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1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 3, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Critically acclaimed historian Flood (Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War) provides a brilliant, compelling account of Lincoln's dramatic final full year of life-a year in which the war finally turned in the Union's favor and Lincoln faced a tough battle for re-election. After Union defeats at the Battle of Cold Harbor and the siege of Petersburg, Confederate General Jubal Early came within five miles of Washington, D.C., before he was beaten back; General Sherman's September victory at Atlanta followed, with his bloody march to the sea. At the same time, Lincoln found himself running against his own secretary of the treasury, Salmon Chase, for the Republican nomination, and then against the Democrat (and general) George B. McClellan for the presidency. Lincoln won by a narrow popular majority, but a significant electoral majority. At the close of 1864, as Lincoln celebrated both his re-election and the coming end of the war, John Wilkes Booth laid down an ambitious plan for kidnapping that soon evolved into a map for murder. Combining a novelist's flair with the authority and deep knowledge of a scholar, Flood artfully integrates this complex web of storylines. 16 pages of b&w photos, maps.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Flood follows Abraham Lincoln’s fourth year as president, ranging across matters that arose in his office, in person, or on paper, whether of minor or major importance. Securing his readers’ engagement with a detailed account of business Lincoln conducted on January 1, 1864, Flood depicts for them the appearance of Lincoln’s workplace, to which access was extraordinarily easy to obtain. Petitioners and their pleas—for government posts, for stays of execution, for an autograph—parade through Flood’s chronicle, as do bringers of tidings connected with the two biggest things on Lincoln’s mind during 1864: winning reelection and winning the Civil War. Flood’s overall effect shows how contingent each was: he recounts Lincoln’s hardheaded electioneering actions—involving money, political favors, and sidetracking rivals such as Salmon Chase—alongside Lincoln’s exercise of his commander-in-chief role. Neither objective was entirely separable, and there’s a sophistication in Flood’s portrayal that shows how Lincoln’s actions to further one furthered the other, as in his furlough of Union soldiers to vote for him. Flood’s high-quality historical narrative will capture the Civil War readership. --Gilbert Taylor
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A long time ago I learned that you can't give THE definitive history of anything from a single source, and my solution (as a non-scholar) was to read as many books as possible to get a variety of views, and try to find my own conclusions. You learn, along the way, that historians have points of view (it is not "Just the facts, ma'am"). Reading history should be as done as critical reading, much as reading a newspaper or a blog should be. I apologize because the point is obvious, but this book brought the lesson home.
In the first couple of pages, I thought Lincoln at the Gates might be useless as too adoring of its subject, but I quickly changed my mind. Nearly every description of the Lincoln's politics are cast in negative terms. He uses phrases like 'back room deals', and Lincoln 'manipulating' others. He describes politicking practices in a tone that encourages the modern reader to believe the Republicans of 1860 and 1864 were engaging in underhanded and unusual scheming, sort of sotto voce suggesting such things had never been practiced before or since. In pointing out that Lincoln did not act to stop some of the actually or marginally illegal or immoral actions of the operatives in the party, Flood seems to suggest that Lincoln approved or encouraged these action, but generally fails to prove the point. He gives the politics of the era no context beyond the war years. The innuendo is not blatant but is continuous. It is as though there is subtext in which Flood wants to point out that Lincoln was no saint, and leaned at time on the devil's door. What makes Lincoln so admirable is that he is a flawed human, working with what he had on hand to a single goal. He came to the job with with little experience and had his bumbles, but he grew. My, how he grew. Flood's insinuations and cavils pale. But some of his views are worth exploring and it would have been a better book if he had done so.
