Apr 012013

Abraham Lincoln Born in a log cabin, Abraham Lincoln  (February 12, 1809-April 15, 1865) taught himself enough law to become a lawyer. An ambitious man, he was elected repeatedly to the Illinois state legislature, where he became a leader of the Whig party. After a single term in Congress (1846-1848), Lincoln’s political career seemed to have peaked. As the debate over slavery tore apart the nation in the 1850s, the Whigs appeared increasingly irrelevant, so Lincoln joined the newly formed Republican party. Although he lost a hard-fought campaign against Democrat candidate Stephen Douglas for a senate seat in 1858, a series of debates between the two men had attracted national attention, especially among the growing abolitionist movement. Chosen as a compromise candidate during the 1860 Republican convention, Lincoln won election as president, aided by the breakup of the Democrat party over slavery. Convinced that he intended to destroy their way of life, the southern states seceded, starting a long and bitter civil war (1861-1865). When Lincoln decided to emancipate the slaves, it seemed likely that he would lose the 1864 election, but several victories on the battlefield ensured that he was given a second term with a sizeable majority. Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated shortly after the war ended.

Early Life

Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky on February 12, 1809. Although illiterate, his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, had memorized lengthy passages from the Bible, and she raised Lincoln and his sister Sarah in the Baptist faith, a fatalistic belief which emphasized the will of Providence. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was a more out-going fellow, who was popular in the community. Although his parents had grown up in an environment where owning slaves was natural, they questioned the practice and joined an anti-slavery congregation in 1816. A desire to leave the slave-holding environment was a key factor behind his father’s decision to move the family to the new state of Indiana in December 1816, which had joined the Union as a free state that same month. A hard-working farmer and skilled carpenter, Lincoln’s father prospered and became a solid member of the growing community. Nancy Lincoln died in 1818, and his father married Sarah Johnston, a widow with three children and a cheerful personality, who brought warmth into the home, the following year.

Lincoln’s body grew quickly, so he was over six-feet-tall when he was sixteen, and while his muscles had a surprisingly wiry strength, he never really filled out. Frequently hired out by his father, Lincoln learned to give a full day’s work, and was popular as a rail splitter due to his strength and skill with an axe, but he also knew how to tell humorous stories. Receiving enough education during the winters to learn how to read, write and do basic sums, he was the best-educated among his friends and classmates, but it is unlikely that the total period of education was greater than a year. Reading about the lives of famous people made him realize that there was more to life than farming. As Lincoln’s mind expanded, he gradually drifted apart from his family and friends, especially after his sister Sarah died during childbirth in 1828. Developing an interest in the law, many hours were spent watching trials in the local courthouses.

Lured by enthusiastic letters from a relative, Thomas Lincoln moved the family to Decatur, Illinois in March 1830. Turning twenty-two in 1831, Lincoln became legally independent, and informed his father that he was moving to New Salem to start his own life as a clerk in a store in the booming community. Having little connection with his father, he made no effort to remain in contact afterwards.

A tough wrestler who would not back down, Lincoln won acceptance among the rough crowd, but also spent time with the few educated people in the community. Unlike most people, he did not drink because whiskey blurred his mind, but he did not join the local temperance group, believing that alcohol was a person’s own business, not his. Determined to advance in society, Lincoln concentrated on improving himself, studying mathematics, grammar and rhetoric over the winter. Most important, he spent many hours in the store arguing politics with customers.

A career in politics was a vital route for the upwardly mobile, and the political situation was in flux since the old party lines had broken down. The Federalist Party of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton had died out, while the Thomas Jefferson Republicans had divided into quarrelling factions, so people identified themselves by the politicians they supported, not the parties. Lincoln backed Henry Clay, President Andrew Jackson’s key rival, who wanted to make the states more connected to better compete with foreign nations, and who wanted to solve the pressing slave problem by slowly freeing slaves and sending them back to Africa.

While preparing to run for state legislature, where Lincoln planned to work to improve the local river to enable steamboats to reach the town, the Black Hawk Indian war broke out in northern Illinois in 1832. Lincoln and his friends enlisted, and he was elected captain of his militia company, an impressive feat since he had only been living in new Salem for nine months. His company never actually found Chief Black Hawk or any of his followers, so he spent most of his time marching and battling mosquitos, but he gained leadership experience. Despite winning a huge majority of votes in New Salem, Lincoln lost the election because he was a young man with few accomplishments who was unknown outside his town.

Since his initial employer had gone out of business, Lincoln bought a share in a store, but he and his partner tried to expand too fast, while Lincoln spent too much time talking politics and his partner spent too much time at the whiskey barrel. Ballooning debt forced them to close the store, but luck and ambition favored Lincoln when he became postmaster of New Salem and deputy surveyor for the county, which enabled him to meet everyone in the county. The jobs paid relatively well but his debts were huge, especially after his partner died. Instead of following the practice of most debtors and leaving the county, he repaid the debt, dollar by dollar, even though it took a decade and a half.

