Carl Guarneri is Professor of History at Saint Mary’s College of California. This interview is based on his new book, Lincoln’s Informer: Charles A. Dana and the Inside Story of the Union War (University Press of Kansas, 2019).
JF: Why did you decide to write Lincoln’s Informer?
CG: I hatched plans for Lincoln’s Informer many years ago when I learned that Charles Dana, whose experience at the Brook Farm commune I had covered in my first book, The Utopian Alternative (Cornell University Press, 1991), moved on to a fascinating—and virtually unstudied—Civil War career. My interest was piqued when I learned that Dana’s war memoirs, published in 1898, were actually ghostwritten by the muckraker Ida Tarbell and, I discovered, riddled with mistakes. I took the absence of a trove of personal Dana papers as a research dare, along with the several thousand wartime telegrams sent by him that are recorded on microfilms at the National Archives. Although the Civil War had not previously been my scholarly focus, I had been teaching it for three decades, which stimulated my desire to do some original scholarship in the field. Several other book projects clamored for my attention first. In retrospect, I’m grateful for the long delay because it enabled me, once I returned to the Dana project, to benefit from so much fine Civil War scholarship that appeared in the intervening years.
As an Assistant Secretary lodged in Washington’s corridors of power and a special agent sent by Lincoln and Stanton to the front to file confidential reports, Dana, I sensed, was a wonderful source for telling the inside story of the Union war. My friends kept pointing out that he bore a resemblance to a fictional character (like Forrest Gump) who just happened to be present in the middle of a series of momentous historical events. But Dana was real, and he did more than observe history; he made it. His reports helped to make Union generals like Grant and break others, such as McClernand and Rosecrans. Meanwhile, at Washington he supervised Union spies, lobbied legislators for Lincoln, and helped police the contentious Union home front. My research brings out Dana’s important behind-the-scenes role, while the book’s sideways approach allows me to take the measure of Union leaders like Lincoln, Stanton, and Grant without adding to the leaning-tower pile of their published biographies.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Lincoln’s Informer?
CG: This is not primarily a thesis-driven book but a dramatic and (I hope) colorful narrative that clarifies along the way many controversies about Civil War battles, generals, and events, and offers a fresh look at Lincoln, Stanton, Grant, and Union leaders. Its cumulative effect is to highlight Dana’s substantial contributions to Union victory, and, more generally, the indispensable role that people most readers have never heard of–special agents and bureau chiefs in the War Department–played in organizing and sustaining the Union’s massive war effort.
JF: Why do we need to read Lincoln’s Informer?
CG: Scholars and history buffs who can’t get enough of the Civil War will, I trust, not require strenuous convincing! For them, and for students and other readers, Lincoln’s Informer addresses important and perennially fascinating Civil War questions (Why did northerners reject secession? Who freed the slaves, and why? How did Lincoln finally find the right generals? Did the President’s use of patronage help or hinder the war effort? Was there a Confederate conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln?), but it does so from a fresh angle by excavating the actions and views of a little-known confidant of Union war leaders, an administration insider with surprising influence. The book’s narrative suggests some “revisionist” answers to these questions. Equally important in my view, as Lincoln’s Informer tells its story in detail it gives a feel for the way the Civil War’s momentous events unfolded day-by-day in the eyes of key participants.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CG: In retrospect, our autobiographical paths always seem clearer, even predestined. As a curious kid in a home-bound, working-class Italian-American family, I found escape in the vicarious travel of poring over maps and collecting stamps, and in the backward time-travel of historical fiction. I had the benefit of encountering inspiring history teachers in high school and college, too. But the truth is that I studied economics and art history as an undergraduate, and only in approaching graduate studies did I turn—or return—to history. It was a professor of French history who urged me to focus on the United States—which I had not studied in college—and to examine its transatlantic and global connections. It turned out that studying US history this way satisfied my curiosity about other times and places while also illuminating our own. Since then I have veered between “ballooning”—assessing the US in global perspective—and “burrowing”—digging deeply into specific events and primary sources, rejoicing that practicing history allows me to do both.
JF: What is your next project?
CG: Deconstructing Charles Dana’s ersatz memoirs has whetted my appetite for exploring issues raised by Civil War memoirs as problematic historical sources, which can be mined—always with caution— for information about wartime events, but can also be examined as explorations in the workings of memory, as survivors’ attempts to fix historical legacies, and as interventions in ongoing military and political controversies. I’m hoping to pursue this further. Meanwhile, in keeping with my interest in transatlantic history, I am preparing an edition of Dana’s newspaper reportage of the 1848 Revolutions in Europe.
JF: Thanks, Carl!