Great portrait of Abraham Lincoln, 1860

He still looks young and vaguely handsome in this print, published by New York’s Currier and Ives in May 1860.  With sensitive eyes dominating the placid, sad face, Lincoln looks every bit the affluent, successful lawyer, representing Chicago railroads and corporations as well as small-town neighbors and friends around his home in downstate Springfield, Illinois.

Lincoln that month had won a stunning victory, surprising the country by capturing the Republican nomination for President of the United States.  His name suddenly on the front page of every newspaper, people clamored to see his face.  And with TV, newsreels, and even mass-produced photographs still far in the future,  Currier and Ives easily could demand $1.50 to $3.00 apiece (about $75 in modern money) for a portrait like this, especially during a hot political season.

Lincoln had won the nomination in a three day, three ballot convention widely considered the most exciting in America up to that time.  It came complete with marching bands, fireworks, and a good-time carnival atmosphere that drew some 40,000 people to frontier Chicago.  Lincoln himself was considered a long-shot underdog.  By all appearances, the Republican nomination in 1860 had been locked up in advance by another candidate, William Seward, the New York former governor and United States Senator.

But Lincoln captured the prize with nerve, ambition, and brass tacks.  His team played the kind of hardball politics that usually made reformers cringe — packing the hall, planting rumors, trading for votes, manipulating seats, and the rest.  Still, it gave of one of the best presidents in American history.   (I try to capture the excitement of this story in my own new eBook Lincoln’s Convention: Chicago 1860, told mostly through the eyes of newspaper writers.)

His four years as President would not be kind to Abraham Lincoln.  By the time he arrived in Washington to take the oath as President on March 4, 1861, the country had already split apart.  Seven Southern states had bolted to form the Confederate States of America.  Lincoln would preside over a long, bloody Civil War that would cost the country billions of dollars in treasure and 600,000 deaths before the Union was restored and slavery abolished.  Lincoln would see his own son Willie die in the White House of typhoid fever at just 12 years old as his wife Mary Todd Lincoln edged closer to mental instability.  By the time John Wilkes Booth shot him in April 1865, Lincoln’s hair and beard would be largely grey, his face crisscrossed with lines and wrinkles.

But that was in the future in May 1860, as the handsome Illinois lawyer peered out from his Currier and Ives portrait at his moment of great achievement.  Abraham Lincoln always joked about his looks.   Accused once of dishonestly, he shot back “If I had two faces, do you think this is the one I’d be wearing.”  His face perhaps wasn’t a pretty one, but it was good one.      

BOOKS- The NEW YORK GOLD ROOM: Wall Street’s Big Gamble on the Civil War

Scene on the floor of the New York Gold Exchange or “Gold Room,” 1869.

In all American history since 1789, with its many financial booms and busts, only once has the United States Congress ever stepped in and closed down a major financial market in the middle of active trading, trying to stop speculation and cool prices. This took place in 1864 at one of the bloodiest points in the Civil War, prompted by a case of war profiteering in the extreme. It failed miserably. It’s target? The New York Gold Exchange, or Gold Room.

A British-born writer named Kinahan Cornwallis (1839-1917) witnessed this event while working in New York City as a reporter for the New York Herald.  We at Viral History Press LLC are proud now to bring you Kinahan’s account, first published in pamphlet form by A.S. Barnes & Company in 1879, as the first of a new series of eBooks called History Shorts / Original Voices, brief but compelling eye witness accounts of key events in American history.The NEW YORK GOLD ROOM: Wall Street’s Big Gamble on the Civil War, in Corwallis account of war profiteering run amok. 

Gold speculation never existed in the United States before January 1862. Weeks earlier, in December 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had decided to suspend the national gold standard, the legal right to convert paper money into gold coin or “specie,” as a step to help finance since the Civil War.  At the same time, Lincoln also asked Congress to float some $450 million in paper dollars and began borrowing heavily. His Treasury Department would sell over $2 billion in bonds by the end of the War, easily worth half-a-trillion in modern dollars.

