Category Archives: Lincoln Historiography

Martha Hodes on ‘Mourning Lincoln’

At his blog, historian John Fea has posted a short interview with Martha Hodes about her new book Mourning Lincoln.  Hodes uses contemporary letters and diaries to examine the varied ways Americans responded to Lincoln’s assassination, and how these responses reflected different visions for the country’s future in the wake of the Civil War.

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Holzer on Lincoln and the press

Harold Holzer’s latest book is Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion, which David Reynolds just reviewed for The New York Times.  Here’s a sample of Reynolds’s review:

Abraham Lincoln has been portrayed in many roles — as emancipator, politician, military leader, orator, self-made man and others — but his canny manipulation of the popular press has received little attention. Harold Holzer, a prominent authority on America’s 16th president, opens many vistas on this fascinating topic in his new book, “Lincoln and the Power of the Press,” a monumental, richly detailed portrait of the world of 19th-­century journalism and Lincoln’s relation to it. Holzer demonstrates that even as Lincoln juggled many war-related demands, he kept a close eye on American newspapers and tried to influence them however he could.

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The “better angels” and the 1862 Dakota War

By Michael Lynch

In 1862, as Lee carried the Civil War into Maryland and Lincoln prepared to turn the struggle for the Union into a battle of liberation, a bloody sideshow played out in Minnesota.  Exasperated by broken promises and corruption among traders and federal agents, Dakota Indians launched attacks against settlers and the Lower Sioux Agency, setting off a conflict variously known as the Dakota War, the Sioux Uprising, Little Crow’s War, and a handful of other names.  Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, a Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors by Gustav Niebuhr has joined a relatively short shelf of books devoted to the uprising.

The key player in Niebuhr’s account is Henry Whipple, a New York native who became Minnesota’s first Episcopal bishop and an advocate for better treatment of the frontier’s original inhabitants, working to change a system in which Indians were victims of corrupt officials and unscrupulous traders.  

Whipple’s concern for the Indians was unusual for a nineteenth-century white American, and an especially unpopular position for any resident of Minnesota in 1862 after four Dakota hunters initiated the war by attacking white homesteads and killing five settlers.  As often happened in Indian wars over the course of American history from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth, many whites reacted to the uprising by calling for the extirpation of the Dakota, assuming that all the Indians on the frontier had settlers’ blood on their hands.  As Niebuhr shows, the conflict was never so simple, even from its very beginning.  Individual Dakota intervened to save the lives of settlers, sometimes because of previous acquaintance and sometimes out of simple humanity.  Some whites, too, urged their vengeance-hungry countrymen to differentiate among the Indians, some of whom had converted to Christianity (partly through the efforts of Whipple, who supported Indian missionary efforts) and taken up farming.  Whipple was thus the most prominent of a small number of people caught up in a volatile situation who nevertheless refused to engage in the collective demonization of the other that was so prevalent in white-Indian warfare.

The bishop wasn’t unsympathetic to the plight of settlers in the uprising’s path—in fact, he helped organize relief for white refugees displaced by the attacks and tend to the wounded—but he considered the Indians’ poor treatment at the hands of the government the ultimate root of the problem.  He had been lobbying authorities to reform Indian relations for some time before the revolt, having tried without success to bring President Buchanan’s attention to the problem.  Most men would have considered the outbreak of the Dakota War a most inauspicious occasion to persuade Washington of the need for better treatment of Native Americans, but Whipple was undaunted, heading to Washington, D.C. again in 1862 to plead the Indians’ case with Abraham Lincoln.

The bishop’s first impressions of Lincoln on the latter’s accession to office had not been favorable.  And, as Niebuhr shows in a chapter devoted to Lincoln’s personal history of the Indians, the president wasn’t unaware of the misery marauding Native Americans could unleash.  After all, an Indian had murdered Lincoln’s grandfather and namesake in Kentucky.  As a young man, Lincoln himself had served in the Black Hawk War; while biographers tend to downplay this period in his life, emphasizing that he saw no combat, Niebuhr points out that Lincoln did witness firsthand some of the devastation of that war during his stint in the militia.

But Whipple had a few things working in his favor on his 1862 lobbying trip.  The first was Lincoln’s personal tendency toward leniency and mercy.  Thirty years before, while a volunteer against Black Hawk, he had intervened to stop vengeful whites from murdering an Indian captive.  His tendency toward clemency and compassion remained evident during his presidency, when he routinely spared the lives of condemned soldiers and favored a moderate course in dealing with a conquered South.  Like Whipple, Lincoln seemed to have a sort of innate immunity to the urge to dehumanize the other side which is so common in warfare, especially war between different races and cultures.

