STANTON: LINCOLN’S WAR SECRETARY by Walter Stahr

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(Edwin M. Stanton)

When one thinks of impactful figures in American history few would come up with the name, Edwin M. Stanton.  However, without Stanton the North would have had a much more difficult time defeating the South in the Civil War, the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated someone else would have had to step forward to round up the conspirators and capture John Wilkes Booth and Jefferson Davis, and perhaps Andrew Johnson might not have been brought before the Senate for an impeachment trial.  Lincoln’s Secretary of War is the subject of Walter Stahr’s latest biography, STANTON: LINCOLN’S WAR SECRETARY, a smartly written, intimate, and incisive portrait of Stanton’s role in the Civil War and American history in general.  As he did in his previous biographies of John Jay and William Seward, Stahr has mined the available sources reaffirming many of the standard opinions of his subject, but also evaluating new sources and developing new perspectives.

Born in Steubenville, Ohio in 1814 Stanton was raised near the dividing line between the slave and non-slave states of Virginia and Ohio in a period when abolitionism was beginning to take root.  Stanton would attend Kenyon College, but never graduate.  He went on to study law under the auspices of a Steubenville attorney, Daniel Collier and began his practice of law in the spring of 1837.  Soon Judge Benjamin Tappan, a staunch Democrat would become his law partner and mentor.  At this point in time Stanton grew increasingly interested in politics in large part due to the depression that would last over five years.  Stanton’s involvement in Democratic Party politics increased and he was soon elected Prosecutor for Harrison County, Ohio.  Judge Tappan would soon be appointed to the US Senate and Stanton was well on his way as a partisan Democrat developing a “no holds barred” approach to politics.

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(Stanton and Lincoln’s cabinet)

Stahr has full command of primary materials as he repeatedly points out what documents pertaining to Stanton’s views were available and those that were missing.  This allows him to compare diverse viewpoints and sources to determine what Stanton actually wrote, said, or acted upon during his law and political career.  Stahr attacks the many myths associated with Stanton and he does his best to straighten out discrepancies in the historical record.  In Stahr’s study we follow the evolution of Stanton from an important member of the Ohio Democratic Party to becoming the cornerstone of Lincoln’s Republican administration.  During this later process, in particular, we witness the liberalization of Stanton’s views dealing with race.

Stanton’s personal life was wrought with tragedy leading to a strong sense of religiosity.  As a boy he would lose his father, a brother would commit suicide, and a sister would pass at a young age.  Further, in March, 1844 he would lose his first wife to tuberculosis and during the war years he would lose his infant son James.  These experiences made him appear decidedly older than he actually was.

Stahr correctly stresses that though he was known for his service to a Republican president, Stanton was a staunch Democrat who had supported Martin Van Buren as President, and later James K. Polk’s annexationist policies.  Though he had a very low opinion of James Buchanan whose presidency directly preceded the Civil War, he did not think that highly of Abraham Lincoln either during the pre-war period.

An area that Stahr should have developed much further were Stanton’s views on race and abolitionism.  The author seems to skirt these issues and based on his later beliefs an earlier intellectual roadmap for Stanton’s thinking is warranted.  In Stahr’s defense,  he does give the appropriate amount of attention to Stanton’s views and handling of the use of blacks as soldiers in the union army and what prerequisites it demanded and how it would be implemented, especially the Freedman’s Bureau.  Further, the care and treatment of former slaves is examined and the reader gains a more complete picture of where Stanton stood on these issues especially constitutional amendments.   Stahr does spend an inordinate amount of time detailing Stanton’s legal career, seemingly case by case ranging from the Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge case arguing that the bridge blocked commerce on the Ohio River designated for Pittsburgh, to land cases in California, patent claims, labor riots, medical body-snatching, death from duels, and electoral chicanery.  Stanton would argue many cases before the Supreme Court, and many thought he was the leading lawyer of the period.

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(Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, January, 1863)

One of the strengths of Stahr’s effort are his descriptions of American society, culture, and geography in areas in which Stanton lived and influenced.  Stahr provides numerous insights particularly concerning California in the 1850s where he argued numerous land claims, and Washington DC before, during, and after the Civil War.

Stahr stresses how Stanton seems to always claim the moral higher ground no matter the situation.  It is difficult to sustain that approach by supporting the weak President Buchanan and the corruption that surrounded him.  Stanton became a member of the Buchanan administration because of his legal work and with a few months remaining in office Buchannan appointed Stanton Attorney-General.  The most important issue that was at hand was whether to supply Fort Sumter after South Carolina seceded.  Buchanan’s cabinet was split by secessionists and those loyal to the union, and Stanton did his best to stiffen Buchanan’s back and get him to support resupply.  Once out of office Stanton’s view of cabinet meetings stressed positions that Republicans would support as a means of strengthening his position with Lincoln.  Stahr is on firm ground as he argues that Stanton’s view of Lincoln at this time was not much better than Buchanan.  Stahr quotes Stanton’s letter to Buchanan after Lincoln assumes office, “the imbecility of this administration.… [is]…. a national disgrace never to be forgotten….as the result of Lincoln’s ‘running the machine’ for five months.”  Stanton’s bonifides are also to be questioned as he was close with General George McClellan and seemed to share the same views.  It appeared too many inside and outside the press that they were “confidential friends.”  Simon Cameron as Secretary of War advocated arming slaves which McClellan abhorred.  With Congress upset over the course of the war by January, 1862 it should not have come as a surprise that Cameron would be fired.  What was surprising is that Lincoln chose Stanton as his replacement.

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Stahr is accurate in his assessment that Lincoln chose Stanton because of his organizational ability, his workaholic approach, and his ability to get things done.  Critics, particularly the northern democratic press pointed to Stanton’s extensive use of military commissions that tried civilians for military offenses, suspension of habeas corpus, and cutting telegraph privileges to opposing newspapers.  These criticisms of Stanton must be weighed against the crucible of war since the Militia and Conscription Acts did deprive numerous individuals’ due process and civil rights.  But one caveat to Stanton’s record on civil rights were the virulent attacks on the Secretary of War which a good part of the time were unmerciful.

Stahr does a workmanlike job reporting on the McClellan-Lincoln/Stanton imbroglio.  McClellan’s ego is explored in detail and the author makes excellent use of the available correspondence.  Stahr performs equally as well in detailing Stanton’s relationship with other generals including; Grant, Sherman, Hooker, Halleck, Meade, and Burnside.  The Stanton-Lincoln relationship is analyzed and the author like many historians before him concludes that personalities and demeanors may have been opposite in many cases, but as A.E. Johnson, Stanton’s private secretary wrote “they supplemented each other’s nature, and they fully recognized the fact that they were necessary to each other.”

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Stahr does a commendable job revisiting the Andrew Johnson-Edwin Stanton relationship and the deterioration that led to Johnson’s trial in the Senate.  As with other examples in the book this aspect is well documented and the “large” personalities and issues involved are careful dissected.  The result is that Stahr has captured the essence of Stanton as a man who could be deceitful, arbitrary, capricious, as well as vindictive.  However, he was a superb Secretary of War who galvanized Union forces as well as President Lincoln with his energy, organizational skills, ability to learn and adapt, and overwhelming will to defeat the south.  Stahr characterizes Stanton as the “Implementer of Emancipation,” as opposed to the “Great Emancipator,” that was Lincoln.  But for all intents and purposes Stanton must be seen as the equal to Lincoln and Grant in earning accolades for their work during the Civil War.

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(Edwin M. Stanton)

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FORTUNE’S FOOL: THE LIFE OF JOHN WILKES BOOTH by Terry Alford

(Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth)

Terry Alford’s FORTUNE’S FOOL: THE LIFE OF JOHN WILKES BOOTH is an important contribution to the literature dealing with Lincoln’s assassin, the life he lived, and the reasons behind his actions.  Alford has filled a void by preparing the first full length biography of John Wilkes Booth through the exploration of a vast amount of primary and secondary sources used to correct many of the myths surrounding his subject, and the assassination itself.  Alford provides numerous insights into Booth’s personality, career as an actor, and the evolution of his political views that led to the death of the president.  Alford accomplishes his task by a thoughtful approach to his research material that he successfully integrates into his narrative.  Primary source quotations from family members, friends, stage acquaintances, conspirators, and others abound as Alford takes the reader inside Booth’s mental state at various stages of life and what emerges is a complete picture of his protagonist.

From birth Booth had an albatross around his neck in the name of Junius Brutus Booth, his father.  The senior Booth was one of the most creative actors of his era, and his son had to deal with his father’s successful career to the point that he would not use his own last name for a good part of his own career.  In addition, Junius Brutus was an alcoholic prone to wide mood swings who beat his children, and left child rearing to his wife, Mary Ann. Throughout his life Booth and his friends worried about the effect of alcoholism on his own behavior.  Alford includes numerous quotes relating to this fear, and when Booth abused alcohol, he was prone to violence.  This created a very strong bond between Booth and his mother to the point when the Civil War broke out, despite his strong pro-southern views he refused to join the Confederacy in order to care for his mother.  Alford speculates a great deal about the effect of Booth’s childhood on his later actions particularly being raised in Baltimore and the Maryland countryside.  Though Maryland would be a border state and stayed out of the Confederacy during the Civil War the southern part of the state was a hotbed of pro-southern sentiment, and it was here that Booth attended boarding schools that reflected his “deep southern seasoning.”

