BOOKS: From Civil War Historians, Notable New Insights
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON ” The annual Lincoln Prize went this year to two authors of books on Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. An honorable mention was given to an author for her exhaustive study of what the common soldier thought about slavery.
The three books represent new contributions to the study of the 16th president and the Civil War at a time when there would seem to be little new to say. The winners are Elizabeth Brown Pryor for “Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters,” and James Oakes for “The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics.” Chandra Manning got an honorable mention for “What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War.”
Pryor, a historian and diplomat, and Oakes, a history professor in the graduate school of the City University of New York, will receive $20,000 each. Manning, an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, will receive $10,000. All three will be honored at a banquet in New York on April 1.
The Lincoln Prize, awarded since 1990 for the year’s best books on Lincoln and the Civil War, was co-founded and endowed by business leaders and philanthropists Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman, the principals of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York. The Lincoln and Soldiers Institute of Gettysburg College administers the awards.
Writing on the life and times of Lee before and after the war, Pryor says she read about 10,000 documents in her quest to understand Lee beyond the battlefield. In his personal letters, of which hundreds survived, Lee is not the stone-faced general of photographs and paintings but rather a likable guy who had a large family, worried about money and loved his job in the military ” and beautiful women.
Interspersed with the letters and other documents, many unpublished until this book, Pryor takes “historical excursions,” using the material as a jumping-off point to discuss the customs and politics of the period. This allows her to place Lee in the context of his time and not to judge him by modern standards.
Among her discoveries were Lee’s extravagant flirtations in letters to women, done mostly with the knowledge of his wife, Mary, who often added brief notes at the end of the letters. He addressed women as “my beautiful” and teasingly inquired about a wedding night or said he was all alone and missed them.
He was considered handsome. Pictures taken in the 1850s show a man with dark hair and a mustache who dressed in the fashion of the day. Pryor notes that Lee was conscious of his good looks and that when his hair receded at a young age, he carefully combed it over to cover the bald spot, a habit he retained until his death.
“From the time he was sixteen he was his own barber, cutting his hair, moustache and beard with tiny snips each day so that he always looked the same ” that is to say, perfect,” she wrote.
Pryor has written a lively book, an easy read and a significant contribution to understanding Lee and the Civil War period.
“The Radical and the Republican” is equally well researched and will appeal more to the serious student of the war. Oakes set out to tell how Lincoln and Douglass, two extraordinary and powerful personalities with strong differences, made common cause during the Civil War.
Lincoln arrived in Washington with the conviction that slavery should not be spread into the new territories of the West. Although he hated slavery, he allowed it to exist where it was established, anticipating its inevitable extinction. Douglass, a former slave living in Washington, was an articulate and persuasive orator who was fiercely opposed to slavery anywhere in the country.
Lincoln took the bold step of inviting Douglass to the White House. When Lincoln was criticized for that, he invited Douglass a second time.
One influenced the other. Lincoln listened carefully to Douglass’s argument for the immediate emancipation of slaves and later for the recruitment of black soldiers. Two years before Douglass’s death in 1895, he said he had met no man “possessing a more godlike nature than Abraham Lincoln.”
“What This Cruel War Was Over” is an impressive and exhaustive examination of the opinions held on slavery by ordinary soldiers fighting on each side of the war and how they evolved. Much of what Manning reports counters a common belief that for the Confederates, the war was not about slavery until Lincoln made it so with his Emancipation Proclamation. She says slavery was always the issue for Southern soldiers, irrespective of whether they owned slaves, because of the social structure of Southern life. She says black slaves made all Southern white men, rich or poor, equal in their unenslaved status. It was the soldiers’ “gut-level conviction that survival ” of themselves, their families and the social order ” depended on slavery’s continued existence.”
On the Union side, she finds soldiers joining the army to end slavery and others supporting that position after exposure to slavery during the war. Some, she writes, came to that conclusion only after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. She says those who supported emancipation “knew that emancipation was necessary to save the Union but also because they now recognized that it was necessary to make the Union worth saving.”