1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History
by Charles Bracelen Flood
Simon & Schuster, $30, 521 pp.
Review by David Forsmark
With a nod to comedian Jeff Foxworthy, let me suggest a test for what Thomas Sowell might call "Liberal Rednecks."
If the discussion is about a president who:
- Fought an unpopular war with unwavering goals, despite the fact that many citizens thought the casualties were out of proportion with
- Won re-election with the votes from the military going
wildly in his favor even though his opponent was a decorated military
veteran, while the president merely had been a member of the state militia;
- Probably waited a little too long to replace a general who was content with a stalemate because of his aversion to casualties; and
- Was roundly condemned for the use of executive powers in a manner some protested was unconstitutional in order to further his war aims;
...and your first thought is "Barack Obama," you might be a
member of the mainstream media or the Democratic Campaign Committee.
While the contemporary-minded might assume the above references are
to George W. Bush, they apply to Abraham Lincoln, America's
secular saint and savior of the Union. It's Obama who has
been striving to link himself to his celebrated fellow Illinoian ever
since announcing his presidential bid in 2007, and he's been getting
lots of help.
As The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson expounded in last year’s wonderfully entertaining Land of Lincoln, books,
traveling exhibits, museums, magazine articles, and TV shows about
Lincoln are a thriving cottage industry in the United States. The combination of the bicentennial of Abe’s birth and the media and
Obama campaign team’s determination to compare Obama to the last president from Illinois has raised this to a fever pitch. Lincolnmania
is at its height.
Much of the hype centers around Team of Rivals, the
best-selling book by historian/TV talking head Doris Kearns Goodwin.
The clichéd treatment of the title of this gushy hagiography is used to
push bipartisanship and promote Obama as a post-partisan messiah who
will deliver us from petty squabbling over such things as whether the
federal government should take over health care or confiscate more of
But if your taste runs to biographical history with an approach that
is about reality instead of advocacy — not to mention graced with a
compelling narrative drive — let me suggest what is likely to be the
best of the flood of Lincoln titles this year: historian Charles
Bracelen Flood's 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History.
Flood's earlier works include the magnificent Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War; Lee: The Last Years; and Hitler: The Path to Power.
He has another winner here.
In 1864, Flood employs the ingenious device of intimately
following Lincoln through this most tumultuous and pivotal year. He
begins with the traditional New Year Day’s open house at the White
House in 1864, where a weary president greets well-wishers with the
Civil War still very much in doubt — to Lincoln’s second inaugural
address in 1865, when he delivers the greatest such address in American
history and the war is all but won.
The effect is startling and emotionally draining at times, as the
reader experiences the crushing effects of Lincoln’s day-to-day duties
and the incredible burdens he bore.
While Flood is clearly a fan of the 16th and second-most consequential president, he takes a clear-eyed look at Lincoln in 1864
that will give ammunition to both sides of the raging debate over
whether Lincoln was a great president or the source of all of today's
"Abe-phobes," as Ferguson calls them, who devour books like Thomas Dilorenzo's Lincoln Unmasked will
point to Flood’s recounting of Lincoln's appointment of clearly
incompetent generals for political reasons. They also can cite
Lincoln's blatant use of patronage and federal contracts that might
call to mind a more recent Illinois politician if viewed cynically.
Flood also charges an "arbitrary" use of arrest powers against political
opponents, including newspaper reporters, and even the misuse of the
Army to influence the 1864 election (though Lincoln personally put a
stop to the most egregious case of the latter).
But it is the "Abe-philes" who will be the most pleased with Flood’s
portrait as the reader virtually lives with Lincoln through the
crushing burden of a year when the survival of the Union — much less
his own presidency — was very much in doubt.
When the "surge" in Iraq began in 2007, the press mostly reported
that "violence was up," as though the beginning of offensive operations
could lead to anything else. But Lincoln’s bold move of replacing the
popular but combat-averse General George McClellan with Ulysses S.
Grant began with a genuine disaster.
At Cold Harbor, 7,000 Union troops were killed in 20 minutes, giving
some pause as to whether Lincoln should even be re-nominated by the
Republicans. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, one of Goodwin’s
daunted "team of rivals," maneuvered to place himself in nomination.
Confederate General Jubal Early’s army threatened Washington, and
the government was forced to take shelter. The year also would mark the
spectacular and grisly debacle of the Battle of the Crater, where an
attempt to blow up Confederate lines led to Union troops being stuck in
a deep hole as fire rained down on them from above.
Meanwhile, "Peace Democrats" campaigned against the war;
"Copperheads" plotted sabotage and assassination; and secret peace
delegations offered the temptation to end the slaughter — but not
slavery. And Radical Republicans charged that Lincoln planned to go too
easy on the South.
By the end of the year, however, Grant and Sherman had made Union
victory all but inevitable. A president who considered himself
unelectable in the summer finally received a majority of the popular
Flood shows it was Lincoln himself who engineered the turnaround,
and the cliché "learned" in Vietnam — politicians should not
second-guess military commanders — really depends on the politicians
and the commanders.
The story of the turnaround is dramatic and thrilling. 1864
is a triumph and a must-read for anyone even vaguely interested in the
subject. It also is a perfect companion to my favorite book of this
genre, Jay Winik’s inestimable April 1865: The Month That Saved America. Taken together, these two books provide an experience that a hundred bigger-picture histories of the Civil War cannot match.