A Turning Point in the War: Grant's Promotion to General in Chief of All Union Armies (1864)
Lincoln did not have any better luck with the next two commanders of the Army of the Potomac. Ambrose Burnside lost the disastrous battle of Fredericksburg, 13 December 1862, and his successor Joseph Hooker fumbled several opportunities and lost the battle of Chancellorsville, 1-5 May 1863. Lincoln finally found a general who remained in command of that army for the rest of the war, George G. Meade, whose skillful defensive tactics won the crucial battle of Gettysburg, 1-3 July 1863. Meade gravely disappointed Lincoln, however, with his failure to follow up that victory with a vigorous effort to trap and destroy Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia before it could retreat across the Potomac. "My dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape," Lincoln wrote Meade on 14 July. "As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely" (Basler, vol. 6, p. 328). Upon reflection, he did not send this letter, but it expressed his sentiments, sharpened by contrast with his attitude toward Grant, who had captured Vicksburg on 4 July 1863. Grant's star had alternately dimmed and brightened since the spring of 1862. Unfounded rumors of excessive drinking and the appearance of aimless floundering in the early stages of the Vicksburg campaign had generated much criticism. Lincoln nevertheless retained his faith in Grant. "I think Grant has hardly a friend left, except myself," said Lincoln in the spring of 1863. "What I want . . . is generals who will fight battles and win victories. Grant has done this, and I propose to stand by him" (Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, vol. 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian , p. 217). Grant followed up his victory at Vicksburg by driving the Confederates away from Chattanooga and into the mountains of northern Georgia. Congress created the rank of lieutenant general (last held by George Washington). Lincoln promoted Grant to this rank in March 1864 and made him general in chief of all Union armies.
For the first time Lincoln had a commanding general in whom he had full confidence, one who could take from his shoulders some of the burden of constant military oversight. On the eve of the military campaigns of 1864, Lincoln wrote Grant: "The particulars of your plans I neither know, or seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you" (Basler, vol. 7, p. 324).
Lincoln wrote thus because he and Grant saw eye to eye on military strategy. In this war the Confederates had the advantage of fighting on the strategic defensive with interior lines that enabled them to shift reinforcements from inactive to active fronts unless the Union employed its superior numbers to attack on several fronts at once. Lincoln grasped this point better than many of his generals. As early as 13 January 1862 Lincoln instructed the hapless Buell, "I state my general idea of this war to be that we have greater numbers, and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision; that we must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an overmatch for his; and that this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points, at the same time" (Basler, vol. 5, p. 98). Grant agreed. He devised simultaneous Union advances on several fronts to prevent Confederates from shifting troops from one point to another. In the end this strategy won the war.
Problems with Internal Security An issue related to military events also absorbed much of Lincoln's time: internal security. Confederate sympathizers in the border states and antiwar activists in the North (the "Copperheads") constituted a "fire in the rear" that Lincoln feared "more than our military chances" (Edward L. Pierce, Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner, vol. 4 , p. 114). Early in the war he suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in limited areas, which he kept expanding until a proclamation of 24 September 1862 extended the suspension to the whole country. In his capacity as a circuit court judge in Maryland, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had ruled in May 1861 that the president could not suspend the writ without congressional authorization (Ex parte Merryman, 17 Fed. Cas. 144). Lincoln disagreed and exercised this power before as well as after congressional authorization in March 1863.
Under these suspensions of the writ, Union officials arrested and detained without trial at least 15,000 civilians during the war, mostly in the border states. Military courts also tried several civilians, most notably the Copperhead leader, Clement L. Vallandigham, for "treasonable" activities. Some of these arrests and trials, as in the case of Vallandigham, came dangerously close to infringing First Amendment rights. Lincoln was embarrassed by the Vallandigham case, which aroused a storm of criticism. Nevertheless, he justified the detention of those who undermined the struggle for national survival. He made his case in pungent prose that everyone could understand. "Under cover of 'Liberty of speech,' 'Liberty of the press' and 'Habeas Corpus,' " wrote the president, the rebels "hoped to keep on foot amongst us a most efficient corps of spies, informers, suppliers, and aiders and abettors of their cause." If anything, he believed he had arrested too few rather than too many. "Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wiley [sic] agitator who induces him to desert? . . . I think that in such a case, to silence the agitator, and save the boy, is not only constitutional, but, withal, a great mercy" (Basler, vol. 6, pp. 263, 266-67). Scholars disagree about Lincoln's record on civil liberties, but one thing can be said with certainty: compared with the enforcement of espionage and sedition laws in World War I and the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the curtailment of civil liberties during the far greater internal crisis of the Civil War seems quite mild.
