The Journalists: Noah Brooks (1830-1903)

Noah Brooks
“It is natural that friends should tenderly and frequently talk of the loved and lost, descanting upon their virtues, narrating the little incidents of a life ended, and dwelling with minute particularity upon traits of character which, under other circumstances, might have remained unnoted and be forgotten, but are invested now with a mournful interest which fixes them in memory,” wrote Noah Brooks in introducing a set of “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln” for readers of the Harper’s Monthly Magazine in May 1865.1

Brooks went on to point out the distinct lack of formality that characterized Mr. Lincoln’s relations with friends of long standing. “After years of intimate acquaintance with Mr. Lincoln the writer can not now recall a single instance in which he spoke of himself as President, or used that title for himself, except when acting in an official capacity,” wrote Brooks. “To an intimate friends who addressed him always by his own proper title he said, ‘Now call me Lincoln, and I’ll promise not to tell of the breach of etiquette – if you won’t – and I shall have a resting-spell from ‘Mister President.'”2

Biographer Carl Sandburg described Brooks as “somewhat scholar and dreamer, a failure as merchant in Illinois and farmer in Kansas, correspondent of the Sacramento Union, writing under the pen name of ‘Castine’ news letters widely reprinted on the West Coast.”3 Castine was the town in Maine where Brooks had spent his boyhood. Sandburg wrote that Brooks “had the required gravity – and humor – with loyalty, affection, and sympathy, even though he had no special admiration for Nicolay and Hay, at one time early in the Administration writing a little paragraph for the Sacramento Union about the two secretaries being overly officious and self-important.”4

Brooks had been a journalist in Illinois for five years beginning in 1854 and came to know Mr. Lincoln there. In 1860, he wrote an article in which he recounted a speech Mr. Lincoln gave in Dixon, Illinois, where Brooks had lived. Brooks wrote that “while wandering about the grove, during the preliminary business of the meeting, [I] met him, and sat talking with him for an hour or more, on the probable result of the campaign, the future of the Republican party, and of the national interests therein involved. He had no hope that Fremont would be elected, and deduced conclusions from premises which after events completely justified…”5

Brooks arrived in Washington in late 1862, relocating from California after his wife Caroline had died suddenly in Marysville, where Brooks edited the Marysville Daily Appeal. “Naturally, my first thought, on arriving in Washington…was to see how far the President resembled the Lincoln of Illinois before the war. The change in his personal appearance was marked and sorrowful. On the Sunday after my arrival in Washington I took a long look at him from the gallery of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church,” wrote Brooks in his memoirs three decades later. “Hearing from a friend that I was in the city, he immediately sent word that he would like to see me, ‘for old times’ sake’; and nothing could have been more gratifying than the cordiality and bonhomie of his greeting when I called at the White House. ‘Do you suppose I ever forget an old acquaintance? I reckon not,’ he said, when we met.”6

The President quickly made Brooks part of his inner circle. “Brooks is the most appealing and lovable friend the Lincolns had in the White House. I think Lincoln really loved Noah Brooks,” wrote historian Ruth Painter Randall.7 “Brooks’s dispatches not only describe Lincoln’s doings but may also reflect the president’s thinking,” wrote historian Michael Burlingame. “Like most American journalists of the mid-nineteenth century, Brooks drew no firm distinction between reporting and editorializing. It is impossible to say which of the opinions sprinkled through his dispatches were his own and which were Lincoln’s, but clearly some were the president’s.”8

Brooks wrote: “Once I found [President Lincoln] sitting in his chair so collapsed and weary that he did not look up or speak when I addressed him. He put out his hand, mechanically, as if to shake hands, when I told him I had come at his bidding. It was several minutes before he was roused enough to say that he ‘had had hard day.” Brooks had both unusual access to President Lincoln and unusual access to his thinking. He had a special perspective on the drain that patronage and promotion requests put on him – “each one in the unending stream of place-hunters that approached him [seizing and taking away] a bit of his vitality.”9 In his memoirs of Washington in Lincoln’s Time, Brooks wrote:

