Was Abraham Lincoln a Apiritualist? by Nettie Colburn Maynard 1917



I was lecturing in Albany, in April, 1861, when the war of the Rebellion broke out. It is well known that the northern people expected that the President’s first call for troops to the number of 75,000 men would quickly end the “little fuss” down south, and that, taken all in all, the war would soon be over. The first battle of Bull Run made the northern people acquainted with the fact that no easy victory awaited them. At the close of my evening lecture, the Sunday following this disastrous battle to the north, a gentleman asked this question: “How long will this conflict continue?” Our spirit friends made the reply, “That it would continue four years, and that it would require five practically to end it.” This was a distinctly prophetic statement which after events fully verified.

At the time no one believed or supposed it possible that a war could be maintained in this country for that length of time, particularly an internal war, and the statement of the spirits created much discussion.

More than a year had passed away. I was still speaking for the society when I was summoned home to bid a brief farewell to my father and brothers, all four of whom had enlisted and were about to start for the front. After much consideration it was decided best for my mother to break up her home and return with me to Albany to remain until my father’s return, if he should be so fortunate as to escape the ill fortunes of war. The last evening, before the company in which my father and brothers were enlisted started for the front, we passes together at the house of a friend, and a parting circle was held. Our spirit friends gave us every encouragement, assuring us that they foresaw that all four would return in safety to their homes.

A spirit purporting to be a Dr. Bamford, whom my father had known in earlier years, controlled me, and in his quaint “down East” dialect assured my father that the next time he had the pleasure of talking with him would be on Virginia soil. This astounding statement surprised all present, and none more so than myself, when informed of his words; for I had no possible way of visiting the army, no desire to do so, and had no thoughts of any conditions that could by chance bring about a meeting with my father in that distant State. However, time passed on.

(In August, 1862, while my friend, Miss Hannum, and myself were sitting in our room in Albany, a powerful influence came over me, and I was “controlled” to speak to her for nearly an hour, the purport of which was that there was a “congress of spirits” in the spirit life, composed of the leading public men who had passed away from earth, who were still interested in and guiding with care the affairs of the nation as perfectly as in their power; that it was imperatively necessary that they should communicate with President Lincoln; and they desired me to make arrangements to go to Washington and seek an immediate interview with him, assuring us that we would be well received and kindly treated; and that we should tell the President how we came to visit him, assuring us that we would have no cause to regret immediate obedience. When I awoke and learned the purport of the message we talked over the matter earnestly, but could not bring ourselves to follow the suggestion; and although the matter was repeatedly referred to by our spirit friends thereafter, we refused to comply with their wishes then, which fact was due to a knowledge of unpleasant experiences which had been the reward of other Spiritualists who had followed


Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist?

- 17 -

similar directions, and who encountered woeful disappointments; and we therefore concluded that two bedraggled young damsels upon a spiritual mission would find but poor reception in the presence of the first ruler of the land.)

It was in the following November, the first week of the month, that I received two letters in the same mail, one from Washington A. Danskin, Baltimore, Md., asking me to speak for his society during the following month, December; the other from my youngest brother, who informed me that he was sick in the hospital at Alexandria, and that unless he could obtain a furlough and reach home and receive the care needed he would certainly die; that it was impossible to obtain a furlough save through the actions of friends. The letter from my brother decided me to accept the proffered engagement in Baltimore. I laid the case before the officers of our society, and they willingly released me from my duties; and leaving my mother and Miss Hannum together, housekeeping, as we had been since my father’s enlistment, I started for Baltimore.

During the first week of my stay in Baltimore I made inquiries regarding the presence of any Spiritualists in Washington through whose aid I would be able to undertake my difficult mission regarding my brother. I was informed that Thos. Gales Foster, a well-known and most eminent speaker in our ranks, had recently taken a position as clerk in the War Department, and that he had resided with his family in that city. Obtaining a letter of introduction to him, I made my way to Washington and presented myself at Mr. Foster’s house. I was given a most cordial welcome and a place in the household, to remain until the result of my proposed efforts could be known.

The following day, Mr. Foster presented me to the then Assistant Secretary, Mr. Tucker. I told him what my brother had written, and expressed a desire to go to him at Alexandria. He heard me kindly, gave me an order for a pass, and directed where to obtain it. Everybody knows that all official business in the city of Washington is transacted between the hours of nine in the morning and three in the afternoon. By the time this had been accomplished it was too late to think of going to Alexandria that day. The next morning Mr. Foster accompanied me to the office where I was given a permit, and going on board the Alexandria boat I was soon at my destination. A number of rickety-looking vehicles standing on the wharf bore the legend, “To the Camp”.

