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Benjamin B French Lodge No 15

Free and Accepted Masons

BBF On His Close Relationship With President Abraham Lincoln (1809 –1865)

Sunday, February 24, 1861: “… Abraham Lincoln, President-elect, is making a pilgrimage from Springfield, Illinois, to the city. It seems to of been one glorious ovation to New York, & thence to Philadelphia & Harrisburg, and would have been doubtless to this City, but that, for some reason not now known, he was telegraphed at Harrisburg the day before yesterday to come on here with all dispatch. In consequence of which he took the evening train day before yesterday and arrived here at six yesterday morning, to the great surprise of everybody, except the few who knew of the movement. By the programe he was to arrive at 1/2 past 4 P.M. He is now safe at Willard’s & we must keep him safe and inaugurate him on the 4th, & then he must take care of himself! The 22nd was greatly honored here. The House of Representatives adjourned over in honor of the day, and an immense military parade took place. I am to act as Chief Marshal on the 4th [for Lincoln’s Inauguration] & and have labor and fuss enough to prepare my programme and appoint my Assistants & Aids. I finished it yesterday & and send it to the printer…”

Sunday, April 14, 1861: “… I saw the President twice Friday. Once about 1/2 past 9 A.M. When he said, ‘Mister French, you call at 3 this afternoon and I will try to let you in.’ At 3 I called. There were several present who had precedence, & I waited patiently till 4 when all having departed, I went in & had a cozy chat with the President of about half an hour. He avowed much kind feeling toward me, said I was often in his mind and that I had claims which should not be forgotten. He specified two offices with which he said he would connect my name, and give me one of them if possible. He did me the honor to ask my advice about several matters and seemed pleased when I gave it to them. He appears to me to be as honest, upright, & firm a president as we have ever had. God prosper his Administration, and bless him…”

Wednesday, September 4, 1861: “… I saw the President of the United States yesterday. I called at the mansion a little past 2 P.M. … In about 5 minutes a carriage drove up to the door with 4 gentlemen in it. The president was one, but no mortal man would ever have suspected that it was ‘The President.’ He was dressed in gray woolen clothing, and had upon his head a most ordinary broad-brimmed slouch. He was covered with dust and came in alone with the peculiar swinging gate that characterizes the old ‘Rail splitter.’… The moment he entered the door the vestibule he saw me and although 20 feet, at least, off and an open door between us, he said in a most hearty, offhand manner, ‘Mister French how do you do,’ & and approaching me we shook hands, & he invited me to walk up to his office with them, which I did, holding a conversation all the way about the Times & situation of affairs. He expressed himself very well satisfied with the position of matters and things now. We reached the office and were seated. The last time I saw the President he told me he should appoint me Commissioner of Public Buildings ‘the first of September.’ I opened the conversation yesterday by saying that as the first of September had come, I thought I would call & ascertain his intentions. He looked up with his peculiar smile and eye-twinkle and said, ‘The fifth, Mister French, the fifth, you understand.” And then he laughed. I replied, ‘Yes Mister President, I do understand and no more need be said on that subject.’ We then conversed a few moments on ordinary topics, looked at the opposite shores of the river through his class. Which he adjusted for me, and I took my leave…”

Saturday, September 7, 1861: “Yesterday I received from the President of the United States the apartment of Commissioner of Public Buildings… This new office will place me in a very unpleasant position in regard to many things, especially removals and appointments. The applicants are legion, & and I do not know that I can remove many, if any…” [French then resigned his Clerkship of the House Committee of Claims.]

Sunday, February 23, 1862: “... Thursday afternoon [February 20] Willie Lincoln, the second son of the President, died…”

Sunday, March 2, 1862: “… On Sunday [February 23] Senator [Orville H.] Browning of Illinois called and told me it was the desire of the President & Mrs. Lincoln that I take the entire charge of the funeral arrangements at the White House on the succeeding day, which I promised to do… Monday [February 24] as soon as I had eaten breakfast, I went to the President’s. I found everything properly arranged for the funeral. The body of little Willie lay in the green room, in the lower shell of a metallic coffin, clothed in the habiliments of life, and covered with beautiful flowers.

After looking about the house for a while I walked up into the President’s office and read. He came up after I had been there about1/2 an hour and appeared quite calm and composed. He talked about his family and about the war. The servant came in and told him ‘Tad’ [Thomas], his youngest son desire to see him. He left immediately for his son’s room. Governor Seward came in, and soon after the president returned. I was sent for to go down and see someone about further preparation & did so. I did not see Mrs. Lincoln at all. About noon, The President, Mrs. Lincoln & Robert [Willie’s and Tad’s brother] came down and visited the lost & loved one for the last time, together. They desired that there should be no spectator of their last sad moments in that house with their dead child and brother. They remained nearly ½ an hour. While they were thus engaged there came one of the heaviest storms of rain & when that has visited the city for years, and the terrible storm without seemed almost in unison with the storm of grief within, for Mrs. Lincoln, I was told was terribly affected at her loss at almost refused to be comforted. At two o’clock all were assembled in the East Room. The president & Robert, all the Cabinet officers; General McClellan; the entire Illinois delegation in Congress; Vice President and Mrs. Hamlin and a large attendance of persons in official positions, and citizens. Doctors P.D. Gurley & John C. Smith, conducted the services with great solemnity and propriety and then, followed by a procession and carriages about ½ a mile long, the body was borne to Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown and temporarily deposited in the tomb of the Chapel, finally to be removed to Illinois. I returned to the President’s, and then home, where I arrived about 5 PM…”

Thursday, June 18, 1863: “… Saw the President yesterday morning and he was in excellent spirits. I wonder whether he ever has a moment of leisure when he is awake! I should think this constant toil and moil would kill him. The more I see of him the more I am convinced of his superlative goodness, truth, kindness & Patriotism.”

