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During the Civil War three intelligent, articulate young men served as Abraham Lincoln's secretaries. John Nicolay and John Hay lived in the White House across the hall from the president's office and, together with William Stoddard, spent more time with Lincoln than anyone else outside his immediate family. Lincoln's Men is a fascinating, intimate, and moving portrait of life in the Civil War White House and of the beleaguered president's extraordinary relationship with the indispensable trio he used as a ...
During the Civil War three intelligent, articulate young men served as Abraham Lincoln's secretaries. John Nicolay and John Hay lived in the White House across the hall from the president's office and, together with William Stoddard, spent more time with Lincoln than anyone else outside his immediate family. Lincoln's Men is a fascinating, intimate, and moving portrait of life in the Civil War White House and of the beleaguered president's extraordinary relationship with the indispensable trio he used as a sounding board—the best and the brightest of their day who had a place near the center of Washington's grandest galas and a front-row seat on the drama of war.
The President and His Private Secretaries
As the train pulled out of Springfield's Great Western Depot on the rainy morning of February 11, 1861, with president-elect Abraham Lincoln and his entourage bound for Washington, D.C., there were three young men aboard with exceptional promise: John Milton Hay, John George Nicolay, and Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth. Of the three friends, two would become the president's private secretaries during the most tempestuous era the nation had ever known; the third, Ellsworth, would briefly serve as the president-elect's head of security.
The twenty-three-year-old Ellsworth, an aspiring soldier, was so short that had it not been for his neat black mustache and -whiskered under-lip he might have been mistaken for one of the Lincolns' little boys. Though he was scarcely five feet in height, what Ellsworth lacked in stature he more than made up for in dignity and authority, having made himself famous...a public emblem...by a means altogether unique.
The son of a bankrupt tailor in the New York village of Malta, too poor and obscure to attend West Point, Ellsworth, through self-education and exercise, had made himself a drillmaster without peer in America. A born leader, in the late 1850s he organized companies of militia in Chicago that he outfitted in the loose scarlet trousers, blue jackets with gold braid, and jaunty red caps of the French Foreign Legion, calling them Zouaves after the soldiers who fought in the Crimean War. The men paid for their own uniforms. He trained them to do intricate military drills and manuals of arms. He lectured them on patriotism. On parade grounds in the major cities, Ellsworth and his Zouaves drew crowds and newsmen who raved about "the little colonel" and his superbly trained militiamen. They were equally impressed with Ellsworth's temperance, austerity, and code of honor. He refused to accept any pay for his services to his country, past or future.
Like many prodigies and early ripe composers and artists, Ellsworth was not long for this world. The nation was on the brink of war, folks sensed it, and Ellsworth was an avatar of courage and honor. He is a part of the history, essential to getting it under way, and also a victim of it, the first of many lives sacrificed to a cause at first only dimly understood. Lincoln met him during the winter of 1859...60 when Ellsworth came to study law in Springfield. After watching the Chicago Zouaves drill in a Springfield meadow in August 1860, the presidential candidate invited Ellsworth to remain in town and study law with him. Impressed with the soldier's zeal and intelligence, Lincoln sent him out, with John Hay, to stump for him in the election. He had served the candidate so well that when Lincoln was elected, in November, he invited Ellsworth to attend him as a bodyguard on the train to Washington, with a further prospect of getting him a position in the War Department.
Traveling on the train with Ellsworth was twenty-two-year-old John Hay. Hay was a poet, a smooth-faced, handsome fellow with a strong chin, long upper lip, and slightly protruding elfin ears that his wavy brown hair partly concealed. His dark eyes were deep-set, liquid, and his friends used to say you could see a mile into them. Only four inches taller than Ellsworth, Hay saw from his vantage point the soldier's "form, though slight,...exactly the Napoleonic size,...was very compact and commanding"; Ellsworth's sunny smile and deep, musical voice "instantly attracted attention; and his address . . . was sincere and courteous." Hay might as well have been describing his own winning smile and manner; it was not military skill or poetry that had won John Milton Hay his seat on the train to the capital...it was his eloquence and charm.
Hay also owed his place in Lincoln's retinue to the insistence of his best friend, the twenty-nine-year-old journalist John Nicolay. Standing next to the poet Hay and the soldier Ellsworth in the train's saloon car, Nicolay, at five feet ten inches and 120 pounds, looked like a gaunt giant, older than his years, with his receding hairline and dark goatee. He had served as Mr. Lincoln's personal secretary...at a salary of $75 per month...since June 7, 1860, soon after the Republicans nominated the "rail-splitter" to be their standard-bearer. He was Lincoln's doorkeeper, his amanuensis, and his confidant. Born in Bavaria, the secretary had a low voice that still showed traces of a German accent. Orphaned at age fourteen and thrown upon his own resources...a vigorous mind in a frail body...the former printer's devil and editor had never wanted anything so much in his life as to serve the Republican nominee. Lincoln must have sensed this and, knowing Nicolay's politics as well as his past, knew he could count on the young man's loyalty and complete discretion.
Shortly after the election, on November 11, 1860, Nicolay wrote to his fiancée, Therena Bates, still living in Pittsfield, Illinois, where they had met as children.
I can myself hardly realize that after having fought this slavery question for six years past and suffered so many defeats, I am at last rejoicing in a triumph which two years ago we hardly dared dream about. I remember very distinctly, how in 1854, soon after I had bought the Free Press Office [in Pittsfield], I went to Perry, with others, and heard Mr. Atkinson (the preacher) make the first anti-Nebraska speech which was made in Pike County in that campaign. Though I was fighting as something more than a private then, I should have thought it a wild dream to imagine that in six years after I should find the victory so near the Commander in Chief.
It was "Nebraska," the bitter conflict over Stephen Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act...which repealed the Missouri Compromise and opened the new territories to the extension of slavery...that brought Nicolay and Lincoln together. Nicolay, as a crusading editor of the Free Press, and Lincoln, as an ambitious politician, denounced Douglas's idea of "popular sovereignty," the very idea that settlers in the territories might choose to allow slavery if they pleased.Lincoln's Men
1 Illinois Prelude 1
2 Washington, 1861 18
3 War 41
4 Grave Responsibilities 64
5 Teamwork 84
6 The Tycoon and Little Mac 101
7 From Hell to Paradise 126
8 Blood and Gold 149
9 The Tide Turns 175
10 Errands and Exits 195
11 L1guts in the Shadow 224
Posted February 13, 2010
Posted February 21, 2013
No text was provided for this review.