THE NEW YORK TIMES DISUNION BLOG
April 10, 2015
At midnight on July 26, 1947, the Library of Congress opened Abraham Lincoln’s papers to the public. As the librarian unlocked the safe that held the documents, 12 photographers and four newsreel camera operators recorded the scene. Among those present at midnight, and at 4 p.m. for an official ceremony scheduled for that time so that the various Lincoln clubs around the country could listen on radio, were Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, Lincoln’s great-grandson, and Ulysses S. Grant III, the general’s grandson. Scholars attended as well (14 authors who had among them published more than 100 Lincoln books), and they began almost immediately to search the index.
July 7, 2014
On the morning of July 4, 1864, as Congress was preparing to adjourn for the summer, Abraham Lincoln was busy in an office at the Capitol signing bills. Senator Charles Sumner hovered nearby “in a state of intense anxiety.” George Boutwell, a representative from Massachusetts, paced nervously. Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan kept asking anyone who would listen if one particular bill had been signed. Told no, he spoke with Lincoln who, according to the president’s secretary John Hay, said, “this bill was placed before me a few minutes before Congress adjourns. It is a matter of too much importance to be swallowed in that way.”
August 21, 2013
On Aug. 14, 1863, James C. Conkling invited President Abraham Lincoln to Springfield to attend a mass rally of “Unconditional Union men” on Sept. 3. Conkling was a former mayor of Springfield and a member of the Illinois House of Representatives. In a letter of introduction earlier that year, the president called him “my personal friend of long standing.” Lincoln responded to Conkling on Aug. 20, “I think I will go, or send a letter — probably the latter.” Much as he desired to “meet my old friends, at my own home,” he rarely left Washington except to confer with generals and visit the troops.
February 9, 2013
Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” was published in 1862 and English translations of the five parts that constitute the novel began to appear in America by year’s end. Hugo had begun the sprawling novel in the 1840s, put it aside, and come back to complete it between 1860 and 1862. He was an opponent of slavery, and in 1859 defended John Brown. “Insurrection,” he said, was a “sacred duty.” In the novel, Hugo name-checked Brown in a list of celebrated revolutionaries that included Washington, Bolivar and Garibaldi. Hugo’s focus was the July Revolution of 1830, but it is possible he had the American conflict in mind when he wrote, “Civil war … What did the words mean? Was there any such thing as ‘foreign war?’ Was not all warfare between men warfare between brothers?”
December 5, 2012
Count Adam Gurowski cut a striking figure as he stormed about Washington in a broad-brimmed hat, flowing overcoat and colored spectacles. The Polish exile, who had lived in Berlin, St. Petersburg and Paris before coming to the United States in 1849, was the author of 1854’s “Russia As It Is,” a work praised as “original and striking.” The son of Count Wladyslaw Gurowski, who fought alongside Tadeusz Kosciuszko in the failed attempt to free Poland of Russian influence in 1794, Adam, according to his obituary in The New York Times, “imbibed the revolutionary spirit possessed by his father, and carried his patriotism to such an extent as to render himself obnoxious to the ruling powers.” When war broke out, Gurowski took a minor position in the State Department.
July 25, 2012
Francis Bicknell Carpenter dreamed of greatness. Born in Homer, N.Y., in 1830, the portrait painter studied at the Cortland Academy and then moved to Manhattan to make his name. But he knew portraits would take him only so far. The most distinguished art critics ranked them, along with domestic scenes and still life, as a lesser genre. It was history painting that reigned pre-eminent — works like John Trumbull’s “Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill” (1786), and Emmanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851), which drew throngs when first exhibited and was hailed as “the best painting yet executed for an American subject.”
January 27, 2012
On Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1862, George Templeton Strong, New York lawyer and philanthropist, and Henry Ward Bellows, Unitarian minister and president of the United States Sanitary Commission, called on the president to discuss reform of the Army medical bureau. The next day, Strong, an inveterate diarist, wrote at length about the meeting, and included a Lincoln story in dialect so as to capture the president’s diction. The elitist Strong described the backwoods president as “a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla, in respect to outside polish (for example, he uses “humans” as English for homines), but a most sensible, straightforward, honest old codger.”
October 21, 2011
Edward Dickinson Baker, a close friend and sometimes political rival of Lincoln’s, had no fear of war. In 1832, he left his fledgling law practice in Illinois to participate in the Black Hawk War, and, in 1846, he resigned his Illinois Congressional seat to serve as a colonel of the Fourth Illinois Infantry in the Mexican War.
September 30, 2011
No politician was more determined than Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts to ensure that secession and war resulted in emancipation. He interpreted every event through the lens of freedom. A quick end to the conflict, he feared, would leave slavery intact. Although he did not wish for it, he saw the benefit of the humiliating Union defeat at Bull Run in July 1861. He informed the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, “The battle & defeat have done much for the slave. I told the Predt that our defeat was the worst event & the best event in our history; the worst, as it was the greatest present calamity & shame, — the best, as it made the extinction of Slavery inevitable.”
July 9, 2011
Frederick Law Olmsted is rightly remembered as an eminent landscape architect, but in 1861 it was his work as a journalist and an administrator that brought him acclaim. In February of that year, he agreed to edit his three earlier volumes, “A Journey in the Seaboard States” (1856), “A Journey Through Texas” (1857) and “A Journey in the Back Country” (1860) and reissue them as a two-volume work titled “The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slaves States.”
March 24, 2011
On the night before William Howard Russell left London for New York, he dined at the Garrick Club with William Makepeace Thackeray. Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and many other leading lights of English culture and society also belonged to the private establishment. Although admitted to the Bar, it was as a correspondent for The Times of London that Russell established his reputation. His fame came from his dogged coverage of the Crimean War and, at its conclusion in 1856, he returned a hero. His dispatches brought the war home to readers. He wrote with clarity and vitality about the grandeur and the horror of battle. He followed that with an equally vivid account of the Sepoy Rebellion in India. People called him a “war correspondent,” perhaps the first, but he rejected the label and departed on March 3 for the brewing conflict in America as “special correspondent” for The Times.
December 20, 2010
The 19th century was a literary age, and the Civil War a written war. Diaries proliferated among politicians and professionals, civilians and soldiers; as a result, we have scores of personal reactions and reflections that document events both momentous and trivial. Not all of these diaries stand the test of time as revealing portraits of an age and literary works with a unique voice. One that does was maintained by George Templeton Strong.
November 11, 2010
On Friday morning, Nov. 9, 1860, Keziah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard, a 57-year-old widowed plantation mistress, who lived some 10 miles east of Columbia, SC, wrote in her diary, “Oh My God!!! This morning heard that Lincoln was elected.” In the breathless entry that followed, she recorded her thoughts and fears.