The first half of the book is devoted to Booths early years and apprenticeship as a stage actor.  Booth began his acting career in 1857 in Philadelphia and Richmond where he remained until 1860 under the name of J. B. Wilkes.  The early years were difficult as he feared disgrace and failure as he abhorred comparisons to his father.  By 1862 he became a star in his own right and returned to Baltimore.  Alford does an excellent job tracing the evolution of Booth as an actor referencing critic’s reviews and peer reactions to his performances.  During the first three years of his career Booth took on many different roles, mostly small parts in numerous plays in order to refine his craft.  Booth had to overcome the obstacles of a poor memory and general nervousness to achieve success.  Many who knew him felt he was extremely vain and lazy in learning his craft, which created a great deal of difficulty.  As an addendum to Booth’s life story, Alford provides the reader with a useful history of American theater during the 1850s and 60s.  In doing so Alford conveys the difficulties young actors faced and this allows the reader to understand what obstacles Booth had to overcome.  As Booth’s acting career developed a number of things become very clear.  First, his sensitivity to the mixed legacy of his father.  Second, his own battle with alcohol and a fierce temper.  Lastly, his intense southern nationalism.

We first learn of Booth’s political views and attitude toward slavery in November, 1860 when he attends a debate between Alabama Congressman William Yancey and Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas.  At that point in his intellectual development Booth appreciated the defense of states’ rights, but recoiled from the consequences of disunion.  Alford does a credible job tracing Booth’s ideological evolution as he “held views more common to the Upper South than in deepest Dixie.”  He deplored the election of Lincoln because he felt it would tear his beloved union apart.  His unionist views were roundly attacked while he performed during this period in Birmingham, Alabama and this led to an emotional crisis and forced him to leave for New York.  His motto at the time was “concession before secession.”  For Booth the main culprit for all of the nation’s problems were the abolitionists who he felt were as radical as secessionists.  This view would hold for Booth’s entire life as Alford includes his scathing commentary in dealing with the opponents of slavery.  Booth’s viewpoint rested on the belief that the south only wished to tend to its own business and maintain its traditional rights as it held an unassailable moral high ground in the debate.  Booth wrote after Lincoln’s election, “I will not fight for secession.  This union is my mother.  A Mother that I love with unutterable affection.  No, I will not fight for disunion.  But I will fight with all my heart and soul, even if there’s not a man to back me for equal rights and justice to the south.”  Many questioned why Booth did not join the Confederate army.  Alford’s answer is simple in that he viewed his promise to care for his mother as sacred.  This did not stop Booth from fiercely advocating for the southern cause as he traveled widely for his acting career.

(Booth as a member of the 1st Regiment, Virginia Volunteers)

Alford spends a great deal of time analyzing Booth’s character.  He seemed to be a person of extremes.  On the one hand he was mild and somewhat engaging so most people seemed to enjoy and wanted to be in his company, especially women!  But his persona could easily shift to one of nastiness and temper tantrums depending on the situation he found himself.  For Booth fist fights were very common.  The behavioral extremes can be traced to his childhood in dealing with a very dysfunctional family situation.  Most people who knew Booth felt that once he made up his mind it was impossible to change it.  According to Alford, “Booth never had a new thought after his core opinions were formed in his teenage years.”  He was a very close minded individual who was confounded by his inability to let go of his troubles.  He could be the nicest person, but too often his nasty disposition took over.  Booth “did not want to hear what he did not want to,” and developed the ability to rationalize things that did not go as he expected, particularly news that was detrimental to the south during the Civil War.

According to contemporaries, Booth developed into an exceptional actor considering he only spent seven years on stage.  The first three as an apprentice, a year as a fledgling lead, and three years as a star.  Alford dissects his career and concludes that his acting reflected genius and greatness as he performed as Shakespeare’s RICHARD III, Raphael in THE MARBLE HEART, and as Pescaria in THE APOSTATE.   As the New York Times noted, “His Richard is acknowledged to be without a rival on the American stage.”  The turning point for Booth came with the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in January, 1863 which confirmed Booth’s worst fears regarding Lincoln and the war.  From this point to May, 1864 when he quit the stage, Booth was in a quandary as what path his life should take.  He believed that his career was hard and lonely work and his success came at a high cost to his mind and body.  He never liked touring and felt he was a slave to the north because more and more he could not express his opinions.  As Lincoln’s reelection grew nearer he decided to break his pledge to his mother as he could tolerate a war that was a stalemate, but with the north on the verge of victory, he had to take action.

Alford spends a great deal of time discussing Booth’s plan to kidnap Lincoln and trade him for southern prisoners of war.  The south suffered from a manpower shortage with 66,000 Confederate troops in northern prison camps.  He believed that if he could capture Lincoln and exchange him for southern prisoners he could change the course of the war.  Alford follows Booth and his conspirators as they plan Lincoln’s capture, delves into the disagreements among Booth’s accomplices, and the final failure of all of his planning.

Any biography of Booth must treat the Lincoln’s assassination in great detail and Alford measures up strongly to others in his coverage.  Booth acted on his own as he developed plans to assassinate Lincoln and never considered acting in concert with the Confederate government as a letter Booth wrote located soon after the assassination attested to.  Booth believed that Lincoln was a tyrant and a dictator and something had to be done.  Alford develops the argument that Booth’s acting roles in Shakespearean plays contributed to his thought pattern in developing his assassination plot.  This is not a far-fetched approach as Booth when on stage had the ability to become the person that he played, including their mindsets.  For Booth in discussing Brutus, “the humanity and high motives of Caesar’s assailant were compelling.  His patriotism and decency were beyond question,” and this may have weighed heavily on Booth’s thought process as did his “terribly earnest and emotional temperament.”  Alford is correct in arguing that Booth was fueled by his ambition to be great and was “fired by guilt over his failure to become a soldier,” and he told friends in Baltimore that “he was going to do something that would bring his name forward in history.”

After the fall of Richmond in early April, 1865 Booth grew more and more depressed.  According to friends he began to drink heavily and grew increasingly irritable, restless, and suffered from wide mood swings.  When Lincoln entered Richmond on April 4th and sat in Jefferson Davis’ chair, Booth was provoked beyond measure.  The news from Appomattox a few days later that Lee had surrendered was the last straw.  Once Lincoln announced that he favored voting rights for Negroes Booth told a friend “that is the last speech he will ever make.”  Alford then follows Booth’s actions until he enters Ford’s Theater and assassinates Lincoln on the 14th.  Alford’s description brings the reader inside Booth’s mental state and it continues as Booth escapes and makes his way into the Virginia countryside.  Alford’s detail is exceptional as Booth is finally seized and shot on April 26th.

Alford brings his narrative to a conclusion with an excellent Epilogue that concentrates on the many myths associated with Booth’s death, and the deification of Abraham Lincoln.  Alford also includes a brief annotated bibliography for those interested.  Overall, Alford has written the definitive biography of Booth and one that historians and Civil War buffs will be consulting for a long time to come.

LINCOLN AND THE POWER OF THE PRESS by Harold Holzer

Abraham Lincoln has probably been the subject of more monographs than any other figure in American history.  In all the books written about our sixteenth president, be it biographies or monographs dealing with different aspects of the Lincoln presidency, the issue of his relationship with the press has not been mined thoroughly.  This gap in Lincoln historiography has been admirably filled by Harold Holzer’s new book, LINCOLN AND THE POWER OF THE PRESS.  Holzer, a leading authority on Lincoln and the Civil War serves as Chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation and has authored, co-authored or edited 42 books.  In his latest effort he has done an excellent job in researching and writing about Lincoln’s relationship to the press, how it affected his political career, and how he approached the dissemination of information during the Civil War.  Holzer argues that during the mid nineteenth century through the end of the Civil War, newspapers worked hand in glove with politicians.  A number of newspaper editors held political office at the same time they wrote for, or owned newspapers.  It was very difficult to separate political parties from the opinions of certain newspapers.  In a sense one’s political affiliation was made public by the newspaper they wrote for.  In Lincoln’s case, he became the owner of a local paper in a small town in Illinois whose express purpose was to be a mouthpiece for the then future president, and a means of reaching a particular ethnic group in order to further Republican Party chances in the expanding west.

According to the author it was difficult, at times, to separate Lincoln’s role as a journalist and his role as a politician.  Lincoln’s views on press freedoms and censorship would undergo great changes once he entered the White House, and Holzer does a commendable job following Lincoln’s evolution on constitutional issues relating to freedom of the press and other important subjects.  Holzer’s book is more than a discussion of Lincoln and the press.  What the author has prepared is a wonderful study that devotes a great deal of attention to the major newspapers of the time period and the individuals who made them famous.  The author does not neglect smaller papers and persons of interest who impacted the time period.  The book concentrates on three journalists and their newspapers; Horace Greeley and the New York Journal, Henry Raymond and the New York Times, and James Gordon Bennett and the New York Herald.  In presenting his material, Holzer integrates the lives and events of the period and places them in the context of Lincoln’s views, the prevailing political situation, and the personal relationships that most impacted American history.  Aside from biographies of these journalists and their relationship with Lincoln, Holzer presents a comparative biography of Lincoln and his most important political foe, Stephen A. Douglas.  In this discussion we see the evolution of Lincoln’s constitutional arguments as they relate to slavery, and how the foil of “the little giant,” allowed Lincoln’s analysis of politics and society to crystallize.

(Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Journal)

According to Holzer, newspapers were the most powerful weapons political campaigns employed in the 1850s.  “The mutual interdependence that grew up between the press and politics made for a toxic brew.  No politician was above it, no editor beyond it, and no reader immune to it.” (xiv)  Springfield, Illinois was a perfect example of this toxicity, especially with Senator Stephen A. Douglas and former congressman, Abraham Lincoln in residence in 1859.  If one examines Lincoln’s background one would see a politician constantly courting editors in nearby cities and villages.  In May, 1859 he even purchased a German newspaper as a means of courting an ethnic group whose population was rapidly expanding westward, and would greatly influence the 1860 presidential election.  Holzer accurately characterizes the relationship between Lincoln, other politicians, and journalists as a “sometimes incestuous relationship” as party machines and individual pols sought patronage and other perks from those officeholders with power.  These perks would consist of high paying appointive jobs in the federal bureaucracy, post masterships which allowed further sources of patronage, government printing contracts, a major source of wealth and revenue for newspapers, ambassadorships, etc.  Holzer puts it nicely in his introduction by stating that the book “focuses not just on how newspapers reported on and influenced [Lincoln’s] ascent, but how his own struggle for power, and most of his political contemporaries, unfolded within a concurrent competition for preeminence among newspapermen to influence politics and politicians.” (xvi)

(Henry Jarvis Raymond, founder, editor of  New York Times, Congressman from New York)

Along the way the reader meets a number of remarkable historical figures.  Horace Greeley, the editor, author, and politician is foremost among them.  Holzer parallels the lives of Greeley and Lincoln who experience many similarities in their lives, but never were able to develop trust in each other, thus negating a close relationship.  Greeley’s newspaper was against slavery and its expansion.  Greeley became a thorn in the side of the south and a confederacy that saw him as an abolitionist.  Greely’s paper became one of the most influential in New York and with weekly editions it had influence nationwide.  Greeley had his own political ambitions, and he did not always support Lincoln’s candidacies.  At times the somewhat irritating Greeley caused political problems for Lincoln that he always seemed to manipulate to his advantage.  By 1864, Greeley would oppose Lincoln’s reelection and try to bring about peace with the south.  In James Gordon Bennett we come across one of the most colorful and egoistic characters in 19th century American history.  Bennett, whose loyalty was not to a political party or ideology, but to making money and expanding his own influence.  Throughout the period Bennett’s paper would flip flop on issues as well as support for certain politicians and parties as long as it met Bennett’s personal goals.  He despised Greeley and their “newspaper wars” are fascinating.  At first Bennett supported secession, but morphed into a supporter of the union and abolition after making certain “unofficial” arrangements with Lincoln.  The most respected journalist of the period was Henry Raymond, who despite disagreements over policy with the Lincoln administration remained loyal to the Republican Party, a party he would assume the chairmanship of before the election of 1864.  Raymond is the perfect example of the politician-journalist as he also served in Congress following the Civil War, representing a district from New York City while editing his newspaper.

(James Gordon Bennett, founder and editor of the New York Herald)

The book is more than a history of Greeley, Bennett, and Raymond, but more of a general narrative of journalism before the Civil War dating back to George Washington’s difficulties with the press, and it becomes extremely detailed once the reader approaches the Civil War.  As newspapers were confronted by the major crisis of the period; Bloody Kansas, John Brown’s Raid, the firing on Fort Sumter, Holzer explores each and how individual newspaper and their political affiliates reacted and tried to make the most out of news coverage.  The same approach is implemented in discussing the major battles, political controversies, and personalities that dominate the Civil War.  We meet a president who learns how to manipulate the press and reach the public by writing his own editorials, and issuing public letters to avoid answering to a given editor.  Whether Lincoln is confronted with military failures, difficult personalities like Greeley, Salmon P. Chase, John C. Fremont, or George McClellan; the president is able to control situations and defuse them, or increase tension in order to implement his vision.

A number of issues and incidents stand out, especially censorship, and the 1863 New York draft riots.  After the Union failure at Bull Run in June, 1861 the Lincoln administration was vilified by the Democratic Party press.  In efforts to embarrass Lincoln articles were published that many in the military felt were almost treasonous.  Once Edwin Stanton became Secretary of War there was a crackdown on certain newspapers and their editors and it raised the question of news suppression being a vehicle for censorship.  It is apparent that it was but Lincoln and his allies argued that it was needed in order to safely and effectively prosecute the war.  A number of papers met with government action and Holzer delineates them clearly in detail.  After what Holzer terms, “the Panic of 1861,” ran its course, the Lincoln administration backed off in most cases and freedom of the press was fairly secure for two years.  Censorship reemerges as an issue as the election of 1864 approached and Lincoln was viciously vilified by the Democratic Party press.  When the message of what would be tolerated was provided, once again the Lincoln administration limited action against offending papers.  On the whole Holzer concludes that Lincoln should be praised for the amount of free press allowed during the war as the Confederacy was using the northern papers as a vehicle in ascertaining what strategies to pursue.  In the case of the 1863 New York draft riots, Bennett’s New York Herald stoked racial hatred by publishing rumors to heighten tension.  It directed its editorials at the Irish minority in New York that feared that freed slaves would take their jobs.  The ensuing bloodshed can, in part, easily be placed at the door of the Herald’s editorial offices.

Though the book concentrates on the northern press, Holzer does find time to discuss the state of confederate journalism.  Southern newspapers were at a disadvantage throughout the Civil War, and their newspaper industry was ostensibly destroyed by 1863.  The south suffered from a lack of paper since most paper mills were up north.  Further, with universal white conscription there were few educated males to write for, and administer the news.  In addition, once union forces occupied a given area, pro-confederate editors were seized and their papers shut down and presses confiscated.  Lastly, Union forces controlled most telegraph lines and cut those that southern cities and towns depended upon.

Without a doubt, Lincoln loved newspapers, greatly enjoyed the give and take with reporters, and realized the strategic political importance that the press played in everyday life.  For the young Lincoln they were a source of education, for the mature Lincoln they were a source of political intelligence and a means of influencing public opinion.  The importance of the press during the period under study cannot be under rated as it impacted most major decisions before, during, and after the war.  Taken as a whole, LINCOLN AND THE POWER OF THE PRESS will become the standard work on its subject for historians for years to come.  Its analysis is incisive, and Holzer’s command of the material, primary and secondary, is incomparable.  For those who enjoyed Doris Kearns Goodwin’s TEAM OF RIVALS, Holzer’s new book makes a wonderful compliment as it opens new avenues of thought and discovery.  To Holzer’s credit the book is not just designed for historians of the period, but it should also satisfy the general reader who might be interested in the topic.

A WORLD ON FIRE: BRITAIN’S CRUCIAL ROLE IN THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR by Amanda Foreman

A WORLD ON FIRE: BRITAIN’S CRUCIAL ROLE IN THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR by Amanda Foreman is an amazing book.  The breadth of knowledge and research in a narrative that encompasses over 800 pages of text and 100 pages of footnotes is to be praised and warmly received.  There are numerous books written about the Civil War, but few that focus solely on the role the British played in the conflict.  The story treats the diplomacy of the war in depth ranging from the interplay between Secretary of State William Henry Seward to British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell and British Prime Minister Henry John Temple Palmerston.  Included, are lesser figures in each country’s foreign policy establishment, the most important being Charles Francis Adams, the American Minister in London, and Richard Bickerton Pemell, Lord Lyons, the head of the British legation in Washington.  Apart from the diplomacy of the war the role of propaganda in the United Kingdom is dealt with in detail and the major characters involved who worked assiduously to try and gain British recognition of the new Confederate government on the one hand, and opponents who tried to lower the temperature between the Lincoln administration and Palmerston government.  Other important components of the book are the role of British volunteers in both Union and Confederate militaries, and the forced conscription of British citizens.  Foreman’s sources are enhanced by her use of letters and diaries from Britons who were involved in key battles and discussions during the war and it offers a different flavor that many books on the conflict seem to miss.  Forman’s work is impeccable, however at times it can be a bit drawn out and one gets the feeling that every piece of minutiae involving the British has to be included in the text.

(Union forces shelling the port city of Charleston, SC, in 1863.  Frank Vizetelly illustrator)

The author integrates all major components of the war into her narrative, but what separates her approach is her reliance on the personal stories of men like Francis Dawson, a British volunteer who joined the Confederate navy, and later army who was also present Gettysburg, and the Wilderness campaigns and was wounded during the last month of the war; Frank Vizetelly, an artist and reporter for the Illustrated London News, whose drawings permeate the entire book and was present at almost every important occurrence during the conflict.  Others whose letters and diaries proved to be wonderful source material include; Francis Charles Lawley, the pro-Confederate reporter for the London Times, Dr. Charles Mayo, a British surgeon who traveled to the United States to gain further surgical experience and wound up at Vicksburg and other major battles and whose reports reflect the death and mutilation that resulted from the intensity of the fighting.  Two other soldiers stand out in Foreman’s narrative, Sir Percy Wyndham, an English soldier of fortune who had served with Garibaldi in Italy, joined McClellan’s staff during the Peninsula campaign and later was involved in other major actions; second was Major John Fitzroy De Courcy, a former British magistrate and Crimean War veteran who Seward promoted to Colonel and fought with the 16th Ohio Volunteers.

