Author Interview--Carl Guarneri (Lincoln's Informer)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Carl J. Guarneri to talk about his new book Lincoln’s Informer: Charles A. Dana and the Inside Story of the Civil War, published by the University Press of Kansas. (also Available here)
Carl Guarneri is Professor of History at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, CA. Among his publications are The Utopian Alternative (1991), America Compared: American History in International Perspective (1997, 2005), and America in the World: United States History in Global Context (2007).

Carl, to start, could you tell us how you came to write a biography of Charles A. Dana and what you are arguing in the book?

CJG: Lincoln’s Informer is an attempt to document Dana’s multi-faceted Civil War involvements and to use them to present a panorama of the North’s war.  I wrote about Dana’s experience at the Brook Farm commune and the antebellum utopian socialist movement in my first book, The Utopian Alternative (Cornell University Press, 1991). At that point I learned that Dana transitioned in the next decade into the free-soil antislavery movement, and after that had a remarkable—and understudied—Civil War career. Dana makes cameo appearances in many Civil War books, from campaign studies to biographies of Horace Greeley, Edwin Stanton, and U.S. Grant; but no one had researched and brought together all his wartime activities at the New York Tribune and then on the Union battlefront and in the War Department at Washington. Over the years this project simmered on my back burner as I explored globally-informed approaches to American history, but I was fortunate that when I returned to Dana with full attention I could draw upon much excellent Civil War scholarship, and many digitized manuscript and newspaper sources, that had appeared in the interim.
Dana’s memoirs,
Recollections of the Civil War (1898), have been quoted and cited by many historians, but they were actually pieced together on assignment by the muckraker Ida Tarbell. Her ghostwriting, I discovered, was not only incomplete but riddled with errors. I set out to get the record straight, but also to tell a great story. It’s a Civil War story, I want to stress, not a full-scale biography of Dana. For three decades after the war Dana ran his own sparkling and hard-hitting Gilded Age paper, the New York Sun, and at least for historians of journalism that is his best claim to remembrance. I cover that period in the book’s last chapter and epilogue, but only as it related to Reconstruction and remembrance of the war.
As Stanton and Lincoln’s roaming troubleshooter during the war, Dana was the kind of behind-the-scenes operator that a historical novelist might invent. My friends kept reminding me that he bore a certain resemblance to a fictional character like Forrest Gump who just happened to be present at a series of momentous historical events. But Dana was real, he was there on purpose, and he did more than observe history; he made it. His wartime career clarifies in the telling many controversies about specific Civil War battles, generals, and home front episodes, from the making of General Grant to the demise of General Rosecrans, from Lincoln administration politics to the undercover activities of Union spies and the contraband trade.  

Although the book is meant to take the form of a dramatic narrative rather than a sustained argument, it suggests some new answers to perennial Civil War questions about military strategy, patronage, emancipation, and Lincoln’s assassination. Its cumulative effect is to highlight Dana’s substantial, although controversial, contribution to Union victory, and more generally, the indispensable role that lesser-known figures--agents, bureau chiefs, and officers in the War Department—played in sustaining the Union’s massive war effort. Fifty years ago, Allan Nevins described the momentous transition from an “improvised war” to an “organized war” that enabled the Union to prevail. Starting out in the war’s second year, Stanton, Dana, and other dynamic, no-nonsense administrators marshaled the North’s superior resources to win what became a long war of attrition against the Confederacy. Dana’s career show how much this organizing was actually improvised, and how effectively it brought the war to its decisive end.

You mention Tarbell’s Dana “memoir” already and it struck me early on in the book that your source base must have been quite challenging since Dana was not the document hoarder that we historians love so much, but rather the waste-basket type. How difficult was it locating your sources to tell his Civil War story?

CJG: In some ways it was not difficult at all, but in others quite challenging. The bulk of the New York Tribune’s editorials were not signed, and it is almost always assumed that Horace Greeley wrote them. But by monitoring their correspondence, tracking Greeley’s frequent absences, and getting to know Dana’s views and idiosyncratic turns of phrase, I was able to identify with confidence which editorials were his and to see how they revealed a growing rift between him and Greeley over secession and the war. Once Dana joined the War Department, his official duties left an enormous paper trail. Some of the most well-known segments—his reports on campaign with Grant and Rosecrans—were published in the Official Union Records, but thousands of other telegrams, letters, and reports did not make the cut and are in the War Department records at the National Archives in Washington. These reveal a whole host of official activities he had a hand in that have not been noticed. It’s not hard to discern Dana’s personal attitudes and opinions from his telegrams to Stanton, because he was sent to the front not just to describe what was going on but to evaluate it. Only occasionally, though, do Dana’s other official letters and wires hint about personal matters, such as his travels and family business. 
So I did face a challenge to learn Dana’s private attitudes toward persons and events, to portray his own thoughts, moods, and impressions—all of which are important because he did not just report military and political developments but reacted to them and tried to shape them. If Dana was going to carry my story I had to flesh him out as a living, breathing character, and I wanted to use real quotations and dialogue wherever I could. Dana’s own papers at the Library of Congress are scanty since, as you imply, his habit from
Tribune days was to throw away letters as soon as he responded. Fortunately, for the 1850s there are a few good caches of letters: dozens from Greeley while on the road scolding or praising his managing editor back in New York, and a trove of delightfully opinionated, wisecracking letters Dana exchanged with one of his editorial associates in Washington, James Shepherd Pike. Dana and Pike became friends and their families vacationed together, so there were some personal nuggets, too. Once Dana left the Tribune in March 1862 the record of private correspondence thins out, although he periodically updated Pike, who was then U.S. Minister to the Hague. At that point I had to rely heavily on James Harrison Wilson, a member of Grant’s staff whom Dana befriended at Vicksburg. Wilson kept a diary, corresponded with Dana when the two were apart, and eventually became his admiring biographer. His biography of Dana, published in 1907, and his own war memoirs proved indispensable because they include many excerpts of letters Dana wrote to him, as well as to friends and family, that are now lost. 
Speaking of war memoirs, as Civil War historians know, they bring their own set of problems, ranging from memory lapses and self-serving narratives to shifting stories over the years. I write in the book that Civil War battles were two days of terror and confusion followed by forty years of mutual finger-pointing. In Dana’s case I faced not just the problem of rehashing wartime controversies and tracking his obviously fading memory, but also the fact that his so-called memoirs were ghostwritten and not even vetted by him—he died without reading eighty percent of the chapter drafts. So I had to interrogate Ida Tarbell’s ghostwritten text carefully, deciding how to use it, determining which pieces were authentic and where her own insertions and inferences were mistaken.

--To Be Continued--