Horse Sense: Abraham Lincoln as Storyteller, Part II

In my last blog article, I shared one of the many stories told by Abraham Lincoln.  That one was about a dog, but the animal which was the subject of a great many of Lincoln’s stories and jokes was the horse, of vital importance in 19th-century America.

In fact, the horse’s importance is revealed in one of Lincoln’s jokes.  In March 1863 the famed Confederate battalion known as Mosby’s Rangers raided Fairfax, Virginia and captured a Union brigadier general, two captains and number of soldiers and horses.  Upon learning the news, the president supposedly commented: “Well, I am sorry for the horses.”  He then explained: “I can make a brigadier general in five minutes, but it is not easy to replace a hundred and ten horses.”

Here are a few other stories and jokes in which Lincoln exhibited his own peculiar ‘horse sense’:

Horse Trade: While a young lawyer in Illinois, Lincoln got to joking with a judge about making a trade of horses.  They finally agreed to do so at a predetermined time and place, stipulating that the horses would not be seen beforehand and that if either man backed out of the trade at that point he would have to pay $25.  At the appointed time and place, the judge appeared with the sorriest-looking horse ever seen in those parts.  The crowd soon broke out in laughter as Lincoln arrived carrying a wooden sawhorse upon his shoulders.  The laughter only grew when Lincoln, after surveying the judge’s horse, put down the sawhorse and exclaimed: “Well, Judge, this is the first time I ever got the worst of it in a horse trade.”

Horse Chestnut: During the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, at Ottawa, Lincoln accused Stephen Douglas of misrepresenting his position through “a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse”.  [A horse chestnut is a kind of tree more closely related to the buckeye than to other chestnut trees.]

McClellan’s Fatigued Horses: Although General George B. McClellan proved himself a remarkably fine organizer of the troops, he exasperated Lincoln and many others by his reluctance to engage the confederates in combat.  When McClellan gave the excuse that he couldn’t take action because half of his horses were fatigued, lame, ill, undernourished, etc., and this more than a month after the last fighting, Lincoln sent him a somewhat sarcastic telegram asking: “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?

The Horse as Rider: A few months earlier, McClellan had written Lincoln a letter offering him advice on how to carry out the affairs of the nation.  Lincoln didn’t reply directly to McClellan, but supposedly remarked that it made him think of the man whose horse kicked up and stuck his foot through the stirrup; the man said to the horse, “If you are going to get on, then I will get off.”  Lincoln had no intention of ‘getting off’, but wished that McClellan would understand that he was only a general, not a dictator.

Swapping Horses Mid-Stream: Two years later, Lincoln and McClellan were facing off in the 1864 Presidential election and Lincoln made use of another horse and rider allusion.  He made the case for his re-election while the country was still at war by noting: “I have not permitted myself … to conclude that I am the best man in the country; but I am reminded, in this connection, of a story of an old Dutch farmer who remarked to a companion once that ‘it was not best to swap horses while crossing streams’.

We can be thankful that the people agreed with Lincoln and reelected him, for had McClellan won, the Union would not have been preserved.  Lamentably, the great story-teller would soon fall forever silent, the victim of assassination.  Interestingly, however, his body would be accompanied on its final voyage from the Springfield train station to the cemetery by none other than Old Bob, his favorite horse, now sadly riderless.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

June 30, 2016

2 thoughts on “Horse Sense: Abraham Lincoln as Storyteller, Part II”

  1. Very interesting stories. Really enjoyed them. 

    Sent via the Samsung Galaxy Express 3, an AT&T 4G LTE smartphone

  2. I’m delighted to find this site, which gave me the cite to the “chestnut” quote I was looking for. I’m using the quote to criticize a judge’s opinion in a case.

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