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With Lincoln in the White House

Letters, Memoranda, and other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865

Edited by Michael Burlingame

Publication Year: 2006

From the time of Lincoln’s nomination for the presidency until his assassination, John G. Nicolay served as the Civil War president’s chief personal secretary. Nicolay became an intimate of Lincoln and probably knew him as well as anyone outside his own family. Unlike John Hay, his subordinate, Nicolay kept no diary, but he did write several memoranda recording his chief’s conversation that shed direct light on Lincoln. In his many letters to Hay, to his fiancée, Therena Bates, and to others, Nicolay often describes the mood at the White House as well as events there. He also expresses opinions that were almost certainly shaped by the president


For this volume, Michael Burlingame includes all of Nicolay’s memoranda of conversations, all of the journal entries describing Lincoln’s activities, and excerpts from most of the nearly three hundred letters Nicolay wrote to Therena Bates between 1860 and 1865. He includes letters and portions of letters that describe Lincoln or the mood at the White House or that give Nicolay’s personal opinions. He also includes letters written by Nicolay while on troubleshooting missions for the president.


An impoverished youth, Nicolay was an unlikely candidate for the important position he held during the Civil War. It was only over the strong objections of some powerful people that he became Lincoln’s private secretary after Lincoln’s nomination for the presidency in 1860. Prominent Chicago Republican Herman Kreismann found the appointment of a man so lacking in savoir faire

“ridiculous.” Henry Martin Smith, city editor of the Chicago Tribune, called Nicolay’s appointment a national loss. Henry C.Whitney was surprised that the president would appoint a “nobody.”


Lacking charm, Nicolay became known at the White House as the “bulldog in the ante-room” with a disposition “sour and crusty.” California journalist Noah Brooks deemed Nicolay a “grim Cerberus of Teutonic descent who guards the last door which opens into the awful presence.” Yet in some ways he was perfectly suited for the difficult job. William O. Stoddard, noting that Nicolay was not popular and could “say 'no'about as disagreeably as any man I ever knew,” still granted that Nicolay served Lincoln well because he was devoted and incorruptible. Stoddard concluded that Nicolay “deserves the thanks of all who loved Mr. Lincoln.”


For his part, Nicolay said he derived his greatest satisfaction “from having enjoyed the privilege and honor of being Mr. Lincoln’s intimate and official private secretary, and of earning his cordial friendship and perfect trust.”


Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Book Title

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Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

Wayne C. Temple, chief deputy director of the Illinois State .f\tĀ·chives, is a legendary Lincoln scholar who generously shared with me his discoveries and helped me solve innumerable puzzles as I conducted research on this volume and its siblings.
Thomas F. Schwartz, the Illinois state historian, londly read the manuscript and gave me the benefit of his vast knowledge of Lincoln and his...

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pp. xi-xxi

John G. Nicolay, Lincoln's chief personal secretary from the time of his nomination for the presidency until his assassination, claimed that "in the five years during which he [Lincoln] gave me his confidence and intimacy, I learned to know him perhaps better than any other person, except the members of his own family."1 Unlike his assistant in the White House...

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pp. 1-22

To William E. Norris, Springfield, 26 May 18601
Mr. Lincoln has been so much occupied with men who have called to see him, that I couldn't get a chance at him, since the receipt of your letter until this morning. I herewith enclose you his autograph...

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pp. 23-64

To Therena Bates, Springfield, 6 January 18611
It has turned out to be a sort of muddy, dull, and gloomy Sunday afternoon .... [T]he prospect of getting away is not particularly encouraging. Mr. Lincoln brought in seventy-five letters yesterday--an increase that doesn't specially gratify me as I am yet some two days behind hand, since I . moved down here...

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pp. 65-98

To Therena Bates, Washington, 3 January 18621
... The reception at the Executive mansion began at 11 A.M. at which time the Cabinet and their families and theĀ· Diplomatic Corps in all their stars and crosses and gold lace appeared and were presented to the President. At 11:25 came the Judges of the Supreme Court; at 11:30 the officers of the army.and navy in uniform and at 12 M. the public. This lasted until 2 P.M. ...

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pp. 99-123

True to his warning and his promise, President Lincoln has to-day, by virtue of his office as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, proclaimed freedom to all persons of African descent held as slaves within such States and parts of States as are now in rebellion against the Government...

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pp. 124-169

To Therena Bates, Washington, 2 January 18641
I have just run away a little while from the reception which is going on below (this being our New Years Day) to write you "A happy New Year," and to get a brief respite from the interminable crowd which is besieging the Presidential doors. I have not seen anything like it on New Years since I have been here ...

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pp. 195-205

To William Henry Seward, Washington, 3 January 18651
Mr. Robert Lincoln and myself will accompany you to Philadelphia and Trenton, to attend the funerals of Ex-Vice President Dallas,2 and Minister Dayton3 in accordance with your invitation of this morning...


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pp. 181-259


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pp. 261-274

Author Bio

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Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780809388233
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809326839

Publication Year: 2006