More Abraham Lincoln Pets and the First Presidential Turkey Pardon

Despite the fact that they left their dog Fido behind in Springfield, the Lincolns had other pets in the White House. Tad and Willie had two goats named Nanny and Nanko, both of whom had the run of the White House. The goats drove the staff crazy by chewing almost everything in sight and eating the flower bulbs in the garden. In addition, the Lincoln boys would hitch the goats to either chairs or carts and have the goats pull them around. On one occasion, Tad scared White House visitors by driving one goat-pulled chair through the East Room while shouting, “Get out the way!”

Lincoln told Elizabeth Keckley, his wife’s seamstress, “I believe they are the kindest and best goats in the world.” According to Keckley, Lincoln and the boys would play with the goats in the yard “and when he called them they would come bounding to his side.” The White House staff was so frustrated with Nanny, however, that she was taken to the Soldiers Home. Unfortunately, she also chewed up the garden there and was sent back to the White House. Nanny, probably confused by the move, disappeared one day. Lincoln reported the loss to Tad who was on a trip with Mrs. Lincoln. “Poor Nanny goat is lost,” he wrote. By the next spring, Nanny was either found or replaced by another goat. Lincoln sent his wife a telegram saying “Tell Tad the goats and father are very well– especially the goats.”

If goats made for unusual White House pets, Tad managed to find yet another exotic friend. In 1863 the Lincolns were sent a live turkey. It was to be eaten at Christmas dinner. Tad became attached to the turkey and named him Jack. When Tad found out his new friend was going to be cooked for Christmas dinner, he interrupted Lincoln during a cabinet meeting to plead for the bird’s life. Lincoln stopped the meeting and wrote an “order of reprieve” for the turkey. Jack continued to live at the White House.


Lincoln and his Cabinet. William Seward, who gave Lincoln kittens, is seated in front of the desk.

The tradition of presidents pardoning turkeys was thus started by Lincoln even though his turkey was for Christmas dinner. The presidential turkey pardon did not become an annual tradition until years later. John F. Kennedy was the first modern president to let a Thanksgiving turkey go.

Lincoln himself seem to derive the most comfort from the company of cats. When asked if her husband had a hobby, Mary Lincoln might’ve answered cats.  Lincoln received two kittens as a gift from Secretary of State William Seward. He named them Tabby and Dixie. He reportedly spent quite a few hours of his time talking to them. At one point he exclaimed that they “were smarter than my whole cabinet.” During one White House dinner, Lincoln had Tabby seated next to him. This embarrassed Mrs. Lincoln but did not seem to trouble her husband.

Lincoln was also fond of stray cats, but he didn’t bring them home too often because Mary didn’t appreciate it. While visiting Gen. Ulysses S Grant at army headquarters in 1865, Lincoln spotted three stray kittens. He scooped them up and petted them. Before he left he made sure that someone would look after them. Grant aid Horace Porter stated that it was a “curious site at army headquarters upon the eve of a great military crisis” to watch the president “tenderly caressing three stray kittens. It well illustrated the kindness of the man’s disposition, and showed the childlike simplicity which was mingled with the grandeur of his nature.”

Lincoln’s Former General: The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant

As a young man Grant hated working in his father’s leather business. He didn’t especially want to go to West Point either but thought it a better alternative to manufacturing. The “S.” in his name was a typo made on his application to West Point. Grant kept the initial and was affectionately known as U.S. Grant during the Civil War.

Although West Point graduates were in demand, Grant had a tough time getting a position in the army due to his heavy drinking. His talents outweighed his faults, however. Grant was the first man since George Washington to earn the permanent rank of lieutenant general. That rank gave him the responsibility for the Union’s strategy.

Though he was a hero to Northerners at the end of the war, Grant still had to earn a living. With a family to support, he reluctantly went to work for the family leather business. In 1868 Republicans and Democrats both wanted the hero of the Civil War to run for president. He ran as a Republican. Though he was a great leader during the war, Grant had no political experience. It’s one thing to fight a war with a clear enemy–quite another to determine who one’s enemies are in the game of politics.


Official Presidential Portrait of President Grant

Grant’s greatest problem as president was his trusting nature. Though honest himself, he surrounded himself with others who were not. He also felt inferior to intellectuals and tended to follow Congress’ lead. As a result his presidency was marked by multiple scandals. For example, his secretary of war was accused of accepting bribes from merchants who traded at army posts with Native Americans.

After two terms in office the administration’s scandals prevented him from trying for a third term. His trusting nature failed him again when he became a victim of Wall Street fraud.

Knowing that Grant was broke, his friend Mark Twain suggested that he write his memoirs in order to make money. Grant had just started writing when he developed throat cancer. He was determined to finish his memoirs before he died, however, and they are still selling today. Unsurprisingly, they focus on the time period that brought Grant the most success: the Civil War.


Elizabeth Van Lew: Southerner and Union Spy

Although she grew up in a wealthy household in Richmond, Virginia, Elizabeth Van Lew would later become one of the most successful spies for the Union during the Civil War. Like many southern households, Elizabeth’s family owned several slaves. When her parents sent her to school in Philadelphia, however, Elizabeth met people who thought slavery was wrong. After she returned home, Elizabeth tried to convince her father to free their slaves. Although he didn’t agree, Elizabeth convinced her mother to free them when her father died.

By the time of the Civil War, Elizabeth had grown up. She still loved her hometown, but she was devastated that Virginia decided to leave the Union. “Never did a feeling of more calm determination and high resolve for endurance come over me.” While some southerners with Union sympathies fled north, Elizabeth stayed, determined to help the Union cause from Richmond. Unionists who stayed behind often became agents for Elizabeth who slowly assembled a spy ring for the Union.

In July 1861, Elizabeth first visited Libby Prison where Union soldiers from the First Battle of Manassas were held.  From these men she got information about the location and movements of the Confederate forces and they received food and medicine from her. She was already considered by the townspeople to be odd because of her views on slavery. Some people called her “crazy Bet.” She used this perception to her advantage when visiting the prison. She talked aloud to herself and dressed in strange clothes so Confederate guards would think she was harmless. Her frequent visits allowed her to pass information to the Union army.

Some of the slaves she had freed and other Union sympathizers carried Elizabeth’s messages at various stopping points on the way to a federal fort in Hampton, Virginia. It was important that Confederates not intercept the messages, so Elizabeth devised different ways for her agents to hide information. Elizabeth later wrote, “Information was delivered by servants carrying baskets of eggs. One egg in each basket was hollow and contained notes…torn into small pieces. In addition, notes were carried in the soles of servant’s shoes.” Elizabeth got one of her servants, Mary Bowser, a position as a maid in the home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. The girl pretended to be illiterate, but she memorized letters Davis received and reported the information to Elizabeth so it could be sent to Union commanders.

Elizabeth’s spy ring was so reliable that she communicated with high-ranking officials, including General Ulysses S. Grant.  When the federal army overtook Richmond in 1865, General Grant stopped at the Van Lew home to thank Elizabeth. In a letter Grant wrote, “you have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”