A Fabricating Tyrant?: On Elizabeth Mitchell’s “Lincoln’s Lie”

January 7, 2021   •   By Evan Kutzler

Lincoln’s Lie

Elizabeth Mitchell

MID-19TH-CENTURY AMERICANS couldn’t afford to be naïve. A market revolution had empowered a new breed of con artists and made the Latin phrase caveat emptor more important than ever. Counterfeit money abounded alongside handbooks for detecting fraudulent bills. Phineas Taylor “P. T.” Barnum’s exhibits — from Joice Heth to the Feejee Mermaid — exploited not only pseudoscientific and racist ideas but also a habit of disbelief suspension as entertainment.


The Civil War brought more confusion. The telegraph allowed instantaneous communication, and wartime slang borrowed from this new technology to describe the viral spread of fact and fiction. This imaginary grapevine telegraph carried news about emancipation to enslaved men, women, and children in the so-called Confederacy. It also brought rumors from camps, battlefields, remote prisons, and the home front, a cacophony not unlike a Barnum’s museum. Confederate soldiers, determined to die for their cause, refused to believe written and verbal reports of defeat.


The Gold Hoax at the center of Lincoln’s Lie: A True Civil War Caper Through Fake News, Wall Street, and the White House exemplified the uncertainty of this era and the challenge of controlling misinformation. When a teenager delivered a fraudulent presidential proclamation about a new draft of 400,000 more Union soldiers at 3:30 a.m. on May 18, 1864, newspaper night managers quickly decided whether to publish it or not. Only two newspapers — the New York Journal of Commerce and the New York World — took the bait. “Every New Yorker was sure to tremble at a renewal of the draft,” Elizabeth Mitchell writes, “given that Lincoln’s first draft, less than a year before, had turned New York’s streets into blood-soaked, charred avenues of terror when the citizenry rebelled.” The four-day draft riots in July 1863 left more than 100 people dead and intensified distrust between the city’s Irish population and the wartime government.


The Lincoln administration went into harsh debunking mode almost as soon as the papers hit the streets. Union soldiers occupied telegraph and newspaper offices, imprisoning those inside without formal chargers. Lincoln’s Lie recovers the real fear and anger of innocent people who became swept up in these arrests.


Mitchell narrates in gripping detail the detective work that uncloaked journalists Joseph Howard Jr. and Francis A. Mallison as the hoaxers. The traditional explanation contends that they hoped to spook stock markets and profit when investors sought safety in gold. Mitchell probes further and argues that the simple explanation downplays the likelihood of broader collusion. Lincoln had signed a real order for 300,000 more troops the evening before the fraudulent proclamation appeared, and Mitchell asks, “What exactly was false other than Lincoln’s voice in the matter?” The lie in Lincoln’s Lie is not only the bogus proclamation but also Lincoln’s denial that a new draft was in the works.


In Mitchell’s reading of the sources, Lincoln’s real concern was protecting confidential information. “He seemed to have suspected someone leaked the document,” Mitchell writes, “but he was pretending the papers invented it.” Using circumstantial evidence, Mitchell proposes that Mary Todd Lincoln handed over the goods. Senate investigators had suspected her of secretly releasing a presidential speech two years earlier. Howard enjoyed White House access and kept a friendship with Mary Todd throughout the Civil War.


Debt served as a possible motive for the first lady. “Like the rest of the socially mobile set during the Civil War,” Mitchell writes, “Mary Todd consumed luxuries well beyond her means.” By 1864, she owed creditors as much as $27,000 — more than the president’s annual salary. Mitchell’s interpretation of Mary Todd as a co-conspirator, while plausible, contains more speculation than hard evidence. Like a trip to Barnum’s museum, it is provocative but not convincing.


Alongside this true crime–style account of the Gold Hoax, Mitchell convincingly depicts Lincoln as a media-savvy politician throughout his career. In 1842, Lincoln — and Mary Todd — dabbled in anonymous bullying that almost led to a duel between the future president and Illinois auditor James Shields. During the election of 1860, candidate Lincoln secretly purchased a German-language newspaper to win over ethnic voters. Throughout his presidency, Lincoln’s cabinet placed favorable articles in newspapers and rewarded loyal journalists. The US government also censored telegraph messages, and Lincoln spent so much time in the telegraph office that he sometimes slept there.


