In a security-conscious world, few people are less accessible to the public than a United States president. The chance of an average citizen having an unscripted encounter with the Chief Executive are about as remote as winning the lottery; perhaps less.
Such was not always the case.
In the spring of 1861 – the earliest days of the Civil War – volunteer soldiers descended upon Washington by the thousands, responding to President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation for an emergency force of troops. It was Lincoln’s habit to move freely among the makeshift army as it gathered around him, showing little regard for his own safety. Countless eyewitness accounts of the Commander-in-chief were written by volunteers to the folks back home – few soldiers, it seems, passed through Washington that spring without a glimpse of the Old Rail Splitter.
The first reported presidential sighting by Wayne County soldiers came later that summer. The occurrence was noted by Lyman W. Hamlin in correspondence with the county’s largest newspaper, the Honesdale Democrat. The Salem Township man was a member of the Salem Independent Rifles, mustered as Company B of the 3rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. This body of fifteen state militia regiments was raised at the outset of the war to guard Pennsylvania’s southern border from bands of marauding rebels. Their days spent patrolling the border were few, however. When the army of Federal volunteers was routed at Bull Run on July 21, Washington fell into a panic; fearing the victorious rebels would soon appear at the capital, the War Department called upon Governor Andrew Curtin to rush his reservists forward as reinforcements. From that day onward the Reserve Corps’ was a state militia organization no longer, but frontline troops in the Federal service.
Hamlin’s letter was dated August 13, and published in the August 22 edition of the Democrat by Editor Francis Penniman. The volunteer reported that the 3rd Reserves departed “Camp Washington, Easton, on the 23d of July, and were shipped to Washington via Harrisburg, reaching the National metropolis on the 25th ult.” By that date the capital city had regained its nerve – the rebel army, too, was badly battered at Manassas Junction and in no condition to march on Washington. With the emergency passed, the men were allowed the luxury of refreshing themselves after an uncomfortable two-day rail journey. The regiment was marched “to a beautiful green piece of ground,” through which flowed a shaded brook of clear, cool water. It was a hot summer day and the soldiers were begrimed with cinder and ash spewed from the smokestacks of locomotives; thus “no time was lost in getting into it,” wrote another member of the regiment “and subjecting our hands, faces and feet to a general wash, all hands participating of course.”
It was during this inopportune moment, “our clothes lying here and there, and knapsacks open and everything upside down,” that orders came to fall into line. President Lincoln, they were told, was on his way to pay the regiment a visit. The announcement was immediately followed by “such confusion and handling of clothes, towels, &c., I never witnessed.” After a frantic scramble the men were once again fully clothed and all was in order for the impromptu review.
Hamlin omitted this part of the story when writing about the incident three weeks afterward. He wrote: “After leaving the cars at Washington and forming into line, President Lincoln gave us a call, passing along in front of our companies while we presented arms to the man we respect as the head of the nation. As he passed before us, leading his little son by the hand, it was remarked that he bore the marks of sorrow and anxiety. The disastrous affair of Bull’s Run helped to account for it.”
A comrade seconded Hamlin’s assertion regarding Lincoln’s physical appearance: “. . . upon his countenance was depicted signs of anxiety for the preservation of his country and the Constitution against the assaults of the rebel enemy.” The volunteers felt a pang of sympathy for their Commander-in-chief as he strode by, son Tad in tow, “saluting us as he did so with an old fashioned nod of the head.”
The Reserve Corps remained in Washington eight days while the Federal army regrouped. On August 2 the reservists were marched to a new encampment at Tennallytown, three miles northwest of Georgetown – an area now incorporated within Washington’s sprawling suburb. Prior to pulling out the Pennsylvanians were granted permission to see the capital’s sights. Sergeant John Lewis of the Honesdale Guards, Company C of the 6th Pennsylvania Reserves, was the next Wayne Countian to encounter President Lincoln. He reported his experience in a letter dated August 8, published in the August 16, 1861 edition of the Democrat.
“We were somewhat loth to leave Washington so soon after our arrival, but they kept us there long enough to visit all the public buildings, where a soldier is always welcome and where he is treated with every kindness. Some of us had the pleasure of visiting the White House and of seeing Uncle Abe and that old patriot, Gen. Scott, who always when they have time, will have a little chat with the boys.”
Lewis’s casual mention of a rare personal audience with the “man of the ages” belies the true nature of his chance meeting, the details of which he made public more than a half-century later. That the encounter took place at all illustrates how remarkably lax security was at the White House.
The Wayne County man lived to a ripe old age, surviving some of the most fearsome battlefields in American history: Second Bull Run, Antietam and Fredricksburg; in April of 1863 he was promoted to captain, in which capacity he led the Honesdale Guards into battle at Gettysburg. Lewis recounted his tale of meeting Lincoln in the January 22, 1918 edition of the Wayne County Citizen. The old veteran freely confessed that his “chat” with the president was decidedly one-sided, and gave the impression of being more frightened at that moment than he ever had been when facing rebel bullets.
