By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: The Lincoln Forum (www.thelincolnforum.org) is an organization that “endeavors to enhance the understanding and preserve the memory of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.” Founded in 1995, the Forum meets each year in Gettysburg, PA, on the anniversary of Lincoln’s address at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Several members of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable are also members of the Lincoln Forum and attend its meeting each year. CCWRT past president and Lincoln Forum member Mel Maurer once again agreed to our request to provide a recap of this year’s event. (Read Mel’s reports on the 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 Forums.)
Each year, the epicenter of scholarship on Abraham Lincoln is in Gettysburg at the annual Lincoln Forum Symposium with its array of Lincoln scholars as speakers and its 300 Lincoln devotees in attendance. There is no better place to meet, hear and mingle with writers on our greatest president. I’ve attended the last 14 of the 17 symposiums and will continue to do so as long the Lord (and my wife) permit. As usual, I was pleased to have the company of Dick Crews, Maynard and Betty Bauer – also long-time attendees.
This was the third year of a five-year focus by the Forum on the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial (2010-2015). The theme this year was: “1862: Battle Cry of Union / Battle Cry of Freedom.” After registration during Friday afternoon of the 16th, the Forum was officially opened that evening at dinner by its Chairman, Frank Williams. (As the dates fell this year, this was also “Remembrance Weekend” in Gettysburg, an annual event attracting thousands of visitors, many reenactors, to town for many events including a massive parade on Saturday. Anyone trying to find accommodations in town would have felt like those did in November 1863 with no rooms available in or within miles of town.)
The first evening speaker was James I. (Bud) Robertson. His topic was: “The Centennial vs. the Sesquicentennial: The March of Civil War Memory.” Bud is a well-known Civil War historian and is an expert on Stonewall Jackson. His many books include Stonewall Jackson : The Man, the Soldier, the Legend. Bud is recently retired after a long career teaching at Virginia Tech. This southerner opened his talk by telling us he thought Lincoln was the greatest man in our history. He then told us about his involvement with the centennial of the war – when after an abortive start by others almost leading to another war – he was named Director of the program in 1961 at age 31 by President Kennedy. He told us how knowledgeable JFK was on history and what a retentive mind he had. The most interesting takeaway from his talk was how, after a debacle by the failed centennial group in the reenactment by thousands at Bull Run (without sufficient Port-A-Potties) which disgraced the grounds, Kennedy, at Bud’s suggestion, ordered that there will be no more reenactments on Civil War grounds.
Frank Williams, founding chairman of the Forum, Lincoln scholar, president of the Ulysses S. Grant Association and author, opened the first session on Saturday morning. Frank’s day job until his retirement two years ago was Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. His topic was appropriate: “(Lincoln’s) Suspension of the Great Writ: Habeas Corpus.” Frank took us through our nation’s great right of Habeas Corpus, Lincoln’s great talents with the law and the circumstances that led to his suspension of the right in certain areas. Lincoln’s actions remain controversial to this day, but Frank showed how what Lincoln did was Lincoln at his best as a lawyer through his interpretations of the law under crisis situations that required the president to act as he did – legally. If Lincoln is ever tried for his actions, he could find no better defense attorney than Judge Williams.
Harold Holzer followed Frank to the podium with his talk: “Lincoln on War.” Harold is vice chairman of the Forum and chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. Harold has authored or co-authored 43 books, and counting, on Lincoln and the Civil War – it seems a book is always being written in Harold’s mind while he is doing other things. He was also a “Content Consultant” on Spielberg’s Lincoln movie. (Harold had arranged a special showing of the movie for Forum members the night of the 15th so many attendees had seen it – all liked it.)
In his talk Harold said that Lincoln is seen by some as anti-war – going from dove to hawk in the Civil War. Although against the Mexican War while in Congress, Lincoln was not against all wars and was proud of his brief militia experience in the Black Hawk War – Harold pointed out that Lincoln had reenlisted three times in the militia. A new takeaway for me was Harold’s story during Lincoln’s Black Hawk service telling how an old Indian had wandered into the camp. Most wanted to shoot him but Lincoln talked them out of it, saving the guy’s life.
