Surprise Witness

In the early days of the Civil War, rumors began to circulate that the Confederacy had a highly-placed spy within the US government — none other than the First Lady, herself, Mary Todd Lincoln.

President Abraham and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln

Mrs. Lincoln was blamed for the string of military disasters experienced by the Union. The fact that she was born in Kentucky to a slaveholding family and had relatives who were loyal to the Confederate cause only fueled the suspicions against her.

The rumors were so widely-spread and believed that a secret morning session was set by the Senate Committee on the Conduct of the War to inquire as to the charge that Mrs. Lincoln was disloyal.

The committee had just convened when something truly remarkable happened. According to one of the committee members:

“We had just been called to order by the chairman when the officer stationed at the committee door came in with a half-frightened expression on his face. Before he had an opportunity to make explanation, we understood the reason for his excitement and were ourselves almost overwhelmed with astonishment. For at the foot of the committee table, standing solitary, his hat in his hands, his form towering, Abraham Lincoln stood. Had he come by some incantation, thus of a sudden appearing before us unannounced, we could not have been more astounded.”

Carl Sandburg wrote of the incident in The War Years and said, “There was an almost unhuman sadness in his eyes, and above all an indescribable sense of his complete isolation which the committee member felt had to do with fundamental senses of apparition. No one spoke, for no one knew what to say. The President had not been asked to come before the committee, nor was it suspected that he had information that we were to investigate reports which, if true, fastened treason upon his family in the White House.”

At last, the Presidential witness spoke. Slowly, with control, and with deep sorrow in the tone of voice, he said, “I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, appear of my own volition before this committee of the Senate to say that I, of my own knowledge, know that it is untrue that any of my family hold treasonable communication with the enemy.”

Having attested this, he went away as silent and solitary as he had come. The Committee member later recalled:

“We sat for some minutes speechless. Then by tacit agreement, no word being spoken, the committee dropped all consideration of the rumors that the wife of the President was betraying the Union. We were so greatly affected that the committee adjourned for the day.”


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