I’ve long been meaning to do a series on Lincoln’s refusal to tolerate scapegoating. He seems to have considered is a great danger to guard against, and often went out of his way to interrupt the process when he saw it starting.
I’d intended to start the series with a better illustration than his treatment of Jacob Thompson, but this piece came together first. The reason it’s not the best illustration is that Jacob Thompson does seem to have been involved in serious wrongdoing. I haven’t dug too deeply into the accepted version of his life, but, after serving in James Buchanan’s Cabinet, he joined the Confederacy and spent the Civil War as head of its Secret Service in Canada. From there, he allegedly contrived plans to burn down New York City and assassinate Lincoln.
From Wikipedia (emphases mine):
Jacob Thompson…was the United States Secretary of the Interior, who resigned on the outbreak of the American Civil War and became the Inspector General of the Confederate States Army.
In 1864, Jefferson Davis asked Thompson to lead a delegation to Canada, where he appears to have been leader of the Confederate Secret Service… he is known to have organised many anti-Union plots and was suspected of many more, including a possible meeting with Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth…he directed a failed plot to free Confederate prisoners of war on Johnson's Island, off Sandusky, Ohio, in September. He also arranged the purchase of a steamer, with the intention of arming it to harass shipping in the Great Lakes. Regarded in the North as a schemer and conspirator, many devious plots were associated with his name, though much of this may have been public hysteria.
On June 13, 1864, Thompson met with former New York governor Washington Hunt at Niagara Falls. According to the testimony of the Peace Democrat Clement Vallandigham, Hunt met Thompson, talked to him about creating a Northwestern Confederacy, and obtained money for arms, which was routed to a subordinate. Thompson gave Ben Woods, the owner of the New York Daily News, money to purchase arms…
This initial piece, therefore, will not focus on scapegoating, but on Lincoln’s desire to avoid indulging retributive impulses, no matter how well-founded. It goes without saying that Thompson cannot be held responsible for all that went on during the Civil War, but he came to personify Confederate treachery—and even terrorism—in the North during that time. A war department official later recalled that by early 1865, Thompson had been “worrying us every way he could,” and that Secretary of War E. M. Stanton considered Thompson one of the “chief traitors.”
“Unbeknown to Me”
As a Union victory approached in early 1865, Lincoln quietly let it be known that he “meant to give the leading Confederates an opportunity to leave the country.”1 He seemed to much prefer that to their capture—if they were taken into custody, he’d have to figure out what to do with them. It was likely that the public would call for “consequences,” probably in the form of execution for treason.2
Lincoln did not seem to have any principled opposition to dealing harshly with the “leading Confederates,” but it’s obvious that, in his view, the last thing the country needed was lengthy trials recapitulating every injustice of the last few years and blaming it all on one side. The issue was more painful because Thompson, Jefferson Davis, and others, had been high-ranking government officers in previous administrations.3 They were well known to the general public, and had once been friendly and respected colleagues of many political elites. Lincoln and Thompson had served in Congress together in the 1840s.
Lincoln’s inaugural address in March 1865 made it clear he was trying to steer people in a different direction:
If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? … With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Later that month, Lincoln made comments regarding the fate of Jefferson Davis with Gen. William T. Sherman. The latter brought the subject up during their meeting, and Lincoln responded with a story:
“A man once had taken the total-abstinence pledge. When visiting with a friend, he was invited to take a drink, but declined, on the score of his pledge; when his friend suggested lemonade, which was accepted. In preparing the lemonade, the friend pointed to the branch-bottle, and said the lemonade would be more palatable if he were to pour in a little brandy; when his guest said, if he could do so 'unbeknown' to him, he would not object."
