Nine-year-old Tad Lincoln had just climbed into his father's lap and put on the president's spectacles when the senator from Massachusetts entered the room, bent over and whispered into Lincoln's ear.
Sen. Henry Wilson had been pushing a bill since December to free the slaves in the District of Columbia and compensate their owners. Both houses of Congress had passed the legislation, and Wilson wanted to know when Abraham Lincoln intended to sign it.
"Confound it!" Lincoln shouted at the doughy-faced politician. "You fellows have taken your own time in framing this bill. Now give me my time to sign it. The constitution allows me ten days and only two of them have gone."
That's the account of my great-grandfather, Union Army surgeon Bowman Bigelow Breed, who recorded the April 14, 1862, exchange at the White House in a letter that my oldest brother recently shared with me.
I have always considered myself a history buff. But reading my ancestor's vivid description of his visit with Lincoln - in a script sometimes nearly as indecipherable as my own reporter's scrawl - has brought these two men to life for me in way that I could not have imagined.
Growing up in Lynn, Mass., I was aware that my family had a personal connection, however tenuous, to the 16th president.
An ornate parchment used to hang in a gilt frame beside the fireplace in the waiting room of my father's medical office, which was also my boyhood home: Bowman's commission as a major, signed "A. Lincoln." I'd often lean in close to the protective glass to read the fading, rust-colored signature in the corner of the document, sadly long since stolen.
On the mantelpiece in the paneled study where my father saw patients, a cardboard photograph - one half of a stereoscopic image - showed Bowman smoking a long pipe in a tent in some faraway bivouac. It overlooked two bronze miniatures of the Lincoln Memorial statue, bookends that held up volumes on my father's mahogany desk.
As far as I knew, that was as close as the two men ever got.
Then a couple of years ago, while home for a family funeral, my brother Putnam told me he had a box filled with Civil War-era correspondence between our great-grandparents. I was standing beside Bowman's grave on a knoll high above the city when Put told me that one of those letters described a visit Bowman had made to the White House.
Put - a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran, the fourth generation of fighting physicians in our family - invited me to his home in New Hampshire to read and transcribe the letters, but time never seemed to permit that. But as the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth approached, I pestered him to photocopy the White House letter, at least, and mail it to me.
When it arrived last week, it was more than I'd dared dream.
Written in blotchy ink on a military hospital's stationery, the letter revealed Lincoln as a man who, despite carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, could still enjoy a good anecdote, a man who was somehow able to juggle the duties of a father to his precocious young son and to his fractious young country.
Almost exactly a year earlier, when Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Lincoln issued an urgent call for 75,000 militia. Four days later, the 29-year-old surgeon was headed south with the 8th Massachusetts Regiment, leaving behind his wife, Hannah, and their infant son, Isaiah, barely 4 months old.
In time, Bowman would see his share of blood and gore during campaigns in the Carolinas and Tennessee. But up to the day of his visit with the president, the 8th had seen no action.
But there was plenty of action in the spring of 1862, as Lincoln well knew. In March, the ironclads Monitor and Merrimac battled to an epic draw, and Lincoln was under pressure to sack Gen. Ulysses S. Grant following his pyrrhic victory at Shiloh, Tenn., just a week earlier.
That spring, Bowman was stationed at Circle Hospital, which was located just west of Washington Circle, at K and 24th Streets, about eight blocks from the White House.
"My own dear wife," his letter began.
Around 8 p.m., Bowman, along with an Englishman named Mr. Winter and two unnamed others, arrived at the White House with a "Mr. Alley." This was most likely U.S. Rep. John Bassett Alley, a Lynn shoe manufacturer and Breed family cousin. They were ushered upstairs to a waiting room, where the congressman offered his calling card, "requesting to be allowed to present a few friends."
Admitted to the president's chamber, Alley introduced his guests one by one. When it came my great-grandfather's turn, Lincoln showed his grasp of U.S. history.
