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.
Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation.
By William C. Davis. (New
York: The Free Press, 1999. Pp.
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.
Texas Christian University