The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln
Free PressCopyright © 2004 C. A. Tripp
All right reserved.ISBN: 0743266390
Chapter One: "What Stuff!"
Virginia Woodbury Fox, the wife of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox, traveled in high sociopolitical circles and kept a detailed diary noted for its specificity and impartiality from 1856 to 1876. She was a close Lincoln confidant, and her diary has become a much quoted source found throughout Lincoln literature. The Library of Congress files contain literally hundreds of her comments and references to them. Yet one of her notes has been overlooked, until very recently. It is an entry dated November 16, 1862: "Tish says, 'there is a Bucktail soldier here devoted to the President, drives with him, and when Mrs. L. is not home, sleeps with him.' What stuff!"
"Tish" was Letitia McKean, a player in Washington's fashionable society and the daughter of an admiral. It is unknown how she came by her information, but hearsay is likely. Should it be dismissed as such?
The Bucktail soldier was David V. Derickson. He was five-feet-nine-inches tall, with intense eyes, a strong nose, and thick black hair, and was from a socially prominent family in Meadville, Pennsylvania. He was a captain in the army. He was born on April 9, 1818. (He was nine years younger than Lincoln.) The military was well-known to the Derickson clan. The captain's father was himself an officer, Capt. Samuel Derickson of the 137th Regiment Pennsylvania Militia (1787-1827). His middle brother, George, was killed in 1854 in the Mexican War. The youngest, Richard, held an array of state military posts, rising to become brigadier general of the state volunteers in 1849, and eventually signing up with Pennsylvania's Erie Regiment as a private in the Civil War.
A scattered record offers some clues to the nature of the Lincoln-Derickson relationship, and attests that McKean's rumor was more than mere hearsay. Margaret Leech's 1941 Pulitzer Prize-winning Reveille in Washington, 1860-1865, includes one mention of Derickson on page 303:
[Lincoln] grew to like the Bucktails, especially Company K, with whose captain he became so friendly that he invited him to share his bed on autumn nights when Mrs. Lincoln was away from home. When the question arose about a guard at the White House on the family's return to town, the President especially requested that Company K continue on duty. The congenial captain was presently transferred to another command, but the soldiers remained with the President throughout the war.
Ms. Leech never identified this "congenial captain," and she cryptically left the fellow almost as soon as she introduced him; all in a mere three sentences. Perhaps it was the off-handed manner in which it was presented or because she never named the captain that the incident comes across as unremarkable. Or maybe it was the suggestion that because the captain was transferred, he was no longer in the picture.
Leech's bibliography references a rare and scholarly book that discusses Derickson in far more detail: History of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, Second Regiment, Bucktail Brigade. Published in 1895, it was written by Lt. Col. Thomas Chamberlin, immediate commanding officer to Capt. Derickson in Washington.
Every detail about Chamberlin points to his legitimacy as a historian. As he wrote in the preface to his book:
Nothing has been set down here without careful authentication and, where the memory of witnesses has clashed in respect to any important incident, everything possible has been done to reconcile disagreements and reach an actual fact....And if [my] book, which is truly a labor of love, have [sic] no other merit, it is at least, or aims to be, a faithful presentation of the truth. (italics in the original)
Chamberlin had graduated with high honors from Lewisburg College, his hometown school, in 1858 and had then gone on to graduate studies in both law and philosophy in Germany. When war came, he elected to serve as company captain in the Pennsylvania Reserves. He was wounded twice in combat, including at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, which turned out to be the finish of his military career. It also left him partially disabled for the duration of his life, until 1917.
A sizable contingent of the Bucktail Survivors read Chamberlin's history of the regiment. They congratulated him and even gave him an award for the quality and accuracy of his reporting.
Chapter 4 of his book discusses Lincoln and Derickson:
To him [Chamberlin] was immediately entrusted the care of companies at the Soldier's Home, and up to the 22nd of October he visited them each day, inspecting the camp and guards and exercising the men in all the more important company and battalion movements. Here he several times witnessed the arrival of the President, who, after the onerous duties of the day at the White House, was driven to his summer retreat in an open carriage, accompanied by an insignificant detail of cavalry from "Scotts' Nine Hundred." Here, too, he frequently met little Thomas Lincoln, vulgarly known as "Tad," who spent much of his time in the camp, in which he seemed to have a weighty sense of proprietorship.
