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Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy

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As the presidency of Bill Clinton recedes into the halcyon glow of history, his impeachment by the House of Representatives seems less a personal repudiation than an institutional embarrassment for Congress. With the passage of time, the charges against Clinton seem overdrawn, more an extension of a political fight that included the federal government shutdown than a real threat to the sanctity of government.This recent context is important for anyone who reads David Stewart's magnificent account of the first presidential impeachment, "Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy." As the experienced lawyer turned engaging historian describes the specific charges against Johnson, they too seem overdrawn, legally speaking. However, they were simply one weapon in a more consequential struggle over the future of civil rights in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.Johnson, who became president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was a southern Unionist and highly sympathetic to southerners who feared the consequences of granting freed slaves any real civil rights. Such an attitude, while appealing to some influential politicians, was contrary to several of Lincoln's public statements, including his address after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, which coupled leniency for rebels and seceded states -- which Johnson took to extraordinary lengths -- with the promise of voting rights for African-Americans who served in the Union Army and Navy.Worse, Johnson's policy of leniency for southern politicians who had served in the Confederate government or army and his aversion to assistance for freed blacks was in direct opposition to the most influential group in the Republican-dominated Congress. The Radical Republicans, who had frequently complained that Lincoln's actions toward slavery were too little and too late, wanted the rebellion leaders, including southern politicians, punished for their involvement in instigating and prosecuting the war and also sought increasing civil rights and government support for freed slaves. The result was significant conflict between Congressional leaders and the President, who drug his feet whenever possible to limit the full execution of laws enacted by the Congress, many of which had been passed by Congress over his veto. Eventually, frustrated Republican leaders began exploring ways to limit Johnson's powers, including the possibility of removing him from office. While the first attempt at impeachment failed, Johnson handed his political enemies a gift when he knowingly violated the Tenure of Office Act, one such Congressional act which limited the president's power to remove appointees confirmed by the Senate and was of questionable constitutionality.In some ways, the precipitating incident was farcical, as Stewart makes clear. Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, but Stanton refuses to physically leave his office. Johnson then appointed an underling to the position, while trying to tempt Gen. William T. Sherman to take the post. As the impasse continued, General-in-Chief Ulysses Grant, who had little use for Johnson and nurtured presidential ambitions in the next year's election, carefully administered the military independent of civilian oversight, careful to not be directly insubordinate of the President.Meanwhile, Radical Republicans pressed for impeachment again, this time succeeding, but only after some difficulty in exactly describing the nature of Johnson's crime in constitutional terms. After this, the main event became the trial of the now-impeached Johnson in the Senate, with the possibility that he could be removed from office by a 2/3 vote. With great style, Stewart discusses the personalities and intrigue behind this trial, including the distressing fact that the prosecution's case was poorly coordinated by the House members selected to argue it.Underlying this analysis, which is consistently strong, Stewart offers a tantalizing, but ultimately unprovable assessment. Despite all of the factors that favored enough people voting to preserve Johnson in the presidency, there is strong circumstantial evidence that the key votes in Johnson's favor -- and the vote for removal fell only one short of the necessary 2/3 -- were bought and paid for by people who benefitted from Johnson remaining in office.If there is a shortcoming in the delightful account, it is that Stewart never adequately explores Johnson's unexpected Republican allies, such as Secretary of State William Seward, who were neither southern sympathizers or politically beholden to Johnson. This, though, is a small quibble in an otherwise excellent book that is both thoughtful in its assessments and dramatically engaging in its writing.
