Tag Archives: American Civil War

“Courting Mr. Lincoln – a Novel” by Louis Bayard

Courting Mr. Lincoln: A Novel

What was the chance that my restless search for entertaining fiction would lead me to the Mississippi River (in the first half of the 19th century) TWICE in a row? Is there a message here? Time to book a riverboat cruise?

Courting Mr. Lincoln is mostly set in Springfield, Illinois, when that city was being built on the prairie. Mary Todd (eventually Lincoln) arrives to stay with her married, older sister. The family’s intent is to find Mary a husband, preferably with wealth and good manners. We see the courtship of Lincoln and Ms Todd through Ms Todd’s eyes.

The other character used to illuminate Abraham Lincoln is his close friend Joshua Speed. Sections of the novel alternate between the perspectives of Joshua and Mary. In some ways, they compete for Lincoln’s attention and affection.

Abraham Lincoln was… unusual? complex? troubled? So much has been written about him. Mary Todd Lincoln has also been extensively analyzed. The documents available have been thoroughly analyzed.

This book felt like ordinary historical fiction for a number of chapters, then suddenly took flight about 80% of the way through. Took flight, surprised me and romped on to a strong conclusion!

The turning point and surprise, for me, was the account of Abraham Lincoln becoming embroiled in an “affair of honor” which almost ended in a duel, to be fought with (of all things) cavalry swords. High drama, and in the end, no one was injured.

Louis Bayard has written a number of other books, and I’m looking forward to sampling them. One is entitled Roosevelt’s Beast. What on earth?!

“What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 – 1848” by Daniel W Howe, part of “The Oxford History of the United States”

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday I spent many hours in the car, driving to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, then to a suburb of Washington DC and finally home to New Jersey. Recorded books make grueling trips bearable! My fellow traveler is working his way (selectively) through The Oxford History of the United States.

The Oxford History (conceived in the 1950s and published starting in 1982) will eventually consist of 12 volumes. They are not strictly sequential. (Some deal with a topic rather than a time period.) We are making no effort to read them in order. My husband began with The Republic for Which it Stands, covering 1865 to 1896 (Reconstruction and the “Gilded Age”). Then we jumped back in time to What Hath God Wrought.

Initially, this book was going to be titled Jacksonian America. Wow! I didn’t realize how much there is to hate about Andrew Jackson! His attitudes toward African Americans (enslaved or free) and native Americans were ugly. The rest of the world was turning it’s back on the “peculiar institution”. How would America move forward? The US was on shaky moral ground.

Taking a step back, the value of this book is that it shows how unprecedented and experimental the newborn United States was. The future success of our country was by no means assured.

Okay, I admit to having slept through a good deal of the recorded text, but it didn’t matter. What I learned was interesting! Consider, for example, the role of violence in civic life. Why so many riots? This book was published in 2007, but it has a remarkable amount to say about politics and behavior in 2018.

Three issues in this book that particularly engaged me were

  • the abolition movement
  • “Indian removal”, as in The Trail of Tears
  • women’s rights, especially suffrage

Sometimes supporters of these movements aided each other, and sometimes they found themselves at cross purposes.

When I’m on the road, I often need music or conversation, but well written history also makes the miles roll past. Previously I’ve read popular books about World War II. Shifting towards these more scholarly works has been worthwhile.

“How Few Remain (Southern Victory)” by Harry Turtledove

As indicated in my blog post of March 24, 2016, I wasn’t impressed by Harry Turtledove, the “master” of alternative history (per Wikipedia). I decided to read this book (in which the South won the Civil War) because I overheard a comment that it was relevant to America under Donald Trump. The USA is portrayed as led by a hawkish and very stubborn politician who wages and loses an unwise war (to force the Confederate states back into the union.)

About 25 years after succession, the Confederacy is thriving but faces international criticism (especially from England and France) because of slavery. The United States, feeling a return of confidence after its defeat, invades the Confederacy and interferes (on flimsy grounds) with its purchase of Sonora and Chihuahua from Mexico. The CSA establishes military dominance and the USA suffers a second defeat. The CSA announces its intent to end slavery, but most antislavery activists suspect that little will change.

The “few” who remain refers to the generation of military leaders who went to West Point together and then fought each other during the Civil War.

Turtledove takes the liberty of putting real historical figures into his fiction, in this case Samuel Clemens, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is the most interesting. Conveniently not assassinated, he is defeated for another term as President and wanders the country, speaking out on what we now call economic justice, supporting unionization and being accused of socialism.

I was just interested enough to keep reading this book, but Turtledove is not my cup of tea. I still like the idea of “alternative” historical fiction. Maybe another author will be more to my taste. Suggestions, friends?