The Last Ordinary Day

Nov. 1, 1860

Seven score and 10 years ago, a little Pennsylvania town drowsed in the waning light of an Indian summer. Almost nothing had happened lately that the two local newspapers found worthy of more than a cursory mention. The fall harvest was in; grain prices held steady. A new ice cream parlor had opened in the Eagle Hotel on Chambersburg Street. Eight citizens had recently been married; eight others had died. It was an ordinary day in Gettysburg.

It was an ordinary day in America: one of the last such days for a very long time to come.

In dusty San Antonio, Colonel Robert E. Lee of the U.S. Army had just submitted a long report to Washington about recent skirmishes against marauding Comanches and Mexican banditti. In Louisiana, William Tecumseh Sherman was in the midst of a tedious week interviewing teenage applicants to the military academy where he served as superintendent. In Galena, Ill., passers-by might have seen a man in a shabby military greatcoat and slouch hat trudging to work that Thursday morning, as he did every weekday. He was Ulysses Grant, a middle-aged shop clerk in his family’s leather-goods store.

  
Even the most talked-about man in America was, in a certain sense, almost invisible — or at least inaudible.
 
On Nov. 1, less than a week before Election Day, citizens of Springfield, Ill., were invited to view a new portrait of Abraham Lincoln, just completed by a visiting artist and hung in the statehouse’s senate chamber. The likeness was said to be uncanny, but it was easy enough for viewers to reach their own conclusions, since the sitter could also be inspected in person in his office just across the hall. Politically, however, Lincoln was almost as inscrutable as the painted canvas. In keeping with longstanding tradition, he did not campaign at all that autumn; did not so much as deliver a single speech or grant a single interview to the press.
An ad for Lincoln & Herndon, attorneys at law.

Instead, Lincoln held court each day in his borrowed statehouse office, behind a desk piled high with gifts and souvenirs that supporters had sent him — including countless wooden knicknacks carved from bits and pieces of fence rails he had supposedly split in his youth. He shook hands with visitors, told funny stories, and, answered mail. Only one modest public statement from him appeared in the Illinois State Journal that morning: a small front-page ad, sandwiched between those for a dentist and a saddle-maker, offering the services of Lincoln & Herndon, attorneys at law.

Article in The New York Herald.

The future is always a tough thing to predict — and perhaps it was especially so on the first day of that eventful month. Take the oil painting of Lincoln, for example: it would be obsolete within weeks when its subject unexpectedly grew a beard. (The distraught portraitist tried to daub in whiskers after the fact, succeeding only in wrecking his masterpiece.) Or, on a grander scale, an article in the morning’s New York Herald, using recent census data to project the country’s growth over the next hundred years. By the late 20th century, it stated confidently, America’s population would grow to 300 million (pretty close to accurate), including 50 million slaves (a bit off). But, asked the author, could a nation comprising so many different people and their opinions remain intact for that long? Impossible.

Writing about the past can be almost as tricky. Particularly so when the subject is the Civil War, that famously unfinished conflict, with each week bringing fresh reports of skirmishes between the ideological rear guards of the Union and Confederate armies, still going at it with gusto.

In many senses, though, the Civil War is a writer’s — and reader’s — dream. The 1860s were an unprecedented moment for documentation: for gathering and preserving the details of passing events and the texture of ordinary life. Starting just a few years before the war, America was photographed, lithographed, bound between the covers of mass-circulation magazines, and reported by the very first generation of professional journalists.

Half a century ago, as the nation commemorated the war’s centennial, a scruffy young man from Minnesota walked into the New York Public Library and began scrolling through reels of old microfilm, reading newspapers published all over the country between 1855 and 1865. As Bob Dylan would recount in his memoir, “Chronicles: Volume 1,” he didn’t know what he was looking for, much less what he would find. He just immersed himself in that time: the fiery oratory, the political cartoons, the “weird mind philosophies turned on their heads,” the “epic, bearded characters.” But much later, he swore that this journey deep into the Civil War past became “the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write.”

In the months ahead, this part of the Disunion series will delve like Dylan into the sedimentary muck of history, into that age of unparalleled American splendor and squalor. Several times each week — aided in my research by two of my students at Washington College, Jim Schelberg and Kathy Thornton — I will write about something that happened precisely 150 years earlier. My subject may be as large as a national election or as small as a newspaper ad. I won’t be trying to draw a grand saga of the national conflict (much less searching for any all-encompassing templates). Instead, I’ll try to bring the reader, for a brief present moment, into a vanished moment of the past — and into a country both familiar and strange.

Sources:

The Compiler (Gettysburg, Pa.), Oct. 29, 1860; Adams Sentinel and General Advertiser (Gettysburg, Pa.), Oct. 31, 1860; Robert E. Lee to the Department of War, Oct. 30, 1860; William T. Sherman to Ellen Ewing Sherman, November 3, 1860; Jean Edward Smith, Grant; Brooks D. Simpson, “Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865″; Illinois State Journal, Nov. 1, 1860; Harold Holzer, “Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861″; Michael Burlingame, “Abraham Lincoln: A Life”; New York Herald, Nov. 1, 1860; Bob Dylan, “Chronicles: Volume 1.”

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

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Full article and photos: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/the-last-ordinary-day/