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"Lincoln's Hundred Days" and "Seward"

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Masur divides "Lincoln’s Hundred Days" into three: before, during, and after the period between September 22, 1862, when Lincoln published the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and the “Jubilee,” January 1, 1863, when Lincoln signed the final version. Some doubted that at the end of those 100 days he would go through with it; Lincoln’s inner struggles before he issued the Preliminary Proclamation and after he had done so, the transformation of public opinion, especially among Union soldiers (who were seeing real slaves in the real South) and politicians, is the swift narrative Masur directs especially well, as he quotes the participants and assesses the turning points. Masur also neatly manages to convey the complete arc of the war, including a moving retelling of Lincoln’s visit to captured Richmond on April 4, 1865.

While Masur rarely asserts his personal opinions, when he does, it’s always thought-provoking: “Union was a condition; liberty, an idea. The Emancipation Proclamation remade the war into a new cause. It gave meaning to lives lost, and it gave purpose to a conflict that seemed fatally directionless – a battle here, a battle there, but no vision beyond restoring the Union, which was no vision at all. This is not to say that Union was not an important ideal – only that it was a restorative rather than a transformative idea.”

Walter Stahr’s biography of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man, takes a while to attract. Though Seward was personally energetic, though he fully documented his own life with letters and dispatches from his political career, Stahr proceeds cautiously, as if he were Lincoln’s slowpoke General George B. McClellan assembling his myriads of troops but rarely advancing. In Stahr’s defense, William Henry Seward (1801-1872) is and was not, from a distance, easy to like or admire. Once we know him, however, just as it happened with his contemporaries, his depth and high spirits win us over; he sparkles, pleases, and charms. A sharp politician of great skill, always clever, never resentful, Seward, through persistent compromising, before, during and after the Civil War helped steer the United States forward.

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