Lincoln’s Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation.  By William C. Davis.  New York: The Free Press, 1999. 

             Although Abraham Lincoln came into the presidency at one the most fractured periods in American history, he was able to find a loyalty amongst his own army that helped keep up morale and allow him to run the military effort and the country. The study of the common soldier’s feelings towards Lincoln was one crack in Civil War historiography that needed filled, and thus William C. Davis took up the challenge in his book Lincoln’s Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation. Davis produces a picture of the common soldier and his affinity for Lincoln through the use of memoirs, correspondence, and diaries of soldiers who mentioned Lincoln in their writings. Davis admits that not all soldiers contributed to the written record, and certainly not every man wrote anything about Lincoln at all; however, with 600 unpublished sources and 200 published collections, Davis gives the reader a convincing glimpse into the minds and hearts of Lincoln’s men.

            The author begins his work with Lincoln’s early years. One of the first books that the future president read was Mason Locke Weems’ The Life of Washington, which inspired him throughout his life. According to Davis, Lincoln was captivated by Washington’s bravery and his ability to rally men to his flag and in the midst of battle. Lincoln would personify this caricature of Washington later in life when he would take on the mantle of father to a nation. In a period where the wise and nurturing father remained a popular holdover of republican ideology, Lincoln crafted himself to fit this image in his political life. The author attributes Lincoln’s limited military experience as a thirty day volunteer during the Black Hawk War as another foundation of Lincoln’s approach to his soldiers. As a captain, his first elected position, Lincoln found that to control a military force, one must earn the soldiers’ respect. Although he lacked in military know-how, he took this lesson with him throughout electoral campaigns and into the White House.

            Lincoln earned the common Union soldier’s respect through a combination of actions. Perhaps the most important was the accessibility of the Commander and Chief. Lincoln often reviewed the Army of the Potomac; this gave him a public face for his troops to identify with. Also, the President would sit down with soldiers, or go into the camps and visit. This allowed Lincoln to use his gifts of conversation and intelligence to win over support and admiration from his men. Accessibility also came in the form of public appeal. Lincoln would receive letters and often pardoned or lessened punishment for soldiers such as deserters. This leniency did not often cross over to Confederates, as his strict hand allowed Union men to see that their father was also loyal to them in return for their admiration. Finally, Lincoln continually made effort to better the daily lives of his troops through supplies, sanitation, and material goods. All of these factors combined to create an image of a caring father.

            Of course, Lincoln was not adored by every person that Davis took his source material from. Lincoln needed the support of the masses to take some of the more upsetting decisions of the war. The dismissal of McClellan rubbed some troops the wrong way, but Davis believes that Lincoln’s popularity allowed this action to happen without too many repercussions.  Furthermore, despite the overwhelming votes for Lincoln over McClellan in the 1864 election, by the end of the war Davis points to many soldiers who were upset with Lincoln, the war, and the Union.  The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation served as the pinnacle achievement of Lincoln’s perceived fatherhood. Davis finds that despite criticisms by some soldiers, the rank and file man’s support for Lincoln allowed him to re-aim the focus of the war unilaterally.

            Davis provides an interesting and entertaining portrayal of loyalty amongst the common Union man – one which is useful to both Scholars and the general public alike. Lincoln’s self created image of fatherhood and the soldiers’ interpretation of their relationship with him is astutely captured by Davis in this work. One will walk away from this book with a better understanding of the necessary bonds that forged the Union war machine.  

Dan Vogel                                                                                           Texas Christian University.



Lincoln’s Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation.  By William C. Davis.  New York: The Free Press, 1999.  315 pp.

Recently, cutting-edge historical publications have embraced intellectual concepts of group identity and communal motivation.  With this work, William C. Davis applies such notions to the common soldiers of Union armies in the Civil War.  Specifically filling a historiographical gap, Davis discovers how the Union private viewed Abraham Lincoln and how this outlook influenced his actions and his loyalty throughout the war.  For Davis, the Union soldiers’ loyalty lay in both nineteenth-century republican ideals of family and deference as well as Lincoln’s deeds, namely his accessibility, willingness to aid the men, and allowance for putative latitude.  Overall, Lincoln’s Men effectively surveys how Union volunteers stayed loyal to Lincoln and cultivated a vision of him that remained after his sudden death.

Davis begins his narrative with a discussion of the influence of Mason Locke Weems’s The Life of Washington (1800) on young Abraham Lincoln, which taught the future president how to handle an army in wartime.  Davis believes Weems’s discussion of George Washington’s acting as a fatherly and confident figure before Trenton most influenced Lincoln.  As such, Lincoln in the early part of the Civil War played the role of a confident father.  Likewise, his limited military experience, all of it coming in the 1831 Blackhawk War, confirmed for him how to deal with soldiers.  On the frontier of Illinois, he learned to embrace this fatherly role, to contact soldiers cordially and formally, to look out for their interests, and to handle leniently issues of misconduct.

According to Davis, both Weems’s book and the Blackhawk War influenced Lincoln’s wartime policy and his actions engendered him to the Union volunteers, enabling him to at worst avoid a military coup and at best count on them to support key wartime measures.  Davis points to three key exploits on the part of Lincoln that endeared an overwhelming majority of Union troops to him.  First, “above all others,” was Lincoln’s “unprecedented accessibility” (135), opening the White House to soldiers, greeting them on the street, and often visiting the Army of the Potomac, making sure to review and meet personally the common soldier.  Second, Davis finds Lincoln’s efforts to improve sanitation, food supplies, medical aid, and comfort to the soldiers encouraged loyalty.  Third, Lincoln won friends in the armed forces through a policy of mercy toward deserters and other miscreants, either lessening sentences or pardoning many offenders.