Lewis did not specify the day or date, but in all probability it occurred on Sunday, July 28. (At that early stage of the war the volunteers were customarily dismissed from most duties on the Sabbath, and free to do pretty much as they pleased; July 28 was the only Sunday that passed during the Reserves’ brief stay in Washington). The sergeant obtained a pass from Captain John Wright, and with two unnamed comrades set out on a tour of the capital city. The editor of the Citizen described their stroll.
“The trio leisurely surveyed Pennsylvania avenue. They visited the public buildings. They gazed at the places where such great national lights as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Stephen A. Douglas, David Wilmot, Andrew Jackson, and all the other ‘big guns’ of the antebellum days had electrified the nation with eloquence, patriotism and burning words of wisdom, landing at last at the foot of the steps leading to the White House.”
In light of the disastrous setback at Bull Run only one week earlier, from which “many panic-stricken people in Washington had scarcely recovered their equanimity,” Lewis was surprised to find the entrance to the White House unguarded. With no one present to tell them otherwise, the three Wayne Countians ventured inside to have a look around.
Upon entering the volunteers turned to their immediate left and found the door to the East Room standing ajar. The fabled room was famous for its gala events of high society and lavish receptions for European monarchs; the young men could not resist the temptation to sneak a peek at the room’s opulence and grandeur. It was a reasonable assumption that nothing of importance would be transpiring there on a Sunday afternoon; had there been, they wouldn’t have gotten that far in the first place. With curiosity piqued, the Wayne County men pushed their way through the door.
What they could not have known is that President Lincoln made frequent use of the grand reception area; the president met there almost daily with his General-in-chief, Winfield Scott. The conquering hero of the Mexican War was by then aged and infirmed, suffering from a host of inflictions incurred during decades of hard service to his nation. The general’s ailments were further compounded by his own girth – advancing age had not lessened his voracious appetite, or love of port wines and fine clarets – conspiring to leave him almost completely immobile. In deference to the old warrior’s physical impairment, the president scheduled all meetings with Scott to take place in the most accessible area of the White House: the East Room.
Sergeant Lewis led the way, striding boldly into the room with his companions trailing close behind. He at once “noticed a tall gentleman in the farther end of the room, standing and talking to an old soldier who was sitting on a sofa. . . .” After a moment’s pause, Lewis came to the startling realization that the tall man was none other than President Lincoln. Horrified that he had just intruded upon the President of the United States, the young soldier “became almost panic-stricken over his terrible mistake.” Wheeling about in “an attempt to escape unobserved from the room,” the commotion raised by the trio attracted Lincoln’s attention. Calling out to the Wayne Countians to halt their retreat, “the President raised his right hand and waved it in a beckon of approach.”
The Wayne County Citizen described what happened next: “With cap in hand and trembling violently, Captain Lewis followed by his two comrades, approached the President, and, finding voice said: ‘Mr. President, I owe you an apology as I had no business here, but entered the building out of curiosity, as I have never been in Washington before.”
“‘Never mind. What is your name?’ rejoined and inquired the President.”
“I told him.”
“What is your Regiment and Company?”
“I told him.”
“Where are you quartered?”
“I told him.”
“Captain Lewis says that the President placed his hand on his head and in earnest, tender tone said: ‘Never mind; you are my boy now; and whenever you have opportunity to leave your Company and are in this neighborhood, you are welcome to come here.’
“The Captain says he was lost in wonder and surprise and wanted the floor to open and let him through, and dazed and amazed he turned to leave the room when again the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln spoke. He said: ‘One moment, sergeant. Allow me to introduce you and your comrades to the Commander-in-Chief of the American army, General Scott.'”
General Scott was revered as the “great idol of the nation” by all young men of Lewis’s generation, North and South. Standing in the presence of a boyhood hero only redoubled the awe felt by the already shaken volunteers. When taking his leave Lewis was pleasantly surprised to find that, somehow, his knees did not buckle beneath him and that he was able to locate the door through which they came. “How I got out of that room I cannot tell. I was bewildered and confused.”
Having passed this extreme test of nerves, the young officer was now certain he could face anything the rebels might confront him with.
Although John Lewis forever cherished the memory of that day, at various points in his life he viewed it from different perspectives. He was an untried soldier when first reporting the encounter to the Honesdale Democrat in 1861; pride caused him to relate his experience in a brief, matter-of-fact fashion, careful to omit the somewhat embarrassing details. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, the memory of his chance meeting with the Great Emancipator turned bittersweet. As a practical, battle-tested officer, he decried the lack of vigilance that enabled him to stumble upon his Commander-in-chief as “ominous conditions” considering the perils of the day. And while the grief-stricken nation struggled to heal itself during the tumultuous, post-war era of Reconstruction, he could not help but wonder how things might have been different had the sixteenth president been properly protected, and lived to serve a second term.
The passing of time, as the adage goes, eases all wounds. When Lewis spoke to the Wayne County Citizen in 1918, he was roughly 80 years of age. By that time, and with a long lifetime of recollections from which to choose, the old veteran proudly recalled his “chat” with Abraham Lincoln as the “sweetest memory of my life.”
In memory of Alice A. Laabs.1
The late Justin Sanders (1957-2016) hailed from Astoria, New York. Long time Civil War enthusiast whose focus has been sighted in on the History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps.