As all of you know from reading American history, the Civil War has been the most divisive time in our history. The most pivotal year of that struggle was 1864 – when at the beginning of the year the Union was on the verge of quitting the war if it’s generals did not start winning some battles and when the U.S. presidential election was to occur in November. Charles Flood in 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History examines this pivotal year by looking at Abraham Lincoln’s actions.
Flood touches on the political and personal life of Lincoln as well as the military situation of the Union. Flood provides an excellent balance between all three – weaving them all together in a seamless story.
Politically, it was not certain that Lincoln would be re-elected – it was not even certain that his own party would support him. His secretary of the treasury – Salmon Chase – ran an underground effort to win the Republican nomination over Lincoln. In the general election, Lincoln barely squeaked by Democratic challenger and General George B. McClellan in the popular vote (he received an overwhelming majority in the electoral college). Flood portrays Lincoln at his political best – using subordinates in political negotiations and never revealing his true intentions until the last minute.
I learned a lot from this book on Lincoln the politician. I never realized how much he was able to play the Washington game. He used political patronage at a level that had rarely been seen before in Washington. In addition to the patronage, Flood highlights Lincoln’s thoughts on slavery and emancipation. He did free the slaves, but only in the states that seceded (emancipation did not apply to the border states because Lincoln did not want them to secede as well). He looked into colonizing parts of Africa with freed slaves. In addition, he gave serious consideration to paying the South 400 million dollars to free their slaves.
Personally, Lincoln and his wife Mary were still grieving the unexpected death of their son Willie. Many people believe this started Mary’s mental decline. Flood concentrates mainly on Lincoln’s relationship with Mary – she was quite a handful with her mood swings. I do not know much about Mary or her activities in the White House, but Flood points out a bad character trait that could have ruined Lincoln – she accumulated large amounts of personal debt from compulsive shopping (she once bought 400 pairs of gloves in three months). To get out this debt, she submitted receipts to the Treasury for items that were never bought for the White House and used the reimbursement to pay for her shopping trips.
Militarily, the situation was dire in the beginning of the year, but by the end it was clear that the South was living on borrowed time. There were still many ups and downs – especially after the defeat at the Battle of Cold Harbor and the horrendous Union casualties under Grant. However, Lincoln found the right men during this year to win the war – Generals Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Philip Sheridan. These men helped grind the South down.
After reading the book, I learned much more about Lincoln. He gained and lost some of my respect – if that makes sense. Let me explain. He gained my respect by his compassion for private citizens – he often went out of his way to help them – and by his personal commitment to the task at hand – he rarely took breaks and often worked fifteen to twenty hour days. He lost my respect by some of his political scheming and some questionable judgment calls – his decision to get involved in some questionable trading in 1864-65 (although this was legal by the letter of the law, he was still financing trading with the enemy).
Flood provides an excellent window into the life of Lincoln during his most pivotal year in office.