Historian Seeks Artifacts From Lincoln's Last Days
Historian Noah Andre Trudeau is known for uncovering secrets of the Civil War. His previous books, Bloody Roads South and Gettysburg, have unveiled information about Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's march to the sea in 1864, and the legacy of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Now, in preparation for a book about a largely unexamined period of President Abraham Lincoln's life, Trudeau is in search of witnesses.
At the end of the Civil War, between March and April 1865, Lincoln went to Northern Virginia to meet with his generals. He shook hands with thousands of Union soldiers and visited the former confederate capital in Richmond, Va. But little is known about the last week of his life before his assassination on April 14, 1865. Trudeau is seeking diary entries, letters or stories of people who encountered Lincoln at the time. If you have information that could be helpful, Trudeau wants you to contact him.
Trudeau talks with NPR's Neal Conan about his quest and the information he's collected so far.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Noah Andre Trudeau is an historian on a mission, and he needs your help. His previous books include a series about the last campaign in Virginia, from the wilderness to Appomattox, but his new one focuses on one major player largely unaccounted for during the last week of the war: Abraham Lincoln. During that period, President Lincoln went to Northern Virginia to meet with his generals, shook hands with thousands of Union soldiers and visited the former Confederate capital in Richmond.
If your family records hold information about Lincoln in that last week of the war, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Noah Andre Trudeau joins us here in Studio 3A, where we call him Andy. His most recent book is "Robert E. Lee: Lessons in Leadership." Nice to have you back on the program today.
NOAH ANDRE TRUDEAU: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And why is Lincoln overlooked in this last week?
TRUDEAU: I have a theory that historians who cover that period, when they reach this roughly two-and-a-half-week period, they kick into high gear on their car because they want to get to the big story - April 14, 1865, Ford's Theatre. It's such a powerful story. I can understand why they want to zip through this. I mean, they cover it. I'm not saying this is an unknown story. But in a way, it's only been covered at a superficial level, and I'm hoping we can drill down a lot more on it.
CONAN: And in fact, what you see happening is that as the end approaches, Abraham Lincoln is shifting from a wartime president to a postwar president - to a Reconstruction president.
TRUDEAU: I think absolutely. I mean, I think he understood, very clearly - as we're seeing in modern times, right now - that a president citing war emergency, war needs has a lot more authority in certain areas than he does once peace comes. Lincoln made ample use of his authority in the course of the war, as many historians have pointed out in terms of civil rights...
CONAN: Habeas corpus.
TRUDEAU: Habeas corpus, that sort of thing. And clearly, he recognized that coming with the end of the war, his status was going to change, which meant he's going to have to handle Congress and handle his own agenda in a different way.
CONAN: But part of what he's talking with the generals, Grant and Sherman, about when he gets down to Northern Virginia, they both meet him, and he's clearly talking about terms of surrender.
TRUDEAU: He's really talking about attitudes towards the South. He's left carrying out the end of the war to the generals. He doesn't really talk strategy and tactics with them. But a phrase he used with the officer commanding in Richmond, I think, said it all. When he was, sort of, asked, how do I treat these people? And he said, if I were you, I'd let them up easy. I'd let them up easy.
CONAN: And the visit to Richmond, that is one of the most dramatic moments of this period, the president of the United States visiting the enemy capital.
TRUDEAU: I think this whole time down there was a whole series of closures for him, and for the president of the United States to go to Richmond at this point, not as a conqueror, but in a way as both an observer and someone who was looking for ways to start to heal. Because he meets with some Southern politicians while he's there to discuss allowing the Virginia Assembly to reconvene, which he hopes then would vote Virginia out of the war, which is whole purpose. So he's clearly has all these things on his mind.
CONAN: A lot on his plate. But you say in their rush to get to Ford's Theatre, historians have overlooked this in general.
TRUDEAU: In general, looking at his various coverages of this, I noticed that the pool of sources remains relatively the same from one historian to another. And in no case have I - do I have a sense that they've challenged some of these sources. And already, I have to tell you, my one nightmare is I'm going to do a very good job of discrediting all the good stories...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
TRUDEAU: ...and I'm going to be left with...
TRUDEAU: ...zippo. So that's why I'm - and I really come to believe that there is a great story here, and it's locked up in attics, in dusty bookshelves in people's homes. There's a lot of families out there who had ancestors who were present in that area, and those ancestors left relics, left letters, left diaries. And the family holds them as a point of pride, and they don't leak out to the broader community. But I think now is the time for them to come forward.
CONAN: So go through the letters that may have been written by your great, great, great grandfather - how many greats you want to put onto it, I don't know at this point - the diary he may have kept about the day he shook hands with President Lincoln. He shook hands with thousands of men over this period.
TRUDEAU: On April 8 alone he went to the field hospital there, and by all accounts personally met 5,000 wounded Union soldiers and touched or said a word to almost every one of them.
CONAN: So if there's anything like that in your family history, what should people do other than giving us a call at 800-989-8255?
