Sunday, August 12, 2018

Book Review: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton

By Catherine Clinton
  (c) 2009

Before reading this book, one I have wanted to read for quite a while, I expected to feel much pity for Mary Lincoln after reading it, like I did after watching the movie Lincoln, and while I do feel some of the sentiment, I am in a quandary, as I also feel a different, unsympathetic feeling, perhaps as harsh as derision, or at least frustration, towards her.  This book describes a complicated, confusing, sad, tragic, ambitious, successful woman and life. She was strong, yet weak, intelligent, yet na├»ve, independent, yet self-identified with her husband and his career.  I realize that some of those descriptions are redundant or contrasting, but I find that an appropriate way to describe the subject of this book.  She was simply human, but not a simple hunan, and this book does a terrific job of exploring the many competing facets of her life.

These various aspects of Mary Lincoln form a main topic of this book, which serves as a biography of both the former Mary Todd and of her marriage. Though her life certainly takes priority, telling the story of Mary Lincoln simply requires a discussion of her husband and marriage. It is inescapable, even after the assassination, as Clinton notes: Her identity was wholly bound up with remaining Mrs. Lincoln (page 287).

That line is an accurate summary of Mary’s post-1865 life, but this book starts much earlier, thoroughly discussing her early life, including the tragic loss of her mother, the coming of her step-mother and the ever increasing size of her nuclear family, with so many siblings and half-siblings.

I must admit that when I think of the tragedies in Mary’s life, the loss of her mother often escapes my mind, but this book illustrates how great a loss this was for her, as well as the difficulty of having a step-mother and so many half-siblings. The tension in this large family is evident in this book and the author shows that this situation hurt Mary, the first major loss of her life, but certainly not the last. 

Mary grew up in a well-to-do Southern household, a lifestyle that influenced her expectations of life going forward. To paraphrase a popular saying, you can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl. This was largely true of Mary, who constantly expected the same type of life and socializing she witnessed in her youth. She did, to her credit, grow to disapprove of slavery, an institution with which she grew up, but otherwise saw herself as a Southern belle, with the expectations of being treated as such. Clinton describes this dominant part of Mary’s personality throughout the book. 

One word used more than once in this work was “entitled,” a fair description of Mary’s attitude. She liked being the center of attention and expected to receive attention, respect, and even admiration due to her position of First Lady and, later, in a term she coined, “First Widow.”  She did make some attempts to help herself, one time resulting in the embarrassing “Old Clothes” scandal, but also expected gratitude from the government and from people who she believed benefited greatly from her husband’s Presidency. This is another theme explored throughout the book, but especially in the discussion of the post-1865 years.

Page 329 offered up another memorable line describing Mary’s attitude, this time in reference to the assassination of James Garfield: when she discovered there was a movement afoot to offer government funds to provide for Gardield’s widow and five fatherless children, Mary, not uncharacteristically, thought of herself (my emphasis added.). She had adored her husband and children and spent much time and energy visiting wounded troops in the hospitals, but  could often be much less unselfish.

Clinton discusses many aspects and incidents of Mary’s life including her love of youngest son Tad and the devastation his death caused her. Of course, her commitment to an insane asylum by eldest son Robert receives much attention, including discussion of the unfairness of the trial and the grudge Mary understandably held against Robert for years. Her behavior during these years, especially concerning issues of money is examined and the author points out possible legitimate mental health issues Mary may have suffered, while also giving examples of times when Mary’s faculties were working very well. The complexity of the questions of her mental health apply to the complexity of her whole life as well. 

This is a riveting book about a complex woman who led a fascinating, sad, complicated life. To keep this review to a reasonable length, I will not attempt to mention all the specific incidents it covers, but the author does an outstanding job of presenting evidence and then analyzing it. An especially noteworthy example of this is the description of Mary’s temper, jealousy, and behavior towards Julia Grant and other women during a late war trip to Virginia. 

At the end of the work, Clinton adds a few paragraphs about Mary’s reputation both in her time and in the modern era, including how scholars and writers have treated her. This was a wonderfully unexpected and interesting section and I wish it had been expanded to include more details, such as some found in the end notes. 

Biographies frequently develop into near hagiographical works for their subjects, as authors who spend so much time and effort studying people can start to like them and let this positive feeling seep into their work.  That did not happen in this book - Clinton certainly offers praise for Mary at times and defends her behavior more than once, but also provides frequent criticism and points out bad decisions Mary made and flaws she possessed. It is a balanced examination of Mary Lincoln, and the author deserves much credit for that fairness, perhaps the strength of this book. 

