Category: 5 Barrels

“Grant” by Ron Chernow Review

Grant

Grant

Author:  Ron Chernow

Released:  2017

Grant has been vilified as an incompetent president for the scandals on his watch. Attacking him on that issue became a convenient tool for Reconstruction opponents who sensationalized his failings through congressional hearings and a strident press. But corruption had flourished in American politics since the heyday of Andrew Jackson. Page 854

It’s difficult to look objectively at modern politicians without the context of an historical overview. One gets the impression that living through Grant’s two terms as president was a daily barrage of scandals that would seriously damage the credibility of the man holding office. In addition, his actions that are most favorable historically were severely opposed by half of the country, and only moderately supported by the other half. With over 100 years of hindsight, Grant stands as one of the great presidents due to his accomplishments and policies in office; the numerous scandals appear much more minor in significance.

Certainly there are other factors as to why Grant stands so well regarded. His meteoric rise to General of the Northern army during the Civil War would guarantee him a prominent place in American History even had he never taken office. If there’s one take away I got from reading Chernow’s book however, it’s that flawed men (or even deeply flawed administrations) can still be the right individuals for the job.

Born into – Born Hiram Ulysses Grant in southern Ohio, the man famously known as U.S. Grant actually had a different name. Not until a clerical mistake in his enrollment at West Pointe did he become Ulysses S. Grant, with no middle name attached to it. Grant’s father Jesse ran a tannery (Grant had zero interest in this, hating both the smell and the wanton slaughter of animals), and had habit of moving to bigger cities every few years. Jesse was eventually even successful enough to be elected mayor. The Grant family was original democrat, but switched to the Whig party (and strong abolitionist) around the time of William Henry Harrison’s presidential election.

Early stories of Grant are very reminiscent of George Washington. Grant was very a honest child. Instead of a cherry tree, the best anecdote that has been passed down about Grant was when he was tasked with negotiating to buy his dad a horse. “I’m to offer you $20 first, but to go up to $25 if that’s what it takes” he told the seller. Grant purportedly didn’t flinch at hearing gun shots at the age of 2, and could ride a wild horse on one foot by age 5 (this one seems more likely as stories of his horseback riding prowess occur throughout his military career).

Grant’s Early education was modest, but his father was able to pull strings to get Grant sent to West Point. This involved getting a sponsor that was a Congressman. Grant didn’t want to go as he didn’t believe he could succeed there. Once enrolled it gave him a strong sense of loyalty to the United States government and the concept of the Union. 2.5 out of 5.

Pre-President – Grant graduated from West Point as a private in the middle of his class; however looking at the number of candidates who began in class with him and then dropped out, he was in better than top 25% of candidates overall. From West Point he was then dispatched to St. Louis before getting involved in the Mexican American War conflict. Grant began the war as a Lieutenant and was successful across the board during the war. Eventually he was promoted to Quartermaster, which although was much less flashy than some roles during the war, certainly prepared him for the complicated logistics of running the entire military later on in his career. Grant served first under Zachary Taylor, who Grant respected and emulated. As a soldier, there were no allegations that Grant was anything but brave and willing in battle, and one incident where he raced a horse through enemy territory was regaled for years afterward. When Winfield Scott took over, Grant praised his military mind but little else about the man. After the Mexican American War, Grant was involved in the Temperance movement and swore off alcohol. There were the beginnings of signs that he had a drinking problem and was aware of it. When he was stationed in California without his wife and (at that time) two children he resumed drinking.

Grant’s first exit from the military is an amazing story of what somebody can bounce back from. When he was transferred to a different commanding officer in California, Grant was put on notice for his drinking problem. Essentially, he was made to write a resignation and leave it undated, with the understanding that if he had another drunken episode he would have to resign. Grant had another drunken episode, and resigned (as a Captain). He tried to get back home to his family including one child he had never met and was nearly two years old. Everybody that Grant did business with or had invested money with ended up being a crook and Grant was penniless and stranded on the wrong side of the country. Eventually he got a free ride to New York, where he stayed until being rescued by his family (there is some historical evidence he was even jailed for drunken behavior at this time). Once he got back to his wife, his options were limited and his best one was to farm the 60 acres her parents had given for their wedding and sell wood in the winter time. His financial troubles continued for years, until he went back to Illinois to work for one of his dad’s companies (and below his two younger brothers) as a clerk. The timing on this was fortuitous however, as it placed him an area where he could rapidly advance in the military as the Civil War began.

Given the initial rank of Colonel in Illinois army, Grant was quickly promoted to Brigadier General before any conflicts even took place. Grant was fast tracked because of friends from Illinois (primarily Elihu Washburne) advocating for him and Lincoln giving his home state more generals than any other. Grant was well aware of what caused his previous fall from grace and enforced alcohol use/abuse strictly in his command. In addition he made his Chief advisor John Rawlins take an oath to prevent him from Grant from drinking. Unlike many of his northern contemporaries Grant was successful in his first three conflicts, capturing a city before Rebels could reinforce it, then capturing 2 forts, one of which was fairly heavily defended. The success gained Grant national acclaim as the most successful Northern General from the very beginning of the war as well as a promotion to Major General. Those above him (Halleck and McClellan) were both overly cautious and ambitious, and as a result resented Grant for his success and even wanted him jailed for failure to send daily updates afterwards. It took Lincoln stepping in and telling them the red tape wasn’t the most important thing at this time.

Grant’s first major fight was the Battle of Shiloh, at the time the bloodiest of the Civil War with more deaths than the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican American War combined. There is some evidence Grant’s army was surprised and unprepared when they were attacked by Rebels, which led to many casualties, but Grant’s resolution kept Union forces from surrendering territory. Grant was also unique in his willingness to pursue the Confederates instead of taking time to regroup, correctly understanding that defeating the opposing army would be the key to winning the war. Although the Battle was basically a draw, the Union claimed victory for keeping the territory. When Halleck was momentarily promoted to McClellan’s role of head of the army, Grant became the military general for most of the Western war front.

The single action that looks the worst historically in Grant’s career was his military order removing all Jewish merchants from the area. Spurred on by a few bad apples in the area and his dad’s work bringing in merchants attempting to scam the Union Army, Grant took his frustrations out on the entire Jewish population in his area. Although repealed within 30 days and included among his life’s greatest regrets, the action did have terrible outcomes for many individuals removed from their homes and ostracized by the military.

Grant’s campaign to capture Vicksburg is still recognized as one of the greatest military campaigns in American history and on its own should be sufficient to rebuke his inferiority as a General to Robert E. Lee. Chernow compared the two men, stating Lee would fight you on your front porch, while Grant would fight you in the kitchen and bedroom (meaning Lee was great head to head in a battle, but Grant had a better view for choking off resources and winning a war.) Unfortunately, it was followed up by possibly the worst display of public drunkenness in his career as he fell off a horse in New Orleans in between the Vicksburg and Chattanooga campaigns. Reports vary as to how drunk he was, but Grant’s superb horsemanship underlies the fact supports the allegation as he fell of broke his leg and was sidelining him for 2 months. Most of Grant’s alcohol episodes occurred in private, at non-critical times and out of sight of all but those closest to him during war.

