Edward Achorn reveals the nation’s capital on that momentous day―with its mud, sewage, and saloons, its prostitutes, spies, reporters, social-climbing spouses and power-hungry politicians―as a microcosm of all the opposing forces that had driven the country apart.
Lincoln’s last days have been the subject of more extensive hagiography than for any other president, so it is tempting to dismiss Mr Achorn’s book, which focuses on the inauguration, as redundant. That would be a mistake. Its strength lies less in the events themselves than in the elaborate detail and rich historical context that he musters. Spring thunderstorms turn the parade route into a muddy quagmire that swallows shoes and ruins dresses. John Wilkes Booth relies on the father of his teenage mistress, a New England senator, for vip passes to both the inauguration and Ford’s Theatre, giving the murderer more than one chance to get to his victim ... As in some of the plays performed in Ford’s Theatre, minor roles sometimes eclipse major ones in this fascinating account. By the end, as well as mourning Lincoln’s fate, American readers might wish for another chance at politics without malice and with charity to all.
Today, Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman and John Wilkes Booth have become more symbols than human beings. But in Every Drop of Blood, they are living people, crammed in corridors and parlors and conniving and gossiping at parties ... While its backdrop is a monumental event, the book never loses sight of the people whose stories it tells ... Washington, D.C., itself is a character, grand with its new domed Capitol and at the same time vulgar, with a canal of stinking sewage nearby. Achorn knows the city so well that even the statues have stories he can tell ... Achorn is clearly a longtime student of the era. The bibliography is 16 pages long, and the book reflects that level of scholarship. So many of the characters we meet are quoted exactly from letters and diaries. Original sourcing not only provides credibility, it lets us hear these people in their own voices, not transcribed or filtered through a 21st-century sensibility ... a good read in our own era, reminding us that no matter how badly divided we feel now, as a nation we’ve been through worse. It reminds us that even in those terrible times, our country produced an underestimated man who was able to rise above them. And it offers hope that another underestimated leader among us now may be able to do the same
Achorn gives us is a lively guided tour of Washington during the 24 hours or so around Lincoln’s swearing-in ... Achorn...has a journalist’s gift for finding just the right quotation. He deftly fishes memorable descriptions—often less-than-flattering ones—out of 19th-century newspapers and diaries, especially as he introduces the most distinguished residents of the nation’s capital ... Despite Achorn’s sharp eye for such immersive details, his big-picture narration offers little that is new or surprising. Readers unfamiliar with this much-chronicled period of history will probably appreciate his skill in depicting a pivotal city at a pivotal moment. But anyone who has read even one or two of the many, many other good books on Civil War-era Washington might end up skimming through his workmanlike accounts ... The pace sometimes drags as Achorn stretches out this single day over the entire book, frequently interrupting his flow with digressions, explanations and flashbacks.