The driving force behind the books preparation was Foreman’s goal to ascertain why progressive classes in the United Kingdom, journalists, university students, actors, social reformers and clergy felt that the Confederacy had the moral advantage over the Union during the Civil War.  Lord Palmerston summed up British opinion of the United States nicely in an 1857 comment to Lord Clarendon, “The Yankees are most disagreeable Fellows to have to do anything about any American Question….They are on the Spot, strong….totally unscrupulous and dishonest and determined somehow or other to carry their point.” (19)  Foreman’s greatest strength is her descriptive prose that captivates the reader.  She is able to ply historical details and integrate her stories into the narrative at a marvelous rate as each page has portrayed on it another wonderful vignette.  She is able to tell a story that has been told in parts by previous books, but she is able to synthesize her information in creating an immensely readable account that is very fluid and keeps the reader engaged despite the book’s length.

The first few chapters form a review of Anglo-American relations from the conclusion of the War of 1812 through the election of Abraham Lincoln.  Figures as diverse as Charles Dickens, Fanny Trollope, Harriet Beecher Stowe; and numerous politicians such as Charles Sumner and John Bright make their appearance.  Each provides their opinion of Britain or the United States and the tension that existed between the two countries.  What clearly emerges is that most Americans despised the British who they saw as an empire in decline.  From the British perspective, they looked down upon their former countrymen and what seemed to drive British opinion before the war and during its conduct was its hatred of slavery.  British hypocrisy is fully evident since their importation of cotton fueled the profitability of the south’s “peculiar institution.”

(by Frank Vizetelly)

It is clear throughout the book despite certain episodes that Palmerston’s cabinet was united and felt it was imperative for Britain to stay out of the conflict in America once Lincoln was elected.  The Palmerston government had to fight off intense pressure from southern lobbyists and certain British business men and members of Parliament to retain neutrality during the war.  British shipping interests built a number of ships for the south, including the CSS Alabama that in two years “captured or destroyed a total of sixty five U.S. ships, causing more than $5 million worth of losses to the Northern merchant marine trade.” (624)  Throughout the war the British government had to try and prevent blockade runners and ramming ships that were sold to the south from leaving British ports to be turned over to the Confederate navy.  British shipping and Union blockading of the south formed two issues that frustrated all sides and on occasion almost brought England into the conflict or at the very least recognition of the Confederacy.  The Union seizure of two southern diplomats from a British vessel in the Trent Affair was another episode that breeded great distrust between Washington and London.  Once both sides, as in most cases, realized that a working relationship between the Union and the British was much more conducive to the success of their economies accommodations were reached.

Plots abound in Foreman’s presentation.  Smuggling of ships, weapons, food, and supplies from English ports involved numerous characters ranging from the work of James Bulloch, the Chief Confederate secret service agent in England and the architect of Confederate plans to fulfill the needs of the Confederacy to Jacob Thompson, a Colonel in the Confederate army, and the head of clandestine operations in Canada.  Thompson largest operation came in November, 1864 when he wanted to purchase a steamer and convert it into a warship in Guelph, Ontario.  John Yates Beall who conducted terror raids against the north earlier in the war, would captain the ship, renamed the CSS Georgia and would try and sink the USS Michigan and create havoc along Lake Erie against undefended cities from Buffalo to Detroit. The plot failed when Lord Monck, the British Governor-General of Canada had the ship seized and a number of conspirators arrested.  Not to be considered defeated, Thompson when on with another operation this time to set fire to New York City in retaliation for Union army’s torching of buildings in the south.  The operation did set fire to a few hotels and created some panic, but overall it must be categorized as a failure.  Propaganda played a major role in the conflict and the Confederacy supplied millions of dollars to Henry Hotze, sent to London in 1862 and became the editor of the pro-Southern Index to convince the British people and government to recognize and supply the Confederacy.  He was able to befriend William Gladstone, a member of Palmerston’s cabinet and leader of the British opposition to the Tory government as well as the future Prime Minister, who became the Confederate voice for recognition within the British cabinet.  Foreman has a number of detailed descriptions of the spy operations that existed, particularly from the southern point of view.  This material is interesting and entertaining and reflects a different aspect of the war that most do not think about.

(Southern refugees encamped outside Vicksburg, July 1863, by Frank Vizetelly)

Foreman describes all the major battles and their political implications between the states, as well as how they affected British policy toward the war.  Much of this has been told in other monographs, but Foreman’s use of British citizens and their involvement in these battles presents a new and interesting perspective.  Examples include the battlefield and naval illustrations of Frank Vizetelly of Charleston’s harbor channel as Confederates deployed torpedoes, or his illustration of the fall of Fort Fisher as Wilmington fell to union forces, in addition to the many Punch cartoons that are interspersed in the narrative; as well as the opinions offered by William Howard Russell of The Times as he described the southern mindset as one of delusion and naiveté as they dealt with their prospects of victory.  Dr. Charles Mayo’s descriptions of the injuries sustained at Antietam and Gettysburg provide further insights into the concept of total and technological warfare that did not exist before 1861.  On April 2, 1863, Francis Lawley unburdened himself to in a letter to a British MP concerning the bread riots in Richmond.  “The Confederate capital was a microcosm of the many hardships being endured in the south; hunger, and disease were spreading.  Smallpox had invaded the poorer neighborhoods as more refugees arrived…” (424) Lawley further stated after a brief visit to Charleston after the battle of Wilmington, “that the empty streets reminded him of Boccaccio’s description of Florence after the Black Death.” (726)

Federal troops retreating at the first battle of Bull Run, 1861, by Frank Vizetelly)

Foreman delves into the thought processes and analysis of the major characters in the conflict.  She spends a great deal of time trying to explain the actions of Secretary of State Seward as he seemed to alternate between bellicosity and conciliation on a daily basis in dealing with the British.  Less time is spent on Lincoln than in most studies and there is little that is new here, but her portrayal of Jefferson Davis is intriguing as she delves into his personal life and fears as realized by the Spring of 1864 that his policies that were based on achieving British recognition, the pressure from British labor who were suffering because of lost jobs due to a lack of cotton, and the expectation that Robert E. Lee would deliver military victories that would result in independence had all fallen by the wayside.  Foreman has an excellent chapter dealing with Davis’ support for changing northern opinion by raids from Canada that would also provoke a war between the Union and England.  This did not pan out as Palmerston withstood pressure from Parliament to at least mediate the war that would have allowed the south to maintain slavery.  But, it was the slavery issue that the south could never overcome, though Davis, desperate after Sherman had ravaged Savannah and Wilmington was about to collapse on December 27, 1864 sent an emissary to London to offer to abolish slavery in return for recognition of the South.  In reality, the offer was moot once the U.S. House of representatives ratified the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery on all American soil on January 21, 1865.

Foreman brings her narrative to a successful conclusion by providing an update on the lives her main characters following the Civil War.  Further, she goes on to discuss the outstanding issues that remained between the United States and Great Britain.  The negotiations between the two nations were at times contentious but because of the work of Charles Francis Adams and his cohorts settlements were reached.  First, the Treaty of Washington, signed on February 24, 1871  “established two tribunals, one to arbitrate the claims of private individuals against the United States for actions committed during the Civil War, the other to rule on the Alabama claims.” (802)  On September 14, 1872 the tribunal ruled that Britain owed $15.5 million plus interest for the damage caused by Confederate cruisers built and facilitated by the British.   According to Foreman, A WORLD ON FIRE was an attempt “to balance the vast body of work on Anglo-American history in the 1860s with the equally vast material left behind by witnesses and participants in the war—to depict the world as it was seen by Britons in America, Americans in Britain, during a defining moment not just in U.S. history but in the relations between the two countries,” (806)  it is quite obvious that the author has achieved her goal.

LINCOLN IN THE WORLD: THE MAKING OF A STATESMAN AND THE DAWN OF AMERICAN POWER by Kevin Peraino

The opening narrative of Kevin Peraino’s new book, LINCOLN IN THE WORLD: THE MAKING OF A STATESMAN AND THE DAWN OF AMERICAN POWER finds the Lincolns at Ford’s theater with Mary Todd Lincoln resting her hand on her husband’s knee.  The author points out that this type of “tender” behavior was not the norm as Mrs. Lincoln was prone to spells of anger where she exhibited rather obnoxious and nasty behavior toward her husband which at times belittled him verbally for not having the wealth to take her to Europe.  She would, at times, further taunt him that her next husband would have the means to allow her to travel abroad.  In reality, Lincoln wanted to spend time “moving and traveling” overseas once his term in office was complete.  Lincoln had always wanted to visit Britain and fervently believed that the Civil War had tremendous global implications as the “Union effort was to prove to the world that popular government is not an absurdity.”  Lincoln further believed that the United States was a great empire and stood “at once the wonder and admiration of the whole world.”(1-2)

When one contemplates Lincoln’s presidency we usually point to his role in leading the North to victory on the battlefield, not any expertise or having a major impact on foreign affairs.  Peraino challenges that perception by arguing that despite the fact that his diplomatic team was frowned upon at best in European circles, Lincoln himself gave credence to that view by saying to a European diplomat at a state dinner that, “I don’t know anything about diplomacy….I will be very apt to make blunders.”  Lincoln’s State Department was able to avoid “European intervention on behalf of the Confederacy, which well have led to a Southern victory.”(5)  For all that has been written about Lincoln little has been put to paper about his conduct of diplomatic affairs.  Perhaps the best study appeared in 2010 with Howard Jones’ BLUE AND GRAY DIPLOMACY: A HISTORY OF UNION AND CONFEDERATE DIPLOMACY which is n in depth monograph encompassing most aspects of Civil War diplomacy.  Peraino’s study focuses almost exclusively on Lincoln’s role in world affairs and despite some organizational issues and awkward attempts to connect him to a number of world events and people the book is a useful addition to any Lincoln library.

