According to his private secretaries and some close friends, President Lincoln had a deserved reputation for bending to women’s plaints and complaints. William Lee Miller, in his study President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman (2008), reviews a notable case in which urgent pleas by the wife and daughter of a condemned man did not succeed in making the chief executive yield; the man concerned was a slave-dealer whose death by hanging went forward as planned. Much more frequent was the type of case in which the president wrote out a pass for a lady to visit someone behind enemy lines or asked the War Department to remit part of a soldier’s sentence. He did not like to dismiss a sincere need.
But there is a unique case in which the usually humble president wrote out his true feelings about one lady visitor. And it is the only case in which we have record that Lincoln wrote the pejorative word “saucy.” This short note to himself now belongs to the Library of Congress:
Washington. Aug. 23, 1862.
To-day, Mrs. Major Paul, of the Regular Army calls and urges the appointment of her husband as a Brig. Genl. She is a saucy woman and I am afraid she will keep tormenting till I may have to do it. (Collected Works, v. 5, pp. 390-391).
The prognosticator of his own actions was correct: Paul became a brigadier general as of September 5, 1862.
There are two wrinkles to, and perhaps a defense of, Lincoln’s mood in the case. Just 12 days earlier, he had written to Major General Halleck to state that “Lieut. Col. Paul,” a graduate of West Point, wanted to be posted to active service. Did the officer’s wife not know that her husband had already been promoted to a colonelcy? Or was she still referring to him in Lincoln’s presence as a mere major, to underscore her complaint?
A recent act of selflessness by the (female) owner of an original document signed by Lincoln throws a glimmer of light upon this situation. The complete Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, based here at the Presidential Library, now has a full-color scan of the document, thanks to the private owner. For one does not jump from major to brigadier general without making the requisite stop at the corner marked ‘colonel.’ Lincoln, ever the diligent signer of military commissions, had already signed Paul’s promotion to lieutenant colonel in the 8th U.S. Infantry – back on 2 July 1862.
How to explain Mrs. ‘Major’ Paul’s visit on 23 August with her complaint – her lament, prod, push, case, demand — that her husband be promoted? He had been a lieutenant colonel for 7 weeks before the saucy wife visited the Executive Mansion and referred to her husband as a major. Was the promotion lost in a file? Was he refusing to accept it, and holding out for immediate elevation to brigadier general? Had Edwin Stanton, who duly co-signed the promotion to colonel, held it up because of Paul’s service with the unproductive McClellan in eastern Virginia that season? Or was this bureaucratic delay caused by two men, Lincoln and Stanton, and many others much less well-known, who were worked to distraction by the demands of war?
Cultural differences may have entered into this matter. Was this Gabriel René Paul a Frenchman, or of French extraction? Was his wife? Did she treat a rube Anglo-Kentuckian like Lincoln with disdain? Was her aggrieved tone simply less deferential than the president was accustomed to?
The timetable was this: Paul started the year 1862 as a major. In early July 1862 Lincoln signed his commission promoting him to lieutenant colonel. In early August Lincoln may have seen him personally and referred to him as Lieut. Col. in addressing Major General Halleck on his behalf. In late August Mrs. Paul arrived to demand that her husband, ‘Major Paul,’ jump to brigadier general. And in fact on 5 Sept. 1862 he was thus promoted.
Who was at fault for this minor contretemps? Is Lincoln’s note-to-self the evidence that he had already forgotten about Paul’s first promotion? Or was Mrs. Paul lying about his low rank? Or was she unaware of her husband’s half-way promotion? Had the soldier himself not even been informed of his promotion?
The handwriting on Lincoln’s “saucy” note is shaky. He likely made it late in the day. Earlier the same day, General Charles P. Stone approached Lincoln to ask why he had been arrested. And this was all on the day after Lincoln had penned his justly famed public letter to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, explaining and yet not explaining why he did or did not free the slaves – to save the Union. Greeley was blunt in print about Lincoln’s motives; Mrs. Paul was blunt in person about her husband’s wishes. Perhaps Lincoln actually wanted to call Greeley “saucy.” Thus, a wholly separate timetable was superimposed within the Pauls’ complaints and promotions: that of Lincoln’s timetable for the nerve-testing policy for emancipation, from conception (mid-June 1862) to announcement to Cabinet (22 July) to fending off Greeley’s demands (22 August) to revealing the plan to the public (22 September). All the while trying to get McClellan to pursue Robert E. Lee.
Brigadier General Paul did valorous service, as seen in the illustration here. He was nearly blinded at Gettysburg. Had he remained a major or lieutenant-colonel, perhaps he would have been standing elsewhere at Gettysburg. The end of the war found him quietly stationed in Kentucky. Let us hope that he and his wife were satisfied.