Lincoln 1860

Lincoln 1860

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book Review: "I Am Abraham" by Jerome Charyn

In time for the 205th birthday of Abraham Lincoln comes the latest work from the prolific author, Jerome Charyn, a novel titled "I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War." Charyn has written numerous works over his career, including short stories, plays, histories and at least 30 novels. He has been called one of the most important writers in American literature. He has been the recipient of two New York Times book awards in his long career. 

Charyn now tackles the subject of Abraham Lincoln in this fictionalized account of Lincoln's days from New Salem, Illinois up to his assassination. Written in the first person, this is "Lincoln's" own story, as told by Mr. Lincoln himself. It's an inventive approach, one which blends historical people and events with imaginary occurrences as the reader journeys with Lincoln from 1832 until 1865. The reader shares both triumph and tragedy with Lincoln as he chronicles the events which make up his life. 

All too often, we think of our historical figures as if they were near demi-gods, above the cares and concerns which life brings to everyone else. We see them in photos or paintings, visit their homes, and see countless statues honoring their deeds. In the end, the real person is lost to us, as cold as their statues. 

Charyn succeeds mightily in bringing Lincoln "alive" for the reader of "I Am Abraham."  The Lincoln we come to know in this book shows not only determination and ambition, but warmth and humor as well, just like the real Mr. Lincoln. The result is captivating and moving until the reader can almost believe that the real Lincoln actually wrote this work.

Some readers of "I Am Abraham" may be surprised by the "earthiness" of Charyn's Lincoln. Certain words and phrases come from "Lincoln's" mouth in this book, words that we may not have ever imagined the real Lincoln uttering. But it must be remembered that Lincoln was a product of what was then the frontier, surrounded not by the refined elite, but by people who lived a hard life, dirt farmers, carpenters, and the like. And it's quite true that the real Abraham Lincoln enjoyed telling off-color and ribald stories and jokes while he was in the company of men. 

Indeed, this is not a novel for young readers, so parents beware. The reader encounters graphic depictions of atrocities during "Lincoln's" recounting of gruesome violence during the Black Hawk War of 1832. Brutal descriptions of his involvement with "The Clary's Grove Boys," (who were the real Lincoln's enemies at first, later turned friends) are given. Prostitution is featured in "I Am Abraham" in graphic scenes. And yes, the reader encounters a brief, but descriptive, sex scene or two between Abraham and Mary Lincoln.  This reviewer admits to be taken aback about "Lincoln" being depicted having sex, but of course the real man fathered four children, and the scenes do help bring Lincoln "alive" for the reader.

For this reviewer, the best achievement of "I Am Abraham" is how the novel portrays the emotional struggles of Lincoln's wife Mary. Even on her best days, Mary Todd Lincoln was nervous, easy to anger, and emotionally highly-strung. Some historians believe she would be called clinically "bipolar" today. To be fair, poor Mary Lincoln suffered terribly from the loss of her mother at an early age, the emotional distance of her father, mistreatment by her step-mother, and by 1862, the deaths of two of her children. The strongest person would be affected by such grief. The scenes in "I Am Abraham" which show Mary at her most unhinged are nearly painful to read. The reader shares in her pitiful attempts at contacting her dear departed son, Willie, in seances run by a charlatan. Her excruciating migraines are vividly depicted.  And her public and deeply embarrassing (to Lincoln) meltdown during their visit with Generals Grant and Ord and their wives at City Point, VA toward the end of the war is emotionally powerful in the book (and true). 

The only quibbles for this reviewer are a matter of personal preference. "Lincoln's" trip to Gettysburg to give his immortal Address is told in only two or three pages, while his involvement with The Clary's Grove Boys seemed to drag through several pages. It would have been nice to read more about his struggles to find a good general or two and less about Mary's financial shenanigans. These quibbles, however, didn't ruin the overall enjoyment of the novel.

Author Jerome Charyn has succeeded "I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War" where even some history writers of Lincoln and the war have failed. He skillfully blends fact and fiction, tells the true (mostly) story of Abraham Lincoln, and above all, keeps the attention of the reader. A highly enjoyable, informative, and captivating read.