The Confession: A Novel

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In recent years, John Grisham has expanded his writing focus beyond the legal thrillers that launched his writing career. Although he is a capable writer, he is at his best when writing legal novels, and "The Confession" again shows Grisham at his finest. If it does not quite eclipse the brilliance of "The Firm" -- still Grisham's best book -- it deserves recognition at the top of his ever-growing list of titles.While the book bears some resemblance to "The Chamber," which centered on a desperate appeal on behalf of a death-row inmate, "The Confession" owes much to Grisham's recent work on behalf of the Innocence Project, which inspired and grew out of his only non-fiction book, "An Innocent Man." It centers around the controversy over the imminent execution of Donte Drumm, a young Black man, for the murder of a popular high school cheerleader in a small Texas town nine years earlier. Four days before the execution, a man unexpectedly confesses to a Lutheran pastor in Kansas that he has information that would prove Donte Drumm innocent.With this intriguing hook, Grisham unravels a tale of the Lutheran pastor, Keith Schroeder, who learns the convoluted history of the case, which involves an allegedly coerced confession by Drumm, a convoluted and suspect prosecution greatly hindered by the fact that the girl's body has never been found, and a rather unbelievable ex-con claiming ever-increasing knowledge and involvement in the disappearance. Schroeder crosses paths with the aggressive defense attorney, Robbie Flak, who is desperately trying to save Drumm's life, believing him to be innocent of the crime.After this set-up, Grisham is off to the races, offering a gripping race against the clock, full of realistic twists and turns involving the legal system, the media, politicians, and the families of both the victim and the convicted. There is ambiguity in the real facts of the case, and the motives of most of the key players are a bit suspect, even the crusading defense attorney (who seems, at least emotionally, to be an imagined alter ego for Grisham himself). The result is an immensely satisfying novel, suspenseful and unsettling. In fact, the book seems to join previous Grisham novels like "The Firm" and "The Runaway Jury" that are worthy of multiple readings.
General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse

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Combining classic military history with a wealth of social history insights, Joseph Glatthaar details the exploits and experiences of the Army of Northern Virginia in the aptly titled "General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse." Drawing from a wealth of material, including countless letters and diaries from soldiers of all ranks, the University of North Carolina professor offers a comprehensive view of the Confederacy's most-storied fighting force.While never skimping on descriptions of overall tactics in battle, Glatthaar is as interested in offering a broad picture of the makeup and general experiences of the soldiers in Lee's army. Alongside details of the Gettysburg Campaign and the massive trench warfare of 1864, there are chapters on such day-to-day issues as medical care, quartermaster supply, religion, and general camp life.Perhaps the greatest contribution of this volume is the attention to the make-up of the army, extrapolated from careful analysis of a 600 soldier sample. This analysis allows Glatthaar to describe the divergent backgrounds of the fighting men, including family wealth and relationship to the institution of slavery. The findings suggest that while the army initially was a mostly representative group of the southern population, as the war progressed replacement soldiers were overwhelmingly drawn from non-slaveholding families of little wealth.This changing demographic makeup of the army is one of the challenges that led to the ultimate collapse and defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia, alongside other better known issues as increasingly limited manpower and the persistent problems of arms, ammunition, and food supplies. Glatthaar also highlights the difficulties in advancing qualified people into officer positions that Lee struggled to overcome, with some success, throughout the war.While the focus of this book is on the common soldier, it is clear that Glatthaar holds Robert E. Lee is great esteem. The surprising implicit argument of this book is that Lee was really the guiding force behind the army, not only in generally aggressive tactical decisions, but as importantly in improving nuts and bolts matters of supply, training, and officer selection. This makes the book's title quite apropos indeed.On the whole, this well-researched volume is an excellent resource on the famed Army of Northern Virginia. While some expecting heavily detailed campaign analysis might be disappointed, those hoping for a more complete portrait of this fighting force will greatly appreciate this book for its scope, its research, and its unexpectedly pleasant prose.
