Seeing Lincoln: Nebraska Civil War Veterans Remember

This colorful GAR badge is from Hastings, Nebraska. NSHS 13000-3348 (at left).

Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1925 was celebrated by the History Club of Kearney State Teachers College with a dinner attended by members of the club and 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. Lorenzo Smith and John Mercer, members of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Civil War veterans’ organization, responded to the invitation, and after the dinner, were asked to share their memories of Lincoln.

The Hub reported, “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. . . . 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.”

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.

The Nebraska State Historical Society has in its collections an original ambrotype portrait of Abraham Lincoln. It is believed to have been taken in May 1860 soon after his nomination for the presidency. To read more about this photograph, and another Lincoln ambrotype in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Special Collections, see Jill M. Koelling, “Nebraska’s Lincoln Ambrotypes,” Nebraska History 83 (Spring 2002), available from the NSHS Landmark Stores.

– Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor/Publications

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