Monthly Archives: October 2013

Lincoln’s trademark headgear

“No other president is so firmly connected in our imaginations with an item of haberdashery,” writes Stephen Carter.  “We remember Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cigarette holder and John F. Kennedy’s rocker, but Lincoln alone is remembered for what he wore.”  Carter considers Lincoln’s trademark top hat in the current Smithsonian magazine.

Image from the National Museum of American History via Wikimedia Commons

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Ron Soodalter to deliver McMurtry lecture on Nov. 1

The Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy and LMU’s Duncan School of Law will host the 2013 R. Gerald McMurtry Memorial Lecture on Friday, Nov. 1st at 11:00 A.M.  The presentation will be held in the Arnold Auditorium of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum on LMU’s main campus in Harrogate, TN.

This year’s lecture is “The Quality of Mercy: Abraham Lincoln and the Power to Pardon,” presented by Ron Soodalter.  Mr. Soodalter holds a B.A. in American History and master’s degrees in Education and American Folk Culture, and has taught in various schools throughout New York State as well as New York City’s Riker’s Island Prison. He worked as curator of a Colorado history museum, where he also served on the Board of Directors of the 10-state Mountain-Plains Museums Conference.

In addition to his two current books – Hanging Captain Gordon and The Slave Next Door – Soodalter’s articles appear frequently in magazines. He has written for several publications, including the New York Times, Smithsonian, Civil War Times, Military History, New York Archives, and True West, and has been a featured columnist for America’s Civil War. He is the recipient of the International Regional Magazine Association’s 2010 Gold Award for History, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Abraham Lincoln Institute.

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Presentation on Civil War prison camps at LMU

The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum (ALLM) on the campus of Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) in Harrogate, Tenn., will host speaker Tom Daily, director of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Civil War Monument on Saturday, October 19, at 2 p.m. The talk is entitled “Prison Camps of the War, North and South,” and is free and open to the public.

Daily’s talk is part of a program sponsored by the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS), which is holding its annual Congress at the ALLM this weekend. MOLLUS is a patriotic order founded the day after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 to demonstrate loyalty during a time when many rumors concerning the potential overthrow of the American government were rampant. Current members of the association include descendants of Civil War officers.

The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum is located on the historic campus of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. Housing one of the top five Lincoln and Civil War private collections in the world, the Museum is open Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about this and other programs at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, call 423-869-6235.

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The Daily Beast talks to James McPherson

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of his landmark book Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson discussed his writing and the importance of the Civil War with March Wortman for The Daily Beast.  “Without that war, the U.S. today would be a much different nation—perhaps two or several nations,” McPherson said.  “To understand the society in which they live, Americans need to understand how it got that way, and the Civil War determined a large part of how it got that way.”

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Hillsdale talks Lincoln with Rich Lowry

Hillsdale College’s Collegian recently talked to Rich Lowry, author of Lincoln Unbound, about his subject’s economic vision and the lessons modern Americans could learn from Lincoln.  You can read this short interview by clicking here.

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Welles family battles over heirlooms

A civil trial opens this week as part of a battle between descendants of Gideon Welles over the disposition of family heirlooms, including Lincoln-related documents and artifacts.  The Hartford Courant has the details.

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A conversation with Craig Symonds

This is the third in our occasional series of interviews with scholars of Lincoln and the Civil War.  Dr. Craig Symonds holds a Ph.D. from the University of Florida and is a former naval officer.  After teaching at the Naval War College he moved to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he stayed for three decades as one of that institution’s most popular professors and received a number of teaching awards.  His books include Lincoln and His Admirals (for which he was a co-recipient of the Lincoln Prize), The Civil War at Sea, Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History, Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography, Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War, and The Battle of Midway.

How did you get interested in the study of Lincoln and the Civil War?

My interest in Lincoln may well date from my earliest memories, and in particular attending Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Anaheim, California.  There was an enormous (to me) bronze statue of Lincoln in an alcove in the front of the school in those days (it is gone now, alas), and I can remember looking up at it and thinking how impressive he was.  Then, some years later, I was a teenager during the Centennial of the Civil War and I eagerly read Bruce Catton’s trilogy on the war as they came out. 

It’s commonly said that Lincoln grew into the job of commander-in-chief, even though he had no experience with military command before his election.  Did his grasp of naval strategy improve over time, and did he make any significant mistakes?

