The piece came about in the early months of the Civil War. Hawthorne wanted to view the effects of battle firsthand or, as he wrote, "to look a little more closely at matters with my own eyes" The war distracted Hawthorne and he had problems writing, and after consulting with his friends Franklin Pierce and Horatio Bridge, he decided to visit Washington. Publisher William Ticknor accompanied Hawthorne, and the two embarked via train from Massachusetts to New York City, then onto Philadelphia and then to Washington.
While traveling, Hawthorne witnessed heavy military presence, including guards at railroad depots and scattered military encampments. As he wrote to his wife, "The farther we go, the deeper grows the rumble and grumble of the coming storm, and I think the two armies are only waiting our arrival to begin." During the visit, Hawthorne met with Major General George B. McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, and then on March 13th, met with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. The group Hawthorne was present President Lincoln with an ivory handled whip, and Hawthorne made several side trips, including one to Harper's Ferry, Virginia.
When Hawthorne arrived back to his home in Concord, Massachusetts, he wrote the piece in a month and sent it to publisher James Fields. Fields approved it without reading it, to the disappointment of Hawthorne, who wrote to Ticknor, "I wanted to benefit of somebody's opinion besides my own, as to the expediency of publishing two or three passages in the article." Fields soon regretted the decision as well and asked for changes. He tactfully wrote to Hawthorne, "I knew I should like it hugely and I do. But I am going to ask you to change some of it if you will."
In particular, Fields asked to soften the description of Lincoln, whom Hawthorne referred to as "Uncle Abe", as homely, coarse, and unkempt:
The whole physiognomy is as coarse a one as you would meet anywhere in the length and breadth of the States; but, withal, it is redeemed, illuminated, softened, and brightened by a kindly though serious look out of his eyes, and an expression of homely sagacity, that seems weighted with rich results of village experience. A great deal of native sense; no bookish cultivation, no refinement; honest at heart, and thoroughly so, and yet, in some sort, sly,—at least endowed with a sort of tact and wisdom that are akin to craft, and would impel him, I think, to take an antagonist in flank, rather than to make a bull-run at him right in front. But, on the whole, I like this sallow, queer, sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it; and, for my small share in the matter, would as lief have Uncle Abe for a ruler as any man whom it would have been practicable to put in his place.
Though Hawthorne acquiesced to the editorial cuts, he lamented, "What a terrible thing it is to try to let off a little bit of truth into this miserable humbug of a world!" He believed the section was "the only part of the article really worth publishing." In its place, Hawthorne included a footnote which said, in part, "we are compelled to omit two or three pages, in which the author describes the interview, and gives his idea of the personal appearance and deportment of the President."
Many readers of The Atlantic Monthly were offended by Hawthorne's essay, and the magazine received "cruel and terrible notes". The concern was partially because it was somewhat pro-southern, but also because it was antiwar. Hawthorne also offended New Englanders by criticizing Ralph Waldo Emerson's view on John Brown. Emerson had referred to John Brown's execution as making "the Gallows as venerable as the Cross!"and instead called John Brown "blood-stained fanatic", and Hawthorne concluded that "nobody was ever more justly hanged."