When It Comes to First-Person Accounts of Lincoln's Last Days, Who Do You Trust?


Noah Andre Trudeau is the author of numerous books on the American Civil War, including "Bloody Roads South: The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May-June 1864" and "Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage." He is currently working on a book on Lincoln's last days.

Who Do You Trust? was a television game show perhaps best known for first teaming Johnny Carson with Ed McMahon. It is also something of a cautionary phrase for Civil War historians delving into the world of published primary sources, especially in this sesquicentennial period. One expects a certain fuzziness around facts remembered thirty plus years later, and it’s even standard to handicap the material by its degree of bias or hidden agenda. But what one doesn’t expect, and something that has caught more than one noted historian in its enticing snares, is the faux memoir.

There are a handful of such books that slid through the first round of critical reception unchallenged and managed to achieve a reputation as "classics." Only years afterward, when a few skeptical historians dug into their provenance were questions raised, too late for a number of standard works that relied on them to some degree. In Gettysburg studies up through the centennial a favorite source was The Cannoneer by Augustus Buell. In his 1948 book Gettysburg, author/editor Earl Schenck Meirs couldn’t resist Buell’s vivid description of the July 1 combat near the railroad cut:

First we could see the tips of their colorstaffs coming up over the little ridge, then the points of their bayonets, and then the Johnnies themselves, coming on with a steady tramp, tramp, and with loud yells. ... In quick, sharp tones, like successive reports of a repeating rifle, came Davidson’s orders: ‘Load -- Canister -- Double!’ There was a hustling of cannoneers, a few thumps of the rammer heads, and then ‘Ready -- By Piece -- Fire!’”

Great stuff, published in 1890 from the pen of a certified Civil War veteran. Thanks to historian Milton W. Hamilton we know now that Buell did indeed serve in the artillery battery he wrote about, but that he did not enlist until seven weeks after the battle of Gettysburg.

I came across Hamilton’s article when I was researching my 2002 book on the battle, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage. That helped me get my mind straight on trusted "classic" sources, and when I wrote about Sherman’s March to the Sea (Southern Storm, 2008) I was on the alert for first-hand accounts that seemed a little too good. And I found one. New York Herald reporter David P. Conyngham’s Sherman’s March (first published in 1865) describes the (in)famous operation with a colorful sense of immediacy that again caught the eye of editor Earl Schenck Meirs in his 1951 The General Who Marched to Hell. He made a slight but important use of that source when he quoted Conyngham: “I have seen officers themselves very attentive to the wants of pretty octoroon girls, and provide them with horses to ride.” Conyngham was a good reporter whose coverage of the battle of Nashville is solid. It also puts him several hundred miles away from Sherman’s March at the time it was nearing its end. To his credit, Conyngham rejoined Sherman’s forces in time to participate in the march through the Carolinas.

(I should add here that I have the highest respect for Mr. Meirs and I value his works a great deal. At the time he produced the books mentioned there was no reason to question the veracity of the sources he used. In those cases, the test of time failed.)

Strange as it may be to say at this point, I do not believe that the books I’ve cited by Buell and Conyngham are pure fiction. In fact, I feel that there is much truth to what they state. In each case we have authors with undeniable links to people who actually witnessed the events that the writers later expanded upon. In Buell’s case it was his battery mates; in Conyngham’s that fraternity of reporters sometimes styled the Bohemian Brigade. Both men proved to be good listeners and note takers, and much of their descriptions have the ring of authenticity. The devil is in the details, though, forcing one to sort out what is “as told to” and what is “as imagined by.”

My new book project, a study of Lincoln’s time at City Point in March/April 1865, presents me with another oft-used famous memoir and often (in my opinion) too good at times. William H. Crook, self-described as Lincoln’s bodyguard, produced some articles in 1906 about his time with Lincoln at City Point that later appeared in a larger book, Through Five Administrations (1910). (All are said to be his recollections as "compiled and written down by Margarita Spalding Gerry.") Excerpts from these works were widely serialized in newspapers in the years following their publication, further cementing their stature in the public mind. Still, the question remains: Was Crook even present during Lincoln’s visit to City Point?

I am not the first historian to question Crook’s account(s). A number have pointed out that other, more reliable first-hand encounters with Lincoln at this time fail to mention Crook. Lincoln’s escort was observed on several occasions by witnesses who provide enough detail to put names to descriptions. When the president met reporter Charles Coffin during his April 4 Richmond visit, the Boston Journal man helpfully identified those landing with the president, a list that does not include Crook’s name. So, there is, at present, no independent verification that Crook was there. Add to that a few small details that he has wrong. For instance, during Lincoln’s outbound voyage on the steamer River Queen, Crook has Lincoln declare he is "feeling splendidly" on the morning of March 24. Yet a review of actual messages sent by Lincoln and members of his party show that the president was not only seasick but likely also suffering from tainted water aboard the vessel. Crook’s post-war recollections are further muddied with claims counter to facts. He writes that both he and Tad Lincoln testified at the trial of John H. Surratt and indeed a review of the transcripts shows Tad as having appeared, but not Crook. There is no evidence he kept any diaries or notes of his time with Lincoln, so his extensive recreation of conversations held and overheard also strains credulity. In a masterful understatement, Lincoln scholar Wayne C. Temple noted: “Crook is a most unreliable source.”

At this stage of my writing/research I am withholding judgment. I am undertaking online outreach for fresh accounts of Lincoln’s City Point visit, which I invite you to view at www.lincoln1865.com. Perhaps I will hear from a family with an ancestor’s account of a pleasant chat that the soldier, sailor or civilian (white or black) had with one William H. Crook. Or not. For the moment, even though the odds are definitely stacking up against Crook anything is possible.

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