"From which illustration I inferred that Mr. Lincoln wanted Davis to escape, 'unbeknown' to him," Sherman wrote. A few weeks after, in April 1865, it was not yet clear which Confederate leaders, if any, would successfully flee. The whereabouts of Davis were unknown after the surrender of Richmond, but it was believed he was on the run. It was later reported that a high-ranking Union officer asked Lincoln about the failure to capture Davis, and was told the same story that Sherman was, ending with something along the lines of the following:
“Now, I cannot tell anyone to be a party to Jeff Davis' escape, but if he should contrive to quit the country unbeknown to me, I am not prepared to say but that we would be able to get along very comfortably without him.”4
April 14, 1865
Then, on April 14, Lincoln was notified that government officials had located Jacob Thompson. It was just after 4:00 when a high-ranking war department official, Charles A. Dana, arrived at the White House with the news. Lincoln was wrapping up for the day, readying for carriage ride with his wife, before eating dinner and heading out to the theater.5 Dana wandered the practically empty White House:
I went up into the room where the cabinet held its meetings, which was in the second story, and opened the door. I didn't see any one, and went in, and I then noticed a closet door open, and there was the President with his coat off and his sleeves rolled up, washing [his hands].6
In another account, he said Lincoln saw him from within the sideroom and called out to him: “Hallo, Dana! What is It? What's up?”7 Dana entered and told him the War Department had received a telegraph that Thompson was preparing, in disguise, to board a steamer to Europe the next day. This was just as Lincoln had hoped. But there was a complication. Years later, Dana recalled what brought him to the White House in the first place:
Information had reached the Department at about 3 o'clock…that Jacob Thompson, the leader among the rebel agents in Canada, concerning whom it had repeatedly been reported by our secret agents there, that they were considering plans to assassinate the President, would be in Portland, Maine, the next day in a certain disguise, to take the steamer which would then leave for Halifax. When this information was submitted to Mr. Stanton, he said instantly "Arrest him!"8
But Stanton immediately hesitated, telling Dana “you had better go over and find out what Mr. Lincoln desires. Tell him I think Thompson ought to be arrested."
Indeed, Lincoln’s first remark was “What does Stanton say?”
In one version, the ensuing dialogue went as follows:
Dana: He says arrest him, but that I should refer the question to you.
Lincoln: Well, no; I rather think not. When you have got an elephant by the hind leg and he's trying to run away, it's best to let him run.9
In another version:
Dana: Well, he says “Arrest him.”
Lincoln: [Thoughtful pause.] Well, I don't know. When you have got an elephant by the hind leg, and he wants to get away, my opinion is you had better let him run.10
And it yet another, Dana recalls Lincoln’s reply as follows:
Well—— [pauses a moment to reflect]. I don’t think so. If you have an elephant on your hands and he wants run away, better let him run.11
The most detailed version was one Dana gave in 1870, the earliest of his published accounts. It was given anonymously to the New York Sun, the paper he had recently begun editing, and would edit until his death. His decision to bring it up likely related to the fact that Thompson had been the subject of recent controversy, and Stanton had died shortly before. The conversation was recounted by the unnamed “officer” (it probably wasn’t hard for a lot of people to put the pieces together) went as follows:
Dana: [explains the report from Portland]
Lincoln: Well, I guess you had better let him run.
Dana: But Mr. Stanton thinks he had better be arrested.
Lincoln: No. Let him run. He can't do any more harm now. When you find an elephant running, the best way is to let him keep on. Let him get out to England, if he wants to. We shall have enough of them on our hands without taking him too. Tell Mr. Stanton you had best let him slide.12
Upon Dana’s return to the War Department, Stanton asked him what the President had said:
Dana: He says that when you have got on elephant by the hind leg and he is trying to run away, it's best to let him run.
Stanton: Oh, stuff!
At the time, “stuff” was regularly used to mean “nonsense.”13
Yet another account had Stanton going over to the White House himself after hearing Dana’s report, to tell him that by permitting Thompson “to escape the penalties of treason, you sanction it.” Allegedly, Lincoln responded with the same story he’d used on Sherman and others about Davis. This time, however, character was now an Irish soldier in DC rather than a temperance man in Illinois, and Lincoln put on a brogue:
Well, let me tell you a story. There was an Irish soldier here last summer, who wanted something to drink stronger than water, and stopped at a drug-shop, where he espied a soda-fountain. ‘Mr. Doctor,’ said he, ‘give me, plase, a glass of soda-wather, an’ if yez can put in a few drops of whiskey unbeknown to any one, I’ll be obleeged.’ Now, if ‘Jake’ Thompson is permitted to go through Maine unbeknown to any one, what’s the harm? So don’t have him arrested.14
And what was the harm? Lincoln was pretty clear: “He can't do any more harm now…We shall have enough of them on our hands without taking him too.” Lincoln did not believe punishment was necessary, though their actions had certainly rendered them liable to harsh penalties. Rather, he saw focusing on them as a psychological burden that interfered with moving on for the war.
