Lincoln’s Gamble–A Review


Todd Brewster is a really nice person.  Knowing I was disappointed in the talk he gave at Carlisle Barracks, he sent me a copy of his book.  That’s very kind of him, and I really wanted to be able to write a glowing, rave review of the book.  I promised him it would be a fair assessment, and a fair assessment is what I’m going to give it, though I believe I’m not the target audience for the book.  As someone who’s read a great deal about Lincoln and about the Emancipation Proclamation and as a serious student of the war, I’m looking for a book that demonstrates rigorous scholarship and tells me something new about the subject.  I think the target audience for this book is the casual reader looking for some really good stories and maybe learn some history in the bargain.  For that reader, this book is highly successful.  For readers like me, the book has mixed results.  This review will concentrate on the negative aspects, as I feel compelled to explain those aspects and show where I think he went awry.  I think I owe it to him to show him the evidence.  It will make the review seem unbalanced, and I regret that, because there were many things I liked about the book, most especially the entertaining stories he put into the book, which I regard as the book’s biggest strength.  This review will be extremely long as it is, and to include the positive things would make the review almost as long as the book itself.

The first thing one notices is the back cover, where one finds the “blurbs” praising the book:


There is not a single bit of praise from a Civil War scholar or a Lincoln scholar.  Nothing from anyone who’s made any name as a scholar of Emancipation.  That’s not a good sign if a serious student of history is considering the book.

Next I looked at the Bibliography and I was somewhat reassured.  The 15-page bibliography included Ethan Rafuse’s McClellan’s War; Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life; David Donald’s Lincoln; Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial:  Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction, and Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy; and Allan Guelzo’s Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation:  The End of Slavery in America.  Notably missing were Louis Masur’s Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union; and James Oakes’ Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865.  While the previously mentioned works were listed in the bibliography, one searches in vain for evidence they were used in the book.  They don’t appear in the notes, nor does their interpretation of Lincoln, McClellan, or the Emancipation process appear in the text.  While J. G. Holland’s 1866 book on Lincoln and Ida Tarbell’s 1900 book on Lincoln make contributions, the latest scholarship on the Proclamation and Lincoln do not.

I then looked at the Acknowledgments.  He mentions three historians who read the manuscript before publication.  None of the three were Civil War scholars, Lincoln scholars, or scholars of Emancipation.  James McPherson appears as one of the people who “answered my queries promptly.” [p. 251]

Lest you think I hated the book, I didn’t.  Reading the book is very pleasurable.  Todd Brewster is an excellent writer, and he did a terrific job in weaving together some really good stories.  The problem I saw with them was that some of the stories he used were of dubious historical value, their sources being uncorroborated accounts or third-party accounts.  If we don’t worry about corroboration and if we accept everything as factual, Todd has masterfully put together an enjoyable account.

Overall, the history presented in the book is accurate, but there are several parts that are either wrong or questionable, some because of Todd’s unfamiliarity with the scholarship surrounding the Civil War.  He tells us, “Among those who had suffered through the Civil War, much of the latter half of the nineteenth century was spent in an effort to wring meaning from their suffering.  They had witnessed so much loss, so much destruction; they now needed to make meaning of it, lest the six-hundred-some thousand dead soldiers (and an uncounted number of civilians) be seen as having perished in vain.” [p. 5]  He wrote this three years after David Hacker published the results of his study, which revised the estimate of dead soldiers up to around 752,000.

Sometimes he has interpretations of events that I just find very difficult to accept [and let me clarify that reasonable people can differ on interpretations of facts, and that’s not really a problem.  Where we differ in interpretations, I’m going to show where my interpretation is different from his.  That’s not really a criticism of the book, just a differentiating of our interpretations].  He writes, “It wasn’t so much the war that created the Union.  It was the death from that war and the need to come to terms with it.” [p. 5]  I have to disagree with this.  The Union was created well before the Civil War.  He appears to accept the view that the United States was a loose collection of states prior to the war.  While it’s true those who adhered to the extreme state sovereignty view promulgated most famously by [His Satanic Majesty] John C. Calhoun held this view, such was not the case.  From George Washington and John Marshall to Andrew Jackson to even James Buchanan, we have plenty of evidence of a strong Unionist ideology.  The extreme state sovereignty position was required in reaction to antislavery movements as a hedge against antislavery politicians gaining control of the government.  He continues, “But Lincoln’s death was the big one.  If his violent end could be rendered meaningful, if it could be said that he died for some transcendent purpose, then those who’d perished in the struggle over which he presided would follow his heavenly path.  So the lesson was passed on to the next generation, the after-war generation: Lincoln was not simply to be saluted for his service, he was to be ‘sanctified.’ By his blood, he had reconciled us; through his pain, we had been healed.” [pp. 5-6]  This implies a coordinated effort to deliberately make Lincoln into more than just a murdered human being.  Such was not the case.  He writes, “But neither growth nor myth nor the overzealous debunking of myth is enough to understand Lincoln, and Du Bois alone, it seems, recognized this nearly a hundred years ago.” [p. 7]  Du Bois was not the only person to recognize this, as the current scholarship from David Donald to Michael Burlingame to Eric Foner clearly shows.  He tells us of Lincoln, “In the task of freeing men and women, he becomes a tyrant.” [p. 9]  Lincoln was no tyrant.  Tyrants don’t stand for a free election.

