Thaddeus Stevens - Brady-Handy-crop.jpg
(Thaddeus Stevens in the 1860s)

Today we find ourselves living in an America where the Republican Party seems to stand for voter suppression (see Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia state legislature just to name a few) as they try and place as many obstacles in the path of African-Americans who would like to exercise their franchise.  The strategy is clear – they fear they cannot win elections without making it difficult for minorities to vote and reminds this writer of the Jim Crow era and harkens back to the post-Civil War period, particularly after the election of 1876 as southern politicians began to reassert control of their region and try and undo the gains brought forth by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments for African-Americans.  The post-Civil War southern leaders worked to undo the life’s work of Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens who fought against slavery and tried to uplift the lives of those freed from bondage.  Stevens, an athame to the south is the subject of a new biography by Bruce Levine, THADDEUS STEVENS: CIVIL REVOLUTIONARY, FIGHTER FOR RACIAL JUSTICE.

At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is confronted by white supremacy and voter suppression it is important to examine the life of Thaddeus Stevens whose ideals and hopes for racial harmony and justice have still not come to fruition almost 150 years later.  Many historians and films have denigrated Stevens as a vindictive persecutor of the helpless and defeated south.  It took the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and a new generation of historians and film makers to reconsider Stevens’ role following the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Levine stresses Stevens’ vision for an egalitarian radical revolution following the war – confiscating the estates of large southern landholders and divide them among former slaves.  Further he would come to despise President Andrew Johnson who tried to assist the southern elite to recoup their political power and once again place former slaves under the thumb of the previous system where they were supplicants to a southern system that could not function without them.

(Left to right: Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens; an African-American soldier in the Union Army; abolitionist Frederick Douglass)

Levine focuses on Stevens’ role as a public figure, his fight against chattel slavery and racial discrimination, the key part he played influencing union actions during the Civil War, and his important role in the post-war struggle to produce racial democracy for the nation at large.  Stevens was raised in Vermont in a strict Baptist home though he would later have little use for religion.  Despite this he was knowledgeable when it came to scripture and he viewed secession and war as “predetermined” and inevitable.  This went along with his dark view of human nature and can be seen in his commentary throughout his life and the relationships he engendered.

Stevens was a firm believer in industrial development as an engine of human progress and that the government must actively and deliberately stimulate the development of capitalism, especially its commercial and manufacturing sectors as a strong supporter of Henry Clay’s American System.  Second, he believed that the government must take positive steps to ensure that all had an equal chance to partake in prosperity as part of system that rested on “free labor.”

Levine’s narrative is less a biography of Stevens’ complete life, but more of an intellectual journey that reflected the evolution of his ideas and positions taken in regard to slavery, tariffs, and other issues of the day.  The narrative presents Stevens’ life in the context of the world in which he thrived.  Apart from Stevens’ life, Levine’s analysis mirrors many historians who have written about the history of the period.  Nothing is really new, events and movements do not change, nor the actions of certain important individuals.  What is important is Levine’s portrayal of Stevens’ life as he integrates and relied on his subject’s own words and attitudes in speeches before the Pennsylvania state legislature, the House of Representatives, and the memories of those who he conversed with.  His intellectual evolution regarding slavery is a key component of the book as in his younger years he may have been “soft” on abolitionism.  However, following Texas’ application for statehood and the results of the Mexican War Stevens realized as did others who would become Radical Republicans that if the south could not expand slavery into new territories then the erosion of its soil would foster the end of what Kenneth Stamp called the “peculiar institution.”  The key was to prevent any new territories acquired from Mexico from becoming slave states which would harden people’s positions regarding slavery.

New 8x10 Photo: Last Photo of President Abraham Lincoln
(Abraham Lincoln)

Levine takes the reader through all the major events that led to the Civil War, the war itself, and the post-war period.  Levine leads the reader through the rise of the Whig Party, his early participation in the antislavery movement, his part in the founding of the Republican Party, with its opposition to slavery.  He also tracks the machinations of wartime rivalries and the struggle to enact legislation after the war, in addition to the role he played in the impeachment process against Andrew Johnson.  Since the book itself is not overly long I would have hoped the author would have delved more into these areas focusing on analysis of great events as he perceived them, particularly Stevens’ relationship with President James Buchanan.  Once the war broke out Levine is correct that Stevens did not see the war as a short one, but a bloody one that would drag on for years.  For Stevens success in war also included a frontal attack on slavery and a major alteration of southern society and economy.  He was the first to favor the confiscation of slaves, demanded legal freedom for those confiscated, called for a wide emancipation for all slaves living in the rebellious states, and the abolition of slavery throughout the United States.  This would mean a radical transformation of southern society, in effect, as Eric Foner states, a second American Revolution.

According to Levine Stevens success was based on his iron will, great courage both moral and physical, his refusal to bend to the opposition even in the face of physical threats, his mastery of the parliamentary system, his shrewdness, quick wit, and sharp tongue.  Stevens was a believer in the ideas put forth in the Declaration of Independence and despite what the founders wrote into the Constitution regarding slavery he was adamant in his support of the document.  He shaped the 14th amendment as his life ended which provided due process and equal protection under the law for all.  It is a shame that the legislative victories he achieved would quickly fall by the wayside following his death.

