Abraham Lincoln's Cats.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, he was given an unexpected gift of two kittens from Secretary of State William Seward in August of 1861. The president doted on the cats, which he named Tabby and Dixie, so much so that he once fed Tabby from the table during a formal dinner at the White House.
When Mary Todd Lincoln, embarrassed by Abe's action told him that it was “shameful in front of their guests.” The President replied, “If the gold fork was good enough for former President James Buchanan, I think it is good enough for Tabby.”
Lincoln’s friend Caleb Carman recalled how the president would pick up one of the cats and “talk to it for half an hour at a time.” The cats apparently won the president over with their quiet adoration.
At one point during his first term, Lincoln said in frustration, “Dixie is smarter than my whole cabinet! And... furthermore... she doesn’t talk back!”
Lincoln had a special affinity for stray cats and was known to bring them home on occasion. Mrs. Lincoln even referred to cats as "my husband’s hobby.” When she was visiting her father and stepmother in Kentucky, for example, Mary wrote in a letter to her husband that their son Eddy had taken up “your hobby” by adopting a stray kitten.
At General Ulysses S. Grant‘s headquarters in City Point, Virginia during the siege of Petersburg in March 1865 (just weeks before his assassination), with the civil war drawing to a close, the enormous task of reuniting the country lay ahead. Lincoln found his attention distracted by the sound of mewing kittens. Lincoln noticed three stray kittens in the telegraph hut. Admiral David Porter wrote later that he was struck by the sight of the president “tenderly caressing three stray kittens. It well illustrated the kindness of the man’s disposition, and showed the childlike simplicity which was mingled with the grandeur of his nature.” Porter recalled that Lincoln stroked the cats’ fur and quietly told them, “Kitties, thank God you are cats, and can’t understand this terrible strife that is going on.” Before leaving a meeting in the officers’ tent that day, Lincoln turned to a colonel and said, “I hope you will see that these poor little motherless waifs are given plenty of milk and treated kindly.”
Abraham Lincoln's Dogs.
Mr. Lincoln’s compassion extended to dogs, too. Fido was a mixed breed with floppy ears and a yellowish coat. When fireworks and cannons announced Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the Presidential election of 1860, poor Fido was terrified. The Lincolns were worried that the long train trip to Washington, D.C., combined with loud noises, would terrify Fido. John and Frank Roll, two neighborhood boys, promised to take good care of Fido. Mr. Lincoln made them promise to let Fido inside the house whenever he scratched at the front door, never scold Fido for entering the house with muddy paws, and feed him if he came to the dinner table. The Lincolns gave the boys the roll pillows from their sofa so Fido would feel at home! Did you know “Fido” is Latin? Fido is from “Fidelitas,” which translates as “faithful.” Fido outlived President Lincoln but came to a similarly tragic end – being stabbed to death by a drunkard.
|This is a Carte de Visite (Cabinet Card) photograph of Fido.|
Listed in Cowan's Auctions American History's Auction Catalog in 2012.
The Lincoln household was a home for the lost and neglected. Cynthia Owen Philip wrote about an incident in which a dog named Jet adopted the Lincoln family. “In mid-October 1861, during the bleak months after the Union defeat at Bull Run, President and Mrs. Lincoln were driven across the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia, to present flags to newly formed volunteer regiments assembled there. On their return to the capital, a sleek black hunting dog trailed their carriage all the way to the White House, trotted after the President right through the front door, and to the delight of the Lincoln children, quickly made himself at home.” Unfortunately for the boys, the dog had abandoned his owner, army surgeon George Suckley. He read about the new White House resident in a newspaper and went to the White House to claim him. He and Mr. Lincoln agreed that Dr. Suckley would furnish one of Jet’s pups in exchange for return of his father. But by the time the exchange was to be made in December, Jet had again disappeared so Dr. Suckley withheld the puppy.
Apparently, Abraham Lincoln Loved all Critters.
Indeed, Mr. Lincoln was known to go to great lengths to rescue animals from adversity – including once backtracking to rescue a pig stuck in the mud because he couldn’t bear the thought of its suffering. Friend Joshua F. Speed recalled a trip he took with Mr. Lincoln in 1839 on the way back to Springfield: “We were riding along a country road, two and two together, some distance apart, Lincoln and Jon. J. Hardin being behind. (Hardin was afterward made Colonel and was killed at Buena Vista). We were passing through a thicket of wild plum, and crab-apple trees, where we stopped to water our horses." After waiting some time Hardin came up and we asked him where Lincoln was. "Oh," said he, "when I saw him last" (there had been a severe wind storm), "he had caught two little birds in his hand, which the wind had blown from their nest, and he was hunting for the nest." Hardin left him before he found it. He finally found the nest, and placed the birds, to use his own words, "in the home provided for them by their mother." When he caught up with the party they were laughing at him. Said he, earnestly, "I could not have slept tonight if I had not given those two little birds to their mother."