TRUDEAU: Well, the website'll help with some more contact information.
CONAN: Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
TRUDEAU: And it'll guide you to some other ways of getting in touch with me and letting me know what you've got.
CONAN: And have these kinds of appeals in the past been fruitful?
TRUDEAU: I don't know that they've been tried. I mean I think this is a special case in the sense that, again, we've just not really spent a lot of time tilling the soil. Now, I've gone through all the standard places. I've - all the usual suspect, archives, libraries, printed sources. I have now the same bibliography that all the great historians have had who have done the story of this period, and I'm not satisfied. Plus, I've got questions about some of them.
CONAN: Really? Like what?
TRUDEAU: Well, to take the big one, the man who presented himself as, quote, "Lincoln's bodyguard," a fellow name William H. Crook, wrote to...
CONAN: Now, there's a suspect right there.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
TRUDEAU: Well, he wrote a couple of articles about basically being with Lincoln, Lincoln's shadow in essence, throughout this entire period of time. The curious thing is that all the other witnesses speak of Lincoln and speak of his entourage, never mention Crook by name and never describe him. Now, for a man who was basically hanging over Lincoln's shoulder throughout this whole affair to not be mentioned at all - again, they're not saying he wasn't there - but in a way, there's a silence that's really kind of chilling to me. And I have to say, a number of very distinguished historians used Crook as a source in their coverage of this period. And maybe they've checked him out and have a different opinion of him than I do, but I have my serious doubts about him.
CONAN: Are there photographic records as well?
TRUDEAU: Not photographic. Artistic. That is, there were several artists, one soldier, a couple correspondents who sketched Lincoln while he was down there, but there was no photographic evidence of him being there.
CONAN: And what do we know about - you mentioned visiting with some members of the Virginia House of Representatives, the State House of Representatives...
CONAN: ...not the Confederate Congress. They had relocated by that point.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: But other than that, what did the president of the United States do when he visited the Confederate capital?
TRUDEAU: He wanted to see - he went to the White House of the confederacy where Jefferson Davis had held out, and saw that. I think he saw the devastation. You know, clearly he's thinking in the back of his mind, how am I going to heal this nation? How am I going to pull all this back together? And going down the streets of Richmond, which was terribly burned, portions of it, during the Confederate evacuation on the night of April 2, I think is all feeding into his sense of what needs to be done, and then he's going to start to struggle with how this is to be done.
CONAN: Richmond also. Time at City Point, which was - it was Fort Monroe, a place in Northern Virginia, that never was part of the Confederacy, always held by Union troops throughout the war.
TRUDEAU: Absolutely, yeah.
CONAN: And then to City Point, which is on the approaches to Richmond, which was a major communication center, he could read the dispatches from the very front there.
TRUDEAU: Yeah. City Point had become the nerve center for all Union operations because U.S. Grant had his headquarters there. So all telegraph lines came there. And Grant essentially leaves Lincoln on 29th of March and heads out to the front to be with his soldiers. So Grant - Lincoln at that point is hanging around. And really, at this point he's waiting for word that Grant has done what he was supposed to do, which is corner and capture Lee's army. And he's away from Washington for an awful long time. And towards the end of this, there's some emergencies that arise that he has to deal with.
CONAN: We're talking with Noah Andre Trudeau, the Civil War historian and former staff member here at National Public Radio. 800-989-8255, if you can help him with his quest for information about the last couple or three weeks of Abraham Lincoln's war. Email: email@example.com. And let's start with Molly, Molly with us from Providence in Rhode Island.
MOLLY: Hi. Hi. Nice to talk to you guys. I was just driving and I heard the comment about shaking Lincoln's hand and it made remember when I was a girl, we had a letter and an original photo of my great, great, great uncle, James Tennyson Cook(ph) - he's from Toledo, Ohio, and he served in the Union army, and we have a whole sack of typed letters (unintelligible) letter, and he talks about shaking Lincoln's hand in the hospital of Virginia.
MOLLY: Yeah. It was really cool. I was really proud. When I was a little kid I did a school report on it, but he - a little girl wrote to him in the hospital and he wrote back to her saying that he shook his hand, and he wrote his brother about it also, that was also in the army. And he lost an eye and had a glass eye, and you can see it in (unintelligible) photo...
MOLLY: ...that we have. And I just thought it was really cool.
CONAN: And do you have a copying machine handy?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOLLY: I'll have to talk to my dad about it because my dad is a real Civil War buff, and he probably has it at home. But yeah, we have - definitely he can get in touch with you and send in whatever he finds. We have a whole file.
TRUDEAU: Yeah. Go to the TALK OF THE NATION website, and they'lll help you find me.
CONAN: Molly, thanks...
MOLLY: But it's really neat to hear about your book, and I'm sure he'll be interested to read it.
TRUDEAU: And thank you. That's a wonderful story.
MOLLY: Yeah. Thank you.
CONAN: So there's a lead. We're talking with Noah Andre Trudeau, an award-winning Civil War historian. His latest book, "Robert E. Lee: Lessons in Leadership." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.
And let's go next to Shay(ph), and Shay is with us from Miami.
SHAY: Hi there. Regarding the search for documents, my great, great Uncle Humphrey was a soldier in the Civil War - well, actually he was an officer in the Civil War. And he had come through the University of Washington, because at that time it wasn't the University of Washington and Lee. Robert E. Lee was actually his mentor there and gave him the stipend to live. And I know that when I went to go read my great, great uncle's journals, they - the originals of those journals were contained at Washington and Lee University's rare archive department within their library system. And when I went in into this vacuum-sealed room...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SHAY: ...not only were my uncle's original journals there, but there was volume upon volume of other, you know, people within that area having donated archival historical documents. So I think that that might be - if you haven't already, it would be a place for you to visit and to check and see if there weren't some references to Lincoln's visit in those archives.
CONAN: Have you been to that vault?
TRUDEAU: No, I haven't. It's a good tip. Thank you.
SHAY: It might work.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Shay.
CONAN: Here's an email from Michael: Growing up and educated in Catholic schools, I was taught that had Lincoln lived, Reconstruction would have been much different, much more successful, much more convivial, et cetera. But my teachers were never specific about what Lincoln would have done to make it so. What does your author think? And of course quite a contrast between Lincoln and his vice president and successor, Mr. Johnson.
TRUDEAU: Well, Lincoln, though, would have faced some of the same problems Johnson had; that is, once the South got over the shock of losing the war, there really was a widespread effort to reinstitute the South the way it was before the war. And I think Lincoln would have had as hard a time as Johnson, even Grant wound up having, in terms of trying to, you know, change really a fundamental sense of this country.
I mean, the racism that was prevalent in this country was almost to the extent of a religion, is that people just accepted it as something that was part of the normal flow of things. And to change that whole culture, it was more than one man, I think, could have accomplished. Clearly, though, Lincoln was better positioned as a negotiator, as a compromiser, as a...
CONAN: But not to put too fine a point, he's regarded as the best president in American history, his successor regarded as his worst.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: So he might have done a little better.
TRUDEAU: Might have.
CONAN: Might have. Anyway, let's see if we can go...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: ...this is Leonard. Leonard with us from Richmond, California.
LEONARD: Yes. Yeah. I have this – of course I'm blind now, so it's been a while since I looked at this paper I have, but it was from Jefferson Davis ordering something for his troops.
CONAN: Ordering something for his soup?
LEONARD: His troops.
CONAN: Oh, his troops.
LEONARD: His troops.
CONAN: Forgive me. I misheard.
LEONARD: Yeah. It's a piece of paper. It's about, oh, about four inches by five inches. It's like he was trying to order something, but his name is on there(ph), Jefferson Davis.
CONAN: That sounds like about an index card size. And Leonard - that's unlikely to bear on the particular search, Andy, that you're interested in. But if people have documents of that sort, what should they do with them?
TRUDEAU: Well, either it's going to be part of a family heritage or you want to go to a document dealer, if you're interested in trying to sell it.
LEONARD: Also - are you there?
LEONARD: You know, like in 18th century, I've forgotten who the president is on this other piece of paper, but it was a letter from the presidential office sending an ambassador in the 18th century to (unintelligible) as an ambassador to them over there. I've got that piece of paper. It's about eight and a half by 11; it's a big sheet on this unusual paper. It's not the regular paper, you know?
TRUDEAU: Well, what's your intention to do with them? What do you want to do with them?
LEONARD: I don't know. At one time I was going to sell it and I just lost interest, so I've got it in the drawer somewhere up there. I've gone blind now, so I'll have to have someone search for it, but I've got it here.
CONAN: Well, have somebody ferret that out, and I think you'll find there'll be some interest in it.
LEONARD: I hope so because I tried to sell it at first, and then I lost interest and so I just put it away.
CONAN: Well, good luck with that.
LEONARD: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks, Leonard. We got an email from - this is - I'm not sure where who it's from. Fort Monroe, not in North Virginia, right here in Hampton Roads, across the river from the home of the Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk. So all right, if that's accurate. Let's - in the meantime, as you go through this period of, well, unknown period in Abraham Lincoln's life - it's hard to imagine that - what do you hope to find?
TRUDEAU: Clues more to what he saw, what his mood was, how he treated people, even just to know where he was. I mean, there's whole chunks of his day where we really don't know where he was or what he was doing. Thinking about what he might have been looking at might help you think about what he might have been pondering. And so tracing his movements, understanding maybe what wheels were turning in that mind.
CONAN: No detail too small.
CONAN: Andre Trudeau, thanks very much and good luck.
TRUDEAU: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Andy Trudeau, an award-winning Civil War historian, under the name Noah Andre Trudeau. His latest, "Robert E. Lee: Lessons in Leadership." If you have family records or other materials that might help Andy on his mission, the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We've also posted that at our website, npr.org. He joined us here in Studio 3A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.