Historian Fergus M. Bordewich argues that Levine has written a concise and powerful biography of a man the author truly admires as Stevens sought to create an America free of prejudice, which was based on merit in which blacks and whites together would be freed of oppression, inequality, and degradation.  Stevens’ reputation has improved since the 1960s and reflects that even John F. Kennedy’s praise for Andrew Johnson and his description of Stevens as “the crippled fanatical personification of the extremes of the Radical Republican Movement” in his book co-authored with Theodore Sorenson, PROFILES IN COURAGE was totally wrong.  Stevens pushed for Reconstruction as hard as he could and if others had not grown tired of it and reverted to previous attitudes perhaps, we would not suffer from the racial bifurcation that infects American society today.

Thaddeus Stevens (April 4, 1792 - August 11, 1868)
(Thaddeus Stevens April 4, 1792 – August 11, 1868)


Lee Park, Charlottesville, VA.jpg
(Robert E. Lee)

On January 6, 2021, the US Capitol was marred by an invasion of a mixture of Trumpists, military militias, white supremacists, and a collection of other conspiracy toting insurrectionists.  What was very disconcerting for me apart from the violence is how these individuals wrapped themselves in a flag – the Confederate flag.  During the Civil War, the Confederate flag never reached the Capitol, now 150 years later it was proudly carried by numerous thugs and treasonous persons who threatened to hang the Vice President and kill the Speaker of the House.  These events resonated with me further as I read retired Brigadier General Ty Seidule’s new book,  ROBERT E. LEE AND ME: A SOUTHERNOR’S RECKONING WITH THE MYTH OF A LOST CAUSE as he grapples with his personal history from growing up in the south and being acculturated with false premises that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights,  tariffs, economics, Lincoln’s racism, or government overreach.  Seidule takes the reader on his own journey of discovery as he passed through college, a thirty year career in the military, and finally as head of the History Department at West Point.  During that sojourn he came to realize that he was raised as a southern gentleman whose education and socialization was built around certain myths and outright lies concerning the causes of the Civil War.

Seidule’s voyage raises a number of disconcerting issues that are currently bedeviling the American body politic and society – the negation of facts.  Seidule gave a lecture that went viral in which he argued that the war between the states that resulted in more deaths than any war the United States has ever fought, but the Civil War saw Americans killing Americans.  The author argued that the war was fought over slavery.  The result was a nasty response through emails, letters, and personal comments, some of which were quite threatening.  Seidule was incredulous and proceeded to reexamine his life’s passage to try and examine how his historical research forced him to confront his past and explain how he has undergone his own reeducation.

Faculty at Washington and Lee University voted on Monday to remove Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s name from the school.
(Washington and Lee University)

Throughout the narrative Seidule is obsessed with facts and truth as he tries to understand how he was duped for so many years.  To understand the author’s past, it is important to delve into his hero worship of Robert E. Lee as a boy and later as a young man.  He saw Lee as a brilliant general even in defeat as he possessed a “noble aura” about him.   Even in defeat at Gettysburg Seidule saw “an opportunity to showcase Lee’s true character and his standing as a gentleman.”  Seidule later realized that the reason he idolized Lee and the Confederacy was because the culture in which he grew up worshipped Lee and as they  proclaimed their racism.  Lee was seen as the most dignified man in history, but Seidule would come to realize that “the United States fought against a rebel force that would not accept the results of a democratic election and chose armed rebellion.”

After carefully reviewing the most impactful books he read as a young man Seidule focuses on Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND in trying to understand his own brainwashing.  Mitchell’s novel and David Selznick’s film of the same name created the lens that millions of people saw the Civil War and helped perpetuate the “Lost Cause myth.”  Despite their defeat Confederate leaders remained unrepentant.  Soon they would create a new narrative to justify racial control and white supremacy.  Seidule argues that “The Lost Cause became a movement, an ideology, a myth, even a civil religion that would unite first the white south and eventually the nation around the meaning of the Civil War.”  The Lost Cause produced a flawed memory; a lie that formed the ideological foundation for white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, which employed violence and terror to maintain a drastically unequal and segregated society.  The Lost Cause myth argued that white southerners fought for many reasons – protective tariffs, states’ rights, freedom, the agrarian dream, defense, etc. etc., but none of those who espoused the myth mentioned slavery.  The problem is that the facts all point to the Confederate states seceding to protect and expand their peculiar institution.

Paperback Gone With the Wind Book

The Lost Cause brings about secondary myths to support the overall argument.  First, the “obedient servant or happy slave myth,” living on a plantation they loved and that took care of them.  The reality was that the plantation was nothing more than a slave labor farm.  The second myth was that the southern cause was doomed from the outset because the Yankees had more money, material, and manpower – might over right.  A third myth is that Reconstruction was a failure as African Americans weren’t ready for freedom, the vote, or holding high office.  Seidule examines all aspects of the Lost Cause myth and debunks them all by presenting actual historical events and movements.  The Lost Cause would serve as the ideological underpinnings for a violently racist society.

Seidule admits that it took him decades to come to the realization that his entire educational, socialization, and cultural upbringing was based on a lie.  Seidule emerged from his “intellectual bubble” with the burden of guilt that he needed to undo. The narrative is a searing account of Seidule’s upbringing and education corrected by historical facts.  He transports the reader to Alexandria, Va., Walton County, Ga, and Lexington, Va. describing his own education juxtaposed against the places where he grew up and became a “southern gentleman.”  Seidule zeroes in Alexandria, Va.  and Walton, Ga. as his hometowns resorted to beatings, lynching’s, outright murder, the closing of public schools to avoid integration, and denying African Americans the right to vote even in cities and towns where they were the majority all designed to maintain the white supremacist south.  But the author never knew about the history of these places and in a number of instances things that transpired during his lifetime. 

