Richard Nisley

Lincoln's Confidant
History - American Released - Sep 29, 2019
Who was Abraham Lincoln? Who was the individual who wrote the brilliant Gettysburg Address, and the equally-brilliant Second Inaugural Address, who, earlier in his political career, wrote the nation-changing "House Divided" speech? Who, faced with a long and bloody civil war, addressed the South in his First Inaugural with these words: "We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passions may have strained, it shall not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of Union, when again touched, as they surely will be, by the better angels of our nature." Gifted as a writer of English prose, and possessed with a firm belief in man's innate goodness, Lincoln was no ordinary man.

The man who knew him best was his friend and confident Noah Brooks, who is the subject of a wonderful new book, by Wayne C. Temple, entitled "Lincoln's Confidant: The Life of Noah Brooks".

The first time Brooks saw Lincoln, in 1856, he was anything but favorably impressed. It was in Dixon, Illinois, where Lincoln had come to address a gathering of Republicans. As Brooks recalled later: "Almost everyone was disappointed at the personal appearance of Lincoln." Brooks described him as "sallow in complexion . . . with long arms hanging awkwardly . . . his small head covered with short dark hair brushed carefully back." This ill impression vanished once Lincoln opened his mouth to speak. "There was an irresistible force of logic, a clinching power or argument, and a manly disregard of everything like sophistry or claptrap, which could not fail to arrest the attention and favorably impress the most prejudiced mind."

The two encountered each other again, at various political events in Illinois, including at least one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. The two had much in common and became friends. Both had little formal education, both had tried and failed in business, both loved art and poetry and the theater, and both made a living as wordsmiths. Indeed, when Brooks followed Lincoln to Washington, he did so as a reporter for the Sacramento Daily Union. However, when Brooks arrived in the nation's capital, in 1862, he neglected to call on the President. This surprised Lincoln, who summoned Brooks to the White House: "Do you suppose I ever forget an old acquaintance?"

Thereafter Brooks became a regular guest at the White House, as he and the President became fast friends–with Brooks as possibly the closest and most trusted friend of Lincoln's White House years. All the while, Brooks continued to write about Lincoln and the Civil War. During his 31 months in Washington, he sent 258 dispatches to his Sacramento newspaper, many based on his conversations with Lincoln. These were later collected in "Lincoln Observed," a 1998 book edited by Michael Burlingame, who also wrote the introduction to "Lincoln's Confidant."

In the 20th century, Brooks' journalism and his memoir became vital sources for Lincoln scholars. Indeed, if you've read a Lincoln biography, you'll recognize a number of his observations in this book, including descriptions of Lincoln's personal appearance and his comments on Civil War battles, and on various Union Generals, from McLeland to Grant. For example, when Lincoln learned of the Union defeat at Chancellorsville, Brooks recorded his response: "Never, as long as I knew him, did he seem to be so broken, so dispirited, and so ghostlike. Clasping his hands behind his back, he walked up and down the room, saying, 'My God! My God! What will the country say! What will the country say!"

Brooks also was something of a sounding board for Lincoln, answering a number of his questions, particularly with nautical terms, of which Brooks was well familiar. For example, Lincoln once asked him what the difference was between a "bark" and a "boat"? As the son of New England shipbuilder, which Brooks was, this was an easy question. On other occasions, Brooks served as an unofficial naval aid to the President, providing answers that may have spared Lincoln much embarrassment, especially when dealing with the Navy.

Surrounded by his good friends, such as Brooks, the President managed to joke and forget his cares. The problem Lincoln faced is that everyone who knew him wanted a favor. "I never asked any favor of him, nor allowed myself to be the bearer of the requests of others," said Brooks.

When Lincoln attended the theater, he often took Brooks along as his companion. Lincoln's "theater-going was usually confined to occasions when Shakespeare's plays were being enacted," Brooks remarked, "for, although he enjoyed a deep hearty laugh, he was better pleased with the stately dignity, deep philosophy, and exalted poetry of Shakespeare than with anything that was to be found in more modern dramatic writings." From Books we learn that "Hamlet" was Lincoln's favorite play.

Brooks was also a favorite of Mrs. Lincoln's, and it's probable that he would have joined the presidential staff in 1865, succeeding the departing John Nicolay as Lincoln's personal secretary. The murder of Lincoln ended those plans, and Brooks returned to his home in central California.

The last time Brooks saw Lincoln was on April 14, 1865, on the White House driveway. Because of Brooks, we know the president's mood was upbeat as he departed for Ford's Theater: "Lincoln was unusually cheerful that evening, and never was more hopeful and buoyant concerning the condition of the country."

Back in California, as a newspaper editor, Brooks published the letters of Mark Twain that Twain later revised into "The Innocents Abroad" (1869). He also gave political economist Henry George his first big break, printing his articles when George was a young typesetter. And, too, he worked closely with Bret Harte, the writer who helped create the western as a popular genre. Eventually Brooks moved to back to the east coast to edit newspapers in New York and in New Jersey. He died in 1903, at the age of 72.

Brooks's account is probably as close as we'll ever get to knowing Abraham Lincoln, which makes this book highly worthwhile. While I read it, I had the two-volume "Lincoln: Speeches and Letters" at my side, as a handy reference.

The author Wayne C. Temple originally wrote the biography of Noah Brooks in 1956. As an unpublished doctoral thesis, it was difficult for non-scholars to obtain. That is no longer the case. At 220 pages, the book is not long. Despite its scholarly association, it is not a difficult read. If you're an admirer of Abraham Lincoln, as I am, it's a must read.

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