Sunday, July 22, 2018

Book Review: They Knew Lincoln by John E Washington

By John E. Washington
With a New Introduction by Kate Masur
Copyright 2018 Oxford University Press 

Having read so many books on Abraham Lincoln and so many on the Civil War, I always enjoy finding a new approach to me of these subjects. This time, however, such a new approach found me, and I thank Oxford University Press for providing me a review copy of They Knew Lincoln. Here is my honest review of it. 

This is fine book, giving a different perspective of African-Americans in Washington D.C., or at least of a newly-studied group of African-Americans, those who worked for the President, and how some of them remembered Abraham Lincoln and aspects of his life, death and behavior.

At the start of this edition, Masur’s introduction is simply wonderful, a terrific review of this work and even sort of a biography of both Washington and his book. It is very readable and informative, a good in-depth overview of Washington’s text. Her research into Washington and his writing and her discussion of his work certainly made reissuing this book a worthwhile idea and actually bringing it back into print was a good public service to the current generation of historians and readers. This is an example of the positive good a historian can accomplish.

Much of Washington’s work is a social history of African-Americans in post-war and early twentieth century Washington D.C. as he discusses many of the people he knew and met and some of the customs and beliefs that he, his family and others held. It is a good addition to African-American history, sort of an “inside look” at the  daily lives of common people of the time and area. Granted, I have not read as much African-American history as I have read of the war and President Lincoln, so maybe it is mostly “new to me,” but I enjoyed it and found it illuminating.

As the book progresses, it turns more into a discussion of people who remembered, worked for, and/or adored Abraham Lincoln and discusses many of their memories, feelings and ways in which Washington believed they influenced the President and his beliefs and actions, especially those involving African-Americans. From perspectives of the inner workings of the White House, to discussions of how the Lincolns treated their servants, and to remembrances of Lincoln’s assassination and its aftermath, this book covers several different aspects of Lincoln in the memory of African-Americans around Washington D.C.

I especially appreciated the “mini-chapters” on Elizabeth Thomas, John Coghill, Tom Gardiner, William J. Ferguson, William de Fleurville, and Elizabeth Keckley, and thought they provided the most information about the Lincolns. That is not to criticize the other sections, but these stood out as the highlights of Washington’s work.

Washington included several photographs and illustrations in this book, and they made good contributions to it.  Copies of photographs in 1942 were not of the same quality as today, so not all these illustrations are perfectly clear, but they still are nice to see, helping to place faces with names and to see the type of documentation Washington found.

Overall, this is a readable, informative book, with an outstanding introduction, new accounts of African-American history and stories showing how some African-Americans knew, remembered, and perhaps influenced the nation’s sixteenth President. It is a valuable book for any library focused on the study of Lincoln, historic memory or African-American history. I sincerely recommend it.

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