West Point Military Academy on the Hudson River in New York State Stock Photo

(West Point, NY)

However, as Seidule attended college at Washington and Lee University and was exposed to research and goes through a period of self-condemnation as to how he could have been so ignorant.  He unearths numerous racist actions and events following the Civil War and Reconstruction well into the 20th century.  After examining the history of Alexandria and Walton County he could reach only one conclusion – both homes were part of the southern racial police state which was an integral part of creating and maintaining a white supremacist culture in the south.  Seidule integrates numerous historical examples of the violence perpetrated against African Americans and how little the white power structure responded despite Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Ka., the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Truman’s Civil Rights Commission, etc. 

Seidule blends his own ignorance of racism and violence with historical facts throughout his life’s journey.  The most fascinating recounting deals with Robert E. Lee’s role at Washington and Lee University and how he was elevated to deity status in the universities chapel and mausoleum all designed to focus on the education of a Christian gentlemen for students and viewing Lee as the godlike embodiment of what student strove to become.  All aspects of the university through the 1980s were endemic to the belief in the myths surrounding the Civil War.  Once Seidule came to realize the truth he engaged in a self-imposed guilt by trying to cleanse his own past and educate others as to how the Lost Cause myth came about and how to rectify it.

Seidule’s frustrations are many as he recounts how ten US Army forts are named after southern officers who fought and committed treason against their country, fostered supremacist racial beliefs, owned slaves and worked to deny African Americans the rights guaranteed in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the constitution after the Civil War.  Names like Braxton Bragg, John Brown Gordon, A.P.  Hill, George Pickett, Leonides Polk, Henry L. Benning, John Bell Hood, Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard, and of course Robert E. Lee, all men who fought and committed treason to preserve slavery as they killed American soldiers, but their names remain on the signage as you enter these posts, despite the current legislation to try and remove them from military installations.  Even as Seidule experienced his own military career he was confronted with the Confederate myths in the US Army.  Once he began to teach military history at West Point, he did his best to set the historical record straight, particularly how and why portraits and monuments to Lee proliferated at West Point in the 20th century.  He passionately believes the only way to correct the past was to try and make sure the Lost Cause myth did not infect his grandchildren – the tool that needed to be relied upon is historical knowledge. The past does not have to control us, especially if we understand it.

COL-SEIDULE-Picture-400x600 Colonel Ty Seidule To Give Constitution Day Lecture September 17
(The Author)

Once must commend the author’s journey of discovery and attempts to rectify his past.  My only criticism is that at times the narrative is somewhat repetitive, but his overall argument that Lee is guilty of treason in support of a racist regime is dead on.  His story is a microcosm of a larger portrait that has imbued the south for over 150 years.  If by some “miracle” instead of reducing the study of history and government at educational institutions, we would fund and increase opportunities for more classes the divide that infects America today might be lessened.  But, with terms like “fake news,” conspiracy theories involving 9/11, arguing that wildfires are caused by Jewish laser beams, Sandy Hook and Parkland murders did not occur, and QAnon members in the House of Representatives who refuse to give up their weapons on the House floor – as a result I am not encouraged.

One final thought.  Seidule states that the Confederacy was formed in reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.  They would go on to fight a war because they felt the election would destroy slavery.  From this war sprang the Lost Cause myth, a form of “fake news.”  Today we have a segment of the population that believes that the election of Joe Biden was stolen from them and it resulted in conspiracy theories that led to the attack on the capitol. What did the opponents of the 1860 and 2020 election results have in common – White Supremacy.

The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Va., was at the center of a violent rally this past weekend.
(Statue of Robert E. Lee, Charlotesville, Va.)


A scene in front of the East front of the U.S. Capitol is seen during President Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, 1865, just six weeks before his assassination.  (AP Photo/File)

(Lincoln’s Second Inauguration Address)

Recently I read Ted Widmer’s new book LINCOLN ON THE VERGE: THIRTEEN DAYS TO WASHINGTON.  In Widmer’s narrative he explores a number of Abraham Lincoln’s most important speeches given during his odyssey across America to his first inauguration in 1861.  When I came across Edward Achorn’s equally new book EVERY DROP OF BLOOD: THE MOMENTOUS SECOND INAUGURATION OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN I expected the author to focus more on Lincoln’s iconic speech in March 1865.  Much to my disappointment the book focuses on events, personalities, and the politics surrounding Lincoln’s effort in addition to a narrative that focuses in minute detail on the prevailing attitudes that existed in Washington for the twenty four hour period leading to the speech and the state of the city during that time as opposed to Lincoln’s development of the speech.  I was also somewhat disappointed in that much of what Achorn has to say has been reviewed by countless historians offering little that is new apart from spending about fourteen pages on the speech itself.

From the outset Achorn sets the scene for the inauguration introducing a number of important historical characters and their past and future roles in American history.  Achorn’s description of the new Vice President Andrew Johnson portends the future political warfare that would almost lead to his removal from office after Lincoln’s assassination.  Another important personage we are introduced to is Samuel P. Chase, the then Secretary of the Treasury whose political ambitions were fueled by his daughter Kate Sprague who was married to a senator from Rhode Island.  Chase had never gotten over the fact that Lincoln achieved the presidency and he did not, an office he coveted.  Lincoln deftly handles Chase’s machinations and nominates him as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to remove him as a political threat.  Achorn dives into the many conspiracies and rumors designed to unsettle Lincoln and his advisors and its impact on the city from the start.