The President was also not an infrequent visitor in the late afternoon hours, and endeared himself to his guards by his genial, kind ways. He was not long in placing the officers in his two companies at their ease in his presence, and Captains Derickson and Crozier were shortly on a footing of such marked friendship with him that they were often summoned to dinner or breakfast at the presidential board. Captain Derickson, in particular, advanced so far in the President's confidence and esteem that in Mrs. Lincoln's absence he frequently spent the night at his cottage, sleeping in the same bed with him, and — it is said — making use of his Excellency's night-shirt! Thus began an intimacy which continued unbroken until the following spring, when Captain Derickson was appointed provost marshall of the Nineteenth Pennsylvania District, with head-quarters in Meadville.
With two independent mentions of Mrs. Lincoln's absences, and Derickson's bed-sharing, the matter clearly deserves scrutiny. The implications of Mary Lincoln's absence, for starters, are perhaps different from what one might suppose. The Lincolns presumably had little if any sex for ten years, due to severe physical damage (probably vaginal tearing) that Mary had sustained while giving birth to Tad, with his especially large head, damage that made later sexual intercourse painful. As she herself confided to a friend, "My disease is of a womanly nature." Nor had the Lincolns shared the same bedroom for years; his many nighttime visits from friends and colleagues to discuss politics far into the night had long since caused Mary to want her own bedroom. Thus the importance of her absence during Derickson's nighttime visits rested squarely on not wanting her to be present as a witness.
According to Lincoln Day By Day: A Chronology 1809-1865, Mrs. Lincoln left for New York and Boston on October 25, 1862, returning on November 27. Virginia Fox's diary entry falls within this window. Before and after these dates, it is difficult to be certain of Mrs. Lincoln's sleeping arrangements. And yet — as is no surprise — the nature of sexual attraction is such that its appetite is inclined to be whetted rather than blocked by impossible time slots and other barriers that would challenge or stand in its way.
The Lincoln-Derickson relationship had been discussed separately in 1895 in Ida M. Tarbell's popular and widely read The Life of Abraham Lincoln, originally a series of pieces written for McClure's magazine. Tarbell had discovered a four-thousand word memoir by Captain D. V. Derickson, published in the May 12, 1888, edition of the Meadville (Pennsylvania) Tribune-Republican, titled ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S BODYGUARD. The article left the distinct impression that Lincoln's attraction to him began practically at first sight. Their first encounter at the Soldier's Home on September 8, 1862, is described in several paragraphs by Tarbell, quoting Derickson at length, but cutting certain of his passages (restored here, in bold):
"The next morning after our arrival," says Mr. Derickson, "the President sent a messenger with a note to my quarters, stating that he would like to see the Captain of the Guard at his residence. I immediately reported. After an informal introduction and handshaking, he asked me if I would have any objection to riding with him to the city. I replied that it would give me much pleasure to do so, when he invited me to take a seat into his carriage. On our way to the city, he made numerous inquiries, as to my name, where I came from, what regiment I belonged to, etc. I told him my name and place of residence. He replied, 'Oh, I already know about you. We appointed you one of the internal revenue assessors a few days ago.' He inquired how I got into military service, and I explained my situation to him. He told me how it came that my appointment as assessor was so long delayed.
"When we entered the city, Mr. Lincoln said he would call at General Halleck's headquarters and get what news he had received from the Army during the night. I informed him that General Cullum, chief aide to General Halleck, was raised in Meadville and that I knew him when I was a boy. He replied, 'Then we must see both gentlemen.' When the carriage stopped, he requested me to remain seated, and said he would bring the gentlemen down to see me, the office being on the second floor. In a short time the President came down, followed by the other gentlemen. When he introduced them to me, General Cullum recognized and seemed pleased to see me. In General Halleck I thought I discovered a kind of quizzical look, as much as to say, 'Isn't this rather a big joke to ask the Commander-in-Chief of the Army [sic] down to the street to be introduced to a country captain?'
"On arriving at the White House the President invited me into the executive chamber, where I spent a half-hour very pleasantly. During that time he explained to me all the situation of both armies, and read the official telegrams that have been received during the night from the different headquarters of the Army. I was much pleased with my interview with the President. I returned in the carriage to my camp quarters.
