Inside Lincoln's White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, edited by Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner EttlingerSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, eds., Inside Lincoln's
White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay.
Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997. xx + 393 pp.
John Hay was a man most twentieth-century Americans would have enjoyed knowing. In an era before the ever-evasive presidential press secretary, Hay was as close as anyone to Abraham Lincoln during the tumultuous years of the Civil War. Appointed assistant presidential secretary at the start of the war at the age of twenty-three, he served until the end of 1864 when he entered military service. Because law permitted the president only one secretary, Hay, who served as assistant to his friend John G. Nicolay, was named clerk in the Interior Department and then assigned to the White House.
Both Hay and Nicolay were sometimes away on trouble-shooting missions, yet they spent much of their time with Lincoln, sometimes accompanying the president to the battlefield, on a political mission or, as in Hay's case, to Gettysburg in November 1863 for the dedication of the Soldiers Cemetery. Hay observed that at the ceremony, "Mr. Stocton [Thomas H. Stocton, chaplain of the U.S. Senate] made a prayer which thought it was an oration—and Mr. Everett spoke as he always does perfectly—and the President in a firm free way, with more grace than is his wont said his half dozen lines of consecration and the music wailed and we went home through crowded and cheering streets" (113).
This edition of the Hay diary is the work of Professor Michael Burlingame of Connecticut College and John R. Turner Ettlinger, professor emeritus at the School of Library Information Studies, Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It replaces the 1939 edition of Tyler Dennett, which omitted approximately 10 percent of the entries for reasons of confidentiality and propriety, and included some glaring errors. Annotations in the Dennett edition were brief and sometimes inaccurate. In contrast, those of Burlin- Page [End Page 69] game and Ettlinger are full and totally illuminating. Indeed they encompass more than a quarter of the total pages of the volume. Not only are all individuals fully identified, but much of Hay's relevant correspondence is included. Ettlinger transcribed the Hay manuscripts housed at the Brown University Library, deciphering Hay's often-illegible penmanship and including annotations that Burlingame later supplemented and updated. Together the two editors provide a thorough and accurate explanation of familiar and obscure names and references. They are a competent, professional team; they answer virtually all queries that lay readers and professional historians alike might ask. One might wish that the notes were on the same page as the diary entries rather than in the rear, but that is an inconvenience easily overcome.
John Hay was an unabashed spokesman for and defender of the chief executive. Affectionately referring to Lincoln as "the Ancient," "the Tycoon," "the Chief," or "the Premier," he never questioned the wisdom or the policies of his boss even as he challenged or doubted the motives of a slow-to-fight general or rival politician. Hay was witness to some of the most controversial aspects of Lincoln's leadership, often accompanying him on trips to visit officers in the field, cabinet officials, or the War Office. On November 13, 1861, he waited with Lincoln for General George McClellan to return home only to have the general go to bed without acknowledging the president's presence. Hay candidly observed, "I merely record this unparralleled insolence of epaulettes without comment. It is the first indication I have yet seen of the threatened supremacy of the military authorities." Hay noted Lincoln's patience with his comment, "It was better at this time not to be making points of etiquette & personal dignity" (32).
So too did Hay share Lincoln's frustrations with Generals McClellan and George Meade in their refusal to engage the enemy or as in Meade's case, his failure to pursue General Robert E. Lee's army after the Battle of Gettysburg. Noted Hay on July 14, 1863, "The Prest. was deeply grieved. 'We had them within our grasp,' he said. 'We had only to stretch forth our hands & they were ours. And nothing I could say or do could make the Army move'" (62). In noting Lincoln's eventual removal of McClellan in September 1862 Hay agreed that "envy jealousy and spite are probably a better explanation of his present conduct" (37). In response to Lincoln's emancipation policies and his use of black troops, Hay noted on July 31, 1863: "He considers it the greatest question ever presented to practical statesmanship. While the rest are grindingPage [End Page 70]their little private organs for their own glorification the old man is working with the strength of a giant and the purity of an angel to do this great work" (69).
