Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 192-194
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Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography. By William E. Gienapp. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. xiii, 239. $26.00.)
This Fiery Trial: The Speeches and Writings of Abraham Lincoln. Edited by William E. Gienapp. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. xvii, 236. $26.00.) [End Page 192]
James Thurber once observed in a 1932 fantasy, "No More Biographies," what would happen if fines were assessed against those who insisted on writing about Civil War characters. "Lincoln carries a maximum fine of fifty thousand dollars and two years' imprisonment or both. Everybody wants to do Lincoln." The highest fines were of course reserved for new books about Abraham Lincoln, like the one that William Gienapp has just written. How much should he pay for this crime?
If originality is a defense in biography court, he should get off very lightly, because he has found a surprising gap in the Lincoln literature and filled it deftly. "My aim," he writes, "has been to write a short biography that is up-to-date in its scholarship" (xii). Among the best one-volume Lincoln biographies, David Donald's magisterial 1995 work is not short, and Benjamin Thomas's elegant 1952 book is no longer up to date. Many brilliant specialized biographies have appeared in recent years, but few serious historians have attempted to give general readers a short, accessible account of Lincoln's whole life, and none have succeeded as well as Gienapp.
Instead of seeking to present new insights, the author does an outstanding job of compressing a consensus version of the Lincoln story into 203 pages of narrative. On the controversies of Lincoln's early life, he adopts the middle ground between those who think the romance with Ann Rutledge was the love of Lincoln's life and those who regard it as a fairy tale, and between those who defend the much-maligned Mary Lincoln and those who attack her without mercy. He supports his points with telling details, for example highlighting the strengthening of party ties in the 1830s by noting that Democrat Jack Armstrong, otherwise a loyal friend of Lincoln, did not vote for him in the 1836 state election. Describing the arguments in Lincoln's seminal antislavery speech delivered at Peoria in 1854, Gienapp writes, "These points were not original with him . . . but Lincoln presented them in an unusually effective manner" (50-51); the same could be said of Gienapp's account of Lincoln's rise.
The bulk of the narrative focuses on the Civil War years. Gienapp gives equal attention to Lincoln's political and military decisions, arguing that Lincoln's "record of leadership depended on his ability to coordinate these two aspects of the war effort"(xi). Like most biographers, he places emancipation at the center of Lincoln's presidency, as the issue that more than any other transformed the Civil War into what Lincoln characterized as a "remorseless revolutionary struggle." Gienapp quotes Frederick Douglass in support of the "immense symbolic significance" (125) of the Emancipation Proclamation, taking a traditional view of the document's importance.
If Gienapp veers out of the center of the historical mainstream at all, it is in the emphasis he places on Lincoln's role as military leader. He shows how Lincoln grew into the role of commander-in-chief, first leaving too much up to McClellan, then unsuccessfully trying to micromanage events and to manipulate leaders like Hooker and McClernand, and finally reaching a working understanding with Grant and Sherman. Even in the latter stages of the war, Gienapp writes, Lincoln maintained a firm grasp of the Union military effort and proclaims the idea as false that Lincoln knew little about strategy and left most of the military decisions to Grant. [End Page 193]
The focus on Lincoln as military leader is welcome, even though it means that aspects of the Lincoln presidency not directly related to the war get little or no attention. Gienapp notes the...