Grant strongly supported the Emancipation Proclamation and was an early adopter of utilizing “Colored troops regiments.” He believed not only they could be useful with manual labor but could also serve and fight bravely in battle, something he bonded with Lincoln over following his success in Vicksburg. The Chattanooga campaign was nearly as impressive as Vicksburg, with Grant’s arrival when the existing troops were less than two weeks away from surrendering due to starvation. Grant fixed the supply infrastructure, and reversed positions securing the city and chasing out the Rebel threat. Following this campaign, Grant was made only the third Lieutenant General in U.S. History, following Washington and Winfield Scott. His delegation style leadership not surprisingly worked well with competent generals but not effective with poor generals. Grant gave great leeway to Sherman and Sheridan and was rewarded for it. Coordinating the attack on multiple fronts, Grant did what no other general before him could do and took the will out of the Rebels at great casualties to both sides

Grant’s handling of Lee’s surrender was in accordance with Lincoln’s wishes. Chernow praised how Grant allowed Eastern generals to get victories and Southerners to surrender gracefully in laying groundwork for easier reunification. Likewise, he helped clean up Sherman’s blunder in granting special terms to Johnston’s surrendering army, but still allowed Sherman to take credit for the surrender. Throughout the end of the war, Grant formed a friendship with Lincoln communicating with him in person and over telegraph frequently.

Grant’s initial trip to the south after the Civil War had him optimistic at southerners willingness to accept the new status quo. However, the actual situation (and Johnson’s handling of it) made it clear that was not the case and Grant needed to use Federal troops to enforce laws to protect free blacks. In addition, Grant passed orders such as “No law can be enforced against blacks which is not also being enforced against the rest of the population.” Under his direction, armies removed elected individuals from office who did not prosecute white criminals, and even threatened to shut down public transportation if it didn’t provide for blacks as well as whites. In doing so, he became the most powerful person in protecting Freedmen in the country. This was despite having a president who was doing everything he could to thwart Republican reconstruction, including removing Grant’s generals who were must successful at making a difference. Grant was tangentially involved in Johnson’s impeachment drama, as Johnson had attempted to name Grant Secretary of War in violation of the Tenure of Office Act. 5 out of 5.

Presidential Career – Grant stayed away from campaigning for the presidency, instead letting the position come to him. Grant won in a landslide electoral vote, though popular vote was much narrower. He definitely benefitted from the African American vote, which was substantial prior to the obstruction that would take place soon after. One of biggest powers of the President during that era was patronage. Grant was as bad as anybody with nepotism, giving jobs to just about anybody who had helped him out or was related to him. On the positive side, Grant gave hundreds of positions to blacks and Jewish people, including the first Ambassador positions to the former and Governorship to the latter. Grant came in with strong preference to assimilate Indians into Christian culture, and appointed various religious figures to assist with this. Although it would not be politically correct now, it was a more humane approach than many of his contemporaries who preferred relocation or genocide for the natives.

Grant also favored annexing the Dominican Republic if possible, however it was thwarted by opposition in Congress. Some of the only support for this plan came from individuals who would benefit monetarily in a direct manner. Along with the first Black Friday scandal (where gold was bought up artificially inflating the prices prior to the treasury then correcting the market) it appeared that individuals that surrounded Grant were unscrupulous and attempting to benefit from government decisions while Grant was ignorant of the conflicted parties until after the fact. While in office, the 15th Amendment was passed giving all men right to vote. His participation was the opposite of Andrew Johnson, in that he supported it and lobbied for its passage.

The size and power of Federal government grew considerably during Civil War and continue to do so under Grant. The Departments of Education and Agriculture were created during his first term. The Department of the Interior established the first ever National Park during Grant’s presidency. Most importantly, the Justice Department gave the Attorney General much more power, and Grant’s Attorney Generals filed thousands of indictments against Ku Klux Klan members while state governments did little or nothing. Mass murders of blacks and republicans in Louisiana and Mississippi during Grant’s reconstruction era have largely been forgotten by the general public but were unique emergencies that he had to deal with despite great opposition by Congress and Northerners fatigued with the “black problem” in the south. Grant stayed firm in his decision to keep federal armies present to enforce existing laws and arrest lawbreakers. Grant also signed into law the first Civil Rights Act, which although weak in enforcement provisions was the first of its kind. It was overturned by the Supreme Court several years later and another was not passed until the landmark act of the 1960’s.

America’s relationship with Britain was strained at the start of Grant’s presidency, as many Northerners held Britain accountable for the war lasting as long as it did based on aid given to the Confederates through ships and shipyards. Grant’s cabinet (in particular highly regarded Secretary of State Hamilton Fish) accomplished successful mediation with Britain via a five person committee that signaled the beginning of our long standing position as allies.

The Whiskey Ring scandal was the biggest scandal of Grant’s Presidency, even causing him to have to give a deposition while he was in office. It centered on Orville Babcock (a member of his cabinet) working with Whiskey producers to avoid paying taxes on their product in exchange for a cut of the profits. As with all of the scandals (and there were plenty of others, including one involving his brother Orvil and Indian trader posts), all evidence pointed to Grant being unaware of it and just trusting the wrong people in power.

Grant did have one final instance when Federal troops were needed in Mississippi to safeguard black and Republican voters and chose not to assis. Letters and from the time show he was willing to send them in but was convinced by his Attorney General and members of the Ohio government that the Mississippi Governor hadn’t done everything needed to require federal intervention, and that additional government interference in the south would alienate voters in the Ohio elections, costing power for the only party willing to support or protect Freedmen. It was another of Grant’s regrets late in his life.

Although Grant’s general policy with Native Americans was more peaceful than his predecessors, it was unfortunately marred by the Black Hills incidents and massacre of Custer’s troops at Little Big Horn. Ultimately it boiled down to either honoring treaties with Native Americans granting them the Black Hills, or using Federal troops to fight off prospectors which Grant believed his troops would not do.

The final controversy for Grant to deal with was the election of his successor. Three southern states had dueling factions claiming victory for both the Republican and Democrat candidates. The biggest fraud was certainly in the Democrat side who terrorized republicans from voting, but subsequent moves by both sides jeopardized the counting process. Grant appointed a bipartisan group (8 republicans, 7 Democrats) to decide on the winner of each state which ended up going 3-0 Republican and giving Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency. Despite the scandals, Grant stood firm on protecting the rights of blacks in the south, and even with a financial crash mixed in left the economy stronger on the global scale than it had been before through both an increased government size while still being backup up by the gold standard. 4.5 out of 5.

Vice President – Grant’s first Vice President was Schuyler Colfax from Indiana, also known as “Smiler” Colfax. Seemed to be well liked by everybody and had bright future ahead of him as of election. Colfax accepted stock in Credit Mobilier, which got lumped into another scandal of Grant’s presidency, declined a bid for reelection.

Henry Wilson of Massachusetts was a radical republican who operated a shoe factory and was the individual elected vice president for the second term. Neither man was again referenced in this biography and it was not uncommon at that time for Vice Presidents to not work with the sitting president outside of a campaigning capacity. 2 out of 5.