"Supposing that the invitation to ride to the city with the President was as much to give him the opportunity to look over and interview the new captain as for any other purpose, I did not report [to regular duty] the next morning. During the day I was informed that it was the desire of the President that I should breakfast with him and accompany him to the White House every morning, and return with him in the evening. This duty I entered upon with much pleasure, and was on hand in good time next morning; and I continued to perform this duty until we moved to the White House in November. It was Mr. Lincoln's custom, on account of the pressure of business, to breakfast before the other members of the family were up; and I usually entered his room at half-past six or seven o'clock in the morning, where I often found him reading the Bible or some work on the art of war. On my entering, he would read aloud and offer comments of his own as he read.
"I usually went down to the city at 4 o'clock and returned with the President at 5. He often carried a small portfolio containing papers relating to the business of the day, and spent many hours on them in the evening. Frequently on our way home, he discussed points that seemed to trouble him.
"I found Mr. Lincoln to be one of the most kind-hearted, pleasant gentlemen that I had ever met. He never spoke unkindly of any one and always spoke of the rebels 'as those southern gentlemen.'"
Derickson's full account is a fascinating document. It goes on to discuss the events of November 1, 1862, when the Lincoln family was due to leave the Soldier's Home and return to the White House. Company K was slated to be removed as the President's Guard and be assigned elsewhere, and other companies were vying to succeed it. However, the president intervened:
During the fall of '62 several efforts were made to supersede our company, by parties wanting the position, which became so annoying to the President that he issued the following order, which placed the matter at rest:
Washington, Nov. 1, 1862
Whom it may concern.
Captain Derrickson [sic], with his company, has been for some time keeping guard at my residence, now at the Soldier's Retreat. He and his company are very agreeable to me, and while it is deemed proper for any guard to remain, none would be more satisfactory to me than Capt. D. and his company.
This was apparently an urgent reason for Lincoln wanting to retain the Bucktails and their captain, though to common soldiers who knew nothing of the emotions involved, it may have seemed as if he only wanted to grant a favor to his young son, Tad, amid a sea of military politics. In any case, near the turn of the century, as Tarbell continued gathering leftover memories, she heard from one Milo M. Millen who, on July 13, 1897, wrote that he had recently heard from his uncle, one of the original Bucktails, former sergeant Billy F. Ellis:
I have just interviewed my uncle....It seems that several times during the stay of Company K at the Soldiers' House [sic] orders were issued by the War Department to have the company join the regiment in the field, as there was need of all the men that could be spared. About the last day of October 1862, another order came and was read to the company. The boys at once began to make preparations for leaving, as this time "marching orders" were imperative. Shortly after the hustle of making ready began in the camp on the morning of the first of November, "Little Tad," who was a great favorite with the "guard" came down with tears in his eyes and asked what was up. The men replied "We are going to leave you, Tad, we've got marching orders." "No," replied Tad, "you mustn't go." "Yes, we must," replied the soldier boys, "we have received orders from the War Department to report at the head quarters of our regiment and we can't disobey." Little Tad thought for a moment and said that he would see that they did not go and ran as fast as his little limbs would carry him towards the house. He related the news to his father who at once penned [his order, dated November 1, 1862]. Lincoln sent "Little Tad" with this to the War Department and presently returned very proudly being [bringing?] a message from the Secretary [of War], countermanding the order to march.
Chamberlin, unlike Tarbell, distinguished between occasion and intent. The decision to retain the Bucktails, he confirmed, was a matter strictly of the heart: "Captain Derickson's excellent standing with the President sufficiently explains this written expression of the latter's feeling."
For whatever reason, Tarbell did not explore the Derickson-Lincoln relationship in detail. Her only mention of it was to spread the wealth. She described it as nothing more than another example of the president's well-known warmth and generosity toward the whole of Company K: "This kindly relation, begun with the captain, the President extended to every man in the company." She elaborated:
The welfare of the men, their troubles, escapades, amusements, were treated by the President as a kind of family matter. He never forgot to ask after the sick, often secured a pass or a furlough for someone, and took genuine delight in the camp fun....No doubt much of the President's interest in Company K was due to his son Tad. The boy was a great favorite with the men, and probably carried to his father many a tale of the camp. He considered himself, in fact, no unimportant part of the organization, for he wore a uniform, carried a lieutenant's commission, often drilled with the men or rode on his pony at their head in reviews.