State Legislature (1834-1842)

A reputation for honesty combined with extensive contacts enabled Lincoln to win election as a Whig to the legislature in 1834. This would be a key period since party lines had solidified again. Jackson led the Democrats and Clay led the Whigs, essentially a coalition of social groups opposed to Jackson. Moving to the state capital at Vandalia, Lincoln roomed with fellow legislator John Todd Stuart, a lawyer from Springfield, who encouraged him to become a lawyer. Lincoln made few speeches but he attracted attention for his writing ability. When the legislature adjourned, Lincoln returned to New Salem to throw himself into the study of law.

As a politician, Lincoln believed fervently in the United States as a nation, not a collection of independent states, and he deeply admired the Declaration of Independence with its emphasis on the opportunity to better one’s station in society. Progressive for his time, Lincoln believed that any white man or woman who paid taxes or bore arms should be able to vote. Although Lincoln won re-election in 1836, Stephen Douglas led the Democrats to take control of the state legislature, while Democrat Martin Van Buren became president. As a second-term legislator, Lincoln naturally played a more active role in the debates, helping to lead the successful effort to move the capital to the larger, more centrally located Springfield.

Another change occurred when Stuart invited Lincoln to join his law firm in Springfield, since Stuart needed a new partner and he had become a licensed lawyer in September 1836. With a population of two thousand, Springfield was a different world from New Salem. Stuart and Lincoln’s law firm thrived, and Lincoln became a more skilled lawyer under Stuart’s tutelage. In particular, he became well-known for his skill in handling juries. A news junkie, Lincoln read several newspapers daily in order gain a full understanding of the political issues.

Although Lincoln did not support the abolitionists, considering them to be far too zealous to have any effect, the growing frequency of mob attacks on blacks and abolitionist editors offended his view of American democracy. He became one of the Young Whigs, the leading Whigs in Springfield, who helped choose Whig candidates in Illinois, rivalled by the Young Democrats, led by Stephen Douglas, four years younger than Lincoln, nicknamed the Little Giant for his small size (five feet four inches tall) and relentless aggressiveness during political clashes. As floor leader of the Whigs in the state legislature, Lincoln played a key role in uniting the Illinois Whigs as they prepared for the 1840 presidential campaign. Lincoln threw himself into the campaign, riding across the state to address crowds, but Van Buren won the state by a small margin, although Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison took the White House.

Lincoln began courting Mary Todd in late 1839, even though he was too shy to hold up his end of the conversation. Although she came from a more socially advanced family, and was ten years younger, she saw something in the earnest, tall politician. Sharing a love of poetry and politics, Mary was a staunch supporter of the Whig party. Her family did not share her interest, and Lincoln’s marriage proposal was rejected in 1840. Forbidden to see her again because of his social background, Lincoln broke off the engagement.

Believing he could never escape his past, Lincoln was extremely depressed that winter. After a horrible week-long bout of insomnia, he recovered enough to return to a busy work schedule. However, the public works project that he had sponsored failed to win funding, and he was not renominated for a fifth term as state legislator, so it seemed that his career had come to an end. With Stuart serving in Congress in Washington, Lincoln formed a new partnership with Stephen Logan, a much more experienced lawyer. Lincoln benefited from the older man’s guidance, and the two men soon had a thriving law firm.

Mary Todd LincolnGradually regaining his confidence, Lincoln began seeing Mary in secret. Encouraged by the happiness of his close friend Joshua Speed, who had recently married, Lincoln proposed to Mary and they decided to marry in November 1842. Realizing that Mary genuinely loved Lincoln, her family gave in. Since he was still paying off his debts, the young couple had to live in a rented room in a tavern for the first year, and their first son was born there. However, marriage brought stability, and he worked hard, so he had paid off his debts and bought a house a couple of years later. Although he was able to hire a maid to help Mary, she still had difficulty adjusting to the responsibilities of motherhood and marriage, after growing up in a mansion waited on by servants. Shocked by the first year in the tavern, Mary would always remain fearful about money, worried that they would slip back into poverty. Furthermore, she was left alone for long periods, since Lincoln was often away, riding the circuit of little towns in the district along with other lawyers and the circuit judge, since there were not enough cases in Springfield to provide a living. Both of them were prone to bouts of depression, but she was out-going and he always remained introverted in private, despite remarkable courage during political debates. They were probably not the best-suited couple, but they loved each other and the marriage was stable despite occasional clashes caused by deep-rooted personality conflicts and financial stress.

Married and increasingly prosperous, Lincoln decided to run for congress in 1843 but lost the nomination to Mary’s cousin John Hardin, a prominent member of society. Lincoln’s idol Senator Henry Clay lost the presidential election to Democrat James Polk, partially because potential Whig voters chose the small anti-slavery Liberty Party instead, reminding Lincoln of the perils of a divided vote. In 1844, Lincoln and Logan dissolved their partnership, and Lincoln took on William Hendron as partner, motivated partially by Hendron’s valuable connections to the younger Whigs who were rising in the party. Despite conflicting personalities, the two men became close, and Lincoln treated the younger man like a son. Unfortunately, Hendron and Mrs. Lincoln swiftly grew to hate each other.

