Ever since I read The Historian as Detective by Robin Weeks, I have been fascinated with the “Diary of a Public Man.” Published in four installments by the North American Review in 1879, the Diary appeared to be an authentic insider’s account of the dramatic succession winter of 1860-61. Its intimate accounts of famous players, especially Abraham Lincoln, during this tumultuous time period in the history of the republic only added to its appeal. Perhaps the most famous part of the Diary is a story of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861. Noticing that Lincoln could not find a place to set his signature stove pipe hat, his rival Senator Stephen A. Douglass took it from him and held it throughout the ceremony. This episode has been relayed in many books since the appearance of the Diary in 1879. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss used this story as late as yesterday in a tweet. Yet, the Diary is the only source for this story. It seems odd that no other attendee noticed this act at the time. The Diary contains several stories of this caliber, but it rings so true and has been proven correct in several instances, that historians have had difficulty discarding this unique behind-the-scenes account of the start of the Civil War.
Several historians have attempted to identify the Diary’s author. Frank Maloy Anderson’s 1948 book, The Mystery of the Public Man, was, for over half a century, the most detailed and in depth analysis of the question. Anderson argued that Sam Ward, a well known and connected lobbyist, authored the Diary. Using a rudimentary diary of events written during the winter of 1860-61, Anderson argued, Ward later added the colorful stories that made their way into the pages of the North American Review. Not all historians were convinced of Anderson’s claim that the docuement was a fabrication or his of assertion that Ward as its author, and the Diary has been used as a source in sixty-four years since the publication of Anderson's book.
Historian Daniel W. Crofts believes he has solved the mystery of the "public man's" identity. In the October issue of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, he announced that the Diary’s author was William Henry Hurlbert, a journalist (this is the condensed argument of his book A Succession Crisis Enigma: William Henry Hurlbert and “The Diary of a Public Man” (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010). In addition to naming a different author, Crofts' finding differed from Anderson in one other significant point. Instead of viewing the Diary as a genuine document from the time it purports to cover with fictional stories thrown in later, Crofts finds that the Diary is a complete and total fabrication. What I find more important, however, is how Crofts explains why Hurlbert would do such a thing. It was not a mere hoax; Crofts had a political agenda. Crofts argues Hurlbert purposefully sought to challenge the memory of the Civil War as was forming in the minds of his fellow Americans. As someone who considered the war and its death toll to be a tragic failure in statesmanship, he crafted an account that depicted the road to war as anything but an inevitable conflict. He deplored both the Lost Cause ideology of the south as well as the bloody flag waving of the north. And he made a case -- albeit a fictional one-- that President Lincoln was not a saintly figure. One wonders what Hurlbert the journalist would have thought of Spielberg's Lincoln.