Returning from a visit to the Army of the Potomac, when its depots were at City Point, I gave an account of my visit to the President as he had sent me with a special pass to Grant’s headquarters. He asked, jocularly, “Did you meet any colonels who wanted to be brigadiers, or any brigadiers who wanted to be major-generals, or any major-generals who wanted to run things?” Receiving a reply in the negative, he stretched out his hand in mock congratulation, and said, “Happy man!” Afterward, an officer who had been attentive to our little party did come to my lodgings and complain that he ought to be promoted, urging, among other things, that his relationship to a distinguished general kept him down. I told the incident to the President, after recalling his previous questions to me. Lincoln fairly shrieked with laughter, and, jumping up from his seat, cried, “Keeps him down? Keeps him down? That’s all that keeps him up!”10

Brooks had a front-row seat for many events during the Civil War and the President was unusually frank in his presence. Brooks’ repeated interactions gave him insight into the President’s extraordinary methods and phenomenal memory, which particularly impressed Brooks:

He ‘couldn’t help remembering,’ he was accustomed to say. One would supposed that in the midst of the worries and cares of office his mind would become less retentive of matters not immediately related to the duties of the hour. But this was not the fact. Although the memories of long past events, and words long since read or heard, appeared to be impossible of obliteration, more recently acquired impressions remained just as fixed as the older ones. One of my cousins, John Homes Goodenow, of Alfred, Maine, was appointed minister to Turkey early in the Lincoln administration, and was taken to the White House, before his departure for his post, to be presented to the President. When Lincoln learned that his visitor was a grandson of John Holmes, one of the first Senators from Maine, and a man of note in his day and generation, he immediately began the recitation of a poetical quotation which must have been more than a hundred lines in length. Mr. Holmes [Goodenow], never having met the President, was naturally astonished at this outburst; and as the President went on and one with this long recitation, the suspicion crossed his mind that Lincoln had suddenly taken leave of his wits. But when the lines had been finished, the President said: ‘There! That poem was quoted by your grandfather Holmes in a speech which he made in the United States Senate in ___’ and he named the date and specified the occasion. As John Holmes’s term in the Senate [began in 1820 and] ended in 1833, and Lincoln probably was impressed by reading a copy of the speech rather than by hearing it, this feat of memory appears very remarkable.”11

After Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney died but before a replacement was appointed, Brooks “had occasion to call on the President, and the rumors of [former Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P.] Chase’s appointment naturally came up for discussion. Mr. Lincoln had been, for him, very gay and cheery; but as soon as Chase and the chief-justiceship were mentioned, his visage lengthened, and with great seriousness he pointed to a pile of telegrams and letters on his table, and said: ‘I have been all day, and yesterday and the day before, besieged by messages from my friends all over the country, as if there were a determination to put up the bars between Governor Chase and myself.’ Then, after a pause, he added: ‘But I shall nominate him for Chief Justice, nevertheless.’ It was therefore with amusement that I learned form one of Chase’s most ardent friends, about an hour later, that ‘Lincoln was not great enough to nominate Secretary Chase as Chief Justice” and with inward satisfaction I bore in silence much contumely and reproach from Chase’s fast friends, from that time until the country was delighted by the intelligence that Chase’s nomination had been sent to the Senate on December 6, 1864, in a message written by the President’s own hand.”12

Brooks was also witness to many of Mr. Lincoln’s stories and story-telling techniques. “Lincoln particularly liked a joke at the expense of the dignity of some high civil or military official. One day, not long before his second inauguration, he asked me if I had heard about Stanton’s meeting a picket on Broad River, South Carolina, and then told this story: ‘General Foster, then at Port Royal, escorted the secretary up the river, taking a quartermaster’s tug. Reaching the picket lines on the river, a sentry roared from the bank, ‘Who have you got on board that tug? The severe and dignified answer was, ‘The Secretary of War and Major-General Foster.’ Instantly the picket roared back, ‘We’ve got major-generals enough up here – why don’t you bring us up some hard-tack?’ The story tickled Lincoln mightily, and he told it until was replaced by a new one.”13