Congressman (1846-1848)

Abraham Lincoln 1846Lincoln, John Hardin and Edward Baker, the three contenders for the 1844 congressional Whig nomination were friends so they had made an agreement to each take turns serving as congressmen. When Hardin decided to run again in 1846, even though it was Lincoln’s turn, Lincoln campaigned successfully for the nomination. The election took place when the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) broke out, and Lincoln made public speeches advocating support for the nation in wartime, despite private doubts about the war, so he won a decisive victory. The war created further political controversy since the Whigs accused President Polk of deliberately starting the war as an excuse to invade Mexico, while northern Democrats feared that the captured territory would become slave states.

The Whigs were determined to regain the White House, and Lincoln proved to be a diligent congressman, making several critical speeches about Polk. However, he occasionally sneaked off to see debates in the senate, especially if either Daniel Webster or John C. Calhoun were involved, since they were two of the three greatest orators in the United States at the time. Lincoln’s friendly manner and ability to use humorous stories to defuse tension during impromptu debates outside of Congress made him popular with his fellow legislators. When the war ended, the United States agreed to pay fifteen million dollars for California and New Mexico, even though the war had already cost $27 million and the lives of 27,000 soldiers. Efforts by Democrat leaders to pass a bill to occupy all of Mexico were blocked by the Whigs, but they could not prevent the purchase of California and New Mexico. Lincoln’s stance was very unpopular back in Illinois, and he was viewed as unpatriotic, which was painful, but not critical, since he had already agreed that it was his former partner Logan’s turn to run. Instead, he plunged into the presidential campaign of Whig candidate and war hero Zachary Taylor. In particular, he pressed abolitionists to support Taylor instead of Free-Soil candidate Martin van Buren in order to ensure that the Democrats did not retain power.

Despite his zealous work to elect Taylor, none of the people recommended by Lincoln were given office, and he turned down the offer of governor of Oregon Territory, viewing the Democrat-dominated territory as political exile.

Prairie Lawyer (1848-1856)

Returning to Springfield, Lincoln had to cope with his wife’s renewed Christian faith following the sudden death of their youngest son, four-year-old Edward, in February 1850. The situation was eased by the birth of another son, William, in December 1850. Learning that his own father was dying, Lincoln limited himself to sending a message, claiming he was too busy to return or even attend the funeral.

However, Lincoln’s career boomed, and he became one of the leading lawyers in the state, a man of substantial wealth, who was proud of his success, which proved how far he had advanced in his life. This wealth was a tribute to his hard work and endless hours spent on the circuit, since he did not charge high rates, he just handled more cases than other lawyers. Although he was a surprisingly effective cross-examiner, he was an even better mediator, who often advised his clients to accept a settlement, realizing that both parties would have to live together in the same community. Actually, he had to work. Most lawyers owned farms or businesses to supplement their income, but he relied solely on income from his fees. Lincoln appeared to enjoy the solitude of travelling to remote communities, and building relationships with the other lawyers who travelled the circuit, some of whom became his closest friends. Despite his achievements, he continued to suffer occasionally from bouts of depression. Unmoved by sentiment, Lincoln argued cases to win, not to follow any moral code, so he would use the law and logic to win cases, even defending slave owners seeking the return of their property, despite his personal loathing of slavery.

At the same time, Lincoln followed politics closely, especially the successful struggle in the senate to pass the Compromise of 1850, which defused the growing crisis over southern secession. The new territories of Utah and New Mexico could decide to enter the Union as slave states based on the principle of popular sovereignty, even though their climate made a plantation-type economy extremely unlikely. Southerners were appeased by the decision to permit slavery in the national capital, and the passage of a stronger Fugitive Slave Act. President Taylor died before the compromise was passed, and was succeeded by vice president Millard Fillmore.

Remaining in touch with Whig politicians in the state, Lincoln served as a Whig national committeeman during the 1852 presidential campaign, even though he correctly predicted that Whig candidate Winfield Scott would not win. When Senator Stephen Douglas replaced the Missouri Compromise that had kept slavery confined to the south with the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, where the residents of each new territory would decide if it would enter the Union as a free or slave state, Lincoln was appalled, believing that it would enable the spread of slavery across the nation. Slavery did not expand but the debate over slavery became even more intense. The Free Soil movement exploded, although its members worked within the existing parties for the moment. Douglas was strongly criticized by his followers in Illinois, and Lincoln followed him when he toured the state, making a passionate appeal to defend the Compromise that had preserved the republic. Genuine anger against Douglas’ stand was undoubtedly combined with resentment that his old rival in the state legislature had risen to the position of senator, while Lincoln had only served a single term in congress.

Lincoln’s own attitude towards slavery was evolving during the mid-1850s. He had grown to hate slavery, stating that it violated the principle of liberty that was the foundation of the nation, but he feared the threat of ending slavery in the south would cause the breakup of the nation. In particular, he attacked the principle of popular sovereignty, pointing out that self-government can not exist when one man made another his slave. Most important, the original founders had tolerated slavery as a distasteful necessity but popular sovereignty would transform it into a sacred right. Lincoln’s speech in Springfield, which became known as the Peoria speech because it was published in Peoria, Illinois, led to the organizers of the new Republican Party putting his name on the central committee for Illinois but he refused to abandon the Whig Party.

