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The Essential Abe

Keneally's slim volume does Lincoln justice

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As we celebrate the birth of our nation's finest commander-in-chief this month, it will, for most, take the form of discounted bedding at department stores. Beyond that, it's unlikely that Abraham Lincoln's name will be muttered much, especially since Presidents' Day is now the preferred name for the holiday.Perhaps the most vivid reminder of Lincoln and his tortured life comes in April, the anniversary of his assassination by the actor John Wilkes Booth. This year, that anniversary will demonstrate once again how divisive the war Lincoln presided over was, and is.

On April 5, a bronze statue of Lincoln and his son Tad will be unveiled in Richmond. Commissioned by the US Historical Society, the statue commemorates the visit the Lincolns made on that same date in 1865 to the Confederacy's fallen capital, five days before the war ended and just after Confederate forces had abandoned the city.

Brag Bowling, a Sons of Confederate Veterans commander in Virginia, recently told the Associated Press the addition of the Lincoln statue is "a slap in the face of a lot of brave men and women who went through four years of unbelievable hell fighting an invasion of Virginia led by President Lincoln."

Nearly 900 books about Lincoln are currently available. In a genre whose contributors include Carl Sandburg, Stephen B. Oates, William Safire, David Herbert Donald and Gore Vidal, we can now add Thomas Keneally (Schindlers List).

Keneally's new, slim biography, part of the Penguin Lives series, provides interesting perspective without skimping on Lincoln's major challenges and accomplishments. Keneally, an Australian, isn't seduced by the prairie myth, pointing out Lincoln's skilled oratory and political caginess long before he made it to Washington.

As a young man, Lincoln's life in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois led him to abhor the Jeffersonian ideal of a rural, agrarian society. Lincoln wanted no part of his father's hardscrabble world. Instead, he believed in education, upward mobility and, above all else, a commitment from government at all levels to help citizens move away from the traditonal farming life.

One of the enduring impressions from his youth was receiving two silver half-dollars from a pair of businessmen whom Lincoln had rowed out into midstream to catch an oncoming steamer.

"It was the most important incident of my life," he said, reflecting on the revelation of a world beyond barter and grueling labor. Fittingly, it would be Lincoln who ushered in not only a federal income tax, but also the greenback. Even as a young man, Lincoln believed in centralized banking. He thought government should invest in railroads (many of his legal cases involved the rail system), canals, roads, infrastructure of all kinds.

The contradictions of the man himself emerge throughout this book. Keneally captures Lincoln's eloquence as well as his love of bawdy jokes, the relentless willpower in the face of constant bad news, always offset by the president's frequent bouts of depression.

The premature deaths of two sons, as well as his infamously unhappy marriage to Mary Todd, are well-documented. Despite such sorrow, the president retained an unerring sense of oratory and a gift for gallows humor. Lincoln's parables, speeches and letters remain sharp and contemporary. Keneally wisely offers the big moments -- the Gettysburg Address, the second inaugural speech -- with little fanfare. They can't be enlarged and, wisely, he doesn't make the attempt.

The dispatches between Lincoln and his parade of ineffectual commanders prove riveting. The man known for his stovepipe hat dishes out missives rich in vinegar and, always, demands for attacking the enemy. The best of these stem from Lincoln's tempestuous relationship with the dashing General George B. McClellan.

In September 1862, McClellan let Robert E. Lee's cornered army slip away in the aftermath of Antietam. On September 17 alone, 23,000 casualties fell, the two sides savagely battling to a standstill. The Union, though, held the upper hand because they had Lee cornered. McClellan didn't attack, allowing Lee back across the Potomac. Lincoln urged further attacks. McClellan demurred, citing cavalry horses "broken down from fatigue." The president could brook his general's hesitancy no more. He wired McClellan: "Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?"

Fatigue, as this account makes evident, was something Lincoln knew quite well. Even after he installed Grant and Sherman as leaders of the war campaign, Lincoln never escaped the pangs of anguish and misery pervading the conflict. He foretold the lugubrious task that was to be his presidency after his improbable election in 1860. Speaking to journalists in Springfield, IL, the following day, Lincoln told them, "Well, boys, your troubles are over now, mine have just begun."

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