Friday, September 28, 2007

Book Reviews

I am working on a couple of book reviews. The Madness of Mary Lincoln by Jason Emerson is one of them. It is an important book. I hope to post it sometime within the next week or so.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A "Virtual Book Signing" with Gordon C. Rhea

If you haven’t checked out a “virtual book signing,” be sure to tune in tonight at 6 pm Central over on

Gordon C. Rhea will discuss his new book, In the Footsteps of Grant and Lee: The Wilderness Through Cold Harbor. The book features photographs by Chris E. Heisley. For those of you unfamiliar with Rhea’s work, he has written on the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the North Anna River, and Cold Harbor.

After his talk, Rhea will participate in a “virtual book signing” at The Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago. You can request an autographed copy of his new book! He will also be happy to sign copies of his other books.

Autographed copies of In the Footsteps of Grant and Lee are available for $39.95, plus $7 for shipping. Reserve your copy at or call 312.944.3085.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hellcat or Helpmate?

Mary Todd Lincoln, 1863Sally Field, 2007

Many thanks to Itchy over on the Discussion Board for calling my attention to an article in last week’s issue of Newsweek.

“Hellcat or Helpmate: The Mary Todd Lincoln Saga” is worth taking a look at.

At the beginning of the article, we learn that Sally Field will play Mrs. Lincoln in Stephen Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln film, starring Liam Neeson.

The remainder of the article really cuts to the heart of the controversy over Mary Lincoln’s legacy as first-lady.

Highlights include Jean Baker’s assessment of the Lincoln marriage. “This was a political marriage,” she said. “It’s sort of like Bill and Hillary—a sense that this is something we can do together.”

Historian Catherine Clinton takes the argument a step too far, calling Lincoln’s wife his “political adviser all the way through.”

This is a stretch. There is no evidence to suggest that Lincoln ever asked Mary’s advice regarding policy matters. I can’t picture him asking her how he should respond to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Did he read a rough draft of the “House Divided” speech to her and ask her advice? Did Mary sit in on Cabinet meetings?

Well, no. But she always believed in him. Even in 1842 she loved to tell people she was married to a man who would one day become president of the United States. His political career was hardly a steady ride to the White House, yet despite all those setbacks, Mary never wavered from her view that her husband was destined for greatness.

William Herndon called Lincoln’s ambition “a little engine that knew no rest.” Let’s extend the metaphor and acknowledge that Mary always made sure that the engine had plenty of fuel to burn.

I hope Sally Field is up to the challenge.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"Better to be Thought a Fool..."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University yesterday.

When he was asked about Amnesty International’s reports that homosexuals were executed in Iran, Ahmadinejad dismissed the allegation. “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country…I don’t know who’s told you that we have this,” he said.

The crowd reacted with a mixture of laughter and boos.

What about Ahmadinejad’s history of denying that the Holocaust ever happened?

University President Lee Bollinger read a scathing statement.

“In a December 2005 state television broadcast, you described the Holocaust as a fabricated legend,” he said. “One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers…When you come to a place like this, it makes you simply ridiculous. The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history.”

"There's nothing known as absolute," Ahmadinejad replied. The president of Iran said more research is needed.

There is quite a debate in this country over whether or not Columbia University should have allowed Ahmadinejad on its campus. After watching his performance, I must say, I think it was a good thing.

There is a saying that has been around for more than a century. Some say it originated with Abraham Lincoln, while others claim Ralph Waldo Emerson or Mark Twain said it. Regardless of authorship, it is applicable: “It is better to be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt."

I don’t think Ahmadinejad is a fool, but many of his detractors think he is. Yesterday he supplied them with plenty of ammunition.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Most Misunderstood Document in American History

The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation turned 145 years old last Saturday.

In my view, the proclamation remains one of the most misunderstood documents in American history. Hardly a month goes by without someone asking me via email or in conversation about Lincoln’s role in ending slavery. Perhaps I’m na├»ve, but I usually take such questions at face value—I assume people want to understand a vital issue in American history.