The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President

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After being elected President in 1992, Bill Clinton reached out to a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian that he had last seen 20 years before, Taylor Branch. Both men had worked for the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign, but had drifted apart. While Clinton gained prominence in politics, Branch only become widely noticed when he published the first volume of his trilogy on the Civil Rights Era, "Parting the Waters," which was a much recognized best-seller.Thinking about the legacy of his presidency even before his inauguration, Clinton contacted Branch to feel him out on finding a way of preserving the raw material of his presidency in the electronic age. After sporadic contact, they eventually decided to create an oral history of Clinton's presidency, with Branch acting as interviewer. Despite the fear of recording audio tapes, especially after the Watergate era, the project began.After the first session, Branch decided to preserve his own impressions and recollections of the experience, a practice he continued each time he met with the president. "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President" is Branch's perspective of the entire oral history process, drawn from his personal post-interview tapes, not the actual oral history recordings, which Clinton himself kept.While Branch is a fine historian, as his magisterial Civil Rights trilogy proves, he is far from an uninterested or impartial observer. Throughout, he is a devoted partisan supporter of the president, and it quickly becomes obvious that he personally likes Clinton. Beyond this, Branch's wife worked for the First Lady during the second term, which further blurs the personal and professional relationship. At times, this leads Branch to be defensive of Clinton, particularly regarding issues around the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment.While this is occasionally a weakness in the book, more often it is a surprising strength as the blurred relationship allowed Branch uncommon access to Clinton. Unlike some so-called "court memoirs" of White House staffers, this behind-the-scenes account offers snapshot glimpses into Clinton's presidency, haphazardly based on the few dozen times Branch was invited to meet with the president during his two terms. The portrait that emerges is intriguingly candid, especially about the more mundane parts of a president's life, such as his irregular eating schedule, telephone interruptions, stolen moments with family and friends, and his emotional outlook, frequently related to his fatigue level.There is a wealth of material on Clinton's outlook on domestic policy and foreign affairs, and many instances of his unique political sensibilities. In particular, some of Clinton's contemporary assessments of various foreign leaders and attempts to shape the world are interesting. His comments about the large issues of his presidency, perhaps less noteworthy because they so frequently correspond to what has been reported elsewhere, still demonstrate the former's president's insatiable curiosity and love of politics.Overall, the book is a valuable addition to similar volumes on Clinton's presidency. At times, Branch is a quirky guide, but more often he unveils a personal side to the 42nd president, whether through the various ways he encounters Clinton or in such things as Christmas gift exchanges. While future historians will greatly appreciate the oral history, whenever it is released, I imagine they will also glean much from the personal descriptions in "The Clinton Tapes."
Little Green Men: A Novel

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What a diabolical mind Christopher Buckley must have! When he's not making pro-smoking lobbyists sympathetic characters, he's imagining a First Lady on trial for assassinating her husband or young people advocating compensated euthanasia of the elderly as a way to save Social Security. But I doubt that his devious mind has composed a more delicious plot than in "Little Green Men."Combining bloviating pundits, obscure government bureaucracies, and ecstatic UFO believers, this brilliant novel focuses on the increasingly farcical consequences of the purported alien abduction of John Oliver Banion. An inside-the-Beltway talk show host with an ego to match his three name persona, Banion has enough popularity to demand displays of obeisance from even the President himself.When the media power player is abducted by aliens while playing golf at an exclusive country club, however, his focus drifts from politics to the larger issue of possible alien invasion. This exploration leads him into the subculture of extraterrestrial enthusiasts. As the highest profile abductee ever, Banion becomes a leading voice alongside the kooks and pseudo-scientists, and eventually refocuses his career to use his celebrity to bring attention and credibility to what had been a fringe group.At times laugh-out-loud funny, this novel is a delight from start to end. The cross-group story allows Buckley to satirize certain self-righteous types, from political talking heads to conspiracy theorists, while spinning a tale that is a breezy page-turner.
