Civil War Profiles: Sussex County’s ‘Gath’ investigates the real Lincoln

Date Published: 
December 6, 2013

One of the finest literary talents Sussex County has produced over the years is George Alfred Townsend of Georgetown. During the mid- to late 19th century, Townsend — who signed his writings “Gath” — enjoyed celebrity as a political columnist, novelist, poet and keen observer of the human condition.

Two years after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Townsend visited Springfield, Ill., met with Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon and wrote an article about their conversation for the New York Tribune. In Gath’s opinion, Herndon closely resembled Lincoln in personal appearance, the clothes he wore and outlook on life. He learned enough from Herndon to change his perception “of the dead president’s character.”

Herndon identified William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope as Lincoln’s favorite authors. In addition, he supposedly knew John Milton’s writings by heart. Nonetheless, Townsend was surprised to learn that Lincoln devoted most of his time to reading newspapers, rather than books. For many years, he even subscribed to the Richmond Enquirer and the Charleston Mercury — both defenders of the institution of slavery.

In Herndon’s opinion, Lincoln was slow to come to the anti-slavery table. The former law partner contended that he had been far ahead of Lincoln on that issue.

With regard to Lincoln’s qualities as a human being, Herndon quoted Lincoln as saying, “Billy, all I am or can be I owe to my angel-mother.” This was an apparent reference to the troubled relationship between Lincoln and his father. He also was cautious in choosing his friends and tended to prefer the company of younger people.

Herndon thought Lincoln was the strongest man he had ever known. He described one occasion when Lincoln picked up two men who had come to blows and “tossed them apart like a couple of kittens.”

In his younger days in Indiana, Lincoln had served as “a sort of amateur public clerk,” by writing letters for illiterate friends and neighbors — in Townsend’s prose — “to whom a steel pen was a mystery.” From that experience, he said, came Lincoln’s talent for story-telling, his down-home way of “making intelligence plain to rude minds.”

Townsend was of the opinion that no one ever told as many stories as Lincoln did, and he seldom repeated the same one. Why? Because, he said, Lincoln’s acquaintance with the common people familiarized him “with a thousand oddities,” allowing him to share anecdotes with a moral that fit the occasion.

Herndon told Gath that Lincoln had become infatuated with a “pretty high-spirited girl” who died young. Herndon dramatically ventured that the girl (likely Ann Rutledge) succumbed because of poor health and “out of regret at the equivocal position she had unwittingly assumed” for having to choose between eager suitors, including Lincoln.

Continuing in the same vein, Townsend related, “On the dead woman’s grave, Mr. Lincoln promised himself never to marry.” He kept this promise until he met his future wife, Mary, many years later.

Lincoln was known to study his legal cases in detail until he was able to discern the “principle” involved. This often kept him up all night in preparation for court appearances. As a result, his presentations were so perceptive that “dull intellects grew appreciative and shrewd ones absorbed [the finer points].”

Having been under the impression that the presidency had come to Lincoln unsolicited, Townsend found Herndon’s description of Lincoln’s passion in seeking the office “most remarkable.” Following his loss to Stephen Douglas for the Illinois senate seat in 1858, Herndon said Lincoln told him, “Billy, I knew I should miss the place [i.e., lose the race] when I competed for it.” However, “This defeat will make me president.”

He said Lincoln felt confident that the politicians would come calling, which happened in the form of an invitation to speak at the Cooper Institute in New York in October 1859. Townsend concluded that Lincoln’s success there “drew the attention of the country to his name,” and he became president because he had such strong faith and love for the people.

Gath ended by quoting Lincoln’s favorite poem, titled “Mortality,” by William Knox. The first stanza could serve as Lincoln’s epitaph:

“Oh! Why should the spirit of mortal be proud? Like a swift, fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud, A flash of the lightening, a break of the wave, He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.”

Townsend’s article is included in a collection of his writings titled “Gath’s Literary Work and Folk,” by Jerry Shields, a publication of the Delaware Heritage Commission. It is available through the DHC website at http://heritage.delaware.gov/order_form.shtml.

Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War historian, speaker and author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.