24 Tense Hours in Abraham Lincoln’s Life

24 Tense Hours in Abraham Lincoln’s Life

Less than two weeks after delivering his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln wrote that he expected the speech to “wear as well as — perhaps better than — any thing I have produced.” But, he added, “I believe it is not immediately popular.” He was right on both counts. The speech, barely more than 700 words, is now considered one of the most important in American history. But on the day it was delivered, March 4, 1865, with the Union on the brink of victory in the Civil War, Lincoln had trouble placating his own party, much less his political opponents. And he opted to write words that addressed slavery in grand, religious terms, rather than itemizing the practical ways in which the country would have to begin moving forward. In “Every Drop of Blood,” Edward Achorn addresses sweeping issues about the war and the precarious state of the nation by narrowing his lens to the 24 hours around the inauguration and the many notable characters around the president that day. Below, Achorn discusses the hostility toward the president, the diaries of Southern women, how Stanley Kubrick is like Lincoln and more.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

That’s a hard one because I suppose it was decades ago, when I first came across this speech. It has all this resonant language that sounds like something out of Shakespeare or the King James Bible. Here you have this president who’s been re-elected and virtually won a war that was a struggle for the country’s survival, and instead of celebrating he speculates on the war’s immense suffering. He says it may be God’s judgment for the sin of slavery. It’s not an ordinary speech. I’ve always thought I would want to write about it.

About five years ago, I decided to do it. A friend of mine said, “You should write about Booth and Lincoln on that day.” John Wilkes Booth, who murdered Lincoln six weeks later, was there watching the speech. But then I began to look at all the people who intersected with Lincoln that day. Walt Whitman was covering it. Clara Barton was trying to win Lincoln’s help for a project she was working on, to find out what happened to missing soldiers. You had Vice President Andrew Johnson, who was drunk at the ceremonies. Frederick Douglass, who was the most interesting to me.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

I’ve read all these books about how Lincoln was hated, but I was still surprised by how disdained and disliked he was by so many of his contemporaries. Liberal Republicans thought he was too calculating, too quick to weigh public opinion. Democrats thought he was a tyrant, a rube, and was destroying the Constitution. I think a lot of this was airbrushed out of history after he was assassinated, when he became a martyr. But when you go back to that day and look at what people were saying, you get a stunning sense of what Lincoln was up against. There’s a lot of hostility from all sides. I’m not sure how he withstood it. I guess he was defeated so many times in his life, had been down so many times, that he was able to take almost anything.

And Lincoln is always surprising to me for his extremely peculiar qualities. He’s got this immense intelligence, and he’s always full of this loneliness and sadness. He goes up to the inauguration alone. He’s a strange guy. He has an ability to step outside himself and to view issues dispassionately. All of those qualities are seen in the book.

Credit…Nelson Mare

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

It might sound weird, but the more I researched it — it was more illuminating than I expected. As I started doing the research, I learned that these characters had all interacted with each other, and these moments reflected their personalities and their views of the war. I was amazed at what a quilt this became.

The other thing I discovered that I didn’t expect was when I looked at diaries of white women in the South on this day, and their intense bitterness really comes through. This was while Sherman was brutalizing South Carolina. It was the first state that seceded, and he wanted them to especially feel the “hard hand of war,” as he put it. These women did not want all their suffering and loss to go for nothing, and they were urging men to fight on.

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

I’ve always been fascinated with Stanley Kubrick, who had this very dark view of humanity, and I think he had something of Lincoln’s sense of the absurdity of life; the absurdity of every human endeavor, and how they’re prone to be self-defeating in some ways.

I also love the way Kubrick uses light and framing and details to tell a story. When I tell a story, I try to look at all those details. I love to quote from newspaper accounts of the time, because it’s funny and poignant and wrongheaded. Part of this book is an exploration of the reviews of Lincoln’s speech. Half the country viewed it as: “What’s he talking about God for? That’s not the place of a president.” It’s always good to put the reader back, right in the context in which something took place.

Persuade someone to read “Every Drop of Blood” in 50 words or less.

If you love and admire Lincoln, you’ll meet him up close and personal, right on the muddy streets of Washington, surrounded by his endless troubles. Yet he’s able to encourage the nation with one of the masterpieces of literature, and one of the definitive explanations of the American experience.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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