Our next speaker was Catherine Clinton, who among other things teaches at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland. Her books include Mrs. Lincoln: A Life published in 2009. Catherine’s topic was “Death in the White House: Washington and Richmond” – an especially poignant subject for me with the death of my son, Rick, in September. The Lincolns lost their son, Willie, to disease in 1862 (they previously lost their son, Eddie in Springfield) and Jefferson and Varina Davis lost their young son, Joe, in a fall in 1864.
Both families suffered greatly with their losses. Mary’s grief was described as “volcanic.” She dressed in mourning black and withdrew from the public while Varina was able to resume her public duties after an appropriate time. The Lincolns also lost the son-like Elmer Ellsworth at Alexandria early in the war and later their good friend Edward Baker. The President and First Lady are often described as being sad and/or melancholy – obviously for good reasons. Of course, many families were experiencing the loss of children at home and in battle at that time. An interesting fact to me was that the appropriate mourning period for widows was 2.5 years. (I guess no one told Scarlett O’Hara.) In an aside during her talk she related all that was going on in Mary Lincoln’s life during the period covered in the Lincoln movie, saying that Sally Field got it right in her portrayal.
Craig Symonds, professor emeritus at the U. S. Naval Academy and author of a number of Civil War books, some focusing on the Navy, was our first speaker after lunch. He began by humorously describing the challenge of speaking to a group after it has eaten. I would second that, especially at the Forum where we are fed three times a day through sumptuous buffet lines. Craig’s topic was “Hunting Skunks: Lincoln, David Dixon Porter and David Glasgow Farragut.” He said that since he had previously talked about their river campaigns, he would tell us about them and their lives this time – and interesting lives they were.
Farragut, age 60 in 1861, had already had 51 years of naval experience as he had been taken into service at age 9 as a protégé of David Dixon Porter’s father, David. The younger was 48 when the Civil War began and although a sort of foster brother to Farragut, the two were more competitors than brothers or even friends. Porter considered Farragut an “old man” in trying to gain an edge in their rivalry. Porter would blow an opportunity to first take New Orleans when Farragut moved quickly, “Damning the torpedoes, moving full speed ahead to take the city.” (No doubt, Porter was damning his “brother” as he did it.)
Both men had distinguished careers eventually becoming admirals but it’s Farragut with his experience, strength of character, courage and a certain way with words that is best remembered. (We were amazed to learn that Farragut at age 11 was given command of a captured British ship to take it to port – something to tell the kids when they don’t want to do their chores.) The word, “Skunks” in Craig’s title referred to a story of a hunter pretending to hunt skunks while ending up with rabbits for the table – not Lincoln, Porter or Farragut.
Craig was followed by the first of two Panel Discussions. These are always fun and informative but almost impossible to take notes in any meaningful way. The Panel’s topic was: “The Constitution Goes to War: Lincoln and Civil Liberties.” This panel, Roger Billings, Burrus Carnahan and Andre Kent, (all Constitutional Law authorities) moderated by Frank Williams, discussed Lincoln’s adherence or lack thereof to the Constitution in managing a war in unprecedented circumstances. It seems that experts have and will always disagree on Lincoln’s actions. It was interesting to note that while the Union did not recognize the Confederacy as a country in the early going, it essentially had to in 1862, to establish or follow the International Rules of War in treatment of civilians and prisoners and other matters, including eventually the basis for the Emancipation Proclamation.
The dinner that evening featured a reading by George Buss, one of the country’s best Lincoln presenters with maybe the greatest Lincoln voice since the original, of Lincoln’s letter to Fanny McCullough – a masterpiece of condolence in words. I’ve included it in this report since it has so much meaning today as our nation mourns the loss of lives at Sandy Hook.
Washington, December 23, 1862.
It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.
Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.
Your sincere friend,
The evening speaker was Amanda Foreman, the author of the well received 2011 book: A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War. Ms. Foreman (actually a missus with five young children, four of whom were with her and her husband) was raised mostly in Los Angeles, but spent enough time in schools in Great Britain to speak with an English accent, which added a certain authority to her accounts of British actions and inactions during our war. Her talk was entitled: “Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: A Propaganda Tool for the Enemy.” Her insights provided fresh material to the overall chronicle and understanding of the war. She was so well received that the Forum Bookstore couldn’t keep up with the demand for her book. I imagine her father, the noted screenplay writer (High Noon for one), producer and director (Guns of Navarone), Carl Foreman, would be very proud of her work.