First Lady – With Julia Dent, Grant love at first sight. This was surprising to some, as Ms. Dent’s most prominent feature was a lazy/crossed eye. Dent came from a wealthy slaveholder family. Her father did not approve of Grant, and delayed their engagement for years. Grant’s only allegation of infidelity with Dent is an unsubstantiated/dubious claim that he fathered a baby with a Native American woman while out in California prior to the Civil War. During those early years of Grant’s marriage (particularly when he was sent to California) it appears Grant was very worried and jealous about his wife’s life away from him; he would frequently send her letters and she was much more sporadic in her responses, even in telling him she had given birth.

Grant was in a situation where although he opposed slavery, his wife supported it and her family even gave them their own slaves at times that they lived in Missouri. True to his word, when title to a slave was transferred to him for the first time, he went to the courthouse and gave the 35 year old man his freedom. This was even despite Grant being poor and obviously able to benefit financially from selling the man.

Mary Lincoln’s poor treatment toward Grant’s wife was a main factor for why Grants didn’t also go to Ford Theater with the president, where he was also an assassination target along with Lincoln.  Dent loved being First Lady, and took to hosting social events and even having ambassadors wives over in semi-official capacities.  Grant hid his decision not to run for a third term (basing it on all of the scandals towards the end of his 2nd term, as well as the appearance that he would not be a unanimous choice for the Republican Party for the first time) from his wife.  Julia took it as an affront to her, as she was accustomed to her role and still believed Grant was the only suitable choice for president.  Grant, knowing this would be the case, waited until he had mailed off his official statement that he would not seek a third term before telling her.  Perhaps her greatest attribute was that she always believed in the greatness of her husband, even when he was working as a clerk in Illinois and apparently no prospects for advancement.  3.5 out of 5.

Post Presidency – Once Grant was out of office, he took a trip around the world.  Starting in England and proceeding through France, Prussia and even becoming the first (former) president to visit Jerusalem.  Before coming home he moderated a dispute between Japan and China, becoming the first ex-president to take such a role in foreign affairs.  When Grant returned he campaigned openly for Garfield to win the following presidential election, once again something that was not done by prior presidents.

Unfortunately, Grant had another major scandal after leaving office.  Along with his sons, the group formed an investment firm called Grant & Ward based on the investing of Ferdinand Ward.  Ward seemed to be a miracle worker who would make massive returns on all investments.  The method to his success was what is now known as a Ponzi scheme.  Grant, always trusting, never reviewed any of the statements or looked into what was happening.  When the bubble burst, Grant and his kids were all broke and Ward ended up doing time in prison.

Desperate for money,  Grant accepted an offer to write a series of articles about various battles during the Civil War.  After some initial struggles with his style, Grant settled in and delivered very compelling work.  The publisher then requested an autobiography, which Grant began on.  He was later convinced by Mark Twain to have Twain publish the book, in return for a better financial return.  The book, which does not even go into his presidency, family or alcohol problems, was a massive success.  Selling over 300,000 copies (600,000 if you count each volume of it), it rivaled <i>Uncle Tom’s Cabin</i> for most successful book of the century.

Grant’s lifetime habit of smoking cigars led to throat cancer at the end of his life.  In the end, he gave up smoking, alcohol, and focused on finishing his book.  When he died he had slimmed down below 100 lbs, but had also been given back his pension as a general via an act passed by Congress.  He was buried in the impressive memorial now known as Grant’s tomb, along with his wife (who survived him by several years).  Although much of what he accomplished is common place now, for the era he was a trendsetter in his role as ex president.  4 out of 5.

Book Itself – Chernow is definitely the best biographer I’ve read so far, delivering a wonderful book on Washington and another now about Grant.  Perhaps he has benefited by selecting such interesting subjects, getting to write about compelling topics such as war and its aftermath.  Even in the quieter moments of Grant’s life however, Chernow creates a well rounded picture of a human being.  One impression I had of Grant in reading this book was that outside of the military he was a pushover.  Besides allowing himself to go by the wrong name for his entire career, he had a habit of not collecting debts from people who owed him money, and allowing those closest to him to take advantage of him with no consequences afterward.

Overall though, I came away really liking Grant and loving this book.  Grant was well liked by his troops and fellow officers that he served with, mainly due to his willingness to live under the same conditions and do the same work he asked of his soldiers, as well as his willingness to treat people with dignity regardless of who they were.  He seemed aware of his flaws and did what he could to prevent them from derailing him a 2nd time in his life.  Beyond the author connection, Grant seemed so much like Washington.  Both had anecdotes about their inherent strength as children, both were soldiers thrust into roles that seemed impossible and ended up victorious.  While Washington was the only founding father to free his slaves upon his death, Grant is the only politician I’ve read about to actual free his slaves prior to death or being legally obligated to.  America after the Civil War was nearly as blank a slate as America after the Revolutionary War.  While Washington set precedents we still follow today and held the office with incredible grace, we can directly compare how other presidents handled Reconstruction in Johnson and Hayes, and see how Grant’s methods were far more just, and necessary, than any of his peers.  Underrated as a General, and as a president, this was one of the best presidential biographies I’ve read.  5 out of 5.

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“Nightworld” by F. Paul Wilson Review

Nightworld

Nightworld

Author:  F. Paul Wilson

Published:  1992, Revised in 2012

**Note – This is a review for the 2012 revised version of Nightworld, not the original**

If you’re a Repairman Jack fan and have just finished The Dark at the End, before picking up Nightworld I would recommend reading the other books of the Adversary Cycle first. It’s not a lot of extra reading, as it’s only a six book series and fans have already read The Tomb and Nightworlditself is the last book in the series. By doing so, you’ll spend some time getting acquainted with several of the main characters of Nightworld and make it a much more rewarding conclusion overall. Without reading it, you’ll still be well aware of Glaeken and Rasalom and the big picture struggle, but details like the Dat-tay-vao and Father Bill’s/Carol’s storyline will leave you with plenty of questions.

As for the overall quality of this book, this was a terrific conclusion to one of my favorite sprawling book series. I have two main gripes with this book, but even with those this was a thrilling ending. This book picks up shortly after the end of The Dark at the End, with Rasalom basically victorious in the ongoing struggle and ready to ascend to godly power. The events are first noticed by the world at large by daylight being late one morning, and the sun setting earlier than scheduled that night. The pattern continues the next day, and throughout the book we proceed closer and closer to the titular never ending world of Night. In addition to the shorter day times, massive bottomless holes begin appearing throughout the world. At night, all sorts of violent bugs and creatures begin exiting the holes and wreaking havoc until daylight.

Unlike the rest of the Repairman Jack novels, which dealt primarily with small scale weirdness that could go unnoticed by the general public, the events in Nightworld are very much global and catastrophic. Along with Jack, there is a large cast characters in peril in this book, including series regulars Gia, Vicky, Abe and Julio, plus Adversary Cycle gang Glaeken, Dr. Alan Bulmer, Jeffy, Ba, Carol, Father Bill, Sylvia Nash, Nick and Ba. This isn’t the sort of book you should read as a stand alone. Wilson heavily revised this book to tie it in to the events of all the books he had published over the prior twenty years.

