Harold Holzer’s Excellent Diversion

In the scandal that keeps on giving, I now present for your inspection Harold Holzer’s recent entry commenting on the charges against Dr. Thomas P. Lowry on the New York Times Civil War blog, Disunion.

Holzer offers two arguments.  First, historians should be “ashamed” of themselves in this affair.  Not Lincoln scholars, not academics, not Civil War historians, but “the entire historical profession.”  Second, the impact of Dr. Lowry’s reported deception in doctoring a date on a Lincoln endorsement was to contribute to a myth of a kinder, gentler Lincoln, instead of the determined Commander-in-Chief he was in real life … a man who supported many measures to make warfare more violent and more lethal.

Let’s take a closer look at what Holzer asserts.

… for the last decade, the Murphy order has been just about the most famous Lincoln pardon of all, because its apparent date, April 14, 1865, made it one of the last things Lincoln wrote before his assassination at Ford’s Theater. Its significance was pointed out in 1998 by Thomas Lowry, a Virginia psychiatrist, who was immediately lauded as a leading Lincoln scholar.

Oh, come on.  If the Murphy pardon was so famous, why didn’t historians such as Michael Burlingame in his encyclopedic biography of Lincoln or William C. Harris in his study of Lincoln’s last few months mention it?  I don’t recall any discussions about it, although they must have taken place elsewhere.  In fact, I had not heard about it until this week.  As Lincoln was fairly busy during much of April 14, 1865, before he left for the theater, I have no way of knowing when he could have considered this paperwork, although he did do other work … he met with several members of Congress, held a cabinet meeting, ate lunch, conferred with Andrew Johnson, went on a drive with Mrs. Lincoln, receive visitors, and so on, all the while struggling to find someone who would go with him to the theater that night.  Nothing in the document, as altered, suggested that it was one of the last things he did.  But that Mr. Holzer tells the story that way suggests that he heard it presented that way, which is something to remember.  As for Dr. Lowry being lauded as a leading Lincoln scholar, the simple question is, by whom?  Well, judging from the blurbs that appeared on Lowry’s 1999 book containing the Murphy story, the two people who lauded him were Frank J. Williams and the late Dr. John Y. Simon, both good friends of … Harold Holzer.  All three men were major participants in the Lincoln Forum: as you see here, Williams and Holzer are the organization’s two top officers.  Last year the two men coedited a volume entitled The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory, which included a chapter by … Thomas Lowry.

So I think we have some idea that Harold Holzer thought that Thomas Lowry was an authority on Abraham Lincoln.  But his use of the passive voice might lead one to believe that the profession at large shared his opinion.  That’s not true.

Those who have known this gifted scholar for years — myself included — are left scratching their heads, searching their souls, and burning up e-mail threads wondering how he could have gone so wildly astray.

I’m sure that’s true — about the astonishment.  I’m astonished that Mr. Holzer calls Dr. Lowry “this gifted scholar.”  Recall what Harry Smeltzer said on Bull Runnings: “While Dr. Lowry no doubt deserves the approbation sure to be heaped upon him, there are a lot of other folks who look foolish right about now.”  Well, Harry, perhaps we can name some names now.

Holzer went on to declare:

The entire historical profession should be ashamed for heralding Dr. Lowry without doing a moment’s worth of due diligence.

To quote Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update … really?  Really, Mr. Holzer?  The entire historical profession?  Every historian, regardless of field?  Every historian, regardless of whether they knew about Dr. Lowry’s claim?  Really?  Get real.

The “entire historical profession” did not herald Thomas Lowry, but Harold Holzer was one of those historians who did.  Let’s make sure to name those who should feel that sense of shame.

Holzer returns to his theme of shame at the end of his message, declaring:

And shame on all of us in the Lincoln studies profession for accepting it without question.

Speak for yourself, Mr. Holzer.  Many of us had no idea about what Dr. Lowry did before the events of this week.  Apparently you accepted the “discovery” at face value.  If you feel ashamed for being fooled, then say so.  Perhaps you should feel ashamed for trying to carry the rest of us down with you and those you know who knew. 

Now, this would be problematic enough, and one wishes that Holzer had stopped here.  But he did not.  Instead, he proceeds to argue that Lowry’s deception simply feeds into a mythical understanding of Abraham Lincoln, one that features his generosity and charity.  Holzer declares that

… what Dr. Lowry’s deception has helped us overlook, is a harder and less popular truth about Commander in Chief Lincoln: that he was overall a rather brutal warrior, ready to deploy the most advanced and lethal weaponry to win the war. He proudly backed General Ulysses S. Grant against critics who said he took too many casualties in his relentless attacks on Confederate forces. And he was prepared to see Atlanta and Richmond sacked and burned if it would restore the Union more quickly.