Yet Derickson's account of his relationship is suggestive of something different. Derickson received the president's request to meet him, and went right over to do so; after a handshake Lincoln asked if he "would have any objection to riding with him to the city." It's clear that almost as soon as he entered Lincoln's carriage for their first ride to the city, their connection was immediate. There was a charged atmosphere of mutual esteem, one well-primed for moving toward some kind of culmination. As Derickson described it, their conversation proceeded through many small but rapid steps, with Lincoln's questions about his background. These are precisely the kinds of redundant questions in pursuit of small increments of intimacy that quickly become tiresome in ordinary conversation — but not here, perhaps because the interest was not on facts but rather on the chance they offered the partners to increase the quality and extent of their closeness within an almost classical seduction scene. Derickson felt very complimented, and it didn't take long for both to realize there was mutual interest.
Some observers might be inclined to deny that all this was any kind of seduction — or at least to put off that possibility, perhaps awaiting more tangible evidence further along in the relationship. In keeping with such doubts it is indeed remarkable that Lincoln chose to move quite as rapidly and as assertively as he did toward Derickson on their very first day. Not that the action was entirely one-sided on Lincoln's part. Once initiated, the escalation of events in such a situation as this was bound to have been boosted from both sides, since even a momentary blip in the continuity of backing and filling tends to markedly de-escalate it. But hardly here; Lincoln was soon wound up if not revved up, ready to exploit any next opportunity. He did not have to wait long.
When Lincoln stated his intention to call at General Halleck's headquarters to get the latest news, Derickson accidentally supplied just such an opportunity with his casual mention of having known General Cullum back home when he was a boy. Without this remark it is doubtful whether Derickson would have been introduced to either of the high brass — and certainly doubtful that the generals would have been invited down to the street to meet him. But Lincoln, seeing a golden opportunity to impress his new captain, instantly revised his previous plan, placing a new one at the service of his quickly developing relationship with Derickson. Only a moment before, the plan had been simply to call on General Halleck for the latest news; but now, under a banner of old home week, it suddenly became possible to both thrill Derickson and advance their closeness by turning the whole occasion into an unforgettable event.
When they returned to the White House, Lincoln found countless opportunities to forge their closeness by confiding in Derickson, sharing official telegrams newly received from the field, even laying out the military positions of opposing armies. Little wonder Derickson was "much pleased" and tremendously impressed. From that first handshake in the morning to finally being driven back to his camp in the presidential carriage it had been quite a day. Beyond being packed with events, it overflowed with precisely the kinds of gentle and concentrated high-focus attention from Lincoln that Henry C. Whitney, from having himself once been on the receiving end, well described: "[It was] as if he wooed me to close intimacy and familiarity," a kind of courtship, as indeed it was.
In the ensuing days and weeks Derickson continued to loom ever larger in Lincoln's life. Besides their closeness in bed, they shared a wide variety of confidences and daily social interactions. Derickson recalled them in separate scenes, scenes that are clearer if viewed together:
"He [Lincoln] was not a member of any church, but usually attended Dr. Paxton's (Presbyterian) church, where I frequently accompanied him." With strong religious doubts, Lincoln was ordinarily much disinclined to attend such services; but with his wife out of town, he was "frequently" inclined to attend with Derickson.
"The President frequently requested me to remain in the executive chamber on the morning of [a] cabinet meeting, to be introduced to members of his cabinet, as they usually dropped in one by one half an hour or so before the hour of meeting."
"A short time after the battle of Antietam, the President visited the battle fields of Harper's Ferry, Antietam and South Mountain, and invited me to accompany him, which I was pleased to do."
"There was no fear or timidity in Mr. Lincoln's make up. In fact I thought him rather careless or thoughtless as to his personal safety. He frequently walked to the theater with no escort but myself and his little son."
"Mr. Lincoln made no effort to conceal his humble origin, but rather delighted to dwell upon the incidents and trials of his early life. He often interested me by rehearsing many of the stories and incidents of his youth, most of which have been published....But I will give one as he related it to me, that I have never seen in print." Here Derickson described a Black Hawk War experience.
"Although she had two brothers in the Confederate Army, Mrs. Lincoln was a hearty loyal woman, and one of the best rebel-haters that I met during my stay in Washington. She approached to me, on more than one occasion, to urge the President to arrest and confine a certain official connected to a government institution in Washington whom she believed to be a rebel sympathizer. I spoke to Mr. Lincoln about it one day, when he replied that Mrs. Lincoln had mentioned the matter to him several times, but if he were to arrest and imprison all within our lines known to be in sympathy with the rebel cause, to say nothing about those who were suspected, it would keep the quartermaster's department employed most of the time in building new prisons."
