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Abe Lincoln and Smith Stimmel

4/14/2006:

On this day in 1865, Abraham Lincoln died after being shot the night before at the Ford Theatre in Washington. Seventy years later, to the day, Smith Stimmel died in Fargo. What’s the connection? Stimmel was one of Lincoln’s bodyguards.

In 1863, Governor Todd of Ohio visited Washington and was alarmed by the lack of security at the Capitol and for the president, himself. Todd went back to Ohio and founded the Union Light Guard, also known as the Black Horse Cavalry. He recruited one man from each of Ohio’s 103 counties, including 19 year-old Smith Stimmel, to become bodyguards for the President.

Stimmel had served in the Civil War for three months the previous year. He reenlisted and left for Washington, where he was to “guard the front entrance to the White House grounds and to act as an escort to the President whenever he went out in his carriage or when he rode on horseback...”

Stimmel didn’t care for Vice President Johnson, but he very much liked President Lincoln. “When not on duty,” he later wrote, “it was our privilege to attend Lincoln’s public receptions if we wished... In those days, public officials and the elite of society were not quite as sensitive as they seem to be nowadays about the presence of a common soldier wearing a soldier’s uniform.”

Stimmel was present on May 8th, 1864, when Lincoln first met General Grant. “The President quickly recognized the general as he entered the reception room,” Stimmel wrote, “and without waiting to have him formally presented, he stepped forward and (gave) him an old-fashioned pumphandle shake, saying... ‘How are you General Grant? I am glad to see you.’”

Lincoln took nightly strolls that would give today’s Secret Service nightmares. “It was a common thing,” Stimmel said, “to see him going alone from the White House to the War Department late at night, sometimes as late as midnight, and again early in the morning. At that time there was a considerable space between the (two buildings)... The passage way, paved with brick, lay along the north side of a brick wall about four or five feet high, densely shaded by the trees in the park through which the pathway led, and it was dimly lighted by a few flickering gas jets.”

Stimmel was not guarding Lincoln the night he was assassinated. In fact, nobody was, except one non-military man who had gone to a different part of the theater to get a better view of the stage.

Stimmel wrote, “President Lincoln flatly refused to have a military guard with him when he went to places of entertainment or to the church... He said he wanted to go as free and unencumbered as other people...”

Many of the guards were already sleeping when word came that Lincoln had been shot. They galloped to the White House, but nobody was there. The President had been carried to a house near the theater, where Stimmel’s job was to clear the area of civilians and stand guard until 7 a.m. The President died twenty minutes after Stimmel was relieved that morning.

Later, Stimmel earned a law degree, and in 1882, he moved to Fargo to practice law. He also managed a farm near Casselton. He became a member of the Territorial Council and was its last president before North Dakota gained statehood. He was also the last surviving member of the original Union Light Guard when he died on this date in 1935.

Written by Merry Helm