Despite his growing popularity, Lincoln lost a hard-fought campaign to be chosen as senator by the Illinois state legislature, which still selected senators at the time, in February 1855. However, he had saved the day for the Whigs by gracefully accepting defeat and pledging his remaining delegates to give another Whig the nomination. Meanwhile, the competition between pro and anti-slavery groups to settle Kansas was turning violent.

The Senate Race against Stephen Douglas (1858)

Abraham Lincoln 1858By early 1856, Lincoln had accepted that the Whigs were too splintered to be effective, and since he loathed the racism of the Know-Nothings, an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic movement, which had nominated former Whig Millard Fillmore for president as candidate of the American party, he helped found the Republican party in Illinois. A serious contender for the position of vice-president for the Republican ticket, he failed to attract enough ballots at the national convention. However, he made many speeches on behalf of Republican candidate John C. Fremont, even though he had little liking for the man. Having been a Whig for twenty years, Lincoln refused to criticize Fillmore, saving his attacks for the Democrats’ James Buchanan. The 1856 presidential election revolved around slavery, and southerners cried that they would be forced to secede if Fremont was elected. Despite his genuine hatred of slavery, Lincoln was not an abolitionist, he simply wanted to prevent the spread of slavery, not eliminate it, and he repeatedly stressed that he did not believe in equality between blacks and whites. Although the Republicans lost the election, they had received the second-highest total of votes, an impressive result for a new party.

Still intensely ambitious as well as diametrically opposed to Douglas’ political beliefs, Lincoln resolved to challenge the Little Giant for the senate in 1858. Douglas had risen in popularity, gaining more Republican supporters than he had lost Democratic supporters. Given his widespread appeal to Republicans and northern Democrats, Republican leaders were considering nominating Douglas as the Republican candidate for senator in 1858, providing a shocked Lincoln with further motivation to oppose Douglas. Careful lobbying within the Illinois branch of the Republican party ensured that Lincoln, not Douglas, was the Republican candidate.

After making his “A House Divided Speech” at the Republican convention, where he predicted that a nation half-free and half-slave could not endure, he won the nomination for the senate, and the speech was printed on the front page of Republican journals across the state. However, the Biblical nature of the phrase “A House Divided” worried many potential Republican supporters who feared that Lincoln was advocating war to ensure the abolition of slavery.

Stephen DouglasThe senate race received national attention and slavery would be the key issue of the race, especially since Douglas had stated that the government “was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men.” Slavery had been the dominant topic during the presidential campaign and recent events ensured that it would remain the main issue during the senate campaign. Congressman Preston Brooks beat anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner with a cane in the Senate chamber on May 22, 1856 in revenge for a recent speech where Sumner had described South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, Brooks’ uncle, as having chosen the harlot slavery as his mistress. Angered by the sack of Lawrence, Kansas, the center of anti-slavery supporters, by pro-slavery men on May 21, 1856 zealous abolitionist John Brown and six followers executed five pro-slavery men at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas three days later. Finally, the Supreme Court declared on March 6, 1857 that people of African descent, whether slave or free, were not protected by the Constitution, in what became known as the Dred Scott Decision.

After following Douglas as he made speeches in Illinois, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates that would be held around the state. Although he had nothing to gain and everything to lose, the hyper-competitive Douglas accepted the challenge, but he may simply have worried that refusal would bring calls of cowardice. When Lincoln was following him, Douglas was clearly the main speaker and would receive large crowds, while Lincoln appeared to be trying to steal Douglas’ popularity, but now they would be presented as equals. Held between August 21 and October 15, the debates attracted thousands of people. Douglas harangued the crowds, asking if they wanted the state to become a colony of free Negroes. This race-baiting approach forced Lincoln to confirm that he believed in white superiority but he continued to emphasize equal rights. Between the seven scheduled debates, both Douglas and Lincoln crisscrossed the state, making speeches on a daily basis, while other renowned Republicans toured the state to speak on Lincoln’s behalf. Neither man could be said to have won the debates, and Republican candidates won a narrow majority of votes in the popular vote, but the Democrats in the state legislature still outnumbered the Republicans, so Douglas became senator.

Republican National Convention and 1860 Election

Recognizing Lincoln’s massive effort, no Republican blamed him for the defeat. In fact, press coverage of the speeches had made him a national figure, leading to calls from a few party leaders that he run for president, even though he admitted that he had little hope of defeating the main contenders: Senator William Seward and Salmon Chase, Governor of Ohio. This was not false modesty, but a realistic assessment of his chances, since he had no administrative experience and had won no election higher than congressman. However, Lincoln was ambitious, so his speeches during the debates with Douglas were collected for publication, and he accepted an invitation from the famous clergyman and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher to speak in New York City. Still dismissive of his chances, Lincoln hoped that a good showing in the Republican national convention would reinforce his position as the leading Republican in Illinois.