The plot of Nightworld reminded me a bit of The Stand by its conclusion, with bands of survivors coming together for the chance of standing up to evil. I pretty much loved the book, except for two pretty major issues. First, was that Glaeken’s method of fighting back against Rasalom came out of nowhere and definitely entered deus ex machina territory. The other problem was that Rasalom was pretty impotent as a villain for this book, only once trying to actually screw with the main cast and even then coming up empty. Instead he basically just allowed every opportunity to defeat him go unopposed and had way too much of the main cast survive to the end.

One almost ends up thinking that Wilson was leaving the door open for more Repairman Jack and Adversary Cycle novels (which he has written, but instead has opted for prequels) by keeping so much of the cast alive at the end. Although it’s not a perfect book, and not even my favorite in the series (at this point I’d give the edge to Hosts as I’m a sucker for body snatcher stories) this was a blast. My favorite moment in the book was an airplane encounter with a leviathan that was a nice microcosm of how terribly the world had gotten in a short period of time. I’m still going back and reading the young adult books in the series, and I’m sure I’ll read the three new prequels as well. Unlike the Jack Reacher series, Wilson hasn’t burned me out yet on the continuing stories from his fictional universe.

5-star

“Invincible Volume 25: The End of All Things Part Two” by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley and Cory Walker Review

invincible 25

Invincible Volume 25: The End of All Things Part Two

Writer:  Robert Kirkman

Artist:  Ryan Ottley & Cory Walker

Released:  2018

Publisher:  Image Comics

Reading the end of one of my all time favorite comic series reminded me a lot of watching the series finales for “Chuck,” “Six Feet Under,” or “Rescue Me.” Those were all shows I really enjoyed and was sad to end, however I also felt like they went out on great notes that provided enough closure that I didn’t walk away needing anything more from the stories. (Other finales like “Justified,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” or “Twin Peaks: The Return” were also excellent, but when they were over I was just really depressed that there wasn’t more to return to the next week.)

Here Kirkman has said goodbye to his characters, let us know all of their fates, and basically shut the door on future Invincible stories. I should be very depressed that the series has ended but instead I’m happy with where he left the characters. Mark and Eve get plenty of closure on how their lives end up, as do characters like Allen, the Viltrumite empire, and everybody’s kids. The end of Robot’s storyline felt rushed to me. My only real complaint is that when Mark returned to Earth and Robot is ready for him, that felt like it should have been the start of another arc and instead it got handled in one issue.

The art in Invincible is always consistent, and here Ottley and Walker are are their seemless best, with it never taking you out of the story when one hands off art duties to the other. The colors in this series are always vibrant and fun, and with less blood than normal and a cheerful ending it’s very hard to walk away sad from this book. Still, over the 25 volume (I read this book exclusively in trade paperback format) story I always looked forward to the next six issue set showing up at my comic shop every 8 or 9 months.

Unlike many mainstream comics, independent comics can actually end. While Silver Surfer as told by Dan Slott and Mike Allred was my favorite book of the last two years, when it ended I knew the character would be showing up in other Marvel books and adventures before too long. Even a character like Jessica Jones who had only been written by one author will be returning before too long as part of the greater Marvel Universe. Independent books like “Bone,” “Strangers in Paradise” or “Cerebus” can return when the author wants them to, but for the most part the endings are much more final than anything else in comics. Nobody else can do “Savage Dragon” but Erik Larsen, and “Invincible” by somebody other than Kirkman and Ottley/Walker could never be the same thing that was told over the last 15 years of this book. Congrats to the creators on an amazing finish to a great series.

5-star

“The Lords of Discipline” by Pat Conroy Review

Lords of Discipline

The Lords of Discipline

Author:  Pat Conroy

Released:  1980

I was loaned The Lords of Discipline by a friend that attended the Citadel about 40+ years after this book take place. He told me that the book was written by an author that went to the Citadel, and the book (which takes place at a Carolina Military Institute) was somewhat based on the author’s time at the school and revealed all sorts of hidden details that the school and alumni were upset about afterwards. In addition to that, the author was essentially banned from the university for decades. As I learned all this, I thought “I’m probably not going to care much about this book because I didn’t go to the Citadel and didn’t even know it was South Carolina until that same conversation.” Still, never one to turn away from a book recommendation, I went ahead and read the damn thing.

I’m glad I did, because this ended up being one of the best books I’ve read this year. The story is told through first person narrative by Will McLean, an Irish American cadet at the Carolina Military Institute in the 1960’s. He is roommates with Tradd St. Croix, an effeminate aristocrat from Charleston and two Italian Americans named Dante “Pig” Pignetti and Mark Santoro. I included their ethnicities, because a big part of this book is the language that these young men all use with each other, which reminded me of the barbershop scene in “Gran Torino” when every comment made was an insult about somebody’s heritage.  If the language in that scene bothered you, you will probably hate this book.  In the book, the language is often meant to be endearing, but other times it is certainly meant to hurt the recipient.

Will is a senior when the book begins, and most of the book takes place chronologically in that year except for a section that flashes back to his Plebe (freshman) year at school. The school is famous for being hard on the incoming cadets, to the point that out of 700 incoming students only 400 will stay with it through their first year. Conroy details the types of hazing done in that first Hell Night, the rest of Hell Week and the treatment somebody who had been separated from the rest of the class would endure. Unlike seemingly the rest of the upperclassmen, Will is against the hazing rituals and prefers to offer solace for cadets in need. Because of this characteristic, he is asked by Colonel “Bear” Berrineau (an analog for real life figure Colonel Thomas “The Boo” Courvoisie) to make sure that the first ever black cadet is not run out of the school due to extreme targeting.

Although that is the central plot of the book and where much of the conflict comes from, it is also absent from much of the book as Conroy fills in McLean’s world with other coming of age events. Much of that is time spent among the four roommates bonding in the room or taking part in shenanigans. There is also a significant through plot about Will’s courting of a Charleston girl named Annie Kate who has been hidden from the world by her parents for what is certainly the most predictable reason a woman in the 1960’s would be hid from her social circle. Will also plays on his college basketball team, and there is an extended chapter about a game that also was drawn directly from true events in Conroy’s life. Finally, it seems throughout much of the book the individual Will is closest to is Abigail, Tradd’s mother. The two of them have a surrogate mother/confidant relationship.

Despite reading as autobiographical and often humorous, I found much of this book to be very suspenseful. The stress that the cadets go through is palpable, and that even extends to characters that are not part of the core cast. The consequences for making a mistake ranged from physical violence or psychological damage to an excommunication ritual that seemed like the end of the world for those it was imposed on. The antagonists in this book were often mysterious unknown figures. The possibility of a secret group pulling the strings made it difficult for the reader to trust anybody Will confided to.

Oddly, despite the book being suspenseful it was also somewhat predictable. **Vague spoilers follow** From the moment a phone call alerts several dangerous individuals to Will’s nearby presence, it is clear that not only is there a traitor but who in particular it is. Likewise, out of the three main army officers at the school, one of them is never in doubt as not being on Will’s side and it’s hard to believe Will would fall for a trick that makes him discredit another. Finally, Will’s ace in the hole at the end is easy to spot coming based on a character that served no other purpose in the book aside from providing a lot of information about a peculiar hobby. **End of vague spoilers**

However, the predictability did not bother me as it also made sense within the world that was established. Rather than create a twist ending that makes you question everything that took place before, Will experiences a shocking twist that we have predicted based on what information he has shared through that point. The additional twist involving Will’s girlfriend earlier in the book felt like an unnecessary one, however by that point the book had built up enough goodwill that I was willing to overlook it. The end result was a book that was humorous, suspenseful and touching throughout with very memorable characters.