This strikes me as a bit of an overstatement, with dramatic overtones added for effect, the sort of statement that might simply result in supporting the mythical version of Lincoln as bloodthirsty tyrant held by some people (as well as embracing the “Grant the butcher” myth).

In truth, Lincoln’s feelings about Grant’s losses in the campaigns of 1864 were mixed.  As he told the general during a visit to the front in June 1864: “I cannot pretend to advise, but I do sincerely hope that all may be accomplished with as little bloodshed as possible.”  The following month, he telegraphed his commander: “I do hope you may find a way that the effort shall not be desperate in the sense of great loss of life.”  The next year, in a conference with Grant and Sherman, Lincoln again expressed the hope that the war could be ended without one more major battle.  True, after the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 the president commented that fighting such a battle every week would eventually destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, showing that he understood the grim attrition of war.  Yet he also had mixed feelings about the destructiveness of the conflict.  On August 14, 1864, he called upon Grant to meet with Robert E. Lee to try to arrange “for a mutual discontinuance of house-burning and other destruction of private property.”  In truth, it was the Confederates who did much of the burning in both Atlanta and Richmond upon their evacuation of said cities.

One might carefully qualify Mr. Holzer’s claims in light of such evidence, including the two quoted documents, which appear in the same volume as does the now infamous Murphy endorsement that caused all this fuss.

Undeterred, Holzer continues:

Under Lincoln, Union troops developed and exploded huge mines, perfected rifled artillery that boasted long range and deadly aim, deployed monstrous ironclad warships and even dabbled in the use of niter — a sort of primitive napalm — to clean out rebel positions.

Where to begin …

Monstrous ironclad warships?  Ever hear of the CSS Virginia?  Ironclad ships had first been deployed in the Crimean War.  Rifled artillery?  Again, used by both sides, and visitors to Gettysburg will notice that it was the Confederates who deployed long-range Whitworths (I assume Mr. Holzer’s visited the battlefield, specifically Oak Hill).  Mines?  Surely Mr. Holzer knows that the “torpedoes” Admiral David Farragut damned on August 5, 1864, were in fact mines.  Both sides deployed land mines.  I assume Holzer may be thinking of the mining operations during the Vicksburg and Petersburg campaigns.  However, such mines had been part of siege warfare for centuries.  In short, both sides used such weapons.  And as for niter, perhaps he is referring to “Greek fire,” which had been around for centuries.  I assume that, as a New York resident, Mr. Holzer is aware of the Confederate effort to burn New York City in November 1864 … using Greek fire.

In short, while I’m sure Mr. Holzer thinks he’s made a point, perhaps someone will inform me about the importance of that point.  Both sides used these weapons.  War is hell.

Finally, Mr. Holzer tells us:

A war to suppress an enormous rebellion, [Lincoln] insisted coldly, could not be waged with mere “elder squirts, charged with rose water.”

Context is critical in understanding the meaning of this quote.  It comes from a letter written in July 1862 to a Louisiana unionist who was conveying the complaints of fellow unionists about the impact of the conflict on slavery.  It came less that a week after Lincoln had shared with his cabinet the idea of an emancipation proclamation; it was at a period when he was growing exasperated with the unwillingness of southern unionists to do their part to construct new loyal state governments.  Lincoln warned that he could not continue to wage war with one hand tied behind his back.  “What would you do in my position?” he asked.

Would you drop the war where it is? Or, would you prosecute it in future, with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water? Would you deal lighter blows rather than heavier ones? Would you give up the contest, leaving any available means unapplied[?]

I am in no boastful mood. I shall not do more than I can, and I shall do all I can to save the government, which is my sworn duty as well as my personal inclination. I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.

The measure he was contemplating was not some new machine of war: it was emancipation.  By the way, the original draft of this missive was in the hand of his private secretary, John Hay.

Most people who read Mr. Holzer’s pronouncement will not be aware of these issues.  But what we have here is a distortion of the historical record by a Lincoln scholar who is desperate to make some sort of point.  The fact is that although the date of the pardon was altered, the act of the pardon itself remains intact.  To seize upon this controversy, first to attack “the entire historical profession,” and then to offer some observations about Lincoln as commander-in-chief that display an alarming lack of awareness about military history and Lincoln’s own correspondence (how ironic!) seems, to put it mildly, curious.

