Journalists may be the warp and woof of contemporary history, but if you pick at the threads too hard, the cloth can begin to unravel. This blog first poked at Noah Brooks on December 13, 2010 (by chance, the anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg), but for this week’s battle of Chancellorsville, 150th anniversary, the poking must continue.
The well-known and oft-cited comment by Lincoln, when learning of the Union disaster at Chancellorsville, is this: “My God! My God! What will the country say! What will the country say!”
That, at least, is what several good scholars have used. Michael Burlingame’s edition of Brooks’s wartime reports for the Sacramento Daily Union is called Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks (1998). He cannot quote Brooks quoting Lincoln in those words at the time, however, because Brooks did not record them for his newspaper during that terrible first week of May 1863. Instead, in a footnote (p. 247, n. 72), Professor Burlingame provides the quotation above, as “reported” by Brooks in his 1895 memoir, Washington in Lincoln’s Time.
Okay, just because one other senseless ‘quotation’ by Lincoln appeared in Brooks’s 1895 book (see the 2010 blog) does not mean that the whole book is invalid. But it makes one skeptical. David Herbert Donald, nonetheless, in his 1995 book Lincoln, also quoted the president (p. 436) as having said it the 1895 old-man-Brooks way. Donald even titled his chapter “What Will the Country Say!”
But Brooks himself aired a slightly different version of it, earlier. In Scribner’s Monthly for March 1878 (p. 674), he related how the president said this upon hearing the news from Chancellorsville:
“What will the country say? Oh, what will the country say?”
Note that it was a question in 1878, without any God involved. By 1895, Brooks had dropped the “Oh” and added “My God! My God!” and also changed the lament from a question to an exclamation. One popular battle history, Chancellorsville 1863 by Carl Smith (1998; p. 85), keeps the question mark, drops God, and adds the nonsense that Lincoln went on to liken the Confederate army to “ragamuffins.”
We cannot necessarily fault Brooks for failing to report Lincoln’s deep gloom to his wartime readers. Brooks got special access to the president because he was a good writer, wrote nice things about Mary Lincoln, and promoted the administration’s cause. Thus has it always been with journalists.
But this episode brings to mind Brooks’s July 1865 article-for-hire in Harper’s Weekly, three months after Lincoln’s death. As the nation continued to mourn the war and the assassination, Brooks wrote that Lincoln, on some unspecified date, moaned that “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.” (President Obama used a version of this dodgy quotation in his September 2012 convention speech, once again wearing the Lincolnian cloth without first asking a staffer to check its integrity.)
The “overwhelming conviction” diction is not Lincolnian. The phrases are not either. Brooks wrote for an imagined audience in July 1865, and again in March 1878, and then, once more with feeling, in 1895. But did he imagine some of it? All of it? Oh, my God, how little we truly know of Lincoln!