Civil War Profiles: Recollecting Lincoln ‘The Martyr’

Date Published: 
February 7, 2014

“I am sitting in the President’s office. He was here very lately, but he will not return…”

With these somber sentiments, written on May 14, 1865, the perceptive New York World reporter George Alfred Townsend reminisced about Abraham Lincoln — having received exclusive entry to the White House by presidential aides John Nicolay and John Hay.

It was another of Townsend’s “letters” to the public about the assassination of the fallen leader he identified as “The Martyr.” Ordinarily, one would not expect a 24-year-old journalist to be a featured writer for a major publication — except that Townsend was not ordinary by any measure.

As Jerry Shields revealed in his biography of George Alfred Townsend (born Jan. 30, 1841, on Market Street in Georgetown, Del.), at age 19, he was a reporter and editorial writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. At 20, he became the city editor for the Philadelphia Press, before signing on in 1862 with the New York Herald to accompany the Union army into battle in Virginia.

After contracting a campaign-related illness, Townsend spent two years recovering in Europe, where he published remembrances of his war experiences. He returned to America and once again was a battlefront reporter — enhancing his reputation with a “scoop” from Gen. Philip Sheridan about the Battle of Five Forks and fall of the Confederate capital at Richmond in April 1865.

Remaining in a reflective mood, Townsend described “the emptiness” of Lincoln’s office “that revives that feeling of desolation from which the land has scarce recovered.” Yet, indicative of what had only recently taken place, maps that literally covered the walls had “pencil lines upon them where someone has traced the route of armies and planned the strategic circumferences of campaigns.”

On a table in the office were “a parliamentary manual, a thesaurus and two books of humor.” Lincoln enjoyed “works of comic value … and he reproduced all that he absorbed to elucidate some new issue, or turn away argument by a laugh.”

Townsend revealed with some merriment of his own that Lincoln had a private passage built as “a strategic route … from his office … to the family quarters.” The ever-courteous president resorted to this tactic to gain relief from constant petitions for favors by “loiterers, contract-hunters and seekers for commissions … toadies without measure and talkers without conscience” who besieged the president’s residence.

Townsend recalled the person “whom the country had summoned from his plain home” in Springfield to the capital in Washington: “His face was solid and healthy, his step young, his speech and manner bold and kindly.” Given that seven states had seceded from the Union upon his election, en route, Lincoln declared without rancor, “We may have to put the foot down firm.”

Who was this man with the strange Western accent? At first, he was “an amusing sensation, and there was much guffaw as he was regarded by the populace.” In time, however, “he won esteem, and often admiration … and the victories he had achieved made the world applaud him.”

Townsend explained that, despite his reputation for light-heartedness and storytelling, Lincoln was reserved on solemn occasions. He agonized over the enormity of casualties on the battlefield, and whether he “could be in any way responsible for the bloodshed and devastation.”

From the reporter’s perspective, Old Abe was upright, practical and without prejudice. His politics reflected Benjamin Franklin, rather than the more ideological Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson. He was a family man who loved his children and was unfalteringly “chivalrous” toward his wife, Mary.

In time, “perplexity and devotion had wrinkled his face, and stooped his shoulders, and the failing eyes that glared upon the play [at Ford’s Theater] closed as his mission was completed.” He has become a model for those who would “take his place in the same White House.”

The youthful journalist concluded his recollection, “I am glad to sit here in his chair, where he has bent so often … in the very centre of the nation he preserved for the people… [and to cite] the goodness of his life and the eternity of his memory.”

The New York World sent Townsend to report on the military commission convened to judge those indicted in the murder of the president. A future article will review his detailed observations, titled “The Trial.”

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective” (available at Bethany Beach Books). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or go to his website at
www.tomryan-civilwar.com.