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Storytime with Abraham Lincoln

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Nature Calls.

These true accounts of President Lincoln’s animal encounters show that the Great Emancipator’s compassion wasn’t limited to humankind.


Lincoln learned at seven years old that he was different when it came to animals. Most boys his age didn’t think twice about hunting wild game during the frontier days of the early 19th century. But one day, young Abraham Lincoln shot a turkey on his family’s farm. According to biographer Thomas Keneally, “The experience of destroying animal life, of seeing the gush of blood, repelled him, and he would never become the dead-eye frontier marksman of American myth.”


When Lincoln was a teenager in the 1820s, a common pastime among his classmates was to catch terrapins (freshwater turtles) and then turn them over on their backs to watch them try to right themselves— usually unsuccessfully. Lincoln would have no part of such games. And when those games took a more sinister turn, the teen refused to stand idly by. This story comes from the 1909 book The Heart of Lincoln, by Wayne Whipple:

One day Abe Lincoln came and caught a group of mischievous boys putting live coals on a poor mud-turtle’s back. The lads, and several girl friends, laughed to see the turtle moving slowly and aimlessly about in its surprise and misery. When Abe saw what was going on he dashed into the group in a frenzy of wrath, snatched the shingle from the ringleader’s hand, dashed the burning coals off the poor turtle’s back, then began beating the boys with the thin board. When he had scattered them right and left, according to one of the girls who witnessed the sudden scene, “He preached against such cruelty” and, with angry tears in his deep, gray eyes, told the snickering offenders that a terrapin’s or “an ant’s life is as sweet to it as ours is to us.”


This anecdote comes from Lincoln’s friend Joshua F. Speed, who was traveling with the future president in 1839:

We were riding along a country road, two and two together, some distance apart, Lincoln and Jon. J. Hardin being behind. We were passing through a thicket of wild plum and crab-apple trees, where we stopped to water our horses. After waiting some time, Hardin came up and we asked him where Lincoln was. “Oh,” said he, “when I saw him last” (there had been a severe wind storm), “he had caught two little birds in his hand, which the wind had blown from their nest, and he was hunting for the nest.” Hardin left Lincoln before he found it. He finally found the nest, and placed the birds, to use his own words, “in the home provided for them by their mother.” When Lincoln caught up to the party they laughed at him. Said he, earnestly, “I could not have slept tonight if I had not given those two little birds to their mother.”


Lincoln’s White House years were mired by family tragedy and the nation in turmoil. His menagerie of animals helped keep him grounded during those troubled times. The Lincolns owned dogs, cats, rabbits, and turkeys. But the president had a special fondness for his two pet goats, Nanny and Nanko. The First Lady’s seamstress, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley, recounted this story in her 1868 book, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House:

One Saturday afternoon I went to the White House to dress Mrs. Lincoln. I had nearly completed my task when the President came in. It was a bright day, and walking to the window, he looked down into the yard, smiled, and, turning to me, asked: “Madam Elizabeth, you are fond of pets, are you not?”

“O yes, sir,” I answered.

“Well, come here and look at my two goats. I believe they are the kindest and best goats in the world. See how they sniff the clear air, and skip and play in the sunshine. Whew! What a jump,” he exclaimed as one of the goats made a lofty spring. “Madam Elizabeth, did you ever before see such an active goat?” Musing a moment, he continued: “He feeds on my bounty, and jumps with joy. Do you think we could call him a bounty-jumper? But I flatter the bounty-jumper [men who enlisted in the Union or Confederate armies during the Civil War just to collect the $ 300 incentive offered to new recruits; then they’d desert]. My goat is far above him. I would rather wear the goat’s horns and hairy coat through life, than demean myself to the level of the man who plunders the national treasury in the name of patriotism.”


This final— and perhaps most touching— account of the 16th president’s love of the animal kingdom is retold here in Carl Sandburg’s 1939 book Abraham Lincoln: The War Years:

Near the end of the Civil War, Abraham and his family had been invited to visit General Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Virginia. The trip took place in late March of 1865 about three weeks before the assassination. During his visit to City Point, the president happened to be in the telegraph hut on the day that Grant’s army began the final advance of the Civil War. In the hut the president came upon three tiny kittens. They appeared to be lost and were wandering around and meowing.

Abraham picked up one of the kittens and asked, “Where is your mother?” A person standing nearby said, “The mother is dead.” The president continued to pet the little kitten and said, “Then she can’t grieve as many a poor mother is grieving for a son lost in battle.” Abraham picked up the other two kittens and now had all three in his lap. He stroked their fur and quietly told them, “Kitties, thank God you are cats, and can’t understand this terrible strife that is going on.” The Chief Executive continued, “Poor little creatures, don’t cry; you’ll be taken good care of.” He looked toward Colonel Bowers of Grant’s staff and said, “Colonel, I hope you will see that these poor little motherless waifs are given plenty of milk and treated kindly.” Bowers promised that he would tell the cook to take good care of them. Colonel Horace Porter watched the president and recalled, “He would wipe their eyes tenderly with his handkerchief, stroke their smooth coats, and listen to them purring their gratitude to him.”


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Nature Calls. From hornywinks to Dracula orchids, from alluvium to zymogen, Uncle John is embarking on a back–country safari to track down the wackiest, weirdest, silliest, and most amazing stories about the natural world.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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