"I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War" is published by Liveright and is available nationwide at book stores or online.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A New Lincoln At Gettysburg Photo Claim

The above image (magnified) is the only undisputed photograph of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, PA on November 19, 1863. Taken either during or just after his delivery of his immortal Gettysburg Address, the photo depicts a hatless Lincoln in the middle of other dignitaries on the speakers' platform as thousands gathered for the dedication of the National Cemetery that day.

Nearly 6 years ago, I posted this article about a claim which was made by John Richter of Hanover, PA that he had found Lincoln in another photograph taken that day in Gettysburg.  That claim has been the subject of much discussion and even controversy since it was reported in 2007. Even strong magnification of the image could not settle the issue as some (including me) said that the gentleman in that image looked too heavy to be the gaunt Abraham Lincoln.

Now another gentleman has claimed to find "Lincoln" in that photo, but this "Lincoln" is apparently several yards in front of Richter's gentleman.  This month's issue of the magazine Smithsonian contains a lengthy article relating the claim of a former Disney animator and current professor Christopher Oakley that he has found "Lincoln" in a different spot in that photo of the crowd. As the claim made by Richter has generated controversy, there are disputes over this latest claim.

Copyright considerations preclude me from publishing the blown up photos from Oakley and the Smithsonian story.  But since the original photograph of the crowd scene is part of the public domain, I include it below. The original article I posted in 2007 and referenced above contains Richter's "Lincoln."  The article in Smithsonian contains images of the gentleman Oakley is claiming is "Lincoln."  I'll let the reader decide for himself or herself if either of these "Lincolns" is in reality President Lincoln.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Lincoln Document Found In Switzerland

The country of Switzerland is known secretive banking, cheese, neutrality, skiing, and majestic beauty as this image of the Swiss Alps shows. Now it can be known as the site of a recent discovery of a document which contains the handwriting of Abraham Lincoln.

NBC-affiliate station KSDK (St. Louis, MO) reported that researchers with The Papers Of Abraham Lincoln project at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) were contacted by a gentleman from an Australian university.  He remembered seeing a Lincoln document in Switzerland while doing research there, and thought the people at the ALPLM would like to know about it.

The researchers contacted the Bibliotheque de Geneve (Library of Geneva) who confirmed the authenticity of the document in question.  It was written in May 1863 by famed minister and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), as a letter of introduction for a female journalist.  Nearly two years later, Lincoln added his own comment to the letter, stating that while he didn't know the person in question, if Beecher had vouched for her, he would as well.

The Papers of Abraham Lincoln project is actively searching the world for any documents which were written or signed by Lincoln.  This new discovery, while not significantly important, shows that there are hopefully more Lincoln documents waiting to be found.

The entire article from KSDK, complete with the text of the letter, may be found here.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

New Project Marks Lincoln's Visit To Iowa

Sometimes a chance discovery is all the impetus a new historical project needs to get under way.  Council Bluffs, Iowa is the setting for a new effort to commemorate Mr. Lincoln's visit to that city in 1859.  

According to the Omaha World-Herald in an article published on August 12, 2013, a local historical society was looking under a pile of books when he found a plaque which marked Lincoln's visit to Council Bluffs.  His curiosity piqued, the gentleman and other local historians further researched Lincoln's 4-day 3-night visit to the town.  

It seems that Lincoln came to Council Bluffs to look at 17 town lots which his campaign manager Norman Judd had offered to Lincoln as collateral for a personal loan.  He arrived in August 1859 and spent the next few days visiting with Judd, other friends, attending a church service, and giving a speech. Unfortunately, there is no text of that speech and the only account of it is from a Democrat newspaper of the day, which was unkind in its review of his address.

The new project resulting from the discovery of this forgotten plaque aims to mark the location of the original lots which Judd did deed over to Lincoln in November 1859 for that loan which amounted to $3,000. Judd later paid it back in full plus interest to Lincoln's widow Mary and her son Robert in 1867. 

Lincoln's visit to Council Bluffs is actually more important for his later decision to make that city the legal eastern terminus of the first transcontinental railroad built in the United States.  While in Council Bluffs, he met with railroad engineer Grenville Dodge. He peppered Dodge with questions about the possibility of a railroad stretching from the east to west, and asked him where the best route would be.  Dodge replied from the village they were currently standing in across the Platte Valley and then west.  He pointed out its relatively close proximity to all the railroads in and around Chicago and the rest of Illinois. Lincoln accepted Dodge's recommendation only a few years later when Lincoln officially named Council Bluffs, Iowa to be the eastern terminus of the railroad across the nation. The above image is an old postcard which shows a memorial erected in 1911 to Lincoln's visit to the city. It looks out across the Mississippi River to the west, honoring both the railroad and Mr. Lincoln.

The article to which I linked above provides more details about this new effort in Council Bluffs to mark Mr. Lincoln's visit. A project begun after the chance discovery of an old plaque which provided only scant details of that day when Lincoln came to town.  

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

PBS To Premiere "Rebel" On Series Voces

On Friday May 24, 2013 the PBS Latino series "Voces" (Voices) will premiere its latest installment, titled Rebel, a documentary about an almost entirely unknown figure from the American Civil War. Rebel is the remarkable story of Loreta Janeta Velasquez, who disguised as Harry Buford, became one of the estimated nearly 1,000 women who fought in combat in the war.

Velasquez was especially unlikely to fight in the Civil War and not only due to her gender. She was born to a wealthy family in Cuba, who expected her to become a refined, elegant woman fitting of her place in society. Her parents sent her to New Orleans, Louisiana by her early teens where she lived with an aunt who attempted to teach her the classic lessons expected of a woman of the time: dance, knitting, sewing, and so on.  But as the name of this episode implies, Velasquez would have none of it.  Her personal hero was Joan of Arc, the French heroine who led armies to victory against the British in the 1400's.  Velasquez not only rebelled against society expectations for a lady, she went against the wishes of her family and married for love to a U.S. Army soldier from Texas.  After the onset of the Civil War, her husband resigned his commission to join the Confederacy. Personal tragedy caused the ultimate rebellious behavior to her gender; she disguised herself as Harry Buford and joined the Confederate army.

Velasquez/Buford fought at the first major battle of the war, First Bull Run (or First Manassas as she would have called it), and also fought in the Battle of Shiloh. She then turned to spying for the Confederacy in various guises such as "Mrs. Alice Williams."  Finally, it seems that she became at least a double-agent and spied for the Union, if not outright defecting to that side.

In 1876, Velasquez published "A Woman In Battle," her personal memoir of her life experiences, especially her service in the war. Her criticism of war profiteering and of the Confederacy itself caused a massive outcry among powerful former leaders of the rebellion, who actively worked to suppress her book and discredit her. In fact, the suppression and efforts to discredit Velasquez were so successful that she was erased almost completely from history. Many historians considered her to be little more than a myth.  Recent scholarship and research have revealed her to be a real woman who was far ahead of her time.

A publicist for PBS asked me to view an advance copy of Rebel for review here on The Abraham Lincoln Blog.  I'm pleased to report that the documentary is worthy of such a fascinating story.  The narration, re-creations, and acting are, as with most PBS programming, outstanding.  The re-creations are moving, especially given the almost total lack of dialog from the actors. As one would expect, several experts offer insight in the film, although in my opinion there are too many of them.  The quality  is exceptional as one would expect from PBS, which towers over the "history" programming shown on History or NatGeo.

Rebel is the project of director and writer Maria Agui Carter, who worked on the film for a decade with historians and archivists.  She herself is a Latina immigrant to the United States just like the subject of the film. The story she tells in this film is important and deserves to be known. After all, Latino and Latina history in the United States helps to make up our nation's history.

Please try to watch or record Rebel on PBS on Friday May 24, 2013. It's worthy of your attention.

Friday, April 5, 2013

New Lincoln Project Deserves Our Attention

Interest in Abraham Lincoln is soaring these days thanks to Steven Spielberg's brilliant Lincoln film, the so-so Abraham Lincoln : Vampire Hunter movie, and of course the Lincoln birth bicentennial along with the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.  New books seemingly appear every week discussing some aspect of Lincoln's life or legacy.  Documentaries, some excellent, some dreadful pop up on cable television. One could say that Lincoln is "hot" right now.

In recent months, a new Lincoln website or blog has appeared that I wish to bring to the attention of my own readers.  A young woman named Cassandra who lives in the American west has begun an ambitious project about Lincoln, in which she wants to post an article a day about Lincoln to her blog, which may be found at   It's a delightful mix of information, quirkiness, and fun.  I've enjoyed reading her various posts, which range from her own insights about Lincoln to comical pop-culture "Abe Lincolns" that she's found while surfing on the Internet.  In fact, I like her Lincoln project so much, I contacted her to ask if she'd submit to an interview, which she readily agreed to do.  What follows is the interview we had via email.

1. What led to your adoration of Lincoln?

 It all started as a kid, when I was visiting Disneyland for the first time.  Right when you walk in the park, there used to be a "ride" (or so my dad called it) called The Hall of Presidents.  Inside was an animatronic Lincoln that said a few things including the Gettysburg Address.  I'm not sure why it affected me so strongly, but since that day my family started on quite the Lincoln kick.  I barely remember anything else about that day with so much detail.  

2.  How long have you been a fan of Lincoln's?

 Let's see, I was about 7 during the Disneyland event, so I guess that's going on 20 years! Yikes!

3. What led you to begin writing a blog about Lincoln, especially a post a day?

Since the blog revolution, I've loved how readily available people's passions, interests, hobbies, and countless other things can be shared.  I had seen the post a day type of blog many times, when I started looking around my house at all the Lincoln crafts I had made it seemed totally plausible that I could and should try my hand at it.  Lincoln has always been my favorite interest and I knew this blog would lend me the opportunity to learn more and engage others into the life of Lincoln along the way.

4. What about Lincoln most attracts you to him?

That is a heavy question.  When I was 7, I think it was something about the Gettysburg Address that attracted me to him.  As I've grown older, read more books, done more research the thing that I love about Lincoln tends to change as to where I'm at in life.  If I'm sad, I love to read about his bouts of depression and how he overcame them.  When I'm worried about seeing signs of bipolar behavior in my family and friends, I read about Mary.  And I love him for loving her throughout her disease. What I love most is that he was a man, a real man, that changed history and only truly fascinating people hold that capability.

 5. Do family members/friends ever tell you that you're talking too much about him or are obsessed with him?

I am very lucky to have supportive friends and family that encourage my love of Lincoln.  If anything, it has made us all closer because as soon as anyone finds a new Lincoln fact, we get in touch.  Now we have an excuse to socialize, and I think everyone benefits.  Friends and family have been active members in blog helping in many ways from creating crafts, forwarding me information, to the endless amount of creative ideas they send my way.   For people that aren't aware of the Lincoln thing, I think the first time they come into my house can be a bit disconcerting.  As soon as I explain the blog and the interest, they begin to look at it as a hobby instead of some crazy person who may have a shrine to Abraham Lincoln in her house.  Hahaha, it's made for a lot of interesting conversation. 

6. What's your favorite aspect of Lincoln's life or legacy?

My favorite thing that Lincoln left behind were his letters.  I could read endlessly his eloquent thoughts.  We are so lucky that so much of his personal writing still exists. Also, whenever I read them, the voice of Abe (like Daniel Day) echos them in my head.  In a way, Lincoln is my favorite author.  

(end of interview)

Thank you, Cassandra, for agreeing to the interview about your really wonderful Abe-A-Day blog.  Readers, please check it out at  I know you'll enjoy it as much as I do.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Getting Abraham Lincoln Right

My previous post discussed the 150th anniversary of the Territory of Idaho, when on March 4, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Congressional Act which established the territory.  Last week, the Gem State of Idaho held ceremonies at the state house in the city of Boise to mark the anniversary.

Part of the ceremonies included a renaming of the auditorium inside the state house after President Lincoln, complete with the installation of a handsome plaque which I've shown in the photo above.  The relief on the plaque is based on a famous photo of Lincoln taken in 1860.  On this plaque is a quote purported to come from Lincoln: "There is both a power and a magic in public opinion. To that let us now appeal."  Powerful words, but are they Lincoln's?  

