April 17, 2012

Team of Rivals - Book Review

I recently finished reading "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It has to rank as one of the top books I have read in the past ten years. It is a comparative biography of Lincoln and his cabinet members with emphasis on Secretaries Seward, Chase and Stanton. It is the kind of book that would appeal to most readers, not just students of the Civil War. She focuses on the personal stories of each character and their wives (in Chase's case his daughter) with emphasis on their political maneuvers all while painting enough of the historical background and happenings to keep context.

Since I started working in downtown Washington, DC, it was fun to read how the city has changed, but also to note the many ways things are still the same.

It is not a detailed military history. Many battles and campaigns are not even mentioned. But the story is fascinating and I eagerly plowed throw its 900 pages, though the last 100 or so are notes.

Here is a snippet that describes one of Lincoln's three trips to Aquia Landing that I found particularly interesting.

The snowstorm was "at its height" when the Carrie Martin pulled into the busy dock at Aquia Creek, where, on Easter morning, the presidential party boarded a special train for Falmouth Station. Along the way, with "snow piled in huge drifts" and "the wind whistling fiercely over the hills," they passed one army camp after another. Each encampment along the thirty miles had hundreds of campfires surrounded by tents, fortifications, and stockades. Disembarking at Falmouth Station, they were taken by closed carriage over rough roads to Hooker's headquarters a half mile away. Situated about three miles from the Rappahannock, the headquarters resembled a small city, complete with telegraph office, printing establishment, bakery, post office, and accommodations for more than 133,000 soldiers.
With General Hooker by his side, Lincoln rode along serried ranks that stretched for miles over the rolling hills. The soldiers cheered and shouted when they saw the president and cheered even louder when they saw Master Tad Lincoln bravely attempting to keep up, "clinging to the saddle of his pony as tenaciously as the best man among them," his loose cloak flapping "like a flag or banner."
Over the next few hours, tens of thousands of troops passed in front of the president and first lady, sweeping one after another "like waves at sea." From atop the little knoll on which the Lincolns were stationed, the endless tiers provided a majestic vista. When the sun came out, one reporter observed, "the sunbeams danced on the rifles and bayonets, and lingered in the folds of the banners.'' At the review of the infantry and artillery, artists sketched the spectacle of sixty thousand men, "their arms shining in the distance and their bayonets bristling like a forest on the horizon as they disappeared far away." Lincoln so enjoyed mingling with the men- who appeared amazingly healthy and lavishly outfitted with new uniforms, arms, and equipment- that he extended his visit until Friday.

After one review, someone remarked that the regulars could be easily distinguished from the volunteers, for "the former stood rigidly in their places without moving their heads an inch as he rode by, while the latter almost invariably turned their heads to get a glimpse of him." Quick to defend the volunteers, Lincoln replied, "I don't care how much my soldiers turn their heads, as long as they don't turn their backs."
Tremendously heartened by the splendid condition of the army and the high spirits and reception of the troops, Lincoln boarded the Carrie Martin at sunset on Friday for the return trip to Washington. The Herald noted that he "received a salute from all the vessels in port and locomotives on shore, whistles being blown, bells run, and flags displayed."

A couple things to note.

  1. A snow storm on Easter reinforces the point that  winter of 1862-63 was particularly harsh as I reported in this previous post.  
  2. The continuous camps is an aspect that I wish to capture on my layout.  Though I plan some breaks between scenes to provide a greater sense of linear distance.
  3. The Carrie Martin was a small steamship that the president used on this trip. It made regular runs on the Potomac and Chesapeake. 
  4. The Aquia line was not thirty miles, but 13.  
  5. Stephen Sears has another good description of the grand review at Falmouth in his book, "Chancellorsville." A sample of it is available  on-line here. It might be a fun exercise to have the Presidental train in an ops session at some point. The cars draped in bunting would be cool.

Goodwin also describes Lincoln's other trips to Aquia Landing as well as his extended visit to City Point. If you are interested in the USMRR in these periods, those sections of the book will be of interest to you. In fact railroads are sprinkled through out the book. I was somewhat amazed by the extent that citizens, politicians and soldiers used railroads to move around the country before the war. By 1860 the US railroad network ingrained itself in the American economy and way of life to an extent that I did not appreciate.  I am currently reading Sherman's memoirs and it reinforces this point. Americans were remarkably mobile at this point in history.

The railroads were also remarkably efficient and speedy. Goodwin describes a special train for 1860 Republican Party convention delegates from Buffalo to Chicago that took 16 hours.  That isn't much longer than it would take driving today with traffic and a few rest stops.

All in all, a great book and a must read for students of the railroads of the Civil War.

1 comment:

  1. Good review! I'm reading Team of Rivals right now and thoroughly enjoying it. I didn't much about Lincoln's cabinet members before reading it.

    I'm also enjoying the progress of your railroad. You are really capturing the bleak and nearly treeless country side seen in the period photos around military camps and installations.