“Abraham Lincoln: The War Years” is a four-volume, 2,400 page biography focused on Lincoln’s presidency and death. Written by Carl Sandburg and published in 1939, it was published about a dozen years after Sandburg’s two-volume “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years” covering the first five decades of Lincoln’s life.
“The War Years” was a monumental effort which earned Sandburg, already a well-known American poet and an increasingly well-regarded biographer, the 1940 Pulitzer Prize in history. Like Lincoln, Sandburg was a son of the Illinois prairie and as a consequence he harbored a lifelong interest in the sixteenth president. Sandburg died in 1967 at the age of 89.
Unlike Sandburg’s “The Prairie Years” which covered Lincoln’s childhood and early career as a lawyer and politician, “The War Years” does not have the sprightly, effervescent feel of a biography written by a poet. Instead, this series is heavy and more dense and only sparingly reveals its author’s normal passion for verse and dexterity.
Like its predecessor volumes, “The War Years” is mostly – but not strictly – chronological. Periodic interruptions in the flow allow the author to explore cultural or political topics which could probably be placed nearly anywhere in the series. But unlike Sandburg’s coverage of Lincoln’s first fifty-two years in “The Prairie Years” which consumed more than nine-hundred pages, this series covers just four years of Lincoln’s life in nearly three times more pages. As a result, “The War Years” is heavy on details – both important and trivial – and requires an immense investment of time.
Unfortunately, while most of the big picture moments will strike the reader as familiar, much of the surrounding detail will not. A casual reader will often get lost in unimportant details and miss the forest for the trees. On more than one occasion I lost track of which part of Lincoln’s life was being discussed since the text wandered so deeply into one topic or another that previously familiar terrain became unrecognizable. Matters which might be dispatched with a paragraph, or perhaps a page, are routinely covered in ten or twenty pages.
On the other hand, with such breadth and depth Sandburg is able to provide insight into topics rarely found in other Lincoln biographies. For example, the reader is introduced more thoroughly to the Confederate Cabinet and its provocative personalities than anywhere else I’ve ventured. I’ve also never witnessed a more complete description of the drudgery of Lincoln’s day-to-day life as President (with innumerable requests for patronage, pardons or other favors).
The congressional plot against Secretary of State Seward is particularly interesting and the chapter describing Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox is unrivaled. In addition, this series provides the most thorough and dramatic account of Lincoln’s assassination that I’ve yet read. Covering more than 100 pages, Sandburg’s description of Lincoln’s last moments provides a fascinating and engrossing conclusion to the series.
With several hundred illustrations, photographs, notes, newspaper clippings and caricatures there is a great deal to be found in Sandburg’s biography that adds unique color and clarity to Lincoln’s story. Unfortunately, the text itself leaves Lincoln two-dimensional and his relationship with his family largely unexplored. For reasons unknown, Sandburg seems determined to avoid humanizing Lincoln, his wife or his children (none of whom become familiar after this lengthy series).
Also missing are observations or analyses by the author which would provide special insight into matters of great historical significance or serve to explore Lincoln’s legacy. Little or no overarching commentary examines Lincoln’s views on slavery, religion or other big-picture topics of interest. Although valuable messages and insights are contained in the series, they are widely scattered and well-hidden beneath mountains of minutiae.
Overall, Carl Sandburg’s “The War Years” is an encyclopedic recounting of Lincoln’s day-to-day life as president during a time of great conflict and turmoil. Though likely of great interest and value to a historian, the series will prove overwhelming and esoteric for a more casual reader. Although it is a jewel of American history, Sandburg’s biography does not distinguish between the trivial and the momentous. Impressive in scope, it is equally overwhelming and without enough moments of clarity and revelation to be of interest to the modern reader.
Overall rating: 3 stars