By Scott Valentine
As Sgt. Smith Stimmel stood sentry at the front door of the White House on the evening of Feb. 10, 1864, a not too distant fire alarm caught his attention. He soon noticed a flicker of light coming from the direction of the White House stables, and people running towards the flames and smoke. He paused to consider whether or not he should leave his post, and assist in dousing the blaze. But before he could decide the fire department arrived on the scene.
About this time, Stimmel remembered, the door he guarded flew open with a jerk. He later recalled, “Out came the President buttoning his coat around him, and said to me, ‘Where’s the fire, what’s burning?’ I said, ‘It seems to be around in the vicinity of the stable.’ With that he started off on a dog-trot down the steps and along the way leading to the stable. When he started to go to the fire, I thought to myself, ‘Old fellow, you are the man we are guarding, guess I’ll go along.’ So I struck out on the double-quick and went with him, keeping close to his side; but he took such long strikes that his dog-trot was almost a dead run for me.”
Stimmel continued, “As soon as we got around where we could see what was burning, we saw that, sure enough, the White House stable was on fire. Quite a crowd had gathered by the time we got there, and the fire department was at work. Mr. Lincoln asked hastily if the horses had been taken out, and when told they had not, he rushed through the crowd and began to break open one of the large doors with his own hands; but the building was full of fire, and none of the horses could be saved. The ponies belonging to the little boys and the goats were all lost in the fire. It was a brick stable, and evidently had been burning for some time before it was discovered.”
Lincoln, upset by the loss of his children’s pets, was hustled back to the White House by members of his security detail, who realized that the fire might have been deliberately set to draw the president into the open. Stimmel returned with them and resumed his place at the front door.
This vivid account appears in Stimmel’s 1928 book, Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln. Stimmel, an Ohio farm boy, lucked into the president’s bodyguard by being in the right place at the right time.
In June 1862, Stimmel had left school to join the 85th Ohio Infantry. The regiment had formed for a three-month enlistment to guard the large population of Confederate prisoners at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio. At the same time, Confederate Col. John Hunt Morgan and his raiders threatened key points in Kentucky and Ohio. The 85th departed to participate in the defense of Cincinnati and successful operations against Morgan in Kentucky.
Stimmel mustered out with the rest of the regiment on Sept. 23, 1862, and returned to his family’s farm and contemplated his future.
The following summer, Buckeye State Gov. David Tod visited Washington, D.C. A Democrat who supported the war, he paid his respects to Lincoln, and was shocked at the lack of security provided for the chief executive. Tod fretted about how easy Confederate sympathizers could slip into Washington and terrorize the president. Tod applied to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for permission to raise a cavalry company of 100 troopers to protect the President, as a mounted bodyguard.
Stanton gave the project his blessing. Tod quickly issued a circular to military committees in Ohio counties with the intention that each county would provide one man for the company. The plan did not come together exactly as Tod had planned, as some counties were slow to respond. So the governor permitted other counties who had already provided men to make up the shortfall.
By this time, Stimmel had turned his thoughts to rejoining the army. His local military committee directed his attention to Tod’s circular, and Stimmel became intrigued by the governor’s call for men to serve “for highly honorable and strictly confidential service.”
“I was asked if I was willing to enter that service,” Stimmel explained, “I told them that I was, if the Governor would accept me. One of the members of the Military Committee of our county was a near neighbor of ours. He gave me a letter of recommendation, which I took and presented to the Governor in person, and was accepted.”
On Dec. 17, 1863, Stimmel mustered into the 7th Independent Company of Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, also known as the Union Light Guard. About this time, Stimmel and the other recruits learned of the exact nature of their duties. A portion of the company, including Stimmel, was assigned to the White House. The balance was detailed to various points in and around the capital.
“Tod fretted about how easy Confederate sympathizers could slip into Washington and terrorize the president.”
Stimmel’s proximity to Lincoln and the first family provided a firsthand opportunity to observe the pathos of the President during the final year of the war. Stimmel’s description of Lincoln as commander-in-chief is as poignant and moving a prose as one will find in the annals of such recollections: “I wish I could bring before you as I see him a tall, homely, rugged, kindly, lonely man. Often I have seen him walking alone in his characteristic manner, with his hands clasped behind his back, his shoulders slightly bent, and on his face a look so sad that my own eyes filled as I looked at him. Often would the words of the prophet come into my mind, ‘A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ At times he seemed to be weighed down with the burden of the Nation. This Nation’s burden was his burden. When a battle was reported, even though it were a victory, the sorrow which attended it, the widow’s wail and the orphan’s cry, found an echo in his soul and seemed almost to crush him.”
