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An America worse off than today, but not totally different


The Brooklyn Hospital Center, now treating a flood of COVID-19 patients, has performed in national crises for over 150 years. During the Civil War, poet Walt Whitman spent time there, tending to rows of wounded and dying Union soldiers.

Whitman left Brooklyn for Washington, where he nursed “the shattered, traumatized, and suffering men dragged back from the battlefields,” writes Edward Achorn in “Every Drop of Blood.” The book portrays America around the time of President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, on March 4, 1865, with rich social and intellectual detail.

It’s a strain to compare the anguish of a war that took 620,000 young lives from a population about a tenth of its current size with the coronavirus that has killed just over 40,000 Americans, the combatants being mostly older civilians. But there are parallels to the challenges facing the country as it begins to move beyond the immediate threat.

At the time of Lincoln’s second inauguration, the Civil War was drawing to a close. The Confederate surrender at Appomattox took place a month later.

But war’s end left a mountain of new problems requiring brilliant and focused leadership. Much of the economy needed rebuilding, especially in the devastated South. The Treasury was empty.

Achorn describes a country divided not only on the issue of slavery but also experiences — hideous deaths on the battlefields as Washington society frolicked at extravagant balls. There’s an unforgettable account of Kate Chase’s lavish party in February 1865. Chase was daughter of Chief Justice Salmon Chase and wife of the very rich Sen. William Sprague.

The hosts built a dancing hall for the occasion, “draped, gauzed, festooned, flagged, flounced, and all ravishing to the eye, with incense and beauty,” the Evening Star reported. The women in elegant costumes, dripping with diamonds, “lost and re-lost themselves in the mazes of their misty dance.”

That same month, William Tecumseh Sherman, having already burnt a path of destruction through Georgia, marched through the Carolinas. “Some found the frenetic party-going of that winter, while the nation’s young men still died in agony, disgraceful,” Achorn writes.

Americans, meanwhile, were waking up in an utterly changed social order that they could only begin to imagine. Under what terms should the former rebels be readmitted to national life? And what would be the new status of African-Americans in a country where many Northerners as well as Southerners opposed any idea of racial parity?

In the first inaugural address, Lincoln vowed to preserve the Union, with or without slavery. He displayed no such flexibility four bloody years later, portraying “this terrible war” as God’s punishment for slavery — “as the woe due to those by whom the offence came.”

But the address then turned to the massive task ahead of bringing the rebels back into the fold. He urged Americans, “With Malice toward none; with Charity toward all … let us … bind up the nation’s wounds.”

A little more than a month later, actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. America’s recovery was passed from the greatest president in American history to one of the worst, Andrew Johnson.

Lincoln’s running mate in 1864, Johnson was “humorless, quick to form resentments, and ready to smear opponents as base men acting from the worst of motives,” Achorn writes. Johnson became the first president to be impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate.

Though the Tennessean supported the Union, Johnson was also a primitive racist who opposed extending any protection to the vulnerable freedmen. He opposed the 14th Amendment, which extended citizenship to African-Americans. Johnson’s tawdry legacy was to set up America for a century of racial trauma.

History can take cruel turns.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

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