A Distortion of Abe Lincoln’s Legacy?
I was surprised to learn, on reaching the end of William Marvel’s article “Uncle Abe Needs You!” (September 2008) that it was adapted from his forthcoming book, Lincoln’s Darkest Year. In its argument, highly critical of Lincoln, and the ironic edge to its tone, it seems very much a reprise of Marvel’s earlier book,Mr. Lincoln Goes to War, an account of how this seemingly principled but frequently cynical Machiavellian manipulator made, then mismanaged a war that killed over 600,000 Americans, all while subverting the Constitution.
You may object that I’m engaged in parody here, reducing Marvel’s dense case against Lincoln to hyperbole and oversimplicity. In fact, though, I’m imitating Marvel’s own rhetorical method. I grant that we need correctives to the myth of Saint Lincoln, come from Illinois, if not from heaven, to save the Union and free the slaves. And Marvel joins critics such as Lerone Bennett and Thomas J. DiLorenzo in an effort to wrench what they take to be history from the myth. But along the way, he treats history in a manner often verging on propaganda. He rewrites history as half-truths.
An example: Marvel habitually refers to the Civil War as “Mr. Lincoln’s war,” in Mr. Lincoln Goes to War as well as in “Uncle Abe Needs You!” Well, yes, insofar as Lincoln accepted war rather than preside over the Union’s collapse, and may even have maneuvered the South into firing the first shot. But, in the North, the increasingly strident abolitionists had a little to do with it; and, in the South, the so-called “fire-eaters” had a lot to do with it. That included a certain Mr. Davis, who also went to war in 1861, and who—unlike Lincoln—had complacently been contemplating the prospect of secession and civil war for some time.
It would be easy, using “Uncle Abe” as text, to proliferate examples until this letter grew longer than Marvel’s article. Suffice it to say that a reader who relied for his history mainly on Marvel could be excused for wondering how the Union fought the war at all, much less won it. Marvel launches his argument by remarking that “The Northern optimists of 1861 had been dreadfully wrong.” So had the Southern optimists, who, like Napoleon shrugging off the British, dismissed the North as a nation of shopkeepers who couldn’t or wouldn’t fight. He documents instance after instance of the Lincoln administration failing to meet its recruitment goals, or meeting them only by bounties that led to “mercenary mania” (Marvel’s alliterative flourish), and then, when apparently too few maniacs enlisted, to a quasi-draft. That the South had its own problems with shirkers, and instituted conscription before the North did, escapes notice.
Marvel also emphasizes what he construes as Lincoln’s disregard of constitutional rights, like the right of free speech, for some instances of which the government was eventually rebuked by the courts, and for some not. If Marvel thinks that the South, by contrast, protected (or at least tolerated) dissent better or as well as the North did, he needs to think again.
While I wouldn’t want to suggest that Marvel measures up to Stephen A. Douglas, he makes his own impressive effort at turning horse chestnuts into chestnut horses.
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
William Marvel responds: Mr. Friedman seems to argue that one party’s transgressions should be excused because others acted similarly, or worse. I maintain (and have maintained, in both Mr. Lincoln Goes to War and Lincoln’s Darkest Year), that the Lincoln administration and its supporters must be judged on their own actions, rather than on those of the Davis administration. I do not ignore repression in the South, as Mr. Friedman charges, but I do point out that I am examining the Northern war effort, rather than the Southern. The constitutional infringements of the Washington government bear much more substantively on the present because, unlike those of the Confederacy, they created enduring precedents.
Show me the money
In the article “Caught With His Pants On” (September 2008), Tobin Beck writes that Jefferson Davis had fled from Richmond “carrying with them the remains of the Confederate Treasury—about $500,000 in gold and paper money.” That is not true. It was all in Confederate paper money. The 4th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Cavalry captured the treasury.
Milton Brown and Eathan Wilkerson, 4th Ohio, Company A, wrote of their part in the search for Jefferson Davis: “We scoured the country to find Jeff Davis and his treasury. He had started with it from Richmond, Virginia, apparently on the way to Mexico, and our people knew he was out there somewhere. Of course our regiment was out every day trying to find him. There was a seventy-five thousand dollar ransom on his head.
“While the 4th Michigan Cavalry captured Jeff Davis our regiment found the money. It was buried near by in an apple orchard. It had been wrapped up in oilcloth, nailed up in a goods box and buried. This was Confederate paper money, blue instead of green, like ours. The men who found it brought it into camp, and we had thousands and thousands of dollars. We used it for everything we wanted…Our officers took charge of the town, the theaters went on and we went several nights to see some very good plays at fifty dollars a ticket….Soon [the people] found this money was not good, and they wanted gold, silver or any Yankee money.”
If there had been $500,000 in gold and silver in the treasury as Mr. Beck mentions, the Confederate paper money would not have been worthless, and the Rebel economy would not have been in shambles.
William A. Krebs
President, 4th Ohio Volunteer
Cavalry Descendants Association
Angling for clarity
I have a question regarding “New Photos of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural” in the July issue. On P. 41, the caption for the photo labeled “A Familiar Crowd” in the upper right corner states that Lloyd Ostendorf published it in the 1998 book Lincoln’s Photographs: A Complete Album.
It is not clear whether you are claiming that he was the first to publish it, whether he has ownership of the photo or whether he was the first to identify it. In fact, it was published in the February 1958 issue of American Heritage. It is identified there as occurring at Lincoln’s second inaugural and is credited to the Library of Congress. Since it is noted in fine print at the bottom of P. 41, “All images Library of Congress unless otherwise noted,” the connection to Ostendorf makes it seem as though he owns the photo and was the first to identify it. Otherwise, what point would there be to bring him up at all? A clarification, for the sake of purists, would be helpful.
Little Rock, AR
Editor’s note: Yes, the photograph labeled “A Familiar Crowd” has been published before, but we never claimed otherwise, or that Ostendorf owned it. According to Carol Johnson, curator of photography at the Library of Congress, the photograph was given to the LOC in 1952 by Louis M. Rabinowitz. Carl Jennings, the collector who realized the LOC had mislabeled the photos, reasons that Ostendorf, a life-long collector and meticulous researcher of Lincoln images, was the first to attribute that photograph to Henry F. Warren of Waltham, Mass. Since the camera angle in the “new” images is the same, Jennings makes the assertion that Warren likely took the “new” photos also.
Confederate Flag, Worldwide Slavery
Thank you for Tobin Beck’s article in the September 2008 issue relative to the big Confederate flag that flies at a memorial park near Tampa, Fla. The NAACP demonizes it as a symbol of slavery. It seems to me that the NAACP would better spend their resources in freeing the slaves of this century rather than dwelling on the past.
According to a July 2008 NBC report, it is estimated that there are approximately 27,000,000 individuals now held in bondage, worldwide. Why hasn’t the NAACP eliminated the black slave market that is still alive and well?
And what is the NAACP doing about genocide that has been going on in Darfur, Africa? I guess, it better benefits their “bottom line” to keep ragging out on the time-worn Confederate flag.
Elizabeth S. Trindal
Editor’s note: The NAACP has an international affairs division whose goal is to “close the gap of disparities faced by people of color across the globe by promoting fair and equitable human rights and economic justice” More information can be found at naacp.org/advocacy/international/index.htm
Originally published in the November 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.