Hannibal Who?In a recent survey of college-educated adults, 99% knew who was president during the American Civil War. When asked who was Lincoln's vice-president 1861-1865, 60% guessed Andrew Johnson, his VP for the 2nd term. Only 4% knew the correct answer, Hannibal Hamlin, the senator from Maine picked to balance out the 1860 Republican ticket. And had Hamlin been picked run again in 1864 -- instead of the drunkard Johnson -- every school child in the land would at least be taught his name. Now, it's Hannibal Who?
Jeremiah Michaels' 'What If' novel seeks to correct that slight. ('What If' or
alternate history' novels are common in civil war literature,
probably more so than for any other historical period. Examples:
Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War and
Fire on the Mountain.) There is an endless stream of civil war second
guessing to choose from if you wish to create an alternate history.
What if the Rebels had pursued the
fleeing Yankees all the way to Washington after the first
Battle of Bull Run (June 1861)?
What if Stonewall Jackson's own side
had not killed him by mistake at the
Battle of Chancellorsville (May, 1863)?
What if General Lee hadn't sent
Pickett on a futile charge
the last day of Gettysburg (July 3, 1863)?
But these are piker questions compared to the central theme in this page-turner:
What if Lincoln had died between his inauguration March 4, 1861 and the confederate
bombing of Fort Sumter on April 12?
One reason Hamlin is so little known is because he became disenchanted with Washington, and spent
most of the war in his native Maine, even going so far as to enlist as a private in the Maine
Coast Guard. (He was rapidly promoted to Corporal, and served a brief tour of duty
during 1864). Lincoln relied very heavily on his cabinet for advice,
and had little need for Hamlin. Since the founding of our nation vice
presidents have -- with few exceptions -- been men of little influence or historical
importance. Hamlin was not an exception.
The novel opens with a healthy Lincoln giving his famous inaugural speech, quoted in its
entirety since his words and thoughts play an important part in President Hamlin's first 100 days.
Lincoln catches cold at the inauguration, devlops pneumonia and dies on April 2, exactly four weeks
after becoming president. (We are mercifully spared any clinical details.)
By this time
7 states have seceded (South Carolina was first,
on December 20, 1860), but Virginia and several others are threatening. And a
powder keg in Charleston has been threatening for months. Union-held Fort Sumter in
Charleston Harbor is cut off from suppies and its soldiers will run out of food by
April 15. Without food they will be forced to surrender, something Lincoln would not
allow. In reality, on April 4, 1861 Lincoln ordered naval ships to resupply
the fort, knowing full well this would force the south's hand. On April 12, as union
ships were arriving, confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard ordererd
the bombing of Fort Sumter to commence. No one was killed, but the next day U.S. Army
Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort and his men sailed home.
The Civil War had begun.
Not here. Hamlin is sworn in the same day Lincoln dies,
and meets with his cabinet that evening. He then prepares a
"Here I Am" speech to Congress and the nation for April 5 delivery.
Let's get this out of the way now: Hamlin is no Lincoln. He is actually a pretty good
orator, but in language less appealing than Lincoln's,
reflecting more of the educated and careful Yankee politician than the
self-educated, down-to-earth prairie man from Illinois.
But Hamlin is no dummy either, and he has this overwhelming advantage:
Lincoln was just the president when he died, not the icon who
sits in the Lincoln Memorial, or whose Gettysburg address is the greatest
2-minute oration ever delivered, or the single person who 'saved the union' and
is considered by most historians our nation's greatest president.
For all we know, another president who died within a month of taking office --
William Henry Harrison -- might also have become 'great' but he is
just a footnote in American history. Harrison, like Lincoln in this novel,
never had a chance. While Lincoln is vital in developing the story,
he is quickly forgotten by the nation's leaders, if not the reader.
You have to get the 'greatness factor' out of your
head as you read Avoiding Civil War, for without any accomplishments
this novel's Lincoln is not the Lincoln we know. So Hamlin doesn't have those shoes to fill.
Immediately after being sworn in Hamlin meets with Lincoln's cabinet, and the secession
problem is first and foremost. What to do? In a gesture of humility Hamlin, who was well
known as an ardent abolitionist (one reason he was picked to run as VP), quotes Lincoln's inaurural:
"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the
institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so,
and I have no inclination to do so."
William Seward (the man who Lincoln beat out for the nomination, and who
then became his very able Secretary of State)
will have none of it. He is for invading South Carolina, knocking off Charleston
and ending the insurrection.
Then things get interesting. Secretary of War Simon Cameron points up the "loss of men
war will surely bring," and estimates "up to 50,000 could die if we go to war."
Seward counters that the north has 4 times as many men as the south,
and cannot possibly lose an all out engagement, which he estimates would
last no more than 3 months (of course both men are way, way off).
Salmon Chase (Treasury) is worried about what a protracted war
might cost, and whether England and France will get involved, which would certainly extend
the time frame.
We see where Michaels is going with this. Lincoln never flinched. For him war was a necessary
evil to keep the union together - literally, at all costs. Michaels wants to remind us (again
and often, I might add) that the cost was the lives of 620,000 soldiers,
countless civilians, and a decade long reconstruction nightmare
that brought about defacto slavery (and deaths) for many blacks who were legally free.
Hamlin takes action, or as it were, inaction. He orders Major Anderson to surrender Fort
Sumter. As result, there is no bombing of the fort on April 12, and war is not declared.
The cabinet decides on a diplomatic end run around the 11 secessionist states, beginning with Virginia.
Seward and Hamlin travel to Richmond, where they lobby the Virginia legislature, assurring them
there will be no interference with slavery in that state; all they ask is that Virginia remain
in the Union, which it does. As one result, the confederate capital remains in Montgomery
and is not moved to Richmond. A similar mission is made to Baltimore, and Maryland stays put.
Now the cabinet has some breathing room.
Envoys are sent to France and England to encourage non-recognition of the
breakaway south, since the Confederacy is a slave 'nation' and
Europe long ago gave up slavery. Hamlin then presents a bold plan to Congress,
offering to buy the slaves' freedom in any state that agrees to rejoin the union.
It's not so simple. Northern aboolitionists are furious and agitate for war. Non-seceding
states (like Missouri and Kentucky) that hold slaves petition for the same offer.
Southern states rightests swear they will never rejoin the Union. As each day, each month, each
year passes without war, the reader sneaks a peak at the appendix of this remarkable book, to see
'what really happened' on such and such a date. On September 17, 1862 Hamlin meets with
the ambassador from France, to arrange for a treaty that recognizes the United
States as the soverign North American power. And he has just received word of a skrimish in
Savannah, between a John Brown-type northern abolitionist hothead with his gang of
cutthroats, and an angry mob of southern rednecks. 12 people are killed,
including 3 slaves. In the Appendix we see that on this date in real history
the battle of Antietam was fought in Maryland between General McClelland's Army of
the Potamac and Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. More Americans died at Antietam
than on any other day in the nation's military history (roughly 22,000 casualties, 3500 dead).
Was the civil war worth it? The horrible loss of life and mutilation, the ruination of the south and its economy, the defacto enslavement of blacks for decades after their legal emancipation? That is the central question of this remarkable novel. The title tells us Hamlin is re-elected in 1864, but not what happens afterwards. Were the slaves ever freed? Did the south rejoin the union? Would our nation be radically different today if Hamlin had been president? Michaels gives his take on 'what if', and in doing so gives us much to think about.
Reviewed by M. Bernard Denver