Lincoln in His Own Time
Edited by Harold K. Bush Jr.
(June Civil War News)

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Illustrated, photos, notes, bibliography, index, 230 pp., 2011, University of Iowa Press, www.uiowapress.org, $25.

 

Abraham Lincoln did not make a particularly martial or impressive appearance when he rode a horse. This is what Army Chaplain Joseph H. Twitchell wrote concerning how Lincoln looked when he rode beside Gen. George McClellan.

McClellan was described as short and stiffly erect, sitting on his horse like a dragoon. Lincoln’s appearance, on the other hand, was comical. His legs were so long that they looked as though they were about to get entangled in the horse’s legs — bringing them both down.

“That with which he held the rein, in its angle and position, resembled the hind leg of a grasshopper — the hand before the elbow way back over the horse’s tail,” wrote Twitchell.

This recollection is from one of the memoirs collected in this “biographical chronicle” about Lincoln in his time. Many of the people in this account actually met Lincoln in person. All, however, were contemporaries and formulated some opinions about Lincoln based on what they had heard or read about him from other sources who knew him personally.

A few of these recollections are from people who worked with the Lincoln family at the White House or knew Lincoln in Illinois. Some of these memoirs are simple descriptions of White House meetings; others are summaries of Lincoln’s behavior during noteworthy events, such as the death of his son Willie in 1862 or the delivery of the Gettysburg address in 1863.

Editor Harold Bush strives to create a series of written impressions that add up to a type of collage illustrating the elusive “real” Lincoln. Although there are no major new biographical discoveries here, there are a number of small details that taken together provide rewarding insight into Lincoln’s character and behavior.

I particularly enjoyed the observations concerning Lincoln’s love of the theater and poetry. The manager of the Canterbury Theater in Washington, for example, remembered that Lincoln would invariably show up at the theater whenever a good comedian, male or female, appeared in a play.

The president would invite prominent actors into his private box between acts, but, curiously, he never went backstage, as many are fond of doing, at the play’s conclusion. His reason? “He used to say that to do so would spoil the illusion surrounding the play,” wrote theater manager William E. Sinn.

Lincoln’s fondness for poetry, especially Byron’s, has been noted often. We learn here, however, that Lincoln was drawn to poetic themes that dwelled on sad or pathetic themes. He liked, for example, “The Last Leaf” by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Much has been made of Lincoln’s supposed ability to quote poems in their entirety by heart. Newspaperman Noah Brooks, who knew Lincoln well, adds a twist to these stories. Lincoln, he says, was a dedicated newspaper reader and, when he saw a poem that he liked, he would invariably clip it and carry it around in his pocket.

At various times during the day, he would take out the clipping and repeat the poem, as if in soliloquy. This observation suggests that Lincoln’s ability to quote poetry may have derived more from a habit of constant repetition rather than from a singular act of prodigious memory.

While this is a nice Lincoln book, I felt it was a little top-heavy with eulogies from the post-assassination period. Also, it leaned heavily on quotes from celebrity observers — Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass. We have already read these people’s thoughts about Lincoln many times. It would have been interesting to read more views from obscure, lesser-known people.

Don’t pick up this book if you are looking for a general biography. It is strictly for readers who are already knowledgeable about Lincoln’s life but who want to savor some more intimate or arcane details.

Reviewer: Walt Albro

 

Walt Albro is a magazine editor and writer based in Rockville, Md. His history articles have appeared in such publications as MHQ (Military History Quarterly), Military History and The Civil War Times.