Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lincoln's soldiers

Lincoln's Men, William C. Davis

Reading about the experiences of one (albeit unique) soldier in An Uncommon Soldier reminded me of this book.  Its subtitle really sums it up: "How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation."  I was also reminded of my own personal challenge, to read all the Civil War-related books on my TBR pile before the 150th anniversary of the war ends in 2015.  If I can keep from adding too many more to it, I might just win that battle.

In the first chapters of Lincoln's Men, William Davis explores the place that George Washington and his soldiers of the American Revolution had in forming the United States' identity in the 19th century, taking on almost mythic proportions.  Americans saw themselves as a family, formed by "the Father of his Country," in a patriarchal society that looked to political leaders to guide and protect the family as Washington had.  Davis also looks at Abraham Lincoln's sole military experience, when at age 22 he he volunteered to fight in a conflict with Native Americans in 1831 that came to be called the Black Hawk War.  Though he served for only a matter of weeks, the experience was formative.  He was elected captain of his company, the first office he ever held.  With his men he suffered the hardships of life on campaign, including shortages of supplies.  And he saw the aftermath of war for the first time, with dead bodies left on the field.  From this brief experience, Lincoln gained an insight into soldiering, particularly with volunteers, as well as a firm commitment to meeting the needs of both soldiers and veterans.

Thirty years later he would bring that understanding, and commitment, to his role as Commander in Chief of the largest military force ever raised in North America.  In the first years of the Civil War, it was a volunteer force, later supplemented by military drafts.  Lincoln always understood that it was the soldiers who were bearing the burden of the war, its risks and hardships.  He made himself more accessible to his soldiers than any president in American history, welcoming them to the White House, reviewing them in Washington, traveling to visit them in camp, and touring the hospitals where so many ended up.  He paid constant tribute to them in his writings and speeches. He told them more than once that they could come to him in trouble; many took him up on that offer, as did their families.  Lincoln was famously unable to resist the pleas of mothers and wives, and his reviews of court-martial cases were notorious for their leniency.  He agonized over sending tens of thousands of these soldiers to their deaths in battle, particularly under the ineffective leaders that plagued the Army of the Potomac in the Virginia theater.

Davis draws on hundreds of soldiers' letters and diaries to analyze their relationship with their Commander in Chief.  As he shows through copious quotations, the soldiers, at least the rank and file, felt a strong connection to Lincoln, based in large part on his obvious concern and care for them.  From the beginning of the war they referred to him constantly and familiarly as "Old Abe," a nickname that later morphed into "Father Abraham."  They compared him with Washington, in his role of holding the Union together.  Their confidence in him carried them through the military disasters in the Eastern theater, through the Emancipation Proclamation that turned the struggle into war on slavery, and through the 1864 presidential election, which pitted Lincoln against the popular General George McClellan, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac.  Not all of the soldiers supported Lincoln, of course, and Davis gives voice to his opponents as well.

For those who might wonder if we really needed another book about Lincoln, Davis writes in his Acknowledgements,
"Lincoln's life has been plumbed to almost every depth, from his taste in music to his feelings on religion, yet this vital relationship between him and the soldiers who fought in, supported, and in the end died in his war, remains unpenetrated beyond a few paragraphs here and there . . ."
In this book, by focusing on that "vital relationship," he gives us new insights into Lincoln and his soldiers, as well an interesting overview of the Civil War through their eyes, in their voices.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!