Another matter bound up with Lincoln's powers as commander in chief, but involving many other considerations as well, was slavery. Lincoln's decision in 1862 to issue an emancipation proclamation freed himself as much as it freed the slaves--freed him from the agonizing contradiction between his antislavery convictions and his constitutional responsibilities. Lincoln had said many times that he considered slavery "a social, moral, and political wrong. . . . If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." Yet, he added, "I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially on this judgment and feeling" (Basler, vol. 3, p. 92; vol. 7, p. 281). The Constitution he swore to preserve, protect, and defend sanctioned slavery in states that wanted it. Moreover, Lincoln conceived his primary duty to be preservation of the Union. In 1861 he believed that to preserve it he must maintain the support of Democrats and border state Unionists, who would be alienated by any move toward emancipation. That is why he revoked General Frémont's military order freeing the slaves of Confederate sympathizers in Missouri. If he had let Frémont's order stand, Lincoln explained to a critic, it would have driven Kentucky into secession. "To lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland" (Basler, vol. 4, p. 532).
For the next year Lincoln adhered publicly to this position despite growing pressure from his own party to move against slavery. To a powerful emancipation editorial by Horace Greeley in the New York Tribune, Lincoln replied on 22 August 1862 with a letter published in the Tribune: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that" (Basler, vol. 5, pp. 388-89).
The Emancipation Proclamation
Lincoln had already drafted an emancipation proclamation but was awaiting a Union military victory to announce it. His letter to Greeley was designed to prepare the public, especially conservatives, for the announcement by making it clear that freeing some of the slaves was necessary to achieve his, and their, main goal of preserving the Union.
Earlier in 1862 Lincoln had tried to persuade border state Unionists to accept an offer of federal compensation for emancipation in their states. They refused, while Union military fortunes took a turn for the worse in the summer of 1862. By then Lincoln agreed with the Radical Republican argument that a proclamation of emancipation would strike a blow against the Confederate economy and war effort that would more than counterbalance the damage it might do by alienating Democrats and border state Unionists. Slaves constituted the principal labor force of the Confederacy. Escaped slaves (labeled "contrabands") had been coming into Union lines since the outset of the war; an official proclamation of emancipation would accelerate this process. In his capacity as commander in chief, Lincoln believed he had the constitutional power to seize enemy property (slaves) being used to wage war against the United States. On 22 September 1862, five days after the battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation, declaring that all slaves in any state or part of a state still in rebellion against the United States on 1 January 1863 "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free" (Basler, vol. 5, pp. 433-36). New Year's Day came, and Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which exempted Tennessee and parts of Louisiana and Virginia (as well as the slave states that had remained in the Union), because they were occupied by Union forces or deemed loyal to the Union and therefore not subject to the war powers under which Lincoln acted.
Despite cavils that the Emancipation Proclamation did not in and of itself free a single slave, it did broaden northern war aims to include emancipation. Union armies became armies of liberation. As a corollary of the proclamation, the Lincoln administration began recruiting black soldiers and sailors, mostly freed slaves--189,000 in all by the end of the war. In August 1863 Lincoln stated in a widely published letter, "The emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion." Referring to critics of emancipation and opponents of the war, Lincoln said pointedly that, when the war was won, "there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it" (Basler, vol. 6, pp. 408-10).
As a war measure the Emancipation Proclamation would cease to have any effect when the war was over. While many slaves would have gained freedom, the institution of slavery would still exist. Thus Lincoln and his party pledged to adopt a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. Antislavery Unionists gained control of the state governments of Maryland and Missouri and abolished slavery in those states. The wartime "reconstruction" governments in the occupied parts of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee did the same. With a skillful use of patronage and arm-twisting, Lincoln nurtured these achievements.
"A New Birth of Freedom"
Lincoln did not live to see the final ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Yet the future shape of a disenthralled United States was clear enough by 19 November 1863 for Lincoln to proclaim "a new birth of freedom" in the brief address he delivered at the commemoration of a cemetery at Gettysburg for Union soldiers killed in the battle there.
Lincoln is best known for his brief speech at Gettysburg, but on many other occasions also he gave voice to the purpose for which 360,000 northern soldiers gave their lives. "The central idea pervading this struggle," he said as early as 1861, "is the necessity . . . of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves" (Tyler Dennett, ed., Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay , pp. 19-20).
Abraham Lincoln's eloquence and statesmanship were grounded in his skills as a politician. He was not only president and commander in chief but also leader of his party. Some of the party's fractious members in the cabinet and Congress gave Lincoln almost as many problems as fractious and incompetent generals. Four members of his cabinet had been his rivals for the presidential nomination in 1860. Some of them as well as some congressional leaders continued to think of themselves as better qualified for the presidency than Lincoln. Yet he established his mastery of both cabinet and Congress. He generally deferred to cabinet members in their areas of responsibility and delegated administrative authority to them to run their departments. Although he listened to advice, Lincoln made the most important decisions himself: on Fort Sumter, on emancipation, on appointing or dismissing generals, on Reconstruction. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who thought of running for president in 1864, convinced Republican senators that Lincoln was too much influenced by Secretary of State Seward. At a low point in the Union cause after the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, the Senate Republican caucus pressed Lincoln to dismiss Seward. If he had "caved in" (Lincoln's words), he would have lost control of his own administration. In an exhibition of political virtuosity, he confronted Chase and the senators in the presence of the cabinet and forced them to back down. Chase offered his resignation, which Lincoln refused to accept, thereby keeping both Seward and Chase in the cabinet and maintaining the separation of executive and congressional powers.
