I sit down to write you (a Soldier's Friend!)...My kind Friend of Friends you have the power to help me a grate deal...I have great Confidence in our Good President hoe has dun a grate deal for us poor Soldiers...
So wrote Private Joe Hass to Abraham Lincoln, February 20, 1864. Like an extraordinary number of his fellow Union soldiers, he loved Lincoln as a father. Lincoln inspired feelings unlike those instilled by any previous commander-in-chief in America. In Lincoln's Men, William C. Davis draws on thousands of unpublished letters and diaries to tell the hidden story of how a new and untested president could become "Father Abraham" throughout both the army and the North as a whole.
How did the Army of the Potomac, yearning for the grandeur of McClellan, turn instead to the comfort of Old Abe, and how was this change of loyalty crucial to final victory? How did Lincoln inspire the faith and courage of so many shattered men, wandering the inferno of Shiloh or entrenched in the siege of Vicksburg? Why did soldiers visiting Washington feel free to stroll into the White House and sit down to relax, as if it were their own home?
Davis removes layers of mythmaking to recapture the moods and feelings of an army facing one of history's bloodiest conflicts. Tracing the popular fate of decisions to invoke conscription, to fire McClellan, and to free the slaves, Lincoln's Men casts a new light on our most famous president -- the light, that is, of the peculiar mass medium that was the Union Army. A motley band of talkers and letter writers, the soldiers spread news of Lincoln's appearances like wildfire, chortling at his ungainly posture in the saddle, rushing up to shake his hand and talk to him. The volunteers knew they could approach "Old Abe," "Honest Abe," "Uncle Abe," and "Father Abraham," and they cheered him thunderously. "The men could not be restrained from so honoring him," said Private Rice Bull. "He really was the ideal of the Army."
The story of the making of Father Abraham is the story of America's second revolution, its rebirth. As one Union soldier and journalist put it, "Washington taught the world to know us, Lincoln taught us to know ourselves. The first won for us our independence, the last wrought out our manhood and self-respect."
Historians have plumbed the depths of Lincoln's religion, his humor, his marriage, his political prowess and his talents as a military tactician. Yet, as Davis (A Government of Their Own) points out, the vital relationship between Lincoln and the men of the Union Army, up to now, has gone unstudied. By examining original correspondences and diaries and a vast array of secondary sources, Davis expertly fills this gap and paints a vivid portrait of how Union soldiers viewed the man they came to call "Father Abraham." The soldiers knew a few key things about Lincoln. They knew the lives of deserters sentenced to death were often spared by him. They knew Lincoln was not unwilling to share their risks, as when he visited Fort Stevens in July 1864 and mounted a forward parapet to get a good close look at the Confederates. And they knew that after formal reviews he could be counted upon to wander among them and tell comical stories, even though, as one private recounted, "every lineament of his countenance indicated a mental strain which almost prostrated him." In the end, they realized Lincoln was more than their leader; he was also their fellow sufferer in a terrible war. By examining the life of Lincoln through the prism of these relationships, Davis sheds new light both on our 16th president and on his epoch.