Every Drop of Blood—The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln Delivering Second LN1135

Every Drop of Blood—The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln By Edward Achorn (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020)

Book review by E. Phelps Gay


Do we need another book about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural? After all, didn’t Ronald C. White, Jr. cover

this ground in his excellent 2002 book, Lincolns Greatest Speech? Having read Edward Achorn’s

entertaining new volume, my answers are Yes and No.

Yes, because Achorn attempts something different. With its diverse and colorful cast of characters–from Walt Whitman to John Wilkes Booth, Clara Barton to Frederick Douglass, Kate Chase Sprague to Alexander Gardner—Every Drop of Blood reads like a gripping non-fiction novel. Achorn puts us there, in the muddy streets of the District, with its gaslights and brothels, in brick mansions where elegant soirées are held and gossip exchanged, and in hotels and boarding houses where plots are hatched. We are given vivid portraits of interesting (sometimes vain or villainous) people swirling around the city, learning what each person said and did as the day and hour of this most consequential presidential oration approached. In the pages of this book the Washington, D.C., of March 1865 comes alive.

Of course, in some respects the story is well-known. On the morning of March 4, 1865, Andrew Johnson gets drunk and makes a fool of himself. Alexander Gardner takes a timeless photograph. Walt Whitman watches from the wings and writes. Lincoln gives an unusually profound speech. Booth listens, seethes, and plots. Afterwards, at the White House, Frederick Douglass deems the oration a “sacred effort.” Yet we also learn things we (or at least I) didn’t know about people like Selden Connor (a Union soldier injured in the Battle of the Wilderness) and Louis J. Weichmann (John Surratt’s roommate), Benjamin Brown French (Commissioner of Public Buildings) and George T. Brown (Senate Sergeant-at-Arms), Lucy Lambert Hale (daughter of an abolitionist Senator whose photograph is found in Booth’s pocket) and Adolphe Pineton,  Marquis de Chambrun (French diplomat and diarist).

A good deal of humor appears along the way, as when Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade offers this comment on the pompous Salmon P. Chase: “Chase is a good man, but his theology is unsound. He thinks there is a fourth person in the Trinity.”

What is remarkable is that Mr. Achorn, an editor at the Providence Journal whose previous books focused on nineteenth-century baseball, has pored over a mountain of evidence (letters, diaries, memoirs, books, newspaper accounts) and condensed it into a good story, well told, coming in at under 300 pages. Of particular interest is that in one form or another all of these characters seem to have known each other. For example, Alexander Gardner knew Walt Whitman and loved Leaves of Grass. Chase, unsurprisingly, hated the book. Whitman saw Booth play Shakespeare’s Richard III, comparing his performance unfavorably to that given by his father, Junius Brutus Booth. Lincoln and Whitman seem to have nodded to each other frequently as Lincoln rode on horseback to and from the Soldiers’ Home on warm summer days. Frederick Douglass knew and admired Chase, considering him much more anti-slavery than Lincoln. On the eve of Lincoln’s inauguration, Chase invited Douglass to his home for tea.

Here are some of the interesting questions addressed (or dramatized) in this book. On the night before and the day of the inauguration, where was Lincoln? What exactly was going on in the Capitol? Did the legislators pull an “all-nighter,” and was any significant legislation signed by the president? (The answer is yes, but I will say no more so as not to spoil your reading pleasure.) Was Lincoln presented with a last-minute peace plan (or process) that night to end the war? What did Edwin Stanton say about it, and what did Lincoln do?

On the morning of the inauguration, did Booth have a VIP pass? How close did he get to Lincoln before considered a threat and escorted away from the rotunda? Who grabbed him by the arm? Did Booth intend to kill the president during the speech?

What was the weather like? Did the sun really “burst forth” the moment Lincoln began to speak? With thousands in the audience, could Lincoln be heard? Did the audience pay close attention? Did they cheer? Where exactly was Alexander Gardner standing when he photographed Lincoln delivering his speech? How did the envious Chief Justice Chase handle the job of administering the oath of office to his rival Abraham Lincoln? What did he write and send to Mary Lincoln afterwards?

How did people react to the speech? We know Lincoln believed the speech would not be “immediately popular.” Was he right? What did the newspapers say? (Lincoln’s prediction that the speech would nevertheless “wear well” may be the greatest understatement in American history.)

Lincolns Reinaurual at the capitol 71200908110128

Unlike Ronald White’s book, Every Drop of Blood does not purport to take a “deep dive” into the Biblical origins and theological meaning of the speech. At the same time, this reader found Achorn’s analysis of the speech insightful and his appreciation of its literary qualities illuminating. We all know Lincoln read the Bible and Shakespeare, but what role did these reading experiences play in his drafting of the Second Inaugural? Achorn takes us through Lincoln’s well-known regard for Hamlet’s famous line: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/Rough-hew them how we will.” Moreover, he properly notes that in his 1862 “Meditation on the Divine Will,” discovered and titled by John Hay after the president’s death, Lincoln reflected that “The will of God prevails,” adding: “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.”

He also engages with Lincoln’s references to the Book of Matthew (“but let us judge not that we be not judged”), and the 19th Psalm (“the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”). With its unusually dense clauses suggesting God had given to both North and South this terrible war as the “woe” due to the “offence” of slavery, the speech wasn’t easy to digest. And yet as Lincoln finished he was greeted with a “long burst of applause.” Achorn duly notes the difference between the inaugural crowds of 1861 and 1865, the former containing many southerners (perhaps even “insurgent agents”), the latter containing a large number of African American supporters and servicemen.

If I had to note any weak points in the book, I would say that while it is structured as a dramatic “countdown” of the 24 hours leading up to the speech, in some chapters the author veers off into descriptions of older historical events. These can be interesting and provide context, but they also detract from the narrative momentum. At its best, the book sticks to what happened on March 3rd and 4th, 1865. In addition, Achorn occasionally weighs us down with a surfeit of newspaper excerpts.

On the whole, Achorn’s book illustrates once more that the Lincoln story can and should be told by talented people in different ways from different perspectives. The novelist, screenwriter, and writer-journalist should have a place at the table beside the indispensable professional historian. To put it another way, we most certainly need Burlingame, Guelzo, Holzer, McPherson, and Wilson, but we should also welcome into this wide tent Tony Kushner, George Saunders, Gore Vidal, and now Edward Achorn.

E. Phelps Gay practices law in New Orleans, LA

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