The book does include helpful end notes and a few photographs as well. I wish the pictures had been of higher quality (maybe that’s a function of the type of paper used in the book)  but that is picking nits. The text is well-written and makes for an easy, quick read. This is a fine book, a virtual must-have for any Lincoln scholar or those interested in women’s history, and a “should-have” for general Civil War libraries. I am happy to recommend it strongly.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Battery Hooper Civil War Days 2018

I still volunteer at the James A. Ramage Civil War Museum (since 2006, where does time go?) and since it is August, I figured I’d write a few words about the museum’s signature event, Battery Hooper Civil War Days. We hold it every August, usually the third weekend, including this year when it takes place August 18 and 19.  Admission and parking are free, and it is definitely a family friendly event, good for both children and adults.

While much of the event will remain similar to past years - the Civil War encampment, re-enactors, a Civil War medical display, living historian presentations such as Abraham Lincoln, a petting zoo, our gift shop and more - we do have some new entertainment including a Mary Lincoln impersonator and a couple of musical acts.  Additionally, our used book sale has received a recent donation, so we have more books for sale than ever. These are mostly Civil War books, with some general military history ones as well. They are priced to sell, but anything priced over $10 will be 50% off. It is a great chance to add to your library or find a gift for a Civil War buff (though I do not really like that term.)

The event runs from 12:00 -  5:00 on both days.

You can also watch the museum’s or event’s Facebook pages for more updates. I’ll be posting there daily or almost daily until that weekend has come and gone.

I must admit that helping set up and run this event, and seeing the work it takes to pull it off, has made quite an impression on me. Helping the re-enactment in Cynthiana in June added to that, but it all has been both good and interesting experiences for me. I am glad I found this volunteer opportunity so many years ago. I may not have started this blog had I not tried the volunteering experiment first. I’ve seen neat items - actually held real Civil War era guns and artifacts - enjoyed experiences like Battery Hooper Civil War Days, met a lot of interesting people and had a lot of enjoyable conversations.  Volunteering at this museum has certainly had an impact on my life.

I know I have rambled a bit off-topic, but this event is important to me. I hope others enjoy it as much as I do.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Book Review: They Knew Lincoln by John E Washington

By John E. Washington
With a New Introduction by Kate Masur
Copyright 2018 Oxford University Press 

Having read so many books on Abraham Lincoln and so many on the Civil War, I always enjoy finding a new approach to me of these subjects. This time, however, such a new approach found me, and I thank Oxford University Press for providing me a review copy of They Knew Lincoln. Here is my honest review of it. 

This is fine book, giving a different perspective of African-Americans in Washington D.C., or at least of a newly-studied group of African-Americans, those who worked for the President, and how some of them remembered Abraham Lincoln and aspects of his life, death and behavior.

At the start of this edition, Masur’s introduction is simply wonderful, a terrific review of this work and even sort of a biography of both Washington and his book. It is very readable and informative, a good in-depth overview of Washington’s text. Her research into Washington and his writing and her discussion of his work certainly made reissuing this book a worthwhile idea and actually bringing it back into print was a good public service to the current generation of historians and readers. This is an example of the positive good a historian can accomplish.

Much of Washington’s work is a social history of African-Americans in post-war and early twentieth century Washington D.C. as he discusses many of the people he knew and met and some of the customs and beliefs that he, his family and others held. It is a good addition to African-American history, sort of an “inside look” at the  daily lives of common people of the time and area. Granted, I have not read as much African-American history as I have read of the war and President Lincoln, so maybe it is mostly “new to me,” but I enjoyed it and found it illuminating.

As the book progresses, it turns more into a discussion of people who remembered, worked for, and/or adored Abraham Lincoln and discusses many of their memories, feelings and ways in which Washington believed they influenced the President and his beliefs and actions, especially those involving African-Americans. From perspectives of the inner workings of the White House, to discussions of how the Lincolns treated their servants, and to remembrances of Lincoln’s assassination and its aftermath, this book covers several different aspects of Lincoln in the memory of African-Americans around Washington D.C.

I especially appreciated the “mini-chapters” on Elizabeth Thomas, John Coghill, Tom Gardiner, William J. Ferguson, William de Fleurville, and Elizabeth Keckley, and thought they provided the most information about the Lincolns. That is not to criticize the other sections, but these stood out as the highlights of Washington’s work.

