Omnium Gatherum: The Lincoln Mailbag, by the Private Secretaries Who Opened It
D URING THE CIVIL WAR, responsibility for the White House mailbag fell to a succession of staff aides: first, to John M. Hay, the future secretary of state who served as assistant private secretary throughout the Lincoln administration; then, when Hay required help, to the young Illinois journalist, William Osborne Stoddard; and, finally, when illness forced Stoddard to take a leave of absence, to the Minnesota minister and historian-turned-secretary, Edward Duffield Neill.
Not surprisingly, each of these men recalled his experiences with presidential correspondence somewhat differently. But they all remembered that Lincoln had entrusted them with complete authority in the handling of mail. They could summarize, forward, re-route, or destroy the incoming correspondence at will, and their judgment would never be questioned. They could draft responses and, as one secretary suggested, even sign Lincoln's name to them.
Ultimately, responsibility bred a certain cynicism. The oppressive burden of opening and reading up to five hundred letters each day was bound to exhaust and irritate even the most devoted of clerks. Stoddard, who inherited the job of correspondence clerk and handled it for more than two years, always seemed prouder of the letters he destroyed than those he summarized and passed along to Lincoln. Of the three, Neill seemed the most methodical and least self-aggrandizing, both in his role as correspondence clerk and in remembering his experiences later. Among Lincoln's correspondence secretaries, he seems to have sympathized most deeply with the men and women who wrote to their president with such high expectations during the Civil War.
Following are the firsthand recollections of each of these men, describing the White House office routine under Lincoln exactly as they re