Charles Bracelen Flood | 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History (Simon & Schuster; $30)

book_1864.jpgFlood endows Lincoln with the humanness that sometimes eludes him in other books,

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abraham Lincoln is the historical figure who has had more books written about him than perhaps any other person except Jesus, I am pretty sure that Lincoln, after this, his bicentennial year, is closing the gap. Lincoln holds our imagination better than almost all the other U.S. presidents. It is easy to see why. He was an extremely complex man, self taught, had little experience as an elected official, stepped in to the presidency at one of U.S. history’s most cataclysmic moments, and spent nearly all of that presidency in the midst of one of the bloodiest and destructive wars ever fought. Yet, Lincoln overcame his personal struggles and the overwhelming odds against him and the Union during the Civil War to triumph and, without a doubt, save the nation.

This year, there are literally hundreds of books coming out about Lincoln. Every aspect of his life, every minute detail of how he became president, what his childhood was like, how he fought the Civil War, his words, his image, and on and on. It is a good thing that he is so interesting, though there are only so many ways you can split the man. Coming up with another way to see him has become the game of Lincoln historians. It is how we end up with books like C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, which spent a great many pages theorizing whether our 16th president was gay. Thankfully, there are authors like Charles Bracelen Flood who has found a novel viewpoint in his book 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History.

Flood takes the pivotal year 1864 and walks us through it, month by month. Things up to that point were not going well for the Union and President Lincoln. The Confederacy, though short on industrial resources, was rich in military talent. The Union seemed mired in commanders who were slow to act and almost comically inept when they did (this would be funny if it weren’t for the real human toll involved). 1864 was the year of Ulysses Grant’s punishing battles with Lee—the Wilderness Campaign—and Sherman’s burning of Atlanta and march to the sea. It was also the year that Lincoln ran for re-election and felt that he would assuredly lose. It was two years after the Lincolns lost one of their sons. It was the year our nation lost nearly 100,000 sons and daughters to the War.

Flood is a good historian. He has written often about the Civil War and the many personalities that filled it. This book builds on that scholarship and reads solidly for the most part. It endows Lincoln with the humanness that sometimes eludes him in other books, oftentimes showing a man who could be somewhat callous and calculating. Flood takes great pains to show a Lincoln who was distinctly aware of all the death going on around him, and a man who found it impossible not to tend to the needs of the less fortunate. The book is littered with tales of Lincoln putting aside his own exhaustion to comfort those in need or to thank a soldier who was fighting to preserve the Union. Flood tells little stories, like the one about Lieutenant Gosper who had lost a leg in battle. Lincoln saw him at a reception and broke away from the group he was speaking to and went over to Gosper saying, "God bless you, my boy!" Gosper told a nurse who had helped him, "I’d lose another leg for a man like that." This is the place where Flood’s book excels. It is filled with dozens of little stories over the 12 months that eventually lead to Lincoln’s re-election and the critical turn in the war in the favor of the Union.

While this series of stories often helps to illustrate this important year in history, it sometimes is presented in an uneven fashion or, worse, feels cobbled together. Some of the stories felt like they didn’t fit. There were odd pieces that were more appropriate to a young reader’s book, particularly the story of Henry E. Wing, cub reporter for the New York Tribune. While funny, the tale reads somewhat beneath much of the rest of the material, particularly when surrounded by Grant’s devastating battles against Lee in Virginia. Flood also has an irritating habit of repeating information as if he had never mentioned it before. Either he is not sure of his audience’s mental stamina or some closer editing might be in order. Finally, there were some points in the book where Flood seemed to be reaching a bit too hard to make emotional blows against his readers; in a few places, he sounded a bit too much like a Hallmark sympathy card. We know what happened to Lincoln just one week after the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; there is no need to stir that emotional pot any further.

This book will amaze you at how many things actually did happen during those 365 days. At several points you will wonder just how did we survive as a nation? By the time the journey ends you will realize that Lincoln, born two centuries ago, seemingly cast to respond to this one moment in history, is truly worthy of all those books, all this attention, and our eternal thanks. | Jim Dunn

About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

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