The ready access of Derickson to Lincoln was beyond easy. His instant avenue to the president made for a relationship remarkable for its confident low-intensity informality. Derickson knew how to maintain smooth relations with everybody, including Mrs. Lincoln (no small feat in itself), delivering messages with efficiency, meeting countless demands from little Tad, and all the while enjoying the run of the place. Remarkable, too, was how entirely free Derickson felt not only to pop in and out of the White House, but into Lincoln's office as well. He could stop and chat easily, then without hesitation rush right in to tell Lincoln of yet another good deed awaiting his help. Sometimes the message was as lighthearted as a joke: "There's a man outside who has thirty-six feet of sons [six six-footers] in the army." Lincoln's instant reply: "Invite him up, Captain; I want to see him just as much as he wants to see me."
Quite beyond all this, the usually supersecret Lincoln shared with Derickson small and larger details about himself that he seldom if ever revealed to anyone else. Yet Derickson sometimes went out of his way to insist with more than a modicum of modesty that some of what he heard Lincoln relate about his humble origins and the trials of his early life were only "stories and incidents of his youth, most of which have been published time and again, so I will not repeat them."
With these careful words, Derickson leaned so far backward from claiming privileged information as to suggest he may well be a rich repository of it. Nevertheless, some of the revelations he heard from Lincoln are astonishing, especially when not discussed elsewhere, and carry a certain cadence of confidentiality, if not of pillow talk:
I said to him one day, "Mr. Lincoln, when you were a candidate for President in 1860, your friends made much of the fact that you were a rail-splitter. How many rails did you ever split in a day?" His reply was that when he was a lad about twelve years old, his stepfather [sic] moved the family from Kentucky to the state of Indiana, where he bought a farm of fifty acres. On it there was a field of five acres cleared and partly fenced, and enough rail timber cut to enclose the lot. He said that he and his [father] had split rails enough to complete the fence, and that this was all the rail-splitting he had ever done.
Beyond those with whom he shared his private life, Lincoln seemed seldom if ever to have mentioned the fiction of his fame as a railsplitter. In the Collected Works, for instance, only once, and then only to his special confidant Noah Brooks, does he mention a word of it. Perhaps its rural ring appealed to him enough to keep him from protesting its inaccuracy; or possibly it may have felt embarrassing, or even rude, to pull back from an image that early on had seemed a perfect fit to so large a public. These and other possibilities might have been part of it — we shall never know — but to just leave the label in place as virtually the logo of his life, with scarcely a fragment of fact in it, still seems remarkable. Everywhere his image as very much the railsplitter stared back at him in the form of election placards, newspaper cartoons, historical societies, little books, and bulletins by the name of Railsplitter; indeed, as his bodyguard and longtime friend and colleague Ward Hill Lamon recalled, it was a logo "heard everywhere and rails were to be seen on nearly everything, even on stationery." How like Lincoln to share the plain truth only with intimates, yet with all others to simply stand by as both supporters and opponents used the emblem to laud or to skewer him; the whole of it as much in line with his code of supersilence in public and his utter frankness in private, along with a boyish glee he sometimes took in watching people guess wrong.
In 1996, the prominent Lincoln scholars Don and Virginia Fehrenbacher published their important Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, in which they rated the authenticity of various statements and stories attributed to him. Nowhere do they mention David Derickson (as few Lincolnists ever do), but they did raise and rank a question once asked about railsplitting by Noah Brooks. Lincoln had answered:
Now let me tell you about that. I am not a bit anxious about my reputation in that line of business; but if there is any thing in this world that I am a judge of, it is a good felling of timber, but I don't remember having worked by myself at splitting rails for one whole day in my life....I recollect that sometime during the canvass for the office I now hold, there was a great mass meeting where I was present, and with a great flourish several rails were brought into the meeting, and being informed where they came from, I was asked to identify them, which I did, with some qualms of conscience, having helped my father split rails, as at other jobs. I said if there were any rails which I had split, I shouldn't wonder if those were the rails.
Strange to say, the Fehrenbachers rated this highly specific and decidedly Lincolnesque statement as a "D" — one "about whose authenticity there is more than average doubt." Remarkable! If rated here, it would rank at a high level of certainty. For not only is it in striking accord with Lincoln's account to Derickson, it is unmistakably Lincoln-like even in the twists and turns he takes to avoid speaking an untruth, as is almost painfully apparent in his final sentence above.
