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Lincoln's White House Secretary

The Adventurous Life of William O.Stoddard

Edited by Harold Holzer

Publication Year: 2007

William Osborn Stoddard, Lincoln’s “third secretary” who worked alongside John G. Nicolay and John Hay in the White House from 1861 to 1865, completed his autobiography in 1907, one of more than one hundred books he wrote. An abridged version was published by his son in 1955 as “Lincoln’s Third Secretary: The Memoirs of William O. Stoddard.”  In this new, edited version, Lincoln’s White House Secretary: The Adventurous Life of William O. Stoddard, Harold Holzer provides an introduction, afterword, and annotations and includes comments by Stoddard’s granddaughter, Eleanor Stoddard. The elegantly written volume gives readers a window into the politics, life, and culture of the mid-nineteenth century.
Stoddard’s bracing writing, eye for detail, and ear for conversation bring a novelistic excitement to a story of childhood observations, young friendships, hardscrabble frontier farming, early hints of the slavery crisis, the workings of the Lincoln administration, and the strange course of war and reunion in the southwest. More than a clerk, Stoddard was an adventurous explorer of American life, a farmer, editor, soldier, and politician.
Enhanced by seventeen illustrations, this narrative sympathetically draws the reader into the life and times of Lincoln’s third secretary, adding to our understanding of the events and the larger-than-life figures that shaped history.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Title Page

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. xi-x

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pp. xi-xii

Both Eleanor Stoddard and I are grateful beyond measure to Southern Illinois University Press for its longstanding and unflagging enthusiasm for this project, during the long wait before an edited manuscript could be delivered. John F. “Rick” Stetter, former SIU Press director, first signed the project back in 1995, with the enthusiastic endorsement of SIU Carbondale history professor John Y. Simon, executive director of the Ulysses...

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pp. 1-14

Most students of the Civil War era know the name of William Osborn Stoddard (1835–1925). The young newspaperman served from 1861 through 1864 as the so-called third secretary in the original triumvirate of principal assistants who loyally served President Abraham Lincoln in the wartime White House....

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1. The Stoddard Family Tree

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pp. 15-21

In the year 1635, Governor John Winthrop founded the Connecticut Colony by building a fort at the mouth of the Thames River and landing a number of adventurous settlers who had sailed with him from the port of Yarmouth in England1. He was himself a Suffolk man and his recruits were of course largely drawn from Suffolk and the neighboring county of Devon. One of the ancient families of the latter county bore the name of...

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2. Childhood in Rochester

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pp. 22-26

I can imagine that not many people have clear recollections of their first and second years. I do not know just where my memory begins its mysterious record. I do know, however, that at a very early age I went to an infant school, kept by a grim old woman whom I did not admire. She must have been an expert teacher, nevertheless, for I learned to read wonderfully soon. It was a small school, with only one really large boy in it, for Johnny Stitt was almost ten. Next to him was Johnny Philpot, whose father lived...

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3. Boyhood in Homer

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pp. 27-37

The days of the railroad had not yet come. From an early period of the civilized era in the history of the state, there had been a stage route through the center of it, from Albany westward. It was still in existence, but it was supported by such passenger traffic as did not belong to the line of the canal, or that was desirous of traveling faster than six miles an hour, the limit of the new waterway passenger or “liner” boats....

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4. The Old Garret and Other Wonders

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pp. 38-45

In the middle of the village, on the westerly side of Main Street, was the village green, containing many acres. Upon this green, beginning at the north, all of them well back from the street, were the public edifices of Homer. First came the Episcopal Church, in which John Osborn owned two pews, by reason of his contributions to its erection, for he was a liberal-minded man and not at all sectarian. He had been born and brought up...

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5. In the Village

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pp. 46-50

Beginning at the upper end of what was now regarded, in central New York, as a pretty ancient kind of village, the first object of interest to an exploring boy was the Upper Pond. It was long and irregular, with both deep and shallow places, and here and there still stuck up above the surface or were visible under the clear water, the stumps of the trees that were cut down when the valley was invaded by the destroying white men. It was no...

