President Abraham Lincoln “possessed extraordinary kindness of heart when his feelings could be reached,” wrote Treasury official Mansell B. Field in his memoirs. “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.”
Lincoln, who decided to leave his dog Fido home in Springfield, Ill., when he was elected president, was given an unexpected gift of two kittens from Secretary of State William Seward.
The president doted on the cats, which he named Tabby and Dixie, so much that he once fed Tabby from the table during a formal dinner at the White House.
When Lincoln’s embarrassed wife later observed that the action was “shameful in front of their guests,” the president replied, “If the gold fork was good enough for former President James Buchanan, I think it is good enough for Tabby.”
“Dixie Is Smarter Than My Whole Cabinet”
Lincoln’s friend Caleb Carman recalled how the president would pick up one of the cats and “talk to it for half an hour at a time.” The cats apparently won the president over with their quiet adoration.
At one point during his first term, Lincoln was said to have observed in frustration, “Dixie is smarter than my whole cabinet! And furthermore she doesn’t talk back!”
Lincoln Loved Stray Cats
Lincoln had a special affinity for stray cats and was known to bring them home on occasion. Mrs. Lincoln even referred to cats as her husband’s “hobby.”
When she was visiting her father and stepmother in Kentucky, for example, Mary wrote in a letter to her husband that their son Eddy had taken up “your hobby” by adopting a stray kitten.
At General Ulysses S. Grant‘s headquarters in City Point, Va., during the siege of Petersburg in March 1865, just weeks before his assassination, Lincoln found his attention distracted by the sound of mewing kittens.
Admiral David Porter wrote later that he was struck by the sight of the president “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.”
Porter recalled that Lincoln stroked the cats’ fur and quietly told them, “Kitties, thank God you are cats, and can’t understand this terrible strife that is going on.”
Before leaving a meeting in the officers’ tent that day, Lincoln turned to a colonel and said, “I hope you will see that these poor little motherless waifs are given plenty of milk and treated kindly.”