March 30, 2010

Lincoln's Fifth Wheel

I picked up a beautiful first edition of Lincoln's Fifth Wheel: The Political History of the U.S. Sanitary Commission this past weekend in Chicago while participating in a booksigning at the venerable Abraham Lincoln Bookshop. Not only a first, but the signed "Camp and Field Edition" that was autographed by the author (William Quentin Maxwell) for members of the Civil War Book Club. Even though serious collectors know that the phrase "book club edition" is to be generally avoided like the plague, these books were publishers trade editions in every sense, but then had the special signature leaf bound in.

The title takes its name from Lincoln's remark as to how he feared the U. S. Sanitary Commission would become the "fifth wheel to a coach" after he reluctantly signed the the order that made the commission an official government agency. Initially, the Sanitary Commission was to merely monitor the health and sanitary conditions of Union camps, but it soon found itself well out into the field. It served troops in camp, on hospital transports, and even up to the battle line. Allan Nevins (1890-1971), who wrote the Preface, writes that "in a nation that had no medical association, no nursing schools, no apparatus for meeting a sudden strain on hospital facilities, it mobilized the best talent available for the war emergency." In his Civil War bibliography, Nevins summarizes the work as a "a scholarly and comprehensive narrative, covering all aspects of the treatment of the sick."

The book was published in 1956 by Longmans, Green and Co., has a price of $5.00 on the front jacket flap, and states "First Edition" on the copyright page. With ample footnotes, bibliography and index, this book offers an important look into an organization that formed an integral and often overlooked part of the Union war effort.

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