Part One of a two-part essay
If you’re interested in Lincoln’s young adulthood, get your hands on Douglas Wilson’s and Rodney Davis’s book Herndon’s Informants. It brings together more than 600 interviews and statements amassed by Lincoln’s law partner after the assassination in 1865.
Many of his sources had known Lincoln before he moved to Springfield in 1837 at the age of 28. (He arrived for good in the state capital on April 15, exactly 28 years before his death.)
Herndon’s great virtue was his zeal for collecting all the facts of Lincoln’s personal life, no matter how delicate the subject. He thought the apotheosis of the martyr in 1865 was making northerners forget his flesh-and-blood friend, whom he’d known for a quarter-century. But Herndon’s great vice was his mixing of pet theories and pat psychologizing into his fact gathering.
On November 16, 1866, he gave a rambling lecture on the subject of New Salem, where Lincoln had lived before Springfield. The explosive segment of the talk concerned Ann Rutledge, the “beautiful, amiable, and lovely girl” who became Abraham’s intimate friend in the mid-1830s.
The lecturer faced a huge problem: neither Abraham nor Ann had left any direct evidence of their bond. They wrote nothing about it, and said nothing to anyone who recorded their words at the time.
Herndon was forthright about relying on fragmentary memories of people looking back 30 years. For some reason, he didn’t specify that one of his sources — Isaac Cogdal, an old Lincoln acquaintance from New Salem — told him that he’d spoken to the president-elect about Ann Rutledge just five or six years earlier.
At the end of a long day’s work in late 1860 or early 1861, Lincoln had invited Cogdal to his office, hoping to pump him for news about families he’d known in New Salem, including the Rutledges. Cogdal gladly obliged, and took advantage of the nostalgic occasion to “dare to ask” Lincoln about his early love life.
“Abe is it true that you fell in love with & courted Ann Rutledge?” Cogdal remembered saying. Lincoln supposedly welcomed this query about a touchy, personal topic he’d never discussed even with his closest friends. It was a subject sure to cause him grief if he talked about it now and word of the conversation somehow got spread around Springfield.
The president-elect’s words, reconstructed orally by Cogdal and written down by Herndon, were, “I loved the woman dearly & sacredly: she was a handsome girl — would have made a good loving wife — was natural & quite intellectual, though not highly Educated — I did honestly — & truly love the girl & think often — often of her now.”
Cogdal’s reliability has been dismissed by many historians, and affirmed by others. But even if his memory for Lincoln’s sentiments was perfectly accurate, they touch only on Abraham’s retrospective feelings about Ann. They say nothing about her feelings for him.
Did Ann love him “sacredly” too (and does “sacredly” suggest “eternally,” or just “purely,” “reverentially”)? How far did she advance toward becoming his “good loving wife,” rather than someone else’s?
In fact, when Lincoln embarked on his love for her, she was already engaged to someone else. This man, the merchant John McNamar, had left New Salem and was presumed to have given up on Ann, despite his promise eventually to return to her. For the moment, Abraham’s “sacred” love meant unrealizable love.
In 1865 and 1866, a number of informants told Herndon that Ann and Abraham had sealed some kind of pact, and were planning to marry after she cleared up her murky status with McNamar. Naturally, they tried to keep their pact secret, making it all the harder for Herndon’s informants, decades later, to agree about their exact relationship.
But in August 1835, Ann fell ill. She lingered only long enough for Lincoln to make one last visit to her bedside. No informant claimed any knowledge of what he and Ann said to each other that day. Many of them did claim that two weeks later, when Ann expired, Abraham fell completely apart.
Lincoln’s collapse convinced some who’d known nothing about his closeness to Ann that he must have been deeply in love with her, and she with him. Nothing short of professed and reciprocated love, perhaps with a promise to marry, could account for his wretched state.
Herndon seems to have concurred with this speculation. Lincoln’s emotional prostration after her death pointed to one conclusion: that Abraham “loved Ann Rutledge with all his soul, mind and strength. She loved him as dearly, tenderly and affectionately.”
Within weeks, the New York Times and other papers in the U.S. and abroad reprinted almost everything Herndon said about Ann Rutledge. Many readers regretted his public probing of Lincoln’s private life. But what infuriated so many readers was not the news of Lincoln’s love for Ann as such.
They were incensed by an additional Herndon revelation. He said a friend had told him that after Ann was lowered into her grave, Abraham declared (in the friend’s words): “his heart, sad and broken, was buried there.”
That alleged statement by a distraught 26-year-old established to Herndon’s satisfaction that Lincoln had never loved another woman as fully as he had loved Ann Rutledge. She had been Abraham’s first and final love.
[In Part Two: where Herndon got Lincoln’s alleged words that his heart lay buried in Ann Rutledge’s grave, and how the nation benefited, in Herndon’s estimation, from Ann’s death.]