Second, as Niebuhr argues, there was a sense in which the timing of his visit actually worked in Whipple’s favor.  The Dakota uprising coincided with a transformation in Lincoln’s thinking about the Civil War.  As the Minnesota frontier erupted in violence, the president had determined that more extreme measures were necessary to preserve the Union and was preparing to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.  Lincoln considered slavery a national shame and a cancer in the body of the nation which had finally led to the rebellion; similarly, Whipple referred to mistreatment of the Indians as a great sin which led to the devastation of the Dakota uprising.  Thus, for some months before Whipple’s visit, Lincoln’s concerns had been along some of the same lines as the bishop’s.

The timing of Whipple’s trip was fortunate in another way.  Niebuhr argues that by bringing Lincoln’s attention to the poor treatment of the Dakota at the very time when the wounds from their uprising were still fresh, the bishop shaped the president’s thinking about the Minnesota revolt, framing it as a symptom of the government’s mistreatment of the Indians.  As Niebuhr explains, “Whipple got access to the president before Lincoln heard any extended discussion about the war from anyone else in Minnesota.  What the bishop managed to do was set the war within the context of federal government corruption and ineptitude.  He created for Lincoln a lens through which to view the war.”

Lincoln proved more receptive to Whipple than his predecessor, giving him access to government records of Dakota relations to help bolster his case.  But there was still the matter of Indians captured in the wake of the uprising.  A military tribunal sentenced over 300 of them to hang for participation in the war.  Despite warnings that failing to execute them all would inflame white opinion on the frontier, Lincoln spared the lives of nearly nine-tenths of the condemned.  The result was still the largest public execution in United States history, as  thirty-eight Dakota men went to the gallows on December 26, 1862.  And it’s important to remember that Lincoln’s record on Indian affairs was not spotless.  Biographer David Donald notes that the president remained largely ignorant about Native Americans; like most other nineteenth-century whites, he considered Indians less civilized and more prone to violence than Euro-Americans.

Still, Lincoln’s receptivity to Whipple’s pleas for reform and his intervention in the executions are notable examples of Lincoln’s leniency, his aptitude for mercy, and his basic humanity—the traits which have made him one of the most beloved figures in American history.

Niebuhr’s book should spark wider interest in this often overlooked aspect of Lincoln’s presidency and bring greater attention to Whipple’s crucial role as a mediator between the government and the Dakota.  It’s an enlightening piece of historical research, but also a very inspiring book, a reminder that the forces which Lincoln famously called “the better angels of our nature” can work their magic even in the most violent and divisive of circumstances.

Michael Lynch is an incoming doctoral student at the University of Tennessee, a former staff member at LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, and a research fellow for the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy.  You can find him in the blogosphere at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com as well as on Twitter (@mlynch5396).

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Chris DeRose on Lincoln and his predecessors

In The Presidents’ War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them, Chris DeRose examines how Lincoln’s predecessors reacted to the secession crisis.  Roll Call recently featured a very favorable review of the book:

These men had some triumphs. Van Buren built a national party, Tyler annexed Texas, Fillmore steered the Compromise of 1850 to passage — successes that yielded mixed results and sometimes violent reactions.
But they were, for the most part, frittering around the edges of an impending national catastrophe, not because they couldn’t see it, but because they could. Rather than confront it, they chose to trim, or avert their gaze.
The story of the six presidents really begins when the sixth arrives in the capital to confront a task “greater than that which rested upon Washington.”
And it is here where DeRose’s well-seeded narrative bears fruit. For we now know these men, from their deeds and words — and when they challenge Lincoln’s policies, their narrow interests and lack of vision quickly become obvious.
They deride Lincoln as a sectional man, but he is the only one among them who seems to understand the nation they have all governed.
Hidebound by pieties of the past, none can fully see their way clear to the new birth of freedom Lincoln promises, not just for enslaved blacks, but for the entire United States and all of humanity.
“The former presidents were living in a world they did not recognize,” DeRose writes.

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Gustav Niebuhr on Lincoln, Henry Whipple, and the Dakota War

John Fea’s blog has an interesting interview with Gustav Niebuhr, author of the new book Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, a Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux.  The book examines Bishop Henry Whipple’s work to reform America’s Indian relations and his influence on Lincoln’s response to the Dakota War of 1862.

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Jonathan White on emancipation and the soldier vote

John Fea’s blog has an interview with Jonathan White, author of the forthcoming book Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln.  White teaches at Christopher Newport University in Virginia.

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Mary Todd Lincoln reconsidered in new book

In a new biography, Betty Boles Ellison argues that the Union’s First Lady doesn’t deserve the bad press she’s gotten for the past 150 years.  Ellison discussed her findings with Kentucky.com:

Ellison says in her new book, The True Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (McFarland: $39.95), that the first lady was both frugal and outspoken, her son Robert a priggish manipulator who had his mother committed while Mary Todd Lincoln masterminded her own release from an asylum by gathering together friends and supporters who did not want to see a first lady humiliated.

“No person should have had to experience what she did, perpetuated by her own son and Lincoln’s so-called friends,” Ellison said in a recent interview at her Lexington home.

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