McGINTY: Lincoln & California (2023)

Lincoln & California:  The President, the War, and the Golden State by Brian McGinty. Potomac Books, 2023. Cloth, IBSN: 978-1640126060.  $34.95.

For 150 years, little was written about the Far West during the Civil War beyond chronicles of the disastrous 1862 Confederate invasion of the Southwest.  More recently, however, works examining the impact on, and activities in, the Far West during the Civil War have appeared.  Only one of those, an obscure book published eighty years ago, has examined President Abraham Lincoln’s ties to California.  Attorney and Lincoln authority Brian McGinty sets out to fill that modern void by examining Abraham Lincoln’s “important relationship with the western state both before and during the war, the key part it played in bringing on the conflict, and the vital help it gave him in winning it” [xiii].

Although his focus is somewhat different, McGinty’s book is reminiscent of Richard Etulain’s Lincoln and the Oregon Country, which demonstrated Lincoln’s connection to Oregon almost entirely through a cadre of Illinois friends who had relocated to the Pacific Northwest. McGinty shows Lincoln’s ties to California through a mix of friends who migrated there before the war, as well as former California residents he met after he became president.

McGinty makes a strong case that a select few friends who were living in (or had recently lived in) California influenced Lincoln’s attitudes toward the state.  They include former Illinois associate Charles Maltby, who sought a patronage appointment to be Superintendent of the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Mint (he received another appointment instead) [80, 123].  The close relationship with Lincoln’s old friend and Oregon senator, Edward Baker, is woven through much of the book.  Lincoln’s friendship with Sacramento Daily Union correspondent Noah Brooks receives a lengthy and largely positive review.  Less successfully, McGinty also suggests connections between the president and the many military men who had served in California.  With the exceptions of Henry W. Halleck and U. S. Grant, it is unlikely many of them had enough direct contact with the president to share their thoughts about California with him.

In addition to the individual connections between California and President Lincoln, McGinty also looks at the state’s economic importance, noting its “gold and silver production added considerably to the economy, helping many businesses expand” and its role in funding “the federal government’s fight against secession” [108].

The chapter on Lincoln and California’s Native American population is less than successful. The author blames Lincoln’s failure to intervene to protect the Native Americans from abuse and exploitation by the state’s white population on his ignorance of the situation. According to McGinty, “Lincoln knew little about what was happening to the native peoples of California while he was in the White House” [103]. As a result, according to the author, he did not “fully understand their plight, or what he could – or should do to improve their relations with other people in the United States” [113].  Here, McGinty speculates about how Lincoln would have worked to improve the treatment of California’s indigenous population.  In part, he uses Lincoln’s commutation of most of the death sentences handed down to 303 Dakota men in 1862 as an example of what he might have done had he lived.

Positives here are numerous.  McGinty writes in an engaging style that, except for an occasional abrupt subject transition, will appeal to readers.  By looking at the various connections, both strong and tenuous, between the president and California, the author contributes to the growing literature stressing the need to extend the borders of Civil War studies all the way to the Far West. Similarly, the chapter on memorialization of Lincoln in California reinforces the need to include the West when considering Civil War memory. Those interested in the history of the Far West, Abraham Lincoln, or a more holistic understanding of the Civil War era will appreciate this work.

James Robbins Jewell is Professor of History at North Idaho College and author of Agents of Empire: The First Oregon Cavalry and the Opening of the Interior Pacific Northwest during the Civil War.

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