Anyone who has seen the movie “Lincoln” will be familiar with the way it depicts his relationship with his young son Thomas “Tad” Lincoln and the genuine grief both he and his wife felt over the death, several years before, of Tad’s older brother, Willie. History backs up the film by telling us of the truth of its account and also of the strained relationship with Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s oldest child and the only one to live into adulthood.
Lincoln was far from the “spare the rod and spoil the child” image of most Victorian fathers. In fact many of his close associates in the White House found the young Lincoln children overindulged. At a time when children were to be seen and not heard, Lincoln not only saw them but played with them in a rough house way that they enjoyed in public, of which many contemporary adults found over the top.
But it was not just his own children that amused and delighted Lincoln. Starting in 1909, on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth until their deaths in 1935, the three Dreisbach children- brother Ammon and his sisters Sarah and Elmira- would tell the story to the local press of their meeting with Lincoln when they were children in Illinois.
The story begins with their parents Daniel and Christina Dreisbach. The family’s Pennsylvania German roots had long been in Kreidersville, Allen Township, Northampton County. Apparently hoping to improve their lot in the early 1850’s, Daniel, a shoemaker, and his wife left their home for the booming iron borough of Catasauqua. But in 1858, now with three children, the couple decided to make an even bigger move out west to Illinois. Why they decided to do this then is unknown but it is possible that the economic collapse that followed the Panic of 1857 that is known to have hit the iron industry hard had led to it. One source also suggests that Dreisbach’s employer had decided to relocate and suggested he go along with him to a new shoe factory opening out west. But it was not until 1860 they finally made the move.
Arriving in Clinton, Illinois they checked into the De Witt Clinton Hotel while waiting for their furniture to arrive on a freight train that was following them. For the next several days the Dreisbachs spent their time at the hotel.
It is not known exactly when they first saw Lincoln but it was 9-year-old Ammon who did so first. While playing in the hotel’s lobby he recalled the arrival of a tall man in a high hat carrying a carpet bag. Who he was the boy did not know but he saw from the way all the other adults acted toward him that he must have been someone important.
Chances were good Lincoln was in Clinton to see his long time friend C.H. Moore. Moore met Lincoln in the 1840s when they were riding the legal circuit together. He was also a close friend and business partner of Judge David Davis, Lincoln’s campaign manager.
That evening Ammon recalled looking out his window to see a long line of uniformed men who were singing loudly and marching with torch-like lanterns that were carried on the ends of poles. These were the “Wide Awakes,” a group of Lincoln supporters that was a featured part of Republican campaign rallies in Illinois. Ammon was to note later that at the time he had no idea who they were, only that the man in the tall hat kept looking at them while the other men near him cheered and the Wide-Awakes sang.
But the real surprise came the next day. The children were playing in their room apparently rather loudly. They were speaking in Pennsylvania Dutch, the German dialect that was the first language of many in the Lehigh Valley. Above the din came a loud knock at the door.
It was Lincoln. Although the story does not say so, he either introduced himself to Christina Dreisbach or she recognized him. Lincoln asked her what language it was the children were speaking. Told it was Pennsylvania Dutch, Lincoln asked her if he could speak to them.
He then sat down in a chair and started to talk with the girls. As he sometimes told stories in which an ethnic Pennsylvania German character was included, it is possible that Lincoln knew some words of the dialect. But whatever it was he quickly won the children over. Soon all of them were in his lap as he talked to them. Perhaps doing so made him feel better about his absent children in Springfield.
Lincoln’s visit was apparently a short one. The next day he had left Clinton. In the fall Lincoln would be elected president and leave Illinois, never to see it again.
Daniel Dreisbach, like a lot of other men, was inspired by Lincoln’s words. After Fort Sumter was fired on in April, 1861 he joined the 51st Illinois Infantry Regiment.
They were to see a great deal of action before the Civil War ended but Dreisbach was to see very little of it. In 1862 his wife received a letter from the 51st chaplain, telling her that her husband had become one the members of the 51st that died outside Memphis of typhoid fever. Now a widow with three young children in a place of strangers, Christina Dreisbach returned to the Lehigh Valley.
The Dreisbach children stayed in the Lehigh Valley. Sisters Sarah and Elmira both married and lived to a ripe old age as did brother Ammon. They all died in the 1930s but never forgot the day they met Lincoln.