterous fit of merriment. The astonished and discomfitted patriot exclaimed: “Now, you say that Lincoln’s stories always have some object or moral: please tell me what object or moral such an absurd, irrelevant, clownish story could possibly have?” “What object?” exclaimed the cabinet minister. “The most necessary object in the world at that time: to get rid of you and get to his business, and, according to your own story, he did it.”19

“One evening during the last week of his life, when extremely busy and weary as well, Lincoln was called to the reception room to see Mr. [James] Speed, then Attorney-General,” reported the Chicago Tribune. “He had called to introduce a friend and, seeing the weary look on the President’s face, began to apologize. ‘I am very sorry, Mr. President,’ said Mr. Speed, ‘to disturb you.’ ‘Speed,’ he replied, ‘you remind me of a story of Henry Ward Beecher. One Sunday as he was going to preach, he saw some boys playing marbles in the street. He stopped and looked at them very hard. ‘Boys,’ he said, presently, ‘boys, I am scared at what I see.’ ‘Then,’ replied one of the boys, ‘why the hell don’t you run away?’10

President Lincoln’s cabinet colleagues did not necessary appreciate his sense of humor. Lincoln occasionally made the ultra-serious Gideon Welles into the butt of occasional jokes. Journalist Noah Brooks wrote although the notion that Welles is “slight fossiliferous is undeniable… [but] it is a slander that he pleaded, when asked to personate the grandmother of a dying sailor, that he was busy examining a model of Noak’s ark; albeit, the President himself tells the story with great unction.”11 Aide John Nicolay recalled that Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase one day told President Lincoln: “I don’t see how we can stand this great expenditure, 2 or 3 Millions a day, it is dreadful, what shall be done. After thinking a moment Mr Lincoln said, well Mr Sec I don’t know, unless you give your paper mill another turn. Chase was disgusted at the levity.”12 Even as President Lincoln prepared to read the draft Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, he began the Cabinet meeting on a lighter note, according to Chase: “There was some general talk; and the President mentioned that [humorist] Artemus Ward had sent him his book. Proposed to read a chapter which he thought very funny. Read it, and seemed to enjoy it very much – the Heads also (except Stanton) of course. The Chapter was ‘Highhanded Outrage at Utica.’” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton never did like Lincoln’s stories. Chase continued: “The President then took a graver tone and said:

‘Gentlemen: I have, as you are aware, thought a great deal about the relation of this war to Slavery; and you all remember that, several weeks ago, I read to you an Order I had prepared on this subject, which, on account of objections made by some of you, was not issued. Ever since then, my mind has been much occupied with this subject, and I have thought all along that the time for action on it might very probably come. I think the time has come now. I wish it were a better time. I wish that we were in a better condition. The action of the army against the rebels had not been quite what I should have best liked. But they have been driven out of Maryland, and Pennsylvania is no longer in danger of invasion. When the rebel army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, and Pennsylvania is no longer in danger of invasion, to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation such as I thought most likely to be useful. I said nothing to any one; but I made the promise to myself, and (hesitating a little) — to my Maker. The rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfil that promise.13

Winston Churchill’s diatribes regularly annoyed his civil and military colleagues. Lincoln’s love of stories annoyed more staid colleagues like Stanton and Welles. Mr Lincoln did have a sarcastic streak that occasionally emerged when he was aggravated, even by friends. On September 15, 1863, President Lincoln wrote in response to request of Jesse K. Dubois and O. M. Hatch: “What nation do you desire Gen. Allen to be made Quarter-Master-General of? This nation already has a Quarter-Master-General.”14 Union Army officer Horace Porter noted that President Lincoln did not tell a story merely for the sake of the anecdote, but to point a moral or emphasize a fact: “He seldom indulged even in a smile until he reached the climax of a humorous narration; then he joined heartily with the listeners in the laugh which followed. He usually sat in a low camp-chair, and wound his legs around each other as if in an effort to get them out of the way, and with his long arms he accompanied what he said with all sorts of odd gestures.”15