5-star

“Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness” by Peter Godfrey-Smith Review

Other MindsOther Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Author:  Peter Godfrey-Smith

Released:  2017

Octopuses have an ability to adapt to the special circumstances of captivity and their interaction with human keepers…In New Zealand, an octopus took a dislike to one member of the lab staff, for no obvious reason, and whenever that person passed by on the walkway behind the tank she received a jet of half a gallon of water in the back of her neck. Shelly Adamo, of Dalhousie University, had one cuttlefish who reliably squirted streams of water at all new visitors to the lab, and not at people who were often around. In 2010, an experiment confirmed that giant Pacific octopuses can indeed recognize individual humans, and can do this even when the humans are wearing identical uniforms.

If you’re like me, that previous paragraph is enough to dig in to read a whole book about the amazing creature that is the octopus. I love the idea of an intelligent creature living on our planet that most people know nothing about, and Peter Godfrey-Smith has written a very well researched book about cephalopods, primarily the octopus but also squids and cuttlefish. Although large portions of the book don’t deal with octopuses, Godfrey-Smith manages to explain why it is important to look at these organisms to learn not only about what they are capable of, but also what we can learn about the evolution of life on Earth and what intelligence and consciousness mean.

Why octopuses though? The primary reason is that scientists believe that we can trace all life on Earth to early organisms hundreds of millions of years ago that branched off into numerous different paths that led to things like plants, animals, bacteria, etc. Of all the living organisms on Earth, advanced nervous systems can be found in three subsets, the first being animals, the second being arthropods, and the third being cephalopods. The cephalopods come from an entire different branch on that evolutionary tree, and are unique in their development of a nervous system on that branch. Considering that, the octopus could be compared to an alien life form, as we can look at an animal whose brain has evolved under an entirely different set of circumstances than the rest of the planet.

I learned a lot about philosophy and evolution while reading this book, and I think most readers would gain similar new knowledge. For instance, all I knew about Pre-Cambrian history prior to reading this was that supposedly the Graboids from Tremors were around then. However, Godfrey-Smith explained that situation that the life forms in this era (the Ediacara) floated around in a pre-predator environment. Quite simply, early life forms were not hunting each other but instead scavenged (Godfrey-Smith refers to this as “the Garden of Ediacara”). The result was an environment allowed mutations to thrive and a giant boom in variation of life forms to follow in the Cambrian era.

In addition to reviewing studies on octopuses and preexisting literature, Godfrey-Smith frequently visits a location called Octopolis, one of the only confirmed habitats for multiple octopuses over several years. Throughout the book, I got a ton of great anecdotes about these amazing creatures both from the author’s personal experience and scientific studies. Some of the interesting stuff I learned included that octopuses have distinct personalities that come out both in the wild and in lab settings. Also, the nervous system of the octopus is spread throughout the both the brain and the arms, meaning that even if you cut an arm off it can continue to function on its own afterward for a lengthy period of time. Godfrey-Smith describes this relationship as the brain being a musical conductor, but the arms are all jazz musicians; the brain sends a command, but the arms have great leeway and creative ability to make decisions and react accordingly.

The color changing aspect of octopuses is discussed extensively. If you haven’t watched video of their camouflage in effect underwater, stop reading this and hop on Youtube because they are natures greatest color changers. Scientists disagree as to if this is used at all for communication between animals; I came away with the impression that at a minimum they are used in expressing dominance or submission to other octopuses. What is amazing though is that octopuses are themselves colorblind, even though their eyes are very similar to human eyes in how they function.

Much of the difficulty in knowing more about octopuses, or limiting how much one can learn, is the short lifespan of the animal. For the most part, they all live for about two years or less, an extremely short time for such an intelligent animal. There are a few exceptions, such as the nautilus (which can live ten times as long but is nowhere near as smart) and the deep sea Octopus which not only lives longer but can spend over four years just nurturing its eggs! This was the longest egg brooding period ever observed for a creature on Earth.

As people become more aware of the intelligence of these creatures, additional studies are being performed. In 2011, it was learned that octopuses can recognize other individual octopuses. Another study seemed to indicate that octopuses can learn by watching others do something and not by doing it once themselves. Humans are able to have episodic memories of a particular event instead of how to do something. Studies show octopuses also have this high functioning capability.

There are some great photos in this book as well (both color and black and white) and some helpful diagrams related to a variety of subjects. When the book gets into more philosophical issues, or discussions about biological evolution, it can get a bit text booky at times, but never for more than about 10 or 15 pages. Godfrey-Smith wisely centers all of his big ideas and conclusions on the octopus. Highly recommended.

5-star

“Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier” by Mark Frost Review

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks:  The Final Dossier

Author:  Mark Frost

Published:  2017

Here’s a book that has to have one of the smallest possible audiences likely to find it entertaining. Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier is a collection of FBI files assembled by fictional character Tammy Preston on other characters from the Twin Peaks tv series. It is written by Mark Frost, who is one half of the creative team behind Twin Peaks, along with David Lynch. Instead of telling a complete story, it is a very quick read of fill in the blank details for one character’s theories of what exactly is going on in Twin Peaks (the town) and a few details on what the characters were doing when not on screen. So to rundown: if you haven’t seen all of Twin Peaks, this isn’t for you. If you prefer your Twin Peaks to be as mysterious as David Lynch left it, or if you are David Lynch, this isn’t for you. Also, if you are not a fan of spending a good deal of cash on a book you can read in about 90 minutes, this might not be for you.

I’m giving this five stars however, so obviously this book is for some people. A little about my thoughts on Twin Peaks. The first two seasons of Twin Peaks were some of the most original and engrossing television I’d ever watched. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was an initial disappointment that revealed itself as an amazing movie on rewatch. Finally, the new series Twin Peaks: The Return was the best television I’ve watched since Justified went off the air (and something I gladly would watch ahead of Game of Thrones this season) and then dig into articles and podcasts the next day to try and dissect what I had just watched.

The Return was the kind of series I needed to talk about with anybody I could find that watched it, which sadly was not enough people. The idea of getting more details on what’s been going on in the world of the show is very appealing, and my only complaints with this book are that I wish it was longer (and had more photos). Tammy Preston basically serves as a mechanism for Mark Frost to decode or theorize on all of the David Lynch oddities, from the Black Lodge to time travel and doppelgangers. The chapters on Major Briggs, Donna Hayward, Annie Blackburn and Audrey Horne all gave significant new information on the characters than what is revealed in The Return. Other characters like Wyndom Earle, Philip Jeffries and Laura Palmer provide less details but plenty of theorizing on what it all means.