Hay made only six diary entries in 1862 but became a more faithful diarist in 1863 and 1864, and it is for those two years that his views become most revealing. Not only did his missions on behalf of the president increase in importance and duration, but we realize that the president felt even greater confidence in Hay and regarded him as a colleague and advisor on both military and political issues more than as a secretary. In April 1863 he delivered dispatches from the Navy Department to Admiral Samuel DuPont off South Carolina and helped coordinate the attack on Fort Sumter with General David Hunter.
Hay is especially revealing in regard to Lincoln's often stormy relations with treasury secretary and presidential rival Salmon P. Chase. Chase constantly questioned Lincoln's policies, especially demanding that Lincoln support generals using their authority to emancipate slaves within their jurisdiction. When Lincoln rescinded the orders of those like John C. Frémont in Missouri, Chase defended them against presidential interference. Hay, on October 18, 1863, noted his support of Lincoln: "I gave him my impression of the unmanly conduct of Mr. C.... He said 'it was very bad taste, but that he had determined to shut his eyes to all these performances: that Chase made a good Secretary and that he would keep him where he is: if he becomes Presdt., all right. I hope we may never have a worse man.... I am entirely indifferent as to his success or failure in these schemes, so long as he does his duty as the head of the Treasury Department'" (93). A little more than a week later on October 29, 1863, in noting a conflict with General William Rosecrans, Hay wrote, "I told the President that Chase would try to make capital out of this Rosecrans business he laughed & said 'I suppose he will, like the blue-bottle fly, lay his eggs in every rotten spot he can find.' He seems much amused at Chase's mad hunt after the Presidency" (103).
Chase used his patronage power as treasury secretary to place his own partisans in key positions in Union-controlled areas of the South. While Lincoln went along with this effort Hay noted, "He prefers letting Chase have his own way in these sneaking tricks than getting into a snarl with him by refusing him what he asks" (103).
Yet if Lincoln dismissed Chase's amateurish efforts to build support for the 1864 presidential nomination, he respected him enough to keep a close watch on his activities. In early 1864 he sent Hay Page [End Page 71] to Florida to oversee the registration of southerners under the Amnesty Proclamation. While there he could also keep close tabs on such Chase appointees as Homer Plantz who was promoting Chase's candidacy. It was thus with obvious relief that Hay noted the details of Lincoln's acceptance of Chase's resignation in June 1864 following a patronage dispute. It was with unrestrained joy that he delivered first the nomination of David Tod and then William Pitt Fessenden to the Senate to be Chase's successor.
As Lincoln's racial policies evolved, so did his assistant secretary's. Hay expressed increasing enthusiastic support for emancipation and the use of black troops and empathy for the plight of the freed population. During the mission to Fort Sumter in the spring of 1863, he showed compassion for the slaves on the South Carolina coast as well as contempt for rebel officers and slaveholders. He noted on April 19, "Song by a Florida slavegirl. We will fight for liberty. The children join. Sergeant Proctor delighted. 'Roll Jording Roll'" (47). On the issue of protecting black soldiers against Confederate brutality, he hoped Lincoln would endorse General Henry Halleck's proposal "to make it imprisonment at hard labor. That will be rare. To see the swaggering lords of lash lazy & lousy longhaired & languid ... breaking stone or digging the first ditches instead of dying in the last" (69).
While Hay is best remembered by later Americans as a diarist of the war years, then as a biographer with Nicolay of their ten-volume study of Lincoln, and finally as a diplomat, he also gained fame for literary achievement as a journalist, novelist, and poet. Evidence of his developing skill is seen throughout the diary in Hay's wit and literary flair. The entries are consistently intimate, never dry, and, on occasion, truly artistic. On April 7, 1863, as the DuPont-Hunter forces prepared to attack Charleston, Hay described the setting:
Most importantly, John Hay's diary gives us an intimate view of the Civil War White House and its famous occupant. What Page [End Page 72] emerges amidst the tension of battlefield defeats and political infighting is a picture of a skilled politician and military leader, yet a warm and compassionate human being, one who shuddered at the thought of the execution of a Union soldier deserter. Hay noted on July 18, 1863, "the eagerness with which the President caught at any fact which would justify him in saving of the life of a condemned soldier" (64). Lincoln could not have had a more faithful servant or chronicler than John Hay. Page [End Page 73]