Rather than dwell on the presidency, Lincoln was determined to challenge Douglas again for the senate, so he began working to publicize both himself and the Republican party, while lobbying Republican leaders in other states to consider the needs of the national party when planning local strategies. He observed correctly that Douglas’ open appeals to free-soilers during the senate race had weakened his support within his own party. When Douglas made a turnaround and rejected that approach to win back southern support, Lincoln made a number of speeches in Ohio attacking Douglas to reinforce the appeal of the Republican party, which brought invitations to speak at rallies in other states.

After John Brown’s attempt to spark a slave rebellion at Harper’s Ferry failed and he was captured on October 18, 1859, southerners believed that Republican leaders like Charles Sumner, Seward and Stevens had been involved in the conspiracy and that it was the consequence of the Republican stand against slavery. Southern accusations against Seward weakened his appeal as a presidential candidate, causing more of Lincoln’s supporters to urge him to run for president, especially since he was more popular in the lower states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, which were crucial for victory. A speech in New York City was a huge success, leading to invitations to speak in northeastern cities, and he was courted by Seward’s opponents within the party, who viewed Lincoln as the ideal compromise candidate.

Among the thirteen candidates in the convention, the five leading contenders were William Seward, Abraham Lincoln, Salmon Chase, Simon Cameron and Edward Bates. As the convention neared, Seward had the most delegates, and the other contenders seemed unable to beat him. Seward’s greatest threat was his own radical image, so Lincoln’s campaign manager decided to harp on Seward’s inability to win, and to focus on convincing other contenders to switch to Lincoln if the race went to a third ballot. The strategy worked since none of the other candidates, including Seward, had strength in the key battleground states of Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois. Chase should have been best positioned to serve as an alternative to Seward, but he had made so many enemies through his blunt personality and inability to mend fences with rivals that he failed to even win the full support of the Ohio delegation. Confident that he was the obvious choice, Chase did not even bother to appoint a campaign manager to lobby wavering delegates. The convention was held in Chicago, so Lincoln’s supporters actually controlled the organization of the convention and seating arrangements, while Judge Davis, Lincoln’s former travelling companion and the head of his delegation, worked smoothly to ensure that Lincoln started strong, but had enough votes in reserve that he would appear to be growing in strength. Davis had sent the members of his team to approach the other delegations, asking them to nominate Lincoln on the second ballot if their own candidates did not receive enough votes on the first ballot. Lincoln received the second largest number of ballots on the first vote, but the gap between him and Seward had become tiny by the second vote, and the third vote settled the matter since all of the delegates aside from Seward’s supporters switched to Lincoln.

As the Republican Presidential candidate, Lincoln steadfastly refused to join any faction within the party, stating that he intended to be a unifier, and he worked hard to win over his former rivals. This approach, combined with his well-honed skills as a mediator, kept peace among the various factions, and ensured that all of his former rivals backed him and campaigned on his behalf. Fortunately, he faced a divided opposition, since the Know-Nothings and hardcore Whigs had united to form the Constitutional Union Party with John Bell as their candidate. The Democratic Party had split into the Northern Democrats and the Southern Democrats with Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge as their respective candidates. Following the defeat of the pro-slavery advocates in Kansas, the uproar over the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown’s failed attempt to spark a slave uprising in Virginia, the more radical Southern leaders were in no mood for compromise over slavery, instead they demanded the right to bring slaves into every territory. Refusing to accept the moderate platform proposed by Douglas’ supporters, delegations from the southern states walked out of the convention. A reconvened convention in Baltimore nominated Douglas, but the Southern Democrats nominated Breckinridge. A Republican victory seemed likely but there was a justified fear that no one would receive a majority of electoral college votes.

1860 Electoral CollegeWhile the opinion of Lincoln in the north was divided, southerners loathed him, viewing him as a radical abolitionist. In the end, Lincoln received less than half of the popular vote, with Douglas the closest contender, but he won a decisive victory in the electoral college. Lincoln received 39.8% of the popular vote and 180 votes in the electoral college; Douglas received 29.5% of the popular vote but only received a single vote in the electoral college; John Breckinridge received 18.1% of the popular vote and 72 votes in the electoral college; and John Bell received 12.6% of the popular vote and 39 votes in the electoral college.


Recognizing his own lack of administrative ability, Lincoln chose Seward to head his cabinet, which was made up of the leading Republicans, drawn from all over the nation to ensure that each faction was represented, since he had grasped that the party was actually a mix of competing interest groups. Seward’s great rival Salmon Chase was made Secretary of the Treasury; Simon Cameron, the dominant political fixer in Pennsylvania, was made Secretary of War; Gideon Welles, a former Jackson Democrat who had left the party for the Republicans over the slavery issue, became Secretary of the Navy; Edward Bates, like Lincoln a Whig who had joined the Republicans because of his Free Soil beliefs, was appointed Attorney-general; Caleb Smith, a former Whig from Indiana, was made Secretary of the Interior; and Montgomery Blair, representing the powerful Blair family, headed by Blair’s father Francis, became Postmaster General. Critics feared Francis Blair would have too much influence in the cabinet, since he had backed Bates for president, Welles was his son-in-law, and the postmaster was his son. Seward was influential in the eastern states, especially New York, Chase was a former governor and senator of Ohio, Cameron dominated Pennsylvania, Welles was from Connecticut, Bates represented Missouri and the Border States, Smith Indiana, Blair was based in Maryland, and Lincoln himself was one of the key politicians in Illinois. Despite the regional balance, they were all from the north or the border-states, none were from the south.