Part of what makes Twin Peaks so fun is that the answers aren’t all provided on the show, so the viewer is constantly both challenged to come up with their own conclusions and also forced to experience the show without expectations as to what will happen next. Those same attributes make it a perfect candidate for analysis and expanded universe style writing. Although this is “Final” Dossier, I’d gladly come back for followups in this format in the future. Highly recommended for fans of the show.

5-star

“Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald Review

Lincoln

Lincoln

Author:  David Herbert Donald

Published:  1996

To all outward appearances, he was less prepared to be president of the United States than any other man who had run for that high office.  Without family, tradition or wealth, he had received only the briefest of formal schooling.  Now fifty years old, he had no administrative experience of any sort; he had never been Governor of his state, or even mayor of Springfield.  A profound student of the Constitution and of the writings of the Founding Fathers, he had limited acquaintance with the government they had established.  He had served only a single, less than successful term in the House of Representatives, and for the past ten years had held no public office.  Though he was one of the Founders of the Republican Party, he had no close friends and only a few acquaintances in the populous Eastern states, whose vote would be crucial in the election.  To be sure, his debates with Douglas had brought him national attention, but he had lost the senatorial election both in 1955 and 1859.  Dismissing his chances for the presidency, one of Hatches’ Boston correspondents remarked scornfully: “As for Lincoln, I am afraid he will kick the beam again, as he is in the habit of doing.”  Pg. 236

 

Lincoln by David Herbert Donald is the fourth biography about an iconic president that I’ve read through the first sixteen.  Along with Washington, Jefferson and Jackson, Abraham Lincoln is a subject that everybody reading comes into with a head start as far as the major plot points in his life.  As the previous paragraph summarizes though, Lincoln’s pre-presidential years were unremarkable by political standards, his post presidential years non-existent, and his term in office dominated by a single conflict.  I was curious to see if I would come away as impressed by him as I was by Washington, who seemed to have done ten times as much as he is credited for doing in the history books with no precedent for any of it, or underwhelmed like I was by Jefferson who lucked into his greatest contribution to America through a French government needing to make money.  In the end, I came away viewing Lincoln much like Andrew Jackson, a man who deserves to be recognized as a titan in the Oval Office, but one who also did not quite live up to his gigantic reputation.  Here’s how the president scores on my presidential grading rubric:

 

Born into –  Lincoln’s mother’s heritage is difficult to trace, with the possibility that she may have even been illegitimate.  His father’s family came from successful land owner/farmers in Virginia.  The family owned three farms in Kentucky, moved to Indiana because it didn’t allow slavery and the land deeds/titles were clearer than they were in Kentucky.  After Lincoln’s mom died from drinking bad milk (cows had eaten a poisonous root), his father remarried and Abraham loved his new mom.  Compared to his father, who Lincoln never had a kind word to say about, Lincoln and his step mom were closer than either Lincoln was to his father or his stepmother was to her own biological son.  In terms of coming from little, Lincoln’s in line with Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan as coming from humble origins, but not quite as impressive as Andrew Jackson’s rags to riches.  4 out of 5.

 

 

Pre-President – Obviously there’s more information available for guys like Lincoln and Washington as children than for lesser known presidents, and this book provided a good overall view of Lincoln from a young child onward.  For education, Lincoln went to nearby cabin houses for schools for three separate years, but never full time.  He estimated he only had about one entire year of education as a child.  Growing up he developed ideas on politics early, and was very much Anti-Jackson (he would read anti-Jackson papers) and very pro Henry Clay (pro internal improvements/forming a national bank).  He took a variety of jobs before settling down, including as a riverboat pilot (navigator) and store clerk.  People always trusted Lincoln, and as a clerk he got to know his community in Illinois (he moved there as older teenager).

 

Lincoln’s first political run was for state legislature, where he finished 8th out of 13 candidates (losing, just the top four advanced).   He was asked to run by others, so his interest in politics was still not immediately apparent.  Following his loss, he enlisted in the militia for the Black Hawk War, and was chosen to be an officer by 2/3 of his fellow soldiers.  Lincoln never saw any combat or Indians, and would mock his military experience in later political campaigns.  His first political appointment was Village postmaster; this was not an important appointment as Lincoln (a Whig) was appointed by Jackson’s (Democrat) party.  Because the job paid so little, Lincoln also began working as an assistant surveyor.  He ran for office again for the State House of Representative (the author argues) primarily for monetary concerns.  Lincoln didn’t reveal his positions on political issues to help bolster his chance of being elected.  This second bid was successful.   Lincoln began studying law once he was elected.  This book glossed over his admission to the bar, just stating Lincoln partnered with another attorney and was one of busiest in Springfield.

 

On the social scene, his first fiancé was Ann Rutledge; she died while waiting for Lincoln to complete his education and before they could tie the knot (probably of Typhoid fever).  Most of Lincoln’s efforts as State Representative were toward making Springfield the new state capital, an endeavor he and his friends were ultimately successful at.  Lincoln continued to practice law during this time, and tried 300 cases before the highest Illinois court during his career.  His practice was varied, representing clients as different as slaves seeking freedom, and slave-owners seeking return of slaves.  At this time there was a devised plan within Whig party for House of Representatives (National level) candidates to only seek one term in office; Lincoln had earlier helped endorse the plan when it wasn’t yet his turn to run for the office apparently to help cycle through candidates until it was his turn to run.  It paid off when Lincoln was elected to the House during Polk’s term.  As a Whig, he made numerous anti-Mexican American War speeches which would haunt him later in his career and spent most of his energy trying to get Taylor elected the following year, which seemed very hypocritical for a person so against the war.

 

Lincoln’s view on Slavery while he was in the House was to vote to allow discussions of it, but to vote against actual restrictions on slavery.  He even devised a plan while in the House of eliminating slavery in D.C. by banning it after 1850, keeping those that were slaves as slaves but allowing them to be sold to the government, and those born after 1850 would be free.  Looking to others for feedback, nobody else would support it and he never brought it to the floor.  Lincoln sought and was offered other positions after his term, the most interesting being the Governor of Oregon, but instead he returned to his law practice when his term was over.  The experience in Washington helped his practice, which began generating high income and notoriety for successfully arguing railroad cases.  Lincoln mostly stayed out of politics besides arguing for Winfield Scott’s candidacy until running for office again in 1856.

 

Up until he was President, Lincoln supported the idea of sending freed blacks back to Africa as the best solution to the slavery problem.  He lost in his first bid for U.S. Senator, lost in a bid for the Vice Presidency, and was actually elected to the Illinois House of Representatives but declined it because it would have disqualified him from running for Senatorial office.  He switched from Whig Part to Republican in time for the 1856 Presidential election, which rejuvenated his political career.  Lincoln was the major politician present in crafting the platform of the Republican party which borrowed from Whig, Abolitionist, Know-Nothing  and Free Soil platforms.  During this time, Lincoln debated against Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas several times before eventually running against him for Senatorial seat in 1858; Douglas’s spot was in jeopardy due to heavy Anti-Nebraska (those against the Kansas-Nebraska act) sentiment.  Over a total of seven debates held throughout the state, all of which received substantial media coverage, the two showeded their main differences as candidates was Douglas extreme Pro-state’s sovereignty position versus Lincoln’s belief in fundamental human rights for all individuals, blacks included.

