Hmmmmmm, I didn’t know that

Published 10:16 am Saturday, September 7, 2019

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was the tallest of all the American presidents? He liked being six feet, four and a half inches tall and often asked other tall men—complete strangers—to measure against him back-to-back to see who was bigger. To further enhance his height, he habitually wore a very lofty silk hat, which when he was measured from head to toe, made him nearly seven feet tall!

On one of Lincoln’s numerous trips to visit his fighting troops, he suggested that the journey might go faster if he went part of the way aboard the U.S.S. Malvern. The ship’s chief carpenter immediately put his men to work lengthening a bunk for Lincoln who was more than a foot taller than most of the seamen of the day.

It has often been speculated that Lincoln’s unusual height was due to Marfans syndrome, a hereditary condition undoubtedly inherited from his mother. The condition causes an elongation of the bones, as well as abnormalities of the eyes and cardiovascular system. It can also bring on strange mental behavior such as Lincoln displayed in his frequent mood swings in which he had periods of severe depression lasting up to three days. To add to this, as a boy Abe was kicked in the head by a mule leaving him unconscious for many hours. People ventured to say that thereafter he suffered from petit mal, a type of epilepsy.

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Lincoln did not make a good first impression. One man described him as thus: “To say he is ugly is nothing; to add that his figure is grotesque is to convey no adequate description. Fancy a very tall man with long bony arms and legs which somehow seem to always be in the way; with great rugged furrowed hands which grasp you like a vice when shaking yours; a long scraggly neck and a chest too narrow for the great arms at his side.

“Add to this figure a head, coconut shaped, that is somewhat too small for his stature and covered with rough, uncombed hair standing out in every direction; a face furrowed, wrinkled and indented as though it had been scarred by vitriol; a high narrow forehead sunk beneath bushy eyebrows with too bright, somewhat dreamy eyes, that seem to gaze at you without looking at you; a few irregular blotches of black bristly hairs where beard and whiskers ought to grow; a stern close-set, thin-lipped mouth with two rows of large white teeth and a nose and ears which have been mistakenly taken from a head twice the size.

“Clothe him in a long, tight, badly-fitting black suit that is creased, soiled and puckered at every salient point. Then add large ill-fitting boots, gloves too long for his long bony fingers and a tall hat covered with dusty puffy crepe. And when you are finished critiquing this woe-struck image, add an ironic air of both physical and moral strength with a dignity that incongruously pairs with grotesqueness. That is the impression left upon you by Abraham Lincoln.”

Little is known about Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. He did not serve in the war, but nevertheless escaped another kind of death. One day at a New Jersey railroad station, Robert was waiting to board the train. Behind him was such a mass of passengers that he was forced to lean over the platform up against the side of a waiting train. All at once he felt the train move. Lincoln lost his balance and slid helplessly into the space between the train and the platform.

Suddenly a hand reached out and grabbed onto his coat, lifting him to safety. A shaken Robert turned to his rescuer only to realize that he recognized the man. He was the famous actor, Edwin Booth, the brother of the man who only a few months later would take the life of his father!

I recently read tidbits such as these in a book of wonky Civil War oddities. Another inside story was that of Matthew Brady, the famous war photographer. He began his career in the 1850s by doing studio portraits of notable people. When Brady realized that he was fast losing his vision due to the constant exposure of photographic chemicals, he hired a group of eager young photographers and sent them off to war in his place. These unrecognized men took thousands of photos for which Brady took full credit. Ironically, Brady, who during 1861-65 was more closely identified with military action than any other man, personally saw very little of it.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant was an ex-captain. Recognized as a military hasbeen, he was working as a clerk in his family’s leather goods store. In a quirk of fate, however, he became a lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, the first person to have done so since George Washington. He then went on to serve two terms as President of the United States.

As a former West Point cadet, Grant made only mediocre grades. There was, however, one skill in which he excelled: horsemanship. When he wasn’t riding one of his favorite horses, he whiled away his time sketching them. Untrained in art, his drawings were nonetheless of professional quality. Up until the time that Dwight D. Eisenhower came to the White House, Grant was considered the only president who knew how to put a horse to canvas.

Thomas A. Scott, superintendent of the Pittsburgh division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, took an aide with him when he went to Washington to become an assistant secretary of war. His twenty-six year old companion, who spoke with a gentle Scottish burr, soon became an expert in telegraphy. Before long Andrew Carnegie was in charge of coordinating rail and telegraph lines. He never saw combat, but instead went on to serve as a civilian executive in the military transportation section of the War Department. Twenty-five years later Carnegie owned the controlling interest of U.S. Steel Corporation, eventually selling the business and devoting the rest of his life to charitable causes, including countless public libraries … like the one we have here in Austin!

Thomas Coleman Younger, known to his friends as “Cole,” was just seventeen years old in 1861. Dodging a stint in the service, he chose to run with a pack of outlaws who ravaged parts of Missouri and Kansas. In the post war years he cut a wide swath throughout the West, eventually spending sixteen years in prison for his part in a bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota.

Going about quietly unnoticed was a nurse serving in a Georgetown hospital. She rarely talked and was barely paid heed to by those around her, yet all the while she was writing letters home to her family. These were eventually collected and published as “Hospital Sketches,” which revealed that she was a gifted writer. By the end of the war, Louisa May Alcott had gained fame by writing “Little Women.”

At age 25, Samuel L. Clemens was a journeyman printer as well as the pilot of a Mississippi River steamer. He was making hardly enough money for his room and board. It was, therefore, an easy decision for him to enlist in a Missouri pro-Confederate unit only to discover a few weeks later that he was not cut out for the military life. Instead he became a newspaper reporter, adopting the pseudonym of Mark Twain, and eventually became the most noted American writer of the century.

The décor at Ford’s Theater in Washington was colorful flags draped upon walls and ledges. After John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln, he jumped from the presidential box to make his getaway. He might have been successful had not his spur caught in the folds of one of those flags. It threw him off balance and he landed on the stage below breaking his leg. Unable to run, he hobbled toward his horse. The Federal soldiers who went in pursuit later gave credit for his arrest to the torn flag which radically slowed down his escape.

A mortally wounded Lincoln was carried across the street to the home of a Washington tailor, William A. Petersen. There a renter evacuated his room for the president. Ironically, Lincoln died on a hastily commandeered bed that had once been occupied by John Wilkes Booth when he stayed with a friend who was renting that very room from Petersen.

There are dozens and dozens of such ironic insights, but I must admit that quite possibly the biggest oddity of them all is why in heaven’s name we ever called that horrible war a “Civil” War?