- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 1, 2002

Edited by Michael Burlingame.
University of Nebraska Press.
287 pages. Illus. $39.95.

Few people other than students of Abraham Lincoln will recognize the name of William O. Stoddard. Those who do recognize Stoddard's name know him as President Lincoln's "third secretary," behind the more famous George G. Nicolay and John Hay.
Of the three secretaries who worked for Lincoln during his tenure as president, only Stoddard wrote a memoir of his experiences in the White House, which makes his place among White House personnel important.
Like Nicolay and Hay, Stoddard was a young Illinois Republican who was an early supporter of Lincoln's candidacy for president. Editor of the Central Illinois Gazette, Stoddard endorsed Lincoln for president in 1859, a year before the Republican convention selected him as the party's nominee. Stoddard devoted a fair amount of his editorials to touting Lincoln as the right man to lead the nation in its hour of dire need.
After Lincoln's election in November 1860, Stoddard actively sought a position in the White House. After some delay, Lincoln called Stoddard to Washington, where he was assigned to the Interior Department, signing land patents. On July 20, 1861, he was brought to the White House, where he spent the first year continuing to sign Lincoln's name to land patents before taking over the more serious work of screening Lincoln's mail. He shared a small office on the second floor of the White House opposite Lincoln's, placing him in the "center ring."
As third secretary, Stoddard was given sole responsibility for sorting through the 250-plus letters that arrived every day. Although it is not clear just how many letters came to the White House during Lincoln's four years in office, a total of 15,000 letters have survived Stoddard's screening process and are on deposit in the Library of Congress. Taking into account the number of days Lincoln served as president (excluding Sundays, when no mail was delivered), Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer estimates that 12 letters a day on average, or about 5 percent of each day's total, were selected for Lincoln's eyes.
Stoddard was a literary man who wrote profusely throughout his life. After the war, he authored more than 70 children's books and several reminiscences.
No one in the Lincoln White House wrote more about the inner workings of Lincoln's office and daily routine. While Nicolay and Hay devoted their later years to writing a 10-volume biography of Lincoln, Stoddard devoted most of his literary efforts to the activities involved in running the office, something Nicolay and Hay skimmed over.
Stoddard's days, however, involved more than screening the president's mail. Stoddard began writing "dispatches" for the New York Examiner under the pseudonym "Illinois." From May 1861 to July 1864, he wrote a steady stream of articles for the newspaper, commenting on the people and events that attended Lincoln's presidency 120 dispatches in all. Editor Michael Burlingame suggests that Lincoln himself may have urged Stoddard to write for the Examiner, whose editor was Stoddard's uncle. The paper supported Lincoln and his policies for much of the war.
Some historians have criticized Stoddard for occasionally overstating his importance in the Lincoln White House and of exaggerating certain events. Such is the stuff of personal memoirs and reminiscences. Readers always should approach personal accounts such as Stoddard's with caution. The dispatches' importance, however, cannot be overstated.
The writings of Stoddard place us in the context of the Lincoln White House from the perspective of a qualified observer. Context is crucial to understanding history. "Presentism" is the bane of all of us. Viewing history through the lens of present-day attitudes creates an astigmatism that blurs understanding of the people and events we study.
Unlike Stoddard's other works, and those of Nicolay and Hay that were written years after they left the White House, the Stoddard dispatches were written at the time of his service and therefore were fresh, but being in the inner sanctum is not enough. One needs to be able to observe and express what is seen and heard. Stoddard, with the help of Michael Burlingame, did both extremely well.
Criticism of the press by the White House was as common in Lincoln's time as it is today. Stoddard reflected this opinion, writing: "Some of the leading newspapers of the North, pretending the utmost friendship for the cause and the Government, will still weaken the hands of the Administration by the utterance of groundless sensation charges against various members of the Cabinet."
One year into the war, Stoddard naively commented on the closing of recruiting stations, writing that "the army is large enough to carry to full completion all the plans and purposes of the Government." By the spring of 1863, Stoddard's naivete began to fade; McClellan had "failed," Burnside had been "foiled," and Hooker was left with "bad fortune."
"The history of war shows us," Stoddard wrote, "that a second-rate commander doing his very uttermost, is worth more than his superior in genius when crippled by timidity, indolence, or want of heart."
On seeing both governments move closer toward "black flag warfare," Stoddard wrote: "There will be fewer prisoners taken on either side hereafter, and fights will be more bloody. Our soldiers may for a while forget their mercy, and remember only the deserts of their vanquished foemen."
On the use of black soldiers in combat, Stoddard wrote that the "prevailing sentiment" among the men in the field was that if blacks were willing to to fight, "why, let 'em fight they're as good as rebels any day."
In this latest work, Michael Burlingame rounds out his extensive editing of the three important secretaries that served Lincoln as president. When combined, the edited works represent a considerable body of material, and Mr. Burlingame does a great service to students of Lincoln's presidency.
Stoddard's 120 dispatches are gathered chronologically and appear without editorial commentary in the body of the text. All of Mr. Burlingame's comments are restricted to his footnotes. In one sense, that is regrettable, for he is well versed in Lincoln and his administration, and it would be interesting to have his commentary as editor dispersed throughout the text to give the reader further insight into Stoddard's subject matter.
For those interested in gaining a different perspective from inside the White House, "Dispatches From Lincoln's White House" is an excellent place to find it.
Edward Steers Jr.'s latest book is "Blood on the Moon," a history of the Lincoln assassination. He lives in West Virginia.

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