Lincoln’s Bold Lion: The Life and Times of Brigadier General Martin Davis Hardin by James T. Huffstodt. Casemate Publishers, 2015. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1612003399. $32.95.
In Lincoln’s Bold Lion, fellow native Illinoisan James T. Huffstodt attempts to nudge Brigadier General Martin Davis Hardin out of the shadows of obscurity into the light of recognition. An ambitious effort, the author hopes not only to tell the story of Hardin’s life, but to employ him as a lens upon the era in which he lived. As the general lived to the ripe age of eighty-six, his life spanned the antebellum era through the early 1920s. Huffstodt’s study succeeds as a general biography, but falls somewhat short of a comprehensive assessment of the times in which Hardin lived.
Born and raised in Jacksonville, Illinois, Martin Hardin, the son of a prominent Whig politician who was killed during the Mexican War, experienced a reasonably comfortable and happy childhood. He was accorded an appointment as a cadet at West Point, graduating in the year 1859. Courtesy of his mother’s promotion and the intercession of his new father-in-law, Chancellor R.H. Walworth, Martin found a command position at the outbreak of the Civil War. His service during the war was certainly noteworthy: he rose from the rank of colonel to brevetted brigadier general; was wounded four times (one wound resulting in the loss of an arm); commanded a key position in the defense of the capital in 1864; and ended up in Washington when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. After serving in the postwar army for five years, Hardin left the service and entered into a law practice in the city of Chicago. His legal career lasted barely a dozen years; then, the general and his wife alternated between summers in Chicago and long winters in St. Augustine, Florida. His first wife passed away and the general remarried late in life.
Huffstodt brings a respectable list of source material to this work. Much of the work is driven by primary sources, liberally buttressed by an array of secondary works. But herein lies the problem. Aside from some material in the Hardin family papers, including a brief autobiography or reminiscence by the general, the majority of sources are regimental histories and addresses Hardin gave at memorial functions. They may be adequate for assessing Hardin’s Civil War career, but they do not lend much insight into the fifty-eight years following the end of the war until his death in 1923. The dearth of personal papers is not a problem relegated to Martin Hardin alone; this limitation deprives us of substantial assessments of more substantial Civil War luminaries, such as Irvin McDowell, Hardin’s one-time commander and someone the general did not like.
The scarcity of any sustained diary entries or correspondence also leads Huffstodt to repeatedly speculate or surmise what Hardin may have thought about this event or that person. For instance, we learn that Hardin, although critical of George McClellan’s leadership on the Peninsula, was nonetheless a stout supporter of the general’s reputation after his dismissal as commander of the Army of the Potomac. But we do not get any insight as to Hardin’s position in the election of 1864 or his politics in the postwar era. Again, the author asserts the significance of Hardin’s conversion to Catholicism and his ongoing support of the Catholic Church. Yet, we are not informed what the aging Hardin might have thought about the rise of anti-Catholicism in the post World War I years, particularly the rise of Klan activity in his adopted state of Florida, which swirled all around him. Sadly, the very priest who eulogized the general at his funeral in 1923 would be found abducted by hooded Klansmen two month later. He was beaten, mutilated by castration, and unceremoniously dumped in front of his church. To be clear, these omissions are most likely not Huffstodt’s failing, but rather the inherent limitations of the source material.
High marks should be awarded Huffstodt for producing a highly readable and engaging work. As in many biographies, the tone of the work is decidedly laudatory, and scholars may find the absence of incisive critical analysis and sophistication dissatisfying. The work is marred by several typographical errors that suggest some laxity on someone’s part. The photographs and illustrations are exceptional in their clarity and appeal, notwithstanding the caption accompanying the photo of the 1891 unveiling of Grant’s equestrian statue, which states that the keynote address was given by President Henry Harrison when it clearly should be Benjamin.
Qualifications aside, this is a useful book and a worthwhile read. However incompletely, it does edge Martin D. Hardin out of the shadows of obscurity. It should be very appealing to a popular Civil War audience and those interested in Illinois’ role in that conflict. It is another useful tile in the grand mosaic of Civil War history that is ever unfolding.
Thomas J. Rowland teaches history at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh. He is the author of George B. McClellan and Civil War History (1998).