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Through Five Administrations
Reminiscences of Colonel William H. Crook, Body-Guard to President Lincoln
By William H. Crook, Margarita Spalding Gerry
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
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LINCOLN AS I KNEW HIM
IT WAS IN NOVEMBER, 1864, that four police officers were detailed by Mr. William B. Webb, who was then chief of police in the District of Columbia, to be a special guard for President Lincoln. They were to act on instructions from headquarters, and were also to be subject to any orders the President might give. The men were Elphonso Dunn, John Parker, Alexander Smith, and Thomas Pendel. All have since died. They reported immediately to the White House. Not long after the appointment a vacancy in the position of doorkeeper occurred, and the place was given to Pendel. On the 4th of January I was sent to the White House to act as the fourth guard.
There was rotation in the service, although the hours were not invariable. The general plan was this: Two men were on duty from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon. These officers guarded the approach to the President in his office or elsewhere in the building, accompanied him on any walks he might take—in general, stood between him and possible danger. At four another man went on duty and remained until midnight, or later if Mr. Lincoln had gone outside the White House and had not returned by that time. At twelve the second night-guard went on duty, and remained until he was relieved, at eight in the morning. The night-guards were expected to protect the President on his expeditions to and from the War Department, or while he was at any place of amusement, and to patrol the corridor outside his room while he slept. We were all armed with revolvers.
The reasons why the friends of Mr. Lincoln insisted on this precaution were almost as evident then as they became later. Marshal Ward Lamon and Secretary Stanton had been begging him, it is reported, since 1862 not to go abroad without protection of some kind. Mr. Lamon is on record as having said that he was especially fearful of the President's showing himself at the theatre. He considered that a public place of amusement offered an opportunity for assassination even more favorable than Mr. Lincoln's solitary walks or the occasional drive or horseback ride he took to the Soldiers' Home. Mr. Stanton is known to have been angered by a lack of caution which, on the part of a man so indispensable to the welfare of the nation as its President, he regarded as foolhardiness. For the President had always been inclined, in his interest in the thing that absorbed him, to forget that he was vulnerable. Every one remembers how, when he was watching Early's threatened attack on the fortifications north of Washington, he exposed himself recklessly to chance bullets. He hated being on his guard, and the fact that it was necessary to distrust his fellow Americans saddened him. He refused to be guarded as long as it was possible for a sane man to persist.
But toward the end of 1864 so much pressure was brought to bear on him, particularly by Marshal Lamon and Secretary Stanton, that he finally yielded. He had admitted to Ward Lamon before this that he knew there was danger from a Pole named Garowski, who had been seen skulking about the White House grounds. He told Lamon of a shot that had barely missed him one day when he was riding to the Soldiers' Home. Conspiracies to abduct or assassinate the President were constantly being rumored. At first he contended that if any one wanted to murder him no precaution would avail. Finally, although he was always more or less of this opinion, the President gave way to the anxieties of those near to him. He consented to the daily guard of police officers, and, on longer journeys, to a cavalry guard.
There were many reasons why this fact was not known at the time and has not been generally understood since. In the first place, the President's bravery (rashness, some called it), was so universally recognized, he had refused for so long to take any precautions, that people were not looking for him to change. In the second place, both from his own feelings and as a matter of policy, he did not want it blazoned over the country that it had been found necessary to guard the life of the President of the United States from assassination. It was not wise—especially at this critical time—to admit so great a lack of confidence in the people. He was sensitive about it, too. It hurt him to admit it. But realizing that he had been chosen to save the country from threatened destruction, he forced himself, during the last months of his life, to be somewhat more cautious. When he had yielded, however, because of all these reasons, he wished as little show as possible of precaution. We wore citizen's clothes; there was no mention of the appointment in the papers or in official records; we walked with him, not behind him. The President was simple in his manners; he was in the habit of talking freely with any one who wished to speak to him. So it happened that a passer-by had no way of knowing that the man in plain clothes who walked by Mr. Lincoln's side was any other than the casual friend, office-seeker, petitioner, adviser, who helped to fill up every minute of the President's waking time.
I was very much surprised when the order came to report to the President for duty, and naturally elated. It was one Monday morning. I had never been inside the White House. I had seen Mr. Lincoln, and regarded him vaguely as a great man, but had never spoken to him. The first few days I was getting my bearings and accustoming myself to the new duties.