Lincoln and Derickson's daily contact lasted nearly eight months, and the circumstances of its ending deserve attention. Derickson wanted a transfer and promotion, as well as an army posting back home in Meadville. As he described it, Lincoln was instrumental:
In the spring of 1863, Congress passed what was known as the Enrollment Act, establishing the Provost Marshall's Bureau. Finding my duties very light, I told the President that I thought my lieutenants could take care of him and the company and suggested that he appoint me provost. His reply was that if he had the appointment he would give it to me at once; "but," said he, "the members of congress think these appointments all belong to them." He asked me if I knew our member of congress and whether he was my friend. I replied that I knew him very well, but that he was not a citizen of our county, and I had not spoken to him on the subject. He said, "Well, you had better write him, anyway. "I did do, and in a short time received a reply, stating that before receiving my letter, he had received fifteen other applications; and among so many good men, it was hard for him to make the choice. I handed this reply to the president, who after reading it said, "Very well, if he cannot make the choice, we will have to make one for him."
It is apparent that Lincoln did not resent the captain's request to leave, or at least not enough to let it interfere with his promise to him. Lincoln kept his word, and on April 17, 1863, after a formal inspection of Company K, together with Secretary of State William H. Seward, gave the captain what was surely welcome news:
At the hour appointed, Mr. Lincoln's son Tad, then about 12 years old, came to where I had the company in charge and informed me that the president and the governor were waiting at the lawn on the south side of the White House. I immediately marched up and saluted the inspecting officers, and after maneuvering the company for a short time, I put it in charge of Lieutenant Getchell, who marched the company to their quarters. After a handshaking and a few words complimentary to the company, Mr. Lincoln said to me quietly, "Captain, I was over to the war department, yesterday, and that little matter of ours is all right." I thanked him for his kindness, when we separated. The next day, I received my appointment, and made my arrangements to leave for home. I bid a final farewell to the president and his family, feeling conscious and proud of the fact that I had friend and acquaintance one of the kindest and greatest men this country has ever produced.
After the war, now Major Derickson retired and took full advantage of his many excellent connections. He decided on a career in politics and public service. With a nod from President Grant, he was appointed the postmastership in Meadville in 1869, following that with a term spent as a state legislator, from 1881 to 1882. He also served as a member of the board of directors for the Pennsylvania & Ohio Railroad, simultaneously giving his time to the Meadville City Hospital, doing charity work to help the poor.
Understandably, Derickson was exceedingly judicious about what he included, and omitted, in his hometown paper, never mentioning the nights he'd shared a bed with Lincoln or even the day-to-day social interactions. The marvel is not in what he left out, but how much he managed to convey and the accuracy of it. His four-thousand-word article of 1888 was much in line with a brief account of Company K included in Samuel P. Bates's multivolume History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65, published in 1870. (Not that this was surprising; Bates was from Meadville and Derickson had probably spoken about his friendship with Lincoln.)
A curious characteristic of this entire case is that when carefully examined, one surprise after another keeps tumbling out of it. Derickson was married (as were nearly all men in those days), yet his personal history still startles and stands apart. After his first wife died he married again. By the time he began his relationship with Lincoln, he had nine children. After Lincoln died, he had still another child. For reasons soon to be examined, his heterosexual and homosexual sides were neither as unusual nor as contradictory as they may at first seem, yet other parts of the picture invite questions. For instance, at the very time Derickson was in the Bucktail Brigade and closely involved with Lincoln, he had a grown son, Charles Milton Derickson, who actually marched with his father as part of Company K, after enlisting at age eighteen. The son served the president right up until Lincoln was assassinated. But neither father nor son seemed customary in their responses to one another. What possible explanation could there be for a father who so rarely mentions or acknowledges a son who is also a comrade and soldier? And why would the son act similarly about his father, in fact, acknowledging his father even less? In a ten-page, handwritten letter written to Tarbell (dated December 15, 1897, six years after the death of his father), Charles refers to "Captain Derickson" three times, with no hint of him being any relation, in fact, without the merest trace of ill-will or kind feelings between them. Surely this was more than just good breeding and the formal writing practices of the day.