Decision Points

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In one of the debates during the 2004 election, President George W. Bush famously encapsulated his elected position in one short sentence, "I'm the decider." However inelegantly stated, it aptly sums up the modern presidency. As others, including other presidents, have admitted, by the time an issue reaches the Oval Office, all of the easy or noncontroversial decisions have been made by lower level officials. The thorny problems that remain, often seeming to be choices with only bad options, are the ones that demand the president's attention.In his post-White House memoir, "Decision Points," Bush (43) offers his perspective on such significant problems that he faced, including 9/11 and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 financial crisis. While not a traditional autobiography by an ex-president -- which, it should be noted, his father refused to write after he left the White House -- it offers a clear vision of how the former president believes his administration should be judged.As much as Bush is interested in justifying his decision-making to an American public that overwhelmingly viewed his job performance negatively by the end of his second term, it is clear that this book is largely motivated by an urge to provide thorough "on the record" accounting of his presidency for future historians. In many ways, it seems an attempt to balance out the popular "behind the scenes" books written by Bob Woodward, which grew increasingly critical of Bush's decisions.Unashamedly, it is a careful argument for seeing the president's eight years in office much more sympathetically. Therefore, those with preconceived notions of Bush are unlikely to have those views changed in this favorable self-assessment. Even so, the president comes across, at times, as a much more thoughtful and considered person here as he describes the context within which he governed at key points.Little in this book will surprise most people who pay attention to political news, and much familiar territory is covered about the response to 9/11 and the decisions to go to war. At the outset, Bush also tells, again, of his decision to give up drinking alcohol. The book's high point is likely the discussion around the surge of forces in the Iraq War, where Bush's decision had little popular support and went against the support of key people in his own administration, but which ultimately proved successful. The unexpected decision to significantly increase US funding to fight HIV/AIDS, with many examples of positive consequences, also makes a strong impression.On the other hand, chapters on the response to Hurricane Katrina -- almost certainly the low point of Bush's presidency -- and the worldwide "Freedom Agenda" that was touted in his Second Inaugural Address are disappointing. Despite a shiny gloss on each story, there is ultimately little to commend about either aspect, and Bush seems unwilling and unable to offer a candid assessment of shortcomings in both instances. Frequent pointing to various communication problems does little to explain the problems with the response to Katrina, and repeatedly insisting that the world is freer does not make it so.Most interesting, at least to me, was the final chapter on the economic crisis at the end of Bush's tenure. In contrast to the surge, where the unpopular president made a confident, "Damn the torpedoes!" decision, here the beleaguered president caves to advice contrary to his guiding principles. Perhaps history will show that there were simply no good decisions to be made at the time, only less catastrophic ones, which is Bush's assessment. In any event, this discussion offers a glimpse of the frustrating limitations that all presidents must feel when approaching large problems.If at times too implicitly self-congratulatory, the book is certainly a reasonable presentation and justification of the Bush presidency. Far less over-the-top than Bill Clinton's memoir, the book is ultimately a satisfying read for political junkies, with a conversational tone that is largely successful (but occasionally downright hokey).
How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations That Made Them

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At the outset of "How Lincoln Learned to Read," Daniel Wolff offers a straightforward question: "How do we learn what we need to know?" To answer, he considers the varied educations of twelve loosely-connected Americans, from the titular Abraham Lincoln (not a bad way to attract attention to your book) to Elvis Presley (who was not really known for his schooling). In each case, the preparation for life that each received during adolescence had lasting impacts.The dozen individuals selected, who include three presidents along with famous writers, intellectuals, and scientists, have notable achievements. By simply focusing on their education and formation, Wolff demonstrates that there are a variety of ways to be intellectually prepared for leadership and influence. Some, like Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin, had little formal education, but were clearly self-starters who indefatigably took advantage of any opportunity they could find to learn and grow. Others were intellectuals whose schooling nurtured them, but whose lives were somewhat dictated by the cultural expectations of their times, like Abigail Adams, Sarah Winnemucca, and W.E.B. Du Bois.Throughout, the high value that Americans have historically given education -- in its many