Abraham Lincoln wasn’t perfect, knew it, admitted it. Sometimes he went out of his way to apologize for his mistakes. Even when no one was pouting.
On July 13, 1863, mid-Civil War, Lincoln sent this letter to General U.S. Grant:
My dear General
I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did — march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.
Yours very truly
I ran across another of Lincoln’s apologies, though not with exact text. This too was mid-Civil War. It seems to have been recounted by Edwin D. Morgan, sometime Governor of New York, Senator from New York, and wartime major general of volunteers.
At the White House, Lincoln was besieged by people with all kinds of requests and petitions. He (and his family) often took refuge at a house on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, a few miles away. One day he was pursued from the White House to the Soldiers’ Home by a former soldier who had been turned away by everyone else. Lincoln told the man to leave.
The next day he searched out the soldier, apologized to him for showing “rudeness [to] one who had offered his life for his country” and asked for his forgiveness. Anthony Gross writes, “Taking him into his carriage, the President got him out of his troubles.”
When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton heard about this, Stanton apologized to Lincoln for having turned the man away. “No, no, you did right in adhering to your rules. If we had such a soft-hearted fool as I am in your place, there would be no rules that the army or the country could depend on.”
That’s not just a good apology. If you include Stanton, it’s an apology and a half.
Grant doesn’t seem to have learned much about apologies from Lincoln, as seen in the “Orders 11” incident. Orders 11 was a wartime (1862) order from Grant kicking Jews out the Department of Tennessee (parts of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky) because some were speculating in cotton. The wartime black market in cotton was a horrible drain on the General’s time, with people constantly asking for special cotton-dealing permits. Among the people pestering Grant may have been his annoying father, Jesse Grant.
Grant’s beef seems to have been with all cotton traders, and he focused on the Jewish traders, because that always rings a bell, and perhaps because his maddening dad was trying to get him to issue a trade permit for a Jewish partner. Grant probably didn’t intend to expel Jews who were not cotton traders, but that was how his order were interpreted by zealous subordinates.
When Lincoln heard about the Orders, he sent a note to Grant: “A paper purporting to be General Orders, No. 11, issued by you December 17, has been presented here. By its terms, it expells all Jews from your department. If such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked.”
Grant revoked it.
When Grant ran for President in 1868, the issue was brought up against him. Grant said,“I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit. Orders No. 11 does not sustain this statement, I admit, but then I do not sustain that order. It never would have been issued if it had not been telegraphed the moment it was penned, and without reflection.”
In other words, “That’s not what I think, it’s just what I did. I take it back. I WAS BUSY FIGHTING A WAR, YOU’RE WELCOME.”
That’s not so much an apology as an explanation. “I never meant it, I was just in a hurry.” But it seems to have been true, or to have come true. Grant
appointed an unprecedented number of Jews to political offices, and was the first president to attend the dedication of a synagogue. (He stayed for the full three hours, which is impressive, unless he fell asleep.)
Grant also opposed a scheme to amend the Constitution to cite “the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations.” I don’t know if that had to do with Jews, or simply with the principle of separation of church and state, but for me it goes a long way towards making up for a lousy apology.