Former DDN columnist brings Lincoln adversary from Dayton to life in book

Former Dayton Daily News columnist Martin Gottlieb wrote a book about Clement Vallandigham, the most nationally prominent Daytonian before the Wright Brothers. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

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Former Dayton Daily News columnist Martin Gottlieb wrote a book about Clement Vallandigham, the most nationally prominent Daytonian before the Wright Brothers. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

A former Dayton journalist has shined a light on a little known corner of Dayton and national history with a book on the Northern politician who gave President Abraham Lincoln more trouble than any other.

The 16th president was disgusted enough with the anti-Civil War agitation of Clement Vallandigham, a Dayton attorney and politician, to exile the former congressman into enemy territory in May 1863. From exile, Vallandigham ran for the Ohio governor’s seat.

Martin Gottlieb’s book, “Lincoln’s Northern Nemesis, the War Opposition and Exile of Ohio’s Clement Vallandigham,” was published by North Carolina-based McFarland & Co. Inc., an independent publisher of academic books, in August.

Despite his publisher’s general approach, Gottlieb’s goal was never a formal academic biography, and the work doesn’t read like one.

“I tried to make it about the juicy events that I thought were so interesting, that drew my attention and I thought would draw other people’s attention,” Gottlieb, 76, said.

An editorial writer and columnist for the Dayton Daily News for 27 years, Gottlieb had occasionally heard of Vallandigham over the years, enough to pique his curiosity.

A former Dayton congressman exiled from the United States by Lincoln himself? “I thought, ‘Well, I doubt that happened,’” he recalled with a laugh. “‘If that happened, I would know about it.’”

Gottlieb started reading. He wasn’t looking for a book to write, but he found himself pulled in by a tale of political intrigue and life-altering combat (during a time of nation-changing military combat).

“It sifted through my brain for months afterwards,” he said. “I began to think, well, this is just really a juicy story.”

Count retired Judge Dennis Langer as a fan. Langer is something of a Lincoln buff, who has lectured on Lincoln and knew of Vallandigham before reading Gottlieb’s book

It’s a bit of a mystery as to why Vallandigham remains so unknown today. One reviewer of Gottlieb’s book wrote on Amazon.com that he lived in Dayton for 35 years and knew nothing of him.

But before the Wright Brothers, the Daytonian whose name would have been recognized anywhere in the United States in the latter part of the 19th century was Vallandigham’s, Langer said.

“He was the most nationally well known and recognized figure in Dayton in the lead-up to the Civil War,” said Langer, a former Montgomery County Common Pleas judge. “And yet, he has been forgotten in history.”

He admires how Gottlieb was able to present the story, with verve and humor.

“Martin does a wonderful job of bringing him to life and really explaining in rich detail why he was such a nationally significant figure,” he said. “The book is incredibly and deeply researched.”

Other reviewers have praised the book.

“Vallandigham has long cried out for a new look, and the task has been handsomely accomplished by Martin Gottlieb, retired columnist for the Daily News in Vallandigham’s one-time political base … The result is a fresh, nuanced, and illuminating portrait,” wrote Harold Holzer, America’s Civil War magazine.

Research took Gottlieb into library lofts and university archives, and freed by retirement (he left the Dayton Daily News in 2011), he neglected no opportunity to chase down what he felt was an historical loose end.

“That was fun — getting to nail down everything I wanted to nail down,” he said.

In one sense, research and writing took nearly a decade. But Gottlieb hastens to say that not all that time was spent working. He took his time, understanding that with a first book of this kind, he faced no deadline.

“I take retirement very seriously, and I think I’m very good at it,” he said.

Without an agent, getting published turned out to be its own journey. Gottlieb weathered his share of rejections, but he was gratified that just one publisher that actually read the entire manuscript rejected it.

Two publishers eventually accepted the work. “In that sense,” Gottlieb said. “I feel like I batted two out of three.”

Asked why people should care about Vallandigham today, Gottlieb demurs on taking that approach, not wanting to lecture anyone about why they should care. Instead, he sees Vallandigham as simply a good story, one that similarly inclined people might enjoy.

“I want to emphasize the good yarn here,” he said.

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