Term: March 4, 1861 – April 15, 1865
Vice President: Hannibal Hamlin & Andrew Johnson
Home State: Illinois
Wife: Mary Ann Todd
Children: Robert Todd, Edward “Eddie” Baker, William “Willie” Wallace, & Thomas “Tad”
Around the period when Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States and as it was with earlier presidents, sending White House Christmas cards to friends and relatives was not at all a common practice. Few Christmas decorations were used, and when they were, it wasn’t until Christmas Eve after the children had been put to bed that evergreen boughs, holly, mistletoe, and garland were put on display.
December 25 was considered a normal work day. Years before his presidency, when Lincoln was a legislator in Illinois in 1834, there was a special vote taken to decide whether elected officials should take off on Christmas Day. Lincoln voted in favor of keeping the day a workday because he felt he would be wasting taxpayers’ money if he took the day off. It was not until 1870, when then President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the bill that made Christmas Day a national holiday, that the day was actually considered anything special.
Born in Hardin County, Kentucky on February 12, 1809 to Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks, young Abe moved with his family to Indiana and then Illinois. Although the family at one point was congregants of the Hardshell Baptist Church, Abraham himself was more of a moral person than a religious one. He did read the Bible throughout his life and did attend services at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on a regular basis. However, he never became a member of any church even though his virtues were quite Christian.
This morality characterized Lincoln’s personality and humanistic behavior during his years as a legislator, a lawyer, and a member of Congress. When running for Congress in 1846, his opponent, evangelist Peter Cartwright, made an issue of Lincoln’s religion – or lack of it. Lincoln’s reply was that it was certainly true that he was not a member of any church…“But I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general… I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of…religion.”
During the 1850s, the United States was slowly but surely heading toward a sectional conflict. An honorable and ethical person, Lincoln considered the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which granted the voters in those two states the ability to decide whether to allow slavery within their borders, immoral because he felt the founding fathers wanted slavery to eventually become extinct in new territories. However, it was the famous series of spirited debates four years later against Stephen Douglas, who was a proponent of the act, when both were vying for an Illinois senate seat that brought Lincoln national attention. Although he lost that election, his prominence led to his success in the presidential election of 1860.
Secessionists threatened that if Lincoln was elected president, that those states would leave the Union. In the winter of 1861, seven southern states formed the Confederate States of America, followed by four more defections following the Union surrender at Fort Sumter, South Carolina in mid April. The Civil War had begun.
It was during the Civil War that Harper’s Weekly illustrator/cartoonist Thomas Nast became a contributor to the Union’s war effort. Nast, who became known for his Christmas drawings and was generally credited with depicting Santa Claus as we know him today, had initially worked for Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election creating campaign posters. Nast’s ability to stunningly depict Civil War battles and scenes prompted Lincoln to remark that Nast was “our best recruiting sergeant. His emblematic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism.”
Throughout the rest of 1861, the new president involved himself with the running of the war, forming an army, experiencing the disappointment of that army’s loss at the Battle of Bull Run in July, and the naming of George B. McClellan as the General-in-Chief of all Union forces in November.
Although Christmas morning of 1861 was spent in an important cabinet meeting, the President and Mrs. Lincoln had time to have dinner guests to the White House that evening. It was the only Christmas that included the entire Lincoln family. White House Christmases after this first one were relatively sad occasions due to the death of their son, Willie, in February of the following year.
With all that was going on, the President Lincoln and his wife both made a point of visiting hospitals in the area to help care for the wounded. To combat scurvy, the Lincolns donated their own money toward the purchase of oranges and lemons for the troops. It is unknown whether White House Christmas cards accompanied these gifts from the President and First Lady. On New Year’s Day, as part of the holiday tradition, the Lincolns hosted and attended open houses.
President Lincoln also maintained his honoring of soldiers by his continued hospital visits to those who were wounded in battle, especially at Christmastime. He and First Lady Lincoln, as well as son Tad, did what they could to try to bring cheer to those who were suffering. One visit moved Tad so much that once back at the White House, Lincoln arranged to have Christmas gifts, such as reading material and sanitary clothes, sent to the soldiers under the signature, “From Tad Lincoln.” Hospitals in the Washington area were also the recipients of liquor – used for medicinal purposes – that the Lincolns had donated after having had received the bottles as gifts. Again, it was not known whether White House Christmas cards were given out to those hospitalized soldiers along with the gifts.
Christmas presents given amongst the Lincoln family members were probably purchased by the President and Tad at a toy store located near the White House, the Stuntz Toy Store. Wooden toys and toy soldiers were some of the items purchased. Referring to Tad, Lincoln remarked, “I want to give him all the toys I did not have and all the toys that I would have given the boy that went away” (“the boy” referring to Willie).
