Past & Present / Living History
February 16, 1998 / 20 Shevat, 5758

Isachar Zacharie, Presidential Corn-cutter and confidant

By Herb Geduld

ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING relationships President Abraham Lincoln developed during the Civil War was with an obscure Jewish podiatrist, Isachar Zacharie. Zacharie was an English Jew who had a large pediatric practice in New York and who had treated some of the best-known bunions in America, including those of Henry Clay and William Cullen Bryant.

In September of 1862, he journeyed to Washington to treat Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who recommended his services to Lincoln. Zacharie, who was described by the New York Herald as "a man distinguished by a splendid Roman nose, fashionable whiskers, an eloquent tongue... great skill in his profession, an ingratiating address... and a plentiful supply of moral courage," succeeded in doing much more than removing the pains from the President's pedal digits. He became his close friend and confidant. In a September 24, 1864 editorial, the New York World described Zacharie as having "enjoyed Mr. Lincoln's confidence perhaps more than any other private individual... (and was) perhaps the most favored family visitor at the White House."

In a short time, Zacharie's reputation spread and he started removing corns from the feet of Union Army Generals McClellan, Banks and Burnside as well as various cabinet members. The Union remained standing -- comfortably -- because of the efforts of this Jewish podiatrist.


In January, 1863, Zacharie was sent by Lincoln on a special mission to New Orleans, then under the military governorship of General Banks. Other than removing a few corns on Banks' feet, Zacharie did very little podiatry there, but reported directly to the President on the state of affairs in the occupied city. He also acted as an intermediary between the military government and the civilian population, and was of substantial assistance to the New Orleans Jewish community.

In March, 1863, Zacharie returned to Washington to report to Lincoln, and in the next five or six months he conducted highly secret negotiations for Lincoln and his cabinet on proposals for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy. The cabinet, led by Secretary of War Seward, was very cold to these proposals, but Lincoln went over their heads and personally arranged for safe passage for Zacharie to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy.

Zacharie conferred there with Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish Secretary of State for the Confederacy and other leading Confederate officials. He returned to Washington happy in the thought that his meeting "was of the most friendly nature." Unfortunately, we know nothing about the actual proposals which Zacharie presented to the Confederacy or their specific reply. President Lincoln was delighted with the proposals, but the cabinet, containing many radicals who were determined to destroy the South, was not, and after a number of months, the plan fell into obscurity.

Frustrated as a peacemaker, Zacharie returned to New York to resume cutting toe nails instead of deals. He was honored at a testimonial dinner by the Jewish community and continued to work in local politics for Lincoln's re-election. He wrote to Lincoln on numerous occasions and many of his letters are on file in the Todd Lincoln Archives in the Library of Congress. Zacharie's last written communication from Lincoln was two months before Lincoln's assassination in 1865, when the President granted Zacharie a pass to visit part of his family who had lived in Savannah, Georgia throughout the war.

After Lincoln's death, Zacharie dropped back into obscurity, eventually returning to England, where he died in 1897. His enigmatic role as friend, emissary, politician and spy for Lincoln, a mostly forgotten piece of Americana, should be appropriately remembered on this day.

Jewish historian, cultural maven, and JWR contributor Herb Geduld lives in Cleveland.


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© 1998, Herb Geduld