Lincoln’s Greatest Journey: Sixteen Days that Changed a Presidency, March 24-April 8, 1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau. Savas Beatie, 2016. Cloth, IBSN: 978-1611213263. $32.95.
In the middle of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said that he was so wearied by the conflict that “the tired part of me is inside and out of reach.” Noah Andre Trudeau’s book, Lincoln’s Greatest Journey: Sixteen Days that Changed a Presidency, March 24-April 8, 1865, attempts to delineate for readers how, in a brief period of time spent with generals near the fighting around Petersburg, Virginia, Lincoln’s presidency was forever changed. “For the first term and the start of his second,” Trudeau maintains, “Abraham Lincoln was in a fully reactive mode” (xi). But, after his stint south of Washington, D.C., with the army, “A new Lincoln emerged, one firmly on a leadership path actively anticipating the postwar era. He was at long last in a position and – equally important – a state of mind to begin to control events. It was a transformation as remarkable as it was unprecedented” (x). In fact, “Had he completed his second term,” Trudeau concludes, “modern historians would have regarded his time at City Point as the occasion when a U.S. president dramatically refashioned his agenda” (261).
To be sure, Lincoln’s Greatest Journey is a delightful narrative of the president’s sojourn with the Union army at City Point, Virginia, in the spring of 1865. Trudeau is a skilled writer and researcher, and his account, replete with apt quotations, informative maps, and interesting photographs, never fails to engage the reader’s interest. After the president’s first day at City Point, for instance, Trudeau cites one of General George Gordon Meade’s aides’ summary: “A review, a pleasure party and a battle all in one day” (44). Trudeau’s chapter on Lincoln’s visit to Richmond, to note another example of the book’s pleasures, has models of the boat that the president rode into the city and maps of precisely where the president landed (and details of his subsequent journey throughout the former Confederate capital). In addition to the triumphal, perhaps even revolutionary nature of Lincoln’s perambulations through the city—Lincoln “lifted his own hat” to an elderly African American—Trudeau also keeps his readers keenly aware of the dangerous aspect of Lincoln’s visit: “he [Admiral David Porter] was bringing the President of the United States into a city evacuated by the enemy some 36 hours earlier with commander-in-chief’s only immediate protection being those in the barge, one of whom was a child” [Lincoln’s son Tad] (185).
So, why were the sixteen days at City Point so restorative and transformative? Firstly, Trudeau holds that because of his visit, Lincoln “returned to Washington increasingly anxious to accelerate the reconstruction process” (253), with “trenchant, first-hand impressions of a wide spectrum of the black experience” (256) that led him to “break new personal ground on the question of black participation in the American political process” (256). Secondly, Lincoln’s advocacy of limited black suffrage “foreshadowed a dramatic reinvention of the Office of the President” (257). Finally, Lincoln and Grant in a sense both realized “that the nation’s destiny could not be realized if a sizeable section of it was beaten to its knees” (260). In short, Reconstruction could be neither vindictive nor malicious. “Grant understood—as Lincoln understood—that the true measure of the North’s victory would be in the promises kept— especially to those who delivered the victory, white and black” (260).
Unfortunately, Lincoln’s Greatest Journey is more entertaining its narrative than convincing in its argument. It is more plausible that continuation rather than transformation is the story here. As James Oakes made clear in his recent book, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (2014), Lincoln and the Republican Party had been on an antislavery course even before the war, which was one reason their ascendance to the presidency without any southern votes provoked secession movements across the lower south. Hence, is it not quite accurate to characterize Lincoln—or, one might add, his party—as reactive. They were instead embarked from the beginning on a methodically assertive antislavery course. Thus, the idea that Lincoln’s stance on black suffrage, Reconstruction, or the nature of the presidency was decisively changed by his time at City Point is something of a stretch.
Consider Trudeau’s position from another angle: if President Lincoln had not visited Grant’s army in March-April 1865, would any of his political stances truly been any different? Would he have been less anxious about Reconstruction? Would he have been unwilling to publicly advocate black suffrage (Lincoln had privately argued for it a year earlier to Governor Michael Hahn of Louisiana, a point Trudeau acknowledges)? Would the Office of the President not have changed without Lincoln’s journey southward? In addition, as Trudeau claims, if “the true measure of the North’s victory would be in the promises kept . . . to those who delivered the victory, white and black,” can we honestly say, given what we now know about how long it took to fulfill the promise of freedom to African Americans (leaving aside the terrorism used to enforce white supremacy), that a lenient Reconstruction was the wiser or more appropriate course?
The problems that the country faced in 1865 as Lincoln traveled back to Washington were perhaps insoluble. But, as Noah Andre Trudeau shows in this book, his stay in City Point had refreshed him to the point where the tired spot was a little less pronounced, thereby giving the president renewed enthusiasm for the trials ahead. Tragically, John Wilkes Booth ensured he never had the opportunity to face and solve those difficulties.
John McKee Barr is a Professor of History at Lone Star College – Kingwood, located in north Houston, Texas. He is the author of the award-winning Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present (2014).