An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay's Interviews and Essays

Overview

John C. Nicolay, who had known Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, served as chief White House secretary from 1861 to 1865. Trained as a journalist, Nicolay had hoped to write a campaign biography of Lincoln in 1860, a desire that was thwarted when an obscure young writer named William Dean Howells got the job. Years later, however, Nicolay fulfilled his ambition; with John Hay, he spent the years from 1872 to 1890 writing a monumental ten-volume biography of Lincoln.

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An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay's Interviews and Essays

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Overview

John C. Nicolay, who had known Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, served as chief White House secretary from 1861 to 1865. Trained as a journalist, Nicolay had hoped to write a campaign biography of Lincoln in 1860, a desire that was thwarted when an obscure young writer named William Dean Howells got the job. Years later, however, Nicolay fulfilled his ambition; with John Hay, he spent the years from 1872 to 1890 writing a monumental ten-volume biography of Lincoln.

In preparation for this task, Nicolay interviewed men who had known Lincoln both during his years in Springfield and later when he became the president of the United States. "When it came time to write their massive biography, however," Burlingame notes, "he and Hay made sparing use of the interviews" because they had become "skeptical about human memory." Nicolay and Hay also feared that Robert Todd Lincoln might censor material that reflected "poorly on Lincoln or his wife."

Nicolay had interviewed such Springfield friends as Lincoln’s first two law partners, John Todd Stuart and Stephen T. Logan. At the Illinois capital in June and July 1875, he talked to a number of others including Orville H. Browning, U.S. senator and Lincoln’s close friend and adviser for over thirty-five years, and Ozias M. Hatch, Lincoln’s political ally and Springfield neighbor. Four years later he returned briefly and spoke with John W. Bunn, a young political "insider" from Springfield at the time Lincoln was elected president, and once again with Hatch.

Browning shed new light on Lincoln’s courtship and marriage, telling Nicolay that Lincoln often told him "that he was constantly under great apprehension lest his wife should do something which would bring him into disgrace" while in the White House. During their research, Nicolay and Hay also learned of Lincoln’s despondency and erratic behavior following his rejection by Matilda Edwards, and they were subsequently criticized by friends for suppressing the information. Burlingame argues that this open discussion of Lincoln’s depression of January 1841 is "perhaps the most startling new information in the Springfield interviews."

Briefer and more narrowly focused than the Springfield interviews, the Washington interviews deal with the formation of Lincoln’s cabinet, his relations with Congress, his behavior during the war, his humor, and his grief. In a reminiscence by Robert Todd Lincoln, for example, we learn of Lincoln’s despair at General Lee's escape after the Battle of Gettysburg: "I went into my father’s office ... and found him in [much] distress, his head leaning upon the desk in front of him, and when he raised his head there were evidences of tears upon his face. Upon my asking the cause of his distress he told me that he had just received the information that Gen. Lee had succeeded in escaping across the Potomac river. . ."

To supplement these interviews, Burlingame has included Nicolay’s unpublished essays on Lincoln during the 1860 campaign and on Lincoln’s journey from Springfield to Washington in 1861, essay’s based on firsthand testimony.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Who Lincoln was and who people remember him to be are often diametrically opposed. It is books like this . . . that are must-reads for everyone interested in Lincoln. . . . [A]n excellent contribution.”—Illinois Historical Journal

“Burlingame has done a masterful job in selecting and editing these hidden treasures of first-person narratives on the life and person of Abraham Lincoln. The insights revealed . . . are invaluable.”—Midwest Book Review

Booknews
Nicolay (1832-1901) was a journalist who knew Lincoln in Springfield, served as chief White House secretary 1861-65, and co-authored a ten-volume biography of Lincoln. Part of his research for the biography were interviews, 39 of which, along with two essays, are here published for the first time. They were sparingly used in the biography because the authors distrusted memory and perhaps were afraid that any information that reflected poorly on Lincoln or his wife would get the book censored by his family. Extensively annotated. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809320547
  • Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/1996
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Burlingame, Sadowski Professor of History Emeritus at Connecticut College, is the author of The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln and the editor of ten volumes of primary sources about Lincoln, including With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860–1865. He won the prestigious Lincoln Prize, honorable mention, for his five edited collections of letters, memoranda, editorial essays, lectures, and interviews by Lincoln’s White House private secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John M. Hay, all published by Southern Illinois University Press.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Editor's Introduction
1 The Springfield Interviews 1
Orville H. Browning 1
John Todd Stuart 7
Ozias M. Hatch 16
Clark M. Smith 17
William Butler 18
Milton Hay 25
Jesse K. Dubois 29
Henry S. Greene 32
Peter Van Bergen 33
Stephen T. Logan 34
John W. Bunn 39
2 The Washington Interviews 41
James K. Moorhead 41
Simon Cameron 42
Norman B. Judd 44
T. Lyle Dickey 48
Hamilton Fish 50
Lafayette Foster 53
Lot M. Morrill 54
William M. Evarts 56
Ward Hill Lamon 57
Leonard Swett 58
Morton S. Wilkinson 59
Stephen A. Hurlbut 62
Lyman Trumbull 65
John Palmer Usher 65
Hannibal Hamlin 67
Joseph Holt 68
Richard M. Hoe 77
John M. Sherman 79
James Speed 80
Godlove Orth 82
Edward D. Neill 83
Henry Wilson 83
3 Other Interviews and Two Essays by Nicolay 86
Nathaniel P. Banks 86
Dr. Parker 87
Frederick W. Seward 87
A Son of John W. Crisfield 87
Robert Todd Lincoln 88
John G. Nicolay 90
William M. Springer 90
"Lincoln in the Campaign of 1860" 91
"Some Incidents in Lincoln's Journey from Springfield to Washington" 107
Notes 123
Index 159
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