These steps created a new dual-currency system in America, with two forms of money circulating side by side: paper “greenbacks” as legal tender for domestic debts and claims, and gold coin as the currency of the world, needed for foreign trade, tariffs, and custom duties.

A brisk gold trade arose along Wall Street in early 1862. Each Confederate military victory sent gold prices soaring and greenbacks plummeting. Speculators, stock traders, rebel and Union sympathizers, and Washington officials with access to battlefield news dominated the market, far outnumbering the bankers, exporters, importers, and other commercial gold users. Daily price fluctuations affected the national war effort, since rising gold prices directly eroded the value of the federal Treasury.

Bankers like Philadelphia’s Jay Cooke called the New York gold traders “General Lee’s left flank.” The New York Stock Exchange agreed; it considered gold trading disloyal and refused to allow it under its roof. This forced gold speculators to form a separate Gold Exchange on nearby William Street.

Gold prices spiked in June 1864 to $200 in paper — a full fifty percent devaluation of the nation’s paper currency — as General Ulysses Grant’s army sat stalled outside Petersburg, Virginia. Responding to public anger at the spectacle of Wall Street moneymen profiting off the bleak military stalemate, Congress passed the Gold Act, a statute designed to close the Gold Exchange immediately. To its surprise, however, closing the Exchange only made matters worse, encouraging hoarders and fueling a panic. The gold price skyrocketed by an additional $100, reaching almost $300 paper-to-gold, before frantic appeals from New York merchants convinced Congress to repeal the Gold Act and reopen the Exchange ten days later.

Only General William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in August 1864 finally broke the bull market and cooled the fire. When Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, the gold price sagged to $144, less than half its wartime high. It raises an age-old question: Which was worse: Over-speculation by the Wall Street gold traders, or Congress’ uninformed over-reaction that did far more harm than good?

For ease of reading, we have made minor edits and format changes, particularly shorter paragraphs and sub-headings, and added a few annotations to clarify historical context. Otherwise, we’ve left Kinahan Cornwallis’s text alone. We hope you enjoy this original voice from the 1870s.

Here, as an excerpt, is where Cornwallis describes what happened ton Wall Street the day after Congress stepped in and closed the Gold Room —

From The NEW YORK GOLD ROOM: Wall Street’s Big Gamble on the Civil War

But the effect of large issues of irredeemable paper was not thus easily to be legislated away by a mere enactment closing the regular market for the precious metal. …

The abolition of the Gold Room, involved in this unwise, not to say absurd law, was its worst feature, for it closed the door to competition among bona fide holders of coin, as well as among speculative sellers. The real holders of gold were thus isolated, and each individual of their number was free to ask whatever price he pleased for the metal. Every one naturally wanted the highest price obtainable, and there began a rise faster than ever in the Gold Room. Those who had to pay customs’ entries and foreign indebtedness became alarmed, and rushed to the offices of the bullion dealers in Wall street, to make their gold purchases at the going price, whatever that might be, fearing that it would soon be still higher. Those who had sold “short” were still more apprehensive of the future course of the premium, and in trying to “cover” their contracts accelerated the upward movement.

No quotations for gold were made on the Stock Exchange, or on the street, and purchasers had to run from office to office, inquiring the price at which holders were willing to sell. Leading merchants and bankers, who had urged upon Congress this prohibitory legislation, now wrote and telegraphed to Washington, imploring the repeal of the Gold bill.

The whole country was alarmed by the rocket-like ascent of the premium following its passage, and Congress, amazed and rebuked by the advance — gold having sold at 198 on the 20th of June, and at 250 before the end of the month¬ — repealed the bill on the 2d of July, and the bears began to breathe a little more freely. Sunday, and “the Fourth” followed, and on the morning of the 5th, the Gold Room was re-opened; but the tug of war had yet to come. [By late June 1864, General Grant’s advance had been stopped, and his Army settled into a siege around Petersburg, Virginia, just twenty-one miles south of Richmond, that would last until March 1865.]