Beginning the book with the funeral of James Stanton, the son of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, he ties James Stanton’s death with that of Willie Lincoln, the son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln.  “The Civil War, the war precipitated by Lincoln’s election, killed both boys, albeit indirectly.  The hostilities delivered thousands of wounded soldiers to Washington, where warehouses, churches–virtually all available spaces–were quickly converted into makeshift clinics to care for the suffering.  Little was known then of the role germs play in disease, and water was scarce, making unsanitary conditions the norm and infection rampant.  The overcrowding led to pressure on the sewerage mains and, ultimately, fecal contamination of the water supply.  Widespread typhoid, dysentery, and smallpox were the result.  Among the soldiers fighting the war, infection was at least as stubborn a threat as the enemy (and, in the end, twice as deadly), but disease also passed to the civilian population.  The stationing of Union troops along the Potomac River, which the soldiers used as   a latrine, made the residents of the White House (or Executive Mansion, as it was then called) particularly vulnerable to infection since they received their drinking water from the heavily polluted river.  Early in February 1862 typhoid struck both Willie and his younger brother, Tad.” [pp. 12-13] He doesn’t tell us where he got this theory, though it can be found in Jean Baker’s biography of Mary Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, on pp. 208-209.  One can also find it in Ernest B. Furguson’s Freedom Rising:  Washington in the Civil War, p. 157.  The fact that Lincoln, Mary, and the others around the White House didn’t contract typhoid argues against this theory.  Baker says, “Within easy range of Tad and Willie’s explorations was a marsh that had remained a refuse heap for dead animals and for the night soil dumped from overloaded carts.” [Jean H. Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, p. 209]  Mr. Brewster says Mary Lincoln was “certain that Willie was taken from her as divine punishment for the lavish lifestyle she sought, and sought to distraction.” [pp. 13-14]  Again, he shows no source for this assertion, and Jean Baker makes an implication of it, though Baker’s claim was, “Mary believed her son’s death a judgment for her party.” [Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln, op. cit., p. 215]  Let me be clear, I’m not in any way accusing Todd of plagiarizing the account.  His version is, I believe, definitely not a plagiarized account.  It’s just that I think he needs to cite where he got the facts from which he derived the claim.

There are other instances where I feel a citation is necessary, though none is given.  For example, Brewster says, “Tad would eventually recover, but the entire episode–two children stricken (one dead, one deathly ill) and the war going on–was, he said, his life’s ‘greatest trial.’ ” [p. 14]  Where does he get the quote from Lincoln?  We don’t know because it’s not cited.  Rebecca Pomroy, the nurse assigned to the White House at the time, quoted Lincoln as saying, “This is the hardest trial of my life.” [Anna L. Boyden, Echoes from Hospital and White House: A Record of Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomroy’s Experience in War-Times, p. 56]  Was that his source or was it some other source?  We don’t know.

