Lincoln’s Greatest Case–Sort Of

Mississippi steamboat race

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Brian McGinty (The Oatman Massacre) uses his skills as both attorney and historian in Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, The Bridge and The Making of America.

In May, 1856, the steamboat Effie Afton hit a pillar of the Rock Island Bridge–the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi. Both steamboat and bridge caught fire. The Effie Acton sank, with all its cargo. The Illinois side of the bridge collapsed onto the wreck of the steamboat the next day. In the trial that followed, the powerful steamboat interest fought the developing railroad industry for control of the Mississippi, and the nation’s shipping business.

McGinty sets out the complicated story with the clarity of a legal brief. He places the trial and its issues solidly in a historical context that includes the role of the Mississippi in American economic life, the Dred Scott case, Abraham Lincoln’s career, and westward expansion. He leads readers through the intricacies of legal principles governing interstate commerce and judicial jurisdiction, steamboat operation, bridge construction and river currents with a sure hand. He reports the day-to-day unfolding of the trial with an eye to both the personalities and the issues involved.

Lincoln’s Greatest Case tells an intriguing story that will appeal to anyone interested in the commercial and industrial history of the United States, but the title is misleading. Anyone expecting a courtroom drama with Lincoln at its center will be disappointed. There’s a reason the Effie Afton trial is little more than a footnote in most Lincoln biographies: Lincoln was not the lead attorney in the team defending the Rock Island Bridge. He is simply the best-known character in a colorful cast.

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


  1. Ashley on February 18, 2015 at 12:59 am

    Ah, that always disappoints me, to see an editor and/or author not believe enough in the real story that they feel they have to sell books using a misleading title or marketing campaign. It automatically makes me suspicious that maybe even they don’t think it’s worth reading.

    What’s the old line — two things will always sell: sex and Lincoln? Something like that.

    Funny to imagine a time when the fledgling railroads had to fight against Big Steamboat. 🙂

    • pamela on February 18, 2015 at 1:34 am

      Ashley: I agree 1000%.

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