Still another corner

The bulls were prepared to twist the “shorts,” and as the outstanding contracts for future delivery were large, they found it easy to control the floating supply of “cash” gold — that is the coin available for immediate delivery — and so force the bears to buy to make their deliveries, unless they preferred the alternative of borrowing at exorbitant rates each day, to keep their contracts good. The market was virtually cornered. The highest price on the 5th of July was 249. On the 6th, it had risen to 261 ½, on the 7th to 273, on the 8th to 276 ½. On the 9th it remained steady, and on Monday the 11th leaped up to 285.

The bears quivered with rage and excite¬ment, or abandoned the contest in despair. Gilpin’s News Room, at the corner of William street and Exchange Place — to which the gold market had been removed before this from the Coal Hole — was turned into a scene of tumult, vociferation, agony, and disorder, that might be likened, for want of a better illustration, to Pandemonium. Men who were losing thousands every hour, or every minute, were there, shouting themselves hoarse, their hands uplifted and their eyes roll¬ing in frenzy, while their countenances indicated that they we’re undergoing mental tortures colloquially described as equal to those of the damned. Others were there, emboldened by and wildly elated with their own success, and tempting fortune by testing their luck to the utmost, apparently believing with the poet, that-

‘He either fears his fate too much, Or his deserts are small,
Who dares not put it to the touch, To gain, or lose, it all.’

A surging, writhing mass of humanity shook the Gold Room, and the sound of many voices filled the air, while men with anxious and fevered faces rushed in and out of the clamorous confusion with a semi-frantic celerity such as might have been expected of them if their lives or fortunes had been dependent on the result of a moment. The din would rise and fall like the roar of a tempest, but every few minutes new men would rush in, and yell far above the storm, and then rush out again after executing their orders; and day after day the exciting drama of gold was repeated. Meanwhile the whole country looked on with apprehension.

The “Corner” — for such it may be termed — culminated on the 11th of July, and after the Gold Room had closed on that day, private transactions took place at still higher figures than any chronicled during the regular hours of busi¬ness, one of these, it was rumored, being at a price above 300. But although the market had reached “top,” it showed stubbornness in yielding. On the 19th of July, sales were made at 268 3/4, on the 6th of August at 261 3/4, and on the 2d of September at 254 1/2. By the end of that month, however, there was a decline to 191 ; yet so erratic was the course of speculation, that on the 9th of November the price touched 260 again.

On that day General [William Tecumseh] Sherman began his mem¬orable and triumphant march through Georgia to the coast, and gold never afterward reached that altitude, but on the whole steadily declined, until it sold at 125 in March 1866, in consequence of the successes of the Union armies, culminating in the overthrow of the rebellion.

If you enjoyed the excerpt, just click here to check out the full ebook on  

BOOKS — 1861: Civil War Awakening

Recently the Delmarva Review asked me to write a few words about the new book by Adam Goodheart, that focuses on the opening months of the Civil War.  Here’s what I came up with.  It’s in their new issue, just out this week:  

1861:  The Civil War Awakening
By Adam Goodheart
460 pages
Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Review by Ken Ackerman

For Civil War buffs, these are salad days.  With the 150th marking of the Great Conflict just begun, we can expect a happy great flood of top-notch books marking every step in the War.  1861: The Civil War Awakening is a good one, a tasty appetizer to the coming feast. 

Adam Goodheart, journalist and New York Times Civil War blogger, gives us not the great battles to come, but an appealing, human scale introduction to the people and country preparing to fight them.   He tells his story through portraits and panoramas, from Fort Sumter with its outnumbered Union defenders, to the first slaves to taste freedom at Virginia’s Fortress Monroe, saved by the clever strategy of its commanding general, lawyer-politician Benjamin Butler, who cuts the legal knot by declaring them enemy “contraband.”   We follow Elmer Ellsworth, creator of the Zouaves regiment, an early version of today’s military Special Forces, and the New York Fireman who volunteer for his.   We meet future president James A. Garfield as a young school teacher bringing a deep idealistic intellect to framing the North’s will to fight.  And many more.

