Recently I chatted with award-winning author Noah Andre Trudeau, who has written several well-regarded books on the Civil War in 1864 and 1865. We discussed his next book, Lincoln’s Greatest Journey: Sixteen Days That Changed a Presidency, March 24 – April 8, 1865, which will be released by Savas Beatie on September 1 .
CK: What attracted you to this topic?
NAT: I only approach a topic (articles and books) if I feel that (1) it’s a little known area worthy of wider exposure, and/or (2) I can bring something fresh to a more familiar topic. Lincoln’s visit to City Point in March-April 1865 was a bit of both. I first became aware of its scope through a fine study written for the National Park Service by Donald Pfanz and later published by H.E. Howard. In that (not-that-long-ago) age before the internet, and working with a zero budget, Pfanz gathered in all the principal sources (and some obscure ones) to lay out the high points of Lincoln’s visit. I believed that our current state of research access via the internet would make it possible to fill in many more details of Lincoln’s visit than Pfanz was able to uncover in the 1980s. That got me started.
CK: Why does this story matter?
NAT: It matters because it adds a wholly new piece to the eternally fascinating puzzle that is Abraham Lincoln. It matters because it more fully reveals his determination to lead this nation into a future guided by the principles of “malice toward none…charity for all.” It matters also because although no one knows precisely what Lincoln would have done in a full second term, his experiences at City Point offer tantalizing clues to some of what might have been. Most importantly, it signals that the man had changed – and was in the process of changing more – when he returned to Washington after his extended “time out.” Such was his greatness, and such is the story told here.
CK: Your book contains a tremendous amount of personal detail of how Grant and Lincoln (and their wives) lived during these days at City Point. What was the biggest insight into these people that you gained?
NAT: I believe that while Mary Lincoln wasn’t the easiest person in the world to get along with, and that she did have some emotional/psychological issues, the almost foaming at the mouth persona projected through essentially two eye witness accounts (both written long afterwards) reflected an anti-Mary Lincoln agenda that amplified these flaws. Julia Grant, as best I can determine, was a far more centered person who was not incapable of occasional pique. Abraham Lincoln came to City Point expecting to stay just a few days, but his interactions with Grant and others opened his eyes to the fact that the military end of the war was much closer than he had imagined in distant Washington, prompting him to extend his stay for an unprecedented 16 (plus 2 for travel). Grant walked a difficult line between confiding his plans to his Commander-in-Chief, and holding most details close to his vest for fear of disappointing Lincoln should the coming offensive fall short of its goals, as had virtually every previous Petersburg offensive (and there was a lot of them).
CK: What was the most surprising thing you learned writing this book?
NAT: The template story rests on a handful of sources, each of which is flawed; some because they were remembered many years later and affected by aging memory as well as the powerful currents of Lincoln mythology; others because they had specific agendas that seriously colored what and how they remembered things. I’m convinced from the evidence that one of the most often quoted witnesses to Lincoln’s visit, William H. Crook, was actually present for only a few days toward the end of Lincoln’s stay. So, resting on new evidence and a very careful sifting of the standard sources, I wound up creating a wholly new narrative of events for Lincoln’s visit.
CK: Would you talk a little bit about your writing and research process? How long did it take you to do this book?
NAT: This book, looking essentially at those 16 days Lincoln was at City Point, filled two plus years of research. Besides the usual suspects (published witness materials) and a serious mining of diaries and letters, I greatly benefited from the explosion of newspaper archives accessible via search engines. It was thanks to newspaper materials that I was able to establish two meetings Lincoln had with government officials, one of which I believe is noted here for the first time. Newspaper materials also alerted me to a young man named Samuel Beckwith, who was Lincoln’s personal telegraphic specialist while he was at City Point. And a small newspaper piece set me on the hunt for a letter from a Canadian doctor, working on contract at City Point, who met both Lincoln and Grant on March 25, a letter I ultimately found and used.
The other area where I believe I broke new ground was accessing the logbooks of a number of USN warships in the James River Squadron at the time. The biggest find was the logbook for the USS Bat, assigned to escort Lincoln’s commercially hired transportation (the steamer River Queen). Nautical law at the time exempted commercial vessels from keeping logs, but thanks to the Bat’s log, I was able to trace aspects of Lincoln’s movements with great accuracy. Also valuable was the original log for the USS Malvern Admiral David Porter’s flagship. There’s a far more accessible version in the Navy Official Records, but this is an abridged copy that omits material from the original – most important (for me) was its noting of Admiral Porter’s comings and goings.
CK: Aside from Lincoln, who dominates these pages for obvious reasons, who was the most important and/or compelling character in this story?
NAT: U.S. Grant. His time headquartered at City Point had been far more frustrating than successful, yet he never (repeat: never) lost his confidence in an eventual victory. Matters were clearly coming to a head in the Spring of 1865. Gently pressured by his wife, Grant invited Lincoln down for a few days, never imagining that the President would remain at City Point, closely monitoring Grant’s military actions, for 16 days. Even with Lincoln virtually looking over his shoulder, having the opening phases of his carefully planned offensive stymied by two days of torrential rains, and facing Robert E. Lee who threw everything he had at Grant’s forces, Grant stayed the course, broke the enemy’s hold on Petersburg, and launched the campaign that would end at Appomattox. A tremendous performance. Fast forwarding to after Grant’s two terms as U.S. President, he undertook a world tour accompanied by one reporter and during that extended journey shared a number of insights, including his personal impressions of Lincoln while at City Point. I work these into the texture of my narrative and I believe they provide some deep insights into the influence Lincoln had on Grant’s own presidency.
CK: Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Anything else you’d like to say?
NAT: I believe that one of the defining moments of the Lincoln Presidency – something that would have loomed even larger had it not been for the tragedy of April 14 – occurred on April 8, 1865. On that day, Lincoln, at his own prompting, spent hours visiting wounded soldiers being cared for at the massive Depot Field Hospital. Lincoln insisted on visiting every ward, and having a word or a handshake with every patient, 5,000-6,000 of them. I track his experiences that day with more detail than any other coverage I’ve encountered. It was something that the soldiers who were there never forgot. And it speaks volumes about the profound humanity of Abraham Lincoln.