Stimmel also shared stories of Lincoln’s lighter side. The President, he noted, “Always had a story suited to the occasion, and there was not a man in our troop who did not have a hatful of anecdotes to tell of their great Commander.”
In one of his favorite anecdotes, the “Pigtail Story,” Stimmel described a humorous incident that occurred during the summer of 1864 at the Soldiers’ Home, where Lincoln sought refuge from the heat of the city. As the war entered its fourth year and the demand for soldiers increased due to battlefield attrition, many of the men in the Union Light Guard questioned whether they should be serving in the front lines rather than babysitting for the President.
“There were reports of great activity at the front, and we longed to be in it,” Stimmel wrote. “So one evening, when the President was strolling near the men’s tents, emboldened by his kindly manner, one of the men took it upon himself to approach him in regard to the matter of a change of service, stating in substance that the men felt that they were not needed where they were, and that there was greater need of their services at the front.”
He continued, “The President listened patiently to all the man had to say, and then with a twinkle in his eye said, ‘Well, my boy, that reminds me of an old farmer friend of mine in Illinois, who used to say he never could understand why the Lord put a curl in a pig’s tail; it did not seem to him to be either useful or ornamental, but he guessed the Lord knew what he was doing when he put it there. I do not myself,’ he said, ‘see the necessity of having soldiers traipsing around after me wherever I go, but Stanton’—referring to Secretary of War Stanton— ‘who knows a great deal more about such things than I do, seems to think it is necessary, and he may be right; and if it is necessary to have soldiers here, it might as well be you as someone else. If you were sent to the front, someone would have to come from the front to take your place.’”
The assassination of Lincoln on the evening of April 14, 1865, shocked Stimmel. The President, he noted, would not permit any members of his bodyguard to be present at any entertainment he attended. Therefore, Stimmel and his company remained in barracks near the White House while Lincoln was present at Ford’s Theater. “I had just gotten into a sound sleep, when I thought I heard someone call my name from outside the building,” recalled Stimmel. “I turned my head and listened, and again I heard someone call, ‘Sergeant Stimmel!’ I jumped up and put my head out of the window, and asked what was wanted. The man who called said hastily, ‘Lincoln and Seward have been killed.’”
Stimmel and a few men from his detail rode quickly to the White House. But they found the grounds quiet. They then headed down Pennsylvania Ave. near the Treasury building, where a policeman informed them that the President had been shot at Ford’s Theater. Stimmel and his comrades rode quickly towards the theater and found a mob of people and the rest of his company. Stimmel wrote that everyone was “ordered to clear the street for one block in front of the house where the President lay. The President had been taken to a private dwelling immediately across the street from the Theater. Having cleared the street, we remained there on guard the balance of the night, admitting only those who we knew had to do with the care of the President.”
Stimmel also remembered, “All night I rode slowly up and down the street in front of that house. Sometimes it seemed to me like an awful nightmare and that I must be dreaming. Sometimes I would pinch myself and wonder if I was really awake and on duty, so hard was it for me to realize the fact that President Lincoln was lying in that house in a dying condition.”
Lincoln’s death marked the conclusion of Stimmel’s recollections. In summing up his experiences, Stimmel praised the late President: “To me it was much to have lived for nearly a year and a half in close touch with a man like Lincoln. I was barely twenty-one when I joined his bodyguard, but throughout my long life I have been deeply grateful for the providence which gave me such glimpses of one of Earth’s grandest heroes, one of her noblest martyrs, one of the finest specimens of manhood which God, the Creator, has ever produced: Abraham Lincoln, Patriot! Statesman! Gentleman!”
The company continued in service until it mustered out on Sept. 9, 1865.
Stimmel went on to attend Ohio Wesleyan University and graduated in the Class of 1869. For a brief period, he worked as an attorney in Cincinnati and Carthage, Ohio, and then settled in Dakota Territory. In 1870, he married Margaret Narcissa Goode at the United Methodist Church in the territorial town of Fargo, and they had three children together. After Margaret’s death in 1906, Stimmel remarried and fathered two more children. Stimmel managed a large-scale farm, or Bonanza, outside Fargo near the community of Casselton. Active in politics, he rose to become territorial council president in 1889, and helped lead North Dakota to statehood that same year. Stimmel eventually returned to law and practiced in Fargo until the 1920s.
Stimmel died at age 92 on April 14, 1935—exactly 70 years after the assassination of his hero. His second wife, Annie, and a son survived him.
References: Robert W. McBride, Lincoln’s Body Guard, The Union Light Guard, The Seventh Independent Company of Ohio Volunteer Cavalry; Smith Stimmel, Address of Hon. Smith Stimmel at the Unveiling of Bust of Abraham Lincoln at Christiana, Norway; Smith Stimmel, Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln.
Scott Valentine is a Contributing Editor to MI.
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