Still, President Lincoln was careful to preserve the dignity of office. Aide William O. Stoddard recalled: “The most absurd and criminal stories have been told of Mr. Lincoln’s tendency toward buffoonery. I presume that of the stories and jokes which have been fathered upon him, he heard three out of four for the first time when retailed by some friend long after they were current on the streets and in the papers as ‘Lincoln’s last.’ The truth is, that as the war went on, a perpetual shade of sadness seemed to gather over him, and he more rarely relaxed into the mirthful spirit which had characterized his earlier manhood.”16

Winston Churchill had a strong sense of irony. General Ian Jacob recalled an incident when Churchill flew from Casablanca to Algiers in February 1943 in which Churchill sought to go to bed. “It was quite a business hoisting him into his perch and undressing him. At one stage I heard [valet] Sawyers say: ‘You are sitting on your hot water bottle. That isn’t at all a good idea.’” Churchill responded: “It isn’t an idea, it’s a coincidence.”17 Dwight D. Eisenhower recalled of his meetings with Churchill: “He could become intensely oratorical, even in discussion with a single person, but at the same time his intensity of purpose made his delivery seem natural and appropriate. He used humor and pathos with equal facility, and drew on everything from the Greek classics to Donald Duck for quotation, cliché, and forceful slang to support his position.”18

On April 10, the day that the Confederate surrender ending the Civil War was announced, the White House “was thronged with visitors. Some of them had come to congratulate him on the successful outcome of the war; others had come to advise him what course to pursue toward the conquered Confederacy; still others wanted appointments,” recalled bodyguard William H. Crook. “One gentleman, who was bold enough to ask aloud what everybody was asking privately, said,

‘Mr. President, what will you do with Jeff Davis when he is caught?’

Mr. Lincoln sat up straight and crossed his legs, as he always did when he was going to tell a story.

‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘that reminds me’ — at the familiar words every one settled back and waited for the story — ‘that reminds me of an incident which occurred in a little town in Illinois where I once practised law. One morning I was on my way to the office, when I saw a boy standing on the street corner crying. I felt sorry for the woebegone little fellow. So I stopped and questioned him as to the cause of his grief. He looked into my face, the tears running down his cheeks, and said: ‘Mister, do you see that coon?’ — pointing to a very poor specimen of the coon family which glared at us from the end of the string. ‘Well, sir, that coon has given me a heap of trouble. He has nearly gnawed the string in two — I just wish he would finish it. Then I could go home and say he had got away.’”19

Telegraph operator Charles Tinker recalled a visit to the War Department telegraph office on the afternoon of the next day, April 11, a few days before President Lincoln was murdered.. “[A]fter reading the despatches was reminded of a story which he told, and to illustrate its finale gathered his coat tails under his arms and with long strides passed out of the office laughing loudly and leaving me convulsed by the amusing story and his ludicrous performance.”20 Tinker recalled: “I think I had the pleasure of hearing what in all probability was the last anecdote ever told by Mr. Lincoln in the telegraph office. Early on the morning of April 13, 1865, the day before his assassination, he came into the telegraph office while I was copying a despatch that conveyed important information on two subjects and that was couched in very laconic terms. he read over the despatch, and after taking in the meaning of the terse phrases, turned to me and, with his accustomed smile, said: ‘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.”21

Union officer Grenville Mellen Dodge recalled visiting the White House: “President Lincoln turned to me and said, ‘If you have the time, I wish you would wait; I want to talk with you.’ I sat down again and waited quietly until he had disposed of the crowd. When he was through, he took me into the next room. He saw that I was ill-at-ease, so he took down from his desk a little book called ‘The Gospel of Peace.’ I think it was written by Artemus Ward and was very humorous. He opened the book, crossed his legs, and began to read a portion of a chapter, which was so humorous that I began to laugh, and it brought me to myself. When he saw that he had gotten me in his power, he laid the book down and began to talk to me about my visit to the Army of the Potomac and what I saw.”22

