1865: America Makes War and Peace in Lincoln's Final Year.
Momentous events occurred in the opening months of 1865, as the end of the Civil War brought four years of bloody conflict to a close. The cessation of any war brings its own unique problems and conditions, and the Civil War was no different. The nation had to contend with a spectrum of military, political, racial, and social issues that had remained unresolved from before the war or were created by the war itself. In this collection of essays, several historians analyze and recount key events of the final months of 1865 through depictions of President Abraham Lincoln's decisions, activities, and influence on the end of the war. Some of the events depicted in the book, such as passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, are traditional and expected, but others, such as the description of Lincoln's visit to a defeated Richmond, are oft-overlooked events in Lincoln's presidency.
Two essays stand out as particularly interesting. Richard Striner's "Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Conference" shines some light on an important diplomatic event in the final state of the Civil War. The conference, between Lincoln and a Confederate delegation led by Vice President Alexander Stephens, failed in its hoped-for purpose of ending the war, but Striner's narrative underscores both the doomed Confederate cause and Lincoln's political and diplomatic skill. Lincoln arrived at the meeting on a winning streak after gaining reelection by a wide margin among the Union electorate, congressional approval of the Thirteenth Amendment, and Union armies gaining ground on a daily basis. Stephens, on the other hand, came to the conference seeking negotiations on the basis of Confederate independence, a very weak position considering the dwindling state of the Confederate military and economic power.
Frank J. Williams' "Military Justice, Right or Wrong: Judging the Lincoln Conspirators" explores the nuances of judging civilians by military commission in the uncertain area between civilian constitutional rights and military authority in time of war. Williams concludes that the military commission was the appropriate venue for the trial, although he does point out some procedural and ethical lapses that ensured Mary Surrat's execution, despite several requests that President Andrew Johnson extend clemency to her. Williams makes a very convincing argument that the military commission's investigation and process were driven not by angry revenge for Lincoln, but, rather, by a proper sense of justice, albeit one done through military courts unfamiliar to most citizens rather than through traditional civilian jurisprudence.
While the individual contributions to the book are competently written by some of the most prominent historians in the field, the overall effort does have some shortcomings. Both Holzer and Gabbard are prolific writers on the life of Abraham Lincoln, and their professional emphasis is plainly evident here, as all of the essays revolve around Lincoln. The various discussions on Lincoln are useful, but the book's title suggests a wider discussion of the end of the war that the Lincoln-centric submissions do not provide. The Confederacy was a full participant in its own demise, but its presence is included only in a secondary manner. The essays also consistently suggest that the Civil War ended with Robert Lee's surrender at Appomattox, when the number of Confederate troops still in the field suggested otherwise. The trial of the Lincoln conspirators, for example, began in May 1865 while Edmund Kirby-Smith still commanded a considerable Confederate force in Texas which did not surrender until the following month. Lastly, while the essays are well-written contributions to their respective topics, an educated reader on the Civil War will not find much new in any of the essays. There is a ring of familiarity in all of the contributions, which appear to be merely concise summations of the authors' more substantive publications. An introductory reader, however, will find this volume very useful in its succinct descriptions and accounts of these very important events.
--Steven J. Ramold
Eastern Michigan University
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|Author:||Ramold, Steven J.|
|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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