How Two Of The Lincolns’ Political Favors Ended In Tragedy

“The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance.” —Abraham Lincoln

In A Nutshell

The Lincoln family’s political wheeling and dealing may have contributed to the tragic loss of life twice. Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard left his post while Lincoln was at Ford’s Theater the night he was shot. It’s believed that Mrs. Lincoln had the bodyguard exempted from the draft a few weeks earlier. In another tragedy around the same time, the steamship Sultana blew up, killing 1,800 of the 2,400 onboard. The man responsible had repeatedly managed to avoid punishment for his crimes because of Lincoln’s maneuvering to protect him.

The Whole Bushel

Abraham Lincoln has such a saintly, honest image that we often think he was too good to play politics. But in reality, the backwoodsman from Illinois was the master of trading favors for political gain. He was always making deals, and he loved it: the maneuvering, the relationships, the victories. Having entered the legislature at only 23 years old, the politically mature Lincoln was well aware that he’d need to exchange hundreds of small favors to achieve one big change.

When Lincoln wanted to get the 13th Amendment passed to abolish slavery, he traded three government appointments in return for the Congressional votes he needed. “I have always felt,” wrote assistant secretary of War Charles A. Dana, “that this little piece of side politics was one of the most judicious, humane, and wise uses of executive authority that I have ever assisted in or witnessed.”

When passage of the amendment ran into trouble again, Lincoln traded a federal judgeship to sway the vote. The horse trading continued until the 13th Amendment passed.

Then he was on to his next goal, to have the former slaves become citizens and possibly get voting rights. But John Wilkes Booth had other plans.

Ironically, it may have been the Lincolns’ habit of asking for and granting political favors that contributed to the president’s assassination. John Parker, his bodyguard, had left his post that night at Ford’s Theater while Lincoln was watching the play. If Parker had been there, he might have stopped Booth from shooting Lincoln.

Of course, we’ll never know for sure. But we do know that Parker had a history of being unreliable, and that Mrs. Lincoln had written a letter on his behalf only a few weeks earlier to have him exempted from the draft. If she hadn’t done that, would someone else have been guarding the president that night? If so, would that person have prevented Lincoln’s assassination?

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But that’s not the only Lincoln deal that may have contributed to the tragic loss of life around that time. While Lincoln’s body was en route to be buried, three boilers exploded on the steamship Sultana around Memphis, resulting in 1,800 deaths of the 2,400 people aboard. It was the worst maritime tragedy in US history, with greater loss of life than the Titanic. But it went largely unnoticed and unreported because of Lincoln’s death. Most of the passengers were Union POWs returning home after being released from either Andersonville or Cahaba prison.

An investigation revealed that Lincoln’s previous wheeling and dealing may have led to the disaster. The person most responsible for what happened that day was chief quartermaster Colonel Reuben Hatch. He was supposed to make sure that the thousands of POWs got the food and shelter they needed as they were shipped home.

There were a number of steamboats to take the soldiers, but Hatch made a deal with Sultana captain Cass Mason to give him the majority of the passengers in exchange for a bribe. The problem was that far too many people boarded the Sultana that day, while other ships remained nearly empty. The weight was too much for the boat, it was careening from side to side, and water splashed against the weakened boilers.

But Hatch should have never been there. Years before in Illinois, he’d been investigated for embezzling money paid for government lumber. He was suspected of other frauds as well. At the time, he was an assistant quartermaster facing court-martial. However, his brother, Ozias Hatch, knew Lincoln well from running his presidential campaign. Ozias intervened, asking the president to have the charges against Reuben dropped. Lincoln made sure a hand-picked investigative commission did just that.

Two years later, Reuben Hatch was in trouble again. Despite having gone AWOL for a time, Hatch was made a lieutenant colonel and chief quartermaster after Lincoln intervened on his behalf. A short while later, Lincoln got Hatch another promotion to full colonel and chief quartermaster. That led to Hatch being there for the Sultana disaster. He was relieved of duty after the tragedy, but he was never held responsible for it.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via Wikipedia
Smithsonian: Lincoln’s Missing Bodyguard
The Daily Beast: The Prisoner of War Disaster Overshadowed by Lincoln’s Death
Tennessee State Library and Archives: Sultana Disaster

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