The Lincoln Forum: Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg and the Civil War
edited by John Y. Simon, Harold Holzer, and William D. Pederson

The Lincoln Forum is one the newer national groups dedicated to the study of our 16th President. Founded in 1995, it meets regularly each November in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in conjunction with other events long established to commemorate the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Several addresses from these functions have been gathered into a new book, The Lincoln Forum: Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg and the Civil War, edited by John Y. Simon, Harold Holzer and William D. Pederson. This slim volume contains essays by Sandra Day O'Connor, Richard N. Current, Harold Holzer, Edna Greene Medford, John Y. Simon and Frank J. Williams. Frank Williams penned the Forward and William C. Davis an introduction.

In "The Anniversary of Lincoln at Gettysburg" Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor addresses Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Her essay begins with a brief overview of the history of habeas corpus, and how it was adopted and applied in the United States. O'Connor then moves on to what prompted Lincoln to suspend the writ, and more importantly, whether he used the suspension judiciously. O'Connor agrees with Mark E. Neely, the author of The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (NY: Oxford University Press, 1991) that Lincoln did not use the suspension to silence political opponents, but rather used it as a means to protect the military and national security interests of a nation at war. In her thoughtful essay, Justice O'Connor uses the arrest of Clement Vallandigham and the suspension of the Chicago Times as examples of Lincoln's restraint in using the suspension as a political tool.

In 1958, Richard Nelson Current presented a touchstone of Lincoln studies in the form of an essay, "The Lincoln Nobody Knows." This theme, eventually expanded into a full book-length treatment, has been revisited by this renown Lincoln scholar several times in his distinguished career. The most recent reexamination occurs in this book as "He's Still The Lincoln Nobody Knows." Current takes a historiographical look at five issues in light of recent Lincoln studies, particularly those by Philip Paludan (The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, Lawrence : University of Kansas Press, 1994), David Donald (Lincoln, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1995) and Gore Vidal (Lincoln: A Novel, NY: Random House, 1984). Current examines whether William. H. Herndon was right about Lincoln's love life; whether Lincoln was an effective as a Commander-in-Chief; how Lincoln is viewed as a sort of "dictator"; whether Lincoln deserves the appellation of "Great Emancipator"; and finally, what sort of ranking Lincoln deserves when compared to other Chief Executives. Current casts a broad net in addressing these issues, and professes to "know" the true answers to these issues. Unfortunately, he does not venture to share his insights, because if he did, he would open himself to a fullslide of contrary opinions.

In "Lincoln's Flat Failure: The Gettysburg Myth Revisited," Harold Holzer reexamines several persistent myths surrounding Lincoln's immortal Gettysburg Address. Holzer reviews the story that the speech was written on the Presidential train en route to Gettysburg. The author also explores the myth that Lincoln's address was not well received by the audience at Gettysburg. The notion that the address was not well received, says Holzer, can be traced back to two main sources. The first is the nature of reporting in newspapers of the day, and the second is the story from Ward. H. Lamon that Lincoln himself felt that the speech was a failure. Holzer's arguments are compelling and he succeeds in dispelling these persistent myths.

Edna Greene Medford, in her essay, "'Beckoning Them to the Dreamed of Promise and Freedom': African-Americans and Lincoln's Proclamation of Emancipation," disputes the work of theorists who have take up the manta that emancipation occurred due to the phenomena of self-emancipation rather than through Lincoln's proclamation. Medford suggests that African-Americans saw the Emancipation Proclamation as more than a vehicle for freedom, but also as a promise of citizenship and a true sense of belonging to the nation. People of color recognized the limitations of the Emancipation Proclamation, but placed their hope in the fact that their willingness to actively fight in the cause of their freedom would win them equal representation in government and society as a whole.

The final two essays address Abraham Lincoln's reaction to Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and Lincoln's feeling that these events could have heralded the end of the war. In "Lincoln, Grant and Meade: Vicksburg and Gettysburg in Retrospect," John Y. Simon examines these two Union victories and Lincoln's reactions to the generals who directed each battle. While both struggles resulted in victory for the Union, the process of the battles were quite dissimilar. While the taking the Vicksburg involved many months of maneuvering and a lengthy siege, Gettysburg was a relatively short affair lasting but a few days. Lincoln's response and overall satisfaction in the general who led the Union armies to these victories were also quite different. Ulysses S. Grant, who captured Vicksburg, was hailed as a hero. However, Lincoln was disappointed in his commander at Gettysburg, George G. Meade. Lincoln's dissatisfaction with Meade was not due to the course of the battle itself, but with the perception that Meade did not follow up his success with a final pursuit and a crushing of Lee's retreating army.

Lincoln's assessment of Meade's lack of movement on the Confederate army is the subject of the final essay of the book, "Abraham Lincoln, Puppet Master: The President and General George Gordon Meade, an Evolving Commander in Chief" by Frank Williams. Williams contends that Lincoln's disappointment in Meade was unfair. Meade, the author states, was in a better position to judge the condition of his army and its ability to pursue the Confederates. Meade had in fact drawn up a plan to follow the rebels, but could not implement it before Lee crossed the Potomac River. To further confound the general in the field, there were conflicting messages from Gen. Henry Halleck in Washington. Williams contends that, in time, Lincoln came to accept that Meade's actions were appropriate, and that perhaps the President's expectations were set too high.

The essays contained in The Lincoln Forum: Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg and the Civil War offer a unique and interesting glimpses of Lincoln as President and Commander-in-Chief, and would make a worthy contribution to any Lincoln Library

Daniel Pearson
Beaver Dam, WI

© Copyright Daniel E. Pearson, 1999