Sometimes, I’m wrong. I’ve encountered more than my share of individuals who approach Lincoln with a much different agenda. They claim they’ve researched the man and his famous “proclamation” and have formed an admittedly unconventional thesis. Perhaps you’ve heard some of their theories about Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation:

1. Lincoln was a liar. He claimed he wouldn’t touch slavery as president, but the Confederacy didn’t believe him so they seceded from the Union. Sure enough, as president, Lincoln did indeed end slavery. Thus, secession was justified because Lincoln could never be trusted.

2. Lincoln lied again. He claimed the Civil War was being fought “To Save the Union” when really it was being fought to “Free the Slaves.”

3. Lincoln was a tyrant who disregarded the U. S. Constitution. He had no constitutional authority to end slavery. Thus, his Emancipation Proclamation reveals his true identity—Lincoln was really America’s King George III.

4. Everything you’ve been taught about the Emancipation Proclamation is false. It did not free a single slave.

5. Lincoln is not the Great Emancipator. He was a racist who did not believe in equality. He even wanted to send all black people back to Africa.

Of course, these are just a handful of their theories on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. But I assure you, such theorizing is not limited to Lincoln and Slavery. Lost Cause Mythology adheres to a long list of Lincoln-related theories, but they all contain a similar theme—Lincoln could not be trusted and the Confederacy was right to secede from the Union.

It hardly matters that Lincoln is routinely ranked among the nation’s “Greatest Presidents.” Nor does it matter that Americans aren’t the only ones who hold him in high esteem. Never mind that people in Tokyo, Nairobi, Moscow, or even Tehran can identify a picture of Lincoln and say something positive about him. The conspiracy theorists will simply say that they have been brainwashed just like the majority of their American counterparts.

Fair enough. I’ve never been a big supporter of popularity contests anyway.

Historical evidence is the only weapon that can combat Lost Cause Mythology. But a word of caution…no matter how well you assemble your evidence or state your case, you won’t change their mind. Nevertheless, the fight is a worthy one.

Friday, September 21, 2007

October 4: "Lincoln and the Law"

If you are interested in Abraham Lincoln’s law career, I suggest a trip to Springfield on October 4.

The 2007 Lincoln Legacy Lecture Series at the University of Illinois in Springfield is titled “Lincoln and the Law.” The program starts at 7 pm in Brookens Auditorium, which is on the lower level of the Brookens Library. The event is free and open to the public.

Like all of the previous lectures in the series, this one features a pair of first-rate scholars who have each written books on Lincoln’s legal career.

Dr. Mark E. Steiner will speak on “‘The Sober Judgement of Courts’: Lincoln, Lawyers, and the Rule of Law.” The American University Presses has named his book, An Honest Calling: The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln, among the “Best of the Best” for 2007.

Dr. Brian R. Dirck will discuss “Abraham Lincoln: The Lawyer in the White House.” His book, Lincoln the Lawyer, which was published earlier this year, examines how Lincoln’s legal background influenced his presidency.

Cullom Davis, the former director of the Lincoln Legal Papers documentary editing project will moderate the discussion.

The late Phillip Shaw Paludan has organized the Lincoln Legacy Lecture Series since its inception. This year’s program is dedicated to him.

Click Here to read the press release.

For more information, contact the Center for State Policy and Leadership at 217.206.6576.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Frederick Douglass IV

Frederick Douglass is one of my favorite characters in American history. At the age of 20, he escaped slavery and went on to become a famed abolitionist, editor, orator, and author.

Initially, Douglass was persuaded by radicals like William Lloyd Garrison, who believed that the United States Constitution was little more than a document that justified slavery. Garrison refused to vote in elections and even ripped up the constitution in public.

However, Douglass eventually parted with Garrison. Instead of working to overthrow the system, Douglass recognized that the constitution contained the mechanism for real change.

I really wish I could have been at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania on Tuesday to hear Frederick Douglass IV talk about his famous great-great-grandfather.

“We all have in ourselves the innate ability to transform our lives for the better,” he told the crowd.

“We all are involved in slavery,” Douglass IV said Tuesday. “It’s a part of our lives. All these things that are part of the American experience have an impact on us. American history is not ‘black history’ or ‘white history.’”

“I encourage young men in particular to resume their responsibility in society—to be full participants. You have to understand how the country functions. You have to vote. You have to become economically viable. Then you can go out in society and have an impact on others,” he said.