Washington included several photographs and illustrations in this book, and they made good contributions to it.  Copies of photographs in 1942 were not of the same quality as today, so not all these illustrations are perfectly clear, but they still are nice to see, helping to place faces with names and to see the type of documentation Washington found.

Overall, this is a readable, informative book, with an outstanding introduction, new accounts of African-American history and stories showing how some African-Americans knew, remembered, and perhaps influenced the nation’s sixteenth President. It is a valuable book for any library focused on the study of Lincoln, historic memory or African-American history. I sincerely recommend it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Small Bureaucratic Item July 17, 1863

A lot of small bureaucratic stuff happened daily during the Civil War. Here is an example from the Newport Barracks in Newport, Kentucky. This is a small piece of ephemera in my collection and I thought it was appropriate to look over it on the 155th anniversary of its creation. 

“Received, Newport Barracks, Ky, July 17th, 1868 of Lieut. M.C. Green 13th Infy. Three hundred & ninety-eight dollars and sixteen cents, 
Subsistence funds, 

R.S. LaMotte
Capt 13 Inf 

The signer is Captain Robert Smith LaMotte of the 13th United States Infantry Regiment. provides the following information on Captain LaMotte.

Civil War Union Army Officer. He was commissioned as Captain of Company A, 1st Delaware Volunteer Infantry on May 2, 1861. Two weeks later, on May 14, 1861, he was mustered out of the Volunteer service, and was commissioned as a Captain in the newly-raised 13th United States Regular Infantry, and served with the unit through the end of the Civil War, and in post war duty. 

Promoted to Major, he was transferred to the 12th United States Infantry in December 1868, then back to the 13th Infantry in March 1869. In June 1879 he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the 12th Infantry, and to Colonel of the 13th Infantry in December 1886. He died on active duty at Fort Supply, Oklahoma in December 1888.

He also founded and was the first commanding officer at Fort Ellis in Bozeman, Montana.

I was not able to find anything on Lieutenant Green (assuming I am reading that correctly.) The Soldiers and Sailors site has changed, but not for the better from what I can tell. It seems rather inconvenient, but perhaps I just need to use it more.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Brief Rambling on Family History and the Civil War

Some of my posts here are the result of much research, writing, editing and thought, and others are reviews of books I’ve recently read or events I’ve attended or witnessed, like the rec3nt re-enactment in Cynthiana.

This one will fall in neither category. This is a more personal entry, based on some genealogical research, but a lot of some wishful thinking and a more personal, perhaps selfish viewpoint. It may be of interest just to me, but that’s the beauty of having this blog. Please forgive any self-indulgence this post may contain as I continue to explore my family history and use this blog on rare occasions to help put my thoughts and findings into an organized format. 

 I have recently been working on my family history again, after not doing much on it for a while. I did make some new finds and discovered a couple of good leads recently, and that has helped renew my enthusiasm for this project.

In terms of my family history combined with my interest in the Civil War, no earth-shattering finding has occurred, but I did find one small, partially illegible, comment, that certainly caught my interest.

I have known for about 3 years that my great-great grandfather John C. Hofstetter, an immigrant from Switzerland, was in Company D of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry, which was involved in many major battles in the Eastern Theater, including Gettysburg, but I have nothing specific about him. His paperwork is not on and I received nothing from the National Archives when I requested records from them. That is certainly frustrating, but not completely unexpected. 

As I was looking a census records recently, I noticed that the 1880 census marked John as being “sick or temporarily disabled” and the written description says “L. Leg periodically (illegible), wounded in war.” I will continue trying to interpret and read the remaining words, assuming this means “left leg,”  but this tells me that maybe his service was more difficult or adventurous than I realized. Of course, this opens up many questions about when and where he was injured and how bad it was, what type of injury, and did he receive any pension, among others. It is not a major discovery, but still is something new to add to my knowledge of my family history and my family’s Civil War history and a way two of my interests meet. 

I don’t remember if I had requested his pension records before, but I don’t think I did, so I will try that now and hope it will be more productive. If I find out more about him or any other of my Civil War ancestors, I will post it here.

Post-War photo of John C. Hofstetter 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Books about Kentucky Civil War Politics and Reputation

Over the years, I have read a few books on Kentucky in the Civil War and found that several of them focused on politics and social attitudes as much, or more than, pure military topics. This topic - Kentucky politics and the state’s Confederate image - has become a strong interest for me as I find it to be a complicated, confusing, and, yet, fascinating subject. It currently is one of my main interests in the Civil War.