Another contest of power and policy between Lincoln and congressional Republicans occurred in 1864 over the issue of Reconstruction. Lincoln conceived of this process as primarily an executive responsibility, a part of his duty as commander in chief to win the war by "reconstructing" southern states back into the Union. On 8 December 1863 he issued a "Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction," offering pardons to most categories of Confederates who would take an oath of allegiance to the United States. When the number of those pardoned in any state equaled 10 percent of the number of voters in 1860, Lincoln authorized them to form a Union state government, to which he promised executive recognition. Congressional leaders, however, viewed Reconstruction as a legislative process in which Congress would mandate the conditions for restoration of states to the Union and readmission of their representatives to Congress. The showdown in this struggle came in the summer of 1864, when Lincoln killed the Wade-Davis Reconstruction Bill, which was more stringent than his own policy, by a pocket veto. The bill's cosponsors, Representative Henry Winter Davis and Senator Benjamin Wade, thereupon issued a blistering "Manifesto," charging Lincoln with executive usurpation.
This imbroglio became entangled with Lincoln's campaign for reelection. The party's national convention had unanimously renominated him, after an initial token vote for Grant by the Missouri delegation, on 7 June. But beneath this surface unanimity seethed hostility to Lincoln by Republicans who opposed him on Reconstruction. The main issue in 1864, however, was not Reconstruction but the war itself. Union offensives, especially in Virginia, bogged down in a morass of carnage that made victory appear more distant than ever. War weariness and defeatism corroded the will of northerners as they reeled from the staggering cost in lives. Lincoln came under immense pressure to open peace negotiations. Unofficial envoys met with Confederate agents in Canada and with Jefferson Davis at Richmond in July to make clear Lincoln's terms for peace: reunion and emancipation. Davis spurned these conditions, insisting on Confederate independence, but somehow northern Democrats convinced much of the electorate that only Lincoln's requirement of emancipation blocked a peace settlement.
Lincoln refused to back down. "No human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done," he said. Black soldiers would not continue fighting for the Union if they thought the North intended to "betray them. . . . If they stake their lives for us they must be prompted by the strongest motive . . . the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept" (Basler, vol. 7, pp. 500, 507).
When Lincoln said this, he fully expected to lose the election. On 23 August he wrote his famous "blind memorandum" and required cabinet members to endorse it sight unseen: "This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards" (Basler, vol. 7, p. 514). A week later the Democrats nominated McClellan for president on a platform that branded the war a failure and demanded an armistice and peace negotiations.
Triumphant Reelection in 1864
The war did indeed seem a failure. Two days later, on 2 September, came a telegram from General William T. Sherman, however, saying "Atlanta is ours and fairly won." Northern opinion turned 180 degrees almost overnight. Then came news of spectacular military victories by General Philip Sheridan's army in the Shenandoah Valley. Lincoln's tarnished reputation as commander in chief turned to luster. He was triumphantly reelected in November, carrying every Union state except New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky.
As Sherman marched through Georgia and South Carolina, Union armies advanced on other fronts, and Grant tightened the vise near Richmond. The end of the war seemed only a matter of time. In his second inaugural address, on 4 March 1865, Lincoln looked forward to a peace "with malice toward none; with charity for all." He also suggested that "this terrible war" may have been God's punishment of the whole nation for the wrong of slavery. "Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away," said Lincoln. "Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether' " (Basler, vol. 8, p. 333).
During the last winter of war, Lincoln and congressional Republicans came closer together on a postwar Reconstruction policy. After Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln spoke to a large crowd of celebrants at the White House on 11 April. He hinted that his Reconstruction policy would enfranchise literate blacks and black army veterans. "That means nigger citizenship," muttered a member of the crowd, the actor John Wilkes Booth. "Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make" (William Hanchett, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies , p. 37).
A native of Maryland and an unstable egotist who supported the Confederacy and hated Lincoln, Booth headed a shadowy conspiracy with links to the Confederate secret service, which had intended to kidnap Lincoln and hold him hostage in Richmond. The fall of Richmond had ruined that plot, so Booth decided to kill the president. While the Lincolns watched a comedy at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., on 14 April, Booth gained entrance to their box and shot Lincoln in the head. Lincoln died at 7:22 the next morning.
Scorned and ridiculed by many critics during his presidency, Lincoln became a martyr and almost a saint after his death. His words and deeds lived after him and will be revered as long as there is a United States. Indeed, it seems quite likely that without his determined leadership the United States would have ceased to exist. Union victory in the Civil War resolved two fundamental, festering problems that had been left unresolved by the Revolution of 1776 and the Constitution of 1789: whether this republic, "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," would "long endure" or "perish from the earth"; and whether the "monstrous injustice" of slavery would continue to mock those ideals of liberty. The republic endured, and slavery perished. That is Lincoln's legacy.
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