Sunday, March 5, 1865: “The second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln is safely over, God be thanked. For the past week I have tried to give all the aid in my power to perfecting the arrangements, and yesterday, from early morning, until an hour after the first session left the Capitol, I was on my feet and hard at work….[At] 1/4 past 7 when I went to the President’s and attended the largest reception I ever saw. From 8 till ¼ past 11 the president shook hands steadily, at the rate of 100 every four minutes – with about 5000 persons!... It was a grand ovation of the People to their President, whom they dearly love. Mrs. Lincoln was present through the reception and about her intention to remain till morning, rather than have the doors closed on a single visitor. She appeared very gracious and well. She certainly is a woman of endurance, having been all morning at the Capitol….”

Saturday, April 15, 1865: “‘We have supped full with horrors’ – Well may every tongue in this city, & almost throughout the land, thus exclaim today… I arose and saw a sentry pacing before my house. I thought something wrong had happened, so dressed & went down & opened the front door, & while still standing in it a soldier came along and said,  ‘Are not the doings of last night dreadful.’ I Asked What. He replied, ‘H will ave you not heard?’ I answered, of course, in the negative, when he proceeded to inform me that the President had been shot in Ford’s Theater, and Secretary Seward’s throat cut at his residence… I immediately went & told Mrs. French, & then started to find out all I could. I went first to the Capitol and ordered it closed, then on to 10th St., and up to the house where the President lay. He was surrounded by the members of his cabinet, physicians, Generals, Members of Congress etc. I stood at his bedside for a short time he was breathing very heavily, and I was told what I could myself see, that there was no hope for him. I then went into a room where Mrs. Lincoln and Robert were, surrounded by ladies, none of whom… were known to me. I took Mrs. Lincoln by the hand and she made some exclamation indicating the deepest agony of mind. I also shook hands with Robert, who was crying audibly… I stayed at the President’s a short time, directing that the house should be kept closed, etc… At nine, I again started in my own carriage with Ben and we drove up. We entered the gate very soon after the President’s remains were taken in, and I went immediately to the room where they were and saw them taken from the temporary coffin in which they had been brought there. I went in, at the request of someone, to see Mrs. Lincoln. She was in bed, Mrs. Welles being alone with her. She was in great distress, and I remained only a moment I then gave all the directions I could as the preparations for the funeral and stayed till between 11 &12 when my head ached so badly that I had to come home. I came to the Capitol, gave directions for clothing it in mourning… It has been ascertained, beyond a doubt, that the President was assassinated by J. Wilkes Booth, who has been arrested… The President died at 22 minutes past 7…”

Sunday, June 18, 1865: “… One day I went with Mrs. French down to the Arsenal to witness the trial of the conspirators. I went into the courtroom and, in the midst of a hot & seething crowd, saw all that could be seen. Mrs. Suratt [keeper of the boarding house where Booth was living] in her usual corner, face closely veiled and a large palm-leaf fan held before it, so that nothing of her face could be seen. Then Herold [who worked in a drugstore with Booth] with his meaningless face and low, baboon-like forehead, having the appearance of an idiot – partly, I am told, assumed. Then Payne (alias Powell) [a deserter from the Confederate Army] a tall, well-formed sinewy-looking fellow, with a smooth, brazen face, indicating a willingness to do any desperate act, as the brute preponderance in his countenance. Then Adsterodt [who was assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson but lost his nerve and fled], a low, dark round faced, bad-looking man. Then, O’Laughlin [who had served in the Confederate Army], a handsome, genteel, plain looking man – the last one from his appearance, whom one would plead guilty of such a crime as he is now on trial for. Then Spangler [who worked as a stagehand at Ford’s theater], who during all the time I was present, sat with his head leaned forward on the railing, so that I could not see his face. Then Doctor Mudd, [who had set Booth’s broken leg] an ordinary -looking man, with red hair & whiskers, and a bald head. Not a very old man, but. prematurely bald on the top of his head. And lastly Arnold, [a friend of Booth who had served in the Confederate Army], another man who does not look, to me, like a criminal. The military tribunal were seated around the table, but so hidden by the immense crowd that I could hardly see them...”

 

Saturday, July 8, 1865: “… Yesterday, at 20 minutes past 1 PM Mrs. Suratt, David E. Herold, Lewis Payne, and Atzerodt , the conspirators, traitors and murderers, were hung at the Arsenal, within the old Penitentiary yard. If ever four criminals met the just deserts of an awful crime, those riches did. I have not had, from the beginning, the least doubt of their guilt….”