Interestingly, Charles Milton Derickson, the son, also wrote about visiting Lincoln in his private quarters, in one innocuous instance:
The President evidently paid very little attention to his own personal welfare as the front hall door of his residence at the Soldiers' House [sic] was scarcely ever locked. I remember one night about twelve or one o'clock a cavalry man rode up to the front door and said he had a message to deliver in person to the President. As I was Sergeant of the Guard, I asked him to give it to me; he at first refused but finally complied (having been previously instructed in similar cases). I opened the front door, went upstairs, knocked at the President's bedroom door, which was unlocked, walked in, turned up the gas, handed him his spectacles, and the message, which he read and receipted for, without leaving his bed. I turned down the gas, closed the door and thought how little he thought of his own safety.
Evidently, both Lincoln and his son Tad felt some affection for the teenage sergeant and felt at ease with him:
Little Tad sent for me to come to the White House to see him, his father and he both being somewhat indisposed, it was the time the President was reported to have small pox. [Actually, varioloid, a less deadly but stember one night about twelve or one o'clock a cavalry man rode up to the front door and said he had a message to deliver in person to the President. As I was Sergeant of the Guard, I asked him to give it to me; he at first refused but finally complied (having been previously instructed in similar cases). I opened the front door, went upstairs, knocked at the President's bedroom door, which was unlocked, walked in, turned up the gas, handed him his spectacles, and the message, which he read and receipted for, without leaving his bed. I turned down the gas, closed the door and thought how little he thought of his own safety.
Evidently, both Lincoln and his son Tad felt some affection for the teenage sergeant and felt at ease with him:
Little Tad sent for me to come to the White House to see him, his father and he both being somewhat indisposed, it was the time the President was reported to have small pox. [Actually, varioloid, a less deadly but still dangerous form of smallpox he first felt November 19, 1863, while giving his Gettysburg Address.] I spent two or three hours with them that afternoon, very pleasantly, in referring to the [recent runaway horse] accident and congratulating the President on his escape. He said that he had been in several runaways and was never frightened by horses, but about the worse scared he ever was, was when he was a young man, he had been hauling wood with a yoke of steers and going through the woods with an empty wagon, sitting on the hounds with his legs hanging down on either side; something frightened the steers, they started to run and every time the wheels would strike the root of a tree he would bound up in the air; he held on the best he could; they finally got out into an open field where he got them stopped. He also told me about Colonel Ellsworth and how he tried to have him not go into the service at that time but could not prevail on him to wait a while. He said Ellsworth read law in his office and was the first officer killed in Virginia, he got a field glass and pointed out to the house in Alexandria in which he was killed. He also related several other stories which I cannot now recall.
Scattered among the vast Lincoln literature are many bits and pieces, some of them as mildly interesting as those above, that mention separate small facts concerning members of the extended Derickson family, but none of these brings us any closer to solving the mutual coolness of this father and son. Could Charles have had a prudish response to reports of his father repeatedly being in bed with Lincoln? We don't know, although Charles never showed any coolness toward Lincoln to jibe with any embarrassment. Faced with this dead-end, it seems better to leave the topic unanalyzed and leave it be, rather than fill in the blanks with mere conjecture.
The gossip factor, as they say, is a horse of different color — although it, too, rides off in a cloud of dust that shrouds many a mystery. Unlike the case with Chamberlin, where it remains unclear why he told as much as he did in the first place, or how members of the Survivors Association managed to swig it all down without a cough, other dangers appear to have been eradicated up front by a swift and timely move. Company K had seen Lincoln lavish attention on their captain, including meals, social events, bedroom sharing, and even trips. What were they to make of it?
Lincoln's note requesting that "Capt. D and his company" be left in place proved a masterstroke of public relations. It was sent to military headquarters — with the news soon relayed back to the company, but more than the mere news found its way back. Apparently, in no time Lincoln's order had circulated among the troops. Supplied by whom? Unknown. On whose orders? Also unknown for sure, but quite possibly supplied by Lincoln himself. (He had a track record of supplying copies of his statements — even excerpts in his own hand from his speeches — and sending them off to people he thought might especially appreciate them.) Right on cue, as if by yet another stroke of magic, the entire company appears to have read and reread his note as roses for themselves, and pridefully began to memorize it word for word — so much so, in fact, that thirty-eight years later when Tarbell published The Life of Abraham Lincoln, she noted, "Every member of the guard now living can quote verbatim the note which the President wrote settling the matter [of keeping Company K]."
