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Abraham Lincoln


1861-1865 - In the White House, Assassination

Summary 1861-1865 - In the White House, Assassination

Aloof and eccentric even as a prairie lawyer, the unique demands and pressures of the White House did even more to separate Lincoln from his fellow men. At once folksy and haughty, Lincoln was an unusual combination of backwoods boy turned autodidact who must have presented a formidable puzzle to the Washington set.

Beyond his curious background, Lincoln was captive to an extremely irregular schedule during his years in office, keeping odd hours, grooming himself only sporadically, and eating whenever he got the chance, which was rarely. This regimen was partly out of necessity, but partly by design. In characteristic homespun fashion, Lincoln once explained the oddities of his diet by remarking, "well, I cannot take my vittles regular. I kind of just browse round."

But if Lincoln to some extent cultivated his more bizarre mannerisms, his wife was less in control of her idiosyncrasies. After the death of their son Willie in February 1862, Mary Todd Lincoln went into an extended period of mourning, wearing bl ack at all times, like Britain's Queen Victoria. To alleviate her grief, she became increasingly liberal with the budget for internal improvements to the White House, spending $2500 on a single rug. In addition, she purchased three hundred pairs of glov es for herself in a four-month period, and bought several expensive evening dresses that she never wore, ringing up a clothing debt of almost $30,000.

Many have speculated that Mary Todd Lincoln was insane even at this early stage, although she was not committed to a sanatorium until 1875. The neglect she suffered at the hands of her husband must have only increased as the war escalated. To make matte rs worse, with many members of the Todd family having joined the Confederacy, she was constantly suspected of being a traitor. While such reservations were unfounded, the war clearly caused a significant strain on her for various reasons.

Lincoln himself, in living with the weight of the war for four years, aged tremendously during his time in the White House. From the moment he departed Springfield for Washington right up until his dying day, he lived under the constant threat of ass assination. Nevertheless, he frequently refused the bodyguards that were assigned to him. As he once explained in a letter of 1863, "I long ago made up my mind that if anybody wants to kill me, he will do it. If I wore a shirt of mail and kept myself s urrounded by a body-guard, it would be all the same. There are a thousand ways to getting at a man if it is desired that he should be killed."

Nevertheless, there were times when Secretary of War Stanton insisted that Lincoln accept a military escort. The daily open carriage rides that Lincoln took around Washington with his family were generally attended by two dozen cavalrymen. But as Li ncoln well knew, such protection did not grant him an immunity from attack. Through it all, Lincoln attempted to maintain a sense of calm, and even humor, amidst the threat and menace. In the aftermath of an assassination attempt in which a bullet grazed his stovepipe hat, Lincoln acted with perfect equanimity bordering on lightheartedness.

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