Momentous anniversaries and visiting Civil War history

To my loyal blog readers, my apologies for not actually posting something worthy on the actual anniversaries recently, but I do want to share with you that the last several days have commemorated some momentous events related to the history of the Civil War. One of the reasons was that I was out of town visiting my parents for Easter, followed by a trip to Branson, Missouri to celebrate my mother’s birthday, which is actually April 15 (yes, I do appreciate the irony as a historian of her birthday).

On April 7, my Dad and I traveled to Illinois College, my alma mater to hear Dr. Robert Welch, who also writes a blog The Eagle and The Journal, which deals with Macomb, Illinois during the war via articles from its two main papers during the war The Eagle and The Journal. Check it out, as it’s quite good. Welch brought a lot of gear to his talk and drew a crowd of around 75, who were quite interested in his topic on Civil War Living History and Reenacting, including its uses as a teaching tool, which resonates with me quite well.

April 9 marked the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. I unfortunately missed the NPS program on it, but my good reenacting buddy Den Bolda had two questioned answered during the live-stream, which was quite cool. I did make a Civil War trip out of it though, as my Dad and I visited Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield that day. I had been there before in 2011 to reenact for the 150th, but did not get to see much, so it was fun to take time with him and survey the park, despite limited time.

April 14 marked the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in DC. Finally, April 15 marked the 150th anniversary of his death. Springfield is abuzz with activities leading up to ceremonies commemorating the anniversary of his funeral, so, if you are in Springfield, be sure to take in the festivities.

With that I will leave you with some photos of Welch’s talk and my visit to Wilson’s Creek.

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The debate over the language of Lincoln

First off, it’s good to be back to blog with you all, as the last few weeks have been extremely hectic for me preparing for my doctoral comprehensive exams, which I am now through the written portion (cue Hallelujah Chorus). Thanks to intrepid fellow CWH blogger Walter Coffey for keeping up some interesting posts the last two months.

Now, I did find a little time to go see the Spielberg film Lincoln with my two friends and fellow reenactors Stuart Lawrence and Den Bolda. Den dressed in period civilian trappings, while I dressed as a soldier for the event (Hey, if folks can go to comic book movies, etc. dressed as the characters from those films, why not us?), which was fun, as one couple who were visiting relatives in the area, but were from Indiana took their picture with us.

My thoughts on the film are mixed. I felt that Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Honest Abe was pretty good, aside from being a departure from the classic Hal Holbrook rendition in North and South, or Gregory Peck in The Blue and the Gray (which were good also, but not necessarily as accurate). I also enjoyed Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stephens.

I would have liked to have seen a bit more on Lincoln’s conduct of the war as Commander-in-Chief, which did not have to mean another Civil War film full of battle scenes, but just more on the course of his presidency. I thought the debate over the 13th Amendment was interesting and one of my colleagues noted that he hoped it would get people into the documents surrounding the debate on that legislation. Den and I both enjoyed the costuming, as the material culture presented in the film was quite good. Overall, I thought the film presented a real conception of Lincoln, more human as opposed to being on such a pedestal.

That said, one other area that I thought was a bit off, and has apparently became a topic of debate between historians is the foul language that appears a few times. Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book Team of Rivals was an inspiration for the movie did not have much problem with the profanity used in the film. In contrast, James McPherson argued that Lincoln did not approve of such language and likely did not use it to the degree that was portrayed, especially the utterance of “f—” by W. N. Bilbo, one of the lobbyists for the 13th Amendment. Another who argued that Lincoln likely did not swear as much as was portrayed in the movie, but would not have had as much issue with swearing around him was University of Richmond president Edward Ayers.

Overall, I have to agree with both McPherson and Ayers on their assessment of Lincoln and colorful language. I wonder if Spielberg chose to keep such language to resonate with modern audiences, who are used to such things, and if that is so, what does it say about our society. Further, the movie would have been just as good without it, which would have allowed parents to take younger children to see the film. One wonders how many stayed away because of the language issue. It would have been interesting to see, were he still alive, what David Donald would have said about this issue.

While swearing has become increasingly pervasive in our culture, this does not mean it was so in earlier times. I think the work by Richard Bushman called The Refinement of America is particularly relevant. While focused on the eighteenth century, it also explored the nineteenth century, charting the desire of Americans to achieve elements of refined culture, which extended to personal behavior, including manners and decorum.

