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Book Review: 1864 – Lincoln at the Gates of History by Charles Bracen Flood

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The year 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, but one of the most overlooked years of his presidency was 1864. 1861 marked his inaugural and the start of the Civil War; 1862 marked his Emancipation Proclamation; 1863 brought us his famous Gettysburg Address. But to characterize 1864 with a holistic event or document is just not possible.

First of all, it was an election year. With the tides of the Union's troubled military campaigns turning against him, Lincoln was bracing himself for a possible defeat against his once general-in-chief George McClellan who had joined the Democratic Party.

Secondly, after three years locked in battle with the Confederacy led by General Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Lincoln was under immense pressure from the tired Union public to see the light of day out of the terrible Civil War. It was also a year that saw most of the bloodiest battles ever waged in military history, led by his newest general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant, who went on to become president himself years later.

Lastly but most importantly, Lincoln had to navigate and interweave his political and military campaigns with one of his best known assets: his masterful skill at the art of writing.

Author Charles Bracen Flood faithfully re-creates the year that was 1864 for Abraham Lincoln, the Union, and the Confederacy with 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History. Lincoln seems to be more human in this book than in any other I have previously read. Mr. Flood seemingly does not adapt an eloquent writing style that is so often characteristic of other Lincoln books. This works well, as Mr. Flood is able to describe the tense drama and pressure that so often burdened Lincoln in this year before his untimely death.

1864 also is one the more balanced Lincoln books wherein North or South are neither vilified nor glorified. Likewise, the president is also neither mythologized nor demonized. Examples highlighting this are the very impartial narratives describing the battles of the year, using accounts from both sides to dramatize these events. Lincoln was not an angel who did not use the power of patronage and political maneuvering to heighten his chances for re-election.

The only thing that does not ignite anything of merit is the side story of John Wilkes Booth as Mr. Flood attempts to create parallels between Lincoln's whereabouts and the soon-to-be assassin. Though interestingly trivial, it could have been left out of the book, and one feels that this need for dramatic flair only serves to create a pretext for Lincoln's death, of which any extensive book about the 16th president would not be complete without.

1864 does justice to that year of sorrows, hardships, and triumphs that laid the groundwork for the eventual legacy of one of the greatest multi-taskers, Abraham Lincoln. This is certainly essential reading for students of history and shall go down as a definitive book about one of the most popular yet somehow least understood presidents in U.S. history.

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About Clarence Yu