“Lincoln’s Boys” examines the president’s secretaries

“Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image” by Joshua Zeitz; Viking (400 pages, $29.95)

Sometimes political careers are born of chance.

John Nicolay and John Hay were two young men working in Springfield, Ill., when they became involved with the political life of Abraham Lincoln before his 1860 U.S. presidential campaign. Tireless and smart, the friends, still in their 20s, proved themselves indispensable to Lincoln, who brought them along with him to the White House as his personal secretaries — in effect, the president’s gatekeepers.

In his new book, “Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image,” author Joshua Zeitz skillfully recounts what were heady days for Nicolay and Hay, even as they were tragic days for the nation.

The friends lived in the White House and wielded considerable power as advisers and conduits of Lincoln’s orders. Over the four years of the Lincoln presidency, they had as good a view of the unfolding Civil War battles — both military and political — as Lincoln himself.

And after the assassination, the friends tasked themselves with chronicling Lincoln’s life, leading to publication of the 10-volume”Lincoln: A History.” The series and the related “Abraham Lincoln: Complete Works” co-edited by the two men remain part of the foundation for how modern Americans view the nation’s 16th president. Or, as Zeitz phrases it, the creation of the “Lincoln Memorial Lincoln.”

Zeitz builds his book on known sources and known histories but turns the glass a bit to give us a different view of an already deeply mined era.

So this isn’t a book of revelations but a series of interconnected stories about friendship, political and economic forces that made war over the morality of slavery and about the transformation of personal experience and written records into definitive history.

Those were remarkable days involving remarkable people, and Zeitz does an admirable job bringing them to life, from the boredom Hay felt in returning to Illinois after the excitement of studying at Providence, R.I.’s Brown University to the swirl of activity in the Lincoln White House as the war unfolded to the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination.

The “boys” were rewarded for their work and loyalty. Each was given a diplomatic post in Lincoln’s second term — both in Paris — but Lincoln was killed before they left the U.S.; Hay, in fact, was at Lincoln’s bedside when he died. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, honored the appointments and the friends headed for Europe before returning in 1889 to pursue careers beyond Lincoln’s shadow.

And, Zeitz writes, given Nicolay and Hay’s catbird seat for watching it all unfold, it stands to reason that the history of Lincoln they wrote more than a century ago remains a key source for historians. Now that’s a legacy.

Martelle is the author of “The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man’s Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones,” due out in May.


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