It is interesting that this has become a mini debate among respected scholars, but it is good, as it allows historians to interject their knowledge and insights on a given topic into the larger culture. Much like the earlier kerfuffle over how Day-Lewis vocalized Lincoln, the issue of swearing by Abe will be another in a series of appraisals on the film in the coming weeks. Such is the nature of the beast when movies based upon historical events and actors are produced. I encourage everyone to at least go and see Lincoln, but also pick up a good biography of him (I recommend Lincoln by the late David Donald).

The mystery of Mr. Lincoln’s stovepipe hat

The Chicago Sun-Times reported, which picked up, that the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois are in a quandary over a stovepipe hat supposedly having belonged to Mr. Lincoln. The hat, which is of beaver felt, bore the mark of a Springfield hat maker, and was the same size as Lincoln’s head is disputed over how a farmer came to own the hat. The story holds that William Waller acquired the hat from Lincoln in Washington during the war, but this is not supported by evidence. The other possibility is that Waller received the hat after one of the 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas, but there is no evidence to support this.

The hat is part of a larger collection of Lincoln artifacts that the ALPLM acquired several years ago for a significant amount of money and the hat is appraised at $6.5 million. Both articles insist that the hat is not a fake and that the Museum was not duped, but that it needs to be somewhat cautious in how it presents the story to the public, suggesting that both scenarios be noted. Having visited the site a couple of times, I have seen the hat (assuming it is the same one), which also (if I recall correctly) may have had his fingerprints on the brim, which were slightly visible. It is a truly humbling experience to view artifacts related to the man.

Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer doubted the stories, as there is no evidence that Lincoln gave away the hat, but does note that the hat likely belonged to Lincoln, but that increased effort is needed to trace its origins. I have to agree with Mr. Holzer, as, even in that day, a beaver hat was not something casually given away, as it was still a fairly expensive item.

It will be interesting to see where this story goes, but I urge anyone heading to Springfield soon to check out the site and see the artifacts. While the museum itself has a lot of technological aspects that are designed to make it more accessible to the public, which is not my thing, but worth seeing, the library is really worth a stop, as they hold a large amount of wonderful historical items, including manuscripts, newspapers, and other materials for scholars researching on a wide array of topics related to Illinois history, the Civil War, and Lincoln. I donated a copy of my thesis to the library as a thank you for providing assistance and material that went into it.

That this story came out on April 15 is appropriate, as it is the anniversary of the death of Mr. Lincoln in 1865. May he continue to rest in peace.

Update on the supposed tampering with Lincoln documents

Thanks to Brett Schulte and the gang at TOCWOC for posting this update. As Civil Warriors first posted and I posted on January 25, Lincoln scholar Thomas Lowry admitted, then later denied, altering the date of a pardon issued by Lincoln. Now, Mr. Lowry is telling his side of the story in greater detail through his own blog, which does raise speculation about how the case was handled by the federal government. Having read the posting, I am willing to consider that Mr. Lowry may have been railroaded until shown otherwise. I will also modify my remarks on the damage being done here, and consider the possibility that someone researching years before Mr. Lowry may have tampered with the document, fooling both Mr. Lowry and the staff of the Archives until technology allowed a very detailed examination of the forensics of that item. I will say that, if innocent, he is vindicated in the media and I will happily post that.

Now, I will take issue with the characterization of the Civil War blogging community. When one blog, written by reputable historians, post a link to media reports dealing with some aspect of the war, or research on the period, others, myself included are going to pick it up and link to the original post. This is because it is a news worthy item and not every blog on the war has the same readership. Further, when the sources reporting include the Associated Press, National Archives, Washington Post and NPR, it is hard not to consider that it is legitimate.

With this new side to the story, I am now on the fence. If Mr. Lowry is proven right, the federal government has a serious problem on its hands. After reading his response, some of his observations are interesting. The criticism of the changing nature of the National Archives is truly worth exploring deeper. I hope that this case will be resolved soon.

Reflecting on David Herbert Donald (1920-2009)

I learned today from one of my professors that David Herbert Donald, one of the premiere scholars of the Civil War and Lincoln passed away on May 17 at 88 (I later found the date of death via Google). One of his better known works was his 1995 biography of Abraham Lincoln entitled Lincoln. I had the distinct privilege of meeting Dr. Donald several years ago when I was attending Illinois College. We honored him with an honorary degree at convocation and he was at a reception at the college president’s home, where I met him. He struck me as a gentle and kind man, passionate about his subject and even took time to sign a copy of Lincoln that I had purchased for my dad as an anniversary gift, which will one day become a treasured part of my library. He was a truly gifted scholar and will be greatly missed, but I am sure that he is having quite the conversation with Abe Lincoln now.


I was sent the following email from Timothy Wroten of the New York Historical Society and thought I should pass it on to you.



Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words Is Latest Presentation in the
Lincoln Year, Commemorating the Bicentennial of the Sixteenth President

New York, NY – A draft of the epoch-making “House Divided” speech, stirring notes for an address against slavery, a telegram encouraging General Ulysses S. Grant at a turning point in the Civil War, and the resolution for the Thirteenth Amendment bearing the President’s signature: These are among the rare and important letters, papers and official documents in Abraham Lincoln’s own hand that will be on display, as the New-York Historical Society presents, in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the exhibition Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words.

Opening on February 12, 2009 (the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth) and remaining on view through July 12, Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words is the latest offering in the Historical Society’s Lincoln Year of exhibitions, lectures, events and public programs commemorating the bicentennial. The Lincoln Year will culminate in the Historical Society’s major exhibition for 2009, Lincoln and New York (opening October 2), for which the distinguished Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer has served as
chief historian.

“Nothing matches the immediacy of approaching a great figure through authentic objects,” stated Dr. Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “Visitors to Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words will experience this thrill of physical presence, as they view Abraham Lincoln’s life and career in the original, from his period as an attorney and legislator in Illinois through his assassination and its aftermath.”

“As Lincoln begins his third century in American memory, we hope these documents will help illuminate his unique contribution to our country’s history,” stated James G. Basker, President of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

In addition to seeing handwritten public documents by Lincoln, visitors will also encounter his more personal side, in letters to a struggling school friend of his eldest son and to his wife Mary (the latter written days before his death). Also on view are first edition texts, including a signed lithograph of his Emancipation Proclamation, a broadside of his Second Inaugural Address distributed in 1865, and a copy of his First Inaugural Address as published in 1861 in the Chicago Tribune.

Lending dramatic context to these items are a variety of other remarkable period objects, such as photographs, prints, sculptures, testimonies, and more. Visitors will see a cast of Lincoln’s face made in 1860 by sculptor Leonard Volk; a photograph by Alexander Gardner of Lincoln and General McClellan in the field in 1862; a Currier & Ives print of the fall fo Richmond in 1865; and a letter of condolence to Mary Todd Lincoln from Frederick Douglass, written in August 1865. Rounding out the exhibition are the original artists’ models by Daniel Chester French for the Lincoln sculpture commissioned by Lincoln, Nebraska (1911) and for the colossal seated figure at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (1916).

With the exception of the sculptures, all objects in the exhibition are drawn from the Gilder Lehrman Collection, which is on deposit at the New-York Historical Society. An accompanying illustrated book, Great Lincoln Documents: Historians Present Treasures from the Gilder Lehrman Collection, has been published by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, featuring essays by ten noted historians, including James McPherson, Allen Guelzo, David Blight, Richard Carwardine, and Harold Holzer.

Check out some of the exhibit here.

A sad anniversary

April 14, 2008 marked the 143rd anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and today, April 15 marks the anniversary of his death. His death was one of the final tragedies of a nation that suffered through the Civil War. His death also provided counter factual history with a tantalizing case. Given the different views regarding Reconstruction between Lincoln and Johnson, one only wonders how our history would be different had Lincoln led the nation through Reconstruction, but I will let other folks debate that story. With next year marking the bicentennial of his birth and the sesquicentennial of the war beginning in 2011, the date of his assassination and death will become even more significant. Having visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois, I have passed by the reproduced scene of his coffin lying in state and it is quite a moving thing to see. So, as a fellow Illinois resident, I say Rest in Peace, Mr. Lincoln, you are not forgotten.