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6. The River

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pp. 51-56

Down sloped the road from our house to the Tioughneauga, and it led into a new world in which a large part of my small boyhood was to be passed. The bridge itself was strongly built, of rough stones, and had several low arches, under which one might row a boat at ordinary times and against which the water would dash and foam and roar gloriously at floodtime, often hurling at them masses of ice in a manner which was...

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7. The Hill and the Woods

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pp. 57-61

My acquaintance with the regions east of the river did not fairly begin until the following Spring. Just at the end of the cold weather, there was a brace of fine calves in the barnyard and one of them was assigned to me as my own peculiar property. The title to that calf may have been somewhat defective but I valued it all the same. It did not altogether cease, indeed, after the greater part of the pretty animal was turned into veal. The hide was still declared to be mine and I conveyed it, in the baby...

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8. The Academy and the Shop

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pp. 62-66

Long ago did the old Homer Academy building disappear in fire and smoke, but it was a great credit to the liberal-minded first settlers who planned and built it. I hope that when it was burned, the fire spared the cannon house so near it. There must have been time to take out the cannon, if anybody could find the key of the door. The Homer boys managed to do that, once. It was in an early Summer when the village trustees...

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9. Syracuse: The Young City

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pp. 67-72

Not a city at all but still possessing only a village organization, was Syracuse when the stagecoach which bore me rolled into it, in the latter part of September [1844]. I was received by my father at his boarding place, the American House, on the site of which the First Presbyterian Church was afterwards erected. It was a grand experience to eat supper in...

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10. The Onondaga Street House

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pp. 73-78

Our new house was somewhat larger than the other, [with] a high stoop basement, two stories, and a most attractive garret. There was also a considerable frame addition in the rear, a woodshed with finished rooms over it. The garret was promptly preempted in memory of the grand one in Homer and became a new realm of work for me. There was a general likeness between this and the Fayette Street house, externally, and another...

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11. Hoyt’s School

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pp. 79-85

I think it was at about the end of my twelfth year [in 1847] that the school enterprise of Mr. Weld ended. He may have had a call to some church or other, but at all events, Syracuse was once more without an “academy.” Several gentlemen who were encumbered with boys took the matter up and decided to have a first-class select school—very select—of their own. The number of students was at first limited to sixteen, but afterwards three or four additional fortunates were grudgingly admitted....

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12. The Bookstore

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pp. 86-91

Speaking of corporal punishment, I had an earlier experience than that under Mr. Caruth. I think it was at the beginning of my ninth year that my grandfather showed his good will to the common school system by starting me in the District School at our end of Homer instead of at the Academy. It may be that a change would be for my good and I never thought of rebelling, although I went sorely against my will....

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13. The New Garret

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pp. 92-98

There had been a garret over our Fayette Street house, but I had made no manner of use of it. Our Onondaga Street garret was for a while neglected but its day of usefulness came to it very soon. I was beginning, while at Hoyt’s school, to take a deep interest in chemistry and that soon led on into a series of practical experiments in acids, gasses, combinations, and electricities, in which I took more delight than I can tell. While I was in ...

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14. The Church

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pp. 99-104

Between our house and the church was but one dwelling, a large frame building, then, for awhile, occupied by the Slocum family. Behind it was another dwelling that fronted on Church Street. Our lot had a back gate, so that my brothers and sisters might go through by that way to the public schoolhouse at a little distance. By the way, the Syracuse public institutions were now attaining a degree of excellence of which our citizens were justly...

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15. The Jerry Rescue Riot

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pp. 105-111

There came a day when the citizens of Syracuse were startled by the announcement that the great statesman, Daniel Webster, was coming to address them upon the questions of the day.1 He had selected the Convention City as the proper place for the delivery of one of his most important public utterances....

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16. Miscellaneous

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pp. 112-120

At the time of the riot, we had emerged from the Sunday school room into the body of the church, and Mr. Raymond was preaching with great acceptance, so far as the greater part of his congregation was concerned. But his politics and some of his liberal ideas had made him enemies among an old and somewhat influential clique....

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17. Going to College

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pp. 121-127

Something or other has made me think, just now, of army affairs. There was always a kind of military colony in Syracuse. On the Park corner was the house of old Major Burnet, a retired army officer for whom I had vast respect. One of my first friends and playfellows was Win Sumner, whose father was a colonel. Win became Colonel E. V. Sumner, the distinguished cavalry commander, in due time, while his father was...

