Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in February of 1925 was celebrated by the History Club of Kearney State Teachers College with a dinner attended not only by members of the club, but by several honored guests who had seen Lincoln during their Civil War military service. The Kearney Daily Hub of February 17, 1925, noted that the club, originally sponsored by Buffalo County historian Samuel Clay Bassett, “believes these reminiscences of old soldiers of interest to the people of the nation, since all too soon there will no longer be these first hand stories of the martyred president.”
The club had issued a meeting and dinner invitation to any local person who had seen Lincoln during the Civil War. “Two men, both of the G.A.R., Lorenzo Smith and John Mercer, responded to the invitation, and after the dinner, were asked if they would not tell the young people something of their reminiscences. Mr. Smith responded with a little speech, while Mr. Mercer preferred simply to visit with the club members, telling them of things they asked about.
“Mr. Mercer, who served on board the gunboat ‘Miami,’ stationed at City Port [City Point], Va., saw Lincoln first when he came to interview Grant, and the two journeyed up the James river in the direction of Lee’s lines to look over the situation. He recalled the later sorrow among the soldiers when word came of the assassination of the president, and described with feeling the mourning guns which boomed every thirty minutes until after the funeral. . . .
“Mr. Smith first saw the president after the battle of Antietam, and said he thought him the hom[e]liest man he had ever seen, for he contrasted most unfavorably on horseback with the trim figure of McLellan [Gen. George B. McClellan]. But when he saw him again, some time later, Mr. Smith said he did not think the president homely at all.”
Two stories about Lincoln were new to members of the History Club. “During the summer of ’64, one of the old men, both of them over eighty, said at noon every day, if one shut out the sun with his hand, he could see a star, as bright as Mars, shining near the sun. The soldiers called it ‘The Star of Peace.’
“At the time of Lincoln’s second inauguration, related Mr. Smith, there was little ostentation. A short parade of soldiers preceded Mr. Lincoln’s stepping out onto the balcony with the chief justice, preparatory to taking the oath of office. . . . [A]s the president and his chief justice stepped out, a drizzling rain fell. But as Lincoln and the chief justice stepped apart, and Lincoln raised his hand to take the oath which would again make him president, the clouds broke, and a ray of sunlight lit the rugged features of the man, and played on his head during the ceremony. ‘It was heaven’s sign of approval,’ declared Mr. Smith solemnly.”
Men such as Smith and Mercer became increasingly rare in Nebraska as the twentieth century progressed. The last Civil War veteran in the state, Michael Bondoll of Beatrice, died on December 24, 1948.
This colorful GAR badge is from Hastings, Nebraska. NSHS 13000-3348
The Soldiers Monument of Kearney, near the Midway Hotel, was dedicated October 25, 1910, and honored veterans of both the Civil War and the Spanish American War. It is surmounted by a volunteer soldier of the Civil War, with arms at rest to symbolize peace. NSHS RG2608-2962