On the 9th I was put on night duty, covering the first part of the night. And so it happened that I was on guard at the first evening reception of the year, on the 9th of January. I knew the White House very well by this time—that is, the state apartments of the first floor and the President's office in the southeast corner up-stairs. The spectacle awed me at first. I had never seen anything like it before. The reception, or "levee," as the name was then, was crowded. It was generally considered a brilliant affair. I know it dazzled me.
The President and Mrs. Lincoln stood in the octagon Blue Room, near the western door. I was in the main entrance just outside, near where the broad flight of steps used to go up to the second floor. The guests entered the northern door, left their wraps in the cloak-rooms which had been constructed in the corridor, assembled in the Red Room, made their way to the Blue Room, where they were received. Then they progressed, greeting friends in the crowd, through the Green Room to the great East Room, where they remained. On the right of the President was Mr. John G. Nicolay, one of the two secretaries; on his left Deputy-Marshal Phillips. Commissioner French presented the guests to Mrs. Lincoln. I suppose I could hardly be expected to remember what the ladies wore. But my wife saw in the paper the next day that Mrs. Lincoln wore white silk trimmed with black lace. She had a wreath of white flowers in her hair, and wore a necklace of pearls. I suppose the costume, hoop-skirts and all, would look ugly to me to-day. But we all thought Mrs. Lincoln looked handsome. To my mind she was a pretty woman, small and plump, with a round, baby face and bright black eyes. Senator Sumner was present, and Senator Chase with a party. That reminds me of what was to me the most exciting moment of the reception.
My orders were to allow no one who wore wraps of any kind to pass into the Blue Room. The reason for this is not hard to find. Precautions against violence were being redoubled, and this was one of them. It would be the easiest thing in the world for a would-be assassin to smuggle weapons in under the voluminous cloaks then worn. It had been announced that guests were expected to leave their wraps in one of the rooms appointed for them. I had been instructed to make absolutely no exceptions. The newspapers the next day said: "The rule of decorum relating to wraps was very generally observed." They didn't know about my little experience.
Several guests had attempted to enter still wearing their cloaks. But no one resisted the order when it was made known. Finally a very handsome young woman came in who asked for Senator Chase's party. She wore a wrap that completely hid her dress. She could have brought in a whole arsenal of weapons under its folds. I told her that she could not enter until she left her cloak in the cloak-room. She became angry.
"Do you know who I am?" she demanded, haughtily. I was rather nervous, for it was my first experience saying "Must not!" to White House guests. But I managed to say I did not know who she was.
"I am Mrs. Senator Sprague," she announced, as if that were final. I had heard of Kate Chase Sprague, of course, as had every one else in Washington, and of her father's ambition and her own brilliant career. But I tried to be courageous, and told her as politely as I could what my orders were and why they were given. When she saw the reason of the restriction she took off her cloak quite graciously and went in to meet her friends.
By this time most of the guests had arrived, so I had an opportunity to look about me. It was all bright and gay. For this evening at least there was no sign of the gloom that was pretty general throughout the city.
The people who crowded the rooms were in keeping with their brilliant character. The men were marked by a shade of extravagance in the cut and material of their evening clothes. There were many army officers in full uniform among the guests. The women looked like gorgeous flowers in their swaying, buoyed-out skirts. They were gayly dressed, as a rule, with the off-shoulder style of low-necked gown; they all wore wreaths of flowers in their hair. The general effect of the scene was brilliant.
About eleven the President, with Mrs. Dennison, the wife of the new Postmaster-General, on his arm, followed by Mrs. Lincoln escorted by Senator Morgan, entered the East Room. They talked for a few minutes with their guests and then retired—Mrs. Lincoln to her own room and the President to the library up-stairs. The levee was supposed to be over at eleven, but some people remained until nearly twelve. After they had all left, Mr. Lincoln wrapped himself in the rough gray shawl he usually wore out-of-doors, put on his tall beaver hat, and slipped out of the White House through the basement. According to my orders I followed him, and was alone with President Lincoln for the first time.
