The Genius of Abe: A request granted by Lincoln to New York Gov. Reuben Fenton

President Abraham Lincoln


Special to the OBSERVER

Lest we forgot the genius of Abraham Lincoln, a reminder suddenly appears. This one demonstrates his instant ability to grasp the essence of a case involving arithmetic computation, and then to articulate it concisely.

It was January of 1865, late in the War of the Rebellion, today known as the Civil War. Jamestown’s Reuben Fenton had just taken office as Governor of New York, and Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had just issued another draft quota for 62,000 male New Yorkers. No one knew that within the next few months, the tragic conflict would essentially be concluded, or that Lincoln would then be dead.

Fenton had already visited Stanton, then Lincoln, then Stanton again, to help reduce the previous draft call, so this time, New York sent a committee of two members of the NYS Senate and three members of the NYS Assembly. They made a plea to Stanton to reduce the number a second time. After nearly four years of war, the state could not spare that many more men.

Stanton denied their request, so the committee requested an audience with Lincoln, who received them graciously. Lincoln said that he would meet with Stanton, and Lincoln invited the New York committee back the following evening for a summary. By that time, three members of the New York contingent had given up, and were on their way back to Albany.

Remaining were NYS Senators James Bell and George Andrews. Lincoln asked the two New Yorkers to be seated, while he himself took up two pencils and a 4-inch by 6-inch sheet of paper. In a few moment’s time, sitting in a chair equipped with a desk-like writing arm, Lincoln had composed the following:

“The draft matter complained of by Governor Fenton is this: That in giving credits for past calls, one three-years’ man is counted equal to three one-year’s men, while on the pending call each man is counted one and only one, whether he enlists for one, two, or three years.

“The practical difficulty may be illustrated by the following supposed case: The towns of A and B, before any enlisted, have each 100 men. On the late call, A gave 66 one-year men, leaving only 34 at home, while B gave 33 three-years’ men, leaving 67 at home; on the pending call each owes 100 men, subject to its credit, but while A gets credit for 66 it owes 34, taking the last man in it, while B gets credit for 99, owes one, and has 66 left quietly at home.

“This ugly conjuncture occurs in some sort accidentally, some towns putting in one-year’s men, and other three-years’ men, attaching no consequence to the difference, but which now burdens the one class beyond their immediate power to bear.

“While the above is only a supposed case, I am told there are real ones that are even stronger, where there are not men enough in the town to answer its quota. It gives no present relief that the one-year men are to come home sooner than the three-years’ men, as the present call does not wait until they come.”

Then, there was a discussion, in which Lincoln said that if he granted a reduction in New York’s latest quota, “we shall have all the other states here in twenty-four hours, begging the same favor.” He asked the committee to come back the next day for a decision.

The following morning, Lincoln asked Bell what he would do in Lincoln’s place. Bell replied that he could not even imagine an answer. Lincoln then said that his war department had decided to grant New York’s request, but that there would be no “paper men.”

By way of explanation, Lincoln continued, “You have a way in New York state of procuring the number of men shipped in the Navy … and getting them credited to you on your allotment under the next call for the Army. This time we must have no paper men; we want men in boots.” Stanton then confirmed to the New York senators, “You have won your point.” The draft reduction was granted.

A fuller account of this story appears in Fifty Years in Journalism by Beman Brockway (Watertown, 1891). Brockway was serving as an aide to Fenton at the time, and he made himself a copy of the Lincoln memorandum that Bell brought home. Brockway also operated a newspaper in Watertown for several decades. He was a former employee of Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune, and a former editor of our own Mayville Sentinel.

This article is dedicated to teachers of New York State and United States history, and in particular, to Tom Stokes and Pete Criscione of the Fredonia Central Schools.