Whitman at about fifty

(Walt Whitman)

It seems Achorn leaves no aspect of this short period in our history unturned.  He describes the atmosphere in the streets, the mud that people had to deal with, and even a discourse on the proliferation of prostitution in the city describing “Hooker’s Division” as the ladies of the night and soldiers who served in General Joseph Hooker’s army.  The discussion of the role of Frederick Douglass is important as it reflects his disappointment in Lincoln who he refers to as the “white man’s president.  John Wilkes Booth political views and attitude toward race are explored as is a plot to kidnap Lincoln.

Achorn possesses a fluid writing style and the ability to focus on the character traits of the figures he speaks about and is able to create a word picture in the reader’s mind of those under discussion.  His description of the poet Walt Whitman who became a special New York Times correspondent for the inauguration is wonderful, as he is seen as a “the big hairy, rambunctious buffalo of a man” as a case in point as is Alexander Gardner, a photographer who eventually took over Matthew Brady’s Washington office who “looked solid, boxy, unblinking as his machine.”  Gardner had created a sensation with his pictures from the Antietam battlefield and took the last photo of Lincoln with his enigmatic smile for posterity.  Lastly, the description of Lincoln , so reported by a British journalist as a man with “long bony arms and legs, which somehow, seem to always be in the way” and “nose and ears which have been taken by mistake from a head of twice the size,” is entertaining but also inciteful to how these figures were perceived by contemporaries.

Frederick Douglass

Achorn provides a series of mini biographies embedded in the narrative.  Portraits of Frederick Douglass, Samuel P. Chase, Stephen Douglas, William Henry Seward, General William T. Sherman, and Mary Todd Lincoln are among a number of historical figures that are examined that provide insight into their politics and beliefs.  All are significant and pursue actions that are historically significant, though some more than others.

Perhaps Achorn’s best chapter revolves around Lincoln’s political style and his evolution as a wordsmith pointing out that his folksy way of communicating brought disdain from certain segments of society, newspaper reporters, and politicians.  Achorn is correct as he points out that over time Lincoln’s speeches developed a plain-speaking succinct style people, including those just listed and literary types grew to appreciate as the president’s words impacted the general public in such a positive fashion.

Abraham Lincoln, portrait photograph, Alexander Gardner, 1863 Stock Photo

(Photo by Alexander Gardner)

Apart from these portraits Achorn allows the reader to gain a feel for what Washington, DC was like in March 1865.  At times, the narrative reads like a travelogue that can be somewhat overwhelming as the author seems to describe each social event, the amount of mud in the streets, the lack of city infrastructure, and the availability of housing.  Diverse groups of people who are attending are described in detail, in addition to the racial implications of the city’s composition.

If you are looking for a good synopsis of events surrounding Lincoln’s second inauguration and an analysis of the last days of the Civil War, Achorn’s effort should prove satisfying despite the fact that Achorn seems to drag out his story of a twenty-four hour period over the entire book, often pursuing digressions and flashbacks.    Just be aware if you are looking for a book that is an intellectual analysis of the speech akin to Gary Wills’ LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG, you will be disappointed.

Transcript of President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (1865)

Fellow Countrymen

At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the enerergies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil-war. All dreaded it — all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war — seeking to dissole the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern half part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said f[our] three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”

A scene in front of the East front of the U.S. Capitol is seen during President Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, 1865, just six weeks before his assassination.  (AP Photo/File)

(Lincoln’s Second Inauguration Address)


The French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville described America as enduring a “quadrennial crisis” every four years as it held its presidential elections.  The 1860 election was an exception because the artificial passions that were easily stoked reached unheard of levels.  de Tocqueville remarked that “a self-absorbed president, catering to the ‘worst caprices’ of his supporters, could easily distract their attention from plodding matters of governance, and whip their enthusiasm into a frenzy, especially if he divided his supporters and his critics into hostile camps.”  He spoke of “feverish obsessions” and warned “the potential for lasting damage was always lurking.” As the ominous warnings came to fruition in the Civil War in 1861, today we stand on another ominous precipice as the 2020 election approaches.  de Tocqueville’s view of America is as plausible today as it was in the 19th century as even a pandemic and how to deal with it has strong partisan overtones and we find that people are storming the offices of governors with AR-15 weapons.  With the current state of our politics in the background it is useful to examine the pre-inaugural period that witnessed Abraham Lincoln’s journey from Springfield, IL to Washington, D.C. after the election of 1860 wonderfully presented in Ted Widmer’s new book, LINCOLN ON THE VERGE: THIRTEEN DAYS TO WASHINGTON.

Lincoln’s Whistle-Stop Trip to Washington

On the way to his inauguration, President-elect Lincoln met many of his supporters and narrowly avoided an assassination attempt


One might ask why do we need another book about Abraham Lincoln, but to Widmer’s credit he has unearthed a great deal in his research and by focusing on Lincoln’s thirteen day odyssey he does so in a manner that other authors should envy as his narrative is like a flower that has  buds leading to numerous diversions for Widmer to relate to other aspects of American history.  In a recent CBS television interview Widmer as he does in his book argued that Lincoln’s election was the key to reaffirm the democratic process in America and its continuation as the core of our government.  Widmer argues further that the United States was the democratic model for the world and if it did not preserve its democratic principles the rest of the world would not have developed as it did, particularly in the 20th century and who knows how events would have transpired.  Widmer develops other important themes that in a general way are very pertinent.  The south had enjoyed an idyllic existence with a free labor system as the basis of its plantation economy or “cotton kingdom.”  It did not develop the industrial infrastructure as the north and would soon feel threatened not only by its fear of the emancipation of slaves, but by the growth of the west as evidenced by the new census, which if admitted to the union as free states would result in the loss of its control of Congress.  The north’s industrial development particularly the expansion of the railroads was the main threat.  The railroads provided the transportation network that was making the steamboat almost obsolete and provided the vehicle for the demographic explosion west of the Mississippi to the west coast.