The weakest parts of the book are those concerning the military aspects.  His unfamiliarity with the military aspects of the war inhibited his ability to judge the reliability of his sources.  He writes, “The tension between Welles and Seward had a more recent history, too.  In 1861, in what became the opening scene of the Civil War, federal troops stranded at Fort Sumter in hostile South Carolina had been in desperate need of provisions.  Welles ordered the USS Powhatan to be readied from its pier in Brooklyn for service in supplying the South Carolina fort.  At the same time, however, Seward was scheming for the same ship to help protect Fort Pickens at Santa Rosa Island, Florida.  While Welles was navy secretary, Seward assured the president that ‘Uncle Gideon’ would not mind Seward’s meddling.  Yet Welles did of course mind, and when he heard of it, the whole plan had to be scuttled.” [p. 20]  This was all Welles’ point of view, especially characterizing Seward as “scheming.”  Historian David M. Potter describes it thus: “On the same day that Lincoln ordered the preparation of the Sumter expedition, Seward sent for Captain Montgomery C. Meigs and carried him to Lincoln for an interview.  Meigs knew the Pickens situation well, and he spoke very convincingly of the ease with which an expedition could reinforce Pickens.  The chief danger lay in the possibility that the Confederates would learn of the project and reduce the fort before aid could arrive.  Therefore the major requirement of the expedition was secrecy.  Lincoln proved thoroughly receptive to the proposal.  He acquiesced so readily, in fact, that, on the following morning, Seward was enabled to carry orders from Lincoln to General Scott for the preparation of an expedition to relieve Fort Pickens.  Scott raised certain technical objections, but these were overruled.  On March 31, Lincoln reviewed the plan again, and Scott was induced to approve it, with slight alterations.  On April 1, the project was again submitted to Lincoln for his private approval.  In outline it called for troops to be sent to Pickens by transport and to be thrown into the fort.  This operation required naval co-operation, which was to be furnished by Lieutenant David D. Porter, who was placed, by special and secret order, in command of a vessel of his own choosing, the Powhatan.  Lincoln adopted the plan in this form and signed the necessary orders, which had been drawn up by Seward.  The expedition was prepared accordingly, and Porter sailed with the Powhatan on April 6. … The story of Seward’s effort to substitute Pickens for Sumter as the point of focus for Unionism might end here, were it not for the extremely curious events connected with the Powhatan.  For Porter was not alone in recognizing the availability of that vessel.  Gideon Welles, one must recall, was simultaneously fitting out teh Sumter expedition, and for this project he ordered the Powhatan put in readiness.  He had no reason, of course, to suspect that any naval orders were being issued without his knowledge.  Thus, because of Lincoln’s secret orders by which the Secretary of State administered important naval affairs, two expeditions were planned, in both of which the Powhatan had a key position.  The result was a great deal of rather ludicrous confusion: the official of the Brooklyn Navy Yard were torn between their conflicting orders from President and Secretary; yet they dared not tell the Navy Secretary of Lincoln’s orders, for they were not sure that the President had not purposely concealed his action from Welles.  Shortly after the Powhatan sailed, Lincoln learned of Welles’ need for it, and told Seward to recall the ship; Seward, accordingly, wrote to Porter a message which was delivered to him at sea by a fast tug.  This said, ‘Deliver up the Powhatan to Captain Mercer. W. H. Seward’; but Porter, recognizing no responsibility to the Secretary of State, ignored the order and continued on his voyage to Pensacola.  Thus, when the Sumter expedition sailed, her flagship was on the way to Florida.  Gideon Welles … regarded it as a deliberate plan on the part of the Secretary of State to prevent the relief of Sumter.  Welles specifically charged Seward with being ‘aware’ that ‘the Powhatan was the flagship … of the Sumter expedition.’  The claims of Welles were entirely circumstantial.  Because Seward was known to favor the evacuation of Sumter, Welles regarded it as especially sinister that Seward had acted secretly, and that Lincoln had signed, without scrutinizing them, the orders prepared by Seward, for the expedition.  But while Welles’ indignation is understandable, his accusations do not seem justified.  Secrecy was undeniably necessary for the expedition, and while Welles was entitled to complain of a degree of concealment which excluded him from the transaction, he could not have denied that it was necessary to act without the knowledge of the Navy Department personnel, for he did not, at this time, trust his own subordinates.  As for the suggestion that Lincoln had not read the orders, this claim may have been invented by Lincoln to placate Welles, and even if it is true, it can hardly be charged against Seward.  Certainly, Lincoln had approved the plan in all essentials, and if, as Welles admits, Lincoln did not realize that the Powhatan was intended for the Sumter expedition, there is no reason to suppose that Seward would have realized it, especially since the orders of Welles, like those of Seward, were confidential.  Moreover, it is by no means certain that Welles’ plans for the use of the Powhatan had been formulated at the time when Seward formed his design to use the vessel.  Insofar as Seward was involved, the affair only shows that he was so intent on the Pickens expedition as to be utterly oblivious to other considerations.” [David M. Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, pp. 364-367]