 

The final result in the election was very close with Republicans edging Democrats by a plurality, however election of Senator was done by the state legislature at that time which still had a democrat majority, so Douglas won.  Lincoln tried to maintain the illusion that he wasn’t interested in Republican nomination for president, however he had a book about his debates published as well as an autobiography prior to election cycle to promote himself (at this time, it was still considered bad form to campaign yourself to be president).  Lincoln, despite little experience as an elected official, was a name many papers and people supported as a candidate, first due to his role in forming the Republican party in Illinois, and second because of his notoriety from debates and speeches made regionally prior to the election.  Lincoln’s destiny as a potential presidential candidate was yet again tied to Stephen Douglas.  If the Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas as their candidate, Republicans would likely nominate somebody from the West as well for their candidate.  The Democrat party ended up being split, with half supporting Douglas and half supporting Breckinridge.  The result was that though Lincoln received less than 40% of the popular vote (with Douglas, Breckinridge and the National party candidate 4th), he easily won the electoral vote.  This was despite not receiving a single electoral vote from a slave state.  With that, the inexperienced one term former Congressman was President.  2/5

 

Presidential Career – Lincoln’s goal coming into office was to balance his Cabinet with former Whig and former Democrat Republicans.  He also considered having somebody from south for his cabinet, but the only individual it was offered to declined as he required Federal protection for slavery in the territories as condition of his acceptance of the position.  From the start, Lincoln seemed to underestimate the threat of secession, even believing the raising of arms in South Carolina to be beneficial event for quelling any eventual rebellious sentiment.  Lincoln made no public speeches prior to taking office in an effort to not further agitate Southern sentiments.  He ended up picking William Seward as Secretary of State and lead voice in his Cabinet, a man who disagreed with many of Lincoln’s views (Seward wanted to go further than Lincoln to conciliate the South).

 

From the beginning there was disarray in the office, as the Fort Sumter crisis came to a head.  Many criticized Lincoln for not knowing how things worked (he tried communicating orders directly to naval commanders, and attempted to establish a Militia branch on his own), and for not having a definite plan.  Part of this was that Lincoln continually underestimated the likelihood of the South seceding.  His plan was also very reactive, so it genuinely could appear he didn’t really have a plan.  He did preserve the historical upper hand though by making the first shots come from the south in retaliation for non-violence by the Union (attempting to bring provisions to the Fort).  After the loss of Fort Sumter, Lincoln began acting more decisively, suspending Habeas Corpus and ordering 75,000 troops to be raised.  Lincoln tread carefully at first to avoid provoking middle states like Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri.  Later in the war he would even imprison news paper editors for advance reporting on the draft (causing gold speculation).  Obviously Lincoln saw war time as an acceptable excuse to infringe on any constitutional rights necessary to preserve the Union.

 

As the Civil War began, Lincoln would struggle (and continue to do so) with his picks for head General.  Winfield Scott was too old to take the field and was forced to resign after some early struggles.  George McClellan was young and looked the part but was constantly criticized for not being aggressive enough and failing to take note of the topography in making his plans.  McClellan also didn’t like Lincoln and criticized him privately, and even refused to see Lincoln when the president visited him at his residence.  Lincoln was consistently criticized for not having a policy or not being assertive enough, particularly regarding his relationships with generals.  Lincoln allowed McClellan to not reveal what his military plans were, and consistently deferred to McClellan even when he strongly disagreed with the general’s strategy.  Even Lincoln’s detractors praised him for being honest and having good intentions though.  I would agree with the good intentions compliment, however the author cited tons of examples where Lincoln would claim ignorance of areas to avoid having to discuss his policies and orders (I picture Phil Hartman’s Ronald Reagan impression) that seemed to contradict that Honest Abe reputation.  Lincoln took his time removing McClelland in favor of Halleck, then went back to McClelland.  Afer McClelland’s second removal, the post went to Burnside, then to Hooker, all of them focusing on Richmond and reasons why they could not engage Lee’s army despite Lincoln’s prodding otherwise.  Lincoln’s first success with the position came with Meade, who Lincoln initially chastised for not pursuing Lee after Gettysburg before coming to his senses and praising the military victory.  However, even Meade proved too reluctant to pursue battle, so Lincoln brought in Grant from the west.  Lincoln supported Grant more than any of the other generals, for the primary reason that he actually was willing to fight with what he had, and did not send constant requests for more troops.  His first few months on the job involved tens of thousands of casualties, but we all know how the final results went.

 

The main international incident of Lincoln’s presidency occurred when Southern delegates were caught via the search of a British naval vessel.  Initially Lincoln and all but one of his cabinet members were happy that it happened and underestimated the view the British would take.  It soon became apparent that it could be the catalyst for a war with Britain if the delegates were not released and an apology issued.  That was the route Lincoln ended up taking as he could not risk a second war with Great Britain.  In general, the event showed his limited grasp of Foreign relation issues, and he either delegated or took the advice of others on these issues for the rest of his term.

 

Lincoln tried to maintain the position early and often that the sole issue of the War was Union or Disunion.  Despite requests by many Republicans (including Vice President Hamlin) to either confiscate slaves from rebels or declare them free, Lincoln resisted because of worries of how it would play with middle states and southern Union supporters.  The issue came to a head when the Governor of Missouri issued a proclamation doing what Lincoln would not; Lincoln considered this more helpful to the Confederates than their victory at Bull Run.  When the Governor’s (Fremont) wife (the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton) came to discuss this with Lincoln, he dismissed her as a female trying to discuss politics.  Lincoln stayed firm and made sure that all positions and policies on slavery came only from him.  In addition to Fremont, Trumball and others tried to drive legislation through to abolish Slavery prior to Lincoln during the war.  Lincoln was slow to decide how to approach this issue, spending time considering sending Slaves to Africa, then to Central America, before ultimately deciding to offer compensation for states that voluntarily abolished slavery over set time tables (ranging from 1860’s to 1890’s).  Lincoln was continually approached by abolitionists and Republican Generals about emancipating slaves in the South; Lincoln resisted doing so until it seemed the tide was against him in war and in public opinion.  Still, he needed a military victory before making any announcement, so he waited until after Antietam for the Emancipation Proclamation.  Even after doing this, Lincoln met with Black leaders to discuss the colonization option with them, and not surprisingly they were not on board.  The author indicated that Lincoln did that so he could deflect his shift in positions on this topic; my guess is that Lincoln still thought it was the best option and was genuine in trying to sell blacks on it.  Lincoln eventually decided to allow black soldiers in the Union Army, but it was done very reluctantly, with the position they would just be used to garrison or perform additional non-combat duties.

 

Besides the Civil War, there were a few other interesting incidents during Lincoln’s terms.  A Sioux uprising led to over a hundred settler deaths in Minnesota.  A few hundred Sioux Indians were rounded up and sentenced to death; Lincoln reviewed all the charges/paperwork and commuted all but 28 of the executions.  Congress also established the Homestead act, the national banking system with paper currency, and the Department of Agriculture during Lincoln’s tenure, though his involvement in those appears to have been minor if at all. Seward and Salman Chase (Head of the Treasury) both tried to resign their cabinet positions, but Lincoln would not accept either one and even manipulated Chase into admitting he exaggerated strife in the cabinet to the Senators he had previously been complaining to.  Chase later was angling for nomination against Lincoln, and Lincoln again allowed him to connive against the President.  Beacuse Chase was successful running the Treasury for the cabinet, he was kept on despite the problems caused by his ambitions, until his third submitted resignation; Chase was actually surprised when Lincoln accepted it.

