Richard Current's THE LINCOLN NOBODY KNOWS
A couple of months ago I heard a broadcast on C-SPAN where a group of Lincoln and Civil War scholars reviewed the previous year’s crop of Lincoln biographies. The discussion underscored continued strong interest in Lincoln and the Civil War as dozens of books are published each year on these topics.
I have a modest interest in these subjects. I’ve read the Catton Civil War books and a number of novels (e.g., the Shaara books). I’ve enjoyed movies about the Civil War (e.g., Gettysburg). Living in Alexandria Virginia, you can’t help but see Civil War memories all around; I sometimes walk my dog in a park that is what’s left of a Civil War era fort, complete with cannon. But I’ve never read anything specifically about Abraham Lincoln.
So I paid attention when one of the conference attendees asked, “What’s the best book about Lincoln that you’ve ever read?” One speaker was emphatic in his response: Richard Current’s “The Lincoln that Nobody Knows,” published in 1963. His reason? “I used to assign it to my undergraduate students and it’s the one book they actually enjoyed reading.”
So I grabbed a used copy off Amazon ($2 plus shipping).
I was not disappointed. It is an unusual book, a collection of essays that address an entire series of issues, some controversial, about Lincoln, his life, and his politics. The interesting approach by the author is how he defines an issue in each chapter then attempts to objectively represent opposing views and to draw some conclusions (if possible) about “the truth.” The effect is that the reader is exposed to a very wide range of viewpoints and sources. Sometimes eye witnesses are quoted. Sometimes we hear what a friend — or enemy — may have written about an event many years later. We learn how a historian must question memory and other examples of historic evidence.
I can understand why students would be drawn to a book like this. Not only are the topics interesting and historically relevant, but the process used by the author allows us to clearly understand opposing views and interpretations. When one is faced on a daily basis by media that spin political messages and truth, seeing a serious evidence based analysis of still-important historical issues is refreshing. My favorite chapters address events surrounding the start of Civil War fighting (did Lincoln really force the South to attack Fort Sumter?) and Lincoln’s role in ending slavery.
Even though individual chapters in this book are short, we see firsthand how complex these questions are. The wrangling around what to do about Ft. Sumter, the Union fort that was blockaded before the onset of general hostilities, is fascinating. Lincoln went to great pains so as not to be the one to fire the first shot in anger — even though he knew Union troops would potentially starve if not replenished.
The chapter on slavery shows how complex Lincoln’s reputation is. He was not a died in wool abolitionist, and he was a practical politician. He was constantly trying to balance expediency with honor and morality. He had a war to fight, yet he wanted it to end in a way that preserved the Union. Issues like slavery were not just serious moral issues, they were also considerations in how to please his supporters while at the same time convincing the Confederacy that the North’s intentions were not punitive.
Review copyright (c) 2005 by Dennis D. McDonald