Illinois politician William Pitt Kellogg recalled: "Next to his political sagacity, his broad humanitarianism was one of his most striking characteristics. He fairly overflowed with human kindness." Historian Charles B. Strozier noted that "Lincoln’s lifelong sympathy for animals…was hardly the norm for the frontier.” Historian Douglas L. Wilson noted that Mr. Lincoln" was unusually tenderhearted. We see this in several reports of his childhood that depict him as concerned about cruelty to animals. When his playmates would turn helpless terrapins on their backs and torture them, which was apparently a favorite pastime, the young future president would protest against it. He wrote an essay on the subject as a school exercise that was remembered years afterward. This instinctive sympathetic reaction seems to have been recognized by his stepbrother as a vulnerable spot in Lincoln’s makeup, for he is reported as having taunted Lincoln as he was preaching a mock sermon by bashing a terrapin against a tree.
Son Tad’s love of animals perhaps exceeded his father’s. The Lincolns adopted two goats, Nanny and Nanko, who had the run of the White House property – to the consternation of the White House staff upset about the damage they caused to furniture and flora. The goat "interests the boys and does them good; let the goat be,” President Lincoln told a White House employee who objected to the goat. Mr. Lincoln took pride in the goats’ affection for him. He told Elizabeth Keckley, a black seamstress who worked for his wife, "Well, come here and look at my two goats. I believe they are the kindest and best goats in the world. See how they sniff the clear air, and skip and play in the sunshine. Whew? what a jump," he exclaimed as one of the goats made a lofty spring. "Madam Elizabeth, did you ever before see such an active goat?" Musing a moment, he continued: "He feeds on my bounty, and jumps with joy. Do you think we could call him a bounty-jumper? But I flatter the bounty-jumper. My goat is far above him. I would rather wear his horns and hairy coat through life, than demean myself to the level of the man who plunders the national treasury in the name of patriotism. The man who enlists into the service for a consideration, and deserts the moment he receives his money but to repeat the play, is bad enough; but the men who manipulate the grand machine and who simply make the bounty-jumper their agent in an outrageous fraud are far worse. They are beneath the worms that crawl in the dark hidden places of earth."
In the August 1863, President Lincoln wrote Tad to announce the disappearance of his son’s “Nanny Goat.” She had been last seen “chewing her little cud, on the middle of Tad’s bed. But now she’s gone.” Like Tad, Nanny apparently had the run of the White House. There was suspicion that one of the White House staff had been Nanny’s undoing. By the next spring the goats must have been replaced because Mr. Lincoln reported in a telegram to his wife: “Tell Tad the goats and father are very well – especially the goats."
As President, Mr. Lincoln continued to conduct animal rescue missions. Lewis Stanton, son of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, recalled how his father and Mr. Lincoln handled one difficult situation at the Soldiers Home in northeast Washington: “Mr. Lincoln and my father arrived at the cottage. They at once noticed the peacocks who were roosting in a small cluster of cedar trees with the ropes and sticks caught in the many small branches and recognized the dangerous and uncomfortable position when on the morrow they would attempt to fly to earth. The two men immediately went to work, solemnly going to and fro unwinding the ropes and getting them in straight lines and carefully placing the small pieces of wood where without catching they would slide off when in the morning the birds flew down.” President Lincoln took particular delight in relaxing at the Soldiers Home with his son Tad and Stanton’s children.
When the White House stables caught fire in February 1863, President Lincoln had to be restrained from entering the burning edifice to rescue six trapped horses. One pony belonged to his late son Willie and another belonged to his son Tad. Two pet goats were also apparently destroyed. President Lincoln personally “burst open the stable door… and would have tried to enter the burning building had not those standing near caught and restrained him,” recalled presidential guard Robert McBride. The death of Willie’s pony particularly pained him. William P. Bogardus recalled: “– one of the boys and I went up to see the fire. As we stood watching the burning building some one put a hand on the tight board fence that surrounded the barn and vaulted over. The fence was over six feet high. As he came up to where we were and stood by us he remarked 'Well boys this is a pretty how-dodo' and then recognized that it was Mr. Lincoln. There were twenty five of the one hundred men of the company selected to act as his mounted escort on his rides to and from the Soldiers Home, where he spent the hot months of the summer.”
In Springfield, “Old Robin” was a valued member of the family. Neighbor Fred T. Dubois recalled: “Old Robin was the family horse of the Lincolns, which used to draw the family carriage, which had two seats, an open one in front and the rest of the carriage closed. Some of the family always did the driving, as Mr. Lincoln never had a coachman. He had only one man around his house, who took care of the horse, etc. Salaries were very meager at that time, and this man of all jobs wore plain clothes all the time and, as was quite customary in those days, was treated as an equal by every one.” At President Lincoln’s funeral in Springfield in April 1865, Old Robin played an honored role. He was led by the Rev. Harry Brown, an Negro minister who had been an occasional handyman for the Lincolns.
Abe Lincoln Pardoning a Turkey?
President Lincoln’s compassion extended to turkeys, too. Thanksgiving was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1863, after Abraham Lincoln’s presidential proclamation, which set the date as the last Thursday in November. Because of the Civil War, however, the Confederate States of America refused to recognize Lincoln’s authority, and Thanksgiving wouldn’t be celebrated nationally until years after the war.
|Lincoln's horse "Old Robin," on the day of his funeral in 1865, held by Rev. Henry Brown. F.W. Ingmire, photographer.|
By The Lehrman Institute
Edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D.