Peraino conveys a great deal of interesting and informative details concerning Lincoln’s diplomatic escapades and sprinkles his narrative with some pointed analysis.  The book is thoroughly researched and posses an impressive bibliography.  Further the endnotes that are provided are exceptional resources for materials and information that are not present in the main narrative.  However, the author’s approach contain a number of drawbacks principally the way the chapters are sectioned.  The chapters are divided by pitting Lincoln against a different subject, be it English Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, Secretary of State William Seward, Karl Marx, Louis Napoleon III, and Lincoln himself.  The book makes no attempt at presenting itself as a comprehensive history of Civil War diplomacy as it focuses totally on Lincoln, but the detailed mini-biographies of each of the president’s “opponents” shifts attention away from the president and the author also has an annoying technique of trying to link each “oppositional” relationship by providing a ‘tease’ in the last paragraph of each chapter.

I agree with Peraino that the Mexican War was a turning point in Lincoln’s maturity as a diplomatic thinker and in a larger sense America’s place in the world.  Nothing in Lincoln’s background prepared him for the “donnybrook” that developed over his war views.  The election of 1844 was a referendum on American expansionism and a foreign policy awakening for Lincoln who would later favor the war effort when he later ran for Congress.  The major changes in technology preceding this period proved to be the” facilitator of American nationalism and continental ambition” that seemed to dominate the political discourse throughout the 1840s.(35)  Lincoln found himself in a quandary as he did not want to upset the sectional balance that existed between the free and slave states, but he could not ignore the war’s popularity.  Upon his election Lincoln joined the congressional opposition to the war.  He believed that the Mexicans had not done anything to provoke war and that President James Polk’s actions were unconstitutional as the power to declare war rested with the legislative branch.  Lincoln introduced his controversial “Spot Resolution” to determine exactly where the incident that launched the war was located, strongly suggesting that the war was caused by an American provocation.  For Lincoln the war resulted in a major problem, the addition of new territory that the south could claim for slavery thus undoing the balance of free and slave states, and the continued heated debate that over slavery that preceded the Civil War.  By the time Lincoln left Congress after one term he had learned a series of lessons.  He realized he needed a more nuanced approach to foreign affairs because territorial expansion would continue thus fostering the need to constantly rebalance the ratio of free and slave states.  Further, Lincoln believed that Polk had overstepped the bounds of executive authority in going to war.  It would take the Civil War for Lincoln to realize that in extraordinary circumstances the president must employ a strong hand.

When Lincoln assumed office European foreign ministers held a very low opinion of the new American president.  In fact the Russian envoy to the United States, Eduard de Stoeckl’s view of Lincoln was quite representative of his colleagues when he said, “Mr. Lincoln does not seem to posses the talent and energy that his party attributed to him when it named him its candidate for the presidency….Even his supporters admit that he is a man of unimpeachable integrity but of a poor capacity.”(103)  Opinions of Lincoln did not change his approach to foreign affairs as he was immediately faced with the issue of foreign intervention or recognition once the Confederacy was launched. The southern cotton trade was a delicate issue since Britain was so dependent on southern cotton for its mills.  Lincoln chose to blockade the southern coast and do nothing to aggravate any European power as a means of promoting their neutrality.

(Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward)

Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward agreed with this policy though Lincoln tended to have to reign in his remarks at times.  Peraino’s depiction of the Lincoln-Seward relationship does not really add anything new to the history of the period.  When Lincoln assumed office he needed Seward for the State Department as he viewed the office as critical for his cabinet to have legitimacy.  At the outset Seward believed that he should have been elected president and he was superior to Lincoln in experience and that he would make policy through the president.  With so many issues to confront almost immediately, i.e., instituting a blockade of the south, pursuing neutrality with Spain over Santo Domingo, reigning in abolitionists in order not to cause the border states to secede, the president and Secretary of State’s views began to converge and in a relatively short period of time Seward grew to respect Lincoln, and Lincoln’s trust in Seward increased markedly.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book involves Lincoln’s relationship with Lord Palmerston.  Lincoln believed that swift military success would block any British attempt at interference in American affairs.  However, this was not to be and Lincoln’s fallback position was to develop a strong navy and institute a firm blockade to send a message to the British Prime Minister.  Peraino provides a brief biography of Palmerston and elaborates on his low opinion of Americans and Lincoln in particular.  The situation was exacerbated when an American ship stopped the HMS Trent in Caribbean waters and seized two Confederate diplomats, John Slidell and James Mason.  Lincoln’s approach was to calm the situation by drawing it out and letting the British let off steam.  This episode is presented in detail and both sides came to the realization that a war between the two would prove disasterous to both nations.  Lincoln had decided to release the two men, but took his time to prepare those in the United States who wanted to stand up to the British no matter the consequences.  Peraino’s analysis is dead on in quoting Oxford scholar, Jay Sexton in that “the creditor-debtor relationship of Britain and the United States bonded the two nations together and gave them the common interest of avoiding war.  Succumbing to momentary passions or old grudges would prove counterproductive.”(127)

(British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston)

Peraino correctly credits Lincoln with a number of innovations that contributed to the Union victory.  With the North facing bleak finances by the second year of the war and with European banks refusing to grant credit, Lincoln and his cabinet decided to issue a national paper currency, that Congress eventually approved by passing the Legal tender Act.  Further a national income tax was implemented easing monetary issues as well as the creation of a new National Bank in 1863.  “These sweeping modernizations of the nation’s financial system were critical prerequisites to America’s rise to world power.”(163)  The other major innovation was the building of the Monitor, the first iron clad naval vessel that the United States launched causing “the London Times [to worry] that the innovation had made Britain’s fleet of 149 ‘first class warships’ obsolete.”(165)

The chapter dealing with Karl Marx is really a stretch since the two never interacted directly.  Lincoln may have read some of Marx’s articles in the New York Herald Tribune for whom he wrote opinion pieces but it was not necessary to bring in a mini-Marx biography and integrate his views on slavery and revolution into the narrative.  At the outset of the war Lincoln was concerned with keeping border states neutral.  This concern also helped formulate his views on free labor and American commerce.  Comparing Marx’s views to Lincoln does not enhance the narrative nor do events that lead up to the Emancipation Proclamation.  Marx had no influence on Lincoln’s decision making leading up to the issuing of the document.  The “pseudo” Union success at Antietam as a vehicle to exhibit Northern military prowess for Britain to keep her neutral was much more important.  Lincoln came to view the Emancipation Proclamation as a vehicle to gain the support of British workers who believed that they worked for slave wages.  Lincoln went so far as sending funds to help organize British worker rallies in support of the northern cause.  Any fears that the proclamation might provoke intervention were really offset by events in Europe as Prussia invaded the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein,  Austria and Italy were in the midst of a major conflict, and Polish revolutionaries were active with the support of the French against Russian rule, but this does not stop Peraino from insisting that the proclamation led Louis Napoleon III to intervene in Mexico in 1863.  Linking the proclamation and the French Emperor’s actions is another connection that does not measure up to sound historical analysis.

(French Emperor, Louis Napoleon III)

Peraino’s chapter that deals with Louis Napoleon III’s unfortunate attempt to revisit French holdings in the new world by placing Austrian Arch Duke Maximlian on a Mexican throne has little if any relationship to Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The author’s discussion of Louis’s ego and delusions concerning French power is spot on though there is an over reliance on Jasper Ridley’s dual biography of Louis and his wife, Eugenie in cataloguing his life before he seized power.*  Louis never believed that the North could force the South to return to the federal union so he decided to take advantage of the Mexican debt situation to rekindle his long held goal of reestablishing French colonies in the new world.  What is most interesting is that Louis’ actions fostered a movement to bring the Confederacy back into the fold through a joint expedition to evict the French from Mexico.  This actually led to a meeting between Lincoln, Seward, and Alexander Stephens, the Confederate Vice President on February 2, 1865 that came to naught.  These types of details make Peraino’s narrative exciting, but overall his linkage to Lincoln’s emancipation announcement on January 1, 1863 does little to foster historical accuracy.  The key for Lincoln and the Union was success on the battlefield, which Sherman’s March through Georgia provided, leading to Lincoln’s reelection which forced Louis’ to reduce his support for his Mexican venture.  In fact, by this time Louis had almost totally abandoned Maximilian as he began to withdraw French troops, and ultimately the Austrian Arch Duke was captured and shot by Mexican forces.