Entering one of them I was driven to the broad gates leading to the encampment. A sea of tents arose on every side; it looked like a vast city of white canvas. I confess to a feeling of timidity and dread; but, approaching a sentry, inquired for the Connecticut Division, as I had been advised at Washington. Every kindness and politeness were shown me, and I was passed from hand to hand until I reached the tent of the Commanding Officer of the Connecticut troops quartered there in the hospital. I stated my errand, and desired to see my brother. The officer in charge treated me with consideration, and told me he would give me the use of his tent for our meeting, as the quarters of the men were hardly suitable for a lady to enter. In a few moments he returned with my brother, who was leaning heavily upon his cane, and whose appearance fully proclaimed his debilitated condition. I leave the reader to judge of the meeting that followed; nor did it at the time seem strange that I, a mere girl in years, was there amid that vast array of tents filled with sick and weary soldiers, alone and unguarded save by that same power that had thus far tenderly guided my life.


Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist?

- 18 -

My brother informed me that the routine requisite for the examination before the board of surgeons that daily met on the hill was the issuing number of tickets, and as the numbers were called, the holders were brought before the board, examined, and either remanded back to their quarters or recommended to a furlough. He stated that he had many times received a ticket, but his number was never reached before the board adjourned.

Leaving with him the fruit I had brought, and bidding him to be of good cheer, I walked up the hill to the modern brick house on its’ summit where the surgeons’ headquarters were established. I inquired for Dr. Curtis, and was informed very curtly “that he could not be seen.” Feeling timid in the presence of so many pert young officers, who seemed to be doing nothing, I stated the case of my brother. His name was taken down, and I was informed that he should have a ticket in the morning, which would bring him before the board of examination. Feeling that I had achieved all that was necessary I returned to my brother, and informed him of the result. He said, “It will do me no good, Nettie; it is only a repetition of what has happened every day for weeks past.” I replied, “I will be down tomorrow and see.” Returning to Washington by the last boat, my friends were informed of my work and its results. They felt confident of my success, feeling I was being led “by those who would insure success.”

That evening quite a number of people gathered at Mr. Foster’s, and we held a spiritual séance. I was introduced to quite a number of prominent people, among them the Hon. D.E. Somes, ex-member of Congress from Biddeford, Maine; Mr. Cranston Laurie, for many years statistician for the Post Office Department, and a Judge Hoar of the Interior Department.

Mr. Foster became entranced and gave us one of his grandly eloquent discourses, and at its close he turned to me and assured me that success awaited my efforts in regard to my brother, BUT THAT, “I HAD OTHER AND GREATER WORK TO DO IN THAT CITY.” I thought very little at the time, of the latter part of his prediction, my mind being wholly centred on the purpose of getting brother home. The next day I returned to Alexandria and found that the board of examining surgeons had met and again adjourned after examining a number of patients. Brother had received his ticket, but his name had not been called. He was disappointed and disheartened. I again visited the Headquarters of Surgeon-General Curtis, and explained that my brother’s case had not received attention. I was treated politely, but in a manner that showed me that no interest was taken in the affair. Amid the thousands around them one case was of no more interest than another. Feeling for the first time somewhat apprehensive, I returned to Washington. This being Friday, I was compelled to return to Baltimore on Saturday, to be in readiness for Sunday’s labour in that city.

On Monday morning, by an early train, I returned to Washington. On reaching the home of my friends, the Fosters, I found that Mr. Foster had already gone to his office in the War Department. I therefore awaited his coming home to dinner before taking any further steps. He counselled that I should see Assistant Secretary Tucker, and state the case to him. As it was then too late in the day to do so, I was obliged to defer my call on the secretary until the next day.


Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist?

- 19 -

During the evening we had a quiet, pleasant circle whereat Mr. Foster informed me that during my entrancement I was controlled by a powerful spirit, who, in Mr. Foster’s language, appeared to know exactly what he was about, and that this influence declared that my efforts in regard to my brother would be successful and that he could be on his way home in twenty-four hours, depending upon my following the spirit’s direction, which was to go to Abraham Lincoln and say to him that I had been directed to come, as a crisis in affairs was approaching and that he had important revelations to make, which would aid him materially in an adjustment. The spirit gave assurance that I should be well received, and that Mr. Lincoln would simplify the matter of my brother’s requirements and relieve me of further anxiety, and if I did not follow the spirit’s directions I would meet with many disappointments and annoyances, as it was then decided that I should not leave Washington until the spirit had obtained the desired interview with Mr Lincoln before the dawn of the new year, and with or without my consent that he would bring about such a meeting in his own way.

Mr. Foster talked with me long and earnestly with me on the subject, and I told that I had once before been directed in a similar manner to seek the President- of my sensitiveness in the matter, giving the reasons for not obeying. I added that I felt Mr. Lincoln would be justified in handing me over to the police, as an escaped lunatic, should I go to him upon so strange an errand. At that time Mr. Foster did not know President Lincoln, but had seen him many times; he nevertheless assured me that I should not hesitate, and offered to go with me if I would obey the spirit’s direction. I again flatly refused, which afterwards had good cause to regret.

