Barton Swaim commends three new books in the popular history mode on Lincoln — by Brian Kilmeade, Brad Meltzer and John Avlon — in the Wall Street Journal’s Review section this weekend. Swaim recounts this anecdote lifted from John Avlon’s Lincoln and the Fight For Peace, with which Swaim concludes his review:
On April 8, 1865, Lincoln visited Gen. Grant’s headquarters near Richmond and consoled wounded Union soldiers in a field hospital. When he began walking toward a tent separated from the others, a doctor tried to stop him. Those, the doctor said, were for wounded Confederates. “That,” Lincoln replied, “is just where I do want to go.”
There, too, the president spoke peaceably to the wounded. Years later one of the sick rebels, Col. Henry L. Benbow, recalled Lincoln extending his hand. “Mr. President, I said, ‘do you know to whom you offer your hand?’ ‘I do not,’ he replied. Well, I said, you offer it to a Confederate colonel, who has fought you as hard as he could for four years. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘I hope a Confederate colonel will not refuse me his hand.’ No, sir, I replied, I will not, and I clasped his hand in both mine. I tell you, sir, he had the most magnificent face and eye that I have ever gazed into. He had me whipped from the time he first opened his mouth.”
Lincoln was assassinated on April 14 and died the following day.
I add as a footnote that Peter Cozzens reviews Walter Stahr’s 848-page doorstop biography of Salmon Chase in the same section. Chase was of course Lincoln’s Treasury secretary and, on Lincoln’s appointment in 1864, Chief Justice of the United States. Cozzens concludes his review on a note that grabbed my attention: “Mr. Stahr weaves Chase’s personal and political lives together deftly, revealing for readers the whole man. Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival is as powerful and moving a political biography as I have read.” This is the concluding paragraph in its entirety:
Chase knew profound personal tragedy. By the age of 44, he had lost three wives to untimely deaths. After his third wife succumbed to tuberculosis in 1852, Chase never remarried. He also lost nine siblings and four children. The tumultuous marriage of his beautiful and fiery daughter Kate to the alcoholic Gov. William Sprague of Rhode Island, a union doomed to mutual infidelity, and their scandalous divorce caused Chase intense grief. Mr. Stahr weaves Chase’s personal and political lives together deftly, revealing for readers the whole man. “Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival” is as powerful and moving a political biography as I have read. I learned a great deal from it, and I warmly commend it to those seeking a fuller understanding of the turbulent American 19th century and the critical early decades in the struggle for black rights.
Among other things inspirational in their own right, his story might help to put our own troubles in perspective.