Day 260: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Cover for Team of RivalsBest Book of the Week!

Doris Kearns Goodwin begins her examination of Lincoln’s administration by remarking that because so much has been written about him, everything might be thought to have been said. However, by examining his career in terms of the team he put together to run the country, she found much more to write about.

This team consisted of his rivals in politics. Edwin Stanton, who treated Lincoln with contempt on their first meeting and who Lincoln made Secretary of War, was griefstricken at Lincoln’s death. Salmon P. Chase, eternally Lincoln’s rival for the presidency and a frequent undercutter, was an extremely competent Secretary of the Treasury. William H. Seward, the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination that Lincoln won, was at first inclined to underestimate Lincoln but became his closest friend and advisor as Secretary of State. Edward Bates, the Attorney General, was a homebody who was not sure he wanted a public life and at first looked upon Lincoln as well-meaning but incompetent, but ended up thinking he was very nearly perfect.

Team of Rivals begins on the day of the Republican convention of 1860, in which, of the rivals who had some expectation of winning the nomination of the party, Lincoln would seem to have the least. Seward was the odds-on favorite, but he had made many enemies in the party. Chase’s overwhelming ambition for the presidency lead him on several occasions to ignore the warning signs that he would not be the nominee. Bates was willing to act if nominated but made no extraordinary efforts because he preferred his home life.

Goodwin’s narrative then turns farther into the past to trace the men’s respective careers. In this examination she shows how Lincoln cleverly set himself up to be everyone’s second choice for the Republican nomination.

The book follows Lincoln’s nomination, campaign, and stunning victory, but the bulk of it concerns the compelling story of how he put together a cabinet containing these men, who were not only rivals for the office but who were from different regions of the country and who had different views on the important issues of the day. He then managed to work with these men and run the country during one of its most difficult times. It was frequently rumored that Seward actually held the power, but Goodwin shows us that Lincoln was always in charge.

Through an examination of the diaries of the men, letters, and other sources, Goodwin provides us with the fascinating details of political machinations, the conduct of the war, the fights among the generals, the alliances and friendships, and the story of how several men, who began with no esteem of Lincoln at all, grew to respect and love him.

Goodwin’s book is one of the most absorbing history books I have read. Although it is long and takes awhile to read, it explains each issue in completely lucid terms and interesting detail. The most important thing I got from the book was a fuller understanding of Lincoln’s greatness, his humor, kindness, and magnanimity–and what a disaster for the country his death was.

Day 25: Shiloh

Cover to ShilohIn Shiloh, the historian and novelist Shelby Foote has written an interesting fictional account that describes the battle from the points of view of several different narrators, some on the Union side and some on the Confederate. Each narrator has his own chapter. In these brief narratives you get a sense of the character while being able to trace the larger movements of the battle.

Foote manages to work into the narratives the major events, such as the death of General Johnston; the surviving Confederate leadership’s failure to follow Forrest’s recommendation of attacking again at night, which probably would have ended in victory for the Confederates; the 10,000 Union “shirkers” who hid along the riverbank after they became dispirited from having to pull back time after time; and the river crossing by Buell’s troops, which turned the tables in the Union’s favor.

Lieutenant Palmer Metcalfe is marching with the Confederate army under Johnston as it prepares for a surprise attack on the Union troops. He thinks back with satisfaction to the complicated plan he helped draft, as he is a staff officer under Johnson. The noisy troops may have lost the element of surprise, but Johnston insists upon attacking.

Captain Walter Fountain is a Union soldier writing a letter to his wife Martha during a Tennessee evening when the Confederate troops burst out of the woods and charge the Union army.

Private Luther Dade is wounded in battle and is sent to a triage area to wait for a doctor. After hours pass and no doctor shows up, Dade begins to show signs of infection. He stumbles around across a large swathe of the battle area and finds himself witnessing the death of the Confederate commander Johnston.

So the novel proceeds in short chapters that culminate with a return to Lieutenant Metcalfe as he reviews the results of the battle. The characters are briefly drawn but have distinct personalities. Through following the peregrinations of the various characters and with the assistance of the maps in the book, you can get a good understanding of the complex battle and why the initially successful attack ultimately failed.