I leave it to you to make what you will of Mr. Holzer’s performance.

18 thoughts on “Harold Holzer’s Excellent Diversion

  1. Jeffry Burden January 27, 2011 / 6:51 am

    What to make of it? The flailings of a man who has ridden the Lincoln gravytrain for many years, in happy concert with Lowry, and is now deperately trying to deflect some of the stink. The odd thing is, all this bombast from him isn’t really necessary.

  2. Dimitri Rotov January 27, 2011 / 7:21 am

    This guy (HH) has not quit his day job – publicist in the highly competitive NYC market. He earns his daily bread immersed in the machinery of publicity and then, time permitting, puts some “historian” time on the clock. HH’s background (foreground, really) is no mystery; everything he says or does as an historian should logically be checked first for its PR aspect. Self-serving? Check. Networking for useful contacts? Check. Looking out for buddies? Check. Deflecting, distracting, spinning? With professional levels of excellence.

    • Jeffry Burden January 27, 2011 / 9:57 am

      I’ve always had the impression that HH’s “scholarship” on Lincoln was a mile wide and a few inches deep; more the product of an excellent research staff working for him, than any insights he himself developed. Am I being fair?

      • Kevin January 27, 2011 / 10:32 am

        Do we really have to turn this into a question about Holzer’s scholarship? I was also a bit surprised by his editorial, but that has nothing at all to do with the quality of his research.

      • Brooks D. Simpson January 27, 2011 / 11:04 am

        At times Mr. Holzer has made claims that other historians have questioned. Here’s an example:


        That said, my focus is on what he said yesterday. I’d rather discuss the merits of his post rather than look at the post as a way to say things about him. However, I do find ironic his protest today that he’s being mislabeled as an anti-Lincoln scholar. He’s not, but, years ago (the late 1980s), he offered a remark in a review that left the impression that I was somehow an apologist for the views of Andrew Johnson, which (as anyone knows) is foolish and uninformed, to be polite. So I find his protests at being mischaracterized amusing.

        I also think the protest against being mischaracterized is another diversion from his “everyone should feel shame” message, and that’s why I bring it up. This line of argument impresses me as akin to the “everyone’s doing it” as a way to divert attention from his own negligence.

        There’s plenty going on behind the scenes today. Let’s just leave it at that.

  3. Ned January 27, 2011 / 8:50 am

    I feel that some historians have developed bad habits of ‘massaging’ the evidence to support their preconceived narrative. You point out Holzer’s habits in this regard and aptly declare that “what we have here is a distortion of the historical record by a Lincoln scholar who is desperate to make some sort of point.” But cherry-picking, stripping away context, misquoting, and speculative leaps will only go so far when the original documents still say what they say. So Lowry took this behavior to its extreme.

  4. Bob Huddleston January 27, 2011 / 9:48 am

    The comments in the Times’ opinion run the gamete from great to rotten. One of the best is by A Williams in Illinois: “A scholar worthy of the name would have been more interested in the condemned man than in Lincoln’s few words, however compassionate, in pardoning him.” What a great story: here is the life of the guy AL pardoned! And a cursory check would have revealed the lie way back at the start.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 27, 2011 / 11:32 am

      You can see it now: Lincoln’s ghost appears in front of the fellow he pardoned. The lanky image of the sixteenth president scares the poor guy. Then the president reaches out and his hand clasps the fellow’s shoulder.

      “Earn this.”

      I guess that’s what that commenter meant when he said that Lincoln scholars write movies. 🙂

  5. Kevin January 27, 2011 / 11:08 am

    I just want to clarify that I was responding to Jeffry’s comment.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 27, 2011 / 11:29 am

      I know. However, the Wilson review of Holzer’s book suggests something else about the field of Lincoln studies that might help explain the Lowry affair. Holzer’s claim was that the texts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates were taken from Republicans reporting Lincoln, Democrats reporting Douglas. He looked to switch that. Fine. However, he then used that to make claims about the texts and to draw attention to himself as revising something in Lincoln studies. Wilson’s calm review takes those claims apart. What could have been an interesting exercise in textual analysis became instead an exercise in self-promotion that eventually backfired. Sound familiar?

    • Jeffry Burden January 27, 2011 / 12:02 pm

      Agreed – discussing the quality of Holzer’s scholarship generally, is a distraction from the main points Brooks raised. His scholarship may in fact be top-flight. I withdraw the “fair or not” question. I think Dmitri’s point, however, is valid, and HH opens himself up to it if he presumes to take “historians” to task in such an overbroad way.

  6. Brooks D. Simpson January 27, 2011 / 11:49 am

    Here’s the best defense I’ve seen of Holzer’s essay.

    Beth should have edited (and perhaps rewritten) what Holzer said. Her essay is superior to his, although it’s cast in the mold of “this is what he was trying to say.” I prefer to presume that Holzer said what he wanted to say and that he knows the import of his words and phrases. However, as a PR guy, I’m sure Holzer knows the value of a good spokesperson, so perhaps he needs to hire Beth. 🙂

  7. Jean January 27, 2011 / 2:29 pm

    I’m an avid amateur historian at best, and what puzzled me is Holzer’s claim that “the entire historical profession should be ashamed” etc. However, Lowry covertly altered an original source. Isn’t “due diligence” covered in eyeballing an original document? Whatever Lowry’s creds are, surely historians can be forgiven for not spotting a fairly skillful alteration of a physical source document that is kept in a respectable institution.

    Your thoughts, please. I sense I’m missing something that “the entire historical profession” would consider second nature.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 27, 2011 / 2:58 pm

      I don’t know who among historians looked at the original document, so I can’t answer for them. We know that people at the National Archives saw it frequently, and even the person who came to question it arrived at that position over time (and must have seen it as much as just about anyone). One report said that few people had checked it out since Lowry announced his “discovery.” I haven’t see a copy of the book in which the image appeared, and so one would have to rely upon the quality of the photograph.

      The real issue seems to me to have been the original issue of authentication, especially in the claim that this was a “new” document. When the NARA issued its press release, it approved that claim. I think it was reasonable for people to assume that it had checked out that claim before announcing it. In retrospect, of course, it’s clear that did not happen, because a check of Basler’s index would have brought people up short.

      If the document had not been in Basler, this incident would have had a much, much greater chance of going undetected. If this had happened prior to the age of the internet and blogs and so on, far fewer people would have known about it.

      I bet authentication procedures at NARA will now change.

  8. Alex January 27, 2011 / 2:31 pm

    Dr Simpson,
    This entire post has become a personal attack on Harold Holzer. This may not have been your initial intention (or maybe it was since you mention that he had criticized you in the past, and this only looks liek an opportunity by you to get some vengeance).

    With al due respect, and I say this as a historian, but even more as an admirer of your books and your blog posts here and at Civil Warriors, that you come off looking worse than Holzer in this post.

    I think we need to focus on Lowry, and how he HAS hurt the historical profession. Indeed, I had a friend who read this story and said, “I guess we can’t trust ANY historian anymore.” Hence, the fact that Holzer includes me, yourself, and every other historian is a valid concern. I get your points, and your logic makes sense…but remember not everyone–especially many in the general public—don’t share your logic.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 27, 2011 / 2:48 pm

      Thanks for commenting. You raise a point that’s worth addressing.

      If questioning someone’s argument is “a personal attack,” then by your own logic your reply would have to be viewed in the same light. Historians criticize each other’s arguments all the time. What will stand or fall is not one’s assumption of motive (after all, one could say that some people have not spoken out due to friendship or other motives) but the argument. If you have anything to say about the argument, or if you agree with Mr. Holzer, simply set forth that position.

      One knows that when one offers a post like this, not everyone will approve of it or like it. It will make some people feel uneasy. That comes with the territory.

      As for Holzer’s past commentary, what you are suggesting is that I’ve been lurking for over two decades, just waiting to get my chance to get my revenge. Let’s stipulate that as true, just for kicks. So what? How does that affect the argument? I would hope that someone would challenge the merits of an argument before speculating about motive. When people go directly to motive, they basically concede they don’t want to wrestle with the merits, and simply hope to discredit. However, I’ve dealt with Mr. Holzer on a number of occasions, as well as with Judge Williams (with whom I’ve had some friendly exchanges) and the late Dr. Simon. Just last year Mr. Holzer addressed the ALA banquet, and I’m on the board of directors of that organization. I simply noted an irony (even although I knew it would open the door for a response such as you’ve offered).

      Besides, Mr. Holzer’s complaint (justified) that he was being mischaracterized as anti-Lincoln came after my post appeared.

      One would think that Mr. Holzer’s castigation of the “entire historical profession” is something of an unwarranted attack. Let’s let it rest there.

      I stand by what I’ve said.

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