 

Lincoln began addressing the public more after a Congressman was arrested for inciting desertion; the reaction was so positive he continued to do so throughout his presidency and began consulting his cabinet less.  Besides the things he is best known for, this precedent was adopted by later presidents.  His Gettysburg Address came a few weeks after the battle, and was a very short speech that followed a few hour long oration by the previous speaker.  Those that heard it were caught off guard as to its brevity, but as it was recirculated and evaluated it ended up representing a turning point in both Lincoln’s perspective and the public perspective on the need for the war; no longer just Union or Disunion, but about equal fundamental rights for all men.  Lincoln’s most impressive actions as president came in steering reconstruction.  Even prior to being reelected, Lincoln made it known that abolition of slavery would be condition of any peace agreement.  This was a controversial position, however Lincoln stayed strong on it for the reason that it would be wrong to go back on his promise made to those that came north and were fighting in the army (200,000 blacks by that point).

 

The only political rival Lincoln worried about when his reelection campaign happened was Ulysses S. Grant; Grant however was very supportive of Lincoln and had no interest in running against him.  Donald straddles line of what Lincoln and his people did to insure he was elected (holding out naming Supreme Court Justice, furloughing soldiers to go vote) versus what he didn’t do but could have (rushing additional pro Union states in the west into existence, suspending the election due to the rebellion) to make the case that Lincoln was completely ethical in his handling of the election.  Surprisingly to Lincoln, he won in a landslide, with only three states voting against him.

 

According to Donald, Lincoln had limited involvement in getting the 13th amendment passed by Congress.  He was obviously in favor of it, however there was also enough sentiment in Congress that he did not need to take an active role in getting it passed.  Lincoln was more involved however in working to get it ratified by ¾ of states.  As late as 1864, Lincoln was in favor of paying $400,000 to south in exchange for 5 year gradual elimination of slavery but was talked out of it by cabinet.  Throughout the entire war, Lincoln held firm in his position of never recognizing confederate states government, but this caused problem at the end of the war with whom to recognize to discuss terms of surrender.  The eventual settlement on “gentlemen that served as representatives to rebellion” struck a balance between efficiency and principal.  Lincoln’s final plans for reconstruction (essentially putting the rebellious confederate leaders back into Congress) were opposed by most of his cabinet, and he withdrew them along with his initial pledge to Virginia to recognize its leaders in effect during Civil War.  He did become first president to state formally that some blacks should be granted the right of suffrage (educated ones who served in military).  On same day he believed the war to finally be over he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth as part of plan to kill both Johnson and Seward as well (Seward was attacked and injured, Johnson’s attacker never followed through).  4.5/5

 

Vice President – Hannibal Hamlin was Lincoln’s first Vice President.  Hamlin never met Lincoln until after both men won their nominations.  The two met for three days in Illinois where the two discussed forming the cabinet and seemed to get along well.  Like most Vice Presidents of that era, Lincoln did not include him in discussing policy or in important cabinet decisions.  At once point during Lincoln’s first term, Hamlin was encouraged to abandon Lincoln and run for president himself by unhappy Republicans, however he chose to support the President instead which gives him a memorably contribution to the office that most early Vice Presidents lacked.  Hamlin was much more radical than Lincoln regarding abolition, and Lincoln used to joked nobody would kill him because the Vice President was even more entrenched in the positions than he was.  4/5.

 

Hamlin was not renominated as Vice President as there was no excitement toward him at Republican convention in 1864.  Lincoln was very guarded about who he wanted as his Vice President, but all indications are he was happy with Hamlin and also with candidate Andrew Johnson.  Andrew Johnson was the only southern senator (Tennessee) to continue serving once war broke out, which is a pretty neat fact.  Also neat is that Johnson got drunk before he was inaugurated as Vice President and made a fool of himself.  Lincoln even asked that Johnson not be allowed to talk outside following the inauguration.  2 out of 5.

 

First lady – Mary Todd Lincoln was rumored to be courted by Stephen Douglas prior to marrying Abraham; after they were married she always called her husband “Mr. Lincoln” so you can tell right away she was a wacko.  Mary Todd came from a wealthy family of southern slaveholders, which would cause many to question her loyalty once the war broke out.  Lincoln got land and a yearly income from Mary Todd’s father after marriage during marriage.

 

Mary Lincoln was described as being the most prevalent First Lady since Dolly Madison, and the woman that the term “First Lady” was coined for.  That might have been because she was so disliked.  Her large contributions to the presidency consisted of going so far over budget on redecorating the White House that Congress has to authorize twice to go extend additional funds to cover purchases she already made… this while soldiers were freezing during a Civil War.  She also was accused of revealing a sensitive document to a reporter, but the reporter later indicated the gardner showed him and the matter was dropped.

 

Two of Lincoln’s children died before Lincoln; Eddie who was four years old and died in 1850, the author didn’t spend a lot of time on, aside from mentioning that Lincoln may have written poetry about it.  The death of Willie was incredibly tragic.  He was 12 years old and was sick for weeks due to bad water (termed Bilious fever) and continued wasting away.  Lincoln was in the office, and Mary Todd Lincoln chose this time to host her largest soiree, so both parents took turns coming upstairs to check on Willie.  He died a few days later, while little brother Tad was also bedridden with the flu.  I can only imagine how awful it must have been consoling nine year old Tad when his brother had just died and he was sick with the same flu, not knowing if he would recover.  After Willie’s death, Mary Lincoln retreated in mourning and stopped hosting large get-togethers.

 

Mary conducted multiple séances at the White House to speak to her dead son, even getting Lincoln to sit in on one but Lincoln remained unconvinced.  Despite the tragedies, she continued to be disliked and distrusted by those in Washington.  Mary Lincoln also embarrassed herself when accompanying Lincoln to visit Grant’s troops.  She was late arriving and Lincoln was accompanied by an attractive young woman on a horse and Mary berated her in front of everybody.  Overall, she was the worst/least likable first lady I’ve read about, even beating Franklin Pierce’s wife.  1 out of 5.

 

Post Presidency –  **Crickets**  N/A

 

Book Itself – Donald set out with the goal (per the intro) of writing a book that focused on what Lincoln knew when he made decisions and why he made them.  For the most part, the book read like a standard biography, but it also read pretty fairly.  When given an opportunity to interpret Lincoln’s actions, Donald would generally try to present both sides but would land on the most favorable interpretation to Lincoln.  The result was a portrait of a man who came into office with impossible circumstances out of his control and stood firm in the face of that opposition.  I don’t know that Lincoln was extraordinary in his accomplishments, as all of his most notable actions were supported by or attempted by other members of his party prior to Lincoln acting on them, but certainly history supports the timing of his decisions as the North won the war and slavery was abolished.  For such an iconic figure, it was a very fair biography.  5/5.

 

5-star