Aside from a swarm of office seekers, demanding patronage in return for their efforts to ensure his election, Lincoln had to deal with the increasing likelihood of secession, despite his efforts to reassure Southern leaders that his administration would not threaten their way of life. Lincoln initially believed that there were enough pro-Union men in the south to prevent such a drastic event as secession. Confident that his many speeches had made it clear that he would not interfere with slavery where it existed, he merely wanted to prevent its spread, Lincoln made no effort to actually meet with key southern leaders to defuse the situation. Since the south had threatened secession for a generation and never carried through with the threat, Lincoln thought that it was just a bargaining chip in an effort to win more concessions. Part of the problem is that while Lincoln had travelled over the north and had a broad range of contacts, he had little first-hand experience in the south itself.

While Lincoln laboriously weighed the pros and cons of prospective members of the cabinet, a steady stream of southern states seceded from the Union. Between late December 1860 and early February 1861, seven states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Texas) announced that they were leaving the Union, and a convention of delegates from six of the seven states elected Jefferson Davis president on February 9. Refusing to take responsibility for the growing secession crisis, President James Buchanan stated that the Southern states had no right to secede but he had no right to stop them.

The key issue became ensuring that the remaining eight slave-holding states stayed in the Union. As the nation moved closer to civil war, Republican leaders urged compromise, but Lincoln refused, claiming that any further concessions to the south would transform the United States into a slave empire. Moreover, Lincoln was an easy-going man until he made up his mind, and then he became rigidly stubborn. Since opposition to the further extension of slavery had been a key plank in his campaign, he would not back down from what he had been elected to do. He had already given in, in his mind and those of many of his supporters, by agreeing to keep the fugitive slave law as it was.

Aside from the threat to the Union’s existence, there were threats on Lincoln’s existence, since rumors circulated that he would be assassinated before he could take office. Although Lincoln dismissed the rumors, Seward and Winfield Scott, senior general of the army, took them seriously. Convinced that there was a plot to assassinate the president-elect in Baltimore during his tour of the north, where he stopped in numerous cities to make speeches, detective Allen Pinkerton persuaded Lincoln to make his way into the capital in disguise. He reached Washington safely, but when the newspapers learned of the situation, they mocked him mercilessly.

Lincoln also found himself engaged in a power struggle with his Secretary of State since Seward believed that he was the more talented politician, therefore he should lead the government. Seward even threatened to leave the cabinet if his rival Chase stayed, but Lincoln refused to budge. Although he won the initial confrontation, Lincoln discovered that the members of his cabinet were not inclined to work together.

Lincoln’s first crisis as president was the defence of Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay. Reinforcement was impossible but surrender would make the Union look weak. As Lincoln tried to find a solution, Republican papers criticized the lack of a clear policy towards the south. Compromise appeared impossible, so after a great deal of debate with his cabinet, he decided to supply the fort and see what would happen. Since this strategy violated a promise made by Seward to southern leaders, Seward made a private offer to assume responsibility for making policy. Faced with a direct challenge to his authority, Lincoln reminded Seward that he was president, and would set policy. Learning that Lincoln had sent a fleet to relieve Fort Sumter, the rebels bombarded the fort, so the garrison surrendered on April 14, 1861, after a day of heavy bombardment, and it was permitted to evacuate. War had begun.

Civil War

Following the start of the war, Douglas publicly supported Lincoln, who called for the recruitment of 75,000 militiamen, compelling men all over the nation to choose sides. Foreign-born Americans in the major cities swiftly formed units, while militia regiments sprung up across the northern states. Two days after Lincoln’s proclamation, Virginia joined the Confederacy, and three more states seceded during the next two months. The loss of Virginia was a deep disappointment to the president, who had worked hard to retain the loyalty of Union men. Instead, they had become secessionists and brought the Confederacy within sight of Washington. The Confederate capital was moved from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond, Virginia at the end of May. However, there were a number of states still in play, in particular Maryland and Kentucky. Kentucky initially remained neutral but nine of its ten congressional districts elected Unionists during the June elections for Congress.

