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At Lincoln's Side

John Hay's Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings

Edited by Michael Burlingame

Publication Year: 2000

John Hay believed that “real history is told in private letters,” and the more than 220 surviving letters and telegrams from his Civil War days prove that to be true, showing Abraham Lincoln in action: “The Tycoon is in fine whack. I have rarely seen him more serene & busy. He is managing this war, the draft, foreign relations, and planning a reconstruction of the Union, all at once. I never knew with what tyrannous authority he rules the Cabinet, till now. The most important things he decides & there is no cavil.”

Along with Hay’s personal correspondence, Burlingame includes his surviving official letters. Though lacking the “literary brilliance of [Hay’s] personal letters,” Burlingame explains, “they help flesh out the historical record.” Burlingame also includes some of the letters Hay composed for Lincoln’s signature, including the celebrated letter of condolence to the Widow Bixby.

More than an inside glimpse of the Civil War White House, Hay’s surviving correspondence provides a window on the world of nineteenth-century Washington, D.C.


Published by: Southern Illinois University Press


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Book Title

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Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

To John Y. Simon, dean of documentary editing in the field of American history, I am grateful for his encouragement as this volume and its companions have slowly gestated over the past several years.
At Brown University's John Hay Library, I have been the fortunate beneficiary of many kindnesses from Jennifer Lee, Samuel Streit, Jean Rainwater, Mary Jo Kline, Andrew Moel, Pat Soris, and their colleagues. To...

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pp. xi-xxvii

Real hisory," John Hay declared, "is told in private letters. No man should ever destroy one that contains light on public men or public affairs."1 The 227 surviving letters and telegrams that Hay wrote during the Civil War are a case in point. Like his Civil War diary,2 they shed an unusually bright light on Abraham Lincoln. Through Hay's eyes, we see the...

Part One: Civil War Correspondence

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1. 1860-1862

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pp. 3-28

I seize a moment of this quiet midnight to write to you before the days of the coming week bring their congressional nuisances and their swarms of visitors. I shall be so cross and surly by the middle of next week that I should be very unfit company for anyone.
Warsaw dull? It shines before my eyes like a social paradise compared with this miserable sprawling village which imagines itself a city because...

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2. 1863

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pp. 29-71

Pray do not think me ungrateful for your kindness in sending me the advance chapters of your history, because I have not promptly acknowledged the receipt of them.2
I have read them with great interest and profit, and - what to my mind affords the best proof of the ease and purity of your style, - I have been so...

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3. 1864-1865

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pp. 72-106

On arriving at Point Lookout on Sunday morning,2 I learned that Gen. Butler would not be there until evening. The captain of the Clyde told me his boat could not lie safely at the wharf. I therefore gave him permission to take her up to Smith's Creek for the night.3 When Gen. Butler came, it was said by boats coming down that it would not be safe to encounter the...

Part Two: Selected Writings

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4. Hay's Reminiscences of the Civil War

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pp. 109-140

I am so constantly busy that I have had no quiet day in which I [could J write you what you desired in your letter several months ago. I have been Charge d'Affaires nearly all summer, my day filled with official business and my night with social engagements equally imperative. Even now, I write because I am ashamed to wait any longer...

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5. Biographical Sketches

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pp. 141-166

The beginnings of great periods have often been marked and made memorable by striking events. Out of the cloud that hangs around the vague inceptions of revolutions, a startling incident will sometimes flash like lightning, to show that the warring elements have begun their work. The scenes that attended the birth of American nationality formed a not inaccurate...

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Appendix 1: The Authorship of the Bixby Letter

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pp. 169-184

One of the most extravagantly admired of all Lincoln documents is the letter of condolence to the Widow Bixby, dated 21 November 1864. James G. Randall declared that it "stands with the Gettysburg address as a masterpiece in the English language."! Carl Sandburg called it "a piece of the American Bible. 'The cherished...

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Appendix 2: Mary Todd Lincoln's Unethical Conduct as First Lady

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pp. 185-203

The allusions in Hay's correspondence to the unethical conduct of Mary Todd Lincoln in the White House have been called "bitter phrases written in irritation by an immature secretary," which "have been among the loudest notes in posterity's chorus of denunciation of Mrs. Lincoln:'1 In fact, there is much additional evidence regarding the first lady's...


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pp. 205-279


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pp. 281-294

Author Bio

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Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780809384761
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809327119

Publication Year: 2000