According to the story I read, Douglass travels the country talking about the lessons we can learn from the life of Frederick Douglass. If anyone knows where he is scheduled to speak next, send me an email.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Lincoln Circuit Riders

I got a kick out of this story and thought I’d pass it along to you.

The Lincoln Circuit Riders are a group of motorcycle-riding lawyers from Illinois and Indiana who, if you can believe it, enjoy tracing Lincoln’s travels on the Eighth Judicial Circuit each year!

According to the story:

“As Lincoln Rode—So will we” is the motto for a group of Abraham Lincoln enthusiasts, many of whom are lawyers, from Illinois and Indiana who will take part in the second annual Lincoln Circuit Ride.

While Lincoln used horses as his mode of transportation, the Lincoln Circuit riders will take a faster approach—on their motorcycles.

The ride follows the 8th Circuit, the same circuit Lincoln practiced in from 1845 to 1853. The circuit includes 14 counties.

Last year about 35 Lincoln Circuit Riders tried to ride the entire circuit in one weekend, but found it too difficult. This year, they’ve spread the annual ride out over two weekends. The ride from Springfield to Piatt and Champaign counties started last weekend, but if you missed it, don’t worry. The Circuit Riders will complete their journey next weekend, September 29th and 30th .

For those of you who want to get in on the action, I suggest going to the Edgar County Historical Society in Paris, Illinois between 1 and 2 pm on Saturday. Local attorney Bruce Baber will deliver an entertaining lecture about Lincoln’s law practice in Edgar County. In addition, Patsy Berry will be on hand to give a tour of the Edgar County Historical Society, which features a “Lincoln Room.”

The newspaper has also invited “descendants of Lincoln” to attend the festivities. I had to do a quick double-take when I read their invitation. Though there are no direct Lincoln descendants, the paper clarifies who they expect to see.

“A number of Edgar County residents are descendants of Lincoln…Lincoln’s mother was Nancy hanks. Her sister was Sarah Jane Hanks. Sarah had 14 grandchildren, 13 of whom raised families in Edgar County.”

Apparently, there are now “hundreds, if not thousands of Lincoln’s cousins” living in Edgar County, including attorney Bruce Baber.

Good luck to the Lincoln Circuit Riders. If anyone participates in the ride or the lecture, send me an email. I’d love to hear about it!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

What happened when a slave fled his master and entered a free state or territory?

The Articles of Confederation of the New England Confederation of 1643 contained a provision calling for the return of fugitive slaves.

Article VI of the the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 stated “that any person escaping into the same [Territory], from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.”

Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution contained a similar provision, which stated that “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

In response to a conflict between Pennsylvania and Virginia, the U. S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The law denied both current and former slaves constitutional rights. For instance, escaped slaves were not allowed jury trials or the right to present proof of their freedom in court. Assisting an escaped slave was now a federal crime.

Despite such laws and the emergence of a growing number of “slave catchers,” opponents of slavery continued to defy the peculiar institution. Abolitionist societies grew, the Underground Railroad became more sophisticated, and Northern states began passing Personal Liberty Laws. For example, Indiana and Connecticut passed laws that allowed jury trials for accused runaway slaves. New York and Vermont allowed jury trials and provided the accused with attorneys.

The United States Supreme Court entered the fray in 1842. Prigg v. Pennsylvania established the precedent that state authorities could not be forced to act in fugitive slave cases, but that national authorities must carry out national law. Free states such as Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island responded by passing laws forbidding state officials from enforcing the Fugitive Slave Laws.

Today marks the 157th anniversary of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act trumped the personal liberty laws throughout the North. Special commissioners had jurisdiction with the U.S. Circuit and District Courts, as well as courts in the territories. Marshals who refused to enforce the law were fined. Anyone who assisted a runaway slave was brought to justice as well.

Accused runaways were not allowed to testify on their own behalf and were also denied trial by jury. The marshal received $10 for every runaway he returned to slavery, while he received just $5 for every accused runaway that was declared free.

As a result, the number of abolitionists increased and with it the Underground Railroad. Northern states passed new Personal Liberty Laws. In 1859, the Wisconsin Supreme Court even declared the Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional.

