Bishop Turner Reminiscences

From Abraham Lincoln’s Stories and Speeches Chicago Rhodes & McClure Publishing Company. 1896 p. 164-166

I well remember President Lincoln. My recollections of this form, size, visage, walk, the easy swing of his body, stern but pleasant countenance, eye flash and rapid wink, the forward bend of his person, when speaking, the genial smile which lit up his face occasionally, removing the impression that he was a man of sad and forlorn disposition, the prominent forehead somewhat receding toward the top, and visibly wrinkled just above the eyebrows, the projecting nose, and disheveled hair are vivid and distinct. There was nothing about him that was repulsive or frigorific, yet there was a dignity and genial majesty that would make anyone feel when brought in contact with him that he was in the presence of no ordinary man. A little child might be wooed by the magic touch of his friendship, gentleness and the tenderness of his nature; while a king or an emperor might feel that a peer was in his presence, He had none of the qualities of the dude, the assumptions of a cavalier, the display of the knight, nor the pretensions of an aristocrat. If he ever had a suit of clothes that fitted him I never saw it. Yet, I have seen him scores of times walking the streets, riding in his carriage, speaking from the platform, delivering his inaugural on the east side of the capitol, in the executive mansion, inspecting the army in front of Petersburg with General Grant, and in the department of war exchanging words with that lordly, stern, and inflexible man of iron nerve, Edwin M. Stanton, his great Secretary of war.

Late in the fall of 1862 a portly but venerable-looking colored gentleman from Poughkeepsie, N. Y., came to Washington and assumed to represent a large body of colored men who were anxious to enlist as soldiers in the army to defend their country and its flag, he delivered a most eloquent speech to a crowded house in my church, and requested me to accompany him in waiting upon the President and presenting the readiness of his constituents to bleed and die for the country. After some delay, we succeeded in reaching the President, and he delivered one of the most eloquent addresses to President Lincoln in the space of ten minutes I have ever heard since or before. At the conclusion of his grandiloquent speech the President responded in a few words, thanking him for his visit, for his patriotic sentiments, and requested him to return home and get the names, streets, and numbers of this army of would-be colored soldiers and bring them to him, and he would call for them at his earliest convenience. We left the White House together; he was a little chagrined and crestfallen and disappeared from the city to return no more. The truth is, he represented nobody but himself. He thought that Mr. Lincoln would commission him a lieutenant or captain to drum up colored soldiers, but when the President failed to do so he had no further use for him.

The first colored regiment which was raised and organized under the direct auspices of the general government (I do not refer to those enlisted by General Butler in New Orleans or Governor Andrews in Massachusetts) was raised in Washington, D. C. The first two companies were enlisted in the basement of Israel Church; but the regiment was completed on Mason’s Island, just across the Potomac from Washington City. All the commissioned officers, being white, were appointed from the colonel down, and a white chaplain had been assigned to duty in the same regiment temporarily by the colonel in command. This writer, however, was the choice of the colored members of the regiment for the position of chaplain, and, at their solicitation, I applied for the same. Hon. Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, and Hon. Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, an afterward Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, were favorable; but the other cabinet officers were either unfavorable or in doubt as to the advisability of making a colored man a commissioned officer in any form; at least, I was so informed by Secretary Chase. When the question came up in the cabinet for final decision before Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Stanton and Mr. Chase held that the colored soldiers should have their own spiritual director and guide and that my labors in the organization of the regiment entitled me to the position. Messrs. Seward, Blair, Welles, and others of the cabinet thought it rather too early to risk public sentiment in commissioning a colored man to any position whatever. Mr. Lincoln sat with great patience and heard the discussion, but finally put a quietus to the question at issue by saying, “Well, we have far graver matters for consideration than this,” and, turning to the secretary of war, simply said, “Stanton, issue his commission as chaplain. Now, gentlemen, let us proceed to business.” Mr. Chase sent for me the same afternoon to come to his residence, and, after congratulating me upon being a United States chaplain, and the first one of my race to receive a commission, gave a detailed narrative of the whole transaction, but pledged me to secrecy. I do not think I am violating the contract in relating it at this remote period.

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