Bardo to the Battlefield: The Historical Context Behind Lincoln in the Bardo

Posted on 18th October 2017 by Sally Campbell & Martha Greengrass
As America still struggles to make peace with its past, the American Civil War and its legacy looms large in the public consciousness. Structurally daring and politically apposite, George Saunders' Booker Prize-winning first novel Lincoln in the Bardo is the story of a man and a country at war, caught irrevocably on the cusp of personal and national change.  

As Alex Clark commented in the Guardian, Saunders’ ‘revivification of Lincoln dramatises not only a general sense of the conflict between private and public selves, duty and inclination, doubt and resolve, but a very specifically American one.’ Exclusively for Waterstones, Professor Robert Cook considers the historical context to Saunders’ Lincoln and the books that give the real story behind his extraordinary fiction.
“We are at war ... At war with ourselves,” exclaims Hans Vollman, one of the main characters in George Saunders’s weird, wonderful and at times downright disturbing new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The book is voiced almost entirely by Vollman and other troubled shades skulking in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery on a dismal night in February 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln visits the body of his beloved son, Willie, a recent victim of typhoid. Vollman’s words remind us that divisions in the United States are nothing new. 

At least three quarters of a million Americans perished in the Civil War of 1861–65. The bitter conflict was triggered by the secession of the cotton states and the bombardment of Union-held Fort Sumter. It resulted in the military defeat of the proslavery Confederacy and the liberation of nearly four million black slaves. President Lincoln enters the cemetery at an important moment in the war, shortly after Union forces have won their first major victory over the Confederates at Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. Up to this point the war has not gone well for Lincoln. He, like Willie and the other ghosts who inhabit a twilight world between death and the afterlife, is in transition: from grieving father to saviour of the republic.

For readers wanting to know more about the historical context for Saunders’s stunning feat of literary imagination, the best place to start is James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, a lucid blend of political and military history which remains the best the best single volume treatment of the Civil War. McPherson expertly details why Americans came to blows in 1861 and how events on the battlefield and home-front were closely interwoven.

The two best modern biographies of Abraham Lincoln himself are David Donald, Lincoln, and Richard Carwardine, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. Donald portrays his subject as a relatively passive figure who claims to have been influenced by events. Carwardine depicts Lincoln more persuasively as an adept politician who was skilled in reading and molding the popular mood – a president with a discernible moral core who acted purposefully and ultimately effectively to save the American Union from destruction. John F Marszalek's Lincoln and The Military, examines Lincoln’s handling of Union military strategy and recounts how the president eventually found the right commanders to hound the rebel Confederacy into submission.

Saunders’s Lincoln worries about the mounting death toll: “Did the thing merit it. Merit the killing. On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more.” Two books stand out for the quality of their insights into what the Union meant for the majority of the ordinary citizen-soldiers who risked their lives to save it: Gary W. Gallagher, The Union War and Mark E. Neely, The Last Best Hope of Earth

Towards the close of Saunders’s innovative tale, the grieving Lincoln ponders that America’s enemies will gloat at the republic’s imminent collapse: ‘Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails.” For evidence of the war’s relevance to the wider world take a look at Amanda Foreman’s admirably readable history of Britons involved in the conflict, A World on Fire, and Don Doyle’s more scholarly The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War.

Although the Civil War saved the Union from destruction and freed the slaves, it did not usher in that “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln hailed at the close of his Gettysburg Address. One explanation for why it did not do so lies in the way in which white Americans  chose to remember and forget the slaughter of the 1860s.  David Blight’s superb Race and Reunion tells the compelling story of how black folk were written out of the narrative as active agents in their own liberation (200,000 African Americans fought to save the Union) and how whites on both sides came to romanticise the war as an epic contest between brave American brothers.


Robert Cook is Professor of American History at the University of Sussex. He is the author of several books on the American Civil War and its legacy including Civil War America: Making a Nation 1848–1877 and Secession Winter: When the Union Fell Apart. His comprehensive account of Civil War remembrance and forgetting will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in the summer.


Photo: Abraham Lincoln at Antriam, 1862 (c) Everett Historical



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