Another Union officer was present at the White House when President Lincoln interviewed a farmer regarding the musket he had invented: “After the inventor had gone, and the President had finished his conversation, in a recess by a window, with his other visitor, he related to us one of his characteristic stories. There was a gentleman traveling for his health, who was suffering greatly from nervousness and want of sleep. While. journeying in Egypt, he was terribly annoyed by the braying of a donkey, used in transporting his baggage, which was tied every night near his tent. At last the dragoman told the master of transportation that his donkey must be kept at a distance, where his noise would not disturb their employer. Whereupon the man proceeded to stop the braying by tying a string with a heavy stone attached to the donkey’s tail. The donkey immediately dropped his ears, hung his head, and remained quiet through the night. The next morning, when the stone was taken off, the donkey raised his head, shook his ears, and gave one good, long bray, like Baron Munchausen’s trumpet when the frozen tunes thawed out. I do not remember the application which Mr. Lincoln made of this story.”23

Union military officer Erasmus Keyes recalled: “In the line of my duty as military secretary to General [Winfield] Scott I had frequent interviews with the President, the Secretary of State Seward, and with Cameron and Stanton, secretaries of war. If ever there was a diamond in the rough, or good fruit enclosed in shabby husk, it was Abraham Lincoln. A correspondent of the New York Herald, after his nomination for President, described the nominee as “tall, gaunt, and as ugly, awkward and shuffling in his gait as Horace Greeley.” A stranger on seeing Mr. Lincoln would have concurred in that description, and would have found in his unreserved conversations with all approachers a strain of indescribable jocular freedom. I doubt if any man or woman could have had an interview of five minutes’ duration with “Old Abe,” as he was called, upon any subject without hearing him relate an anecdote to illustrate it, and many of his anecdotes were as broad and smutty as language can convey. Religion itself was in the category of his illustrations, as the following story told by him will prove.” Keyes wrote:

A certain Judge Campbell of Illinois had in his circuit the town of Springfield, for which he entertained a profound dislike. One day when he adjourned his court, a demure individual approached and asked of the judge the favor of holding divine service in his court room on the ensuing Sabbath morning. The request being granted, a conversation followed, in which Mr. Campbell begged to know the denomination of Christians to which the applicant belonged. “I am an Adventist,” said he, “and my discourse on the approaching Lord’s day will be the second coming of Christ.” “I beg pardon,” said the judge, “your labor would be thrown away in this town. In the first place I don’t think Christ was ever in Springfield, but if he was you may be sure he’ll never come there again.”

I do not intend, by the above allusions to Mr. Lincoln’s peculiarities, to forestall my opinion of his merits. My first impression of his character was erroneous, and it required much observation and close study to enable me to penetrate the homely environments of his nature, and disclose the lustre of his genius, his candor, integrity and boundless benevolence. His story-telling enabled President Lincoln him to discharge the fulness of his mind and sometimes to hint at his conclusions without giving offence. As he understood human nature in all its variety of exhibitions he acquired an unlimited scope of illustrations. His goodness of heart and freedom from suspicion sometimes made it difficult to detect treachery, self-interest, envy, rivalry, and malice, and consequently, during the first years of his administration, he gave a too ready ear to the advice of unscrupulous men and allowed unworthy and incompetent officers to be advanced, while their betters were disregarded. Poltroonery, covetousness, dishonesty and obscenity he discovered quickly, and his frankness naturally led him to expose them in the fittest words and similes.24

Many stories were falsely attributed to President Lincoln. Only later did he hear them – not always to his amusement. “One very witty, very dirty and insolent pun perpetrated by him on a member of his own Cabinet through the inventive brains of a well-known newspaper reporter, representative of a great northern daily, had been brought to Mr. Lincoln’s attention, and the author was sent for,” wrote aide William O. Stoddard. “Heretofore, this reporter had enjoyed special privilege of access to the President for news purposes, although his journal was a severely adverse critic.”

I watched this man as he stood in line, waiting his turn to go into the President room. He had no idea whatever why he had been summoned. He was a jolly fellow, full of wit of a kind, and his joke at the expense of the President was so good that he had to repeat it to me.