Immediately after Lincoln died the next morning, Stanton ordered Thompson arrested, but Thompson had taken an unexpected route and escaped to England. He later returned to the United States and lived the rest of his life in Tennessee.15
“Better Let Him Slide”
Tracing the story’s evolution is interesting in itself. Within days of Lincolns’ death, a brief, anonymous account by Dana appeared in the New York Tribune, a paper he was very involved with prior to working for the War Department. It stated the basic facts of Lincoln having decided against arresting Thompson, “a deed of mercy toward his enemies” and part of a larger approach intended for Confederate leaders. After Lincoln was shot a few hours later, the report said, “beside his death-bed a member of the Cabinet countermanded that order,” though Thompson had escaped.16
Ten days after Lincoln’s death, this report was quickly reduced to a more professional account, in which he actually signed a permit for Thompson’s departure, which seems highly unlikely. The entire point was “letting him run.”
Several accounts later, by 1885, Dana emphasized Lincoln’s “drawling words” during the conversation, which in this version ended with, “I rather guess not. When you have an elephant on hand and he wants to run away, better let him run.”17
This is relevant because about two years before, Dana’s story had been hijacked by a former Confederate general. Weirdly, this was done via a New York Sun interview! Was Dana just trying to squeeze a bit more sensationalism out of the tale? The piece seemed to be “reconciliation” themed18—this was 1883, with Reconstruction having ended shortly before. Dana had made the Sun a Democratic paper, so reconciling with the South was more likely to be a priority.
In any event, the piece revolved around a brother of the late Admiral John A. Dahlgren (U.S. Navy, died 1870), who invented the Dahlgren gun and was close to Lincoln during the war.19 Charles G. Dahlgren, who had himself served as a Confederate General, shared an anecdote that he said illustrated the different views held by Stanton and Lincoln “in regard to the settlement of the war.”
Charles told the same basic tale, only with Stanton in Dana’s place and his brother John as an eyewitness to their conversation (and Lincoln’s vigorous handwashing). This could not have been true. The record indicates that John was not in Washington at this time—in fact, he was at sea, and did not even learn of Lincoln’s death until several days after it occurred. Possibly John had head the story from Dana and later recalled it to Charles, who was now confused, but it is odd that Dana would not have corrected the mistake. In any event, Charles said that John described Lincoln’s response as follows (emphasis added):
Mr. Lincoln began to wipe his hands an a towel, and said in a long, drawling voice: 'Better let him slide.'
The ensuing dialogue:
Stanton: This man is one of the chief traitors, was one of Buchanan's Cabinet, betrayed the country then, and has fought against us ever since. He should be punished.
Lincoln: W-e-l-l, if Jake Thompson is satisfied with the issue of the war, I am. B-e-t-t-e-r let him s-l-i-d-e.
Stanton: Such men should be punished to the full extent of the law. Why, if we don't punish the leaders of the rebellion, what shall we say to their followers?
Lincoln: B-e-t-t-e-r let him slide, Stanton.
Not only does this reflect the “drawling” speech Dana often referred to but never really explained, it also contains a line from his first detailed account of the incident, published in 1870, in which Lincoln ends the conversation by saying “Tell Mr. Stanton you had best let him slide.” This line, and the drawling tone, is absent from Dana’s many subsequent accounts. Perhaps he thought it sounded too slang-y or irresponsible? Perhaps there was a follow-up conversation with Stanton, that Dana was not comfortable revealing, or which Dahlgren heard elsewhere? What happened to the elephant analogy? Perhaps Lincoln knew Stanton had no patience for it, as the “Oh, stuff!” suggested. It’s just interesting that this story suddenly came out of Dahlgren’s mouth, when there’s little chance either Dahlgren was present at the time.
Well, it could all be just gossip, but I hope it’s true, as it is a funny glance at how Lincoln dealt with Stanton. It’s also funny that, for a while, drawling speech was represented by separating the letters of the word with dashes, which doesn’t seem to convey the effect very well. I’ve noticed the same practice in other accounts of Lincoln at that time. Today, we’d add extra vowels to indicate the elongated syllables, or split them up: “Bet-ter let him sliiiide.”
The conclusion of Charles Dahlgren’s account had Stanton storming out in annoyance as Lincoln finished drying his hands. At that point, Lincoln allegedly turned to John Dahlgren, and said:
“Dahl, that is one of the things I don't intend to allow. When the war is over I want it to stop, and let both sides go to work and heal the wounds, which, Heaven knows, are bad enough but jogging and pulling at them is not the best way to heal a sore.”20
Shortly after Lincoln’s death, a major newspaper reported his refusal to have Thompson and an associate arrested. Their source appeared to be Charles A. Dana, and the report noted that the action “was a deed of mercy toward his enemies,” and that he “expressly stated that he meant to give the leading Confederates an opportunity to leave the country.” See Washington Correspondence of the New York Tribune, April 20, 1865, reprinted in The Brooklyn Union, April 22, 1865.
