It is well known that President Abraham Lincoln and Alexander H. Stephens, who served as Vice President of the Confederacy during the Civil War, were friends despite being on opposite sides of the war. Becoming acquainted during their service in the House of Representatives during the Mexican War, the pair even worked together to get Zachary Taylor elected President.
With this in mind, I found an interesting passage recently in The War Between the States, by Stephens, in which he considered the character of his tall friend. Stephens made an interesting distinction between the public and private Lincoln. “Lincoln was…kind- hearted. No man I knew was ever more so,” Stephens said. Then again, so was Julius Caesar, the diminutive Georgian believed. Like Lincoln, Caesar, “was certainly esteemed by many of the best men of his day for some of the highest qualities which dignify and ennoble human nature.” But in public life the two men were alike in that they could be “looked upon as the destroyer[s] of liberties…”[i]
In his memoirs, Stephens wondered how his friend Lincoln might have made different choices if he had heeded the warning of an omen which appeared to the newly nominated Republican candidate for president at his home in Springfield, Illinois. The famous incident is worth recalling before sharing the passage from the Georgian’s work. The following was recorded by Noah Brooks, who heard the story from Lincoln himself.
It was just after my election in 1860, when the news had been coming in thick and fast all day and there had been a great “hurrah, boys,” so that I was well tired out, and went home to rest, throwing myself down on a lounge in my chamber. Opposite where I lay was a bureau with a swinging glass upon it (and here he got up and placed furniture to illustrate the position), and looking in that glass I saw myself reflected nearly at full length; but my face, I noticed had two separate and distinct images, the tip of the nose of one being about three inches from the tip of the other. I was a little bothered, perhaps startled, and got up and looked in the glass, but the illusion vanished. On lying down again, I saw it a second time, plainer, if possible, than before; and then I noticed that one of the faces was a little paler — say five shades — than the other. I got up, and the thing melted away, and I went off, and in the excitement of the hour forgot all about it — nearly, but not quite, for the thing would once in a while come up, and give me a little pang as if something uncomfortable had happened. When I went home again that night I told my wife about it, and a few days afterward I made the experiment again, when (with a laugh), sure enough! the thing came back again; but I never succeeded in bringing the ghost back after that, though I once tried very industriously to show it to my wife, who was somewhat worried about it. She thought it was a “sign” that I was to be elected to a second term of office, and that the paleness of one of the faces was an omen that I should not see life through the last term.[ii]
Alexander Stephens clearly was struck by the account and adapted the story for his own purposes, to make the point that Lincoln was a better man in private life than he was in public life. This is ironic when you consider that Stephens and Lincoln became friends while working in Congress together – a very public sphere.
From The War between the States:
If on the evening of his nomination at Chicago, when the two images of himself were presented in his mirror at Springfield, which ever afterwards so haunted him, it had been told to him, that the “bright” one of these images was but the true likeness of himself in the sphere of private life, and the other – pale, and “statue-like in its frigid insensibility” to all the gentle promptings of his generous heart – was the future image of himself in that official sphere to which he was soon to be elevated: if the curtain of the future had been further raised, and “Death upon his pale horse” had been seen doing his tragical work on the rugged grounds of Manassas, at Oak Hill, at Corinth, on the battle fields around Richmond – at Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Murfreesboro, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chickamauga: if the scenes of slaughter and carnage in the Wilderness, at Cold Harbor and Atlanta had been exhibited: if the wails of horror that went up from the crater of the volcanic mine at Petersburg had been heard, even at a distance, commingling with like cries from the dying in the Prisons of Camp Douglas, Rock Island, and Elmira as well as Salisbury and Andersonville, and others of less note; if the devastations in the valley of Virginia by Sheridan, and the conflagrations and desolations by Sherman, through Georgia and the two Carolinas, especially at Columbia, had passed in grand panorama before his vision, reflected from that mirror, and had had been then and there told by some inspired prophet, that all these terrible scenes – these sufferings and woes of millions – these convulsive throes of this our “Nations of Nations” in the days of their agony – would soon be the results of his own acts in his official character, in that higher sphere to which he was to be elevated – represented by the second image thus reflected – he would doubtless have heard the announcement with no little horror – he would indeed have been “unnerved,” and would have exclaimed, in the language of equal surprise and indignation, with that of Hazael and Elisha! He would have believed , and would have said, with all the emphasis he could have commanded, that it was impossible for him to do such things![iii]
The whole of the tragedy of the Civil War, was laid here solidly at the feet of Abraham Lincoln, as if the Confederacy was blameless. If he had only listened to his mirror, the war may have been averted, Stephens seems to suggest.
The passage also interests me for its mention of prison camps. Having recently penned a book on the Elmira POW camp (HELLMIRA: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp – Elmira, NY), which Stephens mentions, it is fascinating that he cites three Union camps first – Camp Douglas, Rock Island and Elmira – and only last does he mention Andersonville. This last, of course, was the worst of the worst – a Confederate prison camp in Stephens’ home state of Georgia, with a casualty rate of about thirty percent.
In any case, Stephens’ memoir is largely a predictably self-righteous defense of Georgia and the Confederacy – if a bit hard on Jefferson Davis. Made up of two large volumes, there are some gems to be found – like the one I shared – but it is a slog to read.
[i] Alexander Stephens, The War between the States, Volume II. Philadelphia: National Publishing Co., 1870.
[ii] Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time. New York: The Century Company, 1895.
[iii] Alexander Stephens, The War between the States, Volume II. Philadelphia: National Publishing Co., 1870.