Widmer makes a number of salient points that reflect southern anxiety.  For the first sixty-one years of the Republic slaveholders held the presidency.  For forty-one of those years a slaveholder was Speaker of the House.  For fifty-two years the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee was a slaveholder.  Eighteen out of thirty-one members of the Supreme Court were southerners, despite the fact that 80% of cases that reached the court originated in the north.  Lastly, most military officers and Attorney-Generals hailed from the south – no wonder the economic, political, and social changes that were evolving in the 1850s produced so much anxiety below the Mason-Dixon line.

Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) Stock Photo

(Dorothea Dix)

Widmer writes with exceptional verve and excitement as he describes Lincoln’s journey to assume the presidency.  A journey that had been preceded by Lincoln’s strategy of silence during the campaign which now would be drastically altered.  Widmer has the ability to focus on his main task, how Lincoln avoided violence and a possible assassination as he passed through eight states.  But, at the same time he fills in the background history of a particular whistle stop and its relationship to Lincoln’s life and career.  A case in point is Lincoln’s arrival in Cincinnati, known as the “Queen City,” as well as “Porkopolis” because of its pork industry (which would give rise to Proctor and Gamble in the 1840s!) which Widmer argues was a key to Lincoln assuming the presidency and the North’s ultimate victory in the Civil War. Sitting across on the other side of the Ohio River sat Kentucky with its myriad of political interests making Cincinnati influential in formulating the attitudes of many Kentuckians.  Being a border state Lincoln feared that if Kentucky seceded, they would soon be followed by Maryland and Missouri which immediately would have threated the capitol and Lincoln’s assumption of the presidency.

Even before Lincoln left Springfield to travel to Washington rumors and conspiracy theories abounded.  Lincoln received numerous threats on his life as he was seen by the south as the embodiment of evil and the ultimate threat to their way of life.  As Lincoln traveled toward Washington his friends and cohorts wondered how they could protect him.  Thanks to the early warnings of Dorothea Dix who had traveled through the south during the secessionist craze learning of a number of conspiracy theories concerning a possible southern seizure of Washington and the depth of hatred for Lincoln in Maryland.   She informed Samuel Felton, the President of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad of the possible coup who then contacted General Winfield Scott, and Alan Pinkerton who would deploy eight detectives, among of which was Kate Warne.  Warne brilliantly acted the part of a recently arrived Alabaman, which produced a large amount of gossip from southern women, she would also frequent southern saloons trawling for information.  This led to a treasure trove of information for Pinkerton’s spies and created an undercurrent of gloom as Lincoln’s odyssey made its way toward the nation’s capital amidst possible assassination plots to take place when Lincoln passed through Baltimore.

Widmer does a wonderful job linking Lincoln’s journey to future historical figures.  For example, the sixteen-year-old Thomas A. Edison, the sixteen-year-old  Benjamin Harrison,  William Howard Taft, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, all future presidents in addition to John D. Rockefeller all who witnessed Lincoln’s odyssey.

Photo of Allan Pinkerton

(Alan Pinkerton)

The journey was dominated by political calculations as at each whistle stop Lincoln would make a speech designed for the audience that came to see him by the thousands. Lincoln went further than any president had gone before in addressing the American people.  It appeared as if he was having direct conversations with voters and with newspaper and the telegraph, he was able to reach people across America and make a Lincoln presidency more real.  Despite Lincoln’s exhaustion he eventually came to relish the relationship he was establishing with his constituents.  Lincoln would experience many ups and down during his journey which at times was compounded by his bouts with depression highlighted by the fact he was almost certain that he left Springfield he would never return alive.

As Lincoln traveled from city, hamlet, and village he had to navigate the political minefields of each location.  None was more problematical than Albany and New York, NY which had been under democratic control for decades under the stewardship of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed.  Lincoln’s coat takes elected a Republican governor which would only exacerbate the problem as  Fernando Wood, the unstable mayor of New York City leaned toward the south and argued for an autonomous zone for his city.  Widmer also does a fine job comparing another political minefield as he follows the odyssey of Jefferson Davis, the newly elected president of the Confederacy.  Widmer follows Davis’ sojourn from his plantation in Mississippi to the new capitol in Montgomery, AL comparing his executive actions and powers with those lacking in Lincoln who had a  ways to go in getting his administration up and running as he tried to survive and reach Washington.

Widmer deftly measures Lincoln up against other historical figures throughout the narrative.  His favorite is George Washington who had his own partisan and foreign policy travails who Lincoln studied particularly his “Farwell Address” and how he dealt with enemies within his own administration.  It seems that Widmer is able to choose a historical personage from each city that Lincoln visited and compare the future president with that individual on a personal level and the historical context of each.