Todd has a very negative view of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan.  I don’t think that’s a fair view of the general.  It’s a popular view, but I have to disagree with it.  Now, a number of very knowledgeable folks would agree with that interpretation, but I think in some cases he goes a bit too far.  Unfortunately also, it seems Todd was very rushed in his research of McClellan.  He writes of McClellan, “The former engineering instructor at West Point, himself a West Pointer, had risen to fame off an early battle success in the western region of Virginia.” [p. 22] He wasn’t really an engineering instructor at West Point.  He commanded the Company of Engineers stationed there.  “Although the army’s official register listed him as a member of the Military Academy’s engineering faculty, McClellan did not in fact instruct cadets during his West Point assignment.  They may have observed him directing practice field operations–pontoon bridging, for example–but his only classroom work was with the Company of Engineer Soldiers, to whom he taught mathematics and practical engineering.” [Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan:  The Young Napoleon, p. 28]  The only instruction he did was to the soldiers under his command as part of his duties as their commander, not as an instructor.  At first glance it may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it is in fact very different.  He continues, “As an officer, McClellan was good at one thing: organizing and training troops.  But there it all stopped.  Like a skilled stage actor who freezes in the opening-night lights, McClellan could rehearse but not perform.” [p. 22]  This is not correct.  McClellan’s plan for the Peninsula Campaign was actually brilliant, and his change of base during the Seven Days campaign was well handled.  He says of the Peninsula Campaign, “Bungled by McClellan, it was probably the last chance for the Union to make it a short war.” [p. 23] That ignores the role played by the Union high command’s reaction to Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign in breaking up McClellan’s plans [See here, here, and here].  He claims, “McClellan’s failures were failures of courage.  He could not abide risk.  But they were also, to some degree, failures of intention, and with him, the two fit comfortably.” [p. 23]  McClellan had his own weaknesses, but lack of courage and lack of intent to win were never part of them.  True, he was a conservative officer who sought to minimize risk to his army, but even knowledgeable Civil War historians who are critical of McClellan don’t doubt his courage, and they don’t doubt that he intended to win.  Readers may find this article of particular interest regarding McClellan’s generalship.

Regarding McClellan’s Harrison’s Landing Letter to Lincoln, Todd writes, “McClellan, whose self-esteem was once described by a writer in Harper’s as swelling to ‘elephantiasis’ proportions, decided here, at Harrison’s Landing, to educate Lincoln with what the general proudly described to his own wife as ‘a strong frank letter.’  McClellan felt forced by conscience he said, to counsel the president, even if such advice did go beyond the scope of his duties as an army officer.  Lincoln was used to McClellan’s imperious pronouncements; nonetheless, this statement had to have startled him.  In the letter, McClellan laid out a defense of the kind of warfare he preferred and had been practicing: cautious, limited, between armies alone, not citizens, and conducted with decorum.  A gentleman’s war.” [p. 25] Lincoln couldn’t possibly have been startled by the way McClellan started the letter, because McClellan had previously asked Lincoln’s permission to present his views, which Lincoln provided.  On June 20, McClellan asked Lincoln, ” I would be glad to have permission to lay before Your Excellency, by letter or telegraph, my views as to the present state of military affairs throughout the whole country.” [OR Series I, Vol 11, p. 48]  Lincoln replied the next day, “If it would not divert too much of your time and attention from the army under your immediate command I would be glad to have your views as to the present state of military affairs throughout the whole country, as you say you would be glad to give them. I would rather it should be by letter than by telegraph, because of the better chance of secrecy.” [Ibid.]  So this wasn’t something Mac sprang on Abe out of the blue at Harrison’s Landing.  T. Harry Williams wrote that, “Probably no single act of McClellan has been more criticized by historians than his writing of the Harrison’s Landing Letter. Most of the criticism is unjustified.” [T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals, p. 133] I think Williams is right and makes some excellent points in support of that statement.  You can read the Harrison’s Landing Letter in its entirety here.  Todd claims the letter was “an attempt by McClellan to demonstrate his preeminence among the Union’s senior officers and reclaim his ‘rightful’ position as general in chief.  McClellan was always an officer who kept one eye on his troops and the other on destiny.” [p. 26]  I disagree.  It was the commander of the nation’s preeminent army giving his commander-in-chief the advice a good subordinate should feel duty-bound to give.  I understand the popular view of McClellan precludes ascribing any good motivations to him, but McClellan was a patriot, a good general, and dedicated to the cause of preserving the Union.  Todd claims Lincoln rejected “McClellan’s advice in its totality.” [p. 27]  Read the letter and see if you agree.  I don’t think he rejected “Our cause must never be abandoned; it is the cause of free institutions and self government. The Constitution and the Union must be preserved, whatever may be the cost in time, treasure and blood.”  I don’t think he rejected “The time has come when the Government must determine upon a civil and military policy, covering the whole ground of our national trouble. The responsibility of determining, declaring and supporting such civil and military policy and of directing the whole course of national affairs in regard to the rebellion, must now be assumed and exercised by you or our cause will be lost. The Constitution gives you power sufficient even for the present terrible exigency.”  He did in fact reject the majority of McClellan’s advice, but I think Todd goes too far in saying he rejected it “in its totality.”

In discussing the Second Manassas [aka Bull Run] Campaign, Todd writes, “McClellan, sensing a defeat that could mar his reputation if he joined in, refused to send reinforcements, even suggesting that it was best ‘to leave Pope to get out of his scrape.’  Thousands died while McClellan and his army camped outside the capital, pampering his worries that this war, or at least this battle, was too dangerous for his soldiers to fight.” [p. 114]  This, unfortunately, is completely wrong.  As the talented military historian Ethan Rafuse tells us, “Although McClellan was unquestionably angry with the changes in policy and operational decisions the Lincoln administration had made in July and early August, there is little in the record to support the notion that the general was negligent or unduly slow in carrying out the task of getting the Army of the Potomac redeployed from Harrison’s Landing to northern Virginia.  In assessing McClellan’s performance, it is instructive to compare his work evacuating the Peninsula with his initial deployment to the Peninsula.  The initial deployment to the Peninsula began on March 17, when the army’s lead elements began boarding ships at Alexandria, and ended on April 4, when, with Heintzelman’s, Keyes’s, and Sumner’s corps on hand, McClellan decided to begin siege operations against Yorktown.  Even with several weeks to prepare shipping, this entire movement took a total of eighteen days.  In contrast, McClellan received orders to evacuate Harrison’s Landing on August 4 and send the army to Aquia Creek.  By then, the army had five corps, although the bulk of Keyes’s command would remain behind to garrison posts on the Peninsula.  In addition, the forces that had spent the spring and early summer operating in the Carolinas, consolidated into the Ninth Corps under Burnside’s command, had first claim on shipping.  Nonetheless, by August 26, twenty-two days after McClellan received the order to evacuate Harrison’s Landing, and only twelve days after Halleck put an end to the debate over the decision once and for all, Burnside’s, Porter’s, and Heintzelman’s corps had all reached northern Virginia and were actively participating in Pope’s campaign against Lee.” [Ethan S. Rafuse, McClellan’s War, pp. 257-258]  Not only did he not refuse to send reinforcements, but his army was not “camped outside the capital.”  McClellan was given command of the Washington defenses while the bulk of the Army of the Potomac moved to support Pope.  Protecting Washington was a high priority for the Lincoln administration.

Regarding McClellan and the Antietam Campaign, Todd writes, “But McClellan continued to be the same cautious, timid operations chief he had been in the humiliating Peninsula Campaign earlier in the year.  He claimed that he didn’t have enough soldiers (in fact he had eighty thousand, while Lee had just thirty-seven thousand), he felt that there wasn’t enough time to get ready (actually, he had squandered the time he had, allowing Lee to gain a more favorable position), and perhaps most important, he had begun to sniff out Lincoln’s emancipation plan and didn’t like it.” [pp. 145-146]  He lists no sources or explanations for any of these claims.  Let’s examine these claims.  McClellan had around 87,000 men while Lee had about 45,000 men.  The relative strengths are close to what Todd says.  However, there’s a major difference.  Lee’s men were all battle-hardened veterans while McClellan’s force contained dozens of brand new regiments participating in their first ever campaign.  For an excellent discussion of the effects of these raw units, see D. Scott Hartwig, “Who Would Not Be a Soldier:  The Volunteers of ’62 in the Maryland Campaign,” in Gary W. Gallagher, ed., The Antietam Campaign, pp. 143-168.  Also, McClellan faced a huge problem.  Remember the Army of Virginia under Pope had been routed and streamed back toward Washington as a confused, disorganized, dispirited, and disheartened rabble.  Once again, let’s see what Ethan Rafuse has to say: “On the morning of September 3, McClellan was confident that once Lee realized the troops around Washington once again enjoyed competent leadership, he would recognize the folly of continuing his pursuit.  McClellan also understood that he had badly misjudged Lee when he proclaimed him ‘too cautious’ and ‘likely to be timid and irresolute in action’ in April.  Instead, Lee had proven to be a decisive risk taker who would undoubtedly be disinclined to rest on his laurels.  With the option of making a direct attack on Washington taken away, McClellan deduced Lee’s next move would probably be to cross the Potomac and enter Maryland.  By noon on September 3, evidence began arriving that Lee intended to do just that.  Any man who found himself in McClellan’s situation would have surely preferred not to deal with such a contingency, for he faced truly awesome organizational problems.  First, although not so bad as it had been the year before, morale was low after the withdrawal from the Peninsula and defeat at Second Manassas, although the fact that McClellan was back in command was enough to remedy much of this problem.  More significantly, McClellan faced the complex task of transforming a conglomeration of mismatched units into a field army.  He had to take the First, Second, and Third Corps of the Army of Virginia; the Third and Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac that had served under Pope; the forces that had served under Burnside in North Carolina (now designated the Ninth Corps) and fought under Pope at Second Manassas; Cox’s Kanawha Division, which had been transferred to Washington from western Virginia in August; and the Second and Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac–and integrate them into a single rationally organized force.” [Rafuse, McClellan’s War, op. cit., pp. 274-275]  Many of these units had never served under McClellan.  Add to that the raw units previously discussed who were coming into Washington at that time and had to be integrated into the army.  And we find that McClellan didn’t dawdle.  “The very day after he assumed command, evidence arrived that the Confederates were planning to cross the Potomac.  Consequently, even as the process of integrating the new regiments into existing commands began, McClellan began positioning forces north of the Potomac.  On September 3, he ordered Sumner’s Second Corps, Army of the Potomac, and Banks’s Second Corps, Army of Virginia, neither of which had been engaged at Second Manassas, to cross the river and occupy Tennallytown, the small hamlet where the River and Rockville Roads that connected Washington with western Maryland met.  To their right, the Ninth Corps was posted along the Seventh Street Road that approached the capital from the north.  On September 4, McClellan ordered Alfred Pleasonton to take his cavalry division and cross to the north side of the Potomac, instructed Banks to march to Rockville, and learned from signal officers on Sugar Loaf Mountain that Confederate forces were in fact crossing the Potomac.” [Ibid., p. 275]  McClellan thus moved his army out as quickly as anyone could move, amid conflicting intelligence reports in many cases, with grossly inflated numbers for the confederate force coming in to him.  Pleasonton, for example, estimated Lee had 100,000 troops in Maryland. [Ibid., p. 283]  Pleasonton also said Lee was heading for Baltimore while at the same time reports came in that the confederates were in Frederick and heading toward Pennsylvania, with the intent of moving to Philadelphia.  McClellan had to sort through all of these reports while he was concerned with organizing, training, and disciplining his force while on the move.  I think Todd’s assessment of McClellan is grossly unfair and ignores what the general had to deal with in the campaign.

I wish Todd had read James Oakes’ excellent Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865.  Then he might not have made the mistake of writing, “Indeed, throughout 1861, Union commanders ordered their troops to be faithful to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.” [p. 30]  Ben Butler didn’t do that in May of 1861 when Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend rowed across the harbor at Hampton Roads and presented themselves at Fort Monroe.  Had Todd read Professor Oakes’ book, he might not have made the mistake of asking, “Why did the man who would become revered for generations as the Great Emancipator hesitate to do his ’emancipating,’ and if it did take him so long, what is so ‘great’ about that?” [p. 31]  He would have known already that the Lincoln Administration had been emancipating slaves beginning on August 8, 1861.  He would have known that Butler sent messages to Washington, dated May 25 and May 27, asking if he had done the right thing by not returning fugitives.  On May 30, Lincoln met with the Cabinet about this issue.  In a message from Simon Cameron that day, the War Department not only approved his actions, but also instructed him to refuse to return any fugitive slaves who came within his lines.  This is only six weeks after Fort Sumter, and the Lincoln administration has officially stopped enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act for any slaves coming into Union lines from a seceded state.  The First Confiscation Act, which Lincoln signed on August 6, 1861, is what authorized the administration to free those slaves.  On August 8, 1861, the War Department issued instructions for implementing the act, and the slaves were freed.  The House also passed a resolution prohibiting Union soldiers from participating in any way in the capture and return of fugitive slaves [The following year this would become an Article of War].  As a result of the War Department’s authorizing Butler to emancipate all the slaves who came into Union lines from any area in rebellion, 900 fugitives were immediately freed.  Butler wasn’t the only one to implement this action.  In September a copy of the instructions were sent to Gen. John Dix in Maryland, ordering him to emancipate any slaves coming into his lines from Virginia. In October they were sent to the commander of the joint Navy-Army operation at Port Royal in South Carolina, and 9,000 slaves were emancipated as a result. In December they were sent to General Halleck, who was told to emancipate any slaves in Kentucky who had fled from Tennessee.  All of this in 1861.  Had Todd read Lincoln’s First Annual Message to Congress, he would have seen Lincoln noted many slaves had escaped to Union lines and were “thus liberated.”  It didn’t take Lincoln “so long” to begin emancipating slaves.  He began emancipating slaves remarkably quickly, in conjunction with Congressional action and the actions of slaves themselves.

