Abraham Lincoln, a now-revered president, wasn’t always so beloved.
In a capable history of the events of 1865, Providence Journal vice president Achorn (The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game, 2013, etc.) opens with the sanguinary situation that faced the president when hundreds of thousands of Americans lay dead as a result of a Civil War that threatened to grind on. Lincoln, writes the author, had “used every weapon he could get his hands on” to secure Union victory, from incurring massive federal debts to imposing the first income tax, suspending the writ of habeas corpus, and inaugurating a military draft. Such moves gave ammunition to those who would brand him a tyrant, in the North as well as the South. Lincoln’s enemies were legion, among them John Wilkes Booth, who by the time of Lincoln’s second inauguration had developed a fixation around the president and indeed set out to kill him as he was being sworn in, having told friends, “I would rather have my right arm cut off at the shoulder than see Lincoln president again.” There are plenty of scenes in which combatants are losing limbs for real, a bloodletting that Robert E. Lee finally tried to stanch by negotiating a truce with Ulysses S. Grant in the winter of 1865, one that Lincoln refused to entertain unless the parley resulted in unconditional surrender. “The generals had plainly tried to go around the president to strike the peace deal that had eluded Lincoln,” Achorn writes, and Lincoln would have none of it. He lived only a few days after Lee finally surrendered at Appomattox, assassinated in a Washington theater and carried off to die in an apartment nearby because some of the people on hand to attend him “were concerned that a president should not die in a theater, a place that many religious Americans still considered unrespectable.”
A vigorous, fresh look at a critical time in American history.