Lincoln Speaks Online Exhibition: Documents

O Captain! My Captain!

Lincoln’s assassination inspired Walt Whitman to write this poem of mourning. It is one of the few poems in which he used a conventional meter and rhyme scheme. His tribute became extremely popular at the time of its first publication, in 1865, and it was the only poem of Whitman’s to be anthologized during his […]

Lincoln Upholds Execution of a Condemned Slave Trader

This document stands out in the history of a man renowned for his mercy and willingness to forgive. His refusal to grant the condemned Nathaniel Gordon clemency for his capital crime made Lincoln the only American president to execute a slave trader. Predictably, Lincoln’s decision caused a huge public stir. The execution made an example […]

Lincoln Urges Immediate Action

By September, Tennessee was under Union control, and this letter to Johnson is considerably more imperative than usual, as Lincoln told him “not a moment should be lost [in] re-inaugurating a loyal state government.” Despite the exigency, Lincoln remained reasonable in his tone, deferring to Johnson’s local knowledge and offering “a few suggestions” only. With […]

Lincoln Remembered By a Former Slave

In this 1909 tribute to Lincoln delivered to the Republican Club of New York City, Booker T. Washington remembers his mother on the dirt floor of their slave cabin praying that Lincoln would succeed in ending slavery. Now a prominent public figure, the former slave Washington sees Lincoln’s legacy as the “blending of all tongues, […]

The Commander in Chief Gives an Order

Facing a crisis that threatened the security of Washington, DC, Lincoln erupts at the bureaucratic delay and angrily orders General Charles H. Russell to move troops to Fort Monroe, 180 miles from the capital: “I want you to cut the Knots and send them right along.” In his haste he mistakenly writes “Fort Sumpter” where […]

The Abolition of Slavery as a Precondition

In this memorandum, Lincoln deftly prohibits the efforts of Louisiana planters to hold an election under a state constitution that preserved slavery. Instead Lincoln insists on a state constitutional convention that would implement antislavery measures. Thus Lincoln subtly signals that Louisiana will not be readmitted to the Union until slavery is abolished. Lincoln skillfully cloaks […]

Lincoln Curbs Burnside’s Violations of Civil Liberties

Lincoln came under fire for wartime measures that suspended the writ of habeas corpus, jailed newspaper editors, and tried civilians in military tribunals. Responding to critics who decried his violations of civil liberties, Lincoln argued that such acts were essential to the nation’s survival. This memo to Stanton, however, shows that Lincoln did not always […]

The President Demands Better for His Troops

As an active commander in chief, Lincoln personally tested the innovative Spencer repeater carbines, or “navy rifles.” Despite being pressured to approve the weapon, Lincoln demanded its flaws be corrected before it was issued to his troops. This letter shows Lincoln’s sense of responsibility—in word and deed—to the troops and his insistence on high standards. […]

Lincoln Fires a Union Officer for Disloyalty

When Major John J. Key became the only Union officer to be court- martialed and discharged for “uttering disloyal sentiments,” the final appeal came to Lincoln. Having reviewed the arguments on both sides, Lincoln used his legal expertise to distill his response into a few words. Such disloyalty was “wholly inadmissible,” and Key was to […]

“The Animal Himself!”

Volk made a plaster life mask of Lincoln in April 1860 in preparation for a bust and full-length statue for the Illinois State Capitol. Sixteen years after the assassination, Volk wrote an account of the time he spent with Lincoln. His reminiscence portrays Lincoln as a modest, easygoing man with a self-deprecating sense of humor. […]