(Lincoln and his secretary and confidante, John Hay)

Peraino’s final chapter is a misnomer, Lincoln v. Lincoln is a summary of Lincoln’s legacy through the post Civil War career of John Hay.  The chapter examines John Hay’s career in some detail and concludes with Hay’s belief that the roots of American power lay in a healthy economy and a brisk trade,” an idea that was consistently held by Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and of course William McKinley’s Secretary of State.  My one suggestion for Mr. Peraino would be to consult the latest biography of Hay written by John Taliaferro, ALL THE GREAT PRIZES: THE LIFE OF JOHN HAY FROM LINCOLN T0 ROOSEVELT  for the latest analysis  concerning Hay’s growth as a diplomat and foreign policy thinker.

Lincoln’s handling of the Mexican fiasco reflects his command of the diplomatic game.  Peraino’s analysis is accurate as he points out that there was a natural tension in “Lincolnian foreign policy.  On the one hand, Lincoln’s moral vision represented American idealism” as he realized that slavery diminished American prestige abroad.  But at the same time he instituted a patient and cautious approach, a middle ground in his pursuit of diplomatic advantages.  Lincoln was a diplomat who knew when to threaten and then soften his pronouncements.  He knew when to be magnanimous, but at the same time putting his foot down and letting his opponent know what he would not continence as in his dealing with Louis Napoleon III.  Lincoln was the consummate balancer, effectively controlling domestic interference in the conduct of his foreign policy by members of his own party and the copperheads who sought to make peace with the south enabling them to maintain slavery.  Lincoln did an excellent job taking the measure of and preparing the American public for changes that were about to take place in administration actions, i.e., dealing with Palmerston over the Trent Affair or dealing with the French incursion into Mexico.  Lincoln should be a role model for future presidents to study how to deal with domestic and foreign policy crises and to Peraino’s credit he provides a narrative that would allow our politicians to study and learn from.

*Peraino also relies heavily on Jasper Ridley’s LORD PALMERSTON for background on the English Prime Minister.

LIAR TEMPTRESS SOLDIER SPY: FOUR WOMEN UNDERCOVER DURING THE CIVIL WAR by Karen Abbott

 

 

 

(Photo of Belle Boyd, the rabid secessionist and successful Civil War spy)

When I read a title that sounds like a John Le Carre novel, I am always intrigued. Karen Abbott’s new book, LIAR TEMPTRESS SOLDIER SPY: FOUR WOMEN UNDERCOVER IN THE CIVIL WAR has many elements of the espionage master’s work and she weaves a series of wonderful stories into a historical narrative that could pass for fiction.  The book Abbott has written explores the role of women during the Civil War, an area that has not been addressed sufficiently by historians.  Her work is less about the contribution of women in general who performed domestic tasks for confederate and union forces, but mostly about the lives of four women who played prominent roles during the war; Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Belle Boyd who supported secession, and Elizabeth Van Lew and Emma Edmonds who remained loyal to the union.  All four women engaged in espionage during the war, and their lives reflect their own personal dangers in addition to the death and destruction that they witnessed during the “war between the states.”  In telling the stories of these heroines, Abbott integrates important aspects of the political and military history of the war into her narrative very effectively as each statement or document that appears is supported by by her research, though there are a number of places in the narrative when she appears to take some poetic license as she quotes from works of fiction as if they were accurate sources.

For the reader who sets out to read Abbott’s historical monograph they will find that, at times, it reads like an espionage thriller.  As they progress in the book they will meet many important historical characters, including; General Stonewall Jackson, General George McClellan, Detective Alan Pinkerton, Abraham Lincoln, Louis Napoleon III among many others.  The book is organized chronologically with alternating chapters dealing with each of the subject women.  At times this approach can be confusing, and perhaps each woman could have been dealt with separately to create greater cohesion and then a chapter or two discussing how their lives may have interacted.  None the less the book is a quick and interesting read and focuses attention on four unsung heroes who can now be seen in a new light.

(Photo of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Union spy who changed her sex identity during the Civil War)

What separates Abbott’s account of the war is her in depth portrayal of her subjects and how they used their own inner resources to place themselves at risk in promoting the cause they believed in and were willing to die for.  The first, Belle Boyd, a charismatic character, who loved the limelight and had a force of personality that dominated most situations she found herself in.  Raised in Martinsburg, Va. she was a staunch secessionist who abhorred the union.  She engaged in numerous plots to acquire intelligence for the confederacy and employed her saucy, feminine whiles with men to gain whatever she needed.  Her life is fascinating and is worthy of her own biography.  Perhaps her lowest moment in the war, aside from the defeat the south suffered was the secession of western Virginia, including her own home county of Berkley, forming the state of West Virginia.  Second we meet Emma Edmondson, Canadian women who wanted to join the union army.  The strategy she adopted was to assume the identity of a man named Frank Thompson and when she survived her physical exam she joined Company F, 2nd Michigan infantry.  She began as a male nurse and soon became a mail currier and  spy for the union.  She kept her identity secret from everyone but two soldiers she served with that she fell in love with.  She survived a great deal of combat and was very effective.  Throughout the war she feared someone above her in rank would discover her true sex more than she feared death.  Her life is also an amazing story and she did write her own memoir entitled; MEMOIRS OF A SOLDIER, NURSE AND SPY! A WOMAN’S ADVENTURES IN THE UNION ARMY.  Third, is the life of Rose O’Neal Greenhow who lived in Washington, DC and was counted on by the Confederacy to obtain as much intelligence as possible.  She was friends with Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and headed a spy ring prone to “indiscretions” with men.  She worshiped Southern senator, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and mirrored his political views.  She had a number of lovers, the most important of which was Henry P. Wilson, an abolitionist Republican who was  the union Chairman of the Military Affairs Committee.  She has been credited with providing the intelligence that allowed the confederacy to defeat the union army at the first Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).  During the course of her career she was arrested a few times and served short prison sentences in Washington at the Capitol Prison.  After being exiled to the south she was sent by Jefferson Davis to England and France to try and gain recognition of the Confederacy by these nations.  On her return to the United States her blockade running ship was intercepted by the Union Navy. Lastly, and probably the most impactful of the four women on the course of the war was Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy society woman, and a strong unionist who lived in Richmond.  Her career as a spy was fraught with danger since most of her neighbors and politicians in the confederate capitol knew her wartime sympathies.  There were numerous attempts to try and catch her, by searching her mansion which became a union safe house, constant searches by detectives, and numerous attempts at entrapment.  Despite all of these obstacles she organized and ran the Richmond spy ring and its conduit to the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves and union soldiers to the north, and maintained a “secret room” upstairs in her mansion as a transshipment point for those fleeing the south.  General Grant, grateful for her work sent her a personal note: “you have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during  the war.”  Grant awarded her the position of Postmaster General of Richmond during his presidency to try and compensate her for all the  wealth that was poured into the northern cause during the war.

(Photo of Rose Greenhow, a Confederate spy during the Civil War and her daughter and part time currier, “Little Rose”)

It is not my purpose to recapitulate Abbott’s narrative but they are a myriad of interesting and surprising revelation that she brings to the fore.  Since women were not allowed to serve in the union army and there really was no military legal precedent for what to charge them should they be caught, union military officials would kick them out of the army under the charge of prostitution.  There were about 300-400 women in the union army during the Civil War, and Abbott tells a number of stories dealing with their plight.  In addition, the author relates the activities of Detective Alan Pinkerton who was in charge of union espionage for part of the war.  The role of detectives emerges throughout the narrative and how they interacted with Boyd, Greenhow, and Van Lew.  We witness a blend of societal graciousness and hospitality on all sides, but at the same time Abbott is letting the reader know what each character thought.  The chapter that deals with Pinkerton’s arrest of Rose Greenhow is priceless.  Abbott describes in detail the house search and how Greenhow was able to finagle documents into the hands of her eight year old daughter, “Little Rose,” as the conduit to avoid detection by Pinkerton’s agents and getting the intelligence to sources outside her home.  Even under constant surveillance Greenhow continue to spy for the Confederacy employing her daughter as her currier.  Another important vignette that Abbott discusses is how Elizabeth Van Lew, a friend of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ wife is able to convince her to take on one of her freed slaves as a servant in the Confederate White House.  As the war turns against the Confederacy, Davis, for a time, is at a loss as to how Union spies seem to know military plans soon after he had conferred with General Robert E. Lee,  or other southern generals.  The work of Van Lew’s servant, Mary Jane, was certainly an important contribution to the Union cause.

(Photo of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Richmond socialite who spied for the Union during the Civil War.  A woman who was widely praised by General U.S. Grant)

Karen Abbott has certainly done a service to the memory of four women who were under cover during the Civil War.  It makes for an excellent read and I recommend it to Civil War buffs and those interested in an aspect of women’s history that few are familiar with.  As Elizabeth Van Lew alluded to after the war, women made major contributions to the northern victory but when it came for them to receive military pensions they had to beg men for what was due them, because they did not have the vote.