Lincoln’s fixation on newspapers and telegraphs came at a cost to a free press and civil liberties. Here Mitchell too readily adopts the criticisms of Lincoln first expressed by northern Democrats during the Civil War: “Sympathizers of Lincoln felt that the war’s escalation had gradually forced him to a hard line on the press as a way to control all conduits of potential espionage,” Mitchell explains. “But his battle against freedom of speech began in the earliest days of his presidency, starting in 1861 when he ordered the seizure of all the telegraph messages in New York.”


Mitchell’s narrative portrays the Lincoln administration as cynical about the limits of executive power. Callous US soldiers threatened to murder telegraph and newspaper employees who resisted the disruption of their work. Describing the possible prosecution of journalists by military commission, Mitchell writes, “President Lincoln intended to arrest newspaper editors — famous ones at that, pillars of the community — and subject them to a potentially fatal punishment.” This goes too far. While historians have long criticized Lincoln’s policies on habeas corpus and the press, there is no evidence that the president made moves to shoot or hang his critics.


In imagining Lincoln as a fabricating tyrant in Lincoln’s Lie, it is Mitchell who plays, at times, fast and loose with the truth. The author describes how Lincoln “ordered an execution of a citizen he deemed a traitor.” Yet Mitchell’s own sources show a different story: Nathaniel Gordon, the “citizen” whom Lincoln “deemed a traitor,” was an international slave trader. A US ship captured Gordon in 1860 with a cargo of 867 Africans (mostly children). Thirty enslaved peopled had died since Gordon embarked from the Congo River. A federal court convicted Gordon of piracy and sentenced him to death by hanging. Lincoln gave the condemned man a two-week stay of execution, but he chose not to commute the sentence.


This misinterpretation is an egregious example of the broader issue of contextualization in Lincoln’s Lie. But it is far from the only one. Early mentions of Lincoln crossing the “segregation line” from the free states and into the “segregated South” are anachronistic regional categories at best or poor euphemisms for slavery at worst. Either way, these botches do not build confidence that the author knows the Civil War era. Aside from a handful of scholarly books in the endnotes, Mitchell shows little familiarity with literature on Lincoln, imprisonment, or 19th-century journalism.


This lack of familiarity with the existing literature, combined with an overreliance on contemporary newspaper accounts, makes Mitchell’s break from broad scholarly consensus almost inevitable. She is correct, for example, that Fort Lafayette, where those arrested in the Gold Hoax were imprisoned, was not a pleasant place to live — wartime critics of the Lincoln administration described it as the “American Bastille.” But missing from the vivid (and probably accurate) description of hard living inside Fort Lafayette are the similar experiences of hundreds of thousands of imprisoned soldiers and civilians elsewhere during the Civil War. Despite lurid accounts of Fort Lafayette, no prisoners died there between May and September 1864 when the instigators of the Gold Hoax were confined. During those same months, about 9,000 prisoners died at Andersonville.


At its best, Lincoln’s Lie takes a minor episode in the middle of the American Civil War and expands it into a provocative new narrative. Mitchell’s meditation on Mary Todd’s involvement, while stretching the limits of historical evidence, offers an imaginative angle for consideration. Unfortunately, Lincoln’s Lie misses in trying to make the Gold Hoax an exceptional moment in the Civil War. It does not offer a compelling new look at Lincoln or his administration’s (mis)use of power.


This account comes closest to historical significance in Mitchell’s gestures to the uncertainty of the era. The Civil War came amid great cultural and technological change, and it generated great demand to make sense of changing and confusing circumstances. The Gold Hoax represents this challenge of discerning truth from fiction — even 155 years later — in a world of newspapers, instantaneous communication, and war.


¤


Evan Kutzler is an assistant professor of history at Georgia Southwestern State University.