As a result of these actions and Lincoln’s unconscious embracing of nineteen-century republican ideas of a societal father, Lincoln garnered support for key political initiatives, according to Davis.  For example, Lincoln’s “support soared” (81) among the privates, if not the officers, enabling the removal of the ineffectual Gen. George McClellan in November 1862.  Likewise, rank-and-file support for emancipation was “widespread” (91) and the final Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 met with “general approval . . . [once] the soldier’s got used to the idea” (102).  Soldiers most evidently advocated Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election, nearly four to one over McClellan, finding in the minds of Billy Yank that “Lincoln and the Union were the same” (216) by November 1864.  Nonetheless, Davis keenly balances his argument by demonstrating that the rank-and-file did not support the president unanimously by using letters from disenchanted privates as well. 

Thus, Davis astutely shows both how Lincoln cultivated and the Union soldiers embraced Father Abraham and, to a lesser extent, how this vision remains in the American historical memory.  Even so, Davis could improve this work through systematic comparison of Lincoln’s actions and motivations with his Confederate counterpart.  Davis does mention Jefferson Davis briefly, noting the Confederate commander-in-chief never had himself photographed and hardly made any substantive efforts to meet Johnny Reb.  But, other than this one-page mention, the author fails to contrast the two presidents, leading the reader to ponder whether Lincoln handled himself uniquely, especially in relation to his most opportune counterpart.

Nevertheless, Lincoln’s Men assuredly demonstrates that Lincoln consciously cultivated an image as benevolent father, which his soldier sons translated into support and ultimately victory.  William C. Davis makes an important and readable contribution herein to the historiography of the common soldier, national will, and ultimately how the North won the Civil War.  Davis researched the topic soundly – over six-hundred manuscript collections by his count – and writes engagingly; Lincoln’s Men valuably contributes to the historical dialogue.

J. Knarr

Lincoln’s Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation.  By William C. Davis.  (New York: The Free Press, 1999.  Pp. xii, 315.) 

            In his often touching and sometimes humorous book, Lincoln’s Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation, William C. Davis tells the tale of the common Union soldier and his relationship with his president.  Published in 1999, it is the first study to examine such a broad topic, and Davis’s work draws from an impressive number of primary sources: six hundred unpublished manuscripts as well as two hundred published collections form the basis for his study.  The author concedes that eight hundred soldiers are but a mere fraction of the men who fought and died in the Civil War, thus representing a meager sector of Union soldiers.  Nonetheless, Davis’s sample yields valuable insights into the way the common soldier viewed his commander in chief, and Lincoln’s Men weaves their tales with the efforts of the president to gain the respect of his volunteer army.

            Davis begins his book with an introduction to Abraham Lincoln’s first brief encounter with the military, his participation in the Illinois Indian Wars of 1832.  It was here that Lincoln received his training in the life of the common soldier, and Davis argues convincingly that Lincoln’s experience there stayed with him while he served as the commander in chief of the military during the Civil War.  For example, when it came to pardoning deserters or those accused of other, less grave offenses, Lincoln was known for his forgiving clemency.  Claiming that since he had never seen battle himself, he could hardly sentence a man to death for simply being afraid; likewise, those very young or inebriated men who found their way into a military court often found their sentences reduced generously if their case came across Old Abe’s desk. 

            The author also notes that Lincoln astutely understood that his men, especially the volunteers, would draw strength from his mere presence and the implicit support therein.  Although he never once visited his armies in the West, he did not need to; “they simply had not needed the nurturing required by their counterparts in the East” (p. 156).  In contrast, the Army of the Potomac, especially early in the war, played host to the president quite often, and Lincoln made a point of fortifying his personal bond with the soldiers during these visits.  Seeing him trot along on a horse too small for his tall, gangly figure brought the enlisted men pride; although the sight seemed rather comic, the soldiers never once laughed once they saw the “care worn” look on their “Father Abraham’s” furrowed brow.  The soldiers of Army of the Potomac drew courage from knowing that “they were never far from his [Lincoln’s] mind—the wounded, the dead, the troubled, or just those wanting a few minutes from their president to consider a personal problem, or only a shake of the hand” (p. 129).  Moreover, Old Abe himself made it a point to keep the White House doors open: he was probably the most accessible president in our history, as he personally invited enlisted men to come to him in times of need or grievance.

            Davis also chronicles the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation, the dismissal of General George B. McClellan, the election of 1864, and the integration of African-American soldiers into the military.  In all of these discussions, Davis offers much primary source documentation to bolster his thesis.  At some points, however, the author ignores or trivializes pertinent evidence.  For example, in his discussion of the common soldier’s reaction to the election of 1864, Davis downplays the popularity of the candidacy of “Little Mac,” George B. McClellan—as well as the anti-Lincoln sentiment and discussion that surely graced many an army campfire.  He does not even mention charges that Lincoln proved a poor administrator, portraying him as a shrewd manipulator of both men and public sentiment, but always in the interest of the Union.  In general, Davis devotes more pages to soldiers with positive things to say about their chief executive, but in his defense, he does give credence to those soldiers who cared not for Lincoln or even celebrated his assassination.

            In sum, Lincoln’s Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation is an excellent book, filled with humorous and insightful anecdotes that reveal the paternalistic attitude Father Abraham held for his troops—and the feelings of mutual admiration and respect they felt for him.  While at times the author’s analysis seems excessively favorable to Lincoln, Davis nonetheless has produced a valuable and well-researched text that contributes to our knowledge of the relationship between President Lincoln and his common soldiers.  Scholars as well as lay readers and Civil War enthusiasts will take pleasure in this thoughtful and enjoyably written text, and perhaps will come away with a greater sense of appreciation for Lincoln’s affable personality. 

Ashley Laumen

Texas Christian University