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Lincoln's Men: The President and His Private Secretaries Hardcover – February 3, 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This meticulous triple biography looks at Lincoln's three private secretaries, John Nicolay, John Hay and William O. Stoddard. Closer to Lincoln than almost anyone else, these trusted confidantes and advisers handled all of the president's correspondence, acted occasionally as spies and, between Nicolay and Hay, penned the most famous "authorized" biography of Lincoln. Though their experiences in Lincoln's administration cast a poignant, personable light on the great president's working life, Epstein's work is far from accessible. The level of detail regarding the three secretaries is exhaustive beyond the interest of anyone but devoted American history scholars. Author and historian Epstein (Lincoln and Whitman, The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage) has intimate knowledge of his subjects but little to drive the story beyond the chronological push of history; meandering from man to man, his narrative isn't cohesive enough to hook casual history readers. Though obsessive Lincoln enthusiasts in search of a new perspective may be fascinated, any number of Lincoln books will offer casual history buffs a more engaging examination.
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“Daniel Mark Epstein’s LINCOLN’S MEN is no book of dry facts and figures. Instead, it is an intimate portrait of Lincoln, so well-drawn that he seems to come alive on the page.” (Charleston Post & Courier)

“Epstein brings something of an outsider’s perspective to the hothouse world of Lincoln scholarship.” (New York Times Book Review)

Working at close quarters with Lincoln at the White House was an education in itself, as Daniel Mark Epstein observes” (Wall Street Journal)

“Sheds light on the remarkable young men who served at Lincoln’s side.” (Washington Times)

“Lincoln, like most presidents, worked long hours. Really, really long hours. So it makes sense the folks who knew him best—and who offer possibly the freshest perspective on his well-documented life—were the guys he worked with every day of his presidency.” (Chicago Tribune)

“This is not your typical work of history. Epstein, a poet, employs a dreamy, novelistic tone in describing these young men and their tormented boss.” (USA Today)

“A fresh view.” (Albuquerque Journal)

“Captures the lives of Lincoln’s secretaries” (BookPage)

“An insider’s view of the [Lincoln] presidency...Nicolay and Hay wrote the diaries Lincoln never did, witnessing key moments from enviable vantage points.” (Courier-Journal)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Smithsonian; 1St Edition edition (February 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006156544X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061565441
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,654,403 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Daniel Mark Epstein has written more than fifteen books of poetry, biography, and history, including Lincoln and Whitman, which received an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, named one of the top ten books of 2008 by the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Sun-Times. He lives in Baltimore.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have read quite a few Abraham Lincoln books recently on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth. Lincoln's Men: The President and His Private Secretaries by Daniel Mark Epstein is one of the most engaging of all the books I've read. Epstein also wrote The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage which was just reprinted in January 2009.

Most Lincoln books mention his private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. There was also a third secretary, William Stoddard, who gets less notice. But what most books fail to reveal is how important these men were to Lincoln and also, how close he was to them on a personal level. All three had a front row seat to history. In fact, Hay's diary has "become, arguably, the most important and eloquent source of information about Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War--apart from Lincoln's own writings." Hay and Nicolay actually lived on the second floor of the White House.

Both Nicolay and Hay followed Lincoln to Washington DC from Illinois. Nicolay was a journalist who started reading law with Lincoln in his late 20s. The younger Hay was a poet who was also studying the law. The two became fast friends. When Nicolay was tapped to be Lincoln's private secretary after his election, Nicolay convinced Lincoln to hire Hay as his assistant. In their jobs as private secretaries, they also served as Lincoln's emissaries, helped negotiate treaties, served as unofficial spies, handled the president's personal finances, transported confidential letters and messages, and served as his public relations men. Throughout Lincoln's presidency, all three secretaries wrote articles for various newspapers.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
John George Nicolay and John Hay and William Stoddard were Lincoln's secretaries, and their duties covered everything from handling the President's huge mail to herding the masses that had free access to the White House to handling the tempermental and infuriating Mrs. Lincoln to arranging the protocol at White House functions.

Incredibly, Nicolay was 27 years old when Lincoln took office, Hay was 23. and Stoddard was 26. The youth of these three men so close to the seat of power is mind-boggling to a modern reader. Nicolay was Bavarian-born and spoke with a Teutonic accent, not formally educated, but smart, and utterly loyal to the President. Hay went to Brown University, was a poet, and commanded respect even though he was just 5 feet 4 inches tall. Handsome, wily Stoddard was a journalist before he undertook his White House duties.

Part of Lincoln's genius was seeing into a man's character correctly. He sized up these three young men and entrusted them with enormous responsibilities. Although Stoddard was not above self-aggrandisement, he was invaluable to Lincoln as a sounding board for his speeches, and he was usually able to get along with the intensely volatile Mrs. Lincoln, a help to the beleaguered President. In contrast, Nicolay and Hay both detested Mary Lincoln, calling her the "Hellcat." Nicolay and Hay did not like Stoddard. But Lincoln was genuinely fond of all three men who were more his friends than employees, and it's evident that they gave him emotional ballast.

Because Abraham Lincoln has become larger than life, "Lincoln's Men" is refreshing in that the biography is written from the standpoint of the three young men.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A pleasantly written, intelligent book about the three principal personal secretaries to President Lincoln.

Mr. Epstein tells of the White House service of Nicolay, Hay and Stoddard and its effects on their respective private lives. While avoiding the overly academic, the author still provided this Lincoln reader with new insights on several important events, such as the change in vice-president for the second term. However, the focus, rightfully, is kept on the secretaries and their lives as influenced by the Civil War and their Tycoon.

John Hay is clearly the author's favorite, and for good reason. I suggest a future book by the accomplished Mr. Epstein be a new life biography of Mr. Hay, a young office secretary to President Lincoln who ended his own fascinating life as Secretary of State for President Theodore Roosevelt.
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Format: Hardcover
Daniel Epstein's well-researched and assembled biography, LINCOLN'S MEN (2009) examines the 16th President's momentous term of office primarily through the writings of his three private secretaries, quoting or summarizing parts of John Nicolay's personal letters, William Stoddard's memoirs and several notebook diaries of John Hay. In the latter case, Epstein even describes the actual appearance of intentional deletions in Hays' diary entries.

This author's eye for detail and choice of inclusions are what makes the book such a fine and informative read. Details here are perhaps found nowhere else but within the source material. Just some examples:

Union Col. Elmer Ellsworth's impressive Bowie knife with its 16" blade.
The layout of the White House's second floor, especially the rooms where Executive business was conducted, right down to locations of furniture and accoutrements, such as a bell-jarred mantel clock.
How Sec'y of War Edwin Stanton twirled a lock of his beard with a forefinger whenever he was agitated.
John Hays' remembrance of testing with Pres. Lincoln a new 7-shot Spencer repeating rifle, and their later visit to the National Observatory, where Lincoln gazed at the stars through a 600× telescope.
Stoddard's most valuable asset: his ability to get along with Mary Todd Lincoln. She despised Nicolay and Hay and the feeling was mutual; their name for the First Lady was "Hellcat."
A Sunday session with photographer Alexander Gardner that produced many now famous portraits. Lincoln chatted with Hay between poses, conversations that may have influenced his facial expressions captured for posterity on delicate glass plates.
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