- Lincoln’s Last Months
This is a useful Lincoln book in large part because of the way it is defined. Lincoln's life followed a rapidly accelerating upward curve. The specific detail of his last months, when he reached his greatest mastery, may in conventionally designed biographies and histories be obscured by the crescendo of events, and by the abrupt tragic climax. By isolating the last months for careful study, William Harris brings this most important chapter of Lincoln's life out from the shadow of the assassination and into the sunlight of concentrated sequential attention.
One can take, as a more conventionally defined subject, the election of 1864—as the good writer John Waugh did in his lively and readable Re-electing Lincoln. One can of course deal with the immense trauma of the assassination, as Ed Steers has done so well, and as many others have done. One can lift out of the story one geographical episode, as Nelson Lankford has done with Lincoln's visit to the fallen capital in Richmond Burning. After the pattern of the recent treatments that spread out to book length the examination of just one great Lincoln speech, one can treat at length the Second Inaugural, as Ron White has done. One can examine the enormously important event of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, as Michael Vorenberg has done. One can focus on Appomattox and the war's end with Bruce Catton, or on the one overloaded month of April 1865 with Jay Winik. But Harris, by defining his book in the way he has done, treats all of those events, each in its proper proportion, sequence, and context, as it relates to the central figure of Abraham Lincoln. Harris combines the advantage of narrowed focus with the advantage of consecutive narrative and full context. By starting with the election of 1864 and then following Lincoln carefully through the next five and a half months, he lifts into greater visibility this supremely significant part of Lincoln's life, when he came into a dominance of affairs he had not enjoyed before. "In effect," Harris writes, "his second term began with his reelection, not with the inauguration on March 4" (97).
Treating this period as a unit not only puts the familiar large events in an illuminating new perspective, but it gives lesser topics fresh attention. I had not realized until I read this book how Lincoln remade his cabinet for his second term, nor had I seen the pattern of that remaking. With Seward, Welles, and Stanton remaining, who, each in his own way, had a particular attachment to Lincoln, Harris added (after shufflings in Treasury and Interior) four men—Speed, McCulloch, Harlan, and Dennison, who all came from "the rapidly developing and politically emerging Mississippi-Ohio Basin" and "reflected Western values similar to those of Lincoln." They "had proved themselves during the war" and "fitted in nicely with the conservative holdovers." The author made this summary comment, which for this reader was a fresh idea, and illustrates the value of defining the subject as he has done: "By the time of his Second Inaugural, Lincoln had welded together a strong cabinet, one that promised to be second [End Page 177] to none in American history had its master lived to maintain its unity through the next four years" (92).
By isolating these last months, Harris can bring into view some last episodes on subjects that that in full biographies would usually be exhausted by a treatment at an earlier point. Thus in foreign affairs, there are end-of-the-war developments, especially concerning Confederate actions operating out of British-controlled Canada, that receive careful attention here. There are late-breaking developments, or nondevelopments, in Lincoln's well-intentioned but in-the-end-not-effective effort to clean up the scandal of the treatment of American Indians. Throughout the telling of these heavily charged events, the author brings a valuable assembling of comments from a variety of public figures, literary figures, and the press. Thus, after telling about...