We crossed the garden, which lay to the west, where the executive offices are now. Mr. Lincoln was bent on his nightly visit to Secretary Stanton at the War Department. I stole a glance up at him, at the homely face rising so far above me. The strength of it is not lessened in my memory by what would seem to me now a grotesque setting of rough shawl and silk hat. He looked to me just like his picture, but gentler. I will confess that I was nervous when I accompanied him that first time. I hope it was not from any fear for myself. I seemed to realize suddenly that there was only myself between this man and possible danger. The feeling wore off in time, though it was apt to come back at any moment of special responsibility, as, for instance, on the entrance into Richmond—but I mustn't get ahead of my story.
That night, as I said, I was a little nervous. The President noticed it. He seemed to know how I felt, too. I had fallen into line behind him, but he motioned me to walk by his side. He began to talk to me in a kindly way, as though I were a bashful boy whom he wanted to put at his ease, instead of a man appointed to guard him. In part, of course, his motive must have been the dislike of seeming to be guarded, of which I have spoken. But his manner was due to the intuitive sympathy with every one, of which I afterward saw so many instances. It was shown particularly toward those who were subordinate to him. The statesmen who came to consult him, those who had it in their power to influence the policy of the party which had chosen him, never had the consideration from Mr. Lincoln that he gave the humblest of those who served him.
A few strides of the President's long legs—a few more of mine—brought us to the old-fashioned turnstile that divided the White House grounds from the enclosure of the War Department. Mr. Lincoln talked, in his slow, soft voice, chiefly about the reception through which he had just gone.
"I am glad it is over," he said.
I ventured to ask if he was tired.
"Yes, it does tire me to shake hands with so many people," he answered. "Especially now when there is so much other work to do. And most of the guests come out of mere curiosity."
With these words and the half-sigh which followed we entered the east door of the War Department. In those days that was a small, mean, two-story building, just in front of the Navy Department. We went immediately to Mr. Stanton's office, which was on the second floor, on the north front, and overlooked Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House. There, at the door, I waited for him until his conference with Secretary Stanton was over. Then I accompanied him back to the White House. From the moment Mr. Lincoln spoke to me so kindly I felt at home in my new duties. I never lost the feeling which came then that, while the President was so great, he was my friend. The White House never awed me again.
For the next three weeks, while I was on duty the first half of the night, I went to the War Department with Mr. Lincoln every evening. He usually talked to me. Several times the topic was the one my presence naturally suggested—the possibility of an attempt being made on his life. Later on I will speak of this more in detail. One time while he was talking he reached out and took my hand, and I walked on for a few paces with my hand in his warm, kind grasp. We always took the same route, because there was less chance of being observed than if we went by the big north entrance. There was then no telegraph station in the White House, so the President had to go to Secretary Stanton's office to get the latest news from the front. Since there was practical advantage in going himself, for he could be more free from interruption there when he remained to discuss matters of policy (if the news of the night necessitated any action), it would never have occurred to Mr. Lincoln to regard his own personal dignity and wait for his Secretary to come to him. I had opportunity to observe the difference in the attitude of Secretary Stanton's employees from ours toward the President.
The great War Secretary was a martinet for discipline, and none of the clerks wanted to be around when there was bad news from the front. He always seemed to me a very bitter, cruel man. Still, there is no doubt that he was a great man. His own subordinates, though they might be afraid of his irascible temper, admired him and were loyal.
Beginning with the 1st of February, I was on duty the second half of the night, from twelve to eight in the morning. Often I had to wait for the President to return from the War Department; even when he came back comparatively early it was midnight before he got to bed. His bedroom was a small chamber in the southwest corner of the house. Mrs. Lincoln's was a larger room adjoining it. Mr. Lincoln always said, "Good-night, Crook," when he passed me on his way to his room, but gave no instructions for my guidance. He was not interrupted after he retired unless there were important telegrams. Even when awakened suddenly from a deep sleep—which is the most searching test of one's temper that I know—he was never ruffled, but received the message and the messenger kindly. No employee of the White House ever saw the President moved beyond his usual controlled calm. When the first of these interruptions occurred and I had to enter the President's room, I looked around me with a good deal of interest. The place the President slept in was a noteworthy spot to me. It was handsomely furnished; the bedstead, bureau, and wash-stand were of heavy mahogany, the bureau and wash-stand with marble tops; the chairs were of rosewood. Like all the other chambers, it was covered with a carpet.
Excerpted from Through Five Administrations by William H. Crook, Margarita Spalding Gerry. Copyright © 2014 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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