Brooks reported two days after President Lincoln’s assassination: “He was unusually cheerful that evening, and never was more hopeful and buoyant concerning the condition of the country. Speaker [Schuyler] Colfax and your correspondent were at the house just before he went out for the last time alive, and in his conversation he was full of fun and anecdotes, feeling especially jubilant at the prospect before us. The last words he said as he came out of the carriage were: ‘Grant thinks that we can reduce the cost of the army establishment at least a half million a day, which, with the reduction of expenditures of the Navy, will soon bring down our national debt to something like decent proportions, and bring our national paper up to a par, or nearly so, with gold; at least so they think.'”14

According to historian Wayne C. Temple, “Noah Brooks decided to worship at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on that Sunday, April 16th, and discovered that the Lincoln pew, as well as the entire building, had been draped in black cloth. All the musical numbers were dirges. Sadness hung heavily over the grieving congregation and the stunned minister.”15 Brooks’ testimony to Mr. Lincoln’s religious beliefs has long drawn skepticism from contemporaries and historians. In May 1865, Brooks wrote “I am glad now that I never hesitated, when proper occasion offered, to talk with him upon religious matters, for I think that the best evidences of his belief in Christ are those which I derived in free and easy conversations with him. You know I had intimate acquaintance with him, which was not hampered or embarrassed by any official or business relations, nor did he have the same undefined reluctance which a man in his position would have had in talking upon religious matters, if I had been a clergyman.”16 Temple noted: “Lincoln did read the Bible and prayed constantly, but it is extremely doubtful that he talked openly to anybody about Christ’s atonement for man’s sins, etc. Lincoln spoke mainly of God and to God.”17

Brooks had visited the President in the White House and visited the war front with him. He was with him for news of his reelection and with him for his re-inauguration. “Among the memories of a lifetime, doubtless there are none more fondly cherished by those who were so fortunate as to stand near Lincoln at that historic moment than the recollection of the beautiful solemnity, the tender sympathy, of [President Lincoln’s] inspired utterances, and rapt silence of the multitudes.”18 He later wrote that “chiefly memorable in the mind of those who saw that second inauguration must still remain the tall, pathetic, melancholy figure of the man who, then inducted into office in the midst of the glad acclaim of thousands of people, and illumined by the deceptive brilliance of a March sunburst, was already standing in the shadow of death.”19

Less than a month after Mr. Lincoln’s death, Brooks wrote a friend that Mr. Lincoln “was so kind, loving and gentle that no man could even partially know him and be his enemy. The plain, homely face, every quirk of which I knew, was sometimes suffused with a light which was almost a transfiguration, and though he had firmness enough when it was needed, he was more devoid of anger, clamor, evil-speaking and uncharity than any human being I ever knew or heard of.”20

In 1865 Brooks had been offered by President Lincoln a patronage position in San Francisco “unless I chose to remain at the Capital as his Private Secretary, in place of Mr. John G. Nicolay, who proposed to go to Europe.”21 Brooks preferred to take the White House post and conspired with his friend, Dr. Anson G. Henry, and Mrs. Lincoln to make the change. The President’s death intervened and Brooks spent the remainder of his life writing and editing newspapers and books.


  1. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 201 (from Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln” first published in The Harper’s Monthly Magazine, May 1865).
  2. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 269.
  3. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p. 115.
  4. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 8.
  5. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 15.
  6. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 10 (Introduction by Herbert Mitgang, editor).
  7. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 10.
  8. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 254.
  9. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 201-202 (from Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln” first published in The Harper’s Monthly Magazine, May 1865).
  10. Wayne C. Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, p. 311.
  11. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 195-196.
  12. Wayne C. Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, p. 313.
  13. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 214.
  14. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 215.
  15. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 195 (Letter from Noah Brooks to Isaac P. Langworthy, May 10, 1865).
  16. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 11.
  17. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 255.
  18. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 76.
  19. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 123.
  20. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 257.
  21. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 188 (April 16, 1865).