Once upon a time, a young Abe Lincoln came to Norwich — in part to campaign for himself and also to campaign for his good friend, Gov. William Buckingham. It was March, 1860, and on that historic visit he first refreshed himself in his room at the Wauregan Hotel, and he dined at Buckingham’s mansion on Main Street (Buckingham Memorial). Then, Abe was off to City Hall, on Jail Hill.
Abe Lincoln’s visit was just one of many historic events in this city of Norwich, called “The Rose of New England.” The term “Norwich, the Historic City” would be more appropriate.
In earlier years, George Washington dined with area leaders at the Leffingwell Inn. President Andrew Jackson came to town to pay homage at the monument of the great Chief Uncas.
President Taft, in 1909, came to help us celebrate our 250th anniversary. Harry Truman spoke from the back of his campaign train in 1949, and Bill Clinton came and spoke at NFA and visited with legendary pharmacist, John Kiszkiel.
All of these brief visits were compliments to this old town, but I thought, in view of Lincoln’s birthday Friday, and Washington’s birthday coming up on the 22nd, it might be nice to mention the presidents who have stopped in Norwich.
While Lincoln spoke at great length at City Hall, the remarks he made on a train became one of his most historic rides because a reporter accompanied Abraham Lincoln and recorded their conversation.
It was the morning after his talk at Norwich City Hall, at the railroad station, when he was approached by the Rev. J.P. Gulliver who was writing an article for the New York Independent. As Gulliver approached him, Lincoln said, “I have seen you before, sir!” to which Gulliver replied, “I think not. You must mistake me for some other person.”
Lincoln responded, “No, I don’t. I saw you at town hall last evening.”
The reporter was astonished and said to Lincoln, “Is it possible, Mr. Lincoln, that you could observe individuals so closely in such a crowd?”
“Oh, yes!” replied Lincoln as he laughed. “That is my way. I don’t forget faces.” Then he asked the reporter, “Were you there?” “I was, sir, and I was well paid for going.”
They spoke so differently in those days, and it was a time in the history of Norwich when we were one of the major centers of commerce and transportation in all New England.
Coming for Norwich
Imagine, the governor, William Buckingham, was from Norwich, and in Washington, D.C., the United States senator from Connecticut was Lafayette Foster, former mayor of Norwich. While it was hidden from their eyes, Lincoln would be elected president and would later be assassinated, and the man from Norwich, Lafayette Foster, would then become vice president.
As the train pulled into the station, Abraham Lincoln bid farewell to the mayor, Amos Prentice, and beckoned the reporter to sit with him. As they sat down, Lincoln asked, “Were you sincere in what you said about my speech just now?”
“I meant every word of it Mr. Lincoln. In fact, an old dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who sat near me said, ‘I don’t believe a word he says, but I can’t help clapping him, he is so pat.’ That, I call the triumph of oratory,” to which Lincoln said, “When you convince a man against his will, he is of the same opinion still.” And so, that great quote attributed to Lincoln was spoken in Norwich.
Today’s column includes actual quotes — words spoken by Lincoln — and they give me some insight into the genius of the man who would, years later, speak at Gettysburg and would capture the moment with the historic Gettysburg Address that lasted three minutes.
The people of Norwich love history, and they prove it so often. Do you all remember, back in 1997, when, at auction, Dave Whitehead, of The Norwich Bulletin, purchased the Lincoln banner? Bob Reed and Johnny London, of WICH, and Keith Fontaine, of The Bulletin, promoted the restoration, and $40,000 was raised. Today that banner is proudly displayed at City Hall to remind the world that Abe Lincoln once stopped by.
It was John Morosko who conceived the idea and, thankfully, our city clerk, Beverly Muldoon, got the first call about the availability of the banner. She realized its importance and if she hadn’t, it would have been lost. It was then that the whole town of Norwich rallied and got the job done.
Next week, Feb. 22, it will be Washington’s birthday, celebrated as the first president. He is, in fact, the 11th president as we in Norwich have the honor of hosting the first president of the United States, Samuel Huntington. To be sure, Washington is “father of our country” and under today’s Constitution the first president. But, in actual fact, there were 10 men before him who served as president of under the Articles of Confederation in Congress Assembled. They all served a year or less, and Samuel Huntington was the first.
Other towns celebrate their history. In Salem, Mass., they even host the witches. Sturbridge Village celebrates I don’t know what, but the tourists come. Norwich is truly the history city and as the nation celebrates Washington’s birthday, Connecticut and Norwich should celebrate Samuel Huntington’s birthday.
All of you who read my columns weekly know how much I love this city and its history. I wonder if you know how much it troubles me that, unlike Valley Forge, Ticonderoga and Mount Vernon, we are not recognized nationally for the contributions we have made to this country and to American history.
As the city gathered around the restoration of the Abe Lincoln banner and contributed $50,000 to completely restore the tomb of Samuel Huntington, we must one day package our history to attract historians, students and tourists.
There is so much history in this town that even the residents don’t know. In our younger years, from Uncas, John Mason, Samuel Huntington, Benedict Arnold, Lafayette Foster and William Buckingham — all giants in American history — are all well known, but the town of their origin has done nothing to promote its extraordinary history.