forms -- is critically examined and disturbing undercurrents emerge. Not surprisingly, children of the wealthy have tended to have more educational opportunities, including multiple chances to take such opportunities seriously, as is demonstrated by the lackluster approach John Kennedy took toward school for many years. Those more disadvantaged, including women and minorities, could sometimes pursue higher education, but only if they demonstrated special gifts and had sponsors -- parents, influential benefactors -- who could help open doors for them.Perhaps the most interesting, and disturbing, consideration of formal education is the chapter on Helen Keller. The story of a blind and deaf girl learning to communicate has long been inspiring, even becoming an acclaimed movie, but in Wolff's description, it also should be characterized by one of incredible coincidences and even exploitation of Keller by the complex system of wealthy contributors and specialized schools that provide Keller's teachers and educational opportunities.While Wolff makes numerous explicit and implicit connections between the formative educations and subsequent lives of these twelve Americans, he is not overly dogmatic. Instead, this patchwork quilt suggests a broad appreciation for the many ways in which children learn the essential lessons for their lives -- how they learn to think, to communicate, to relate with others, to pick and pursue a career. It offers both encouragement to those who would heavily structure a child's formal education and discouragement of the same. It shows that some children will become successful if they have independence in how they learn as children, but it also provides examples of some who needed fairly forceful guidance to achieve their potential. Instead of providing a careful "how-to" approach for education, there is a certain amount of wonder in the process of education itself. This appreciation, coupled with Wolff's light-handed and pleasant narrative style, makes the book an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution

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James Madison is known to history as the "Father of the Constitution." For all his political influence and genius, which were on display throughout his political career, though, author David Stewart shows that the moniker greatly overstates Madison's role at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. While he has shaped the understanding of that gathering, due to his copious notes describing the proposals by and debates among the delegates, others had more significant impact on the compromises that ultimately shaped the Constitution.Indeed, as Stewart capably shows in "The Summer of 1787," much of the important work in producing a frame of government satisfactory to those gathered in Philadelphia happened outside of Madison's observation in countless committee meetings and informal gatherings at dinners and boardinghouses. With the conviction that something drastic needed to be done to save the fledgling republic, the men who gathered in Philadelphia spent most of their waking hours strategizing, schmoozing, and methodically working through the issues facing the reorganization of the federal government.Multiple issues threatened to prevent agreement. Slaveholders demanded certain protections, particularly given the consensus that the importation of slaves must soon end, which ultimately became the infamous 3/5 compromise. Small states feared that their interests would be trampled by the largest states, which led to seemingly unending debates about representation in Congress, ultimately solved by allocating representatives by population and senators evenly by state.In fact, the key debates were over the structure and powers of the legislative branch. The national executive was important, but the overwhelming assumption was that Gen. George Washington, who was elected president of the Constitutional Convention, would serve as the first executive. The man who had retired from the army and returned home after winning independence for the United States was trusted to rule well. Whether from exhaustion or disinterest, the particulars of the judicial branch were left to the first Congress to decide.Given how heated were certain debates and how inflexible the demands of certain coalitions, it is a wonder that the delegates were able to agree on a government charter. (Indeed, Stewart's book might be called, "Miracle at Philadelphia," but that is the title of Catherine Bowen's classic book about the Convention, written about a half century ago.) One of Stewart's main arguments, necessarily circumstantial, is the key role played by senior statesmen like Washington and Benjamin Franklin in encouraging the delegates to persevere and accept compromises to produce a workable Constitution. Indeed, more than some other historians, Stewart suggests that Washington staked his reputation on this effort to save the country from the untenable Articles of Confederation.With a background in law, Stewart has an strong grasp on the technical arguments and debates surrounding the Constitution (which he also demonstrates in his excellent book on the impeachment of Andrew Johnson). His writing style offers clarity and vigor, even when incorporating quotations using the stilted cadences of 18th Century English. Ultimately, he has produced a dramatic and compelling account of the men, many all but forgotten, who deliberately struggled to produce the frame that still guides the US government more than two centuries later.