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18. College Days

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pp. 128-136

If there is one occupation more than another to which I never took kindly, it is the sawing of wood. Chopping, on the other hand, I have really enjoyed and I have had plenty of it. I had more than plenty of wood sawing, that first Winter in Rochester. My first roommate, for a short time only, was a young law student named Brand, and after him came another, a rough country fellow named Titus B. Eldredge. Of Brand’s after career I...

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19. Junior Year

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pp. 137-145

The political situation of the country had been steadily growing more and more cloudy, year after year.1 There were increasing evidences that both of the old parties, Whig and Democratic, were disintegrating, but it did not yet appear what was to take the place of them. In the year 1856, however, the discontented elements had gone far enough to organize what was known as the People’s Party and of course I belonged to it. So did my...

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20. Grand Prairie

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pp. 146-156

Beginning, at the east, somewhere in Indiana; at the north on the shore of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan; at the south in the woods of southern Illinois; at the Wabash and the Ohio; [and] bordered at the west by the Mississippi River, there is an immense, irregular, undulating plain of alluvial country to which the early French explorers gave the name of “Grand Prairie.” They were entirely justified in so doing....


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pp. G1-G14

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21. Log Cabin Home

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pp. 157-165

From the corner of the cornfield on the four-hundred-acre patch, a man might have walked away, northwest by north, sixteen miles, without being unpleasantly interrupted by a fence until he arrived in the outskirts of Urbana, the county seat of Champaign County....

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22. Prairie Life

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pp. 166-172

Mrs. Howe was elderly and fat and dark and rarely said anything. Miss or Mrs. Becky Howe was plump and dark and could talk, while her younger sisters were lighter or fairer. So was Tim, a broad-shouldered fellow who had a nose like his father’s but of a smaller and thinner pattern....

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23. Prairie Winter

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pp. 173-178

The snow did not come until January, and after that it was what might be called a mild Winter. Still, there were storms, and I had more than one ride to or from the county seat over a spotless carpet of glittering white.
By night it might have been easy to lose my way, but for the stars. As to the ease of wandering from right paths, I had one queer experience, just before the snow came. Old Man Howe and his wife went off on a visit. It...

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24. Frontier Journalism

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pp. 179-186

The broad area of Champaign County was said to contain at that time, the Spring of 1858, not many more than two thousand inhabitants, mostly gathered in small villages and altogether dependent upon the as-yet hardly initiated agriculture....

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25. Forward

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pp. 187-193

One of my first duties, after obtaining my regular editorial passes from the railroad company, was to go to Chicago to deed back my now useless farmland. The seller was a just man and dealt well with me in the settlement and he had his reward, for the price of prairie land of that quality was rising. It was already much better than it had been just after the Panic of 1857. I hope he sold it the next time for twice as much....

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26. Suppers, Characters, and Incidents

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pp. 194-203

I will finish up the story of the bank bedroom that it may not be entirely forgotten hereafter. It was large and high and when it was thrown in with the bank office in front the two together made plenty of area for reception purposes. Therefore, we utilized it to an extent that it was not originally intended for. The black cook of the Doane House was a fat and dignified party who was exceedingly proud of his ability to do up game...

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27. Lincoln and a New Beginning

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pp. 204-217

Somewhere along in the Winter, I found means to secure a small cottage near the middle of the village and in this Kate and I began small housekeeping. The house contained only two rooms besides the kitchen but it would do. I still retained some remnants of my remarkable shipment of old family household goods from the East and was able to obtain whatever else was needed. At a later day, our old piano had also been...

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28. War

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pp. 218-232

If there was one thing, more than another, concerning which the people of the United States knew nothing of any consequence in the year 1861, it was war.
They had read about it and that was all, except for a few regular army men and a few more who could boast of having served in the war with Mexico. In the city of Washington, as in other cities, there were militia organizations, but none of these were worth much to the country just then....