See ibid. (“Fortunately for their own lives, Thompson and Tucker did not come into the United States after the conspirators had murdered the only man who could have saved them from their doom.”)
See Account of Charles A. Dana, New York Sun, 1898. (“Jacob Thompson of Mississippi had been Secretary of the Interior In President Buchanan's Administration. He was a conspicuous secessionist and for some time had been employed in Canada as a semi-diplomatic agent of the Confederate Government organizing all sorts of troubles and getting up raids, of which the notorious attack on St. Albans, Vt., was a specimen…”)
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 6, 1883. The account was clearly a paraphrase of a story heard years before, and is possibly a garbled version of Sherman’s 1875 memoir account.
Account of Charles A. Dana, Princeton Clarion-Leader, April 16, 1885 (“…it was late in the afternoon, just before his visit to the theater where he was murdered…[I] found Mr. Lincoln in the inner room of bis business office at the White House, with his coat off, washing his hands preparatory to a drive”).
Speech of Charles A. Dana at a reception for Gen. Benjamin Butler, The Cecil Whig, June 13, 1885. He noted that Lincoln was “the shrewdest man I ever knew,” and said he would illustrate this with a story. This version has Lincoln washing his hands with a wet towel during the entire conversation.
From Dana’s various accounts, it is not clear whether he looked through every open door and “found” Lincoln in the sideroom, or if Lincoln saw him and called him over to it. The only thing that’s certain is that Lincoln was washing his hands at the time, and greeted him with something along the lines of “Hello, Dana!” See, for example, Account of Charles A. Dana, New York Sun, 1898. (“At the White House all business was over, and I went into the President's business room without meeting any one. Opening the door, there seemed to be no one in the room, but as I was turning to go out Mr. Lincoln called me from a little side room, where he was washing his hands.”)
Harrisburg Telegraph, March 15, 1870. This piece was based on an account by Dana, but it did not identify him by name. It was the first lengthy account of the incident that was published.
Account of Charles A. Dana, New York Sun, 1898.
Speech of Charles A. Dana at a reception for Gen. Benjamin Butler, The Cecil Whig, June 13, 1885.
Account of Charles A. Dana, Princeton Clarion-Leader, April 16, 1885.
Harrisburg Telegraph, March 15, 1870.
Account of Charles A. Dana, New York Sun, 1898.
Alexander K. McClure, Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories (Chicago, IL: The John C. Winston Company, 1901).
Speech of Charles A. Dana at a reception for Gen. Benjamin Butler, The Cecil Whig, June 13, 1885 (“Mr. Stanton, the only member of the Administration who seemed to retain his self-possession and undiminished energy, gave all the orders for hours that seemed necessary to carry on the Government. I left him at about 2 o’clock in the morning and went home to sleep. But at 5 o’clock Colonel Pelouse knocked at my front door. Opening the window, I asked: “What is it?” “Mr. Dana,” said he, “Mr. Lincoln is dead, and Mr. Stanton directs you to arrest Jacob Thompson”); “Jacob Thompson,” Wikipedia (“After the Civil War, Thompson fled to England and later returned to Canada as he waited for passions to cool in the United States. He eventually came home and settled in Memphis, Tennessee, to manage his extensive holdings…Republicans and Union veterans condemned the Grover Cleveland administration's lowering of flags to half-mast in Washington and Secretary of Interior Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II closure of the Department of Interior to honor Thompson after his death…”).
See Washington Correspondence of the New York Tribune, April 20, 1865, reprinted in The Brooklyn Union, April 22, 1865.
Alexander K. McClure, Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories (Chicago, IL: The John C. Winston Company, 1901).
The piece ended by saying that Charles Dahlgren then sighed and told the reporter that “if that policy had been carried out, the wounds would have healed long, long ago.” See [Alleged] Account of Gen. Charles Dahlgren, New York Sun, reprinted in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 6, 1883 and The San Francisco Examiner, April 15, 1883.
Ibid. There’s virtually no way he said this to John A. Dahlgren, but it sounds like the sort of thing he probably said to somebody. He did, however, refer to John A. Dahlgren as “Dahl.” (“President Lincoln…so highly esteemed his judgment that before determining upon naval movements he was wont to say, ‘I must see Dahl’ …”)