- - Saturday, March 21, 2020

No U.S. president has been analyzed, researched and written about more than Abraham Lincoln. More than 16,000 books have focused on the 16th occupant of the White House. The number of scholarly articles, editorials, book reviews and columns could easily fill an entire reading room, too.

Yet, little nuggets of information about Lincoln continue to materialize. In the case of one recent book, it’s more akin to a boulder that’s helped transform the historical narrative in a way few scholars or enthusiasts may have thought possible.

Edward Achorn’s “Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln” is an exemplary account of this critical moment in Lincoln’s presidency. The Providence Journal’s vice president and editorial pages editor — full disclosure, who I’ve known for years — has an intelligent, inquisitive mind and a penchant for detail, imagery and story-telling. 

His book captures not only the true essence of this dramatic and traumatic time period in American history, but also the metamorphosis of a presidential inauguration that should be read and cherished by all Americans.

The book focuses on March 3 and 4, 1865, when Lincoln crafted his second inaugural address. Nevertheless, each chapter contains an impressive amount of information, from the politicians who supported and opposed him to lesser-known figures. There are deeply personal examinations, which show in some instances how interpretations of this president went from sour to sweet.

The author uses his extensive journalistic background to full advantage by including droves of newspaper accounts, providing a bird’s-eye view of the media’s then-influential role on public opinion. 

African-American statesman and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, for instance, initially had serious reservations about Lincoln. He called him “pre-eminently the white man’s President” and believed he viewed black people “at best only his step-children.”

Douglass would even support Salmon Chase, “an early, brave, and dynamic opponent of slavery” over the political incumbent — although his favored candidate had a massive ego and “was susceptible to flattery and gifts.” Fortunately, Douglass changed his mind after meeting Lincoln and discovering the true substance of his intellect and leadership skills.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who would one day become president, “impressed Lincoln with his lack of pretension, his tact, his businesslike approach, and his fondness for dry humor.” 

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was compared by Lincoln to a “hedgehog” — as he told Sherman’s brother, John, “We know what hole he went in at, but we do not know what hole he will come out of” — and was turned off because “the gruff general, in truth, regarded blacks as inferior to whites.” There are also several appearances by Lincoln’s soon-to-be assassin John Wilkes Booth, who “mourned the death of the United States he knew, radically transformed by Lincoln.”

Mr. Achorn succinctly goes through Lincoln’s 701-word inaugural address piece by piece.

He notes the president “cited a biblical passage that had always struck him forcefully,” which was God’s injunction to Adam. “Lincoln believed it was the height of injustice for anyone … slaveholder or aristocrat — to steal the fruits of the labor of another man,” writes Mr. Achorn.

The author describes a different passage as “astonishing” because “for the first time, an American president in an inaugural address was denouncing slavery as an unmitigated evil, speculating that God himself had rendered that judgment on it by punishing all Americans through this disastrous war.” After having “repressed his hatred of slavery” for four years, Mr. Achorn believes Lincoln “was, perhaps, revealing his heart.”

Reactions to Lincoln’s address were varied, too. 

Douglass grasped “the brilliance of Lincoln’s prose,” while calvary Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s young wife, Elizabeth, noted “how quietly he received the plaudits of the people who were much more aware of his greatness than when he came from the West, almost unknown, four years before.” As for newspapers, the New York Herald (“little speech of ‘glittering generalities’”), Chicago Times (“so slip-shod, so loose-jointed, so puerile”), Boston Transcript (“a singular State paper, made so by the times”) and Buffalo Morning Express (“So brief, so simple, so dignified”) were all over the map.

This wouldn’t have surprised Lincoln. According to Mr. Achorn, he thought “it would take some time for people to appreciate his speech.” He was ultimately right.    

Mr. Achorn’s innate ability to weave memorable stories and personalities together in “Every Drop of Blood” creates an intimate tale for readers. More impressively, it leads to a new chapter in this great president’s life that will stand the test of time.

• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

• • •


By Edward Achorn

Atlantic Monthly Press, $28, 416 pages

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