Kitten-Loving Lincoln & His White House Cat Team (Cats in the White House, Part 2)

An image created by an anonymous artist imagining  Lincoln's cat Dixie seated on his lap.

An image created by an anonymous artist imagining Lincoln’s cat Dixie seated on his lap.

There was no question he was an intelligent man and a sensitive one. It is hardly a surprise how he reverentially treated animals.

William Florville. (mrlincolnandfreedom.org)

William Florville. (mrlincolnandfreedom.org)

In fact, before he left Springfield, Illinois for what would be hist last time home, president-elect Abraham Lincoln looked ahead to his life as President in the White House and believed it would not be the ideal place for his beloved dog Fido to live.

The mixed-breed dog was placed in the care of Lincoln’s barber, William Florville, and there were reports that the canine was well-cared for and often found sleeping in the barbershop, outliving his former human companion.

Fido, Lincoln's Dog.

Fido, Lincoln’s Dog.

And so, he brought Fido into a photography studio just so he would always have a picture to remember the dog, who he placed with friends. and look fondly upon as his long-lost friend as he led the nation through Civil War up to his own assassination.

It has proven to be the earliest known image of a President’s dog.

Yet even without Fido, Lincoln had some other endearing animal companions in the White House.

Sarah Lincoln, the president's stepmother.

Sarah Lincoln, the president’s stepmother.

In fact, given the depth of care and effort to communicate which Lincoln expended towards felines, he might legitimately be called the greatest cat-loving President. It was a connection that went back to his childhood. In 1818, Lincoln’s mother died when he was nine years old and a year later his father took him and Abe’s sister Sarah from their cabin in the Indiana woods to return to live in their original Kentucky home.

There, Thomas Lincoln married again, this time to the widow Sarah Bush Johnston. It was noted that at the time Lincoln’s stepmother was first living with the family, 10-year old Abe had a cat, name unrecorded, who trailed behind him whenever he went to a stream or spring to gather fresh water in buckets. It’s unclear whether Sarah Lincoln had brought the cat with her or Abe was already its companion.

William Seward gave President Lincoln kittens who became Tabby and Dixie, the White House cats.

William Seward gave President Lincoln kittens who became Tabby and Dixie, the White House cats.

Five months after bidding farewell to Fido, and just as the Civil War began, President Lincoln was overwhelmed by the unexpected gift of two kittens from the Secretary of State William Seward.

One employee of the adjoining Treasury Department Building, where the President went daily to send and receive telegraph messages between him and his Union Army leaders,  recorded in his memoirs that:

“Mr. Lincoln possessed extraordinary kindness of heart when his feelings could be reached. He was fond of dumb animals, especially cats. I have seen him fondle one for an hour. Helplessness and suffering touched him when they appealed directly to his senses, or when you could penetrate through his intelligence to them.”

These two kittens Lincoln got from Seward matured into full-sized cats who the President named Tabby and Dixie. The President was quoted at one point during the Civil War as observing the intelligence of the adult cat then living with him: “Dixie is smarter than my whole cabinet! And furthermore she doesn’t talk back!”

Horace Porter was impressed by Lincoln's kitten concerns amid battle planning.

Horace Porter was impressed by Lincoln’s kitten concerns amid battle planning.

Lincoln’s love of cats never abated during his presidency or his life. At some point during the two weeks after his arrival on March 24, 1865 at General Ulysses S. Grant‘s headquarters in City Point, Virginia for the siege of Petersburg, Lincoln’s cat care unfolded in front of several military leaders with whom he was conferring.

It was prompted by the unmistakeable sound of multiple kittens crying. Admiral David Porter was struck at the sight of the President, amid the planning of a final, crucial battle, “tenderly caressing three stray kittens. It well illustrated the kindness of the man’s disposition, and showed the childlike simplicity which was mingled with the grandeur of his nature.”

The President picked up one of the kittens and placed the animal in his lap, asking, “Where is your mother?” Told the mother had died, Lincoln continued, “”Then she can’t grieve as many a poor mother is grieving for a son lost in battle.”  He returned his focus to the trio, remarking, “Poor little creatures, don’t cry; you’ll be taken care of,” and carried the other two from the floor also to his lap. As he stroked their backs, Lincoln murmured, “Kitties, thank God you are cats, and can’t understand this terrible strife that is going on.”