Reaching the office at ten o’clock the next day, my disappointment was great to find Mr. Tucker was not at his office. I waited an hour, but still he did not come, and leaving, returned at two o’clock, when he received me with the same kindly manner that had characterised him from the first; and, having heard my story, he took up the white envelope lying upon his desk, and rapidly wrote the following words: “The surgeon commanding will give his immediate attention to the case of A.S.Colburn, sixteenth Conn. Regt. Per order Secretary of War.” Folding this envelope, he handed it to me, saying: “ I think this will be all you require.” The following morning I started for Alexandria. I found no change in the situation, save that my brother was more feeble, and I went at once to headquarters and inquired for Dr. Curtis.

I was told he had returned to the city; that it was impossible to see him or any of his staff. Not knowing the all-potent weapon I carried in my pocket, in the shape of a simple envelope, I retreated before the forbidding appearance of the clerks, who had come to remember me and my frequent application. Going to my brother, I comforted him as well as I could, promising him I would come by an earlier boat on the next day.

Thursday saw me again at Alexandria, and on this occasion I was told that no more sessions were to be held at this camp; that the camp was about to be moved to new quarters, several miles distant; and that the board would not meet again at this point. Feeling sick and discouraged, it required all my powers of mind and body to encourage my brother and bid him hope for some more favourable turn in affairs. Leaving him with the delicacies I had brought, hoping to tempt his appetite, I returned to Washington, dispirited and disheartened. Mr. Foster advised me to see Mr. Tucker in the morning. On Friday morning I presented myself before him, and the sight of my


Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist?

- 20 -

rueful face caused him to ask with some concern if my brother was released. I stated to him the discouragement I had met with. He then quietly asked me, “Did you show any of the officials the paper which I gave you?” I looked up in surprise and said, “No, sir! I have it in my pocket now.” A quiet smile broke over his face, and he said: “I can do nothing more than that for you. You go back today,” and looking at his watch he said, “You will have time to catch the boat. Go to Gen. Curtis’s headquarters, and present that paper; I think that is all you will need to do.”

A little more hopeful, I was soon on my way down the river. Entering the campground, I was startled to find a scene of desolation and desertion that is nowhere equalled save, it may be, on a deserted battlefield. Where, the day before, had been a sea of tents, extending as far as the eye could reach over the rolling hillside, only a cluster here and there remained; but the ground was strewn with the evidences of the late encampment. Little chimneys of blackened brick rising on every side of the trampled earth, the worn-out canteen, and the general debris of the deserted camp met the eye in every direction. Going to my brother’s quarters, I found that he, with a number of others, had been left behind, there not being room in the ambulances to carry all, or he would have been removed that day to the new hospital grounds in the interior. Without shelter, they must wait until the following day before they could follow in the wake of their late companions. Frightened at the situation and his shelterless state, with every evidence of a threatening storm, I hurried to the house on the hilltop, where there were still signs of life and activity.

On this occasion, as the clerk was about to uncivilly pass me by, I presented the paper Secretary Tucker had given me. He took it from my hand, read it, and his face turned scarlet. His cap was off in a moment, and, bowing most politely, he said: “Please take a seat, madam; we will see what can be done.” In an instant, all was changed. Three or four surgeons were immediately at my command. They informed me that while it was a little irregular, yet, they, being regular army surgeons, had power to examine and decide upon his case. My brother was immediately sent for. An impromptu board was formed, and he was thoroughly examined, and I received at the hands of these polite officers a strong recommendation of a furlough for my brother. They asked me if they should forward it to Washington. I asked if it would do any harm for me to carry it and present it in person. They said, “No harm whatever; it might expedite matters somewhat.” As this was what I desired, I took the document, encased in a white official envelope, and retreated from their presence in triumph.

I was beginning to learn the power of those magical words, “PER ORDER OF THE SECRETARY OF WAR.” The colonel of an Indiana regiment, stationed just under the hill, offered shelter and care for my brother until the result of the application for the furlough should be known. Leaving him for the first time hopeful, and full of visions of home, I returned to the city with my precious paper.

The next day, at nine o’clock, I was obliged to return to Baltimore, to meet my Sunday’s engagement. The following Monday I returned to Washington, and going at once to Secretary Tucker’s room, showed him my paper, and explained how quickly the paper he had given me had changed the state of affairs. He quietly smiled, and taking another envelope wrote upon it these words: “Gen. Heintzelman will please give this case his immediate attention. Per order of the Secretary of War.” Handing me this envelope, which I placed in my pocket, he handed me back the recommendation, and told me to go to Gen. Heintzelman’s office on the opposite side


Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist?

