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"The Diary of a Public Man: Unpublished Passages of the Secret History of the American Civil War" was a set of four anonymous articles that appeared in 1879 in the North American Review, purporting to give an insider's view of events in Washington, D.C., from the end of December 1860 to mid-March 1861. Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, in their classic The Modern Researcher (1957) wrote that discovering the identity of the "Public Man" was "of all the problems of authorship in American history . . . the most gigantic." Generations of historians from James Ford Rhodes to David Herbert Donald have relied on the diary as a source for such irresistible stories as that of Stephen Douglas holding Abraham Lincoln's hat during his inaugural speech, even as the diarist's identity remained unknown. James G. Randall thought it was Vermont senator Jacob Collamer; Frank Maloy Anderson showed that Randall was wrong, and in 1948 he advanced his own theory that it was New York journalist Samuel Ward. Anderson also claimed that the "diary" was actually a concoction largely written after the fact. Sixty-two years later, Daniel Crofts has reopened the case.
No spoiler alerts will be necessary in this review, since Crofts reveals his candidate for the Public Man in his subtitle. William Henry [End Page 244] Hurlbert was another New York journalist who, like his close friend Sam Ward, knew the right people and was in the right places to hear the kind of inside stories that make the diary sound authentic. Crofts employs stylometric analysis as well as traditional historical and rhetorical detective methods, and they all point to Hurlbert: he was in a position to know what the diarist knew (largely through his connection with Ward), and the diary reads stylistically very much like Hurlbert's other writings, and very little like Ward's. Crofts lays out his evidence in an engaging and persuasive fashion, sometimes using the first person to address the reader directly as he describes the career of Hurlbert, who at one time wielded great influence as the editor of the New York World, but who never lived up to his promise as a writer and eventually died in exile and was soon forgotten.
Has Crofts then solved the mystery for good? His suspect clearly had the means and the opportunity; motive is the weakest part of the case, but Crofts gives some plausible reasons why the egotistical Hurlbert might have wanted to pull off such an elaborate hoax. Crofts does more than simply identify the Public Man, however, which alone would be no more than a neat historical parlor trick. He confirms Anderson's suspicion that the "diary" was not written in 1861 and shows instead that it was almost certainly written by Hurlbert for publication in 1879, with Hurlbert, Ward, and the editor of the North American Review, Allen Thorndike Rice, the only people in on the secret. He also offers a detailed analysis of the contents of the diary, demonstrating how closely many of its passages reflect events that actually occurred and how little of it was merely Hurlbert's imagination. Even though no real "Public Man" existed to meet with Lincoln, Douglas, and others during the secession winter, as portrayed in the diary, Crofts shows that Hurlbert and Ward had been so closely connected to William Seward and other major players that Hurlbert was later able to construct a document that accurately captured the atmosphere of Washington just before the war.
Although he makes a compelling case that the diary is not contemporaneous with the secession crisis, Crofts argues that it still has value to historians, insightfully comparing it to Mary Boykin Chesnut's [End Page 245] "diary" from Dixie as a postwar publication consciously crafted in diary form by someone in a position to write authoritatively about the events it describes. The entire text of "The Diary of a Public Man" is helpfully included as an appendix...