Tracing Lincoln's trail
By MICHAEL J.DEVINE
Don Davenport. In Lincoln's Footsteps: A Historical Guide to the Lincoln Sites in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Madison, Wisconsin: Prairie Oak Press, 1991. Pp. 206 wth introduction, chronology, illustrations, bibliography and index. $12.95 (paper).
That so much of Lincoln's legacy remains available and well preserved is as much a result of blind luck as it is of anything else (more on this later). Still, there were many generous philanthropists, dedicated scholars, public-spirited citizens and farsighted political leaders who made heroic efforts in the century and a quarter following Lincoln's death to assure that the material culture of this great life would be preserved in all its reality, glory and tragedy for the inspiration of the entire world.
Don Davenport's fine guidebook provides an excellent introduction to the tangible Lincoln legacy that, so far at least, has been saved for the ages. His guide is organized in a "user friendly" manner and is written in a delightful and engaging style. The first two parts of the book cover, respectively, Lincoln's Kentucky years and his Indiana boyhood.
Part III, dealing with Illinois, appropriately takes up nearly three-quarters of the volume. This section provides information on all of the state's major Lincoln sites, most of its minor ones and many that are simply too good to pass up while traveling through Lincoln country.
Springfield's Dana Thomas House and Illinois State Museum fall into this latter category. Camp Butler and the Lincoln Room in the Illinois State Historical Library offer examples of the frequently overlooked jewels Davenport thoughtfully includes. For each major Lincoln site, Davenport presents concise information on location, hours of operation, admission policies and accessibility for the handicapped. He also describes nearby attractions, mentions accommodations and provides the address of the local source for tourist information.
For every major site Davenport has also written a highly readable and factually reliable historical essay telling the reader "what happened here." In addition, he presents interesting reviews of the history and development of the more significant historic sites. The guidebook also contains a useful chronology of Lincoln's life, an epilogue briefly detailing the lives of Lincoln's immediate family and William Herndon (Lincoln's devoted law partner and biographer), and a fairly solid list of suggested readings.
A couple of minor glitches can easily be corrected in subsequent printings. For example, Lincoln never voted for Henry Clay in a congressional election. Also, Jean Baker's biography of Mary Todd Lincoln and the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association should be included in the suggestions for additional readings.
Overall, however, this little volume has very few faults. Davenport's analysis is perceptive and correct. He's right in observing that New Salem is "one of our favorite Lincoln sites," and that the summer programs there, offered by the Great American People Show, are "outstanding regional theater." And who among those familiar with the superb collections of the Illinois State Historical Library would argue with his observation that its Lincoln room is "a small gem," which should not be overlooked?
Perhaps some day Davenport will produce a similar guide to the Lincoln sites in and around Washington, D.C., extending up to the Gettysburg Battlefield. Such a guide would be a welcome addition to the literature.
Another story, touched upon by Davenport but yet untold, is that of the heroes who preserved and protected the Lincoln legacy. When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton solemnly proclaimed at the hour of Lincoln's death, "Now he belongs to the ages," he could not have foreseen that in the real world of public history Lincoln's legend would fall into the hands of countless scholars, collectors, curators and site interpreters. Nor could Stanton have imagined that eventually Lincoln's great legacy would far too often be overseen and governed by uninspired bureaucrats looking for secure careers, politically appointed trustees anxious to dispense patronage and perks, and partisan politicians often reluctant to spend money on preserving our nation's heritage while preoccupied with road contracts, the building of civic centers and employment opportunities for their inept relatives.
Fortunately for all who are interested in Lincoln's heritage, the efforts of right-minded individuals prevailed. Without the great work of diligent scholar/administrators such as Paul Angle and Ben Thomas, selfless political leaders like Illinois Gov. Henry Homer and concerned philanthropists, among whom the late George Bunn was the most prominent in Illinois, there would be little left for Davenport to write about or for the public to appreciate.
Michael J. Devine is director of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. Formerly he served as director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and Illinois' state historian.
November 1991/Illinois lssues/25