I do not have any specific family or genealogical connections to the topic, but I had many ancestors in the state during this era, and I do wonder what their life was like or what their beliefs were. At least one of my Kentucky ancestors owned slaves but had a son and multiple grandsons fight for the Union. Did this family’s attitude shift like those of many other Kentuckians as the war progressed and Emancipation and the enlistment of African-American soldiers became realities? Did any of my other ancestors change views during this time? Questions like that help guide me in the direction of such studies. 

I figured I would compile this list in a post and perhaps soon on a separate page. This will help remind me of these books in case I want to look something up and might help others find some interesting reading as I truly enjoyed each of these works. This list is in no particular order, other than how I remembered or thought of them when compiling this post.

Kentucky Rising: Democracy, Slavery, and Culture From the Early Republic to the Civil War by James Ramage and Andrea Watkins. (I consider it to be a good “prequel” to the books listed below and wish I had read it before the others.)

War and Post-War:
Kentucky Rebel Town: The Civil War Battles of Cynthiana & Harrison County by William Penn

Wild Wolf: The Great Civil War Rivalry by Ronald Wolford Blair

(Kentucky politics is not a main focus of Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally, but it does touch on the topic and Holt’s life story serve as a wonderful example of how this state’s mixed political identity, especially late in and after the war, affected individual lives and families. How many other books are like that - not primarily concentrating on the political climate of the state, but nonetheless discussing it in terms of how it relates to their main subjects?)

The links are all to my reviews, except for Kentucky Rising. I wrote a long review of it, but accidentally hit the delete button and lost it all and was too frustrated to redo it, so that link is simply to the book’s page.

I do realize there are likely many books I have not read or even heard of on this subject, so I will appreciate any suggestions in the future.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Thoughts on 2018 Cynthiana Re-enactment

I spent this most recent Friday and Saturday, June 1 and 2, down in Cynthiana, helping prepare and set-up for the re-enactment at Ashford Acres Estate. I  did not make it back for Sunday, but still enjoyed the event and seeing some of the work that goes on behind the scenes of something like this.

I helped with a few of the necessary steps for the event. I assisted in putting up a tent fly for the Cynthiana Battlefields Foundation went on a run to get another water hose to help provide water for the horses and helped put stakes in the ground to mark the spectator’s line. Glamorous and glorious, it was not. 

I also registered some of the re-enactors as they arrived, making sure they signed waivers and had the necessary information for the weekend. The next morning, I sat in the parking lot where I accepted admission fees from guests and handed out event schedules and parking passes. This was not hard work, though sitting in the sun for a few hours on a beautiful, sunny morning left my neck feeling quite warm and perhaps a bit burned, though not too badly. I did a few other tasks, some smaller than others, to help, but also noticed several other volunteers helping out with similar duties. I know there was a lot of work done before this weekend to find re-enactors, secure a location and a parking shuttle for the weekend, and take care of many other details to help the weekend run smoothly, but quite a bit of work remained for the weekend and it was a great group of volunteers who accomplished it.

I hope anyone who attends a re-enactment, Civil War Weekend or other similar event will appreciate the work required to put on such a display. Please realize that many, perhaps most, of these are the work of volunteers doing this for their own personal motivation, but certainly not for money or attention. Personally, I love the Civil War and being part of bringing something like this together satisfies me and helps me feel I am somehow contributing to the continued study and interest in this fascinating period of history. Volunteering, along with maintaining this blog, are my ways of attempting to contribute positively to something I love. I suspect other volunteers have similar feelings, as well as a sense of civic duty or pride. Like the discussion of why soldiers chose to fight in the war, there are as probably as many reasons for volunteering as there are volunteers.

I missed the cavalry and infantry demonstrations Saturday morning, but did get to see most of the battle. It was fun to watch, and like Perryville 2012, the wind blew in the right direction to let me get a strong whiff of black powder. That certainly added a sense of reality to it. I was also impressed with how the horses did not let the musket fire bother them. Obviously the re-enactors had done a good job of training their animals and their horsemanship appeared very strong to my amateur eyes, but I still like giving the horses some credit.

Overall, the weekend went well. A brief drizzle showed up on Friday, but Saturday was virtually perfect in terms of weather, and Sunday seemed to be similar. Somewhere between 100 and 200 re-enactors showed up, and the crowd was a few hundred strong on Saturday. Perhaps there could have been more advertising and promotion, but my impression was that it was a success. 

 I was not as close to the “action” as I hoped,  and I had forgotten my camera, so I relied on my phone for some pictures. My photos of the battle were not my best ever, but I did get some nice ones of the encampment and will share some of them here.