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The Indispensable Man

Lincoln and the Civil War - Michael Burlingame

Michael Burlingame starts out this short study on the 16th president and the Civil War with an absolute howler: "If the legendary oddsmaker Jimmy the Greek were had been alive when the Civil War began, he would probably have given the South a better-than-even chance of winning." Setting aside the fact that the population of readers who remember Jimmy the Greek is undoubtedly a diminishing one, the statement is absolutely ridiculous, as are the long-debunked arguments he goes on to make (the South was more militant than the North, greater Southern unity, etc.) in support of it. Yet Burlingame makessuch claims in order to support his thesis: that Abraham Lincoln was the essential reason why the Union triumphed over the Confederacy during the Civil War.


It's a testament to Burlingame's skills as a historian, then, that his short study succeeds in spite of this. His massive Abraham Lincoln: A Life established him as the foremost living scholar of the man, and this book contains all of the insights that came from his work on that tome. His subsequent description of Lincoln's evolution as a person and a politician as a result of the introspection of a man reaching middle age possesses all of the depth and insight that is absent from his opening paragraphs. In the brief chapters that follow Burlingame goes on to show how this transformation was key to understanding his responses to the crises he faced as president, from the initial attempts of the Southern states to secede to the final challenges of reelection and Reconstruction that he faced before his assassination. For all of his grandiose claims at the start of the book, the work overall serves as an excellent introduction to Lincoln and the role he played as president during the most divisive period in American history.