Chairman Williams, as is customary, opened the Forum’s second day with a report on the status of the Forum – it’s healthy. Don McCue, Director of the Lincoln Memorial Shrine in Redlands California and Chairman of the annual Lincoln Forum Essay Contest, announced this year’s winner – and then read some paragraphs from the beginning and end of the essay.
John Marszalek, Civil War author, professor of history emeritus at Mississippi State University and executive director of the U. S. Grant Association (and editor of the Grant papers) was our first speaker. His topic was: “Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman: Stars Rising in the West.” John started by immediately disavowing the title of his talk saying he had not picked it and we would understand his disavowal by the time he was finished.
While it’s unlikely that The IMPROV or any other comedy club would ever devote a night to “Hilarious Historians” it must be noted that Harold Holzer, Craig Symonds and John Marzsalek would be starring if a club ever did. Harold’s talks, introductions and asides include much humor, Craig kept us laughing at the antics of Porter and Farragut, and John followed through with his words on two great generals. (Frank gets laughs, too, but would get more if we weren’t afraid of being held in contempt by the Judge.)
John began by taking us through the early careers of Grant and Sherman. Sherman, who was eccentric in some ways and who did not care at all for what we now call “The Media,” was deemed to be “insane” as a form of payback. Grant, who couldn’t have much alcohol at all before feeling its effects and so really didn’t drink much, somehow developed a reputation (promoted by his enemies) as a drunkard – a myth which follows him to this day. In recounting their early engagements, John showed that they often didn’t look like stars. Both men admired General Henry W. Halleck – thinking of him as a “Genius of War” in part because he had written the book on war (Report on the Means of National Defense and Elements of Military Art and Science).
Halleck had a better relationship with Sherman, who he helped, than with Grant, who he often criticized. John concluded that it was as much by default as anything that Grant took over for Halleck when “Old Brains” was promoted to Washington. In telling his story, John recalled a talk that Grant and Sherman had the night of the first day of battle at Shiloh when they had almost lost everything: Sherman said to Grant, “Devil’s own day!” Grant simply replied, “Lick ’em tomorrow.” Good advice for many troubling situations.
John C. (“Jack”) Waugh, noted historian and author of the Civil War era including: Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle For The 1864 Presidency and The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox- Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan and Their Brothers, was our next speaker. His topic and the subject of his latest book was the relationship between Lincoln and McClellan: “Lincoln and McClellan: The Troubled Partnership between a President and His General.” This was Kismet to me since I had just agreed to debate the topic of “Lincoln’s Biggest Mistake” at our Roundtable’s annual debate in January and had picked Lincoln’s selection of McClellan as his biggest mistake. Nothing Jack told us made me regret my decision.
McClellan was a “golden boy,” an early star in most everything he did, fast tracked to great success at a young age. He was second in his class at West Point – thinking, of course, that he should have been first. (Stonewall Jackson was a classmate.) Jack said we know much about McClellan through his many very self-serving, whiney letters to his wife – bad for him, said Jack, but good for historians. Before the war, McClellan, who had left the army to become a vice president for the Illinois Central Railroad, was a division president for the Ohio Mississippi Railroad. Lincoln, as a lawyer for the Illinois line, knew McClellan and had worked with him. Lincoln’s frustration with the “Young Napoleon” is well documented (“You must act!”) as is “Little Mac’s” paranoia on opposing troop strength and his disrespect of Lincoln.
McClellan seemed to be paralyzed by a fear of failure. Lincoln said he had “the slows”… “an auger too dull to drill.” Another time he said that McClellan “was an admirable engineer with a talent for stationary engines.” Lincoln gave McClellan every chance to succeed – more than most would have – but to no avail. Mac was never the man he was in his mind, never turning his dreams of glory into reality. Jack is a popular Forum speaker – always informative and humorous. He’s another candidate for “Hilarious Historians” night. (Yes, I did buy Jack’s book which he signed for me, and which I’m sure will prepare me well for the Roundtable debate.)