The war had begun but the federal army was not ready for war. The sixteen thousand regulars were spread across the nation and a third of the officers had resigned their commissions in order to serve in the Confederate army. The only generals with combat experience were too old to actually lead an army. Colonel Robert Lee, Scott’s first recommendation to command the army, rejected the offer because he was unwilling to fight against Virginia, his home state. Worse, he joined the newly formed Confederate army, which Lincoln could see with a telescope from the roof of the White House. Fearing an attack on Washington, Lincoln spent several anxious days waiting for the arrival of troops that had been promised by northern states. During those nervous days, newly appointed Minister to Russia Cassius Clay and Kansas Senator James Lane formed small units of volunteers to defend the government in case of invasion. Even so, residents of Washington breathed easier when there were ten thousand men in the capital by April 27.

As the army grew, Lincoln made it a priority to keep the army bipartisan, handing out military commands to Democrats as well as Republicans. A few victories appeared. Federalists managed to retain control of Missouri, a key border state, routing the secessionist militia. After seizing control of Baltimore, the secessionist centre of the state, to ensure the smooth passage of troops, Maryland was convinced to remain in the Union, and vital Kentucky sided with the Union after a Confederate army invaded.

Unprepared for the war, the administration lacked clear lines of authority, so the first few months were chaotic, while the mixture of regular and volunteer units led by politicians given commands to retain loyalty only added to the confusion. Determined to avoid accusations of radicalism that would cost him support in the border states, Lincoln refused to recruit blacks, claiming that it was a war to save the Union, not free the slaves, and he did not make a single mention of slavery during his inaugural address. His one compromise was to end the fugitive slave law for the states in rebellion. Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and liberal Republicans like Senators Charles Sumner, Zachariah Chandler and Ben Wade felt that there was no point in postponing emancipation now that the civil war had started. However, Lincoln knew that public opinion, even in the North, was against emancipation, so he refused to take that radical step. Instead, he would continue the policy of containing the spread of slavery, in the hope that it would eventually starve to death.

Douglas died shortly after the war started, depriving Lincoln of a valuable supporter, and the remaining Democrats in Congress a leader. However, Lincoln and Seward had begun to bond, spending free time together, which improved their cooperation and raised his spirits, which were heavily burdened by the war. This relationship naturally fuelled jealousy in the rest of the cabinet.

Lincoln had established office hours where he would receive visitors for several hours a day, but he routinely ignored his own rules, even though the constant grind of dealing with people wore him down. Possessing a haphazard attitude towards rules, his cabinet meetings were never held on a regular basis, since he preferred to meet with individual cabinet secretaries one-on-one. His one break was carriage rides to visit the troops and meet with officers at the camps surrounding the capital. During evenings when there were no formal events, he would either relax with a few friends, including Seward, or attend a play or concert.

By the start of Congress on July 4, politicians were pressing for the army of thirty thousand men to smash the rebels and march on Richmond to end the war. After endless parades, noble speeches, taking photos of themselves in uniform, and discussions of the glory of war, both the troops and everyone else was fired up with excitement and romance. Lincoln wanted Brigadier General Irwin McDowell, commander of the Union forces around Washington, to take the army and attack the Manassas railroad junction, roughly twenty-five miles south of Washington. Scott said that the army would not be ready until the fall, and recommended that the blockade be tightened and a force should move down the Mississippi to squeeze the Confederacy until pro-Union forces within the Confederacy defeated the rebels. Lacking faith in a spontaneous uprising within the Confederacy, Lincoln dismissed McDowell’s argument that the troops were inexperienced with the comment that the enemy were inexperienced as well.

When the Grand Army finally started to move, everyone was predicting a victory, so the huge defeat on July 21 was a major shock. The disaster had been observed firsthand by the hundreds of spectators, including congressmen and correspondents, who had seen the Union army routed, with the troops running in panic. Fortunately for the government, the rebels were too exhausted and confused to attack the capital. The reality of war had destroyed hopes that the rebellion would easily be crushed, and Lincoln had to bear much of the blame. Recognizing the scale of the threat, he adopted Scott’s blockade strategy, called for long-term volunteers, and suggested three separate expeditions against the Confederacy. Furthermore, a new commander was needed. Having proven successful in western Virginia, George McClellan was given command of the Army of the Potomac. Young and conceited, he was undeniably able, as well as tremendously popular since he looked like the ideal general. McClellan threw himself into reorganizing the army, drilling the troops mercilessly.

Fremont had been given command of the Army of the West, but stirred up a hornet’s nest when he announced that the slaves of rebels in Missouri would be freed. Desperate to keep control of the border states, Lincoln reminded him that the president, not Fremont, would make political decisions, and rescinded the proclamation. The border states remained in the Union but liberal Republicans were furious, and formed Emancipation Leagues to convince the public of the need to make the war a war of liberty. Frustrated by rumors of corruption, Fremont’s blatant politicking and inability to actually fight battles, Lincoln removed him in October 1861, but he had become a hero to the abolitionist movement.

