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Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen days to Washington

What this book does masterfully well is show how the president-elect Abraham Lincoln shored up northern morale in preparation for the coming Civil War, while at the same time found his voice as our nation's 16th president.  This is a wonderfully informative book about Lincoln's train trip to the nation's capital, that reveals yet another facet for Lincoln admirers to appreciate. The writing is crisp and compelling, and the book's length--some 467 pages--hardly seems long at all, such is the author's gift for story-telling.

The statistics of the Washington trip are mind-numbing: in 13 days, Lincoln traveled 1904 miles, through eight states, along 18 different railroad lines, and gave 101 speeches, some to as many as 10,000 people.

At the beginning of each chapter, the author selects a short, appropriate passage from Homer's "The Odyssey".  Which seems fitting, as Lincoln's journey was fraught with danger (he received a number of death threats, and on several occasions was nearly crushed to death by the press of the crowd). It was an exhausting trip as well, with overnight stops and speeches along the way, in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Albany, and New York City.  The author expertly summarizes a number of these speeches.  Perhaps the most telling was the one Lincoln gave at Philadelphia's Independence Hall on Washington's birthday, where he said, "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence . . . that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. . . ."  With the issue of slavery threatening civil war, the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence was being questioned openly; Lincoln made the issue of equality the centerpiece of his administration.

The trip began in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois, where, on February 12th, 1861 the president-elect, his family, political advisers, security guards, and members of the press, boarded The President's Special (a private train comprised of one baggage car, a passenger car, and a private car for Lincoln and his family).  At the same time, the author contrasts Jefferson Davis's train trip to the Confederate capital in Montgomery, Alabama via the South's primitive, circuitous railroad network.

Lincoln was loaded for bear, with a file of prepared speeches for each of the train stops, each meticulously labeled and placed in separate envelopes, including his inaugural address.  As it turned out many of the 100-plus speeches he delivered were off-the-cuff remarks delivered from hotel balconies and from the platform of his train.

While the South was gearing up for war, the north was in disarray under the hapless and corrupt leadership of outgoing president James Buchanan (since rated by historians as our nation's worst president).  How bad was the state of the North?  Democracy itself was under siege, says the author.  "The lessons of history are hard to ignore. Every democracy ever known had failed, beginning with the Greeks twenty-four centuries earlier. They had succumbed one by one, to all the well-known vices of the people: corruption, greed, lust, ethnic hatred, distractibility, or simply a fatal indifference." Regarding the state of the nation's leadership, the author (Ted Widmer) says, "As the Buchanan administration was sinking under the weight of its corruption, the public learned that it had awarded contracts for work on the Capitol to insider friends, who then outsourced the labor and pocketed the profits."  The Buchanan administration also looked the other way while southern sympathizers raided federal armories of canons, guns and ammunition.

Meanwhile, safely ensconced in Montgomery, Jefferson Davis issued a number of threats.  With Lincoln still en route to Washington, Davis made a speech in which he predicted that Northerners would soon "feel Southern steel."  Unfortunately for the south, writes the author, most of that Southern steel was made in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Indeed, one of the stops on Lincoln's trip was in Pittsburgh, for the very reason that the steel city represented a source of industrial power that Davis and the Deep South could only dream about.  The author explains that a number of industrial and engineering advantages the North held over the South was mainly due the institution of slavery.  For example, a number of Germans who were the very engineers who designed the advanced northern railway infrastructure that Lincoln enjoyed while en route to Washington, was made possible because these German immigrants chose to live in the free North over the slave-holding South, because that's where the job opportunities were (by contrast, the South's railway system was haphazard and badly antiquated; a combination of mixed-gauge tracks and old technology, that greatly hindered the South's war effort, and would not be updated until late in the 19th century.

Among the people Lincoln encountered on his 13-day journey was a Scottish immigrant, and captain of the steel industry, Dale Carnegie, who years later recalled: "I never met a great man who so thoroughly made himself one with all men as Mr. Lincoln."

What was Lincoln's secret?  Quite simply, he trusted people and, in turn they trusted him.  According to historian and Lincoln biographer Benjamin Thomas, Lincoln had supreme faith in the people's right-mindedness, provided they could be made to understand, and he never questioned their powers of  comprehension when the facts were presented to them simply and honestly.

That, in a nutshell is what Lincoln did on his 13 day journey through the North, inform the people that equality was at the root of democracy, and would be the source of Northern strength in the coming cataclysm.

Lincoln survived the threat of death and arrived safely in Washington, exhausted by the ordeal, but buoyed by his deeply-held belief in democracy.  Concludes the author:  "By his words, and presence, he had shored up America's flagging belief in her institutions.  Millions of Americans had glimpsed a top hat parting a sea of humanity, or seen a bearded man wave from the back of a speeding train, or bow from a hotel balcony, and felt a connection to their government.  Most had never seen a president and never would again. . . .  Despite exhaustion, Lincoln had grown throughout the ordeal.  After a few missteps, his speeches became masterful, especially near the end, when he began to discover the mystical power that would lift his oratory to the heights he achieved at Gettysburg and the Second Inaugural.  No president has ever climbed to a higher altitude.  He restored a sense that America's words mean something."


It should be remembered, that at the start of the Civil War, the Confederacy had the best generals, the best horsemen, the best sharpshooters, and the greater incentive to fight. Indeed, Lincoln spent the first two years of the war searching for a competent general to lead the Northern troops, and to find a righteous cause for his Union army to fight for.   By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in1862, Lincoln found a cause for the Northern army to rally behind.  In Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln found a general with the courage, persistence, and daring to defeat Robert E. Lee's well-led Army of Northern Virginia.  General Grant was a man very much like Lincoln himself: modest, plain-spoken, and an excellent communicator.  His war orders were simple, direct, and unambiguous.  He was a fighter who would never give up, and his soldiers loved him for it.

However, by the time Lincoln had found Grant, the nation faced yet another crisis: the 1864 presidential election.  And who should be Lincoln's opponent?  The very General who had let him down repeatedly on the battlefield, and whom Lincoln had been forced to fire--George McClellan.

Trailing badly in the polls, and knowing full-well that McClellan wanted to end the war quickly, by allowing Southern slavery to continue unabated, Lincoln did not try to postpone or stop the presidential election.  Win or lose, he was determined to show the world that democracy could endure, even in times of a bloody civil war.  At the same time, he felt certain he was going to lose.  Before election day, he had written a note to his cabinet officers, advising them not to resign, but to remain in office and help McClellan's presidency succeed.

Lincoln was spared defeat when, after a fierce battle, Atlanta fell and the confederate army posted there, surrendered to General Sherman's army.  Coupled with near-unanimous voter support from the Union army soldiers, Lincoln won big on election day.

After the war ended, Lincoln advised his generals to be gracious in victory, and to allow the confederate soldiers to keep their horses and side arms, and return to their shops and farms as free men.  "I want no retribution, no hangings or trials," Lincoln told Grant.  "Liberality all around. Should Jeff Davis decide to leave the country while I'm not looking, that would be okay with me."

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