Abraham Lincoln: The Observations of John G. Nicolay and John Hay
Edited by Michael Burlingame
(January 2009 Civil War News)

Notes, index, 142 pp., 2007. Southern Illinois University Press, 1915 University Press Dr., Carbondale, Ill. 62901, $24.95 plus shipping.

Reviewer: Walt Albro
Walt Albro is a magazine writer and editor who lives in Rockville, Md.

One of Abraham Lincoln’s aides, John Hay, was noted for his tact as well as his wit. Once while charged with vetting the ranks of visitors who crowded into the White House waiting room, Hay confronted a man who insisted that he needed to see the president urgently.

“What is your mission?” Hay demanded.

“The reply was, “Do you know who I am?”

When Hay confessed that he did not, the caller explained that he was the son of God.

“The President will be delighted to see you when you come again,” dead-panned Hay. “And perhaps you will bring along a letter of introduction from your father.”

The anecdote suggests that Lincoln selected aides who shared his intelligence and his sense of humor. Thus, one might expect that a book of “observations” by Lincoln’s secretary, Nicolay, and Nicolay’s chief assistant, Hay, would be colorful, intelligent and a delightful read.

 This short volume is indeed intelligent, but it falls short in the areas of colorful and delightful. In general, the book is a history of the Lincoln White House from his inauguration in 1861 until the resolution of the cabinet crisis of December 1862 — when Republican senators unsuccessfully attempted to have Secretary of State William Seward ejected from the cabinet.

The editor’s expressed purpose is to expose the general reader to the observations of Nicolas and Hay, as taken from their massive 10-volume, Abraham Lincoln: A History, since few people have the time or patience to wade through the complete set.

Key topics covered include the Fort Sumter crisis; the First Battle of Bull Run; Lincoln and Edwin M. Stanton; Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan; the removal of McClellan from command; and the above-mentioned cabinet crisis. (Question: What happened to the Nicolay/Hay observations from the final 2.5 years of the war?)

There are two main shortcomings: First, the book’s title is a little misleading. The bulk of each chapter is taken up by commentary from the editor, and only a brief portion comprises direct excerpts from Nicolay/Hay. The limitation of this approach is that by segregating the observations of Nicolay/Hay at the end of each chapter, the excerpts tend to repeat material already covered by the editor in his commentary. This is awkward and jarring.

The other problem is that Nicolay/Hay are not particularly bright reading. The two men are preoccupied with issues of politics and policy and their observations are notably lacking the human touch (with a few exceptions, such as the anecdote above about Hay meeting the son of God .

While it may be true that few people read Abraham Lincoln: A History, the fact is that historians have mined the work for years and some of the Nicolay/Hay anecdotes excerpted in this volume are already widely familiar. A recent book by David Herbert Donald, We Are Lincoln Men, covers some of the same territory and some of the same stories — although in a form more easily digested by a popular audience.

Quite unexpectedly, the best part of this book has nothing to do with Nicolay and Hay: It is the editor’s commentary. His analysis and defense, for example, of Lincoln’s often-criticized actions early in the war of giving priority to office-seekers — at the expense of handling the war crisis —  is fresh and provocative. It’s a disappointment that the book doesn’t offer more like this.