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Posted on Apr 8, 2010 in Books and Movies

366 Days in Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency – Book Review

By Gerald D. Swick

366 Days in Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency: The Private, Political, and Military Decisions of America’s Greatest President. Skyhorse Publishing, June 2010. Steven A. Wynalda. Paperback. 386 pages, plus front matter, 13 pages of images and 156 pages of notes and bibliography.

In his foreword, author Steven A. Wynalda quotes the 18th-century Scottish literary theorist Hugh Blair’s statement that, "It is from private life, from familiar, domestic, and seemingly trivial occurrences, that we most often receive light into the real character."

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Accordingly, Wynalda attempts to examine Abraham Lincoln by presenting readers with highlights from 366 of the more than 1600 days when Lincoln was President or President-elect of the United States. Some events are momentous in the nation’s history, such as the bombardment of Fort Sumter that started the Civil War or the Minnesota Sioux Uprising, but many are personal, like the funeral of Lincoln’s son Willie or the family leaving household items and pets behind in Springfield, Illinois.

Much of what is presented is generally well known—e.g., Lincoln removing George McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac—but many chapters will present new information to those readers who have not researched Lincoln in depth, including such subjects as Lincoln’s dealings with Indian tribes, some of the experimental military weapons that were offered to him, etc.

Among the most intriguing is a section on "The Other Thirteenth Amendment," which would have prohibited any future amendments to the Constitution from interfering with the institution of slavery where it currently existed. It passed the House and Senate and President James Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor, signed it on his last day in office, but Southern states began seceding before the states could ratify or reject it. The existing Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits slavery.

Wynalda acknowledges in his foreword that 366 Days was "written for the general reader. There is nothing here that will surprise Lincoln or Civil War scholars." As if to underline his point that the book is for general readers, its introduction was penned by bestselling alternative-history-writer Harry Turtledove (Guns of the South). I’m a fan of Turtledove’s books, but he seems an odd choice to introduce a work of historical nonfiction. However, Wynalda took aim at a specific audience, and he hit the mark like one of Hiram Berdan’s green-clad sharpshooters—a unit discussed in the entry for June 13, 1861.

The book’s tone is conversational and its "chapters" are each about a page long, so casual readers won’t find themselves bogged down in academic-speak or coughing up dust from a dry presentation of facts. Essentially, the book’s bite-sized chapters, each of which can be read in a few minutes, focus on one aspect of one day between Lincoln’s election on November 6, 1860, and his death on April 15, 1865.

I always approach books of this type with a wheelbarrow-load of skepticism. Books comprised of historical anecdotes often suffer from insufficient research, and the conciseness of each entry can leave readers with misimpressions. Wynalda seems to have done his homework, though. For those who want to know more about where he got his information, the book’s notes and bibliography run to over 150 pages—not a guarantee of accuracy by any means, but it does suggest effort went into research. As with any book, there are nits to pick, but I’ve seen "scholarly" books with far more serious errors than any I’ve come across here.

In part, the book succeeds because 85 "sidebars," each about the same length as the chapters, expand the information presented. For example, after a chapter about Lincoln coming down with a type of smallpox when he returned from giving his Gettysburg address, Sidebar #60 discusses what is known or speculated concerning Lincoln’s general physical and mental health.

Many of the sidebars examine controversial questions such as the nature of Lincoln’s spiritual beliefs or whether he was a homosexual or should be considered a racist.

Overall, the chapters and sidebars present generally accurate information that paints a picture of the public and private issues Lincoln faced during those four-and-a-half tumultuous years, and they offer that information in an entertaining, eminently readable format.

Many chapters are on topics that normally get short shrift, such as "West Virginia Becomes a State," which does a good job of concisely presenting a controversial, convoluted series of events surrounding the sundering of Virginia and the admission of the 35th state. Hopefully, the typos in this chapter will be caught and removed before final publication, but they don’t affect understanding of the text.

Now, about those nits: There are embarrassingly obvious typos, such as those in the West Virginia chapter. There are two sidebars marked #70 in both the index and the body; there are words like "refuseding" for "refused," plus punctuation errors, etc. The version of the book used for this review is an advance reading copy, and hopefully those errors will be corrected before the final version is printed, but there’s a horde of them.

Another sentence, in a sidebar about Mary Lincoln’s shopping sprees, hypothesizes that her compulsive buying "probably stemmed from her childhood when she competed for attention among twelve thirteen siblings" (my emphasis). Apart from the typo, the fact is that Mary moved to Springfield, where she met Lincoln, before some of her half-siblings were born. Between the ages of 14 and 18 she spent five days a week at Mme. Charlotte LeClere Mentelle’s boarding school on the other side of Lexington from the Todd home. The death of her mother when Mary was quite young and her father’s hasty remarriage would be better areas for this speculation, if speculation must be made.

The book’s illustrations range from family photos to period illustrations to photographs of a Lincoln penny and the modern five-dollar bill. Unfortunately, Wikipedia Commons is the attributed source for several of the period photos and illustrations, instead of the original source, and that smacks of a hastily assembled image collection.

Finally, it would really help if the publisher had placed the year under discussion in the header of each page, especially if the index is going to appear as it does in the advance copy: References are listed by month, day and year rather than by page numbers. Sidebars are simply numbered without any page reference. Again, this is an advance copy, so hopefully the index will be improved in the final version.

In short, 366 Days fulfills the stated purpose of its author, to provide a general-interest audience insight into the life and personality of Abraham Lincoln during his presidency, using brief anecdotes and occasional explanatory asides. Readers will find it informative, entertaining, and easy to read—especially if the typos have been fixed.

Gerald D. Swick, senior online editor for ArmchairGeneral.com, HistoryNet.com, and GreatHistory.com and author of the forthcoming Historic Photos of West Virginia (Turner Publishing, April 2010), has spent over 15 years researching Abraham Lincoln’s in-laws, the Todds. He and research partner Donna D. McCreary discovered a letter in a private collection that solved the 70-year mystery of why Robert Lincoln was not buried with the rest of the Lincoln family.

2 Comments

  1. So, is the information about why Robert Lincoln was not buried with the rest of the Lincoln family contained in Historic Photos of West Virginia? If not, where may this information be obtained?

    • To read the entire story about Robert and his wife’s decision to bury him in Arlington instead of Springfield, you’d need to obtain a copy of Lincoln Lore, Summer 1998. You can find a summary of the information at R. J. Norton’s Website.

      Historic Photos of West Virginia includes a photo of the monument erected on what many believe to be the birthplace of Lincoln’s mother but nothing on Robert Todd Lincoln.

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