Book of the Week

Lincoln's Forgotten Ally:
Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky

by Elizabeth D. Leonard

Now available in paperback

“[With] Leonard’s skillful research and careful assessment. . . . Joseph Holt will no longer remain an obscure figure.”
--Journal of American History


William Marvel: Now He Belongs to the Ages?

marvel_lincolnsWe welcome to the blog a guest post by William Marvel, author of Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton. Edwin M. Stanton (1814-1869), one of the nineteenth century’s most impressive legal and political minds, wielded enormous influence and power as Lincoln’s Secretary of War during most of the Civil War and under Johnson during the early years of Reconstruction. In the first full biography of Stanton in more than fifty years, Marvel offers a detailed reexamination of Stanton’s life, career, and legacy. Marvel argues that while Stanton was a formidable advocate and politician, his character was hardly benign. Climbing from a difficult youth to the pinnacle of power, Stanton used his authority–and the public coffers–to pursue political vendettas, and he exercised sweeping wartime powers with a cavalier disregard for civil liberties.

Marking the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln, in the following post Marvel weighs the validity of the eulogy allegedly spoken by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton at Lincoln’s deathbed.


One of the more touching moments in the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination came when a surgeon announced that the president was dead, whereupon the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, broke the silence. “Now he belongs to the ages,” Stanton ostensibly observed, with a poetic spontaneity for which he was not known.

Numerous people recount some form of the quote, but none of them recorded their memory of the phrase until a generation later, after it appeared in the multi-volume Lincoln biography by his former secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. Nicolay was not in Washington that night; Hay is often depicted at the bedside, although the room was not big enough to accommodate all who have subsequently been placed around it at the moment of the president’s death.

Hay was an especially talented stylist who would have appreciated such eloquence. He was also a prolific writer, but he apparently only put Stanton’s words in print for the biography of 1890. Charles Taft, one of the surgeons attending the dying president, published his own recollection of the scene three years after the Nicolay and Hay biography appeared, claiming that Stanton actually said “He now belongs to the ages.”

Forty years after the assassination, James Tanner, a Veteran Reserve Corps stenographer who was taking testimony in another room, corroborated the Nicolay and Hay quote more closely. A decade after that, a former provost marshal insisted that he was the only one who stood near enough to hear what Stanton said: he remembered it as “Now he belongs to history,” but that rendition enjoyed little circulation or credence.

Had Stanton uttered so memorable a eulogy, it is strange that no one publicized it for a quarter of a century, or conveyed it to the newspaper reporters who swarmed outside the Peterson house, gleaning every detail they could from those passing in and out. If the quote appears in any earlier publication, I have not seen it, and the recitation of such evocative remarks decades later, even by accredited eyewitnesses, is no guarantee of accuracy. The continual retelling of such landmark events can impregnate the minds of actual witnesses with recollections founded less on memory than on external suggestion—besides attracting deliberately fraudulent accounts. keep reading →

Stephen Cushman: A Tale of Two Surrenders

Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War, by Stephen CushmanWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Stephen Cushman, author of Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War. War destroys, but it also inspires, stimulates, and creates. It is, in this way, a muse, and a powerful one at that. The Civil War was a particularly prolific muse—unleashing with its violent realities a torrent of language, from soldiers’ intimate letters and diaries to everyday newspaper accounts, great speeches, and enduring literary works. In Belligerent Muse, Cushman considers the Civil War writings of five of the most significant and best known narrators of the conflict: Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Considering their writings both as literary expressions and as efforts to record the rigors of the war, Cushman analyzes their narratives and the aesthetics underlying them to offer a richer understanding of how Civil War writing chronicled the events of the conflict as they unfolded and then served to frame the memory of the war afterward.

In a previous post, Cushman highlighted a Civil War anniversary likely to be neglected in sesquicentennial observances. In today’s post, Cushman challenges the methods used to determine the significance of Civil War events, and questions why the largest surrender of the Civil War has been primarily overlooked. 


The 1969 first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language gives for the etymology of surrender, “Middle English sorendren, from Old French surrendre: sur-, over + rendre, to deliver, RENDER,” and for render, “Latin reddere: re-, back + dare, to give.” What distinguishes surrender from any of its familiar synonyms, formal or colloquial—yield, submit, capitulate, concede, resign (as in a game of chess), give up, cry “uncle,” throw in the towel—is that it implies two steps or stages: first, the verbal or written acknowledgment of defeat, and second, the action of delivering or giving something over.

For the much storied and studied surrender by Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, for example, the two steps or stages took place, respectively, on April 9 and April 12, 1865, and no doubt the sesquicentennial anniversaries of these dates will recall to popular attention, in various media, the familiar and mythologized outlines of each. For the first, which was also Palm Sunday, there will be the details of Grant in his “rough garb” with “a soldier’s blouse for a coat,” as he recalled in his Personal Memoirs (1885–86), meeting Lee in his elegant dress uniform in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house and offering him magnanimous terms. For the second, four years to the day after the firing on Fort Sumter, the details most likely will include some version of U.S. general Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s many accounts of his reconciliatory salute to the soldiers led by Confederate general John B. Gordon into the village for the formal ceremony of handing over their arms, equipment, and flags. (The development of Chamberlain’s accounts is the subject of a chapter in Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War.)

