The kittens opened their eyes when they heard a new voice in the tent. Over the first weeks of their lives, after their ears had unfurled, they had grown dimly accustomed to the rise and fall of male voices, the quick step of boots in and out of the tent, and the click of the telegraph machine. This new voice, however, was thin and reedy, shrill enough to break through the kittens’ restless sleep.
The trio blinked and stirred on their scratchy blanket in the tent’s warmest corner. They looked for their mother, as they had everyday for the past week, but saw only boots. Mud-caked boots, cracked boots, and dusty boots. One pair of boots paced and two pairs sported cavalry spurs. Some boots hovered above the ground on the ends of crossed legs.
Since the day their eyes first opened, the kittens had seen only boots. They didn’t have the strength to stand; they could barely raise their heads. At three weeks, they wobbled off their blanket, but couldn’t yet jump or climb to a higher vantage point. In a mass of downy fur, the kittens stumbled through the tent, searching for their mother.
It was a morning in late March when the visitor’s strange voice woke the kittens. They blinked and stared at the familiar sea of boots through blurred eyes. Then, as they did each time they awoke, they crawled off the blanket, mewing for their mother. In a heap, they sidled along the perimeter of the tent, such cries coming from their small mouths, that the men gathered around the telegraph turned.
The visitor turned toward the kittens and crouched, although his six foot and four inch frame still loomed over them.
“Where is your mother?” he asked.
“Those are our orphans, Mr. President,” one man told the newcomer. “Their mother died, and so did most of the litter. These were the only ones that survived.”
Gargantuan hands reached for the kittens, but they hardly noticed as they continued to cry and press against each other. The visitor cupped them in his hands, and lifted them to his lap. The other men fell silent as the three tufts of grey shifted and slid on his dark trousers trying to find their balance. The President stroked their heads with a single finger, and the kittens soon stopped crying.
“Kitties,” he said. “Thank God you are cats, and can’t understand this terrible strife that is going on.”
Silence filled the space as the men watched the President cuddle the kittens. Even the telegraph had ceased clicking. Only the muffled sounds of soldiers and horses moving about the camp permeated the tent.
“Poor little creatures,” Lincoln murmured, his thin voice turning warm. “Don’t cry, you’ll be taken good care of.”
He pulled a clean handkerchief from his pocket, and dabbed at the kittens’ eyes, wiping away the mucus. The little ones could now see clearly for the first time, but it hardly mattered. They buried their tiny noses into the folds of Lincoln’s trousers and snuggled against him.
Lincoln glanced up at Colonel Bowers, who was standing off to the side, smoking a cigar.
“Colonel, I hope you will see that these poor little motherless waifs are given plenty of milk and treated kindly.”
“I will see, Mr. President, that they are taken in charge by the cook of our mess and are well cared for.”
Lincoln turned his gaze back on the kittens, stroking them. The officers standing around him looked at each other, silent questions in their eyes. Lincoln had come to the Army of the Potomac’s Union headquarters at City Point, Virginia to be briefed on what they all hoped would be the final advance of the war. This was the eve of battle. The Union forces were about to launch the last phase of the siege of Petersburg, aimed at cutting off the supply source for Lee’s Confederate army. There was much planning still to do. Colonel Bowers raised his eyebrows at Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter, nodding at the map spread out on the table, silently asking if they should get on with the work. Porter gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head, and the men turned away from Lincoln, shuffling papers and lighting cigars.
The President noticed none of this. The kittens had curled into a warm heap on his lap, kneading his trousers with their miniature paws. Their eyes were closed, and breathing was deep. Lincoln bent his gangly frame over them, listening. He heard a faint rumble that swelled with every breath. Their first purrs.
Lincoln’s face was hidden from the officers, who were huddled around the map. But if they could have caught a glimpse, they would have seen the deep wrinkles on his forehead softened with tenderness, the hint of a smile on his lips and a warmth in his eyes as he stroked the little bodies. The sadness that forever weighed upon him had dissipated.
In the days to follow, Lincoln would continue to care for the kittens. Officers and troops around the camp would see him scooping them up, wiping their eyes and comforting them. One officer was moved by the connection, and wrote, “Quite a sight it was, at an army headquarters, upon the eve of a great military crisis in the nation’s history, to see the hand which had affixed the signature to the Emancipation Proclamation tenderly caressing three stray kittens.”
But in that particular moment, as the President stroked the kittens for the first time, the war faded for President Lincoln. The thousands of dead and dying soldiers, the nation torn apart by four years of vicious battle, the uncertainty of the coming siege, the screaming headlines, the endless struggle against egos, politics and deception…it all disappeared. In that moment, he felt only the downy fur and fragile bones beneath his fingertips. He felt the steady breathing and the faint vibration of purring that grew stronger with each inhale. Lost in their first deep sleep of contentment, the kittens kneaded the President’s lap and burrowed into each other. In that moment, the grief of losing their mother faded. Lincoln sighed and the kittens purred on. In that one moment, the President and the kittens found peace.