An up-close-and-personal view of a lawyer from Springfield, Ill., by the name of William Herndon — the one-time partner of Abraham Lincoln — can be found in the New York Tribune issue dated Feb. 15, 1867. Lincoln had been dead for almost two years, but Herndon reminisced about Abe with reporter George Alfred Townsend.
Townsend has been profiled in this column previously. As a youthful reporter from Georgetown, Del., he carved out a reputation for writing human interest stories about the trials and tribulations of the troops during the Civil War era — providing a behind-the-scenes perspective.
In April 1865, Townsend’s talent and forthrightness as a correspondent earned him permission to observe preparations for the assassinated President Lincoln’s funeral. He wrote a series of articles for the New York World newspaper about the search for and capture of the conspirators, including the assassin John Wilkes Booth.
“Gath,” as Townsend signed his articles, decided to learn more about this man who had led the country through the four-year long North-South conflict. He traveled to Springfield and contacted Lincoln’s former partner Herndon.
Using the Tribune article as a source, Lincoln biographer David Donald wrote about the Townsend-Herndon meeting in his book titled “Lincoln’s Herndon.”
According to Donald, “George Alfred Townsend knew everybody, went everywhere, met everyone, saw everything, and told it all and more to his newspaper audience. He thrilled American readers with poignant tales of Civil War daring and heroism; he reported the dramatic, the unique, the personal.
“Human interest was Townsend’s business. It was inevitable after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln that ‘Gath’ should make an expedition to Springfield, Illinois…. He, the first of a long generation, would tell his public all about the real Lincoln.”
It certainly was inevitable that Townsend would want to interview Herndon. He had been Lincoln’s partner for 20 years and “could tell more tales about ‘Old Abe’ than any ten other men.”
When Townsend arrived at the Springfield law office, he looked through a half-open door at a figure who was reading with his “muddy brogans propped against the table; yellow breeches, turned up twice at the bottom, chapped fingers stiffly caressing a meerschaum; tobacco-stained teeth; and unruly thatch of graying hair.”
Now the question was, “Could this farmer, wind-hardened and grizzle-bearded, know anything about a President?” However, once the conversation began, Townsend soon learned that Herndon was “a poet and a dreamer, a man of books and of memories.”
“Billy,” as he was known in that part of the country, said, “Friend! I’ll answer you.” And, indeed he did, “reliving the years of his past — his childhood, his political career, his law practice, his partnership with Lincoln.” Donald wrote, “Endlessly, without apparent order [Herndon] evoked memories of the past and laid them before his hearer … there was the pattern of a man, contradictory and confusing, as beautiful and ugly as life itself.”
Herndon described the first time he met Lincoln: The “Talisman,” a steamboat belonging to Captain Vincent Bogue, was chugging its way up the Sangamon River in 1832. Every lad in Springfield had “scrambled on their horses” to ride down to see this fabulous sight of a steamboat “with pounding boilers and a fuzzy cat’s tail of smoke.”
Piloting this vessel was none other than “a six-foot giant variously called Abe, Abram, or Abraham Lincoln.” When the boat docked, all decided to congregate at a tavern named Indian Queen, owned by Herndon’s father; and Billy helped pour the drinks.
And, so it went, as Townsend interviewed a much older Herndon in his office with a view of “stable roofs and dingy back yards.” Delawarean Townsend, whose considerable lifetime achievements are honored with an historical marker just off The Circle in Georgetown, wrote that he learned enough about the Great Emancipator to “stagger all his notions of the dead President’s character.”
In particular, Herndon revealed details of Lincoln’s relationship with a young woman named Ann Rutledge. Her death at a young age caused Abe considerable emotional trauma.
You can read Gath’s entire article about his visit to William Herndon’s law office online by searching on the name and date of the newspaper. The title is “Abraham Lincoln: A talk with the late president’s law partner.”
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point