Book Review: Lincoln’s Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation (by William C. Davis): CWT
Lincoln’s Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation, by William C. Davis, Free Press, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020, 315 pages, $25.
William C. “Jack” Davis is one of our most prolific and finest historians. He has either edited or authored dozens of books with subjects as diverse as the Natchez Trace and the creation of the Confederate government. He is well known to readers of Civil War Times because of his numerous works on the Civil War. [And longtime subscribers will remember his years as the magazine’s editor–ed.] Few, if any, historians match his output, and few match his research efforts and his ability to write. In Lincoln’s Men, Davis demonstrates, once again, his skills as a historian and as a storyteller.
As Davis states in his preface, the “vital relationship” between Lincoln and the Union soldiery “cries for a closer look.” Though no historian can mine all the vast manuscript holdings related to the Civil War, Davis has examined approximately 600 unpublished collections and another 200 or more published letters and diaries to fashion this work. Consequently, the book is the fullest study on this subject yet written. It will likely remain the best for a long time.
The relationship between Lincoln and the men who came forth to preserve the Union began during the conflict’s initial days. When the president summoned 75,000 volunteers in the aftermath of Fort Sumter’s fall, he seems to have welcomed personally each regiment that arrived in Washington, D.C. He addressed units and watched them march past. He spoke individually to hundreds of men and opened the doors of the White House to them. It was a pattern Lincoln followed for the next four years.
Lincoln understood, as Davis makes clear, that the success or failure of his efforts to restore the Union lay with the common soldiers and sailors. He wanted them to see him, talk with him, and seek assistance from him. At his core, he was one of them, and they identified with him. Whenever he spoke, his words invariably were of and about them and of their sacrifices for the cause. He walked through miles of hospital rows to shake hands and to give comforting words. He rode past their serried ranks, an ungainly figure on a horse always too small for him, and he read uncounted pleas from their families at home.
In turn, the soldiers never forgot how he looked when they saw him and the kindness and compassion he showed them. Their words in diaries and letters echo with such sentiments. Lincoln seemed to them, almost universally, to be “careworn.” But he was a man with “a good heart,” with no aristocratic airs, and with what was admittedly a rather unhandsome face. It was his face, however, with its tired eyes and lines of sadness, that drew them to him. It revealed to them the burdens he bore and the concern he had for them.
Davis allows the men’s words to resonate across time. On nearly every page of the book, their words drive the narrative while Davis masterfully weaves them together. Likewise, Lincoln’s words about them are quoted extensively. In private letters, in conversations later recorded, and in public addresses, Lincoln’s sincere concern for their welfare shines through.
The chords that bound the men to Lincoln were not universally felt in the ranks, and they were subjected to some severe trials. The president never visited Union forces outside the Virginia theater of war, so Western troops never developed a relationship with him. In the East, where the bond was relatively strong, it had to withstand the divisive issues of George McClellan’s removal from command of the Army of the Potomac, the Battle of Fredericksburg disaster, emancipation, and the unrelenting hell of Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign in 1864.
While an ample number of soldiers, particularly officers, opposed the president and his policies, Davis argues persuasively that the vast majority of the rank and file supported the man whom they had come to call “Father Abraham.” The clearest affirmation of their support for him was their vote by absentee ballot in the 1864 presidential election.
At the end, Lincoln’s assassination staggered and infuriated them. Unlike any Union general, the common man from Illinois had touched their hearts. He had seen to their needs, remained unwavering in his determination to restore the nation and to broaden freedom, granted clemency to hundreds who had been court-martialed, and provided money for disabled veterans and widows. If he had been duped or too generous, it had been for their benefit.
In Lincoln’s Men, Davis recounts this remarkable relationship between Lincoln and those who answered his summons to save the country. With elegant prose and with the timeless words of ordinary men in an extraordinary time, Davis has written an outstanding book. If nothing else, the book reminds us of the good, kind, and great man who led Americans through the ordeal of civil war.
Jeffry D. Wert
Centre Hall, Pennsylvania