"When my name was mentioned the President twisted his face and asked if I had any connection with Breed's Hill," Bowman wrote, impressed that Lincoln knew where the "Battle of Bunker Hill" was really fought.
Even more remarkable, though, was the chief executive's appearance.
"The President always looks shabby, but last night he was outrageous," he wrote to his young bride, employing the descriptive gifts of the newspaper editor he would become years later. "The buttons were all off his shirt bosom which gaped open so that you could see his flannel shirt. His pants were greasy and his slippers rusty and broken down at the heel. His hair of course was flying in every direction."
They all sat down. Lincoln pulled up an additional chair, put his feet up "and stretched himself out comfortably."
Alley told Lincoln that he "had received a call from an insane man who claimed that by a revelation from the Almighty he had been appointed to take the Presidential chair." That reminded Lincoln of the story of a lawyer named Mason who was engaged to defend a Methodist preacher.
Mason was sitting in his office, Lincoln said, when a man came in and claimed that an angel had told him the minister was innocent.
"Summon him, said Mr Mason without turning his head," Lincoln told his audience, delivering the punchline.
"The story reads tamely enough," Bowman admitted to Hannah, "but the President's manner gave it all its pith."
It was at this point that Tad entered the room.
Not two months earlier, Lincoln's third son, Willie, had died of typhoid fever at age 11. Mary Lincoln was just emerging from her mourning bed, and Tad was still recovering from the illness. Bowman's letter even notes the boy's sickly appearance.
The president indulged his youngest, looking the other way when Tad drilled the White House guard or charged visitors for an audience with the president.
"I wish you could have seen the pair," Bowman wrote. "It was hard work to keep a sober face."
The conversation turned to the situation at Yorktown, Va., where the famously cautious Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan had stalled on his march toward the Confederate capital at Richmond. Lincoln was clearly worried that the failures of the past year were soon to be repeated.
"We have got a big job on our hands ... and must manage it carefully," Bowman related in the letter, referring to the president as Mr. L. "It will never do to have another Bull Run. That after all was a small affair not worth half the fuss it made, but its effect was terrible and it won't do to repeat it." (The Confederate rout of unseasoned Union troops the previous July outside Manassas, Va., had brought the war dangerously close to the federal capital.)
Then Sen. Wilson arrived.
Like him, Lincoln abhorred slavery. But he said his first duty was to preserve the union, and he worried what effect such a drastic measure as abolition, even if just in the District of Columbia, would have on his fragile administration.
"It does not provide for a vote of the People of the District and it is sudden and not gradual emancipation," Lincoln said of the bill Wilson and the "Radical Republicans" had presented him. Bowman's letter continues, quoting Lincoln:
"God knows I wish to see every slave in the land free but we have got a mighty work on our hands. If the border states leave us we can never accomplish it. And it is a serious question whether these exciting questions should be thrust before us quite at this period."
The visit lasted just three-quarters of an hour, but it left the young officer with a clear picture of his commander in chief.
"The President talked very freely and showed what has been denied," he wrote. "that he had a mind of his own, and would act as he thought right."
Back at the hospital, with the image of the president and his young son fresh in his mind, Bowman's thoughts turned to home and his own family.
"Oh my dear our God bless keep and comfort you," he closed. "Kiss baby and give him a piece of sponge cake on Papa's account. Love to all."
Like Willie Lincoln, "little Isa" would not live to see the peace. He died on Oct. 10, 1863, while his father was serving as medical purveyor to the Department of North Carolina - not far from where I work today. Bowman and Hannah would lose three children before the war was out.
Though he would survive the war, Bowman himself would succumb to the lingering effects of the malaria he contracted in the Southern swamplands. (He died on Dec. 16, 1873, at the age of 41, barely two months before my grandfather was born.)
My ancestor was in charge of the military hospital in Nashville when he learned of Lincoln's assassination on April 15, 1865. It was almost exactly three years to the day after their meeting.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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