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A Quote Too Good to be True?

When I shifted to historical fiction after four decades writing lots of Star Trek novels and comic books, I decided to start each chapter of my Galloway’s Gamble novels with a relevant quote from either real people or my characters, hoping to give readers some extra perspective and entertainment, and help them get oriented to the action.

Inspired by the documentaries of filmmaker Ken Burns—which feature “voices” of the past gleaned from letters, diaries, and other sources—quotations from actual historical figures seemed like a good way to frame my stories with reality. Searching the internet for just the right words of wisdom, I found gems from many sources—Shakespeare and other authors, the Bible, and such humorists as Mark Twain (below) and Will Rogers commenting on the issues of their day.

But what if a perfect quotation seems too good to be true—like the one I came across in George Will’s Washington Post column of April 14, 2021? Will described City University of New York historian Ted Widmer’s well-reviewed 2020 book, Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington, as “a detailed record of, and meditation on, the president-elect’s February 1861 railroad journey from Springfield, Ill., to Washington. In the 1850s, the rhythm of Abraham Lincoln’s political career had been quickened to what he called the ‘eloquent music’ of railroads that whisked him around the North and into the West.”

The “eloquent music” of railroads—what an evocative phrase! Also fitting for me, since part of Galloway’s Gamble 2 deals with the mightiest engineering feat of the age—the construction of the transcontinental railroad, linking America from coast to coast at a time when much of this land was still wilderness.


And if Abraham Lincoln ain’t quotable, who is?


But when and in what context did Lincoln utter those words? What was the full quotation? I got Widmer’s book from the library and found the source of Will’s reference on page 81, where Widmer wrote: “The snort of locomotives was distinctly audible in the background as Lincoln’s career accelerated in the years leading up to his election. He described that sound as an ‘eloquent music,’ and it is easy to see why it pleased him.”

Next, I followed Widmer’s footnote to The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 4, page 204 (found online). During the Thirteen Days detailed in Widmer’s gripping account, Lincoln and his entourage traveled a purposefully indirect route through the Midwest and Northeast (where most of his votes had come from). Along the way, Lincoln's train whistle-stopped in scores of towns and cities, where he was greeted by crowds curious about their next president. He hoped to build support for an administration at high risk of being immediately crippled by Southern secession over the issue of slavery.

On February 13, 1861, the president-elect's train pulled into London, Ohio. The next day’s London National Democrat newspaper reported Lincoln's brief remarks, which probably took less than a minute: “Fellow citizens, I do not appear before you to make a speech, and have not strength nor time to do so. If I were to undertake to make a speech at every station, I should be completely tuckered out before I reached the capital. I perceive a band of music present, and while the iron horse stops to water himself, I would prefer they should discourse in their more eloquent music than I am capable of.”


The Collected Works adds this annotation: “Although Lincoln made similar short speeches at other stops between Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, this is the only text which has been located in a contemporary newspaper.”

Go back to Lincoln’s third sentence, where he says: “I perceive a band of music present, and while the iron horse stops to water himself, I would prefer they should discourse in their more eloquent music than I am capable of.” (my italics)

After some careful parsing of the entire quote, it seems to me that Lincoln’s phrase “more eloquent music” isn’t a poetic reference to the sounds of the train, but a literal reference to the actual music being played by the band at the depot. With characteristic humble humor, Lincoln is basically saying, “The band sounds better than me.”

What do you think?

I believe Widmer’s otherwise excellent book somehow misinterpreted what Lincoln meant by “eloquent music.” And, with no reason to doubt Widmer, Will simply passed that along to his readers. I did send Will an email about what I’d learned, but never got a reply. As to how Widmer may have made what I think was a mistake, it’s possible a student researcher got carried away by what seemed like a perfect quote. 

Which, for my purposes, ended up being “too good to be true,” and not quite true enough for me to use in Galloway’s Gamble 2: Lucifer & The Great Baltimore Brawl.

Galloway's Gamble and Galloway's Gamble 2: Lucifer & The Great Baltimore Brawl are both available in paperback and ebook editions from



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