Lincoln — David Herbert Donald

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Lincoln was a remarkable man. Born into a poor family, he lost his mother at a very young age and in total received around one year’s formal schooling. But he aspired to bigger things, wanting to leave some sort of legacy. Lincoln is a superb example of drive and determination paying off as he read and worked his way into a reasonably successful law practice, then national recognition in politics, and finally to the presidency.

The more I have read about Lincoln, the more impressed I have been by him. He comes across as an exceptionally kind and modest man, caring about those around him far more than about himself. And he was also a skilled political operator, understanding what motivated others and when he was best placed to act. But above all else, he was evidently a man of principle who was open to changing his mind when confronted by new evidence or ideas. And that’s an important character trait at a time of major political change.

Of course, he made some mistakes. Particularly in his first few years in office, Lincoln miscalculated with appointments and he put a lot of faith in people who probably didn’t deserve it. George McLellan does not come out of any of the books I read well, and was twice given command of the troops. And Lincoln trusted him for a very long time. Lincoln also interfered more than was advisable, but it is clear from his behaviour with Grant that this was only because he worried that he needed to do so. Which says something of Lincoln as a judge of character.

The thing is, Lincoln is a hard person to get a grasp on. He’s the first president I decided to read more than one book on (I’ll be following this with a review of Team of Rivals next week) and before I even touched Lincoln, I made sure I read James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom to have a handle on the Civil War. It’s excellent and well worth a read. Despite this, Lincoln doesn’t really make sense to me. One can’t describe his background and his life in a way that explains the man because he was exceptional. Even the earliest accounts of him in these biographies note people saying how impressed or surprised they were by such a shabbily dressed man having such oratorical skill, such humour, or such passion. As far as I can tell, Lincoln is simply made of different stuff from the rest of us. And I was in awe of him.

I thought David Herbert Donald’s biography was superb. It was detailed and gave a lively account of the man. It also managed to condense into one volume a useful amount of detail on the war itself to provide context, although I was glad I had read the McPherson as it meant I knew enough of what was happening in the west to follow along (inevitably, with Lincoln in Washington, the easterly part of the war gets more attention). Unusually, I was left wanting more knowledge of the subject and once I finish this project I intend to go back at my leisure to read Michael Burlingame’s two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Vol 1 & Vol 2), which is also free in a more detailed online version.

I want to finish this review with a letter quoted by Jean Edward Smith in Grant: A Biography from 13th July, 1863. I don’t remember this coming up in the other books I read, it may well have done, but I think it provides an interesting insight into Lincoln. It was sent by Lincoln to Grant after Grant won Vicksburg. Lincoln didn’t need to send the letter: it was squashing no rumours, and as the two men had never met, their relationship prior to the letter was virtually non-existent. But it clearly mattered to him to send it and, in my opinion, speaks volumes of Lincoln’s integrity.

My Dear General:

     I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did—march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except in a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below and took Port Gibson, Grand Gulf and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.

Yours very truly,

A. Lincoln

What a shame the Reconstruction period had to sail forward without that man at the helm.

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