Abraham Lincoln spoke about the Fugitive Slave Act. Though he did not think free state residents should be compelled to assist in returning runaway slaves, he did not think the law was unconstitutional, nor should it go unenforced. He understood that it was part of the compromise that kept the Union together. Both Lincoln and Douglas refer to the Fugitive Slave Act throughout the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

However, the issue did not go away. South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas each cited their frustration with Northern opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in their Declaration of Causes for Secession.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Bloodiest Day in American History

Today marks the 145th anniversary of the bloodiest day in American history.

Robert E. Lee crossed the Potomac and entered Maryland with high hopes. If he was successful, he thought the state might join the Confederacy. A major victory might even convince the European powers to formally recognize the Confederate government. Maybe, just maybe, Lee’s raid into Maryland would bring and end to the war, and with it, Confederate independence.

But it didn’t work out that way.

Two armies clashed near Antietam Creek just outside Sharpsburg, Maryland. The battle claimed about 23,000 casualties, including somewhere between 6,300 and 6,5000 killed or mortally wounded.

But really, what does that mean? Historian James McPherson puts those numbers in perspective:

Despite the ghastly events of September 11, 2001, another September day 139 years earlier remains the bloodiest single day in American history. The 6,300 to 6,500 Union and Confederate soldiers killed and mortally wounded near the Maryland village of Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862, were more than twice the number of fatalities suffered in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Another 15,000 men wounded in the battle of Antietam would recover, but many of them would never again walk on two legs or work with two arms. The number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. More American soldiers died at Sharspburg (The Confederate name for the battle) than died in combat in all the other wars fought by this country in the nineteenth century combined: the War of 1812, the Mexcian-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the Indian wars.

First person accounts are another way to find perspective amongst massive numbers. One Union lieutenant colonel offered a vivid account of the battlefield just after the guns drew quiet. “In the road the dead covered the ground,” he wrote. “It seemed, as I rode along, that it was the Valley of Death. I think that in the space of less than ten acres, lay the bodies of a thousand dead men and as many more wounded.” Another soldier had the unenviable task of burying dead Confederates. “Today I was given detaile to burry the Dead Rebels, just where I captured the flag at 2:00 PM of the 17th. 12 lengths of fence being counted off for my station & in 10 rods [55 yards] we have piled and buried 264…& 4 Detailes has been obliged to do likewise, it was a Sight I never want to encounter again.”

Photographer Alexander Gardner and his assistant James F. Gibson reached the battlefield a day after the battle ended. Within hours of learning that the Rebel army had withdrawn from the area, Gardner and Gibson began to photograph the devastation. No other American battlefield had been photographed so soon after a battle.

They took at least 95 photos of the battlefield. Gardner brought the horrors of war to New York City during the third week of October.

Matthew Brady displayed the Gardner photos in his gallery. The New York Times praised the exhibit. “Mr Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yardds and along streets, he has done something very like it,” wrote the reporter; however, “there is one side of the picture that…has escaped photographic skill. It is the background of widows and orphans…Homes have been made desolate, and the light of life in thousands of hearts has been quenched forever. All of this desolation imagination must paint—broken hearts cannot be photographed.”

Wise words from a reporter who understood some of what Walt Whitman said would never get into the books.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Abraham Lincoln Newspaper Archive

I want to tell you about an interesting resource. Yesterday I stumbled upon the Abraham Lincoln Newspaper Archive.

The project has compiled thousands of articles on the sixteenth president from newspapers all across the country. The database is free and fully searchable. You can even view the actual newspaper pages! You can also order full-sized reproduction prints for a fee.

I did a few searches within the archive and thought I’d pass along some initial impressions. The real strength of the collection seems to be in articles dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries from small newspapers. Using this archive, a researcher could examine the way Americans remembered Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, or even the suspension of the right of habeas corpus.

The archive also contains a rich collection of material from 1860 to 1865. For instance, a search of “Gettysburg” in newspapers dating from 1863 to 1865 yields an astonishing 73 different articles! Researchers can read what citizens in Janesville (Wisconsin), Raleigh (North Carolina), and Dubuque (Iowa) thought of Gettysburg. Is it really possible to write a dissertation without using microfilm? Absolutely!

