Book review: ‘Every Drop of Blood’ — an astonishing look at Lincoln’s second inaugural

“Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln”: By Edward Achorn; 376 pages; Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020.

By itself the premise looks almost impossible. How does an author go about producing a book around one presidential inaugural speech that numbers only 701 words given by arguably the most chronicled and discussed figure in American history? More importantly, how does the writer craft that book into something wholly unique,  compelling and revealing?

That’s exactly the assignment Edward Achorn decided to take on. This formidable task yields “Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln,” a book that is already almost essential reading about the doomed president’s final days in office and the bloody end of the Civil War. Importantly, Achorn’s intensive research and apt perception also examine the impact Lincoln’s assassination a little more than month after taking the oath of office for his second term had on bringing the divided nation back together, rights for formerly enslaved African-Americans and the echoes of racism and division that still reverberate in America.

Every Drop of BloodAchorn, a newspaper opinion writer and editor for the Providence Journal in Rhode Island and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is also a crack historian and author of two extraordinary and acclaimed books about baseball in the 1800s — “Fifty-Nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had” and “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game.” Achorn has much larger issues to address in “Every Drop of Blood” but builds upon the same lessons learned in his previous work. He applies a powerful microscope in examining a brief time in history to tell a much larger story, rich with the kind of details that set a time, place and mood while amplifying the personalities involved, particularly that of Abraham Lincoln.

That Achorn has the tenacity and stamina to track down such detail is impressive. In all, there are 54 pages of bibliography and notes. He cites 101 newspapers or periodicals, often with far-ranging, tightly wound and vociferous views of the war, the nation and especially Lincoln himself. He then weaves all of those facts, quotes, diaries and newspaper accounts or opinions together into a rich narrative that captures the life, strife, anger, confusion, and sadness of America in 1865.

A lengthy but necessary prologue sets the stage for Achorn’s daylong account of March 4, 1865, the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural address. The mood of the embittered and nearly beaten South clashed with the anger and optimism for the soon to be victorious North — both sides of the nation exhausted at the end of a often pitiless slaughter that claimed the lives of 700,000 people. Even though he could see the war’s end, Lincoln himself was profoundly somber but steadfast in his belief that the United States must be rejoined, the slaves freed and given the rights white Americans have. He saw no easy road to accomplishing any of those goals and spent hours leading up to the inauguration buried in faith and what answers he might find there.

Inauguration day itself was still a large party, even though persistent rainy weather made the streets of Washington so muddy those who attended the day’s events in their finery were a mess by the end of the night. Achorn re-creates the scenes that day and establishes the place and history of nearly every key political or social figure who was there. The cast of characters is rich indeed, including the poet Walt Whitman; who was covering the inauguration for the New York Times, abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and noted actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer who attended the inauguration with the intent to kill or kidnap Lincoln but failed to do so that day. He succeeded, of course, on April 15, 1865 by shooting the president at Ford’s Theater. Booth’s attendance at Lincoln’s inauguration is one of the details that sparked Achorn’s interest in writing his book.

Back stories of those in attendance and their roles in U.S. history and on inauguration day comprise a fascinating core in Achorn’s work. He even reports that the Marine Corps band included the father of John Phillip Sousa, the king of marching band music in America. Thousands of people were in Washington that day, culminating in a throng of people invited to visit the White House and shake Lincoln’s hand. By the end of the night he had shaken so many muddy hands that his white glove was blackened  and tattered.

The inaugural address in historical context stands with Lincoln’s remarks after the battle at Gettysburg as his most famous speeches. At the time it was given, though, it was among the most debated and often misunderstood speeches of Lincoln’s time. (Find text of the speech here.) Lincoln’s words aimed to begin what he understood would be a long healing process. “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . .” are words that clearly indicate Lincoln’s goal was to restore the Union, not seek retribution  and heap misery upon the South for waging war. Many in the North disagreed with that sentiment. and Lincoln’s remarks on March 4 stood in sharp contrast to the drunken ramblings of his vice president Andrew Johnson that same day.

In compiling and writing “Every Drop of Blood” Achorn has produced a significant achievement. He has provided a very interesting window into the lives of people during this period, from wounded soldiers to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. At the same time he offers a thorough examination of Lincoln and his thoughts during a pivotal time in the history of the United States, a time when an assassin’s bullet radically altered the course of history.

 

 

 

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