Then there is Abraham Lincoln.  Goodheart gives us a Lincoln still wrestling with unprecedented crises, maligned by all sides until he finally finds his own authentic voice that July.

Adam Goodheart is a fine writer and a pleasure to read.  You will appreciate the future volumes on Gettysburg, Antietam, and the rest much more from having first learned the terrain through the lens of this evocative book.  

Civil War 150th anniversary — Quick Reality Check

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant (sitting third from right) with his staff at Cold Harbor, Virginia, where Grant would lose 7,000 soldiers killed or wounded in 20 minutes charging Robert E. Lee’s fortified Rebel lines in 1864.   Photo by Matthew Brady.  (Click on it for full size.)

It was exactly 150 years ago today that Rebel batteries in Charleston, South Carolina, under Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard began their 34-hour shelling of Fort Sumter, starting the Civil War.  And so today begins the great Civil War sesquicentennial, what promises to be a non-stop multiyear gluttonous cornucopia of nostalgia, merchandizing, and shameless political exploitation of easily the most interesting, dramatic, and genuinely important event in American history.  

Here at Viral History, we certainly plan to add voice to the chorus.  (How could we not?  All three of my Gilded Age books, Boss Tweed, Dark Horse, and The Gold Ring, start with the War.)   But before getting carried away in the merchandizing part, it’s worth remembering that the Civil War was also one of the deadliest, costliest, and most painful events in US history — accounting for more American deaths than any other War.   

President Lincoln and the Union Army prevailed, ending slavery for four million people, saving the Union, giving the land a “new birth of freedom” as Lincoln called it in his Gettysburg address.  Still, General Sherman put it best:  “War is hell,” even what we kid ourselves into calling a “good war” like this one.  

So I prefer to kick off this anniversary by thinking first of the fallen. 

Of the 1,556,000 souls who served in the Union Army from 1861 through 1865- 

         110,070 died in battle;
         250,152 died from disease or other non-combat causes; and
         275,175 were wounded.

Of the 1,082,000 souls who served in the  Confederate Army from 1861 through 1865–

           94,000 died in battle;
        164,000 died from disease, etc.; and                      
        100,000  were estimated as wounded.

That made total deaths of 618,222 and total wounded of 375,000, this at a time when the entire US population was barely 31 million.

There is no reliable count of civilians killed in the War, but any attempt to add them up quickly reaches into the tens of thousands.

The financial cost of the War, including both government outlays and property destruction, is estimated at about $7 billion (1860s dollars), or some $200 billion in modern money.

Add to this the hundreds of thousands of women made widows, children made orphans, men made armless or legless, towns laid waste, lives disrupted, families split, and the oceans of pain from wartime surgeries and separations.  The generation of Americans who fought the Civil War and then produced the great post-war industrial boom truly paid a heavier price for their patriotism than any other.

Here’s to them all.   Now let the re-enactments and the merchandizing begin….


Presidents Day warm-up 2: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Period drawing of Abraham Lincoln debating Stephen Douglas, 1858.

Presidents Day is still another week from now.  But here’s an early treat for those who can’t stand the wait: A great period sketch of Abraham Lincoln in one of his epic 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, both vying for that year’s Illinois US Senate seat, Lincoln as the Republican, Douglas, in incumbent, as the Democrat.

Lincoln would win the popular vote, but Douglas would win the seat.  State legislatures still picked US Senators back then, and the Illinois statehouse in 1858 still tipped Democratic.

Lincoln spoke so effectively in his 1858 debates with Douglas — there were seven altogether — that they helped make him a national figure.  Lincoln and Douglas would face each other again in 1860, this time as rival candidates for President on the eve of Civil War.  