However, researchers interested in Lincoln’s pre-presidential career may be disappointed. For example, I did not find any articles from the two Springfield newspapers, the Sangamo Journal or the Illinois Register. The pickings from 1832 to 1848 are virtually nonexistent. The period between 1850 and 1859 contains a few more hits, but again, without the two Springfield papers, microfilm is still an indispensable resource. But there is an upside. I did find a few articles dating from the late 19th century that contained "reminiscences" from people who knew Lincoln during the Springfield years. There are useful articles buried within the database, but finding them may some patience, as well as a little bit of luck with keywords during the search.

Give the Abraham Lincoln Newspaper Archive a whirl. I certainly had a good time going through it. In the past I would have spent days or even weeks tracking down microfilm. It would have taken me a dozen hours to search through it all. Thanks to the ALNA, I was able to find a handful of articles for my dissertation in about twenty minutes!

I have added a link to this resource on the LINKS page.

PS: Tomorrow is my 30th birthday so I will be taking the day off!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"I'm Going to Congress!"

He had already served four consecutive terms in the Illinois state legislature, but Abraham Lincoln had greater political aspirations. By 1843, he started positioning himself for a run at the United States Congress. Three years later, he earned the Whig Party’s nomination for Congress in the Illinois Seventh Congressional District.

His opponent was renowned circuit-riding Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright. Lincoln had known Cartwright for more than a decade. While the preacher was a man of God, he was also an ambitious politician who manipulated his flock to secure votes. The campaign would not be an easy one.

A few months before the election took place, Lincoln caught wind of some nasty rumors circulating throughout the district. Cartwright men were saying Lincoln was a “scoffer at Christianity.” Lincoln’s friends encouraged him to issue a handbill to set the record straight. On July 31, 1846, Lincoln issued his statement. Though he was “not a member of any Christian Church,” Lincoln claimed he had “never denied the truth of the Scriptures.” He had never “spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.”

During the campaign, Peter Cartwright held a religious revival service in Springfield. Most people assumed it would be a standard Cartwright affair—both spiritual and political. Clearly interested in the latter, Lincoln decided to attend the service.

Cartwright urged his audience to renounce their sinful ways and surrender their soul to their Creator. Amidst the shouts of repentance, Cartwright asked his audience, “Who amongst you is going to heaven? If you are going to heaven, stand up and be counted!”

Everyone in the crowd rose to their feet and began to celebrate. Everyone but Lincoln.

As the crowd took their seats once again, the preacher asked another question. “Who amongst you is going to hell?”

Not a word amongst the crowd.

“If you are bound for hell, I beg you, stand up now, renounce your sinful ways, and join us in heaven!” the preacher exclaimed.

Again, there was silence and no one stood up.

Cartwright had been watching Lincoln.

“Mr. Lincoln,” the preacher said, “you have remained seated throughout the service. If you are not going to heaven and you are not going to hell, just where are you going?”

The crowd turned around and looked at him, waiting for Lincoln's response.

“Why Brother Cartwright, I’m going to Congress!”

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

When the World Comes Crashing Down

Time has a way of standing still when the world comes crashing down. If my grandfather was alive today, he could tell me exactly where he was standing when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both of my parents can vividly remember hearing about the Kennedy assassination. I remember daydreaming in grade school about “my moment.” When would time stop for me?

I thought it happened during my senior year of high school. We wheeled a television into our Spanish class and watched as the jury delivered the verdict in the O. J. Simpson trial. Not guilty? Time stopped. Nobody moved or said a word for at least a minute. I put my hands on my head and stared at the ceiling. It didn’t compute. I still remember the look on my teacher’s face…utter disbelief.

So I figured that was it. My grandparents had Pearl Harbor, my parents had JFK, and I had OJ. Tough break.

Time certainly has a way of changing things.

Six years ago today my mom called me. I could tell something was wrong.

“Are you watching television?” she asked.

“I’m not even out of bed yet, why?”

“Just go turn it on,” she said.

I saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center. When the reporter saw what I saw, his voice trailed off. Nobody moved or said a word. I was a thousand miles away, but I swear it felt like time stopped.

