Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Lincoln's Forgotten Friend, Leonard Swett

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Lincoln's Forgotten Friend, Leonard Swett

Article excerpt

Lincoln's Forgotten Friend, Leonard Swett. By Robert S. Eckley. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012). Pp. xi, 307, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, $34.95.)

Robert Eckley was a much beloved president of Illinois Wesleyan University. He was also a Lincoln enthusiast and scholar, and if you attended the annual meetings of the Illinois State Historical Society or the Abraham Lincoln Association in the previous twenty years, you probably remember Bob's benign countenance that complimented his leadership abilities. He chose to focus his scholarship on Lincoln's Bloomington friend Leonard Swett, who by many accounts, bore a physical resemblance to the sixteenth president, at least in height and general build. Swett became a personal friend and political confidant of Lincoln, as much as anyone could be a confidant of the highly reticent Lincoln.

Swett's improbable friendship with Lincoln began when he staggered into Bloomington, Illinois, in 1848, newly discharged from brief army service in the Mexican War. Suffering from dysentery and probably malaria, Swett expected to die in Bloomington, but kindly schoolmaster George Washington Minier nursed him back to health. Swett read law and became a lawyer with a practice in tiny Clinton, Illinois. A formidable courtroom presence, he met Lincoln intimate David Davis, who, in turn, introduced him to Lincoln in Mount Pulaski, and Swett began riding about the old Eighth Judicial Circuit with those and other soonto-be-eminent gentlemen lawyers, including Ward Hill Lamon, as they pursued cases and eked out a living. Like Lincoln and Davis, Swett was a confirmed Whig in his politics.

Inevitably what makes Swett's life interesting and notable was his association with that most fascinating and successful of presidents, Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, Swett's reminiscences, some recorded thirty years after the president's death, are an important source on Lincoln. Eckley recognized the importance of the Swett-Lincoln friendship and made it the focus of what is nominally a biography of Swett. He has made good use of Swett's thoughts on Lincoln. For example, Swett and his wife volunteered to work in Washington, D.C., area military hospitals (if those charnel houses deserve the name hospital) in May 1864, as casualties crowded in from Grant's Wilderness campaign. …

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