He had not seen the President’s face flush and darken when the brand-new patter of foul humor was given to him as being circulated in his name. He was on his way to see something and hear something as Louis, the President’s messenger, called him across the hall. Over he went, all smiles and chuckles, no doubt expecting a lot of army news or even something from Europe. He was in the President’s room just about two minutes, and when he came out he was not smiling. Whatever he had learned carried him out of the White House with unusual haste.25

Generally, like Lincoln, Churchill was sparing in his use of stories in public discourse. Returning in September 1943 to Britain after a more than a month in the United States and Canada, Prime Minister Churchill addressed criticism of his government in a speech to the House of Commons. He said he was reminded “of the simple tale about the sailor who jumped into a dock, I think it was at Plymouth, to rescue a small boy from drowning. About a week later this sailor was accosted by a woman, who asked, ‘Are you the man who picked my son out of the dock the other night?’ The sailor replied modestly, ‘That is true, ma’am.’ ‘Ah,’ said the woman, ‘you are the man I am looking for. Where is his cap?’”26

From an early age, Churchill had understood that his stories could make him money. He turned the stories of his life and history into books. Churchill seldom indulged in the kind of folk stories that Lincoln enjoyed telling. One occasion came in the 1928 parliamentary campaign when he spoke about disarmament: “Once upon a time all the animals in the Zoo decided that they would disarm, and they arranged to have a conference to arrange the matter. So the Rhinoceros said when he opened the proceedings that the use of teeth was barbarous and horrible and ought to be strictly prohibited by general consent. Horns, which were mainly defensive weapons, would, of course, have to be allowed. The Buffalo, the Stag, the Porcupine, and even the little Hedgehog all said they would vote with the Rhino, but the Lion and the Tiger took a different view. They defended teeth and even claws, which they described as honourable weapons of immemorial antiquity. The Panther, the Leopard, the Puma, and the whole tribe of small cats all supported the Lion and the Tiger. Then the Bear spoke. He proposed that both teeth and horns should be banned and never used again for fighting by any animal. It would be quite enough if animals were allowed to give each other a good hug when they quarrelled. No one could object to that. It was so fraternal, and that would be a great step towards peace. However, all the other animals were very offended with the Bear, and the Turkey fell into a perfect panic.

The discussion got so hot and angry, and all those animals began thinking so much about horns and teeth and hugging when they argued about the peaceful intentions that had brought them together that they began to look at one another in a very nasty way. Luckily the keepers were able to calm them down and persuade them to go back quietly to their cages, and they began to feel quite friendly with one another again.27

For Further Reference

  1. Alexander Rice Thorndike, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time, pp. 427-28 (Chauncey Depew, 1864).
  2. Don E. And Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 138 (Chancey Depew, February 4, 1909).
  3. Russell Herman Conwell, Why Lincoln Laughed, pp. 2-4.
  4. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 371.
  5. Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, July 1865, p. 228.
  6. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements About Abraham Lincoln, p. 573 (Andrew H. Goodpasture statement).
  7. Henry C. Whitney, Life on The Circuit with Lincoln, pp. 181, 176, 154.
  8. David Dixon Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, pp. 15-16
  9. Henry C. Whitney, Life on The Circuit with Lincoln, p. 178.
  10. Emanuel Hertz, Lincoln Talks: An Oral Biography, p. 200
  11. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 48.
  12. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 90.
  13. David Donald, editor, Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase, pp. 149-150.
  14. CWAL, Volume VI, p. 450 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to J. K. Dubois and O. M. Hatch, September 15, 1863).
  15. Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant, p. 220
  16. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times, p. 149 (Sketch 2).
  17. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 332.
  18. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 61
  19. Margarita Spalding Gerry, editor, William H. Crook, Through Five Administrations: Reminiscences of Colonel William H. Crook, pp. 60-63.
  20. Charles Tinker, A Simple Tribute to the Memory of Abraham Lincoln.
  21. Homer Bates, Lincoln and the Telegraph Office, p. 206.
  22. Grenville Mellen Dodge, Personal Recollections of President Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, pp. 19-20.
  23. E. D. Townsend, Anecdotes of the Civil War, pp. 89-91.
  24. Erasmus Keyes, Fifty Years’ Observations of Men and Events, Civil and Military
    pp. 421-423.
  25. William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, pp. 116-117.
  26. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 510.
  27. Richard Langworth, editor, Churchill by Himself, p. 70.
Posted in Essays