Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.
Chicago, Nov. 26, 1860
When the president-elect left Chicago at the end of his six-day political visit, he was also leaving behind an old friend – indeed, a longtime bedmate. In his late 20s and early 30s, Abraham Lincoln had been emotionally closer to Joshua Speed than to anyone else he ever knew, probably including his wife. As young bachelors in Springfield, Ill., they shared a bed for four years; the president and first lady, on the other hand, would keep separate bedrooms in the White House.
Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Ky.
“No two men were ever more intimate,” Speed would recall. Lincoln himself wrote to Speed in 1842: “You know my desire to befriend you is everlasting – that I will never cease, while I know how to do any thing.”
Yet the pair had quickly drifted apart after each man married. By 1860, they probably had not seen each other in well over a decade, and even their letters had grown infrequent. Speed had moved to Kentucky and become a slaveholder. Lincoln wrote that a “philosophical cause” – probably involving their differences over slavery – had caused their friendship to “die by degrees.”
Then, a week after Lincoln’s election to the presidency, Speed wrote to congratulate him on attaining “the highest position in the world” – and, although confessing himself “a political opponent,” offered to share information on the climate in his crucial border slave state. (As if atoning for their years of separation, he signed the letter, “I am as ever your friend, J.F. Speed.”) Lincoln almost immediately invited Speed and his wife to meet him and Mary in Chicago the following week. Lincoln was eager to take the political temperature of Kentucky; Speed was a slaveholder – and a Democrat – he could trust. But no doubt he was also moved by Speed’s gesture of friendship, and eager to see his old companion at that moment of personal triumph and national crisis.
Speed and his wife, Fanny, arrived at the Tremont House hotel to find Lincoln worn and exhausted, his suite besieged by admirers and office-seekers. But the president-elect perked up at the sight of his friend. “Speed, have you got a room?” Lincoln asked. “Name the hour, Speed, and I will come and see you, and will bring my wife.” But then he thought better of including the women. “Mary and Fanny can stay here,” he said. “Let’s you and I go to your room.”
As soon as the two men were alone together, Lincoln seemed to resume their old intimacy, flopping down onto the bed. “Speed, what are your pecuniary conditions?” the president-elect asked. “Are you rich or poor?” Apparently he meant to offer the Kentuckian a post in his administration, perhaps as secretary of the treasury.
Speed, grasping where the conversation was going, quickly headed Lincoln off: “I do not think you have any office within your gift that I can take.”
But their old friendship rekindled that day in Chicago. Throughout Lincoln’s presidency, Speed would serve as a valued adviser and operative; in the spring of 1861 he helped arm Kentucky’s Unionist forces. He visited the White House often. There is no evidence, however, that Lincoln and Speed ever again shared a bed.
In the 19th century, the boundary between comradeship and sexuality – never a perfectly sharp one – was especially blurry. (Trivia question: which famous Civil War general wrote to a male friend: “I would that we might lie awake in each others arms for one long wakeful night”?) The true nature of Lincoln and Speed’s youthful relationship in Springfield will no doubt be debated for a long time to come. Certainly it is hard to imagine two people sleeping together for four years – especially two large men in a small 19th-century bed – without a great deal of physical intimacy. We do know that they were sexually frank with one another; Speed admitted that the two shared the favors of the same prostitute. (He introduced her to his friend after young Abe asked, “Speed, do you know where I can get some?”) But exactly what they did, or didn’t do, under the covers during more than a thousand nights together is probably unknowable.
Even Speed admitted that there were parts of his friend’s inner self that remained a mystery to him. “Now for me to have lived to see such a man rise from point to point … until he reached the presidency, filling the presidential chair in the most trying times that any ruler ever had, seems to me more like fiction than fact,” he wrote after Lincoln’s death. “Mr. Lincoln was so unlike all the men I had ever known before or see or known since that there is no one to whom I can Compare him.”