FIERCE PATRIOT: THE TANGLED LIVES OF WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN by Robert L. O’Connell

 

(The Shermanesque  Stance!)

According to Robert L. O’Connell in his new book AMERICAN PATRIOT: THE TANGLED LIVES OF WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN, the life of the Civil War hero should not be portrayed in the traditional fashion by preparing a chronological narrative because its results would be too cumbersome.  Instead, the author has produced a fascinating book that consists of three parts that add up to a biography, but is organized in a rather confusing manner.  What the author has written is a “pseudo-biography” that covers Sherman’s life in excellent detail with a great deal of analysis.  I understand that historians are always looking for a fresh approach toward their subjects that have been dealt with previously, but at times they should not try and reinvent the wheel.  Again, let me reiterate, I enjoyed the book and took away a great deal, but at times I would have hoped the material in the last section of the narrative could have been included in the lengthy first section to form greater coherence.

O’Connell begins by arguing that Sherman’s life brings with it an enormous amount of documentary material stemming from his own writing, an extensive oral record of his statements, and the voluminous material produced by the Civil War.  The author concludes that it is almost impossible to produce a definitive one volume biography of Sherman.  In addition, the difficulty is enhanced because of the many myths associated with Sherman from the accusation of being a war criminal, a racist, and a very class conscious individual who supported the business classes.  The author concludes that there is evidence for each of these myths, but there is also material that disproves them, particularly when we apply twenty-first century standards to nineteenth century figures.  For O’Connell, Sherman falls into a category below Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR as individuals who were responsible for furthering American growth and making transcontinental consolidation possible, and the author’s resulting effort accurately proves that point.

In preparing the book O’Connell has decided to portray three story lines.  The first, “if Jefferson was the architect of continental expansion, Sherman would become his general contractor.” (xviii)  By the time Sherman retired from the army in 1884, he “had become virtually a human embodiment of Manifest destiny.  Florida, California, reclaiming the Confederacy, winning the west.” (xix)  Second, the co-evolution of the army of the west and Sherman as its commander as he taught legions of men “the most valued of military skills: the ability to adapt,” and the ability to adjust on the fly after much trial and error.  Thirdly, Sherman created a model “of how to grab and hold on to fame in America, one that still works today.” (xx)  For O’Connell, Sherman’s life boils down to a three ring circus, each fascinating, but they must be dealt with separately or components of his life become too distracting.  As a result he sticks to a section describing Sherman as a military strategist, another as a general, and he concludes with a section of Sherman as a human being after retirement.  My problem is that these sections continuously overlap and there are parts of the book that the reader is told that what he is writing about will become much clearer later.  I admire O’Connell’s effort, but John F. Marszalek’s SHERMAN: A SOLDIER’S PASSION FOR ORDER did an admirable job of creating what O’Connell discounts.

O’Connell begins by lecturing the reader on the concept of military strategy and concludes that Sherman’s ultimate career goal was national consolidation of the central bond of the North American continent and Manifest Destiny.  He further concludes that he never wanted to be in total command during his military career, as it was difficult enough being in charge of strategy.  These conclusions are well supported in the first two-thirds of the book that make up section one.  O’Connell is on firm ground with his theme and goes on to support his argument as he takes the reader through Sherman’s career at West Point, the Second Seminole War of 1835-1842, a stint at on the Sullivan Islands across the harbor from Charleston, South Carolina, as a recruiting officer in the Pittsburgh region, a stationing in California, and investigating corruption in New Orleans.  What should be apparent is that the most important activity of this time period was the Mexican War, which Sherman missed out on, while others from his graduating class at West Point began to earn their reputations.  As a strategist what was most important for Sherman at this juncture of his life was his discovery of the importance of the Mississippi which fit his world view as he would describe the region as the “spinal column of America.”  Sherman’s love for geography and topography was born at this time and along with a photographic memory for detail.  This would allow him to remember almost every aspect from each area that he transverses in his career fostering the development of a data base that in part explains his success as a strategist during the Civil War.

(The Union siege of Vicksburg, July, 1863)

It is O’Connell’s discussion of the Civil War that is the strongest part of the book.  O’Connell does pepper this section with details concerning his upbringing, his relationship with the Ewing family, his marriage and raising a family all of which are important enough, but detail later in the book clarifies a great deal of what is discussed here.  In a sense the Civil War saved Sherman’s career.  By the early 1850s Sherman leaves the army and tries his hand in the private sector.  His father-in-law, Thomas Ewing, a cabinet officer, politician, and wealthy individual wanted him to take over  a Salt Mine he owned near his home in Lancaster, Ohio which became part of a tug of war between the Ewing family and his wife Ellen, and what Sherman wanted to do with his life.  The Ewing-Sherman relationship at times dominates the narrative as Sherman tries to be his own man and continually win over his wife.  The period preceding the Civil War was probably the worst period for Sherman.  His career as a New York banker ended with the crash of 1857.  He returned to California as a banker but due to the economy the venture was a failure.  He finally gives into Thomas Ewing’s urging and runs one of the the family businesses in Leavenworth, Ka.  It became increasingly clear to Sherman the only arena that he felt comfortable in was the military and after the election of Lincoln he rejoins the army and with secession his career is saved.

The author spends a prodigious amount of time discussing the major battles that Sherman was involved in.  The reader witnesses how Sherman trains and develops the army of the west and making it into one of the best fighting forces in American history by the end of the war.  We witness how Sherman cultivated his soldiers to believe in him and how he developed his command.  The knowledge of American geography is applied and we see his strategy unfold.  O’Connell delves into the egos of the period, be it Sherman, Henry Halleck, Simon Cameron, Edwin Stanton, Ulysses S. Grant and others and the personality conflicts that were readily apparent.  Sherman’s logistical genius greatly assisted Grant in Tennessee resulting in the Sherman-Grant relationship that was based on mutual trust.  Sherman was content to being Grant’s “wing man” or second in command and the relationship flourished.  Sherman suffered from depression and Grant tended to imbibe a bit too much as Sherman described their relationship, “he stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk, now sir we stand by each other always.” (95)

For Sherman the battle of Shiloh in April, 1862 was a major turning point.  Shiloh was a success because Sherman was able to blunt the south’s effort to recover the initiative in the Mississippi Valley and opened the way for a rendering of the military balance in the west and securing Sherman’s reputation.  The theme of securing the Mississippi so crucial to Sherman’s thinking is explored in the run up to and final battle at Vicksburg a year later, culminating in a union victory in July, 1863.  Sherman’s audacious strategy was key and as 1864 approached Sherman was aware of the south’s tenacity so he convinced Grant that the best way to defeat the south was “to attack southern morale and its relationship to crushing the rebellion….Both understood the psychological effect of their blue-clad armies barging across the landscape, taking what they wanted, and wrecking anything that looked Confederate,” (132) they would engage the Confederate field armies and destroy them, killing rebels, and getting into their heads.  Grant would be the battering ram in the East, and Sherman would employ his mastery of operations and strategy as he marched toward Atlanta.  O’Connell’s discussion of the march to the sea is excellent.  We are placed inside Sherman’s mind as well as the Confederates he fought.  The detail is exquisite and is one of the major highlights of the book.  The burning of Atlanta, the seizure of Savannah, and the march into South Carolina for revenge against the heart of the enemy as it burns Columbia rather than Charleston and the move into North Carolina where Sherman softens his approach are all described.  The success was based on foraging and living off the land as well as engineering genius, but as with other topics there is greater detail about the “bummers” (foragers) in a later part of the book.  The author concludes this section of the book with a discussion of Sherman’s post war role in implementing the transcontinental rail road, a goal that he had set earlier in his career and fit right in with his belief of continental expansion.

The final third of the book is broken down into two parts.  The first explores Sherman’s soldiers and their relationship to him.  O’Connell describes the intricacies of the army of the west and its conduct during the Civil War.  We learn what fighting was like at Shiloh and Vicksburg.  We learn what it was like marching 120 miles on the way to Atlanta, and fighting an insurgency through the eyes of the participants.  Shiloh is explained through the vision of a seventeen year old drummer boy, and the life of a “bummer” is explored through their own eyes as they faced the difficulty of locating food for an entire army.  The author also explains the role of the new technology developed during the war and how it affected Sherman’s strategy and how his soldiers adapted to it.  Basically, this section is a history of the army of the west from its inception, training, skill set and application in battle, all information that could have been integrated more effectively in the first section of the book.

(Statue of William T. Sherman, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, located at 59th Street and 5th Avenue entrance to Central Park, NYC)

O’Connell brings his narrative to a close by describing the difficulties that marrying into the Ewing family presented.  His wife Ellen’s constant pressure to have Sherman convert to Catholicism irked the general and made him feel as if there was a papist plot against him.  Ellen’s need to spend meant that throughout their marriage there was always pressure on Sherman to make a great deal of money.  The competition between the legacy of Thomas Ewing and Sherman’s career path is a key component as to what drove Sherman a good part of his life, when finally after the Civil War he could feel that he was finally the dominant figure in the eyes of his wife.  O’Connell weaves in at least two of the affairs that Sherman was involved in during his marriage, but concludes the thirty year bond between Ellen and her husband always remained strong.  The author closes with a discussion of Sherman’s “rock star” career after the Civil War and how the public fed his need for approval.  There are components in the book that border on “psychohistory,” but the author’s conclusions in that area are a bit flimsy.  Overall the book is quite interesting and if one can deal with its organizational flaws it is well worth reading.