Kate Warne

(Kate Warne)

Lincoln gave numerous speeches throughout his travels which were roundly critiqued at the time.  Widmer does the same but singles out his addresses in Philadelphia as perhaps his most important.  When Lincoln arrived in Philadelphia, he immediately grasped its iconic importance in American history as is evidenced by his references to the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” supposition and the work of the founders in the city.  For Lincoln, the city and its shrines were sacred, a message he put forth during each speech.  Lincoln focused on a “sincere heart” and the holiness and sacred walls of Independence Hall.  It was if he were experiencing his own “Great Awakening.”  His speeches raised the level of his bond with the union he vowed to protect as he restored the radical promise inherent in the Declaration of Independence.    As Widmer continuously reminds us, throughout his visit to “the city of brotherly love” he received numerous messages of hatred concerning plots that were unfolding in Baltimore which clouded the president-elect’s visit.

Widmer ends his superb narrative after tracing his deception that frustrated the potential assassins surrounding Baltimore by reversing Lincoln’s odyssey, this time departing Washington for Springfield in late April and early May 1865.  Widmer has written an excellent account superseding most if not all books on the topic, but also, he has completed a narrative that should join other classics written about the fallen president.

“I don’t think it’s ever been done, what we’re doing tonight, here, and I think it’s great for the American people to see,” President Trump told the Fox News interviewers on Sunday.

(Trump at Lincoln Memorial, May 3, 2020)


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(President Abraham Lincoln and General U.S. Grant)

It goes without saying that intelligence gathering during the American Civil War was an inexact science.  Information was derived from a myriad of sources that included; newspaper articles, railroad passengers and riders, free blacks, runaway slaves, deserters, prisoners of war, local farmers and other non-combatants along with the Union’s use of hot air balloons during the first half of the war.  This menagerie of sources produced a great deal of conflicting information that needed to be sifted through and analyzed.  The key information rested on how many troops each side possessed and their location.  The end result was a decision-making process that at times was flawed and battlefield decisions that rested on a weak foundation.  If one was to compare the intelligence strengths of the Union and the Confederacy, the northern spy network had major advantages and, in the end, would create an intelligence service that would later develop into an effective organization that contributed to victory.

Effective studies of Civil War spying are few in number and Douglas Waller’s new book LINCOLN’S SPIES: THEIR SECRET WAR TO SAVE THE NATION is a wonderful addition.  Waller has previously shown himself to be adept at dissecting important aspect of the history of American intelligence in his previous works.  DISCIPLES: THE WORLD WAR TWO MISSIONS OF THE CIA, DIRECTORS WHO FOUGHT FOR WILD BILL DONOVAN, and WILD BILL DONOVAN: THE SPY MASTER WHO CREATED THE OSS AND MODERN AMERICAN ESPIONAGE are all thoughtful, well researched monographs with a strong element of analysis.  Waller has now shifted his focus to the Civil War and those interested in early American intelligence gathering and techniques should be very satisfied with the latest contribution to the topic.

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(Allan Pinkerton)

Waller focuses on the Civil War’s Eastern Theater, arguing that a comprehensive history of all theaters of the war would require a minimum of three volumes.  His approach includes Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. because some of the largest, costliest, and significant battles of the war took place in those states.  Waller zeroes in on a number of important characters but his main focus is on Allan Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and a man whose ego knew no bounds and in the end was not a very effective head of Lincoln’s spy organization despite the reputation that he himself  cultivated.  Lafayette Baker is another individual who plays a significant role in Waller’s narrative.  Baker was a poorly educated aimless drifter who arrived in Washington after a rather questionable career as a detective in California.  He would eventually convince Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to employ him and set up a spy network for the military.  In the end the corruption, use of blackmail, coercion, and illegal means to extract information and bribes would lead to the end of Baker’s career as a wartime spy by 1864.  Next, Waller introduces the reader to George Sharpe, probably the most effective Union spy during the war whose intelligence was the most accurate and in the end after his network of detectives was able to assist General George Meade at Gettysburg would join with General Ulysses S. Grant in helping to achieve final victory.  With a background as a lawyer who inherited a great deal of money Sharpe never could conceive that he would become the war’s “preeminent spymaster.”  Lastly, Waller discusses the contributions of Elizabeth Van Law, a Richmond socialite who abhorred slavery and all the Confederacy stood for.  Using her “social contacts” inside the Confederate government she was able to tap into a great deal of useful information.  She would create the “Richmond Spy Ring” and was very helpful for the Union cause.  She provided accurate estimates of Confederate forces in and around Richmond, assistance for runaway slaves to reach Union lines, helped organize prison breaks, and hid political prisoners and those suspected of spying against the Confederacy.

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(Lafayette Baker)

Waller, a stickler for detail, provides mini biographies of all his characters particularly those who were involved with the aforementioned four figures.  His discussion of the course of the war and its major players, be it Generals Robert E. Lee, George McClellan, George Meade Joseph Hooker, Ulysses S. Grant, President Lincoln, Secretary of Defense Edwin M. Stanton, and Jefferson Davis among many others echoes the comments of earlier historians.  Waller excels in describing the differences and dislikes that led to competitions and downright hostility among allies especially Sharpe and Pinkerton; Baker and Pinkerton; Meade and Sharpe; Lincoln and McClellan; Meade and Grant among many presented.  The strategies and geographical and economic conflicts are presented in a cogent fashion and are easily understood by the general reader.

Perhaps Waller’s best chapters include his analysis of the contribution intelligence made to the Union victory at Gettysburg which along with Grant’s triumph at Vicksburg was the turning point in the war.  Another fascinating chapter deals with Allan Pinkerton and how poorly he ran his intelligence operation for Lincoln and how incompetent he was.  A key to finally defeating the Confederacy was Sharpe’s relationship with Grant that Waller explores in detail.  Their mutual respect for each other’s skills and capacity in their fields of expertise was the foundation of their personal alliance.  Lastly, and throughout the book Waller discusses Civil War spy craft and how it evolved into an effective tool for victory.