Lincoln’s great gift as a politician and statesman was his ability to learn and adapt to a wide variety of circumstances, and to work effectively with a disparate selection of individuals, at least some of whom were inclined to be disagreeable.   Lincoln certainly learned a great deal on the job about naval matters, but the key to his success was his ability to judge and to manage the people as much as it was grasping the arcane details of naval technology or naval strategy.  And of course he made mistakes in the process, but he learned from each of them, and almost never made the same mistake twice.  Finally, he was unusual, if not nearly unique, in his willingness to acknowledge his errors.  During the Vicksburg campaign, he became convinced that once Grant had passed the Rebel citadel, he should continue downriver to join Banks in assailing Port Hudson.  After Vicksburg fell, he went out of his way to write to Grant, “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong.”  What president since then has ever admitted such a thing?

What was the nature of Lincoln’s relationship with Gideon Welles?  How closely did he involve himself in naval operations?

I think Lincoln genuinely enjoyed Gideon Welles, whom he called “Father Neptune” or “Uncle Gideon.”  Welles was an eccentric character with his mismatched wig and voluble personality, but he was always completely candid with Lincoln—something the president counted on.  Lincoln also appreciated the fact that, along with the Assistant Secretary Gustavus Fox, Welles ran the Navy Department with little active oversight.  Lincoln preferred to let the experts run their departments and he intervened only at need.  In cases like the Trent Affair, the Peterhoff case, or feuds with the Army, Lincoln necessarily had to get involved, but only because there was no one else in the government who could.  He was not an activist manager by instinct.

Lincoln’s frustration with Samuel Francis Du Pont regarding the attack on Charleston in 1863 brings to mind his troubled relationship with George McClellan.  Was Lincoln’s disappointment with Du Pont justified, and were his expectations realistic when it came to his naval commanders? 

Lincoln’s frustration with Du Pont derived from two factors:  One was the fact that the president had recently washed his hands of McClellan, and his tendency to conflate Du Pont’s apparent timidity concerning the Charleston defenses with McClellan’s behavior, while perhaps a bit unfair, was certainly understandable.  The second factor was that Du Pont was annoyingly shut-mouthed about his plans.  All Lincoln really wanted was honest candor from his commanders, both on land and at sea.  Bu Du Pont decided that he should not burden the president with details about naval matters and rather than explain the circumstances forthrightly, he hemmed and hawed and didn’t act.  Then, when he did, and was repulsed, he demanded that his reports be published in order to justify his decisions.  More than anything else, it was Du Pont’s evident concern for his own reputation, rather than his failure, that turned Lincoln against him.

Do you think its accurate to call the Civil War a “modern war,” and how open was Lincoln the technological developments in nineteenth-century naval warfare?

The Civil War was most certainly the world’s first modern war.  The mass conscription of civilians in the armies, and the transformation of industry to mass-produce military equipment, as much as the new technology, proves this.  But the technology was also revolutionary.  It was the first railroad war, the first telegraph war, the first war that involved armored ships firing rifled guns.  For his part, Lincoln easily and almost seamlessly embraced these new technologies, and in some cases, actively advanced them.  I have often said that Lincoln was a “gadget guy” and enjoyed going down to the Navy Yard to watch, or even participate in, the testing of some new weapon.

One of the first Union strategies for defeating the Confederacy involved a naval blockade.  How effective was this effort, and what role did it play in the North’s ultimate victory?

This is simply too big a question for me to deal with in a short answer.  On the whole, I believe that the blockade was worth the effort and expense; that it severely restricted the Confederacy’s ability to wage war; and that it probably shorted the war by a matter of several months.  For a longer and more complete answer, I’m afraid you’ll have to look at my books.

On a somewhat broader note than the previous questions, how important was the Union Navy’s contribution to the overall war effort? 

The Civil War was primarily a land war, and I believe that the Union would have won that war even without overwhelming naval superiority so long as the public continued to support the Lincoln administration’s war policy.  But it would almost certainly have been a longer and even bloodier war.   Without Union superiority on the western rivers, the campaigns for Forts Henry and Donelson, for Island Number 10, for Vicksburg, and of course for New Orleans would have been entirely different.  If the Union Navy shortened the war by, say, six months, then it may have saved a hundred thousand lives.

Compared to other presidents, how would you rate Lincoln as a naval commander-in-chief?

Few presidents had the opportunity to manage naval forces in a modern war of this scale.  Only Franklin Roosevelt comes close, and FDR (like his distant cousin Teddy) was a man who had studied the navy since childhood.   Roosevelt was far more knowledgeable about naval matters than Lincoln, but the two men had very similar instincts:  a disarming congeniality, a flexible, non-ideological outlook, a pragmatic world view, and keen political skills.  I rank them both at the very top of all American presidents, not just in war management, but in presidential excellence.

Finally, what leadership lessons can modern Americans learn from Lincoln?

I’ll name three:  patience; a willingness to listen, as well as talk; and a sense of humor.  Sadly, all three are sorely in need in our nation today.


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