Books: Lincoln’s Citadel

The President, the City and the War

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The museum shop at the National Archives has to be just about the best in a city with some pretty cool ones.

They seem to have something for everyone.

There with a group of eighth-graders recently, I made an impulsive purchase of a book because it was about Washington, D.C. and it had Lincoln in the title.

Tricked again?

Indeed not, it’s a great read for anyone interested in the details of D.C. during the Civil War, including slavery, abolition and the discord of a city under siege.

Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation

Lincoln’s Citadel (Kenneth J. Winkle, W.W. Norton, 2013) is the perfect primer as he fully explains the importance of the District in the overall fight to free slaves and to abolish the institution of slavery, with all its twists and turns.

Winkle does a superb job explaining the role that Congress played concerning slavery in the District before and during the war, including members who fought on behalf of individual slaves.

Other books, such as Henry Mayer’s biography of William Lloyd Garrison, All On Fire, Constance Green’s Washington: Capitol City, or Eric Foner’s Fiery Trial, may give a broader picture of Lincoln, the City or slavery, but for those who want it, Lincoln’s Citadel sings with vital details and some unknown heroes.

The President

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Winkler reminds us about the Lincoln we know and the way he gained confidence in dealing with the war and his generals.

He also retells the story of the president-elect’s now infamous trip to Washington on the night train through Baltimore.

There are any number of scenes of an anguished president whether over battlefield defeats or the death of his son.

Uppermost in Lincoln’s mind was keeping the “border states” in the union and the story of the pitched battle over the Fugitive Slave Act between the US Army Provost Marshal and  City Sheriff Ward Lamon reinforces David Herbert Donald’s view in his biography, Lincoln, of the president as a man capable of some combination of vacillation, indecision, or quiet cunning.

An Island Unto Itself

It’s hard not to have the impression that some writers skirt the complexity of what the City could mean for slaves, free blacks, fugitives and the white population.

Some found safe harbor or kidnapping by a slave dealer, modest employment or black-on-black discrimination based on skin color, arrest, trial or banishment by soldiers or police.

Winkler tells of even Lincoln’s inability to retain the valet he brought from Springfield at the White House because his color was too dark for other African Americans to accept.

Washington was a chaotic place in every sense, bursting at the seams with an influx of soldiers, “contraband blacks”, fugitive slaves, southern sympathizers and other civilians.

The Sick and the Wounded

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Lincoln’s Citadel offers a proper and full telling of the horrors of war, at least from the standpoint of medical treatment and the care of the dead.

The City was totally unprepared for the deluge of incapacitated soldiers arriving by boat, train and wagon from battlefields or encampments, many stricken with horrific wounds, infections and disease.

Churches and public buildings, including the Capitol and the White House, became hospitals and new freestanding hospitals, some twenty in all, sprang up everywhere.

How the afflicted were treated (or not) is an important part of the narrative which stretches beyond the District.

The Dying and the Dead

Gettysburgh

Gettysburgh

My favorite place to go as a guide is Arlington Cemetery.

I think it is my favorite place in D.C., period.

After reading Lincoln’s Citadel I will never see it the same though I thought I knew the story of the place.

Winkler crucially sets Arlington in the context of the 19th century American re-conception of death from the Calvinist interpretation to, as we might blithely say today, “the big sleep.”

He explains the link with the battlefield cemetery at Gettysburgh and more importantly, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Arlington Cemetery, in its epic entirety, from every vista to each memorial, is a stunning and quite purposeful visual anecdote to grief.

The Hell Cat

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Ever since I read William Seale’s, The President’s House, I have been inclined to view Mary Todd Lincoln with sympathy and now I up that to firm admiration.

Winkler takes a similar view as Seale that Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln’s young secretaries, at least took sides over her misfortunes and misbehavior and may have been troublemakers where Mrs. Lincoln was concerned.

In any event, there can be no doubt that Mary Todd Lincoln worked exhaustively to care for wounded and sick soldiers and the loved ones they often left behind.

And she, like her husband, shed her ignorance and racism where blacks were concerned.

I am glad Winkler drives that home.

If you like reading about history, the Civil War, Lincoln, D.C., black history, slavery, abolition or about a dozen other subjects, then pick up Lincoln’s Citadel–you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

1 Comment

  • Deltha Cousar-Jeffries says:

    Would you believe I’m just getting a chance to read this particular blog. You might know I have a thirst for history and I’m setting out today to get both books. Thanks for the tip!

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