Balladeer’s Blog’s recent look at my Top Five Harry Flashman Novels was a hit. Combine that with the upcoming Presidents Day Holiday on Monday and let’s take a look at one of the other Flashman novels for future president Abe Lincoln’s interactions with George MacDonald Fraser’s infamous antihero Harry Flashman.
In 1971’s Flash for Freedom, set in the second half of 1848 and early 1849, one of the historical figures that Harry encounters is the young Abraham Lincoln when Abe was just a Congressman. Flashman himself – like Lincoln – has not yet achieved the fame that will be his in later life.
The pair first meet in the fall of 1848 in Washington, DC, when Harry – a Cavalry Captain in Queen Victoria’s army – is trying, Bret Maverick-style, to pass himself off as a Royal Navy Lieutenant named Beauchamp Comber. (Don’t ask.) Abe senses something off about the scurvy Brit and uses seeming politeness mixed with alarming insinuations to set Flashman on edge, terrified that he’ll be exposed.
The author George MacDonald Fraser handles this section very cleverly as Lincoln comes across like a homespun Sherlock Holmes, chewing up Harry’s lies and spitting them out on the b.s. pile. Harry/ Beauchamp counters with an observation that Abe isn’t entirely on the level, either, masking his obviously calculating nature behind a facade of folksiness.
The two part on reasonably friendly terms, but Lincoln smilingly makes it clear that he knows Flashman/ Comber is conning everyone about being a naval officer. However, Abe also makes it clear that whatever the rascal is up to it doesn’t seem to pose any harm to him, so he shrugs it off and goes on his merry way.
The second meeting between the future President and the future Sir Harry comes in the very early months of 1849 in the novel’s thrilling finale. A convoluted set of circumstances have led to Lincoln being at just the right place at just the right time to face down a pack of Fugitive Slave Hunters in order to save Harry and a female slave that Flashman is smuggling to freedom in Canada.
The next day a bedridden Harry is recovering from wounds received during this adventure. He’s staying at the home of an acquaintance of Lincoln, and Abe has been visiting the ailing Englishman, sitting in a bedside chair. They’ve had a lengthy conversation during which Lincoln has made it clear that he now knows who Harry really is and Flashman asks why Abe continues to cover for him.
By way of an answer Lincoln muses aloud about the various newsworthy escapades that “Beauchamp Comber” has been having as a reluctant agent of the Underground Railroad. He also recaps the number of former slaves that Flashman has incidentally helped recently during his usual selfish pursuits. We join the narrative as Abe sums up:
“I don’t pretend to know why you’ve done these things and I don’t think I want to know. It’s enough for me to know that you HAVE done them, and that none of those unfortunates will ever wear chains again.”
I started to make with the kind of simperingly compassionate noises that I thought would appeal to a man like Lincoln but he stopped me short with a raised hand and a wry smile before saying “Save it for the Recording Angel, Captain Flashman. I have a feeling you’ll need it on that day.” Continue reading