Lincoln Asks Grant, Not As President But As a Friend, For a Favor: Find a Place For His Son, Robert, on His Staff

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | November 16, 2012

November 16, 2012
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Spielberg’s epic film, Lincoln, has opened, and vast in scope though it is, small, even trifling, questions trail in its wake. One such query has to do with the relationship of Lincoln to his eldest son, Robert, who is portrayed as wanting nothing so much as to leave college and join the Army, but is adamantly opposed in this by his father – who doesn’t, in fact, much like him. Was this true? The answer may be found here, between the lines, in this famous letter Lincoln wrote to Grant about his unhappy son…

Lincoln may have been hailed, during the Civil War, as the Father of the Nation, but at home, with his eldest son Robert, Lincoln was mostly the President of the United States – with whom the college student, generally, was skirmishing.  Never close to his father, he complained that he “scarcely even had ten minutes quiet talk with him during his Presidency,” but even those scant minutes, were acrimonious.  Chief among their differences was Robert’s desire go into the Army and Lincoln’s desire – to placate the hysterical fears of his wife – to keep him out. Mary had, after all, already buried two of her sons, when they were yet boys; that she might lose a third, in the flush of his young manhood, was a torment to her which, unhappily, she was wont to inflict upon her husband. It wasn’t until January 19, 1865, with the end of the fighting finally in sight, that Lincoln, with this letter, overrode his wife and acquiesced  to his son, by arranging with General Grant, “as a friend”, for Robert to serve as a member of Grant’s “military family with some nominal rank.”

“Please read and answer this letter as though I was not President, but only a friend. My son, now in his twenty-second year, having graduated at Harvard, wishes to see something of the war before it ends. I do not wish to put him in the ranks, nor yet to give him a commission, to which those who have already served long, are better entitled, and better qualified to hold. Could he, without embarrassment to you, or detriment to the service, go into your Military family with some nominal rank, I, and not the public, furnishing his necessary means? If no, say so without the least hesitation, because I am as anxious, and as deeply interested, that you shall not be encumbered as you can be yourself.”

Engraving of President Lincoln and his family
Image from "The story-life of Lincoln; a biography composed of five hundred true stories told by Abraham Lincoln and his friends." 1908.

Grant graciously replied that he would be most happy to have Robert serve on his staff as an aide-de-camp, and then, wisely, made sure that Captain Lincoln, while treated (and paid) the same as other officers, was nonetheless kept out of harm’s way.  Thus Robert saw the last weeks of the war in uniform –  shepherding, say, famous visitors touring headquarters – and this brief if innocuous service proved to be the pride of his life. He was present, too, at Appomattox and having freshly arrived in Washington from the surrender, regaled his father at breakfast on the last of day of Lincoln’s life, with an account of the great occasion.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN.  1809-1865.  The 16th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), as President, 1 page, quarto, Executive Mansion, Washington D.C., January 19, 1865. To Lieutenant General ULYSSES S. GRANT.

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