Click on the image to make it full size and enjoy the stunning detail — the posture of the debaters, the banners, the faces in the crowd, the musical instruments of the brass band, the outdoor setting.   Could a photograph do nearly as well?

Portrait: Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, March 1861

Abraham Lincoln had little time to celebrate his inauguration as President of the United States on March 4, 1861. Already since his election the prior November, his country had crumbled. Seven states had seceded to form the Confederate States of America and inaugurated Jefferson Davis their president. War seemed likely. Lincoln himself literally had to sneak into Washington to avoid assassination plots. Soldiers guarded his every move. His former law partner Billy Herndon described Lincoln that day as “filled with gloomy forebodings of the future.”
Still, thirty thousand well wishers crammed into Washington for the swearing in that day. After a damp and cold morning, the sun broke through by the time Lincoln reached Capitol Hill. His inaugural speech, which he read while standing beneath the unfinished Capitol Dome, would be among his finest, and both the ceremony and the ball that night went off without a hitch.
The drawing here, a full-page panorama from Harper’s Weekly, shows Lincoln and outgoing President James Buchanan riding together to the ceremony, just reaching the foot of Capitol Hill. Buchanan tips his hat to the crowd. Click on the image to see it full size. Notice the double row of soldiers with bayonets lining the route, the cavalrymen leading the carriage. One soldier on a horse just behind the carriage holds a spyglass toward the crowd. Not seen here are the sharpshooters stationed in nearby windows and on rooftops, the soldiers patrolling side streets, and the additional infantrymen marching behind — all in case of trouble.
The pomp and ceremony seem so normal in this image, and give little sign of the carnage to come. Within a few months, war would come and, before it was over, over 600,000 soldiers North and South would die and countless thousands more would be crippled or maimed for life. But on this day, the transfer of power went smoothly, crowds could still cheer, politicians could still wave their hats, and people could still be happy.

Do you like a good forgery? Watch Abe Lincoln giving a talk.

Yes, that’s right. No, you really cannot trust anything you see on the Internet. Take a listen.

No microphones or movie cameras existed yet in 1862. But no matter. The technology today for doctoring old footage is still rough. It’s easy to spot a fake like this, and watching Lincoln’s lips move along with the voice is creepy. But over time, this software will improve and “reality” some day may become like just another flavor of ice cream or another type of TV show.

Beware, my historian friends. If Abe Lincoln can look at you in the eye and speak convincingly in what appears like his own voice and his own words, then how much weight will our skeptical, academic, scholarly works continue to carry in comparison?

Books I’ve Blurbed

Check out these recent titles, now in bookstores, that I had the pleasure to write advance blurbs for (which means, obviously, I liked them):
The Canary Sang but Couldn’t Fly: The Fatal Fall of Abe Reles, the Mobster Who Shattered Murder, Inc.’s Code of Silence by Edmunh Elmaleh

My blurb: “Elmaleh has brought fresh energy, a fresh point of view, and a flair for original research to this story, tracing its conspiracies in the best tradition of life mimicking film noir. This blank spot in New York’s underworld history deserves to be filled, and Elmaleh fills it.”

My blurb: “[An] intimate portrait of decline. Throughout, the contrast between the great President and his descendants—living lives of little social impact or public purpose—is crystal clear.”

The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln’s Thirty-Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America, by Roy Morris, Jr.

My Blurb: “[A] key addition to out understanding of antebellum America — the forces driving the nation to th brink — and a fine human drama.”

Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America by David A. Taylor
   My blurb: “This intimate portrait of the Writers’ Project, a gem of FDR’s New Deal, is a nostalgic journey through America in the Depression Era. Familiar faces dot every corner, young writers from Studs Terkel to Richard Wright, John Cheever to Ralph Ellison. It’s a journey well worth taking, a key formative moment in our literary common culture, well written and nicely researched.”

