Lincoln's Greatest Journey: Sixteen Days That Changed a Presidency, March 24–April 8, 1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau
Each generation of Americans turns Abraham Lincoln into anything they want him to be, including a Brown Republican, a forebearer of gay rights, a victim of depression, the Great Emancipator, a white supremacist, a vampire slayer, and, above all, a mythologized American hero. Noah Andre Trudeau's skillful telling of Lincoln's time at City Point, Virginia, during the last days of the Civil War continues modern scholars' tradition of making Lincoln speak to the present. Trudeau's innovative work contributes to a conversation that attempts to redeem Lincoln in the post industrial, globalized, post-postmodern digital age. If a great man could not disrupt the destiny of the nation, Trudeau seems to argue, collaboration between great men of the age could.
According to Trudeau, Lincoln's journey with his family and entourage to City Point in late March 1865 was a key moment in the collaborative exchange between Lincoln, the political virtuoso, and General Ulysses S. Grant, the military master. Trudeau devotes a chapter to each of the sixteen days Lincoln spent on the journey, diligently weaving memoirs, personal accounts, newspaper stories, and archival materials into a compelling narrative. Indeed, rarely in American history has the commander in chief worked so closely with his generals overseeing operations in the field. Trudeau tells a richly detailed story of the secret discussions between Lincoln, Grant, and other Union generals, perceived affronts between Mary Todd Lincoln and Grant's wife, Julia Grant, and the stressful, simultaneous demands of Lincoln's acting as president, husband, and doting father all while the Union victory at Petersburg and the collapse of Richmond unfolded. Trudeau argues that Lincoln's temporary escape from Washington, D.C., transformed him from a melancholic wartime commander into a rejuvenated reconstruction leader with a vision for the postwar nation. The president's proximity to the battlefield allowed him to see up close the bloody nature of war, the joy of black freedpeople escaping bondage, and the absolute demoralization of white southerners who supported the losing cause, especially during his walking tour of Richmond on April 4, 1865. Outside Washington, Lincoln could think clearly and pity all. [End Page 176]
Trudeau includes a welcome discussion of sources in the appendixes, the first of which is a "Sources Casebook" that provides a transparent conversation about what troubles him about the sources surrounding Lincoln's journey. Sometimes Trudeau has strong reasons for rejecting archival sources or agenda-laced eyewitness accounts, but other times his decision comes down to his critique of a source. Nevertheless, readers can decide whether they agree or disagree with the author's choices. Military historians and popular historians interested in reconstructed, behind-the-scenes political conversations and the Petersburg campaign will be thrilled with this book, as will those who seek to understand Lincoln as a model of teamwork and collaboration in management.
Scholars and graduate students will welcome Trudeau's "Sources Case-book" and be interested in Lincoln's journey but may criticize how Trudeau has taken the sixteen-day trip out of the larger context of Lincoln's presidency and the historiography of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Trudeau's desire to understand the partnership between great men takes his attention away from the men in the trenches at Petersburg. Even as Trudeau describes Lincoln's visits to Richmond and to a military hospital, neither freedpeople nor soldiers are center stage. He also relies heavily on Lincoln's April 11, 1865, speech from the White House as evidence of Lincoln's full transformation into a postwar president, although the president certainly could not have anticipated the incredible complexities of Reconstruction. Furthermore, Trudeau suggests that Lincoln's time at City Point influenced President Grant's two-term administration, which he describes as "a determined effort (sadly, not always successful) to transform the nation along the lines Lincoln had chalked out during his visits with Grant at City Point" (p. 260). It is probably impossible to fully understand how Lincoln's journey altered his presidency because his presidency lasted only five more days afterward. Trudeau's suggestion that Lincoln's and Grant's mutual cooperation shaped how Grant managed the tumultuous Reconstruction period, which was rife with Radical Republicans, neo-Confederates, and freedpeople, seems too close to a counterfactual. The mythology of Lincoln continues.