A Panel Discussion followed Waugh. Its topic was: “100 Days to the Emancipation Proclamation: The Most Important Months of the War?” Moderated by Harold Holzer, its panel of experts was: Amanda Foreman, Louis Mazur (author of the new book: Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union), Edna Greene Medford (co-author of the book: The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views (with Frank and Harold), David Von Drehle (author of the new book: Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year) and Forum Chairman Frank Williams.
The panel was very informative on all that was happening, especially politically, during the time when Lincoln announced that he would be issuing the proclamation and when he actually did on January 1, 1863. For me it was even more evidence of all the pressures on Lincoln from various factions to delay, cancel or change what he had intended to do – finally, with some relatively small changes, doing what he knew was right and that the time was finally right, too.
I used a question to the panel to state my belief that Lincoln was a “political orthodontist” – He wanted an end to slavery and he achieved that end though a number of small and large moves (as if adjusting wires in and out to straighten things out), despite much opposition and criticism – which now seems to judge everything he did without often enough recognizing how well his approach worked – ending slavery and saving the country we love and which the world needs.
Breakout sessions were held in the afternoon: “Meet the Historians – Topics of Your Choice, No Holds Barred.” These were led by the speakers. I was assigned to Amanda Foreman’s group. My heroes have always been writers so I took this opportunity to ask her to describe how she came to write her definitive book – A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War. She told us how in researching her first book, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, she found a story of two British brothers who came to America under different circumstances (one escaping an ever-spending wife – another well-told, funny story) who ended up on different sides).
This inspired her to research how Great Britain may have been split during the war. And over 900 pages later the rest is, in her book, valuable additional well-written history. (One odd fact: during a time when Britain thought it wise to send troops to Canada should they be needed in the Civil War, they found they didn’t have enough ships so they rented some American ships for transport.) Many ladies wondered how she could write a book with five young children – but none asked publicly. (Amanda told one lady, who asked privately, that her writing day always began when the kids were in bed at 8:00 PM. If any husbands wondered why their wives didn’t write books while raising their kids they were smart enough not to say it out loud.)
After dinner that evening, Jim Getty, who I believe to be the nation’s Lincoln, read from Lincoln’s 1862 Annual Message to Congress which included these words:
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.
Steven Spielberg, in his talk at the National Cemetery the next day, said that when he wants to talk to Abraham Lincoln, he calls Daniel Day Lewis. When Forum members want to talk to Abraham Lincoln, they call Jim Getty or George Buss.
This year’s recipient of the Richard Nelson Current Award of Achievement (the great historian, Richard Current, died this year) was Eric Foner – professor of history at Columbia University and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize – the first book (The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery) to ever win all three major awards. In his keynote talk to us after accepting his award, Professor Foner, (“The Emancipation of Abraham Lincoln”) told us of Lincoln, his many challenges, and how well he handled them. Foner is the history professor you wished you had in college. He said that while Lincoln was not perfect he made fewer mistakes than anyone else would have made in his position.
To paraphrase an old saying – all of these symposiums are good but some are better than others. I found this one, with its focus on 1862 and speakers so well-versed on that year – with all that happened in it and all it meant to the country, was one of the best ones we’ve had.
Although not part of the Lincoln Forum, many Forum members attend the ceremony held November 19th at the National Cemetery commemorating Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. This event attracts well-known speakers each year. As noted earlier, director Spielberg – “Lincoln” – was this year’s main speaker. Doris Kearns Goodwin, always good, also had a short talk. Spielberg was introduced by Harold Holzer. The director talked of his involvement with the movie project which began about seven years ago.
He had optioned Kearns Goodwin’s book – Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln – before it was even published. While Spielberg spoke of Lincoln and his many admirers (“Lincoln obsessives”), he clearly pointed out that he was not a historian but rather with “Lincoln” a maker of historical fiction which can be used to present unique insights into the structure if not the actual facts of history.
His Lincoln movie is a perfect example of the filmmaker’s historical art, dramatizing and condensing historical facts without destroying overall historical truth. (By the way, the movie, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, was a hoot but not an example of historical art.) The crowd at the cemetery this year – no doubt to hear Spielberg – was at least five times the usual number attending, giving all an idea of what the crowd must have looked and felt like on November 19, 1863 as Lincoln made his “few appropriate remarks.”
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