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(Elizabeth Van Lew)

According to Waller intelligence gathering during the war also pioneered what today is called “all-source intelligence” under the leadership of George Sharpe.  The result was “merging espionage, cavalry reconnaissance, and signal intercepts with prisoner, deserter, and refugee interrogations to produce reports on Confederate strength and movement.  The phone tapping, human collection, and aerial snooping today’s U.S. spy community engages in can be traced to the Civil War.  It’s no wonder that the CIA tasked analysts to study era’s tradecraft for lessons learned.” (417)

The human side of the war is on full display as the carnage was unimaginable up until that time.  The book does not present itself as a history the war, but just a component that contributed to the northern victory.  An aspect of the war that has not been given enough treatment by historians.  The book itself does a remarkable job focusing on the Eastern front of the war and I recommend it to the general reader as well as Civil War aficionados.

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GRANT by Ron Chernow

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Recently Ron Chernow was asked on the CBS morning news program if his new biography, GRANT could become a Broadway musical as his previous book HAMILTON had.  His response was clearly no, but he left open the possibility of a movie.  Whatever the case, Chernow has written the most comprehensive biography of the man credited with changing the course of, and winning the Civil War, then went on to support Lincoln’s reconstruction program, and assumed the presidency.  The book is quite long, to the point that Chernow dedicated the book to his readers, as he stated in a New York Times interview he himself would have difficulty dealing with the length of his own books.  As far as a film is concerned it is easy to contemplate such a complex life story that experienced numerous successes and failures.  Before the Civil War his private life was riddled with failed businesses and depression.  He had to deal with a father-in-law who thought very little of him, and a father who was rather intrusive.  Troubled by alcoholism he would lead the North to victory over the Confederacy, was a proponent of civil rights for freed slaves, and guided the United States through the perilous years following the Civil War.

Every high school student is taught that there was a great deal of corruption linked to the Grant administration, but in truth noting ever involved him on a personal level.  The historiography dealing with Grant’s life and career beginning with William A. Dunning at the turn of the twentieth century has been rather negative, but Chernow’s effort has continued the new strain of thought reflected in recent biographies by Ronald C. White and Jean Edward Smith who argue that Grant was a great military leader and a better president than he has been given credit for.

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Chernow’s portrait of GRANT is all consuming beginning with a boyhood that witnesses a grandstanding father and a stubbornly private son.  Along with his over-bearing father, Grant had to cope with a painfully retiring mother resulting in a young man who kept a world of buried feelings locked inside, a trait he would carry his entire life.  Chernow follows his subject through his formative years and West Point until his marriage to Julia Dent, a southern woman who lived on a plantation.  Since the Grants were rabid abolitionists it created tremendous pressure on the young couple, particularly Ulysses who could never measure up in terms of wealth to his father-in-law.

Chernow is a wonderful writer of narrative history, but he also centers on the motivations and consequences of people’s actions.  Employing his analytical skills to Grant’s intellectual development in dealing with American expansion during and following the Mexican War, and the problem of Texas we witness a man who realizes early on that the war incited by President James K. Polk could only exacerbate domestic tension by adding territories that the south would try and turn into slave states.  Grant’s pre-presidential views are in a constant state of evolution; whether dealing with military strategy during the Civil War, his dealings with Union generals such as George McClellan, William T. Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and Henry Halleck; how to deal with the problem of “contraband” slaves and whether they should be employed by Union armies against the south; what approach to take against Robert E. Lee; and his developing relationship with Abraham Lincoln.

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Chernow’s Grant has a facile mind who was able to control his emotions and weigh his decisions.  Grant realized that his reputation was one that stressed his problem with alcohol and the fact that casualties under his command were very high.  Chernow spends a great deal of time dealing with the alcohol issue and concludes that Grant was the type of drunk who could control when to start and stop drinking.  The evidence presented reflects the belief that Grant never drank during periods involving the preparation of and actual combat.  The stress of battle needed an outlet, and when Julia was not around or his Chief of Staff John Rawlins was not present to manage him, Grant did resort to alcohol.  As far as casualties were concerned, Grant unlike McClellan and George C. Meade did not pursue an offensive approach to war.   Once Grant experienced success in the western theater, particularly at Vicksburg, his relationship with Lincoln was solidified as the president finally found a general who wanted to destroy the Confederate army, and not just concentrate on acquiring territory.  Another major point that Chernow develops is that historians tend to concentrate on the Army of the Potomac and events in the east, with Grant’s life story the west comes into focus particularly its strategic value during the Civil War.

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(Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)

Grant’s relationship with Lincoln was the key to victory.  The strength of their bond can be seen with all the “presidential talk” surrounding Grant as the war wound down as he assured Lincoln he had no presidential aspirations.  In dealing with the social issues that emerged with the Emancipation Proclamation we witness the further evolution of Grant’s thinking as he proposed what would come to be known as the Freedman’s Bureau to take care of freed slaves.  Lincoln’s assassination hit Grant very hard, as he lost his partner in trying to bring the south back into the union without the former Confederates loosing total face.  Once Lincoln was gone, Grant as General in Chief had to deal with Andrew Johnson, an avowed racist who went to war with radical Republicans in Congress.  By wars end the “erstwhile goods clerk” from Galena, Illinois was in command of over one million men which could compete with any army in the world.  For Grant that army would be reduced appreciatively, but was to be used to control southern rejectionists who committed numerous atrocities against freed blacks, and wanted to reinstitute the status quo ante bellum.

