By Charles Rosenberg

Hanover Square Press


426pp/$27.99/August 2020

The Day Lincoln Lost
Cover by Allan Davey

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Charles Rosenberg follows up his alternate history of George Washington, The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington with a look at the last days of the election of 1860 in The Day Lincoln Lost. As with the first novel, the title seemingly spoils the end of the novel, but the novel is more about the journey and what Rosenberg has to say about American culture, and the title isn't quite what it seems to be.

The novel opens in 1860 with the escape of a young slave girl, Lucy Batelle from her master in Kentucky. Making her way to Illinois, Lucy's situation becomes entwined with the story of abolitionist speaker Abby Kelly Foster. Foster, herself, winds up caught up in political mechanizations when President James Buchanan sees her as a pawn that might serve to undermine the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln in favor of the candidacies of either Vice President John C. Breckinridge, Senator Stephen Douglas, or John Bell. Lincoln finds himself representing Foster as his least worst option and her trial forms the primary focus of the novel.

Rosenberg changes his viewpoint characters, sometimes focusing on Clarence Artemis, the abolitionist journalist, sometimes Annabelle Carter, the Pinkerton detective, occasionally Buchanan, and eventually Abraham Lincoln. Other characters are also given a chance to stand center stage. The issue is that characters often drop out of this rotation unexpectedly and don't always return, either leaving their stories unfinished or allowing their fates to be summarized by one of the other characters.

The use of different viewpoint characters allows Rosenberg to more fully explore the different types of abolitionists in antebellum America. Although from the distance of 170 years it is easy to view them all as wanting to achieve the same goals, Rosenberg points out the tensions between radical abolitionists like Foster and gradual abolitionists like Carter. Even Lincoln and his partner, Billy Herndon, view the answer to the slavery issue quite differently, which not only causes tension, but can be used to the characters' advantage. Many of those characters, however, seem to think of themselves as being more clever than Rosenberg depicts them.

Although Rosenberg does conclude his story, at the same time, The Day Lincoln Lost feels like a prologue to the alternative Presidency and potential Civil War that would follow the events that are described in the novel. Rosenberg also includes a few items that appear as if they might be errors, notably the selection made by the Senate near the end of the book, but that is a reasonably minor point and there are small indications throughout the novel that the point of divergence from our own timeline was significantly earlier than it would appear.

Despite the appearance of slavery and Lincoln's insistence that as a candidate for President he shouldn't campaign, the aspect of the story that seems most at odds with our own time is Rosenberg's depiction of Foster's trial. In comparison to modern trials which include forensic evidence and expert witnesses, Foster's trial seems almost perfunctory. Rosenberg's judge, Benjamin Garrett, who, despite Lincoln's misgivings, is one of the most likeable characters in the novel, provides instruction to the jury on various aspects of the trial, but there is no sense of a discovery procedure and the outcome of the trial does not seem to be particularly in doubt at any point.

The Day Lincoln Lost can be slow-moving at time, but Rosenberg does paint a vivid picture of a legal system which is at once familiar and foreign. Similarly, the style of campaigning, or not campaigning, that Rosenberg depicts is completely at odds with the modern technique. His Lincoln uses surrogates to campaign for him, muc as modern day politicians use surrogates to speak on television, but Lincoln refuses to be drawn into the fray, consistently declining to say more than simple platitudes to journalists, even when they are asking him about the case he is trying rather than his presidential ambitions. Rosenberg successfully captures another time in this historical novel that presents a different outcome to the election of 1860.

Purchase this book

Amazon BooksOrder from Amazon UK




Return to