The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth

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The health of the president is generally a closely-guarded secret, especially when there is a medical problem. In the Cold War era, national security experts worried that an ailing or debilitated president might encourage Soviet aggression. At other times, it has been feared that a presidential illness would lower public confidence, with negative economic and political consequences.As such, there is a history of keeping harsh details of a president's health out of view, only to be uncovered years later. When possible, medical procedures are not discussed or are downplayed, and serious illnesses are portrayed as something fairly innocuous, like the common cold. In recent years, historians have detailed Franklin Roosevelt's extreme limitations caused by his polio and others have documented how John Kennedy dealt with excruciating back pain using heavy medication.If the most egregious example of undisclosed poor presidential health was the almost complete incapacitation of Woodrow Wilson after his 1918 stroke -- leaving most decisions to his wife and one advisor -- the next worse is likely the secret surgery to remove a tumor from Grover Cleveland's mouth. Matthew Algeo tells this improbable tale with great style in "The President is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman who Dared Expose the Truth."As the subtitle explains in the style of a late 19th century headline, a key part of the odd tale is the weird aftermath where the President and his allies used the power of the presidency to squash the reporting of a well-sourced reporter who found out about the surgery in the following weeks. Trading on Cleveland's long-standing reputation for integrity -- proven during his campaign by his admission to fathering a child out of wedlock and providing for that child -- those close to the president were able to cover up the truth by offering consistent denials and by challenging the credibility of E. J. Edwards, the reporter who penned the explosive story, "The President a Very Sick Man," in the Philadelphia Press.Edwards provided the first glimpse of the secret surgery, which took place on a yacht during the week of the July 4th holiday in 1893. A team of doctors was secretly assembled to remove a likely cancerous tumor from Cleveland's upper jaw. The procedure would have been delicate in any setting, as the medical profession was in the midst of its transformation toward 20th Century practices, such as improved sanitary precautions and rigorous doctor education and training. It was even more precarious, though, when carried out by a team of doctors working together for the first time onboard a pleasure boat subject to wind and waves.Although the surgery was successful, the president needed time to recuperate. (Eventually, he would also need a prosthetic to fill in the space where part of his upper jaw was removed.) A planned fishing trip, coupled with the report of a small cold, explained the president's absence and his refusal to speak to any reporters during his convalescence. Only after Cleveland's death would the reporter Edwards enjoy the restoration of his reputation when one of the doctors involved decided to tell the incredible story in the Saturday Evening Post, in order to prevent the crowning case of his career from remaining unknown. Using Edwards' and the doctor's accounts as a foundation, Algeo performed excellent research to flesh out his full account of this incredible incident and its aftermath. He carefully places the surgery, the political cover-up, and the subsequent reporting in revealing context, often humorously, as when he describes the ego-centered competition in Philadelphia journalism at the time. From these pieces, Algeo tells the remarkable story vividly and well, capturing the key personalities and offering the dramatic intrigue of a thrilling mystery.
Grant's Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant's Heroic Last Year

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Historian Charles Bracelen Flood has come full circle. Many years ago he wrote a best-selling volume on Robert E. Lee's life after the Civil War. Now he offers a book focusing on the end of the life of the most famous Union general: "Grant's Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant's Heroic Last Year."After losing most of his money in a failed investment, which Flood describes as an early pyramid scheme, the retired general and former president is diagnosed with throat cancer. Desperate to provide financially for his family, in an age before presidential pensions (and at a time where he surrendered his military pension to hold the civilian office of President), Grant agrees to publish articles about his remembrances of the Civil War.This writing, which begins with an inauspiciously bland first draft, quickly became a proper memoir. But from that initial criticism, Grant found the approach that would ultimately win popular and literary acclaim for his two-volume autobiography, which he completed only days before his death.If this part of the story is reasonably well known, at least to most history buffs of the era, Flood discovers details and characters surrounding Grant to craft a compelling and poignant portrait of the reluctant author who approached his work more with military discipline than with artistic flair. Here is a gentle spirit who is susceptible to those who ingratiate, seeking their own advancement, but who also attracts the most famous author of the age, Mark Twain, as a friend and promoter. Here is a man hard at work who takes significant time to show his affection to his family and also to the soldiers whom he led as they now meet for various reunions. And as his health declines dramatically in the final weeks, here is a campaign whose successful conclusion is more improbable than any military victory.Flood capably presents the fleshed-out story, with an eye for engaging details, seeking to demonstrate the full personality of a man who was famously stoic in battle and in public. The result is an enjoyable and enlightening page-turner, reminding even the best-read history buffs of the unique personality of the man regarded, by his contemporaries, as one of the great men of his time.
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