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Memorializing Lincoln

MR. LINCOLN'S T-MAILS The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War

By Tom Wheeler

Collins, $24.95

With his knack for squeezing so much meaning into so little space, it's only fitting that Lincoln became a master of the telegram. In Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails, Tom Wheeler, a former telecommunications executive, argues that it was not his writing or his speaking but Lincoln's adroit use of new technology that allowed him to triumph over the less tech-savvy Southerners.

Wheeler is no great wordsmith himself, but he does offer an original take on Lincoln's presidency. Lincoln saw a telegraph for the first time only three years before he took office, and he hardly touched the device during the first year of the war, Wheeler finds. But in 1862, frustrated with his commanders' tentativeness on the battlefield, the president seems to have grasped the power of instant communication. During one particularly disastrous battle that spring, he took matters into his own hands, firing off telegrams from Washington ordering the movement of troops. His actions raised eyebrows. "Some well-meaning newspapers advise the President to keep his fingers out of the military pie," one of his secretaries wrote later. "The truth is that if he did, the pie would be a sorry mess." By the time he died, Lincoln had sent nearly a thousand missives by telegraph, becoming the first president to exert his will so directly on the battlefield -- and hurrying, Wheeler persuasively argues, the end of the war.

LINCOLN UNMASKED What You're Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe

By Thomas J. DiLorenzo

Crown Forum, $22.95

In a world of Lincoln admirers, there are bound to be some naysayers -- and none is more pointedly revisionist than Thomas J. DiLorenzo, an economist at Loyola College in Maryland. In Lincoln Unmasked, DiLorenzo takes aim at the entirety of Lincoln's sprawling legacy. By fighting to preserve the Union, DiLorenzo insists, Lincoln destroyed it; by failing to join the early abolitionists, he revealed his true feelings on slavery; by stretching the Constitution in wartime, he proved himself a tyrant.

Of course, Lincoln's presidency had its dark side. Most infamously, the Great Emancipator suspended habeas corpus in 1861-62, allowing the indefinite detention of citizens without trial. Still, DiLorenzo's work is more of a diatribe against a mostly unnamed group of Lincoln scholars than a real historical analysis. His wild assertions -- for example, that Lincoln held "lifelong white supremacist views" -- don't help his argument.

Even Lincoln's admirers have sometimes been uncomfortable with the saintly aura that surrounded him after his death. Ward Hill Lamon, his former law partner and biographer, worried that history had begun to view his friend "not as a human being endowed with a mighty intellect and extraordinary virtues, but as a god." Most modern-day historians are wary of falling into this trap, concluding that Lincoln was a more complicated figure than legend would have it -- a man who lived in troubled times and may have made as many controversial decisions as brilliant speeches. On balance, he is remembered today as a conflicted but still great man. DiLorenzo's rabid, warts-and-all approach to his life errs too much on the side of the warts.

Justin Ewers is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report.

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