Could this sequence of events so favorable to Lincoln's luck have occurred by some extraordinary coincidence? The situation suggests, admittedly without tangible proof (such as physical copies of the note the soldiers read), that very quickly, probably on the very day Lincoln wrote the order acknowledging his high favor for Company K, he also scribbled out at least a few copies for the soldiers themselves. Taken alone, it's an innocent and polite gesture. But Lincoln also had an extraordinary quality, sometimes much apparent: the ability to detect complications at a great distance, and to guard his flanks far sooner than others saw any danger. In this he often followed a fundamental principle well in advance of Anatole France's later formulation: "In facing life's dangers, the secret is to listen for the guns, and walk toward them."
However, neither this style of handling danger, by engaging it head-on, nor Lincoln's many uses of supersecrecy in his personal life, is the most remarkable. No, ironically, the outstanding characteristic of his relationship with Derickson is something close to exactly the opposite of rigorous secrecy and control. After taking a few commonsense precautions (such as inviting Derickson to spend the night only when they could be alone) he then proceeds to move rapidly and straight away toward what he wants, seemingly oblivious to criticism — or to any and all worries of other kinds.
It is unlikely that Lincoln wasn't aware of the potential for dangerous talk; gossip that could start at every turn. He and Derickson were constantly seen together. Should we just assume he wasn't worried? He never appeared to pull away from peril, or to cover his tracks. His display of affection toward Derickson could be considered brazen, even by the most liberal observers. As was true in other of Lincoln's less lengthy homosexual attachments, he seems never to have felt at all guilty about sex (clear as well in his wit). Almost the opposite, actually. It is possible he may simply have been unaware of how obvious his actions had become? In any case, could Lincoln's unguardedness and his seeming self-acceptance have emboldened members of Company K to think and speak more openly than they might have otherwise? This may be why years later Chamberlin wrote the story as frankly as he told his military history.
Ultimately, what can be said of the sexual status of Lincoln and Derickson? Both could be seen as within some huge, undifferentiated "bisexual" category — all the more so when it is remembered that nearly all men in that era were married and had children — meaning that virtually every homosexual act or impulse might easily fall into a single, enormous bisexual category. And yet to force people of widely different motives and behaviors into such an immense, indiscriminate pigeonhole is to obfuscate more than to clarify their differences.
A half century ago the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey confronted the problem of classifying mixed sex patterns by devising his 0-to-6 scale, which allows the ranking of any homosexual component in a person's life from none to entirely homosexual. By this measure Lincoln qualifies as a classical 5: predominantly homosexual, but incidentally heterosexual.
Derickson, with his much more enthusiastic heterosexual side in the form of multiple wives and children, would no doubt rank considerably lower. True, there is no way of knowing exactly what went on in their bedroom (nor would any particular acts have affected their ratings anyway). But for Derickson to have attained sufficient affectional and physical arousal for it to have been mutually and repeatedly satisfying would imply, indeed demonstrate, a marked homosexual response — the essence of his bisexuality — amounting to a Kinsey rating of at least a 2: predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual.17 Both of these ratings are conservative in the sense that each might well be a notch higher — at least during the period of their affair.
The mutual affection between Lincoln and Derickson almost certainly continued after they were officially separated in April 1863. Whether the two ever saw each other again is not known. However, a letter of June 3, 1864, from Provost Marshall Derickson to his commander-in-chief, preserved in the Library of Congress, expressed Derickson's abiding warmth:
I have the honor to inform you that I have been appointed Delegate from this District to the Baltimore [Republican] convention.
It would give me much pleasure to be present and vote for your renomination, but owing to the condition of the Draft in my District, it is not proper for me to be absent at this time. I have therefore appointed J. H. Lenhart, Esq of this place as my Substitute, who will vote on all occasions as your friends may desire.
I enclose the proceedings of the conference from which you will see that I received a unanimous vote, for which compliment I am indebted [more] to the fact that I was known to be your warm friend than to my own personal popularity. I mention this fact mearly [sic] to show you that our whole District are in favour of your re[e]lection.
On April 28, 1865, Derickson bade his final farwell when Lincoln's funeral train made its stop in Cleveland. Carl Sandburg noted the occasion: "From Meadville, Pennsylvania, had come two hundred [men] marshalled by Captain Derickson and some of his boys who had served with Lincoln's White House bodyguard."
Copyright © 2005 by The Estate of C.A. Tripp