I’m science traveling in New Orleans. Somehow I’ve never been to the city before so am chomping at the chance to visit, in part because New Orleans played a role in Abraham Lincoln’s emerging world view. He traveled there twice, both times on a flatboat floating down the Mississippi River just before leaving the family home to set up a life as a young adult. I’ll have more on the trip when I return, but it got me thinking of a book I had read last year. I’m reposting the review of it here to whet your appetite for more. Enjoy.
Book Review – Lincoln in New Orleans by Richard Campanella
An exceptionally well researched book recreating Abraham Lincoln’s flatboat trips to New Orleans. Campanella is an expert on New Orleans, and has expanded his expertise upstream to develop a detailed account of Lincoln’s two trips down the Mississippi River. No small feat given that the sum total of all the first person reminiscences of the trips by Lincoln and participants wouldn’t fill a page of text. Campanella’s recreation, like many efforts based on such scant direct information, is not however contrived in the least. On the contrary, the effort he has put into collecting and analyzing fragmented – and often contradictory or dubious – accounts is exemplary.
I would suggest the book is for the serious reader rather those with a casual interest in Lincoln, New Orleans, or the Mississippi River. It is extremely fact-dense, and the writing style is scholarly, yet accessible for thoughtful enthusiasts. Those expecting an exhilarating story of adventure won’t find it, though an adventure it does describe. To me that not only doesn’t take away from the book, it helps define it as scholarship to be taken seriously.
After a short introduction there are only five long chapters. The first explores Lincoln’s father Thomas’ own flatboat trip as a youth, along with setting the stage for Lincoln’s desire to hit the muddy waters himself. “The 1828 Experience” is a massive undertaking; more than 100 pages of detailed research into the timing of his first flatboat trip while still living in Indiana, the building of the boat, the obstacles in the rivers and elsewhere, the arrival and lingering in New Orleans at the end, and the trip back home. Campanella teases apart the disparate accounts, provides a detailed analysis of the attack by slaves, and places Lincoln in the context of the technologically changing times.
Another chapter examines Lincoln’s second flatboat experience in 1831, including analysis of the mill dam story, the crew and timing of departures, and much more. While truncated so as not to repeat the riverine details well covered in the previous chapter, it still tallies about 40 pages. This is followed by a chapter speculating about what Lincoln may have seen and done in New Orleans, framed by extensive actual facts about what was going on there at that time. In his Conclusions chapter Campanella assesses what influences these flatboat voyages may have had on Lincoln’s views of slavery, internal improvements, and political philosophy. On top of all of this Campanella adds two appendices providing wonderful background material on commerce on western rivers and on New Orleans itself during the time period in which Lincoln was developing into the President he would become.
This is an extraordinary book of scholarship that deserves more attention that it has apparently received. It’s not for the casual reader, but it should be for everyone seriously interested in this critical period of Abraham Lincoln’s life.
More Abraham Lincoln book reviews can be read here (scroll down for more).
David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.
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