He writes, “No president in history (none before, none since) assumed the role of commander in chief the way that Lincoln did, actually planning the war instead of limiting himself to the political mission for which the war was being fought, and the telegraph office was where he did it.” [p. 54]  H. R. McMaster, who wrote a blurb on the back cover of the book, would no doubt disagree with this, considering in his book, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, he tells how LBJ picked bombing targets each week at lunch.

Several times in the book, Todd shows a tendency to sacrifice some accuracy for a pithy phrase.  For example: “With nothing more than pen and paper, he will free a race from servitude.” [p. 57]  As we know, the process of emancipation was done with far more than pen and paper, and was accomplished by many more people than just Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln was, in my opinion, the most important of these, but we cannot ignore the roles played by Congress, the Union Army, and the enslaved people themselves in bringing about emancipation.  Lincoln wrote and signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but it took Union military success to enforce it, it took various state legislatures and governors to act to abolish slavery within their states, and it took the 13th Amendment, passed by Congress and ratified by the states, to actually end slavery.  Regarding the First Confiscation Act, Todd writes that Lincoln “was reluctant to enforce it.” [p. 60]  As we see from the above, he wasn’t reluctant at all, enforcing it from August 8, 1861 on.  He also claims, regarding the Second Confiscation Act, that Lincoln “never intended to enforce” it. [p. 67]  We know from Professor Oakes’ work that is not the case.  He not only intended to enforce it, he did enforce it.

In a discussion about Attorney General Edward Bates, Todd writes, “He had shown considerable courage nearly twenty years earlier when, in 1844, he argued for the freedom of a fourteen-year-old slave child, Lucy Berry, whose mother had been abducted, held in the free state of Illinois, and then sold to slaveholders in Missouri.  In a separate suit, Berry’s mother had earned her own freedom on the reasoning that once she was taken to free Illinois, she could no longer be legally held as a slave (the argument that was later overturned by the Supreme Court in Dred Scott).” [pp. 75-76]  The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott v. Sandford decision did not overturn this concept.  What the Court decided was that Dred Scott, as a black man, had no status to bring suit in Federal Court because “negroes” could not be citizens of the United States.  This concept itself was overturned by the 14th Amendment.  That ruling effectively ended the case, and what followed was obiter dictum.  Todd is, I believe, confused by the dicta.  Because Taney wrote that Scott returned to Missouri, a slave state, with Dr. Emerson he was still a slave.  That doesn’t mean that the free state laws that a slave taken into them by their owner was freed were overturned.  The principle here was that because Scott didn’t sue for his freedom in the free state where he was taken and instead voluntarily returned with Dr. Emerson to a slave state, he remained a slave.

In a discussion of the emancipation proclamations put out by John C. Frémont and David Hunter, Todd writes, “That move [Frémont’s]–by an inexperienced and incompetent officer (Frémont, an explorer and politician, had been the Republican Party’s candidate for president in 1856 and was ill suited to the role of a general)–infuriated Lincoln, who ordered it reversed.  Then, a few months after General Fremont’s bold act, General David Hunter, commander of the Department of the South, did something similar.  Hunter was a more experienced soldier.  A graduate of West Point, class of 1822, he was older than most officers in the war, and he was in charge of what was at once the smallest and the most vulnerable department, comprised of parts of South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia that remained in Union control.  In March 1862, frustrated by not having sufficient numbers of soldiers to face his Confederate enemies, Hunter took the bold move of issuing General Order No. 11, which declared that since the three states of the Department of the South were officially under martial law, and since ‘slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible; the persons in these three States–Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina–heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.’  But Lincoln forced him to rescind this order as well.” [p. 83]  This only tells part of the story.  There is a great deal of confusion about Frémont’s order.  Lincoln wasn’t infuriated by the order, and he didn’t tell the general he couldn’t free slaves.  Frémont’s proclamation didn’t conform to the First Confiscation Act.  Lincoln told Frémont to rewrite the order to conform to the First Confiscation Act because his original order was illegal.  He could free only rebel-owned slaves coming within his lines in accordance with the law.  Lincoln was infuriated when Frémont refused to rewrite the order and instead sent his wife to argue with Lincoln.  In the matter of David Hunter’s order, Hunter had actually issued two orders.  The first was in conformance with the First Confiscation Act and only emancipated slaves that came within his lines.  His second proclamation, though, abolished slavery in three states, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, and was thus an illegal order.  Lincoln revoked this second order.  He allowed the first order to stand, and slaves continued to be freed under that order.

In discussing the colonization feature of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Todd writes, “But in this version, picking up on Bates’s suggestion from July to ‘send them away,’ Lincoln added that ‘the effort to colonize persons of African descent … upon this continent, or elsewhere,’ would continue.  The difference was that Bates had wanted compulsory deportations of the former slaves, while Lincoln, though only after taking a suggestion from Seward, stressed that any such moves had to be with the consent of those being colonized. (Seward’s handwritten corrections can be seen on the document itself.)” [p. 151]  This mischaracterizes Lincoln’s position on colonization.  Lincoln had been a longtime supporter of colonization, but his support had always been for voluntary colonization.  It wasn’t “only after taking a suggestion from Seward.”

In discussing the proposal for gradual, compensated emancipation, he writes, “how could the federal government decide that a debt was ‘owed’ to these slaveholders for having relinquished–what?–their hold on the lives of the next generation?” [p. 167] This ignores the fact that state slave codes provided that the offspring of the mothers took the status of the mother, so if the mother was enslaved her children became property of the owner as well.  Because of the Fifth Amendment, property could not be taken without due process or compensation to the owner.

Regarding Ward Hill Lamon, Todd says, “Lamon, who regularly regaled Lincoln with jokes and songs, remains chiefly famous for his mysterious absence on the night when Lincoln was murdered.” [p. 177]  There’s not much mystery about it.  Lamon was in Richmond.  And that’s not the chief reason why Lamon is famous.  Lamon is famous for being Lincoln’s friend and self-appointed bodyguard, US Marshal for the District of Columbia, and sometime minor emissary from Lincoln.

When he tells us about January 1, 1863, the day Lincoln signed the Final Emancipation Proclamation, Todd writes, “When Mary and Robert arrived in Lincoln’s study in the morning, asking what he decided, the president looked up at them, ‘a great light illuminating his face,’ and answered, ‘I am a man under orders.  I cannot do otherwise.’ ” [p. 241]  In his footnote, he tells us, “The story comes from two articles in the Christian Science Monitor, and both ran without byline.” [p. 317]  This is not what I would expect would be an accepted account.  How does he know they are not fabricated stories?  He doesn’t.  The person relating the story is unknown.  It’s most probably not any of the people who were there, and there’s no corroboration from a named source.  This made a nice story, but it’s of dubious reliability.

There are a number of minor errors as well.  On page 163 he refers to the Kentucky anti-slavery activist Cassius M. Clay as “the Ohioan and abolitionist crusader Cassius Clay.”  On page 172 he said the draft in the United States was “the first federal military draft in American history.”  The confederate draft actually holds that title.  On page 187 he states of Winfield Scott, “his loyalties were decidedly with the North.”  Scott’s loyalties were with the United States, not with any specific region.  It’s a mistake to refer to the United States as “the North” and the confederacy as “the South.”  On page 209 he says, “Slaves seized as contraband under the Confiscation Acts were sent north to Illinois, too.”  Actually, they were freed.  Some did find their way to Illinois, but most stayed in refugee camps in southern areas  under Union control.  On page 218 he tells us, “The Fifty-First new York Volunteers were there, too, including among them Captain George Washington Whitman, one of the most storied of Civil War veterans, who had already served at Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Chantilly, and Antietam.”  How many of you know right off the bat who Captain George Washington Whitman was?  I guess maybe half the readership here, if that much.  Is that “one of the most storied Civil War veterans?”  I have to disagree with that characterization.  On page 249 he calls the Civil War a “total war.”  It wasn’t, as we can see from Professor Mark Neely’s article.  On page 250 he writes that confederates were “treating captured black soldiers not as prisoners of war, but as fugitives whose crimes were punishable by death.”  Actually, they were considering them as slaves in an insurrection, which is what was punishable by death.  Being a fugitive was not a capital crime.

Finally, there are a couple of problems the editors missed in the Bibliography.  Jean Baker’s name is missing the “r” at the end of her last name, and they have the wrong middle initial for Craig L. Symonds.  They have a “K” instead of an “L.”

As I mentioned in the beginning, he gets a lot right in the book.  I was very pleased to see him write, “The Revolution did indeed lead to the end of slavery in most Northern states.” [p. 34]  This is something a lot of people get wrong, claiming instead, inaccurately, that it was because slavery wasn’t profitable in Northern states.

Todd did a great deal of research for this book, and that was apparent.  I’m sorry that space considerations keep me from putting more positive aspects here.  I also really liked the way he added interesting human interest stories to the narrative, though unfortunately some of them, as shown above, were of dubious historical accuracy.

If you’ve done a lot of study about Lincoln and Emancipation, you’re not going to see much new here.  If you enjoy human interest stories, you’ll like that part of the book.  I can recommend the book for those who want some light reading, don’t know that much about Lincoln and Emancipation, and would like to learn a little.  If it sparks an interest to learn more, that’s even better.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: