Using historical excerpts, Saunders provides an account of the nation’s response to the Civil War. “Young Willie Lincoln was laid to rest on the day that the casualty lists from the Union victory at Fort Donelson were publicly posted, an event that caused a great shock among the public at that time, the cost in life being unprecedented thus far in the war,” writes one historian. Lincoln, another writer explains, learns of this body count as Willie’s body lies “under embalmment,” and other historians and diarists describe the harrowing battle at Fort Donelson, which has claimed the lives of people of all ages—sons, brothers, and fathers. In one letter to the president, an aggrieved father writes, “How miny more ded do you attend to make sir afore you is done? One minit there was our litle Nate on that bridge with a fishpole and ware is that boy now?”
With these historical excerpts, Saunders gives readers a snapshot of the unrest the nation underwent during the Civil War. He also shows the strain placed on Lincoln, as the man not only loses his son but also has to keep the country on track during the bloodiest conflict in American history. As he contends with the harrowing loss of his son, he also has to come to terms with the fact that many of his own countrymen hate him for what he’s doing. When people ask in their letters “how miny more ded” Lincoln intends to “make afore [he] is done,” they remind him that his decisions produce very tangible results: massive quantities of dead human beings. This is why he’s unable to think about Willie’s death without considering the morality of his own choices.