Abraham Lincoln was President and therefore Commander-in-Chief of Federal (Union) forces during the American Civil War. Lincoln was a Republican who put reconciliation with the South (Confederacy) at the top of his agenda as the war drew to a close. Many other Republicans were not as sympathetic to the South but Lincoln knew that if America was to progress and move on from the American Civil War once it had finished, reconciliation was the way ahead. What Abraham Lincoln would have achieved in the immediate years after April 1865 is open to speculation. However, John Wilkes Booth ended Lincoln’s life at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC and many ‘Northerners’ were unwilling to be as compassionate to the South post-1865 as Lincoln was.
Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12th 1809 in Hodgenville, Hardin County, Kentucky. His parents were poor and lived on the frontier lands. Lincoln moved to Indiana when he was eight and his mother died when he was ten. Lincoln had little choice as a child but to learn how to hunt as wherever he lived the lands were full of wild animals. By 1830, Lincoln lived in Illinois.
Despite this background – working on farms, splitting wood for a living, working in a store etc – Lincoln taught himself to read and write and became fascinated by Law and Politics. He was sympathetic to the views of the Whig Party and in 1834 Lincoln was elected to the Illinois State Legislature. Despite the work involved, Lincoln maintained his interest in Law as a subject and in 1836 passed his bar examinations. He then became a lawyer. The amount of work he did as a lawyer was restricted to the size of the population where he lived – New Salem. Lincoln therefore decided to move to the state capital, Springfield.
In 1842, Lincoln married Mary Todd and two years later he went into partnership with William Herndon. Both men got on well together and in later years Herndon claimed that it was his views on slavery that helped to shape the future President’s views, as it was a topic they discussed.
Between 1844 and 1850, Lincoln worked to build up his law firm. In 1850 he was appointed attorney to the Illinois Central Railroad. Lincoln quickly gained a reputation as a driven man who rarely stopped work.
In the Illinois State Legislature Lincoln spoke out against slavery but also made it clear that he believed that the South had the right to use slaves as it was part of their current system. Lincoln was also critical of the activities of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1856 Lincoln joined the newly formed Republican Party. He challenged the incumbent Senator for Illinois, Stephen Douglas, for a place in the Senate. Both men clashed over the Louisiana Purchase. Douglas believed that anyone who moved to the states covered by the Purchase had the right to own slaves. Lincoln believed differently and believed that land covered by the Purchase should be slave free.
In 1858, Lincoln made it clear in a speech he made in Quincy, Illinois, what he thought about slavery:
“The Republican Party think it (slavery) wrong – we think it is a moral, a social, and a political wrong. Because we think it wrong, we propose a course of policy that shall deal with it as a wrong. We will deal with it as with any other wrong…..and so deal with it that in the end of time there may be some promise of an end to it.”
The speech angered Southern slave owners. Their anger became much greater in 1860 when Lincoln was nominated as the Republican Party’s Presidential candidate in the forthcoming national election. In that election, Lincoln polled 1.8 million votes and won the election as he won more states than his nearest opponent.
However, a much larger number of people did not vote for Lincoln – a total of 2.8 million – in a sign that many in the US did not agree with his views but that the voting system was swayed in his favour via the Electoral College system.
What the election did show was the America was divided down the lines of slavery. All those states that voted for Lincoln were slave free states. All those that voted for one of his opponents (there were three in total) were slave states.
Lincoln won 18 states while his opponents won 17. Perhaps more ominously, the official Democrat candidate (Stephen Douglas) won just one state while the Deep South’s candidate (John Beckenridge) won thirteen. John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party won the other three. The Deep South had not accepted the nomination of Douglas to be the Democrats choice as he was seen as being too liberal and too influenced by the North. Beckenridge was their choice – a hard-line pro-slavery man.
Lincoln selected his Cabinet with care as he wanted it to be as fully represented of all views as was possible. However, it did not include anyone who was an advocate of slavery. There were those who believed things should be left as they were and that slavery could remain where it was an integral part of the state economy. However, none of them believed in expanding slavery across the continent as the frontier moved further west.
Lincoln very quickly faced a very serious problem that threatened to break up the Union. Seven states, starting with South Carolina, seceded from the Union. These were states that believed that their very way of life was going to be altered by a Federal government that existed in Washington DC but had no knowledge about the way of life in the South. The seven states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Florida) formed the Confederate States of America. At its head was President Jefferson Davis and he was given the go-ahead to create a Confederate Army that totalled 100,000. Davis believed that all Federal property in the Confederacy now belonged to it and this included all Federal forts.
On April 12th 1861, the Confederate government ordered the surrender of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour. The commander there, Major Robert Anderson, refused and his fort was bombarded for 34 hours before he surrendered.
Lincoln saw this as a direct declaration of war. He called on all states loyal to the Union to provide men for the Federal Army. Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee refused and joined the Confederacy. Kentucky and Missouri refused to provide men but did not want to take sides.
Lincoln believed that one way to defeat the South was to strangle her economy. He therefore authorised the Anaconda Plan, which sort to blockade all Southern ports so that overseas trade was impossible. However, there were far too few ships in the Federal Navy to adequately cover the 3,000 miles of coastline. Blockade running was common and also highly lucrative for the crews involved.