IN THE HANDS OF PROVIDENCE: JOSHUA L. CHAMBERLAIN & THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR by Alice Rains Trulock

(statue of Joshua L. Chamberlain at Gettysburg Battlefield)

Recently my daughter earned a position a position at Bowdoin College and when I visited the campus I was struck by the statue of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, an individual who I was familiar with but had not read much about.  A week before visiting the Bowdoin campus my wife and I celebrated our anniversary traveling up and down the Maine coast, and for those who know me, they could predict I would find a few books, and in this case they were two biographies of Chamberlain, one of which was Alice  Rains Trulock’s IN THE HANDS OF PROVIDENCE: JOSHUA L. CHAMBERLAIN AND THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR, the subject of this review.   I knew in advance that Chamberlain’s life story was remarkable, and perhaps, the book should have been titled, “The Professor turned General.”  In any case students of the Civil War should become familiar with his exploits; a hero at Gettysburg, a hero during the run up to the siege of Petersburg, a hero at the final battle of the war that led to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox; achieving the rank of major-general, and having his horse shot out from under him six times.  His amazing career also included a professorship and presidency of Bowdoin College, and a four term governorship of the state of Maine.  There is no question that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain deserves a full length biography depicting his many exploits and accomplishments, but I must ask, has Alice Rains Trulock done Chamberlain’s life justice?  Trulock has written a comprehensive biography, but it lacks the incisive analysis that a major work of historical biography calls for.  Trulock spends two-thirds of the book detailing Chamberlain’s role in the Civil War and the remaining third on his pre and post-war career.  I wonder whether the book is an improvement over Willard M. Wallace’s biography, SOUL OF THE LION, written over thirty years earlier.

To Trulock’s credit she mines the documents carefully and does an exceptional job integrating Chamberlain’s own writings throughout the narrative.  Her discussion of the attack and eventual siege of Petersburg and Chamberlain’s role in planning and carrying out orders is perhaps the author’s best section of the book, surpassing her very solid description of the Battle of Gettysburg.  Her blend of  the course of the many battles she describes, as well as her human interest approach provides the reader with the feel that they were riding along side Chamberlain as he was constantly under fire and repeatedly wounded.  The major drawback to the narrative is the paucity of analysis, something that is not expected from a work of this type.  Her approach is as a reporter and less so a historian.  Her observations of Chamberlain’s bravery and the respect that the troops had for him is well and good, but beyond this and intricate details of a myriad of battles, I expected further discussion of the whys and wherefores of decision making and the historical significance of what transpired.

(General Joshua L. Chamberlain during the Civil War)

Trulock’s political observations are more interesting than her military ones.  Her discussion of the Election of 1864 that saw President Lincoln defeat General George McClellan was astute.  Arguing that it “was one of the most important victories of the war” for union forces, it belied the myth of McClellan’s popularity with the troops as Lincoln garnered a 3-1 advantage among the military. (221)  The author also does a credible job as she portrays the important commanders during the war.  In particular, her description of the self-serving Philip Sheridan, by providing examples of his egotistical nature is well put.  I also enjoyed her discussion of the soldiers and the cross they had to bear.  Her short biography of Sgt. Patrick DeLacey and his interaction with Chamberlain is poignant and reflects the raw courage of the men who fought for the union.

Aside from matters relating to the Civil War the reader is exposed to Chamberlain’s early years in Brewer, ME, his staunch moralism, and his early years at Bowdoin.  After the war the narrative concentrates on Chamberlain’s presidency of Bowdoin, his governorship, military reunions, business ventures, his health, and family issues.  An example of the analysis that may be missing is seen with the ruckus over the mandatory military drilling that Chamberlain called for at Bowdoin.  When students opposed the order and rebelled, he suspended the entire student body as his solution for the “drill rebellion.”  Trulock could have related this episode to Chamberlain’s own suspension from college when he thought his stand was a matter of honor to defend his beliefs, but she does not.  Further, she does not really address why Chamberlain was able to be such a success in the military arts with little combat training.  Perhaps it was the discipline he forged during his earlier life.

Overall, despite its flaws, Trulock’s biography is comprehensive and is a useful addition to any Civil War library.  There are areas that should have been addressed, perhaps greater clarity of the “fog of war,” but to her credit she does address his depression, physical issues related to the war (he was wounded “by shot and shell” six times), and alludes to a probable case of PTSD from his wartime experiences.  One wonders how he accomplished so much as he had to deal with so many personal issues.  It reaffirms that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is a worthy subject, and those with an interest in the topics that encompass his life might want to pursue Trulock’s biography.

GIANT IN THE SHADOWS: THE LIFE OF ROBERT T. LINCOLN by Jason Emerson

I decided to read Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln by Jason Emerson for the simple reason that I was curious what it would have been like to be the son of the “Great Emancipator.” Mr. Emerson did not let me down. The reader is presented with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln through the eyes of his only surviving son and a wonderful and detailed narrative history of the Lincoln family from the 1840s through the 1920s. Emerson has written what I would describe as a “comfortable” book where the reader is invited into the mindset of Robert Lincoln. We see the many crises that “young” Lincoln suffered, the politics of the period, the expansion of the American economy and his role in it, in addition to his personal issues relating to both of his parents. We learn that Abraham Lincoln was an overindulgent parent in spite of the fact that Robert was mostly raised by his mother Mary since his father spent a great deal of time traveling the judicial circuit before pursuing a political career. The material that is presented on Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, the death of their children, and the political background is written in an engaging style and is concisely presented though many of the details are not new.
What are new are the details of Robert’s relationship with his mother. Emerson drawing in part on his previous work on Mary Todd Lincoln provides an intricate description of his mother’s mental health following the assassination of his father. The emotional collapse, debts, and wrenching familial details eventually forced Robert to have his mother committed. From 1865-1875 his mother’s mental state dominated a significant amount of time and Robert grew mortified by his mother’s behavior. Robert was deeply concerned about his family’s historical legacy throughout his life so dealing with a mother who was probably bipolar was a challenge. Robert went so far as having his mother followed by Pinkerton detectives as she continued to spend inordinate amounts of money on clothing, furniture, and spiritualists. Eventually Robert consulted his father’s friends for advice and all agreed she should be institutionalized. The reader is witness to this entire episode which focuses in part on the state of mental health treatment in the United States at the time. After a short stay, under pressure from Mary and fearing publicity Robert approves of his mother’s release and he comes to terms in dealing with his her sickness as best he can.
Robert Lincoln emerges as a remarkable man. One can hardly imagine what it must have been like to bury two brothers, a father and mother, and witness three presidential assassinations. In addition, Robert Lincoln was not a well man who probably suffered from Bright’s Disease in addition to experiencing repeated bouts of depression. Despite these obstacles Robert Lincoln became an exceptional corporate lawyer, a wise business man who amassed a fortune, ambassador to England, was appointed Secretary of War, served as the CEO of The Pullman Palace Car Company, among his many achievements to the point that he was seriously thought of as a presidential candidate in the 1880s. Emerson takes the reader through all of these aspects of Robert’s life and pulls no punches in evaluating his subject. The key dichotomy is how the son differed from his father and Emerson concludes that despite the son’s anti-labor (Pullman Strike) and pro-business stances he was not that different in outlook from his father.
A key theme that is followed throughout the book is Robert Lincoln’s concern for his father’s place in history. Robert refused to allow historians, except for John G. Nicolay and John Hay, his father’s former secretaries during the Civil War access to presidential papers and other documents until twenty one years after his death. He reasoned that there was too much information that could impact people in a negative way that were still alive. There was nothing too small for Robert Lincoln to become involved with if it related to his father. Whether it was the creation of monuments, paintings, museums and documents Robert was the prime decision maker. Robert Lincoln lived a remarkable life that Jason Emerson captures very nicely. I am certain this book will become the standard treatment of its subject for years to come and though it may be an esoteric subject for some, it is lively and well worth the time to read.

 

LINCOLN’S MEN by Daniel Mark Epstein

The book jacket for Daniel Mark Epstein’s LINCOLN’S MEN states that the author explores the role of three remarkable young men who served as Abraham Lincoln’s “private secretaries” during the Civil War. The narrative however does more by delving into the relationship between John Nicolay, William Stoddard, John Hay and the sixteenth president. The reader is invited into the inner workings of the White House, how the war was conducted, the great issues of the day, and the social system that evolved in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. We are presented with three distinctly different men whose diverse strengths ranged from backgrounds as diverse in printing, a poetry, and journalism. The three “private secretaries” offered Lincoln companionship, advice, a sounding board for his ideas, in addition to carrying out intelligence missions and other important functions for the president. Part of Lincoln’s genius was his ability to recognize talent in others and then employ that talent for the benefit of the nation as was the case with all three of these gentlemen. Epstein prepares an integrated biography of all three, but more importantly the reader gains a window into Lincoln’s marriage and its effect on policy, his thought process, and the human emotion engendered by the savagery of war. Epstein mines the important diaries and other primary materials that are important in writing history and fills in a neglected aspect in exploring the conduct of the Civil War.