When unthinkable things happen, our mind has a tendency to freeze. We may see the images and hear the sounds, but our brain sends back an error message. It can’t compute the idea. Things don't add up. This just can’t be.

It feels like time stands still when the world comes crashing down, but it isn’t true. Time doesn’t stop for anyone or anything; it is relentless.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Real Items Linked to a Real Story

Last July I reported that Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site was in a bit of turmoil.

“America’s most famous theatre” was to receive an $8.5 million face-lift. Though the site would have been closed to the public for 18 months, the upgrades would have been significant. Plans called for the installation of an elevator and new restrooms, as well as upgrades to the heating, air conditioning, lighting, and sound system.

But plans changed when site officials failed to receive an adequate bid from any of the contractors. Not only was the bidding process reopened, but the historic site remained open to the public.

I am happy to report that Ford’s Theatre has finally found a contractor to carry out the renovation.

This story appeared in several newspapers across the country over the weekend.

Most of the museum’s artifacts will spend the next 18 months out of public view in a temporarily storage facility in Maryland. Gloria Swift, curator of the museum, showed the press some of those amazing artifacts, which include the clothes Lincoln wore on the night of the assassination.

“Isn’t that incredible?” Swift said as she uncovered Lincoln’s black silk tie.

“Aren’t these beautiful?” she said of Lincoln’s size 14 shin-high boots.

Swift also showed reporters the president’s overcoat, which she believes rested on the back of Lincoln’s chair as he watched Our American Cousin. Specially made for the second inauguration, it was embroidered with an eagle, shields and the words, “One Country, One Destiny.” Like the other garments he wore that night, bloodstains are still visible.

“It is very chilling in some cases, knowing what you’re handling. And it’s also very exciting because to me the objects are a true connection to the past…they’re not just things. These are real items [linked] to a real story,” Swift concluded.

Click Here to visit the Ford's Theatre National Historic Site website.

Friday, September 7, 2007

"My Ardent Wish and Most Fervent Soul Prayer"

No one casts a longer shadow over Lincoln studies than William Henry Herndon.

He had known Lincoln for more than a quarter-century, for 17 of those years he was his law partner. The assassination hit Herndon hard, but the “historians” infuriated him. These “eulogizers,” who, he believed, were really just “blind bat-eyed hero worshippers,” were getting it all wrong. They were advancing personal agendas; they were smoothing over the wrinkles and imperfections in Lincoln’s life. They were creating a myth by sacrificing the living man. Herndon was appalled. He knew he was the one who had to correct their mistakes.

Less than a month after the funeral train arrived in Springfield, Herndon decided to “write & publish the subjective Mr Lincoln…just as he lived, breathed—ate & laughed in this world.” But it would not be easy. He knew very little about Lincoln’s early life and when he tried to recall what Lincoln had told him about those years, he was only able to remark that Lincoln was “the most shut-mouthed man” who ever lived.

But there were people out there who knew the answers. Herndon immediately recognized the need to interview the people who knew Lincoln best, particularly those who knew him during his earliest days in Kentucky and Indiana. That September, Herndon left Springfield and began one of the earliest oral history projects in American history. During the next two weeks, he interviewed the very people Lincoln seemed to speak about the least: his step-mother, cousins, childhood friends, neighbors, and employers. Today, Herndon’s nearly illegible notes offer one of the clearest views of Lincoln’s muddled early life.

More than twenty years after he began researching, Herndon completed his Lincoln biography. He died just two years later and is buried in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery.

His tombstone reads:

William H. Herndon

Abraham Lincoln’s Law Partner 17 Years

Dec. 25. 1818—Mar. 18. 1891

The struggles of this age and succeeding ages for God and Man—Religion—Humanity and Liberty with all their complex and grand relations—may they triumph and conquer forever, is my ardent wish and most fervent soul prayer.

Febry 23 1858

Wm. H. Herndon

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Real War

Historians are interested in putting the American Civil War into context. For instance, 620,000 soldiers lost their lives in the war. The number itself is staggering, but what does it really mean? If we add up American deaths in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, they still do not surpass American deaths in the Civil War.

