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It is set in the years leading up to the first battles of the U.S. Civil War, mostly in the divided state of Missouri. It follows the fortunes of a young man with Union and abolitionist sympathies, and his involvement with a very Southern family.
This is a novel about the events leading up to the American Civil War, by the American author Winston Churchill, NOT Winston S. Churchill, former Prime Minister of Great Britain. The story is set in the author's home town of St. Louis, Missouri, the site of pivotal events in the western theater of the Civil War, with historically prominent citizens having both Northern and Southern sympathies. St. Louis was also the pre-war home of both Ulysses Grant and William Sherman, each of whom is depicted with drama and realism.
Romantic tension develops between the four main characters: one, Virginia Carvel, the fashionable daughter of Comyn Carvel, a southern gentleman of the old school; another, Clarence Maxwell Colfax, her n'er-do-well cousin who becomes a stalwart cavalier in the Southern cause in an effort to win Ginny's approval; the third, Stephen A. Brice, an earnest young lawyer from Boston who antagonizes Virginia by his zeal for Abraham Lincoln's cause; and the fourth, Eliphalet Hopper, a hard-working clerk with ambitions to advance himself both financially and socially.
The crisis of the title is provoked by Abraham Lincoln's opposition to the extension of slavery, and the power of his personal integrity to win people to his cause, including the young lawyer, Stephen Brice, who becomes a devoted admirer and proponent following a personal interview on the eve of the Freeport debate between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. This meeting depicts Lincoln's determination to advance the cause of freedom through the possible (and likely) sacrifice of his own political ambitions, and is related with a very believable combination of rustic humor and political acumen on Lincoln's part.
The events prior to Lincoln’s nomination and his eventual election to the Presidency elicit different reactions among the citizens of St. Louis, from the determined antipathy of the Southern sympathizers, to the equally determined patriotism of the population of German immigrants who have fled from their homeland and whose devotion to liberty has caused them to transfer their allegiance to the ideal of American democracy. One of them is Stephen's fellow lawyer, Karl, who bears the scar of a duel fought with broadswords between himself and an arrogant German noble; a duel based on an actual incident in Berlin.
Although the personal rivalries follow an almost soap opera style formula, the overall events of the war from the perspective of St. Louis and the Western theater of war are dramatically depicted with well-researched authenticity, and both Grant and Sherman are depicted as having a personal involvement in the lives of the main characters. A pivotal moment in the heroine's life is presented through her transformation from being self-centered and self-absorbed to becoming self-sacrificing and dedicated to easing the suffering of those around her. This is represented as a Christian metaphor for the way that God uses challenges to mould a person's character.
Eventually she and the young lawyer find themselves meeting Lincoln together to try to save her cousin's life after Clarence is condemned as a Southern spy, and together they experience Lincoln's power to bring about a reconciliation between them, just before the national reconciliation which Lincoln proposed between the North and the South would be aborted by John Wilkes Booth's bullet.
This novel is a story about Abraham Lincoln in the same sense that the novel Ben Hur is "a tale of the Christ," in that Lincoln only appears twice, for a total of about two dozen pages, but his philosophy is a dynamic presence throughout the story. The author portrays Lincoln as being the sacrifice America had to pay to redeem it from the sin of slavery.
As a side note: General Lew Wallace wrote Ben Hur partly as a way to revive his reputation in the aftermath of the battle of Shiloh, in which his division played an undistinguished role, marching and countermarching futilely the first day of the battle, the aftermath of which left Sherman so discouraged that he remarked to Grant, "They sure whupped us today!" To which Grant replied, "Yep. We'll whup them tomorrow," and they did.
In his post-script, the author offers this apology for supporting Lincoln's point of view, by explaining, "Lincoln loved both the South and the North.