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"History Time": 'A peaceable man' meets Lincoln

Posted by Marjorie Nesin  April 20, 2011 10:00 AM

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National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the National Gallery of Art; gift of the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, 1942

Nathaniel Hawthorne sat for this portrait during his visit to Washington in 1862.

“By and by there was a little stir on the staircase and in the passage-way, and in lounged a tall, loose-jointed figure, of an exaggerated Yankee port and demeanor, whom (as being about the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable) it was impossible not to recognize as Uncle Abe.”

In March 1862, Nathaniel Hawthorne followed signs of spring southward, ready to “clip a little margin off the five months’ winter, during which there is nothing genial in New England save the fireside.” He intended to see a bit of the “dread” war himself, since merely reading about it, he said, was “irksome.”

Traveling with a companion, they made their way through landscapes increasingly free of the grip of dark and cold, towards what he imagined was “all … delights of early summer.”

They reached Washington just after the battle between the Monitor and Merrimack and observed General McClellan reviewing his troops. To obtain an ad-hoc audience with the president, Hawthorne joined a small delegation from a Massachusetts whip-factory which presented Lincoln with an elaborately decorated whip.

Hawthorne was impressed by how deftly the president handled a hint that he whip “Rebels” with it; Lincoln accepted the gift as an “emblem of peace, not punishment.”

One result of this trip was an unsigned essay, written by “a peaceable man.” Scholars are familiar with the essay, published in the July 1862 Atlantic. Hawthorne wrote it in such a way that his critique of war (which might have been construed as treasonous) and his ironic understanding of human nature were skillfully woven into what is ostensibly a genial account. Clever literary devices allowed him to convey his message without directly confrontational language.

Since some of his descriptions, including those of Lincoln, were deemed “irreverent” or otherwise troublesome, Hawthorne satirically invented an editorial persona who commented in footnotes to the text. He also modified certain passages before publication. Such tactics in 1862 highlighted the delicate position Hawthorne occupied in proclaiming truth, as he saw it, in wartime. He was conscious of his audience and its capacity for such truths.

“There is no describing his lengthy awkwardness, nor the uncouthness of his movement….  If put to guess his calling and livelihood, I should have taken him for a country schoolmaster…. He was dressed in a rusty black frock-coat and pantaloons, unbrushed ... the suit had adapted itself to the curves and angularities of his figure, and had grown to be an outer skin of the man. He had shabby slippers on his feet. His hair was black, still unmixed with gray, stiff, somewhat bushy, and had apparently been acquainted with neither brush nor comb that morning….”

Hawthorne's attitude towards the Civil War was complicated. He saw, clearly, that war fever thrust people into an “unnatural state.”  

War would change American society forever, and he did not trust that the changes would be overwhelmingly positive. He understood arguments on all sides of the conflict and was willing to express that understanding. This, too, could be construed as disloyal to “the Union.”

“The whole physiognomy is … coarse … but, withal, it is redeemed, illuminated, softened, and brightened by a kindly though serious look out of his eyes…. I like this sallow, queer, sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it…. His manner towards us was wholly without pretence, but yet had a kind of natural dignity…”

Hawthorne also visited Harper’s Ferry. There he saw a group of “Rebels” imprisoned in the “old engine-house, rusty and shabby,” where the  “blood-stained fanatic” John Brown had also been imprisoned before his execution.

Hawthorne observed, “It is my belief that not a single bumpkin of them all …  had the remotest comprehension of what they had been fighting for, or how they had deserved to be shut up in that dreary hole…."

Hawthorne’s keen observations on the fundamental lack of understanding by common soldiers about the mechanisms hurling them into the jaws of death were equalled by descriptions of “hundreds of commonplace young men,” milling about Washington. They had, he said, “found out for themselves, that, when Nature gives a young man no other utilizable faculty, she must be understood as intending him for a soldier.”

Hardly incitements to enlist in a holy war.

Observing Lincoln, Hawthorne proved equally astute. With words deemed to be insufficiently respectful to be published, he wrote some of his most moving passages about meeting Lincoln in 1862.

“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.”

What dangers lurk in truth! A “peaceable man” writing “chiefly about war” confirms the intuition of integrity–in Hawthorne’s time, fully as in ours.

Author’s note: I am indebted to the work of several scholars, including James Bense, Randall Stewart, and Randall Fuller. Hawthorne’s descriptions of Lincoln, etc., are taken from his essay, “Chiefly About War-Matters. By A Peaceable Man.”

Musician, educator and lecturer, Maggi Smith-Dalton is the president of the Salem History Society and the author of “Stories and Shadows from Salem’s Past: Naumkeag Notations” (The History Press, 2010). She and her husband, Jim Dalton, are co-authoring a book on music in Salem's history. Reach her at http://singingstring.org. For information on joining the Salem History Society, go to http://salemhistorysociety.org.


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Photograph from the main eastern theater of the war, Battle of Antietam, September-October 1862.

Antietam, Md. President Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan in the general's tent



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