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(General William T. Sherman)

Chernow provides a historically accurate portrayal of the Reconstruction period.  Beginning with the presidency of Andrew Johnson the author dwells on the former Tennessee governor’s blatant racism and goal of restoring Confederate ideals as soon as possible.  Grant, then General in Chief and temporary Secretary of War with Johnson’s suspension of Edwin M. Stanton challenged the new president on issues ranging from the Freedman’s Bureau, constitutional amendments, racist inspired riots and murder in Memphis and New Orleans, and the impeachment process.  It is clear from Chernow’s analysis that Grant became the foremost protector of persecuted blacks in the south as his disgust with Johnson continually increased.  With this process his world view moved closer to Radical Republicans.  Grant believed that Johnson “had subverted the will of Congress in a way that bordered on treason.”(589)  Grant grew very uncomfortable as he found himself in the middle between Johnson and the Radical Republicans over the interpretation of the Tenure of Office Act.  For Grant military rule in the south should be terminated as soon as possible, but also believed that withdrawal should take place without sacrificing the welfare of blacks.

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(General Philip Sheridan)

It came as no surprise that Grant was easily elected to the presidency, a job he never really sought, but once in office seemed to enjoy.  The problem was that Grant tended to view rich businessmen through rose colored glasses leading to weak and corrupt appointees.  Grant, who during the war had a knack for choosing superb talent proved to have lost that skill as president.  Men like Jay Gould and John Fiske tried to corner the gold market; Orville Babcock spied for whisky distillers within the administration along with General John McDonald, the Supervisor for Internal Revenue in Arkansas and Missouri; Secretary of War William M. Belknap made money selling trading posts that provided goods to Native-Americans; and of course the Credit Mobilier – all personified the looser morals of the Gilded Age which greatly detracted from his presidency.  Grant was a victim of the disease of patronage as he repeatedly handed out positions to family and friends.  Many of his problems resulted from the lack of a true civil service system.

In his defense, Chernow argues that Grant was the first president to oversee a continental economy which led to the rise of big business, particularly the expansion of railroads that required government assistance providing fresh opportunities for graft.  “With the federal government bound up in new moneymaking activities, there arose a gigantic grab for filthy lucre that affected statehouses as well and saturated the political system with corruption.”(645)  Grant had to cope with a strong Congress whose powers had been amplified as the death of Lincoln and the actions of Johnson greatly reduced the power of the Executive branch.  Overall, Grant’s problem was that after the Civil War the Republican Party evolved from a party of abolitionism to a more business oriented one.

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(General John A. Rawlins)

Chernow stresses the role of John Rawlins in helping Grant become the hero of the Civil War, but with his death a vacuum was created that no one could fill.  Without Rawlins to help Grant control his drinking problems, act as a sounding board for decisions, and choosing the proper person for a position, it became easier for people to take advantage of Grant.  The result was once Rawlins died, Grant’s presidency became a victim of “crafty, cynical politicians for whom the credulous Grant was no match.”  Later in life Grant would admit his character flaws and blamed himself for choosing and working with individuals that helped contribute to the negative view of his presidency.

Despite the corruption that hovered around the Grant presidency there are areas to admire.  During his administration Grant faced a clandestine Civil War in the south.  Remnants of the Confederacy morphed into the Klu Klux Klan and other racist groups that reigned murder and violence against blacks or any whites who supported them.  Grant used the newly created Department of Justice and the military to prosecute offenders and safeguard possible victims.  Though he could not totally eradicate the violence and hatred by 1872 he had destroyed the Klan in the south.  However, by his second administration acts of violence against blacks in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Mississippi increased culminating in the Colfax massacre and others.  When Grant sought to use federal troops to protect black voting rights he ran into northern opposition that had grown tired of Reconstruction.

Another area that Grant should be commended for was the negotiations resulting in the Treaty of Washington that settled the “Alabama claims” issue with the British dating back to the Civil War.   As a result Anglo-American cooperation would replace years of controversy and ill-feelings.  Further, it allowed for the influx of British capital which greatly enhanced American industrial development.

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(Grant working on his memoirs right before he died)

It is interesting to note the current manipulation of the “Civil War Monuments Issue” by politicians in light of Chernow’s analysis.  The author explains Grant’s resentments against those who argued that he was only successful because of superior resources and men as opposed to the strategy he employed in defeating Lee’s army.  Further, it vexed him that after the Civil War “the North denigrated its generals while southern generals were idealized.”  Grant remarked that Southern generals were [seen as] models of chivalry and valor—our generals were venal, incompetent and course…Everything our opponents did was perfect.  Lee was a demigod, Jackson was a demigod, while our generals were brutal butchers.” (516)  Grant is probably turning over in his grave today as statues of the treasonous Lee are used as a vehicle to exploit the feelings of many individuals who still refuse to honor the 13th,14th,  and 15th  amendments to the Constitution.

Chernow’s work is masterful, well written, and the epitome of how history should be presented.  Chernow does not miss a beat; from Grant’s military career, family life, battle to overcome alcoholism, to the trust in mankind that led to so many financial losses.  If you have the time, GRANT is a major commitment, but if you choose to accept the challenge of engaging a book that weighs between two and three pounds you will not be disappointed.

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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)


(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.


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 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.