If one had to describe Lincoln’s White House: The People’s House in Wartime, one could easily call it a string of pearls encased in a Tiffany box. It is more than just a mere delight. It is a treasure that belongs in every Lincoln lover’s library.
James B. Conroy, the author of this gem, is not an historian by profession, or even a writer by profession. He is an attorney, but we do forgive him. He has managed to put together an eminently well-constructed book. Lawyers are usually excellent at the well-constructed. Conroy is also readable, detailing the ins and outs of the White House for four years of Civil War, the Lincolns, and Washington DC in general.
He has included drawings of the main and second floor of the White House as it was in 1861, which adds to the understanding of the book’s thrust. The better to visualize the areas upstairs (in those days before the West Wing) – where the President’s office was, where the waiting room was, usually filled with office and clemency seekers; the connection to his secretaries’ office; even the shared bedroom of his secretaries, Nicolay and Hay – and the long hall from the President’s Bedroom where Lincoln was said to wander from time to time, even in his nightshirt, to share a story with his secretaries, who he came to regard as family.
The book flows effortlessly (and effortlessness always results from very hard work!) from the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency – even prior, with a walk-through and goodbye from President Buchanan. It introduces the House, its modest staff, its critical personae, and the facts of the matter: directing and managing the “irrepressible conflict” that was tearing the country apart, and likely unavoidable. Conroy discusses the myriad of visitors, mostly the “pigs at the teats” clamoring for office, and later, the heart-wrenching supplicants, sometimes on their knees, seeking pardons for their miscreant loved ones. It is usually said that the bulk of Lincoln’s wartime correspondence was devoted to clemency issues.
Mary Lincoln, of course, rates more than just passing interest, or even the chapter Conroy assigns to her on her own. She had inherited a structure sorely in need of refurbishing. Little had been done since the mid 1840s, and the White House always gets a lot of wear and tear. Mrs. L. was never a popular First Lady, partly due to the War, partly due to her Southern upbringing, partly due to her well-known shopping habits and poor choices of companions, and partly due to her difficult personality. It is up to the reader to determine which “partly” belongs to which paragraph. Mostly, however, she tried her best.
The author relies heavily on the writings (public and private) of Lincoln’s young (under thirty) secretaries: John G. Nicolay, John Hay, and a lesser known William O. Stoddard. All of them were excellent diarists/writers, although Hay is the one who sparkles. They not only described the “what’s and when’s and where’s” but added in a lot of their own opinions as to the why’s. That in itself adds to the wonderful readability.
Who knew, for instance, that while Mary Lincoln was in the Conservatory nearly every day, if Lincoln passed through once a year, it was a lot. While it is fairly well known that the 16th President had been ill with smallpox at the time of his Gettysburg speech, it is a revelation how really sick he was – and that calling it “variola,” a mild form of the disease, was more a public relations waffle (partly to ease Mrs. Lincoln’s anxieties). These are personal tidbits that make the occupants real, honest-to-goodness, easy to care about people, rather than the stuffy almanac facts that history students are force-fed and generally turned off by.
Conroy has written his own personal “care-about” paragraph in his introduction (and I always read introductions, since it offers insights into the author’s thinking). He tells his own anecdote about a long-ago professor challenging him to “engage with the past and its purpose” and state his own purpose. Authors (including history writers) do have the liberty and responsibility of a point of view, whether you agree with it or not.
Lincoln’s White House does have a purpose, and it is told well. In Conroy’s hands, the House itself becomes its own main character, with its smells, its bones, its ghosts, its visitors, its politics and arguments and its towering sense of time, place, history, tradition and, hopefully, lessons.
The book is wonderful. Get it. Read it. Treasure it!
Lincoln’s White House: The People’s House in Wartime
By James B. Conroy
Rowman and Littlefield, 2016
Available HC/Paper ad e-book