Every Drop of Blood essentially looks at 24 hours in the life of Abraham Lincoln, and of those who interacted with him, around his second inauguration. It takes us from the evening of March 3, 1865, through his inauguration, to the evening of March 4, 1865, 155 years ago.
This is a lens through which we can see—in remarkably sharp detail—the suffering unleashed by that enormous American catastrophe that was the Civil War, and to grasp, through Lincoln’s extraordinary vision, the ultimate meaning of the war’s monstrous misery and loss, which were on a scale virtually no one had expected.
Lincoln explained it in his second inaugural address, his greatest and most profound speech. All this pain was the price America had to pay for the evil of slavery. The Southern historian and novelist Shelby Foote said any understanding of this nation had to be based on understanding the Civil War. “It was the crossroads of our being,” he said, “and it was a hell of a crossroads.”
Point of No Return
This day in March, I believe, was the crossroads of the Civil War. It moved us toward an understanding of that war and shifted us toward a just and lasting peace in a more perfect union, a task that still challenges us.
In my research and writing, I have often been struck that a narrow focus on a historical event can give us an understanding that the usual panoramic historical view cannot. It brings us very close to the ground, instead of seeing everything from 30,000 feet up. Studied over the course of one day, historical figures almost magically become real human beings, flesh and blood, subject to emotions and other vicissitudes, including the politics of the moment. It becomes clearer that they were groping in the dark and had no idea how things would turn out. With this perspective, we also get a stronger sense of how everything looked, sounded, and smelled. I love that.
Studied over the course of one day, historical figures become real human beings.
My research surprised me in many ways. I had always known Lincoln was criticized, but reading deeply into newspapers, diaries, and letters from and about this day makes it clear how widely he was distrusted and disliked. Liberal Republicans thought he was too slow to take up the banner of ending slavery and ensuring civil rights for its victims. Democrats thought he was a tyrant who had shredded the Constitution. Many people were turned off by his joke-telling in the face of a national tragedy. They thought he was uncouth and unpresidential. After Lincoln’s assassination, when he became a national martyr, it became intensely politically incorrect to knock him, and much of this was airbrushed out of history.
I can’t think of many abused politicians who—with victory on the horizon, having saved the very nation—would not indulge in a triumphalist note on this day. Instead, Lincoln tried to heal the nation by arguing that the war had been God’s just verdict on both sides. Placed in the context of that moment, his plea to go forward “With malice toward none, with charity for all” becomes profoundly poignant.
Edward Achorn’s Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln is out now from Atlantic Monthly Press