Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln's Secretary by William G. Stoddard

Edited by Michael Burlingame

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. xxi p., 226 pp. ISBN 0-8032-9257-0. $25.00.

The University of Nebraska Press continues their outstanding series of reprinted Lincoln books with Inside the White House in Wartime: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln's Secretary, by William O. Stoddard. The publisher again turned to Michael Burlingame to edit and introduce the work. And as in the past, Burlingame adds valuable material to supplement the original text.

William O. Stoddard was a newspaper editor from Champaign Illinois, who came to know Lincoln after the latter's famous 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas. An early supporter of Lincoln's bid for the presidency, Stoddard stumped Champaign County for the Republican candidate in 1860.

After Lincoln's victory, Stoddard applied to Lincoln for an appointment as a personal secretary. Having already employed John Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln did not immediately to hire Stoddard. After are arriving in Washington, Lincoln found that Nicolay and Hay were both overworked, so the President did send for Stoddard, ostensibly to perform the repetitive clerical task of signing land patents. As the war progressed and fewer land grants were filed, Stoddard's responsibilities were expanded to include dealing with the daily mail received by the White House.

Another of the tasks that devolved upon Stoddard was to act as an informal liaison between the President's staff and Mary Lincoln. Stoddard and the First Lady developed a particularly amicable relationship, which was in sharp contrast to the adversarial association between Mrs. Lincoln and secretaries Nicolay and Hay, who often referred to the President's wife as the "Hellcat."

Stoddard stayed with the White House until September 1864. After surviving a dangerous bout of typhoid Stoddard decided to leave the unhealthy climate of Washington and seek his fortunes elsewhere. Lincoln appointed Stoddard a U.S. Marshal for the eastern district of Arkansas. He served in that post until May 1866, when he moved to New York, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Stoddard wrote a number of books in his lifetime, most of them intended for children. A few titles concerned his career in the White House, the most popular being Inside the White House in Wartime, published in 1890 by Charles J.L. Webster & Co. of New York. In this book Stoddard's prose is typical of the late 19th century. Formal and a bit verbose, he writes in the first person plural style. After at time this technique becomes a bit tiring.

In addition, Stoddard was not above overemphasizing his importance and responsibilities that devolved upon him in the White House, which Burlingame acknowledges in his fine introduction. While Stoddard was a regular employee and surely had daily contact with the inner workings of the President's office, he was probably not included in Lincoln's innermost circle of trusted confidants and advisors. At least not to the extent Stoddard would have his readers believe.

Also complicating Stoddard's book, is the fact that it was written nearly 30 years after his service in the White House. As we have seen with many such reminiscences, time has a way of affecting how individuals perceive their importance and participation in historical events. However, the text does have considerable historical value as it does relate a number of Lincoln stories and incidents to be found nowhere else. And as a regular White House employee, he did have a remarkable insider's view of the momentous events that transpired there.

Just as he did with his last book done for the University of Nebraska Press (A Reporter's Lincoln), Burlingame adds supplementary material to Inside The White House In Wartime that gives the work far greater value beyond being merely another reprint. In 1866, Stoddard agreed to write a series of short sketches for publication in the New York Citizen detailing some reminiscences of his service to Lincoln. These sketches appeared as letters written to Citizen editor Charles G. Halpine, and they appear in their entirety as a supplement to the reprint of the present book.

Written over a span of three months in the fall of 1866, the 13 sketches offer detailed glimpses of the inner workings of the Lincoln White House and Stoddard's role on the staff. Burlingame points out that these sketches offer a more true-to-life insight into Stoddard's perceptions of the inner workings of the White House. Having been written a mere two years after leaving government service, the memories and impressions were surely fresher. And having been written in a more narrative form, the recollections appear more spontaneous and true to life.

Stoddard covers such diverse topics the daily operation of the President's office, protocol and customs in greeting foreign and domestic dignitaries, the social responsibilities of the first couple, and the trials faced by Lincoln and his staff during four long years of war. The sketches convey Stoddard's unique point of view from within the Executive Department, and reveal a wry sense of humor that is missing from the more pretentious memoir. This latter quality is best demonstrated by what is, without a doubt, my favorite passage in the whole book. Stoddard's narrative reveals that while the affairs of government have changed remarkably in the past 140 years, much has remained the same. In discussing the relationship between the President and Congress, Stoddard makes the following observation:

The character of some of our Congressmen has been such as to destroy any social prestige that might otherwise have appeared to the position as such. A man may be able to carry the hundred and first ward of Babylon by an overwhelming majority, and yet not be just the person you would like to see dancing with your wife. (p. 154)

Such quips and the relaxed style of writing utilized by Stoddard makes this supplementary material a joy to read.

Inside the White House in Wartime: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln's Secretary is an important book documenting the every day workings of the Lincoln presidency. Forgiving the author for the verbosity and pretentiousness of the memoir, and relishing the sketches written for the New York Citizen, the volume is an essential addition to any Lincoln scholar's bookshelf.

© Copyright Daniel E. Pearson, 2000