- 21 -

of Pennsylvannia Avenue, saying he hoped all would be well - cordially shaking hands with me, expecting, no doubt, he had seen the last of his troublesome little visitor.

On going in at the front door I was bewildered by the number of clerks moving in every direction, and I knew not whom to accost. At last, I stepped towards a clerk, who had paused for a moment in the centre of the room, and asked if I could see Gen. Heintzelman. He said, “He is too busy, madam, and cannot be seen.” I was about to draw the magical envelope forth from my pocket, when a small, dapper little man with blond moustache, who evidently felt the full measure of the shoulder straps, stepped up to me, and said, “did you wish to see him about a furlough?” I responded in the affirmative. He replied, “That matter comes under my department. Please step around to my office. Going as directed, he received me in his office, and, taking the paper I had, turned it carefully over, and turning to me with a frown, said, “Why did this paper not come through the mail in the regular form?” I replied that I hoped to expedite the matter by bringing it in person. He said, “Very well; we will see.” I timidly asked when he could have his furlough; feeling there could be no possible reason for refusing it. He replied, “I cannot tell; it has first to go to the recorder’s office.”

Completely overpowered by his bombastic manner, I ventured to ask when I could call to get an answer. “Come around tomorrow,” he responded curtly. In the pauses of this interesting conversation I had heard him addressed, if memory serves correctly, as Captain DeKalb. Feeling greatly worried, I left the office and took the afternoon boat to Alexandria to inform my brother of the progress made and to see that all was well with him. Under the care he had received in the Indiana regiment, he was feeling somewhat better, but growing anxious. Save for this remnant, there were no soldiers left on all that wide campground. The house on the hill was deserted. I had just time to reassure my brother and catch the last boat back to the city.

The following morning at eleven o’ clock I presented myself at Capt. DeKalb’s office. He said the paper had not been returned to him, and he could not tell when it would be. I tried to explain the situation of my brother, when he interrupted me in a very impertinent manner, saying. “Your interference in the regular routine of business may probably defeat the furlough any way.” Startled at this unceremonious announcement, I had just enough voice to ask if I should return the next day. He replied, “You can do so, but I cannot promise anything.” I left the office for the first time with tears blinding my way, and I stumbled against a gentleman who was passing in the street. We glanced, recognised each other, and were shaking hands, each pleased to meet a familiar face in a strange city. The gentleman proved to be a Mr. Betts, of Albany, a wealthy gentleman of that city and a prominent member of our society. Mr. Betts walked with me down to the green house opposite the Treasury building, and I related to him as briefly as I could my long efforts and the result. He said, quickly, “My advice is that you go at once to Secretary Tucker and state the case to him.”

As it was now too late to visit the secretary’s office, it being past three o’clock, I went to Mr. Foster’s. Not wishing to trouble Mr. Foster again, if it avoidable, at eleven o’ clock I again sought Capt. DeKalb’s office. He met me with the curt statement that the paper was lost and could not be found; that he had sent to the recorder’s office for it, but that they had no knowledge of it. Going from his office, I went directly to Mr. Tucker’s presence. I told him my story, and again the quiet smile stole over his face as


Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist?

- 22 -

he asked me, “Where is the envelope I gave you to Gen. Heintzelman?” I quickly put my hand in my pocket and drew it forth. He said, “Why did you not present it?” I replied, “Because I was told he could not be seen.” The reply caused him to smile again, and he said, “You take that and hand it to any one of the clerks, telling them it is for Gen. Heintzelman.”

As I left the office I met Mr. Betts, who offered to be my escort, which favour was gladly accepted. Entering again the front door, the same busy scene presented itself to my eyes as on the former occasion. A clerk stepped forward and asked me what I wanted. I desired him to hand the paper to Gen. Heintzelman. As it was open, he read without trouble, and doffing his cap, which he had not chosen to do up to that moment, he quickly placed chairs for myself and my companion, and in another moment the fine soldierly presence of Gen. Heintzelman was beside me. His hands were full of papers, and he looked the hurry that his tones conveyed. “What can I do for you, madam?” he kindly inquired. I briefly stated my brother’s case; my application there; Capt. Kebalb’s taking possession of the paper; also his statement of the morning that the paper was lost. He rose with an angry frown on his face, saying, “Excuse me a moment”, and left me. High words from the office near me reached my ears, and I felt that the dapper little captain was getting a rebuke from his superior officer. The general returned in a few moments, and, politely bowing, said, “Return at one o’clock and I think the paper will be found.” It wanted an hour of the time. Mr. Betts went with me to the post office, where we made a call upon Mr. Laurie, to while away the time.

Gladness & Sadness