Most schoolchildren in the United States recognize the image, and know some portions or brief history about our nation's sixteenth President: that of the boychild Abraham being born in a log cabin on the 12th of February during a blizzard in Kentucky; of his lacking formal schooling; and yet, his rising like cream to the top; and his being elected President of the United States for two terms. His weary and troubled years in the White House were completely soaked, through and through, by the blood-filled War of Rebellion [1860-1865].
What most do not know about Lincoln was that despite his mother's death [Nancy Hanks Lincoln] of milk-fever when Abraham was 11-years-old; losing his first true love [Ann Rutledge] when he was in his twenties; marrying Mary Todd Lincoln an extremely high strung, shopaholic (some claimed insane); losing two of his young sons [Edward and William] from childhood diseases; the death of his only sibling a sister [Sarah Lincoln Grigsby]; and coupled with his own melancholic nature -- all the while -- dealing with one incompetent general after another during our nation's bloodbath of the War of Rebellion [Civil War] which almost tore our nation in twain... was that Abraham Lincoln loved and retold anecdotes, jokes or funny stories at every possible turn. It was a balm to his tortured psyche and sorrow-filled soul; it made his life less unbearable.
Carl Sandburg in 1959, addressing a joint session of Congress said: "Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect. Here and there across the centuries come reports of men alleged to have these contrasts. And the incomparable Abraham Lincoln... is an approach if not the perfect realization of this character." And yet, it was Lincoln's constant search for humorous stories, anecdotes, and jokes which puzzled cabinet members of his administration.
Artemus Ward, a pen-name of Charles Farrar Browne [1834-1867] of Waterford, Maine was Lincoln's favorite humorist. Artemus Ward is not to be confused with Major General Artemas Ward [1727-1800] of the American Revolution. Many officials in the Lincoln Administration admonished the President repeatedly about his habitual diversion of reading and re-reading Artemus Ward's writing.
Lincoln's favorite anecdotes were usually about himself. He relished poking fun at himself. During his circuit lawyer days in Illinois while riding on a horse path and meeting an elderly woman on the same path was often told by the President. Lincoln said he stopped his horse and stepped aside off the path so the woman, also on horseback, could easily pass. The woman stopped and looked Lincoln in the eye and said: "Sir, I believe you are the ugliest man I have ever seen." Lincoln replied, "Ma'am, there's very little I can do about that." She then proclaimed: "You could stay home more often."
Lincoln, the man of steel and velvet, used humor to also explain complex problems, or just illustrate and clarify the obvious. For example, directly after the Union's horrendous loss at Antietam, owing to McClellan's inaction; the President then visited the camp with his friend, O. M. Hatch of Illinois. As they stood on the summit of a nearby hill overlooking the encampment, Mr. Lincoln asked: "Hatch, Hatch, what is all this?"
"Why," answered Mr. Hatch, "that is the Army of the Potomac."
"No, Hatch, no," said Lincoln; "that is General McClellan's body-guard."
Abraham Lincoln, the man of steel and velvet, of sorrow and mirth, who saved the Union and abolished slavery, also changed our nation from plural to singular [i.e. the United States are ... becoming: the United States is ... ] Or as Secretary Stanton said so well: "Now he belongs to the ages."