June 14, 1922

Oliver Wendell Holmes Recalls the Incident at Fort Stevens When Abraham Lincoln Was Forced to Duck from Enemy Fire

Autograph Letter Signed
1 page
SMC 1106
Many soldiers have felt the urge, although few have been afforded the opportunity, to call their President and Commander-in-Chief a “damn fool” face to face – but legend has it that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, as a Captain in the Civil War, shouted just that at Abraham Lincoln. When the President, visiting the front at the Battle of Fort Stevens, stood up and made himself a target, Holmes is said to have yelled “Get down, you damn fool!”  In this account, Holmes recalls the perimeters of the alleged incident:
I remember riding into Fort Stevens and seeing there Mr. Lincoln and one or two civilians - I think the Secretary of War. My general, Wright, was walking on the top of the earthworks. The big guns were firing at a house behind which I believe the enemy to be forming for an assault, and our skirmishers were going up the opposite slope firing as they advanced.
Some say it was an enlisted man who shouted at Lincoln; others suggest it was General Wright who brusquely ordered Lincoln to safety. But for a certainty, the 6 foot 4 inch Lincoln, in frock coat and top hat, stood peering through field glasses from behind a parapet at the onrushing rebels, bullets whizzing past his head – the only time in American history a sitting president has exposed himself to combat. For Lincoln, however, who routinely moved around Washington without an escort; who walked through Richmond right after its capture; who went to the theater unguarded – making himself a perfect target in the middle of a heated battle was nothing. He was, and always had been, physically fearless. As President, he received hundreds of threatening letters, and heard constantly, of one plot or another, to kill or abduct him. He knew he was in danger, he said, but he just wasn’t going to worry about it. If someone was determined to kill him, he believed, there was nothing to be done about it…
Autograph Letter Signed (“O.W. Holmes”), as Supreme Court Justice, 1 page, quarto, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. June 14, 1922. To J.E. Boos.
View American Civil War Manuscripts.
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