Abraham Lincoln was known far and wide for his stories and for his quick, dry wit. Here are ten one-liners from his collection – all take place during the Civil War.
- Speaking to General Benjamin Butler about General Ulysses S. Grant’s tenacity regarding any territory that he conquered: “When General Grant once gets possessed of a place, he seems to hang on to it as if he had inherited it.”
- Lincoln once described General Phil Sheridan, the great Civil War cavalry leader, as “a little chap with a round head, red face, legs longer than his body, and not enough neck to hang him by.”
- When visiting General George McClellan’s encampment in 1862, Lincoln was shown around the camp and encountered a soldier taller than he. He walked over to meet the man. “Say friend,” he asked, “does your head know when your feet are cold?”
- Famous for his caution – to a fault – General McClellan’s inactivity led Lincoln to once describe him to a White House visitor as “a pleasant and scholarly gentleman; he is an admirable engineer, but he seems to have a special talent for stationary engineering.”
- Lincoln displayed no spirit of resentment toward those who opposed his re-election in 1864 saying, “I am in favor of short statutes of limitations in politics.” [At that time, there was no limit on the number of terms a president could serve.]
- One day Lincoln learned that a general who was supporting McClellan for president had been relieved of his command, the President countermanded the order, saying: “Supporting General McClellan for the presidency is no violation of army regulations; it’s a question of taste in choosing between him and me – I’m the longest, but he’s [McClellan] better-looking.”
- On one occasion, during the Civil War, Lincoln’s aide, John Nicolay, informed him that a Confederate raid on a supply train had netted the Rebels a brigadier-general and twelve army mules. “How unfortunate! Those mules cost us two hundred dollars apiece!” was the president’s only reply.
- Lincoln’s orders to his generals reflect the courtesy, the direct argument, and the dry humor for which Lincoln was famous. For instance, in 1865 Grant telegraphed, “If the thing is pressed, I think Lee will surrender.” Replied Lincoln succinctly, “Let the thing be pressed.”
- To McClellan, one of his least favorite generals, Lincoln drily replied, “I have just read your despatch about sore tongue and fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle that fatigues anything?”
- To General Joe Hooker, Lincoln sent this missive: “I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of you recently saying that both the army and the government needed a dictator. Of course, it is not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command [of the Union Army]. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictatorships. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”
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Food for thought.
Gross, Anthony. (1912). Lincoln’s Own Stories. New York City, NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers.