Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lincoln's Men

In Lincoln’s Men (1999), William C. Davis provides an in depth study of the relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and the men of the Union Army during the War Between the States. Lincoln had an unusually close relationship with his fighting men – one that would sustain the president and his soldiers through even the bleakest periods of the war. Davis makes the case that, had this personal relationship not existed, it would have been much more difficult for the country, civilians and soldiers alike, to find the will to continue to fight a terrible war that seemed to be lasting forever.

That Abraham Lincoln became a father figure to a huge majority of the men fighting on the side of the Union, especially those in the Army of the Potomac, is beyond dispute. As his book’s subtitle announces (“How President Lincoln Became a Father to an Army and a Nation”), Davis explains here the “how” part of what happened. In order to do that, Davis searched through some 600 manuscript collections to see what the men themselves had to say about Lincoln during various milestones of the war. He quotes extensively (sometimes to excess, in fact) from the letters and diaries of the men who were there.

Lincoln’s Men is divided into nine chapters, beginning with one on Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 and ending with one on his assassination in 1865. Between these bookend chapters are others on creation of the Union army, Lincoln’s struggles with the reluctant-to-fight General McClellan, Lincoln’s evolving policy on emancipation of the slaves in Southern states, Lincoln’s efforts to keep his army armed, fed and paid, and one on Lincoln’s liberal pardon policy (perhaps the most revealing chapter in the entire book).

Each of the chapters is peppered with direct quotes from soldier correspondence that show Lincoln’s influence and effect on the men he so much respected and admired. Davis does not make the claim that love for Mr. Lincoln was unanimously shared by the army and, in fact, spends a good number of pages quoting from McClellan loyalists who remained in opposition to Lincoln right up to his death. Shockingly enough, some Union soldiers, those who insisted to the end that they had not enlisted to fight to end slavery, were cheered by the news of Lincoln’s assassination – and many learned to regret the mistake of expressing those feelings to Lincoln loyalists.

Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the perfect man for his time and his job. It is, of course, impossible to predict what might have happened if America had had no Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s Men does make clear, however, how much a key element the personality of Lincoln was in holding the Union together long enough for the United States to conclude the war successfully. Without the strong emotional bonding between Lincoln and his men, the War Between the States may have ended very differently.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. I'm sure that I've read other books by this author, but I may be mixing him up with Kenneth Davis.

    This one sounds fascinating. I read a similar book about the relationship between soldiers in Sherman's army, I think it was called Sherman's Army.

    There are certain moments in American history when I think we got very lucky. Lincoln's presidency is one of them. I believe we really lucked out getting him. He has always struck me as the perfect man for that moment.

    Compare how often he visited soldiers in the hospital with how infrequently contemporary presidents have done so.

  2. C.B., I think Davis has written several dozen Civil War books now so it is very likely that you've read something of his.

    I agree with you. This country has been very lucky to have just the right person come along when most needed in history. Lincoln and Washington are two prime examples...and Washington was a hero of Lincoln's, making me wonder just how much the Washington imaged helped shape the character of Lincoln himself.