Guest Columns


‘Reaper Case,’ ‘Neptune’ and remembrances

In last week’s column, about Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, I incorrectly referred to the lawsuit that brought Abraham Lincoln and his future Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, together for the first time as a “railroad litigation matter.” In fact, it was a “patent litigation matter.”‘Reaper Case,’ ‘Neptune’ and remembrances

The particular case, McCormick v. Manny, more generally referred to as The Reaper Case, was a high profile patent matter concerning a piece of agricultural machinery. Lincoln did earn a significant portion of his income as a lawyer from railroad-related matters, but not in this instance. For anyone interested in the details of Stanton’s boorish and condescending affront to Lincoln, Goodwin recounts the story briefly and well (Rivals, hardcover edition, at pp. 173-175).

Lincoln’s political and managerial genius was in recruiting and forging a workable team out of an otherwise dysfunctional group of publicly prominent and overly ambitious men. Initially, the key players did not particularly respect the newly elected president, and, for the most part, they harbored both petty personal jealousies and major policy differences toward one another.

Anyone who takes the time to read Goodwin’s Rivals will likely join me in chuckling at most attempts by politicians and others to compare their supposedly inclusive and tolerant managerial styles to Lincoln’s transcendent patience in the face of disloyalty and public posturing by his lieutenants. But if those seeking identification with our 16th President aspire to emulate his unshakeable devotion to the greater good over personal pride and reputation, best wishes with a noble endeavor.

One notable exception to my “Cabinet members behaving badly” image is Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. A former Jacksonian Democrat from Connecticut, Welles developed strong anti-slavery views, joined the newly formed Republican Party, and in 1860 was a strong supporter of Lincoln's candidacy. While Welles was occasionally distracted by his own intense rivalries, most often with either Salmon P. Chase or Stanton, he refreshingly chose to keep his policy objections within the White House rather than airing them publicly.

Often overlooked in history lessons about the Civil War, Gideon Welles deserves credit for two significant and enduring contributions to America: He salvaged a decrepit and wholly inadequate U.S. Navy, and transformed it into one of the strongest in the world; and he kept a candid and detailed diary of his years in the White House.

Between the start of the Civil War in 1861 and its conclusion in 1865, Welles oversaw nearly a tenfold increase in U.S. Navy vessels (from 76 to 671) and a similar expansion of naval personnel (from 7,600 to 51,000). (Rivals, at p. 672, hardcover edition). Anyone even casually familiar with the effectiveness of the U.S. Navy in its blockade of Confederate ports, and its roles in key military victories, such as Vicksburg, Forts Henry and Donelson, New Orleans, and even Shiloh, can appreciate the significance of Welles’ leadership.

Historians writing about Lincoln’s White House invariably resort to Welles’ three-volume diary of his tenure throughout the Administration. He served as Secretary of the Navy from 1861 to 1869, and his detailed recollections of policy issues, personalities, and the deliberative process are among our most important source documents from that period.

Lincoln fondly referred to Welles and Stanton as his “Neptune” and “Mars.” I particularly enjoy Father Abraham’s reference to Roman gods of the sea and war, because I’m reminded also of the mere mortal hero of those great myths — “Ulysses.”

Finally, we’re all familiar to some degree with Abe Lincoln’s incredible personal gifts for kindness, humor, and storytelling, all of which combined to put his “likeability” factor off the charts with friend and foe alike. On Monday, a longtime (more than 30 years) friend with those same delightfully infectious qualities, Chris Power Bain, passed away after a courageous and incredibly positive battle with cancer. In remembering Chris, those who know her will most likely smile while simultaneously grieving for her family, particularly Jim and Jack Bain, her husband and son, respectively.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Chris could “light up a room” with her goodness and her irreverent humor like no one else. Like her former employers, including the Colorado Health Foundation, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Rocky Mountain News, Westword, and the Colorado Daily (where I first met her), and her countless friends and admirers, I am diminished by her premature passing.

In remembering Chris Power Bain’s “Lincoln-like” ability to improve her surroundings through the innate kindness, humor and goodwill of her presence and her personality, let’s all take a moment to acknowledge and reflect that such attributes are a vital part of citizenship and civility.

Patrick Teegarden, aside from being our chronicler of Civil War history during this 150th anniversary, is also a longtime friend.