At Lincoln's Side: John Hay's Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings

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At Lincoln's Side: John Hay's Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings. Michael Burlingame, ed., (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000. Pp. xxvii, 294. Introduction, two Appendices, Notes, Index. Cloth, $39.95.)

While working on a multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, Michael Burlingame has created a sideline industry of sorts by publishing new editions of important Lincoln source materials, including three volumes of writings by Lincoln's assistant secretary, John Hay. At Lincoln's Side completes Burlingame's "Hay trilogy" published by Southern Illinois University Press. First in the series was a new edition of Hay's Civil War diary, Inside Lincoln's White House (1997). Second was a compilation of articles that Burlingame contends Hay wrote anonymously for the wartime press, Lincoln's journalist (1998). This third volume presents Hay's wartime letters and post-war reminiscences.

Hay regrettably destroyed much of his correspondence, including letters he wrote to his family. All that have been found 231 letters and telegrams (the introduction gives the number as 227) are included. They are a mix of personal and official papers, ranging from a mundane two word telegram to an illuminating eight-page memorandum documenting Lincoln's impressive handling of a quarrelsome border state delegation. Many oft-quoted gems familiar to the readers of Lincolniana literature are found in these letters. Not only do they provide a scintillating glimpse into the inner workings of the Civil War White House and the Lincoln administration, they also reflect the tone and tenor of wartime Washington society. Of special interest to students of Civil War Illinois are the letters written from Hancock County on the eve of the 1864 National Democratic Convention in Chicago, revealing the anxious and agitated state of affairs on the Illinois homefront. Written by Hay between the ages of 22 and 27 years, the letters do indeed, as Mark Neely has observed, reflect the "ironic humor of youth." Don Fehrenbacher once characterized Hay's writings as "more sophisticated than profound." Nevertheless, the best of these letters lend some credence to Theodore Roosevelt's opinion that Hay was "the best letter writer of his age."

Hay's four post-war reminiscences (written between 1866 and 1890) are minor classics of their own. …