1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History
In a masterful narrative, historian and biographer Charles Bracelen Flood brings to life the drama of Lincoln's final year, in which he oversaw the last campaigns of the Civil War, was reelected as president, and laid out his majestic vision for the nation's future in a reunified South and in the expanding West.
In 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History, the reader is plunged into the heart of that crucial year as Lincoln faced enormous challenges. The Civil War was far from being won: as the year began, Lincoln had yet to appoint Ulysses S. Grant as the general-in-chief who would finally implement the bloody strategy and dramatic campaigns that would bring victory.
At the same time, with the North sick of the war, Lincoln was facing a reelection battle in which hundreds of thousands of "Peace Democrats" were ready to start negotiations that could leave the Confederacy as a separate American nation, free to continue the practice of slavery. In his personal life, he had to deal with the erratic behavior of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and both Lincolns were haunted by the sudden death, two years before, of their beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie.
1864 is the story of Lincoln's struggle with all this -- the war on the battlefields and a political scene in which his own secretary of the treasury, Salmon P. Chase, was working against him in an effort to become the Republican candidate himself. The North was shocked by such events as Grant's attack at Cold Harbor, during which seven thousand Union soldiers were killed in twenty minutes, and the Battle of the Crater, where three thousand Union men died in a bungled attempt to blow up Confederate trenches. The year became so bleak that on August 23, Lincoln wrote in a memorandum, "This morning, as for several days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be reelected." But, with the increasing success of his generals, and a majority of the American public ready to place its faith in him, Lincoln and the nation ended 1864 with the close of the war in sight and slavery on the verge of extinction.
1864 presents the man who not only saved the nation, but also, despite the turmoil of the war and political infighting, set the stage for westward expansion through the Homestead Act, the railroads, and the Act to Encourage Immigration.
As 1864 ends and Lincoln, reelected, is planning to heal the nation, John Wilkes Booth, whose stalking of Lincoln through 1864 is one of this book's suspenseful subplots, is a few weeks away from killing him.
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Whether it is the idea of civil war - one nation fighting with itself - or the resolute character of a man like Abraham Lincoln serving as the biggest draw in my interest to the period of the country’s history, I never find myself fully sure. Pursuing the goal of a united country meant differences existed; and if differences were true, as differences in terrain and climate stirred differences in the people, dissolution of any proposed union floated in the air as an ever foreboding reality.
A leader of steadfast, unwavering beliefs, the president Abraham Lincoln proved himself to be, was what the country needed to remain whole. The question remained whether the people would permit him the time to see the war to its conclusion.
The year 1864 was the year tantamount to this country’s future. Following stalemated war through 1861-1863, the question of union or no union remained yet unanswered. If the “United States of America” ceased to exist, would the ‘land of the free’ follow suit?
Here lay the two central traits occupying the storyline of this book: the Civil War and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. How is the war being executed following three years of stalemate? The Union forces engage; the Confederates throw them off. The year 1864 brings into the picture Ulysses S. Grant as Lincoln’s long sought after commanding general. When the end of the war fails to arrive instantaneously with the promotion of Grant, the question then turns to the approaching election. The war would end if Lincoln loses his bid for a second presidential term; for the Democratic Party adopted a peace platform that would bring about its immediate cessation. They would open talks with the Confederacy, which meant an end to the Union (the Confederacy would exist as a separate country) and a continuation of slavery. Thus the stakes were high.
“1864: LINCOLN AT THE GATES OF HISTORY” is a chronicling of the year as events played themselves out. Author Charles Bracelen Flood focuses primarily upon the war and the election, while also throwing in plenty of filler material of unrelated events transpiring over the year. The country still found itself with more to deal with than just the war, which meant Lincoln carried more on his plate than how to rejoin the union back into a single whole.
Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, for example, became more than a simple ‘thorn in his side’. While widely acknowledged as the best for the job of supplying much needed funds to finance the war, Chase’s desire to be president himself, coupled with his association with the Radical Republicans of Lincoln’s own party. He submitted his resignation multiple times, with Lincoln finally accepting it when it was no longer possible to disregard Mr. Chase’s activities, only to appoint him as a replacement on the Supreme Court to long-serving Chief Justice Roger Taney when that contentious figure passed away.
Other activities included meeting with people seeking an audience. Often people stayed overnight within the bottom floor of the White House. Some were women begging pardons for family members sentenced to be executed for desertion from the military. One was a woman seeking her pay for the time she served as a soldier in the disguise of a man. Another was a soldier needing a seat on a train so as to return home and vote – for Lincoln’s rival in the election, his former general George McClellan!
Brief little snippets like these pepper the pages, while lengthier tales to the exploits of characters known and unknown relay the story of the war and the election. My personal favorite is the tale of Henry Wing, a cub reporter imbedded with the retinue of General Grant.
With Grant advancing his troops farther into Virginia, and no communication emerging from the battlefield to reach Washington, Wing took on the dangerous trek through Confederate lines, disguising himself as a Confederate sympathizer at one point, concocting a story he carried a message meant for General Lee, rather than