That question was asked by Ms. Melissa Davlin, a reporter from the Times-News newspaper from Twin Falls, Idaho, when she contacted me last week via email.  She had seen my post about Idaho Territory, and told me about the plaque with this quote. Ms. Davlin apparently understood that many "quotes" of Abraham Lincoln are spurious, either attributable to someone else or simply made up.  She inquired of my opinion about the quote on this plaque, because she wanted to be sure it's accurate. Davlin had searched for the quote online, but had found only one reference to it from the early 1900's.  

The best source for researching anything which Lincoln said or wrote is The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, published by the Abraham Lincoln Association in 1953.  It contains dates and locations of every known speech, letter, telegram, and quote from Lincoln which can be proven to be authentic.  Thanks to the Association, this indispensable resource is now available here with a searchable database.  I searched for the quote in The Collected Works using a variety of word combinations, but it was not found anywhere in the text, which comprises 9 thick volumes when published.  I then did an online search of this "quote" and like Ms. Davlin, I found only one reference, the one which she had earlier located.

I replied in an email to Ms. Davlin that I don't believe the quote to be factual.  If it's not in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, that's a very strong indication that it's not legitimate.  She replied that the quote was provided by the leading Lincoln expert in Idaho, Mr. David Leroy, who is the former Lt. Governor and attorney general of that state.  He said that the quote is from the famous "Lost Speech" of Lincoln, which was given in Bloomington, Illinois in 1856.  The speech was apparently so dazzling that all newspaper reporters present gave up taking notes in order to listen.  No text of the speech in Lincoln's handwriting is known to exist.  The only "text" of that speech was printed in the early 1900's by a man who was present for it, attorney Henry Whitney.  This text is disputed by many Lincoln scholars because it's based on memories of a speech given nearly four decades previous to its publication.  Additionally, some of the words and cadences of the "Lost Speech" text don't seem to mesh with speeches given by Lincoln in the middle 1850's.  

The Times-News published an article about the quote in question on Monday March 11, 2013.  In that article, Mr. Leroy defends his use of this Lincoln quote by stating that "most Lincoln transcripts are suspect, even from his most famous speeches" because newspaper accounts of them differ, or that Lincoln sometimes  deviated from his own notes while speaking.  That statement is correct.  For example, we simply don't know the exact text of the Gettysburg Address as spoken by Lincoln on November 19, 1863.  Newspaper accounts from reporters present to hear Lincoln that day run the gamut from summaries which miss the entire point of the speech to what may be Lincoln's words verbatim.  He wrote five copies (that we know of) of the Gettysburg Address and each has slightly different variations. But even if contemporary news articles of Lincoln's time gave conflicting accounts of the same speech, those articles were published within days or weeks of the speech.  Those are far more reliable than a "text" of a speech published almost forty years after the fact.  

The article also mentions two Lincoln historians who disagree with Mr. Leroy about the authenticity of the quote.  The first is none other than the greatest living Lincoln scholar, Mr. Harold Holzer, author of more than 40 books and countless articles about Lincoln.  He also served as the chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.  The second Lincoln historian mentioned is yours truly.  Neither of us accept the authenticity of the "quote" on the Idaho plaque.

Lincoln, in fact, spoke often about public opinion in his speeches prior to becoming President.  On December 10, 1856 in Chicago, he stated at a Republican dinner that "Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much."  In other words, shifts in public opinion can and do change the direction of government.  That factual quote could have been used on this plaque without changing the intent of what Mr. Leroy meant to convey. 

To his credit, Mr. Leroy understands the minor controversy over the "quote" he selected for this plaque in the state house in Boise.  He says that debate is healthy and he's of course correct.  I'm quoted in the article as stating that I hope the plaque remains in place and I mean it.  It's actually quite beautiful.  I only wish the quote on the plaque was absolutely authentic. 

Our job as historians is to present undeniable facts about the past so we can educate others.  It's important that we get history "right" so we don't perpetuate misunderstanding of events and the people who were involved in them.  Especially critical is getting the history of Abraham Lincoln right, for he is, perhaps, surrounded by more legends than any other figure from American history.  If we fail in that effort, we can never learn about the real Abraham Lincoln, the man behind the myths.

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