10 Myths about President Lincoln

By Morgan Little

This is the 5th installment of “100 Things to Know about President Lincoln’s Cottage.”  Today’s list tackles myths about Lincoln.  Please note, we are using the popular definition of “myth:” a traditional story accepted as truth by a population.  Some of these myths may be true, some may have been proven false beyond any doubt yet are still believed by some, some are still being debated.  Previous posts in this series may be viewed under the category “100 Things to Know.”  -E. Mast

America’s myths about its greatest president are so historically problematic that researching them has become a respected (and fun!) scholarly pursuit in its own right.  Some of these myths might sound outrageous, others perfectly plausible.  How many of these “myths” were presented to you as “facts” when you were growing up?

1. Lincoln Owned Slaves–This is one myth that simply isn’t true.  Lincoln did not own slaves, nor did his father. Some of his wife Mary’s relatives in Kentucky did own slaves, but Lincoln can hardly be held accountable for something his wife’s relatives did before he even knew her.

2. The Copper Beech at the Soldiers’ Home is a “Witness Tree” to Lincoln–This myth, about a majestic copper beech tree that previously stood on the Cottage grounds, turns out to be false. Lore surrounding the Cottage has produced stories about how Lincoln sat, read, wrote and played with his son Tad under the copper beech at the Soldiers’ Home, making the tree a living witness to Lincoln being here. The copper beech battled disease in recent years, and a large portion of the tree was removed in 2002 after it had succumbed to disease. At that time, core samples of the old tree were examined by experts, who determined that the tree was likely no older than 140 years. At 140 years of age around 2002, the tree might have existed and been a “witness” to the events that took place at President Lincoln’s Cottage during the Civil War,  but the tree dating suggested it was unlikely that the copper beech would have been mature enough to fulfill the purposes (shade tree, climbing tree, &c.) attributed to it in lore.

3. Lincoln was depressed–There is new scholarship on this topic (see Lincoln’s Melancholy), but it’s still debated.  Many point to the obvious signs of aging and stress on Lincoln’s face over the course of the war to show how he changed physically as a result of that stress.  However, stress and depression cannot be confused as one and the same.

4. Lincoln did not want to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, he was forced to do it. Though Lincoln did not believe he had the authority to issue a proclamation of emancipation at first, and was uncertain about whether issuing it would hurt the Union cause or strengthen it, the decision was his.  Upon signing it Lincoln stated that his “whole soul is in it.” He considered the victory at Antietam an indication of divine will that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.

5. Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope–There are five known manuscript copies of the address – though Lincoln may have hurried the writing job, scholars agree that he did not write the Gettysburg address on an envelope during his train ride to the speech.

6. Lincoln had male lovers/Lincoln was gay–Some scholars dismiss even the possibility, others are more willing to entertain the notion, others take any hint of affection as proof of sexual interest.  This is a particularly interesting topic at the Cottage because Captain Derickson, of the Presidential Guard who protected Lincoln here, is one of the men with whom some researchers today claim Lincoln was romantically involved.  One of the pieces of “evidence” most frequently brought forward is Lincoln sharing a bed with Derickson.  It must be remembered that grown men sharing beds in the 19th century was commonplace, and that then, as now, sharing a bed does not always equate to romantic involvement.

7. Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation in the Cottage –Lincoln was residing at the Soliders’ Home during the entire period he worked on his emancipation policy, including the pivotal days after Antietam when he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22nd.  By all accounts, President Lincoln brought his work to Soldiers’ Home each night.  There are multiple first-hand accounts from Lincoln’s staff specifically indicating Lincoln worked on drafts of the proclamation here.  There is even a story from then Vice President Hannibal Hamlin stating he and Lincoln went over a draft together at the Cottage.  Pinpointing an exact room, or claiming a specific draft was penned in its entirety here, however, is a little problematic.

8. Lincoln’s Cottage was an isolated escape from wartime turmoil– Prior to the security detail which began accompanying the President during his commute (on orders of General McClellan September 5th, 1862), anyone could enter the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home and knock on Lincoln’s door. The Cottage is adjacent to the first National Cemetery (where Civil War dead were buried from 1861-1864, when it was succeeded by Arlington) and very close to the circle of forts protecting the city.  Although the Lincolns were three miles away from the White House, they were closer to the war.  Lincoln also received warnings about people watching his commute route and plotting against him.

9. The Lincolns Owned the Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home–This might be considered a misconception rather than myth, but it’s been printed in some papers even recently.  It is certain that Lincoln did not own the Cottage at any time.  The President and his family were invited to live at the Soldiers’ Home each spring from 1861-1865, by the Soldiers’ Home Board of Commissioners.   Lincoln wasn’t the first president invited to live at the Home (Buchanan was) nor was he the last (Hayes and Arthur also took advantage of the Home as an alternative to the White House during their presidencies).

10. Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation to “free the slaves”-– The Emancipation Proclamation was a military strategy to help save the Union.  While Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greely in 1862 does end with the statement that his “oft expressed personal wish [is] that all men, everywhere, could be free” the main point of the letter was to reiterate that he would do whatever it took to save the Union.  Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation using his military authority as commander-in-chief with the goal of preserving the Union in mind.

If you’re interested in reading more, we recommend Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President by Edward Steers Jr.

Ms. Little is a 2008 Summer Intern at President Lincoln’s Cottage
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