Rating George W. Bush

Before leaving C-SPAN’s poll of presidents, I need to get two more items off my chest. One is about Abraham Lincoln, the winner at #1. Can we please take off the rose-colored glasses and treat him like a real person? I will get to this in my next post.

The other is about George W. Bush. Let’s talk about him right now.

When I first saw the final C-SPAN list two days ago, I quickly noticed the difference between me and the group over GWB, and I wrote this:

Finally, there is George W. Bush. The C-SPAN group places him in the bottom ten at #36. I rated him even lower, as third worst at #41. This rating obviously is the most speculative of the bunch. We still don’t know the outcome of the wars Bush started and the economic cataclysms begun under his watch. But, to my mind, the potential long-term damage Bush has done to this country far out-paces the likes of a Warren Harding, Millard Fillmore, or Frankling Pierce. Unlike these other disappointments, George W. Bush was both bad AND consequential.

Let’s be clear. I enjoy revisionist history. In my book BOSS TWEED, I was happy to restore the reputation of America’s most corrupt pol ever, showing that Tweed, while stealing the City blind, was also a big-hearrted man who helped immigrants, built New York, and was victimized by unscrupulous “reformers.” But that didn’t mean be wasn’t corrupt.

It is no Liberal fad to say that George W. Bush was one of the worst presidents ever. Facts are stubborn things. Bush might be a sincere nice man who loves his family, but that doesn’t change the bottom line. How could the C-SPAN group rank him at #36? This son of priviledge is once again being let off the hook with a Gentleman’s C?

True, a rank of 36 is no compliment. It places Bush in the bottom 10, and nobody argues that the bottom two, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan, don’t thoroughly deserve those spots.

The difference between 3rd worst (my rank) and 7th worst (the C-SPAN group’s rank) may seem small, but at stake is the historical truth. The higher grade elevates Bush above four other Presidents who certainly had failures and fell far short of being role models, but who simply did too little in office to earn the bottom spots. Specifically:

  • Warren G. Harding (1921-1923), died in office from food poisoning, presided over the Teapot Dome scandal though not personally implicated. During his term, he stabilized the economy, pardoned Eugene V. Debs from prison, and started no wars.
  • William Henry Harrison (1841), died in office after 32 days. At 71 years old he gave a two-hour inaugural speech in a freezing snowstorm without a coat, possibly causing the cold that killed him — not too smart. But he wasn’t in office long enough to do harm;
  • Millard Fillmore (1850-1853), replaced President Zachary Taylor and filled the last 2 1/2 years of his term. He backed the Compromise of 1850 that delayed the Civil War by allowing enactment of the notorious Fugitive Slave Act;
  • Franklin Pierce (1853-1857), certainly no gem with a bad personality. He signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowing slavery to spread west. But he, too, was smaller than events arouond him.

George W. Bush was not a small President. He mattered. He was not mediocre. He was bad. The most important national challenge of our lifetimes, the attack of September 11, 2001, came on his watch. He made decisions that had consequences. The result was a string of disasters that is depressingly well known: two unfinished wars, a debt explosion, a financial collapse, a list of demoralized, ineffective Federal agencies, a sleazy re-election, inflamed wedge politics, the use of torture, the loss of global standing, and so on goes the list.

The C-SPAN group gave Bush bottom marks for Economic Management and International Relations, but it saved him from the cellar with C-level grades for three catch-all categories: “Crisis Leadership,” “Vision/ Agenda Setting,” and “Pursued Equal Justice for All.” I don’t buy it.
Ranking President Bush is speculative because the trail is still fresh. He just left office a few weeks ago, his wars are unfinished, his policies are still unfolding. Giving him a mediocre score may allow historians to keep their options open, to hedge their bets in case something in his legacy goes unexpectedly right. I think the record is clear enough to start him off at the near-bottom. If things go his way in the future, so be it.
Thanks for listening. –KenA