Lincoln also persuaded the aged General Winfield Scott to retire as commander of the Federal (Union) Army. At 75 years, Scott was considered to be too old to be able to have the required energy to command the whole Union Army. General Irwin McDowell replaced him. He was urged by Lincoln to confront the Confederate Army near its new capital, Richmond. This resulted in both sides clashing at Bull Run (July 1861) and the defeat of the Union Army. It was a major blow to Lincoln and a huge boost to Jefferson Davis.
In November 1861, General George McClellan replaced McDowell. He wanted a major assault on Richmond, as he believed that if the Confederate capital fell, the whole secessionist movement would collapse. Lincoln enthusiastically endorsed McClellan’s plan. McClellan gathered an army of over 250,000 men for the attack on Richmond. Then nothing happened.
Lincoln was angered by McClellan’s reluctance to engage the enemy. Lincoln fought campaigns as a politician in Washington and not as a commander in the field. McClellan knew that if he lost a major battle, then the road to Washington would be open to Confederate forces. He was not willing to risk the Union’s capital until the circumstances suited him. McClellan’s intelligence also informed him (incorrectly as it happened) that the Confederate Army around Richmond was much larger than originally thought.
In January 1862, Lincoln summoned McClellan to Washington so that he could explain his lack of action. McClellan told those assembled that he needed to ensure that his withdrawal routes were adequate before he engaged the enemy. Some at the meeting accused McClellan of cowardice and Lincoln decided that he would use his position as Commander-in-Chief to force McClellan to act. He issued General War Order Number One on January 31st. This ordered McClellan to start an attack before February 22nd. He also made it clear that he did not approve of the way Richmond was going to be attacked. Lincoln only withdrew this reservation when the majority of senior commanders under McClellan offered their support to him and told Lincoln that what McClellan planned was the best way ahead. However, Lincoln did insist that McClellan left behind 30,000 troops for the defence of the capital and he removed him from overall command of the Union armies.
While Lincoln as President had the right to do these things, his judgment has to be questioned if only that it was he that appointed McClellan, despite his comparative youth at 35, to command the Union army and now Lincoln was very publicly undermining the man he appointed and attempting to interfere in tactical and strategic decisions. This was a theme that was to run throughout the war. Lincoln, correctly, believed that his generals were subordinate to him. However, his belief that military campaigns could only be won by constantly pushing forward and engaging the enemy, did not take into account what was actually going on in the field. Sherman, during his march through the South, was frequently hindered by appalling weather that was not conducive to an offensive campaign – yet his instructions from Lincoln was to advance on the enemy regardless. Lincoln seemed to have little idea as to how the individual in the field was affected – the lack of food, clothing, tents etc. Nor the sheer physical drain of marching. When Sherman tried to tempt his opposite, Johnston, to surrender in 1865 by offering peace terms that included how the South would be run after the war, Lincoln was furious. He could not tolerate a general interring in political issues but was quite willing to interfere in military ones – as McClellan, Sherman and Grant found out.
There was a great deal of sympathy in Washington for Lincoln in his dealings with McClellan. To many, McClellan did not seem to want to engage the South. On one occasion Lincoln said to McClellan: “If you do not want to use the army, I’d like to borrow it for a little while.” On November 7th 1862, Lincoln dismissed McClellan and replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside. He, in turn, was replaced by General JosephHooker after the Union defeat at Fredericksburg. Lincoln seemed to have a positive relationship with his generals when they were advancing and the enemy seemed to be retreating. However, while he applauded the victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln was also very conscious that the casualties at this battle were horrific. Months later when Lincoln attended the official opening of the Gettysburg Memorial, he gave what was to become one of the greatest speeches in History. However, at the time his ‘Gettysburg Address’ was actually heard by few people and Lincoln himself considered that it had been secondary to other speeches given there. It was only when it was printed in newspapers in the following days that people came to realise its qualities.
Lincoln’s belief in reconciliation also led him to reject the Wade-Davis Bill – passed by Congress in 1864; Lincoln refused to sign it into law.
However when it became obvious that the South was going to lose the war, Lincoln was heavily criticised in many areas for failing to push for a negotiated peace. He wanted unconditional surrender by the South and nothing less.
For the 1864 election campaign Lincoln chose Andrew Johnson as his running mate. He was opposed by General George McClellan – the man sacked by Lincoln for his ineffectual leadership of the Army of the Potomac. On the back of numerous victories by Grant and Sherman, the outcome of the election was rarely in doubt and Lincoln won a comfortable victory. Lincoln polled 2.2 million votes to McClellan’s 1.8 million.
On April 4th 1865 Lincoln visited Richmond – just days after it had fallen to Union troops. On April 14th, Lincoln said in Cabinet; “There are many in Congress who possess feelings of hate and vindictiveness in which I do not sympathise and cannot participate.”
On the night of April 14th Lincoln went to the Ford’s Theatre in Washington to watch ‘Our American Cousin’. Sometime during the third act Lincoln’s assigned bodyguard, John Parker, left his seat outside of the box Lincoln and his family were using to get a drink. During this lapse in security, John Wilkes Booth shot the President in the back of his head. Booth fled the theatre and was later shot by Federal troops. Lincoln was taken to a house opposite the theatre and died early on April 15th 1865.
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