What also was special at Christmastime was the serving of special foods for dinner: turkey, venison, biscuits, chicken salad, fruit, cake, and eggnog. A famous story involved son, Tad, who during one particular holiday season, pleaded with his father to not have a certain turkey (named Jack) killed for Christmas dinner because Tad considered Jack his pet. The President wrote a formal pardon, saving the life of the turkey.
The Lincolns never did have a Christmas tree at the White House, although a short walk away there was a tree they may have gone to see when they attended services at the First Presbyterian Church.
The year 1862, in addition to the personal sadness brought on by the death from fever of the Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, was filled with many war-related challenges such as keeping abreast of developments in the western theater, the frustration of dealing with the indecisiveness of his generals and as well as major defeats in the east. At the end of the year, the President issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves as well as allowing blacks to enlist in the Union army. The abolition of slavery now became the overriding reason as to why the war was being fought.
The following year, victories at both Vicksburg in Tennessee and in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, became turning points of the war. One of the President’s most famous and important speeches – lasting only two minutes – was the Gettysburg Address, which was given at a special ceremony dedicating in November the battlefield as a national cemetery, honoring those who died there.
It was also in 1863 that Lincoln officially proclaimed that the last Thursday in November be considered a day of Thanksgiving. Prior to that, Thanksgiving was a regional holiday in New England and had been celebrated only sporadically. It was not until 1941 that Congress passed a resolution making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November – the time when it is celebrated today.
By the beginning of 1864, it was thought that the Union’s military situation was more advantageous than at any other time during the war. War successes in the east, as well as General William T. Sherman’s advances through the southeast gave a boost to Lincoln’s hopes for re-election. Because the Democratic Party was split on certain issues, Lincoln won easily with 55% of the vote, having won all but three states
During the period from September to mid-November, Sherman’s army went about the task of bringing the city of Atlanta to its knees, destroying the city’s railroads and warehouses. His army of 62,000 then began its famous “March to the Sea,” culminating in the capture of Savannah, Georgia on December 21.
In a telegraphed letter to President Lincoln, General Sherman wrote: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah…” In a heartfelt reply, Lincoln wrote: “Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift – the capture of Savannah…Please make my grateful acknowledgements to your whole army – officers and men.”
One of Thomas Nast’s most famous prints was one called The Union Christmas, which was printed on December 31, 1864 and depicts President Lincoln standing at a door, with him offering the cold and frostbitten Southern soldiers an invitation to rejoin the Union. Another Nast creation from earlier that same month showed the Confederacy’s President Jefferson Davis and his problematic predicament. The illustration, entitled Lincoln’s Christmas Box to Jeff Davis, showed the choices the South’s leader by then had: “More war or peace and union?”
By then, it was the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. President Lincoln’s inaugural on March 4, 1865 was a ceremony tinged with sadness, yet empathy, when he gave his speech: “With malice toward none; with charity for all…let us strive to finish the work we are in…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
On April 9, a Sunday, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to the Union’s General Ulysses S. Grant. Except for a few minor skirmishes, the surrender ended the Civil War. Two days later, President Lincoln gave a speech promoting voting rights for black citizens. In the audience that day was actor and Confederate spy, John Wilkes Booth. Booth, who along with several co-conspirators had planned to kidnap Lincoln in exchange for the release of Confederate prisoners, became agitated and angry when he heard the President’s remarks. He changed his kidnapping plans to a plan of assassination.
On the evening of the April 14 (which was Good Friday), President and Mrs. Lincoln made their way to Ford’s Theater to attend the play, “Our American Cousin.” While the President was sitting in his state box enjoying the comedy, Booth entered and fired his derringer at the back of Lincoln’s head at point-blank range. Mortally wounded, Lincoln was carried across the street, where having never regained consciousness and in a coma, he died at 7:22 the next morning.
Booth, who had broken his leg jumping onto the stage from the President’s box after the shooting, escaped and fled into Virginia, where 12 days later, he was shot by Federal agents. Soon after, he died of his wounds.
To many, Abraham Lincoln’s death at the hands of an assassin made him a martyr. Ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment occurred less than eight months after his death and made the abolishment of slavery official – an important part of his legacy, as is the fact that he was successful in saving the Union. Historians and admirers have always mentioned that the moniker, “Honest Abe,” had been associated with Lincoln as far back as his days as a lawyer because he embodied the attributes of integrity, respect, and freedom for others no matter what their station in life.
In the years following Lincoln’s death, there were several Christmas-related illustrations done by Thomas Nast showing the Lincoln family, which proved to be very popular. One showed the family gathered around son, Tad, who was seated in a chair opening Christmas presents in 1861. Another was of Tad on Lincoln’s shoulders, along with Willie, peering into a toy store, seemingly mesmerized by all the Christmas goodies they saw through the window. Yet another showed Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, circa 1860, hanging a wreath on their front door at their home in Springfield, Illinois.
As a result of his accomplishments and moral attributes for which Abraham Lincoln is known, historians agree that he should be considered among the best – if not the best – President of the United States our country has known.