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29. A New Life in Washington

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pp. 233-238

On my return to the city, I at once secured a good boarding house and went to the Interior department concerning patents. A large pile had accumulated and I began to sign the President’s name at the rate of about nine hundred times per diem.
During my three months of military service I had been a close student of war affairs and had really learned something. I kept up the study from that day forward and it led me to make the acquaintance of a large number...

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30. The War City

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pp. 239-246

There was war now, all along the lines, east and west. But the attention of the nation, if not of the world, was concentrated upon the City of Washington and the Army of the Potomac. Of course, the White House was a place of frequent resort for army correspondents and the local newsgatherers....

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31. Guns and Things at the White House

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pp. 247-262

At the outset of the war, one of the important problems before the Administration was the procuring of guns and ammunition for the armies it was gathering. A large quantity of the weapons and so forth which had been accumulated in former days had somehow been transferred southward before the outbreak of hostilities and the Confederacy obtained the benefit of them....

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32. A Very Busy Year

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pp. 263-272

The administration of public affairs by Abraham Lincoln actually began on the day of his nomination for the presidency. From that day forward, he became an important factor in all the political movements in the United States and also in some which apparently belonged across the Atlantic....

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33. Wartime Enterprises

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pp. 273-285

It was a brain-busy time. All the wheels of activity were rolling on diligently, swiftly, except the wagon wheels and artillery wheels of the Army of the Potomac. These, indeed, were so quietly resting in their lazy camps that the whole country had grown weary of reading in the newspapers the stereotyped announcement that “All is quiet on the Potomac.”...

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34. About Mr. Lincoln

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pp. 286-291

Ishall make no attempt at bringing out of my treasure house these things new and old in any kind of chronological order. Let it be enough that my memories are now drifting through the Autumn and Winter of the good year 1862. I had long since succeeded in organizing what was known as “The Washington Club,” for social purposes, as the one really good...

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35. The Long Winter of 1862

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pp. 292-302

There were a great many other things taking place in my neighborhood in the Fall and Winter of 1862, but most of them were of more interest to me at the time than they would now be to anybody else in the telling. They may be allowed to rest untold....

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36. Forward March

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pp. 303-313

I was thinking of the night when President Lincoln and I went to Ford’s Theatre to see the celebrated actor Hackett play Falstaff.1 He had made himself more famous in that than in any other character. I was sitting at my work one evening when the door opened and Mr. Lincoln came in. He had perfect right to do so and he said to me, at once:...

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37. On Assignment by the President

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pp. 314-324

I do not now recall anything of especial personal interest which followed quickly upon the heels of the great Union victories, east and west. I only know that what with excitement and overwork and Potomac River malaria, I found myself out of order. I went, therefore, to my good physician, Dr. Lieberman, who had but one druggist in Washington that could read his Russo-Germanesque prescriptions, and stated my case....

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38. Year of Decision, 1864

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pp. 325-340

Sitting here at my Blick [typewriter—ed.], I can recall nothing to prevent me from at once returning to the Summer of 1864. All my business operations had been more or less interrupted by my long illness, but the one thing most apparent was my need of outdoor air for as long as might be. I was no longer fit for close confinement and late hours. So I put...

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39. Notes from the Southwest, and the Death of Lincoln

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pp. 341-346

The war was indeed slowly drawing on toward its now inevitable close, as Lincoln had said, but the Confederates still had large armies in the field. They had lost the coast lines, the Mississippi, and other great rivers, but there were terrible battles yet to be fought. They had but nominally been driven out of Arkansas and that state was still somewhat debatable ground....

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Afterword: Picturing Lincoln

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pp. 347-360

Editor’s note: Stoddard’s original manuscript continued for more than two hundred additional pages, carrying the author from war-torn Arkansas to a new life in New York....

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Post Impressions

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pp. 361-368

My memories of my grandfather are, of necessity, few, since he was leaving his life as I was starting mine. The only images that I can recall were his sitting in an armchair or reclining in his bed in a big house in Madison, New Jersey, that belonged to my uncle. The chair was covered with aging brown leather and had a hole in one arm with straw...


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pp. 369-398


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pp. 399-405

Author Bio

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p. 406-406

E-ISBN-13: 9780809387540
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809327539

Publication Year: 2007