Friday, October 23, 2009

Book Review: Lincoln’s Men: The President and His Private Secretaries


Lincoln's Men: The President and His Private Secretaries
Author: Daniel Mark Epstein
HarperCollins
Copyright 2009
First Edition


Anyone who reads about the Civil War, particularly about President Abraham Lincoln, should be very familiar with the names John G. Nicolay and John Hay, and at least somewhat familiar with William Stoddard. While all three served as private secretaries to the President, Nicolay and Hay are the two whose names have become more recognizable.

Daniel Epstein's book provides a new and enjoyable look into the lives of these three men and how they interacted with their boss. He describes the extremely heavy workloads each faced, the varied job duties (even when they left on vacation, they usually had at least one assignment to work on in the area they were visiting from the President), new tasks (learning to be in charge of state dinners, for instance) and other challenges, particularly dealing with Mary Lincoln, whom Nicolay and Hay disliked and perhaps even feared, referring to her as the "Hellcat" or "Her Satanic Majesty." (Stoddard was the one of the three who had a more normal and friendly relationship with the First Lady.)

It is an entertaining and informative look, sort of a "behind-the-scenes" investigation into the workings of the White House in that chaotic time, as this small White House staff dealt with mountains of mail, including newspapers, and even death threats and other insulting correspondence people tried to get into Lincoln's hands. Sorting this out was quite the chore, as this book shows.

Epstein also goes in-depth into the actual personalities involved and their personal lives, not just the daily tasks they faced, including Nicolay's correspondence with his girlfriend/fiancée who had stayed behind in Illinois and Hay's possible romance with celebrated actress Jean Margaret Davenport Lavender. The author uses existing letters from Nicolay and letters and diary letters from the censored collection of Hay's papers to probe into their everyday lives, their feelings, frustrations and how tired they became trying to accomplish so much with such a little team. He even discusses Stoddard's gambling, both in the rooms in Washington and his possibly unseedy attempts to play the gold markets, possibly even using information he gathered from his job to help friends try to profit from the markets. Epstein makes it clear that Stoddard was the least dedicated and least able of the three young men who were there to help the President.

One small point I regretted about the book was the absence of illustrations. The cover design is the famous picture of President Lincoln seated between Nicolay and Hay (which, combined with the title of the book gives it an appearance awfully similar to William C. Davis' We Are Lincoln Men, (Simon & Schuster, 2004) ) but there are no other pictures, drawings or maps in this book. Another picture or too of Nicolay and Hay, even from much later in their life would have been nice, but I especially hoped to see a view of Stoddard and of the "lovely" Mrs. Lander, whose name and fame were so prominent through much of this volume. A map of Washington would have been appreciated as well, showing the locations of buildings the young secretaries visited often and how their locations compared to each other.

There were also one or two brief instances where I questioned some things. For instance, on page 167, he claims that Lincoln wrote his famous letter to James Conkling for a meeting of " 'Union Men' who objected to the president's policies" though it was actually to a meeting of supporters who were rallying to show the state's support for the Union after an earlier rally of the administration's opponents. He also quoted Edwin Stanton as saying, after Lincoln's death, "Now he belongs to the angels" (page 226) though most accounts say the final word was "ages."

Despite that nitpicking, however, I really enjoyed this book, and how it showed the relationship between the President and his secretaries, especially Nicolay and Hay. The trust they had in each other, their willingness and ability to help each other and the way they all recognized each other's strengths and skills all combined to form them into a very well-running machine that certainly aided each one, even the older President. They could share stories and jokes at all times of the day and night or read poetry or Shakespeare. Hay was especially noted as a good story-teller, much like the Chief Magistrate.

Lincoln's Men is a very well-written, readable book that is both informative and enjoyable. It provides a wonderful examination of how Lincoln and his team worked together through times of incredible stress to focus on the cause of preserving the Union and winning the war.

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