If I were a Lincoln scholar, I would want to dip back into the literature (which is endless) and the source documents to find out if the politics of the mid-19th century as described by Flood were in keeping with the sorts of actions common to the era, supporting my researches with as much balance as possible. But based on a lifetime of reading history and especially American history, it is impossible to avoid the fact that nasty scheming is as natural to politics through history (in America and everywhere else) as stump speeches and hanging the flag in a convention hall. [See Joseph Ellis, for example, on how Tom Jefferson paid writers to circulate lie-filled tracts to excoriate his enemies.] It would be impossible for Lincoln, or anyone else, to participate in national politics without having to play some hardball. I am aware of nothing that suggests the Lincoln was the source of or enthusiastic sponsor of some of the more distasteful actions Flood describes. He seems to fault Lincoln for keeping his cards close to his chest, allowing others (including his cabinet) to make assumptions about the president's view, rather than simply laying out a opinion and letting all and sundry take potshots. Lincoln seems to be quietly damned by Flood for doing what seems to me to be a masterful method of finding out the opinions of others and reserving the ability to, eventually, present a solution likely to be supported and to go more or less where Lincoln intended. Lincoln managed compromise. Flood manages to infer it is a sneaky approach.
Your mother already told you that the "everyone else is doing it" is no excuse for your bad behavior, and she's right. But your mother was trying to raise a good child. In the real world, politicians have to deal with what "everyone else is doing." They can't simply scorn it, they can't fully ignore it, and they can't survive without dealing with it. But for a fuller and more complete take on Lincoln as a politician, see Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. Manipulative --you bet -- if by the word you mean influencing other's actions by not showing all of your cards at once, or allowing people to reach conclusions that will take them where you want them to go. Flood sees a man who is less than forthright and by implication, dishonest. Phooey. Lincoln was a politician and it is mind blowing naivete to think any president can not be a politician with ambition, and still reach and maintain the office. [See anything about James Buchanan for proof on the 'not maintain' argument.]
Lincoln's sole goal was to unify the country, to prove that a nation 'of the people, by the people and for the people' could in fact survive. Adam Goodheart [1861: The Civil War Awakening] writes an affecting account of Lincoln's first 'State of Union' address (1861) in which Lincoln first comprehensively provides the intellectual and philosophical basis for committing his country to the worst sort of war -- fratricide. His overriding motivation was not to end slavery, but he found that to end slavery was necessary to preserve the union. He had no reason to believe in the purest form of social equality. The people who did believe in social intermingling of the races in that century were the outliers, very rare and considered by most Americans of the time to be a little odd. Abolitionists didn't seem to think much about what would become of freed slaves--they would go somewhere else (Liberia or South America or out west someplace) or would keep to themselves but certainly not move in next door. Lincoln didn't have a solution either, but accepted, then embraced, the concept that slavery must end if America believed that all men were equal. [In fact, Lincoln's evolving view of slavery is a fascinating topic of its own: Eric Foner's book on the topic is on my to-read pile.] Lincoln's passion was unity. He could solve none of the problems of the nation if he did not first try to keep it a nation. His priority never changed.
To give Flood his due, his descriptions of battles are terrific, and I would enjoy his writing on the military history of the war if I were more confident that he would not be biased. He makes me want to read more about Sherman's march through Georgia and learn more of Sheridan. He also include lots of sidebar stories that are interesting but are spoiled, for me, by the thought they may not be complete or balanced. Flood is very unkind to Mary Todd Lincoln -- almost everyone is -- but her misadventures in this book seem to be beside the point, used more as a finger wag than to describe the scene or the facts. He seems to enjoy Lincoln's humor but seems to harrumph a little, encouraging the idea that it was often inappropriately used.
This is a readable book; Flood is a capable writer. But anyone interested in the Civil War and Lincoln should immediately sit down with other volumes -- and there are lots and lots -- for other points of view. David Herbert Donald's detail heavy tome Lincoln is good; the James MacPherson very short bio gets very good reviews (I haven't read it); MacPherson is a civil war expert and compelling writer. Don't let this be your only book on Lincoln and the war that changed America.
One more note: I thought quite a bit whether my admiration of Lincoln biased my reading of this book. It does. I would like to think that my tone might be different if I were not a fan, but the conclusions would be the same.
This book is a chronological study of the year 1864 with Lincoln as the main tragic character - but it is so much more.
Author Flood makes frequent deviations from Lincoln's story to relate fascinating human interest anecdotes, or delves into little known events to present a noteworthy account supported by pertinent quotations - these "little stories" not only propels the narrative but humanizes what for many could be a new rendition of many well know historical events. I would like to list just few of the accounts that I found most interesting, many of which were frankly unknown to this reader.
Lincoln the Patronage King:
Lincoln has lambasted Douglas during the debates in 1858 as an individual "committed to rewarding his followers with positions involving postoffices, landoffices, marshalships, and cabinet appointments". Lincoln upon taking the oath as President participated in the patronage process wholeheartedly. Of 1,520 men who had presidential appointments under James Buchanan, 1,195 lost their jobs. According to the author "everything was handed out, either for money or as a reward for past or prospective services". Men given jobs by the incoming Lincoln administration understood they would be donation up to 10 percent of their salary to the Republican Party's treasuries. In addition to civilian jobs it was common practice to appoint by State brigadier generals and colonels as political plums to men of no military experience. This practice would haunt the North as these mostly "patronage" officers unwittingly sabotaged the war effort by their lack of military experience and training.
The Northwest Conspiracy:
A secret organization of men from the North, some of them Southern sympathizers considered Lincoln a tyrant whose rule must end. Known as "Order of American Knights", "Knights of the Golden Circle" or "Order of the Sons of Liberty" wished by armed insurrection to take Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri out of the union and form a "Northwestern Confederacy" sympathetic to the South.
Republican Party platform for 1864:
The details of the platform and the discussion of the floor fights made clear the issues that were critical for Lincoln to be reelected.
Several pages are devoted to detail the mining and subsequent detonation of four tons of explosives under a Confederate strong point outside Petersburg that turned into a monumental disaster for the Union and the end of General Ambrose Burnside's military career. A tragic story well presented.
Francis Carpenter painter of Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation:
The author quotes extensively from Carpenter's journals. Since he was give full access to Lincoln his nuances comments make for compelling reading.
Congressional Bias Against West Pointers:
Many members of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War felt that even academy graduates from the North were likely to be Southern sympathizers at heart, men who had little interest in the issue of slavery and retained friendly feeling for brother offices in the Confederacy.
Inflammatory Booklet on Mixing The Races:
The author states the booklet "Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White man and Negro" was the greatest Trojan horse in the history of American political campaigns. In 1864 Democratic-supporting newspapers began quoting the pamphlet as proof that Lincoln and his party intended to impose these ideas on the nation.
Privileges Accorded to Actors and Actresses:
Actors and actresses were allowed to move freely through Union and Confederate lines in order to give a performance in Savannah or Richmond one month and in Philadelphia or New York the next.
General McClellan and his delay accepting the Democratic 1864 Nomination:
Far from being the inspirational and enthusiastic candidate of the Democratic Party McClellan took nine days to mull over his acceptance of his parties nomination.
The 1964 Democratic convention was held in the "Wigwam" in Chicago. The same location where Lincoln received the nomination in 1860.
Phil Sheridan and Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley:
The story of Union general Phil Sheridan and Confederal general Jubal Early for the Shenandoah Valley-critical to the South's food supply- is discussed in detail.
Lincoln's Enrollment Act Story:
The Enrollment Act passed in March 1863 began the military draft. The act permitted s man to avoid service by hiring a substitute for $300. Men older than forty-five were not subject to the draft but could pay $500 to send into the Army a "representative" rather than a substitute. Many wealthy individuals did this to support the war effort. John Staples, a minor who needed his father's permission to enlist, was selected to be Lincoln's representative. Recruit Staples and his father met Lincoln where the President said, "I hope you are one of the fortunate ones".
The author and his research assistants had to have combed through an inordinate amount of primary source volumes to find the pertinent and appropriate quote(s) or excerpt that clearly illuminates the numerous diverse topics covered.
This year we commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. I found this book in many ways a noteworthy and timely contribution to our understanding of this tragic event. The book includes extensive notes, a bibliography and an index is highly recommended for both students and adults.
I see on Amazon that the hefty trade paperback is selling new for $6.80! What a deal for a masterful book.
I highly recommend this book to anyone that has more than a passing interest in our 16th president. For those that have studied Lincoln, this book offers much new material, that will leave you craving more. I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Flood for my blog. Check it out by going to ThisMightyScourge [dot] com and clicking on the "interviews" category in the right menu.
This Mighty Scourge blog
St Louis, Missouri
July 1, 2010