Historian and author David Alan Johnson says he finds Abraham Lincoln to be "complicated, not the honest and forthright person" we imagine him to be. The most honorable figure of the Civil War, according to Davidson, was Ulysses S. Grant.

Lincoln's close call with electoral defeat

'Decided on the Battlefield' by David Alan Johnson tells how Abraham Lincoln nearly lost it all.

An incompetent hick, a drunken butcher, and a red-haired lunatic.

If you listened to their enemies, the three men with these descriptions – President Abraham Lincoln and Generals Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, respectively – were the biggest threats to America during the waning days of the Civil War in 1864.

Who were these acid-tongued critics? Not the people you might think. They were politicians and ordinary folks in the North who saw Lincoln as a bumbling failure, Grant as a bloodthirsty military killing machine, and Sherman as a nutty man on a fool's mission.

It was a presidential election year, and these angry, frustrated and disappointed Northerners wanted Lincoln out of office.

They nearly got their wish.

Lincoln, who'd become one of the most beloved Americans of all time, came close to being beaten at the ballot box after one term, leaving him to languish among our presidential failures. In the darkest days of 1864, he feared he was through, much as LBJ must have felt as he pondered his own wartime chances in the White House 104 years later.

In his new book, historian David Alan Johnson chronicles how the two generals turned things around in Georgia and Virginia. They managed to keep Lincoln in office and move victory into sight.

By his own admission, this author isn't easy to impress, and he finds hardly anyone to praise on either side, not even Lincoln, whom he views as unscrupulous and outmatched. This makes Decided on the Battlefield: Grant, Sherman, Lincoln, and the Election of 1864 as surprising as it is colorful and readable.

I reached Johnson in Union Township, N.J., where he's based, and asked him about Lincoln's dire election chances, the egotistical general who came close to taking the White House, and the sole hero the author manages to find in this whole remarkable story.
Q: Today, we might think of Lincoln as having always been popular, at least in the North. As you show, he had plenty of enemies on his own side in the war and was in danger of being voted out of office. How come?
A: From what the people were reading in the newspapers, it looked like the war seemed to be getting lost. Sherman never seemed to be getting to Atlanta, and it looked like Robert E. Lee had Grant pinned down.

It was actually the other way around, and the North was winning the war. But it didn't seem that way to the people in the North. In Washington, soldiers who were being shot up badly were loaded off boats and carried through the streets. You would look out the window and see these poor blokes, with their arms blown off and in terrible condition.
And Lincoln wasn't even popular within his own party. Lincoln was a moderate – he wanted to beat the South but not to kill them. That's what he told Grant and Sherman. But the Radical Republicans wanted nothing to do with his point of view.
The main proponents of abolition, like Senator Thaddeus Stevens from Pennsylvania, wanted to the run the South down, kill everybody and sow salt into the soil – destroy and punish the South.

Q: It sounds like Lincoln was hardly thought of as a brilliant leader in his own time, at least when things seemed so dark for the North. Is that how you see it?
A: If Sherman hadn’t captured in Atlanta in 1864, I don't think he would have been thought of as one of the great politicians.

Q: As you write in the book, Lincoln had a major problem in his generals and his advisers, who almost universally failed him. What were their problems?
A: One of the reasons the war went on so long was that he had idiots for generals, and his advisers weren't much better.

The advisers weren't stupid, but they didn't have imagination. As for generals, Lincoln didn't really find a general he could really trust until Grant. His idea was to go in there and kill the enemy. Everyone else sat on their hands and didn't do anything. They were fools and ninnies, and General George McClellan was the biggest fool of the lot.
Q: You're talking about the man who'd run against Lincoln in 1864 as the nominee of the Democratic Party on a platform of ending the war. How did he go so far if he was so incompetent?

 A: He got a lot of good press. The nation wanted a winning general, and the press made him out to be one. All through his life, people were telling him how brilliant he was, and he came to believe it himself.

He did a great job putting the army together, but didn't know what to do with it. 
Q: You write that Lincoln interfered in an important local election and threw troublesome citizens into jail. What do you think of him?  

A: He's complicated, not the honest and forthright person that you read in the history books. He could be a real stinker when he felt like it.
Q: But he had to keep the country together, right?

A: Yeah, but when you talk about dirty politics, he was an expert. He'd put you in jail to shut you up.

Q: Out of this whole story, who comes out as the most honorable?
A: Grant. I've been writing for 35 years, I've got my 10th book on my desk, and I've probably written 100 magazine articles. There are very few people I can say I admire. One is Grant, and one is Eisenhower.
Grant had a lot in common in Eisenhower. They were both straight shooters.

I haven't met too many people in this world who are honest. Very few. I'm a cynic at heart.


For more about the battle between Lee and Grant from the Southern point of view, check out 2008's "General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse," by Joseph Glatthaar. In my Monitor review, I called it a "perceptive and fascinating history" that closely examines why Southern soldiers fought to preserve slavery when most didn't own slaves.
Last year, I interviewed experts about why Grant's memoirs are considered the only truly great presidential memoirs (and readable too).
If you've got Grant on the mind, read my story for a local publication here in San Diego about Grant's ties to our community. Some of his descendents remain in town to this day, and one of our fanciest hotels is still named the U.S. Grant after his son.
Also: If you're a Southern Californian, you might be intrigued by my story about how our region had no love for Lincoln during his era. In fact, voters thought he should have never been elected in the first place, nor the second.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.

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