Before leaving the tent meeting, Lincoln turned to Colonel Bowers with an order: “I hope you will see that these poor little motherless waifs are given plenty of milk and treated kindly.” Bowers promised that he would tell the cook to take good care of them.

A "Lincoln cat" image on tumblr. (original photographer unknown)

A “Lincoln cat” image on tumblr. (original photographer unknown)

Thinking about how the same hands calming the kittens was the same one which had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Porter remained dumbfounded at the President’s genuine concern, further recalling, “He would wipe their eyes tenderly with his handkerchief, stroke their smooth coats, and listen to them purring their gratitude to him.”

Abraham Lincoln seemed to have an especial affinity for abandoned kittens, perhaps the connection he felt being somewhat related to his own early loss of his mother Nancy. It was first observed between the years of 1831 and 1837, when he was living on his own, before marriage, in New Salem, Illinois, working as a general store owner, surveyor and rail splitter.

His old friend Caleb Carman never forgot how Lincoln would be drawn especially to kittens and “talk to it for half an hour at a time.” In a December 8, 1866 letter to Lincoln’s former law partner and biography William H. Herndon, Carman recalled his own family’s two kittens named Susan and Jane, and how the future President would “take them up in his lap & play with them and Hold their heads together & say Jane had a better countenance [sic] than Susan…”

The restored childhood home of Mary Todd Lincoln in Lexington, Kentucky.

The restored childhood home of Mary Todd Lincoln in Lexington, Kentucky.

Lincoln passed on his especial love of cats to his son.

In earlier years, when Mary Lincoln was visiting her father and stepmother at their Lexington, Kentucky home, she reported to Abraham Lincoln in a letter that their son Eddy had taken up “your hobby” was adopted a stray kitten.

Unfortunately, as Mary continued, her stepmother “in a very unfeeling manner” ordered her servants to get rid of the animal.

Mary Lincoln was nicknamed the Hellcat by her husband's aides, perhaps it explained her dislike of the species. B

Mary Lincoln was nicknamed the Hellcat by her husband’s aides, perhaps it explained her dislike of the species.

Mrs. Lincoln observed that her stepmother “dislikes the whole cat race,” but she seemed to follow the woman’s thinking, embarrassed when the President began feeding Tabby with a gold fork at a formal dinner in the White House, and called it “shameful” in front of their guests.

Lincoln cracked that, “If the gold fork was good enough for former President James Buchanan, I think it is good enough for Tabby.”

It was perhaps no wonder that the President’s aides had a special nickname for the First Lady.

“The Hellcat.”

Fido, seemingly forlorn at Lincoln's leaving. (Cowan's Auction House)

Fido, seemingly forlorn at Lincoln’s leaving. (Cowan’s Auction House)


Categories: Abraham Lincoln, Cats of the White House, Presidents, Presidents and Animals, The Lincolns

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5 replies »

  1. Carl-I always begin reading your blogs by going through the pictures first.
    Although I am not a cat person-the picture of the kitten wearing a stovepipe hat is maybe the cutest thing I have ever seen.
    Now…back to the blog!

    Richard Klein

  2. now i read the article-
    Not surprising at all that Lincoln loved animals….but i confess-it never even occured to me to wonder if he had any pets.
    Great article-thanks as always. Brightens my day to read a new one.

    Richard Klein
    New York, NY

  3. I was in a crummy mood until I came upon your wonderful stories on Lincoln and his love of dogs and cats. I had no idea about his love for cats, but it would make sense as they have a quiet soothing manner to them and always with their “chesh” grin to lighten the spirit of which I’m sure the great man needed.

    As a cartoonist I can now appreciate the origins of the name Fido being popularly represented in the lexicon to symbolize dog in no uncertain terms. Also, love your discovery of those rare shots of victorian kitties by that great photographer whose “name” has been lost thru over four score and several years ago! Thank you, Carl, for this gentle and fun story!

  4. I have always really liked Abe Lincoln as a president. Thank you. This added dimension to him. He was such a great man and yet had such a great heart. As a cat lover, I fully identified with Mr. Lincoln. I do believe that animal lover, in general, have the biggest hearts.

    I now have two kittens running around my house. What joy they bring me. It is nice to know that Mr. Lincoln had the comfort of these little creatures during some of the hardest years of his life.

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