America's Civil War
History 393
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 Professor John C. Willis
 

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne,
"Chiefly About War Matters"
  

[Like many Americans, Nathaniel Hawthorne had already lost hope for a rapid re-unification of the United States by 1862.  As the war dragged on and Union victories proved few and far between, Northern citizens -- especially Democrats -- began to express concern that Lincoln, his administration, and his generals might fail the nation. 

The Atlantic Monthly commissioned Hawthorne to write a piece on the war's progress early in that critical year, and he traveled south from Massachusetts to visit the nation's capital and interview its civil and military leaders in the spring of 1862.  Unlike Whitman and Melville, Hawthorne found the Civil War a less-than-impressive exercise and took a dim view of many of its northern principals.  He delved deep into the domestic political issues of the war (emphasizing the theme of an individual citizen's right to advise and question his representatives, for example) and levelled harsh criticism against official incompetence and disregard.  The journal's editors deemed much of what he wrote about Lincoln too irreverent to publish.  Reproduced below are those sections that the magazine allowed into print, along with the editors' explanation of the bowdlerization.] 


Of course, there was one other personage, in the class of statesmen, whom I should have been truly mortified to leave Washington without seeing; since (temporarily, at least, and by force of circumstances) he was the man of men. But a private grief [the death of his son, Willie, in February 1860] had built up  a barrier about him, impeding the customary free intercourse of Americans with their chief magistrate; so that I might have come away without a glimpse of his very remarkable physiognomy, save for a semi-official opportunity of which I was glad to take advantage.  The fact is, we were invited to annex ourselves, as supernumeraries, to a deputation that was about to wait upon the President, from a Massachusetts whip-factory, with a present of a splendid whip. 

Our immediate party consisted only of four or five, (including Major Ben Perley Poore, with his note-book and pencil,) but we were joined by several other persons, who seemed to have been lounging about the precincts of the White House, under the spacious porch, or within the hall, and who swarmed in with us to take the chances of a presentation.  Nine o'clock had been appointed as the time for receiving the deputation, and we were punctual to the moment; but not so the President, who sent us word that he was eating his breakfast, and would come as soon as he could.  His appetite, we were glad to think, must have been a pretty fair one; for we waited about half an hour in one of the antechambers, and then were ushered into a reception-room, in one corner of which sat the Secretaries of War and of the Treasury, expecting, like ourselves, the termination of the Presidential breakfast.  During this interval there were several new additions to our group, one or two of whom were in a working-garb, so that we formed a very miscellaneous collection of people, mostly unknown to each other, and without any common sponsor, but all with an equal right to look our head-servant in the face.  By-and-by there was a little stir on the staircase and in the passageway, etc., etc.* 

{We are compelled to omit two or three pages, in which the author describes the interview, and gives his idea of the personal appearance and deportment of the President.  The sketch appears to have been written in a benign spirit, and perhaps conveys a not inaccurate impression of its august subject; but it lacks reverence, and it pains us to see a gentleman of ripe age, and who has spent years under the corrective influence of foreign institutions, falling into the characteristic and most ominous fault of Young America.} 

Good Heavens! what liberties have I been taking with one of the potentates of the earth, and the man on whose conduct more important consequences depend than on that of any other historical personage of the century!  But with whom is an American citizen entitled to take a liberty, if not with his own chief magistrate?  However, lest the above allusions to President Lincoln's little peculiarities (already well known to the country and to the world) should be misinterpreted, I deem it proper to say a word or two, in regard to him, of unfeigned respect and measurable confidence.  He is evidently a man of keen faculties, and what is still more to the purpose, of powerful character.  As to his integrity, the people have that intuition of it which is never deceived.  Before he actually entered upon his great office, and for a considerable time afterwards, there is no reason to suppose that he adequately estimated the gigantic task about to be imposed on him, or, at least, had any distinct idea how it was to be managed; and I presume there may have been more than one veteran politician who proposed to himself to take the power out of President Lincoln's hands into his own, leaving our honest friend only the public responsibility for the good or ill success of the career. The extremely imperfect development of his statesmanly qualities, at that period, may have justified such designs.  But the President is teachable by events, and has now spent a year in a very arduous course of education; he has a flexible mind, capable of much expansion, and convertible towards far loftier studies and activities than those of his early life; and if he came to Washington a backwoods humorist, he has already transformed himself into as good a statesman (to speak moderately) as his prime-minister. 
  



SOURCE:   Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Chiefly About War Matters.   By a Peaceable Man." Atlantic Monthly, vol. 10, no. 57, July 1862, pp. 43-61.  

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