Lincoln’s Last Months

Although Abraham Lincoln was re-elected overwhelmingly to a second term in 1864, his triumph had been by no means certain. His opponent, Democrat George McClellan, was a well- regarded Union general who had promised to enter into peace negotiations to end the bloody Civil War.

Large elements of the population disagreed with Lincoln’s policy toward the slaves; some thought he had done too much for them, others that he done too little. In addition, the outcome of the Civil War was still in doubt. Although the Confederacy was weakening, in 1864 Union forces were still losing costly battles. However, shortly before the election there was good news from some battlefronts and this helped to ensure Lincoln’s re-election.

William C. Harris, professor of history at North Carolina University, takes the election as his point of departure for an extremely detailed account of Lincoln’s last months as President. Once he was back in office, he had to cope with ongoing—and competing—patronage demands from those who had supported him. His Democrat Vice President Andrew Johnson was a drunken embarrassment. Radical Republicans continued to criticize him severely.

The major issue was how Lincoln would pursue peace. He had rejected McClellan’s proposals as almost bordering on treason. On the other hand, he himself was a proponent of forgiveness, but he first had to defeat the Confederacy. In April 1865, the War finally ended but Lincoln’s triumph was short-lived. He was murdered at a time when he was finally beginning to be recognized as the great leader he was.

Presumably because the facts are already so well known, Harris gives almost no space to the actual planning and mechanics of the assassination. Much space, however, is taken up with minutely-detailed behind-the-scenes maneuvering that political junkies may appreciate, but that a general readership will probably find quite dry, if not pedantic. Nonetheless, Harris’s painstaking research has resulted in a very useful addition to the still-growing body of Lincolniana.