Authors Examine President Lincoln
By LINDA COMINS
Two authors visiting Wheeling offered their perspectives on Abraham Lincoln’s presidency from opposite ends of the spectrum – recounting an early crisis and re-examining the assassination of the chief executive.
Both writers utilized primary source material for their books: “September Suspense: Lincoln’s Union in Peril” by Dennis E. Frye and “American Brutus” by Michael W. Kauffman.
Kauffman, recognized as one of the foremost Lincoln assassination authorities, spoke at a special edition of Lunch With Books at the Ohio County Public Library Friday, June 12. Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, appeared at Lunch With Books Tuesday, June 16, and returned for Evening With Books a few hours later.
Because witnesses’ perceptions differ and memories fade and become distorted, Kauffman said he took original documents and put the information into a computer database to sort. He said the database showed hundreds of times when Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, lied. A Shakespearean actor from a family of actors, “he (Booth) was acting his way through the whole thing,” the author said, adding, “Booth protected those he trusted; he made those he distrusted look as guilty as sin.”
The title of Kauffman’s book is a reference to Brutus who killed Julius Caesar. The author thinks Booth believed that “killing a tyrant is not murder.” Kauffman suggested Booth’s deadly motivation stemmed from a belief that Lincoln acted tyranically in declaring martial law and suspending habeas corpus in the 1861 riot in Baltimore, where Booth had lived. Booth was staying in New York when draft riots occurred there.
“Booth happened to be in so many of these places that he felt fated to kill the tyrant,” Kauffman opined. Booth may have thought of himsef as Brutus, but Kauffman contended that Booth’s own dying scene bore more resemblance to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” than to his “Julius Caesar.” Quoting Macbeth’s speech in Act 5, Scene 5, “… it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” Kauffman commented, “And Booth was that idiot.”
Meanwhile, Frye’s book on Lincoln examines a period in September 1862 that marked “the closest to failure that he would come as president of the United States.” Inspired to write a book for the Maryland Campaign’s 150th anniversary, he said, “I wanted to do something very different from what had been done.”
Frye decided “to use principal sources, the primary source of what people were reading and discussing, the newspaper. I suspected the newspapers had something to say that historians neglected.”
From 2010-12, Frye read daily from digitized copies of 1860s newspapers from all over the country. “I was stunned to learn what I didn’t know,” he said. “Now you can go online and read the Civil War unfiltered, without historians’ filters.”
In September 1862, “the war was not going well for Lincoln and the Republicans,” he said. “The Lincoln administration looked imbecilic. It looked incapable of ending the war. The will to fight was waning, and Lincoln knew it. The newspapers were telling him.”
England and France “were beginning to meddle in the American war,” seeing a moral duty as neutral parties to mediate peace between the North and the South, he said. Confederate victories meant votes against Lincoln in the congressional election. In addition, Frye said, “The politicians in Washington were not much help to the president. The populace was not comfortable with its leadership.”
If Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee invades Pennsylvania, the Emancipation Proclamation – written but not yet issued – “will be only a measure of desperation,” the historian said. “It is an absolute nadir for Abraham Lincoln.”
But, Frye related, “Something happened that would change the nation forever,” along Antietam Creek in Maryland. On Sept. 17, 1862, Lee was met by Union Gen. George B. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac near Sharpsburg, Md. The ensuing battle resulted in 23,000 casualties that day. “Lee would not have the strength nor the ability to continue into Pennsylvania,” Frye said.
Lincoln seized upon the psychological benefit of Lee’s retreat. It was the Union victory at Antietam, not Gettysburg, that “dramatically changes the course of the war,” Frye contended.
“Within days, Lincoln goes from goat to hero,” he said. Six days later, Lincoln issued a very controversial executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation. “The ramifications of that were immense and, of course, transformative.”