Monday, 1 April 2013

Upon Finishing Lincoln: Team of Rivals...

This morning being Easter Monday I read the final pages of Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Abraham Lincoln. The President was shot by John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, and died the following morning in a hotel across the street from Ford's Theatre in Washington.

I had no idea that Booth was one of a trio of would-be assassins who planned to kill Secretary of State William Seward, Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln, all on the same night, at 10.15pm. One of the three dropped out. The other, a man named Powell, gained entry to Seward's Washington residence and with pistol and Bowie knife attacked and attempted to kill five people.

Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband Richard lived with the compiling and composition of this historical biography - 754 pages of text, two-and-a-half pages of acknowledgements, 121 pages of notes plus an index - for ten years. If like me, you had only the sketchiest notion of Lincoln's life and times, this book will give you the opportunity of widening your knowledge and deepening your understanding. It will also whet your appetite to know more the course of the Civil War, which began and ended in the month of April, 1861 to 1865, and the birth of the Republican Party in 1855 - the party of abolition. If you had fondly imagined that Republicans were nasty Tories and Democrats freedom-loving liberals, you really should read this book. Hopefully the surprise won't be too unpleasant. Also, how much more difficult was reconciliation between North and South made by Lincoln's murder? He was but a month or so into his second term when John Wilkes Booth shot him dead. 

Steven Spielberg's excellent film centres on the last five months of Lincoln's life and brings together in fiction two strands of hiostorical reality that were separate: the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery through Congress and the Confederacy's peace initiative. In the film Lincoln has knowledge of the arrival of the three peace commissioners in the North but doesn't meet them. In reality he met and talked with them for a couple of days, insisting that peace was only possible if the South accepted the Union and all that that would mean for those 13 rebel states fighting to defend slave ownership. In the film dramatic tension is built up brilliantly by confronting Lincoln with a dilemma: if the peace intiative succeeds and the war is concluded before the passage of the 13th Amendment, some state legislatures will fight shy of abolishing slavery. Abolition was a tricky constititional issue, capable of dividing men and parties as well as bringing them together. I was disappointed that Spielberg's central drama, played out in the House of Representatives on March 4, 1865, takes only a few pages in the book.

Fifty pages short of the end, I found an historical reconstruction of the Battle of Gettysburg on Youtube. This three day running fight, July 1-3, 1863, came close to being the end of the Union Army. Military strategy, tactics and weaponry are incidentals in the book because Doris Kearns Goodwin's book is not a military history, chronicling the details of battlefield events; it is the effect of such events on her quartet of Cabinet rivals - Lincoln, Seward, Chase and Bates, and their friends, associates and familes, that is her main concern. So it was the film that explained the terrible physical  repercussions inflicted by the 'miniball' musket bullet, a hollow-ended, partly rifled projectile that splintered bone like a wrecking ball and caused wounds to turn gangrenous. Lincoln rode through the sites of battlefields and often visited hospitals to talk to maimed and injured soldiers. He went south to visit Ulysses S Grant after the siege of Petersburg and the abandonment of the Confederate capital of Richmond. In short, Lincoln was a brave man who gazed upon the physical consequences of policy and did not turn his sad eyes away.

Lincoln and other members of his Cabinet took both pleasure and solace from poetry. For them it was not an affectation of culture but something as central to their lives as scripture. The idea that Lincoln knew and talked with Walt Whitman, who worked in military hospitals in Washington, was exciting to contemplate, to me anyway, because it is a natural reflex for me to make connections between disparate events and draw them together. So Whitman's Mississippi of a poem, Leaves of Grass, Robert Lowell's 20th century poem For the Union Dead and Allen Ginsberg's splendid poem about Walt Whitman, A Supermarket in California, came to mind as I read about the battlefield horrors of the Civil War. Though I have finished the book, I suspect that the book has not yet finished with me. That is how it should be.

1 comment:

Edward Spalton said...

This whets my appetite for the book.
There was an excellent TV series on the American Civil War and one of the impressive contributors was a Southern historian, Shelby Foote. Two parts of his narrative stuck like grit in my mind.

One was from early in the war when a Southern prisoner, obviously not in the slave owning class, was asked "Why are you fighting us?"
" Because you all are down here" - good enough reason for any man, I reckon.

The other was in his summing up of the whole tragedy
"Before the war, people said "The United States ARE.
After the war they said "The United States IS" and you could say that's what it was all about"