But again, what does that mean? Here’s another way to put it. 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War; in other words, the war claimed the lives of about 2 percent of the population. If we had a similar war today, we would lose about 6 million American soldiers.

What would that do to us? What would that do to our collective psyche? Such loss would not only manifest itself in our political and military affairs, but it would certainly influence our movies, music, and literature.

More and more Civil War historians have begun asking those questions. A recent book by Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, asks some of those questions.

More specific studies, such as Garbor Boritt’s The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech that Nobody Knows, examine the apocalyptic scenes of death and dying that take place just after a battle.

Drew Gilpin Faust has a new book coming out next year called This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Faust is interested in uncovering some of what Walt Whitman assured us “will never get in the books.”

Not only am I looking forward to Faust’s new book, but I am intrigued by this new direction many Civil War scholars have chosen to take.

The topic reminds me of one of the most popular songs of the era, called “A Vacant Chair.” Here are the lyrics:

We will meet but we will miss him,
There will be his vacant chair;
We will linger to caress him,
While we breathe our evening prayer;

When a year ago we gathered,
Joy was in his mild blue eye,
But a golden chord is severed,
And our hopes in ruin lie.


We will meet, but we will miss him,
There will be his vacant chair,
We will linger to caress him
While we breathe our evening prayer.

At our fireside, sad and lonely,
Often will the bosom swell
At remembrance of the story,
How our noble father fell;

How he strove to bear our banner
Through the thickest of the fight;
And uphold our country's honor,
In the strength of manhood's fight.

True, they tell us wreaths of glory
Ever more will deck his brow,
But this soothes the anguish only,
Sweeping o'er our heartstrings now.

Sleep today, Oh early fallen,
In thy green and narrow bed.
Dirges from the pine and cypress
Mingle with the tears we shed.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Spotting Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln sells everything from books and movies to t-shirts and shot glasses. As the bicentennial of his birth approaches in 1809, I suspect we will be seeing his image in new and unusual places.

The Associated Press recently ran a story about Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky. Local merchants sell “slingshots and apple-bourbon scented candles graced with Lincoln’s face.” Lincoln’s image even appears on pencil sharpeners and painted gourds.

The executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission has tried to put Lincoln’s marketability into perspective. “Lincoln understood the value of appealing to people. He’s always been commercial,” she explained.

The story got me thinking again about Lincoln in popular culture. Not only does he sell products, but his image is also on the penny and the five-dollar bill…his face is even carved onto the side of a mountain.

The photo above was taken at the Summit Rest Area (Exit 323) on Interstate 80, in Wyoming. Lincoln certainly appears in strange places!

Where have you unexpectedly “spotted Lincoln?”

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Two Civil War Museums for One City?

The capitol of the Confederacy now offers another view of the “War of Northern Aggression.”

For more than a century, the Museum of the Confederacy has called Richmond, Virginia home. The museum features battle flags, uniforms, blood-stained letters, and maps. In addition to celebrating the valor of Confederate soldiers, it also reinforces several aspects of Lost Cause mythology.

A recent visitor summed up the experience for a reporter. He said the museum “presented a great learning opportunity for his children.” While textbooks and teachers focus on slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War, the museum reaffirmed his belief that the war was really about economics. “The South was getting a lot of push from the northern industry and I think it was less about race than it was made out to be,” he explained.

Now the Museum of the Confederacy has some competition.

The American Civil War Center opened nine months ago in Richmond. Combining social, cultural, economic, political, and military history, the museum offers a broader view of America’s greatest tragedy. Visitors are reminded that slavery was indeed at the center of the conflict. Amid bullet-ridden uniforms and period letters, visitors will also find old shackles that were once used to restrain slaves. Interpretative displays depict slave auctions, just as maps explain how the peculiar institution spread across the American South.

The American Civil War Center challenges its visitors to reexamine what they know about the conflict and its leaders.

“I was always raised to believe that the North had always intended to free the slaves and, as you go through here, you realize that wasn’t the case—that it was almost by accident that it happened,” a recent visitor said.

Should the capitol of the Confederacy have two museums devoted to the Civil War? Should these museums offer such different views of the conflict? Absolutely!

Though the physical war ended at Appomattox 142 years ago, the battle for historical memory has never ceased.