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Book Review: Re-electing Lincoln - The Battle for the 1864 Presidency by John Waugh

Author John Waugh begins Re-electing Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency by promising the reader not "a historical treatise" but a reporter's account of the election campaign of 1864 as he might have covered it had he been a journalist at the time. He is true to his purpose as Waugh takes us through the period from the middle of the Civil War up to the presidential election in the following year. Although his accounting focuses largely on the point of view of those in the camp of incumbent President Abraham Lincoln, this is likely because it is where the bulk of the chronicled record of the times can be found and not because of any historical bias. Accounts from the leading newspapers of the day, contemporary correspondence as well as leading diary keepers like Navy Secretary Gideon Wells and Lincoln's secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay are quoted from to give the reader a real feel for the mood of the times.

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In 1863 the war is proceeding too slowly for an impatient public on the Union side. President Lincoln has been having difficulty in finding generals that he can have confidence in. The Republican party is in conflict between those who want vengeance on the south and those who want an end to the war on any terms. The Copperheads (those who support an end to the war and reconciliation with the south with recognition of slavery as it existed before the war) are a vibrant force in the Democratic Party. The outcome of the 1864 election is uncertain, but there seems to be a consensus that Lincoln won't be President in 1864, as Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase and others are out for his job.

For a time it looks as if victory at Gettysburg and the appointment of the aggressive Ulysses Grant as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac will turn the tide for the Union. But in the summer of 1864 when Grant's campaign in Virginia stalls and casualties mount at places like Cold Harbor and the Wilderness, and a Confederate raid on Washington led by General Jubal Early nearly succeeds, defeat looks certain for Lincoln and his newly constituted Union Party.

John Waugh objectively and insightfully analyzes how late summer victories for the Union turned the tide for Lincoln and how the Democrats inability to control the peace wing of the party at their convention, as well as other strategic mistakes by Democratic candidate George McClellan, completed a constellation of circumstances that led to Lincoln's re-election.

Any historian can recount these facts, but Waugh does more than that. He paints a vivid picture of Lincoln the savvy politician. He also explains in detail the role that the media played in 1864 politics, introducing us to the editors of the major newspapers and the lens through which each viewed the events of the day, fair and balanced or otherwise. We are also given detailed character assessments of the major players in the political world of 1864, both elected and in the backrooms. Waugh completes his account with a number of interesting anecdotes including telling us about an interesting visit that Lincoln had from African-American activist Sojourner Truth, and about a letter that Lincoln had his cabinet sign, sight unseen, when it appeared that defeat was certain.

Waugh's writing can be verbose and overly detailed at times. (For example he spends a page describing the manner that a certain senator walked). But it becomes more compelling and gripping as the story progresses and the election approaches. This book is well-researched and tells a very complex and interesting story in a very professional and observational manner. He gives the reader the perfect amount of information about military events to provide an appreciation of their significance in the political world and vice versa.

Others have written about Lincoln's character, his thoughts and words. John Waugh puts us in the place of those who would have been around him at the time, experiencing what it would have been like to live in Washington DC as the war raged on and the election approached, and to have been in the room when Lincoln spoke and acted. He does so very well and produces a very worthwhile historic account in the process. The author's ability to coherently explain complicated issues and personalities make this a book well worth reading.
Tags: subject: history, xxx author last name: r-z
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