Getting Right with Lincoln
Correcting Misconceptions about Our Greatest President
Edward Steers Jr.
University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2021, 216 pages
Book Review published on: October 29, 2021
Few people have been written about more than Abraham Lincoln. Entire books have been written about his relationship with his cabinet, his boyhood, his practice of law, his interest in Shakespeare, his assassination, his status as the only president to hold a patent, the use of telegraphy, his Cooper Union speech, his use of wartime powers, etc., and these are just the books I’ve read. What Edward Steers’s Getting Right with Lincoln: Correcting Misconceptions about Our Greatest President does is correct some misconceptions about Lincoln that have cropped up since the end of his life.
Steers addresses the relationship Lincoln had with his father (there are those who believe there is ample evidence that Lincoln disliked his “loser” father, just as there are those who can say that he loved his successful father), whether Lincoln wrote the Bixby Letter (there is no reason to believe he did not), whether Ann Rutledge was the “only love of his life” (an exaggeration), and whether Lincoln was dying of a host of diseases (Lincoln was actually in better shape physically than many of his contemporaries at his age). There are also chapters on the road to emancipation and whether President Lincoln had the authority to create the state of West Virginia. However, the chapters I found the most interesting were the ones about the Dakota Uprising and the Cotton Trade.
The Dakota Uprising of August 1862 took place in Minnesota, one of the newest states in the Union. Some Native Americans, badly treated by the corrupt Indian agents whose orders were to carry out the U.S. government’s treaty obligations, rose up and began to massacre settlers living in the state. After U.S. Army troops were diverted to fight the Dakota and put an end to the murder of civilians, military tribunals sentenced over three hundred warriors to be hung.
However, Lincoln would not agree, despite his grandfather’s death at the hands of Indians, as witnessed by his father. Revisionists would have us believe that Lincoln wanted to use his position to punish the Dakota for a crime committed against his family two generations before. However, Lincoln put more thought into the matter. The president drew the line at a distinction between those Dakota who were fighting on behalf of their nation and those who had committed massacres of unarmed noncombatants, for example, the distinction between soldiers who killed in the course of military conflict and those who killed unarmed men, women and children and who raped.
Thirty-eight Dakota warriors would be hung for violating the laws of war as understood in the nineteenth century. If Lincoln held the lives of Native Americans as cheaply as revisionists try to argue, then three hundred would have been hung simply for being Indians. Even when it was suggested that failing to hang all three hundred of the Dakotas would result in him losing the state of Minnesota and its electoral votes in the next presidential election he stood firm for what he felt was right.
The Cotton Trade is held up as a blatantly corrupt practice, one that might have actually been the catalyst for Lincoln’s assassination. Cotton was the one product that the South produced that was vital to its economy; without this cash crop, the Confederacy could not purchase the weapons and uniforms its armies desperately needed. Lincoln took steps to cut off the flow of cotton to England and France, both of which were leaning toward recognition of the Confederate States of America, then created a process by which confederate cotton would actually benefit the Union.
Cotton could be bought in the Confederacy by agents licensed by the federal government, then transported through the lines to Union territory and resold. The cotton was purchased using greenbacks, or Union paper money. The federal government received 25 percent of the profit from the resale, which could be considerable. Needless to say, many people became rich through what could be called “trading with the enemy.”
But in fact it was the Union and not the Confederacy that really benefited from the trade. Union mills processed southern cotton to make clothing and uniforms for Yankee soldiers. The Confederate States of America lost both the cotton and most of the profits to be gained from it. The federal agents paid for cotton with greenbacks instead of gold, which limited what could be purchased abroad in the way of weapons and equipment; gold could have been exchanged at a much higher rate. The Confederates tried to trade their cotton directly to European buyers by using blockade runners but these were intercepted more and more frequently and their cargo sold off, once again to the benefit of the Union war effort.
To understand Lincoln’s motivation, one need look no further than the war. Winning it motivated him to authorize the cotton trade to deprive the Confederacy of revenue. Winning it motivated him to free slaves living in enemy territory to deprive the South of their labor. Winning it motivated him to stop the prisoner exchanges because it deprived Robert E. Lee of soldiers.
Lincoln is a fascinating American. His role as commander in chief need not be clouded by misconceptions and myth and this book goes a long way toward doing that.
Book Review written by: James D. Crabtree, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas