Abraham Lincoln was born 205 years ago this week, and remains one of the most popular figures in American history — and literature. In honor of Honest Abe’s birthday, check out one of these great reads.
By Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
When Abraham Lincoln spoke these words in his second inaugural address, John Wilkes Booth was in the audience. A Confederate sympathizer, Booth was enraged by Lincoln’s attempt to heal a war-torn nation. Booth believed that black slavery was part of the hierarchy of nature, and that the attempt to abolish it caused the Civil War. When Booth learned of the imminent fall of the South with the burning of Richmond, he decided to take action. So begins a suspenseful and dramatic account of the last days of the war and the final hours leading up to Lincoln’s assassination.
O’Reilly’s vivid description of the battle scenes appeals to the reader’s senses. One can hear the bark of the order to attack, taste the dry-mouthed fear on the tongues of the soldiers, see the sun glint on the cavalry’s sabers, feel the plunging blade of sword into flesh, and wince at the agonizing cries and curses of the wounded. Those who lose their weapons resort to bestial and desperate extremes, biting each other’s mouths and ears and noses. In the thick of action, one Union General Washburn resembles “a frenzied dervish, riding tall in his saddle, his saber slashing and slaying everything in its path.” In another battle scene, Gen. George Custer “races his cavalry toward the enemy, showing no mercy, cutting to pieces rebel troops on foot. On the ground bodies are sprawled — absent heads, arms and legs — lying in gruesome contortions.
The second half of the book is devoted to Lincoln’s final days and hours in a minute by minute account which builds to the denouement. Included are many ominous details and coincidences:
A few weeks before his death, Lincoln has a foreboding dream about his assassination.
On the day of his death, the President tells a friend, “I believe there are men who want to take my life. And I have no doubt they will do it.”
On the night of his assassination, Lincoln’s loyal and trustworthy bodyguard is replaced by one who has a reputation for irresponsibility and unreliability. This substitute leaves the Presidential box at Ford’s Theater to have a drink in a nearby tavern, allowing Booth easy access to Lincoln, who remains unprotected.
Guards who should be on duty disappear from their posts.
Bridges that should be closed remain open, allowing the assassins easy escape. (Booth was not the only assassin; three others were to attack Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward, all at the exact time of l0:l5 p.m., April l4, l865.
Telegrams to army personnel to commence a search for the assassins are not sent.
This book is gripping, and leaves a lot for the reader to ponder. If history books were written as “Killing Lincoln” is, few students would skip their assigned reading. This is the way to teach history.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker
By Jennifer Chiaverini
Born into slavery, which was her life for 37 years, Elizabeth Keckley purchased her freedom and that of her son Robert and moved to Washington, D.C., where she opened a dress shop. Through sheer tenacity, hard work, and an enterprising and entrepreneurial spirit, she honed her dressmaking skills to become the sole modiste and mantua maker of first, Mrs. Jefferson Davis; next, Mrs. Robert E. Lee; and eventually, Mary Todd Lincoln.
For many years, Elizabeth was not only Mary Todd’s personal assistant, but also a close friend and confidante. As such, she was a close observer of not only the Lincoln family members, but also of history as it was unfolding throughout the Civil War years. She became a great admirer of the President, who earned her respect by his devotion to his family and deep love for his children; his humility and good nature; his integrity and strength of character; his determination to hold the nation together; and his sincere sense of fairness and justice.
Elizabeth saw Lincoln weary from the stress of his office, heartbroken at the loss of young lives, burdened by the casualties and injuries suffered by those he had ordered into battle, and concerned and solicitous of his wife’s fragile mental state. In all of this, she found it remarkable that Lincoln was able to maintain a sense of humor. Having contracted a mild form of smallpox and quarantined in the White House for three weeks, he joked weakly from his sickbed, “Now let the office seekers come, for at last I have something to give them.” Her primary responsibility was to Mary Todd, not only in preparing her for state occasions, but more in tending to her changeable moods, calming her in her frequent anxiety attacks, bolstering her confidence, and advising her about her extravagant habits. It was only in the company of Elizabeth that Mary Todd found solace, comfort, and unconditional acceptance; devoid of criticism and judgment.
Theirs was an unusual friendship, and after her husband’s assassination, Mary Todd’s dependence upon and need for Elizabeth was constant and unrelenting. After Mary Todd had left the White House, she would summon Elizabeth to come tend to her in states far away, including New York and Illinois, totally oblivious to the personal and financial sacrifice she asked of Elizabeth, who never hesitated or refused.
Despite this closest of bonds, their relationship was severed by what Mary Todd interpreted as a breach of confidence, although Elizabeth never intended it to be so. This was truly tragic for both, since Mary Todd ended up confined to an institution and Elizabeth in a home for “Destitute Colored Women.” Throughout the years Mary Todd refused to accept Elizabeth’s many attempts to apologize and reconcile.
This very good historical novel both gives the reader further insight into the lives of President and Mary Todd Lincoln, it captures their feelings, as well as those of Elizabeth Keckley’s, during those critical years in American history.
Donna DeLeo Bruno is a native Bristolian and a retired teacher of writing and literature. She now splits her time between Bristol and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where she gives book reviews at the local library as well as at book clubs and women’s clubs. Some of her most enjoyable and relaxing hours are spent reading a book beneath the shade of a tree at the foot of Walley Street with the sun sparkling its reflection on the water.