Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image, by Joshua Zeitz

Lincoln's Boys coverI was on the list at Amazon for immediate delivery of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image when publication occurred, and to say I was excited is an understatement. John Hay and John George Nicolay are two of my very favorites in all of history, and are part of almost everything I write, if humanly possible. I was very excited to learn this book was in the works.

To understand Lincoln, one must see his through the eyes of his two young secretaries as well as through the lenses of Lincoln historians. After all, Hay and Nicolay were “Lincoln Men” before there even was a Lincoln. Each secretary gets his due in the beginning of the book, as personal histories are presented first. Then, Hay, Nicolay, and Abraham Lincoln meet. I cannot resist saying that “the rest is history.” They believed in Lincoln, and were instrumental participants in the fascinating election of 1860.

Although only twenty-eight, Nicolay was already the editor of a political newspaper in Illinois, writing editorials favorable to Lincoln for several years. He was a welcomed member among the select group of seasoned politicos of Springfield, and was known as an excellent political organizer. He first worked for Lincoln as a private secretary as well as directing the Springfield venue of Lincoln’s presidential bid. Lincoln appreciated Nicolay’s work and talents that he chose him to accompany the entourage on the Inaugural Express, the whistle stop train tour that would take Lincoln to Washington, D. C.

Nicolay, Lincoln, and Hay
Nicolay, Lincoln, and Hay


Much younger (twenty-two), John Hay worked for his uncle, a lawyer whose office was across the hall from the Lincoln-Herndon law offices. As the campaign was being formulated, something about the situation–perhaps Nicolay, perhaps Lincoln himself, perhaps the combination of events and people–drew Hay in. He initially volunteered to help Nicolay with correspondence, but soon became even more useful by traveling to Chicago to help Judge David Davis set in motion the events that led to Lincoln being nominated as the Republican candidate for president. Hay’s charm and tact were assets even then.

the frontispiece of Hay and Nicolay's book
the frontispiece of Hay and Nicolay’s book

Lincoln’s Boys tells readers much about Hay, Nicolay, and Lincoln, and even more about how, after Lincoln had been assassinated, they agreed to work together to write a definitive–THE definitive–biography of their friend and employer. Although beaten to publication by Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, and then by a ghosted book allegedly from Lincoln’s comrade-in-arms Ward Hill Lamon, the ten-volume biography of Lincoln was finally published in 1890. It took Hay, Nicolay, and Robert Lincoln fifteen years to complete the work. It was serialized in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Volumes 33-40, 1886-1890, and then released as a set. Although long and sometimes cumbersome, no Lincoln biographer has ever been able to discredit it. Sadly, it is rarely read today.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Lincoln’s Boys, and it has my recommendation . . . but there is one small problem: there is little mention of Elmer Ellsworth. There were not two “boys,” there were three. Ellsworth was there for everything, a friend and companion to both Hay and Nicolay. Ellsworth’s Chicago Zouaves performed the second night of the Republican Convention in Chicago, providing entertainment so the delegates who had come to cast ballots for a candidate would stick around the Wigwam a little longer. This gave Judge Davis and his crew more time to pour champagne and strike deals for Lincoln. Afterward, Ellsworth and Hay were featured stump speakers before the election. Handsome and articulate, they both influenced the women who influenced the men who voted. Ellsworth rode with Hay and Nicolay on the Inaugural Express as Lincoln’s personal body guard and, while Hay and Nicolay had a bedroom together, Ellsworth slept most nights in the bedroom assigned to Robert Lincoln.images

In the sad should haves of history, the fact of Ellsworth’s death on May 24, 1861 is in the top five. But, perhaps this is a story for another book.

5 Responses to Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image, by Joshua Zeitz

  1. Good review! I have booked Joshua for the Phil Kearny CWRT and will ask about the omission on Ellsworth. Thanks for the tip.

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