Monday, November 23, 2020

Review - "Lincoln's Wartime Tours from Washington, D.C." by John Schildt

[Lincoln's Wartime Tours from Washington, D.C. by John W. Schildt (Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, 2020). Softcover, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:153/172. ISBN:978-1-4671-4571-8. $21.99]

From massive multi-volume biographies to studies narrowly focused on very specific features of the president's life (such as his dreams, his sense of humor, his depression, and much more), Lincoln books of all kinds continue to be produced in vast numbers. Among that latter group is John Schildt's new presidential travel history titled Lincoln's Wartime Tours from Washington, D.C..

From early life through middle age, Lincoln was a traveler and his Civil War presidency was no different. Schildt's book examines nineteen trips the president took between 1862 and his assassination in 1865. Ultimate destinations were limited to locations in only four states (13 trips to Virginia, three to Maryland, two to Pennsylvania, and one to New York), so Lincoln still kept relatively close to the capital and never did visit the western theater. As the author demonstrates, the driving force behind the great majority of these trips was military affairs, either to consult with commanding generals or visit the troops (the latter through both formal reviews and informal meet and greets at camps and hospitals). The president also attended sanitary fairs and, of course, made his famous journey to Gettysburg in 1863 to speak at the national cemetery dedication there. Many of these events, such as the rail trip to Gettysburg, the visit to the Army of the Potomac after Antietam, and the 1865 foray to City Point, are well known and well documented, but the book also addresses a host of lesser-known travels (among them the president's April 1862 boat trip to Aquia Landing to meet with General McDowell for strategy discussion and an unannounced excursion to West Point two months later).

As the book shows, these trips were often spur of the moment affairs, and the author's surmise that the travels also served as brief escapes from the pressure-filled and unhealthy capital is a familiar observation. Indeed, Lincoln was often ill himself in the periods surrounding these trips. There are many other common threads, among them the president's general unwillingness to speak to crowds extemporaneously balanced by an openness to being approached by individual citizens. Lincoln also seemed to be particularly moved by the suffering of the common soldiers of both sides, and military hospital visits were a frequent part of his trips to the front. Though fighting a continental-scale civil war was always going to make Lincoln's presidency an exceptional one in so many ways, the book might have benefited from some comparative background history regarding boat or rail travel by earlier presidents to see if the frequency of Lincoln trips was atypical or not.

Much of the text is devoted to what Lincoln did at each destination, but substantial attention is paid to each trip and its planning. Sprinkled throughout are block quotes from both firsthand observers of these events (drawn from the author's manuscript research) and secondary sources that Schildt relied heavily upon in specific cases (an example being historian Donald Pfanz's Lincoln at City Point). The author also incorporates quite a bit of broader war narrative into each chapter in a manner that effectively contextualizes the timing, meaning, and reasoning behind each trip. The text is annotated and the travel accounts are augmented by a collection of photographs and period drawings. If you are interested in Lincoln's wartime activities outside the capital, this is a solid popular-style compilation of his lengthier trips.

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