What about the second major surrender, that of Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston to U.S. General William T. Sherman, at a farmhouse between Hillsborough and Durham Station, North Carolina? There were several smaller, later surrenders, too, the last of them that of the C.S.S. Shenandoah by Captain James Waddell to a captain of the British Royal Navy in Liverpool on November 6, 1865. But the negotiations initiated by Johnston—in a letter written April 13 and received by Sherman April 14, which was also Good Friday and the same day John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater—led to the largest surrender of the war. Although more than 30,000 soldiers in the Army of Tennessee surrendered in North Carolina (fewer Army of Northern Virginia veterans were paroled at Appomattox), in fact the terms signed by Johnston and Sherman officially disbanded Confederate units fighting in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, putting the number of soldiers involved close to 90,000.

Why do most of us hear and know so much less about this surrender, the largest of the war? keep reading →

Adam Wesley Dean: The Creation of Yosemite

dean_agrarian_PBWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Adam Wesley Dean, author of An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era. The familiar story of the Civil War tells of a predominately agricultural South pitted against a rapidly industrializing North. However, Dean argues that the Republican Party’s political ideology was fundamentally agrarian. Believing that small farms owned by families for generations led to a model society, Republicans supported a northern agricultural ideal in opposition to southern plantation agriculture, which destroyed the land’s productivity, required constant western expansion, and produced an elite landed gentry hostile to the Union. Dean shows how agrarian republicanism shaped the debate over slavery’s expansion, spurred the creation of the Department of Agriculture and the passage of the Homestead Act, and laid the foundation for the development of the earliest nature parks.

In today’s post, Dean writes about the birth of Yosemite National Park and the circumstances that almost prevented its protection as a natural public space.


Yosemite National Park made the evening news on Wednesday, January 14, 2015. American rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the top of El Capitan by ascending Yosemite’s Dawn Wall. The climbers’ years of preparation, 19-day free-climb, and personal stories riveted television audiences nationwide. News programs also gave audiences a rare treat: panoramic views of the park’s natural beauty that included cascading waterfalls, granite formations, and snow-dusted trees.

Yet Yosemite almost did not become a national park. Few Americans know that their beloved park with all the twentieth-century history of climbing exploits and family vacations had been vigorously opposed shortly after its birth.

Yosemite has its origins in an 1864 law removing the main valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove from federal lands and giving them to the state of California for management as a site for “public use, resort, and recreation.” Yosemite’s backers, which included railroad businessman Frederick Billings, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, newspaper mogul Horace Greeley, California Senator John Conness, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field, hoped that the park would provide comfort for Americans undergoing a brutal civil war. It was also important to them to make areas of natural beauty available to the public. They believed that everyone—not just the wealthy and powerful—needed to experience Yosemite’s wonders. No doubt Billings and Conness also thought that a nature park would help bring tourist dollars and railroads to California’s fledgling economy.

When Conness steered the bill through the United States Congress and secured President Abraham Lincoln’s signature in 1864, the California Senator conspicuously neglected to inform fellow politicians that two white settlers, Illinoisan James C. Lamon and San Francisco magazine editor James Mason Hutchings, had land claims in the valley. Lamon had settled in the east end of Yosemite Valley in April of 1859 and Hutchings had erected a hotel near Yosemite Falls in the spring of 1864. Both men filed preemption claims, a nineteenth-century legal doctrine granting them the right to purchase the land when the federal government made it available for sale.

William Irvin, the second commissioner of Yosemite State Park after Frederick Law Olmsted, held a meeting in the spring of 1866 to try to resolve the land claims. Much to Irvin’s chagrin, Hutchings not only refused to surrender his preemption claim, but also insisted “upon the right of allowing his horses, cattle, and pigs to roam at pleasure all over the valley.” When the Yosemite Valley Commission filed suit to eject Hutchings and Lamon a year later, the magazine editor-turned-hotelier launched a public campaign against the park. keep reading →

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R. Douglas Hurt: Agriculture and Its Effect on Confederate Power

hurt_agriculture_PBWe welcome a guest post today from R. Douglas Hurt, author of Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South. In this comprehensive history, Hurt traces the decline and fall of agriculture in the Confederate States of America. The backbone of the southern economy, agriculture was a source of power that southerners believed would ensure their independence.  But, season by season and year by year, Hurt convincingly shows how the disintegration of southern agriculture led to the decline of the Confederacy’s military, economic, and political power.

In today’s post, Hurt examines the effect that southern agriculture had on Confederate power during the Civil War and decades afterward.


The Civil War ended 150 years ago with Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9. Purists might well argue April 26, when Joseph E. Johnston laid down his arms, or even Andrew Johnson’s official proclamation on August 20, 1866, that for legal purposes the war was over. No matter. By 1865 the military power of the Confederacy no longer offered the chance for independence, and the histories of the Civil war primarily involve the analysis of military affairs leading to that end.

A lesser known failure of the Confederacy, however, involved agriculture. In 1861, Southerners considered agriculture an element of power similar to military power, which, combined, would guarantee secession and independence. They were confident that not only would Union armies not prevail but also that their own agricultural capability would prevent the Union from starving the Confederacy into submission. Southerners could fight, feed themselves, and use cotton as a diplomatic tool—assumptions that in the minds of many already made the Confederacy independent.

By 1865, Southerners’ certainty that agriculture would help them win the war had evaporated. Slavery as an agricultural labor system had collapsed. Where Confederate and Union armies had fought and marched, farmers had lost livestock, grain, and forage. The swath of war was marked by burned fence rails, barns, and buildings and smashed agricultural equipment. Confederate agricultural policy—if it had existed at all—contributed little to the war effort. The Produce Loan program, tax-in-kind procurement, and price fixing for provisions, along with a worthless currency and army foraging had ruined the agricultural power of the Confederacy. It would not come again.

Spring planting season looked bleak. Many farmers did not intend to plant the corn that would provide human and livestock food because soldiers from both armies so wantonly took it. keep reading →