“Soon afterwards there entered, with a shambling, loose, irregular, almost unsteady gait, a tall, lank, lean man, considerably over six in height, with stooping shoulders, long pendulous arms, terminating in hands of extraordinary dimensions, which, however, were far exceeded in proportion by his feet. He was dressed in an ill-fitting wrinkled suit of black, which put one in mind of an undertaker’s uniform at a funeral; ’round his neck a rope of black silk was knotted in a large bulb…his turned-down shirt collar disclosed a sinewy muscular yellow neck, and above that, nestling in a great black mass of hair, bristling and compact like a ruff of mourning pins, rose the strange quaint face and head, covered with it’s thatch of wild republican hair, of President Lincoln.”
William Howard Russell Observes Lincoln
This was the description of the new occupant of the White House by the British journalist William Howard Russell (pictured below, circa 1854) when first he saw Abraham Lincoln during this week in 1861. It was on today’s date – March 27 when he saw the President. On February 4, seven southern states had seceded from the Union, and nobody in official Washington knew what to expect of the new chief executive. Russell further observed:
“The impression produced by the size of his extremities, and by his flapping and wide projecting ears, may be removed by the appearance of kindliness, sagacity, and the awkward bonhomie of his face….the nose itself — a prominent organ — stands out from the face, with an inquiring, anxious air, as though it were sniffing for some good thing in the wind; the eyes dark, full, and deeply set, are penetrating, but full of an expression which almost amounts to tenderness…..”
The next day, March 28, 1861, Mr. Russell wrote: “In the conversation which occurred before dinner, I was amused to observe the manner in which Mr. Lincoln used the anecdotes for which he is famous. Where men bred in courts, accustomed to the world, or versed in diplomacy, would use some subterfuge, or would make a polite speech, or give a shrug of the shoulders as a way of getting out of an embarrassing position, Mr. Lincoln raises a laugh by some bold west country anecdote, and moves off in a cloud of the merriment produced by his joke….”
Walt Whitman Describes Lincoln After Four Years of War:
Four years later, in 1865, after the strain of civil war had taken it’s toll, Walt Whitman (pictured below, 1887) who
was in Washington during much of the war made the following observation of Lincoln’s appearance:
“I see the President almost every day. I saw him this morning about 8:30 coming in to business. We have got so we exchange bows, very cordial ones. I see very plainly Abraham Lincoln’s dark brown face with it’s deep-cut lines, the eyes always to me with a latent sadness in the expression. None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep though subtle and indirect expression of this man’s face. There’s something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.”
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W.H. Russell –
“Eyewitness to America“ Edited by David Colbert. Pantheon Books, New York, 1997, pp. 202 – 203.
Walt Whitman –
“The Civil War” Produced by Ken Burns, PBS, 1989. Episode 8.