The Trent Affair

When an American warship intercepted the British ship the Trent on November 8, 1861, and removed two Confederate commissioners travelling to Britain, British anger seemed likely lead to war, which would ensure a Confederate victory. The British government demanded the release of the envoys and a formal apology. Initially reluctant to back down, Lincoln found that his cabinet, in particular Secretary of State Seward, advocated compromise in order to avoid war or an end to trade with Britain. Realizing the consequences of British support for the Confederacy, Lincoln agreed to release the commissioners, although he refused to make an apology, thus ensuring that the civil war remained an internal matter. Since the British government was not eager for an expensive war, the demand for an apology was dropped and the crisis soon disappeared. Inexperienced in foreign affairs, Lincoln had turned to Senator Charles Sumner for advice in this area, and would continue to rely on him in the future, even though Seward sometimes grumbled that there were two secretaries of state. The British government had been seriously debating formal recognition of the Confederacy in the summer and fall of 1861, but that movement had lost momentum as the government had considered the expense of going to war against the Union. When the two Confederate commissioners finally reached London, they found that the British government had decided to remain neutral, therefore formal recognition would only follow military victory.

General George McClellan

George McClellanBy that time, the Army of the Potomac had grown to an army of 75,000 men, but McClellan still resisted pressure to advance. In fact, Republican leaders were losing faith in both McClellan and Lincoln. However, Lincoln continued to support McClellan and even made him General in Chief when Scott resigned due to old age. This confidence in McClellan’s abilities was not returned by McClellan, who frequently referred to Lincoln as a baboon or a gorilla in letters to his wife. To be fair, he had a low opinion of everyone in the cabinet, even Winfield Scott, his superior. Convinced that he was horribly outnumbered, McClellan refused to move forward until the Union forces in the west had achieved victories to weaken the pressure.

Call for action were growing, since the Treasury was surviving on credit, the large army meant there were fewer laborers for farms and factories, and the war had ended trade between the north and south.

As McClellan continued to delay, finally taking to his bed with illness late December, pressure from Congress for Lincoln to act grew. Since McClellan had neglected to share his plans with any of his subordinates, or even appoint a second-in-command, nothing could happen until he recovered. Worse, neither of the two commanders in the west, Don Carlos Buell and Henry Halleck, were moving forward or even talking to each other. Lincoln had discussed the situation with other generals and made his own studies, so he realized that a Union offensive would succeed only if they attacked from several directions to prevent the rebels from shifting their smaller forces to defeat each invasion individually. Unlike Lincoln, this discord did not concern McClellan, since he felt that none of the other fronts mattered, only Virginia, but he still refused to accept any blame for the failure to advance. The threat of losing his army brought McClellan out of bed but he still refused to reveal his plan, claiming that the president was incapable of keeping a secret.

When the Army of the Potomac settled into winter quarters in January, McClellan had commanded the army for six months, trained it to a remarkable level, received abundant quantities of supplies, and faced an enemy residing only two days march away, so it should not come as a surprise that Lincoln, Congress and the general public expected McClellan to do something. Only after an exasperated Lincoln issued orders for all three Union armies to attack in unison on February 22, 1862 did McClellan explain his plan to sail down the Potomac River and attack Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Although aware that the absence of the main army gave the rebels the opportunity to sacrifice Richmond to capture Washington, which would immediately give the Confederacy legitimacy, a dubious Lincoln gave his consent.

The situation finally improved when Buell and Halleck started to advance, although they were still not coordinating. Actually, Halleck’s subordinate Ulysses Grant was winning all of the battles, and a gratified Lincoln promoted him to major general.
Relying on information supplied by agents working for Allen Pinkerton, McClellan was convinced that he was heavily outnumbered by the Confederate army, so he refused to advance. Congressional leaders furiously demanded that Lincoln replace McClellan but Lincoln knew there was no suitable candidate and kept the troublesome general. When the rebel army fell back to positions closer to Richmond, Union scouts discovered that the heavy guns that had terrorized McClellan were fake, and it seemed likely that less than 40,000 men had manned the lines, far fewer than the 200,000 claimed by McClellan. Deeply embarrassed, Lincoln removed McClellan as General in Chief but kept him as commander of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan then led his army to sail down to the Chesapeake Bay to outflank the Confederate lines and attack Richmond. In the end, McClellan dallied again even though he had 100,000 men, enabling the rebels to safely retreat to newer lines, which he refused to attack, since he continued to believe that he was outnumbered, despite the embarrassment of the discovery of fake Confederate guns. McClellan’s delay enabled the Confederates to transfer reinforcements and gave them the initiative, since he refused to actually attack.

McClellan had still failed to fight an actual battle, while continuing to call for reinforcements otherwise he would be overwhelmed, but Grant had proven to be a fighter, winning a battle at Shiloh in southern Tennessee. It had been a bloodbath but Grant had won, so Lincoln ignored calls to remove Grant for drunkenness, stating “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”

When Stonewall Jackson launched a surprise campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, threatening the capital, Lincoln cancelled plans to reinforce McClellan, who would have remained passive except that the Confederates attacked him. McClellan beat back the enemy, and rebel commander Joe Johnston was wounded, so he was replaced by Robert E. Lee. Shocked by the death toll, McClellan remained in place, instead of taking the initiative following the rebel defeat. Believing that war should be a scientific affair that minimized casualties, McClellan could not bear the thought of losing men, since he genuinely cared for them. He had also come to resent interference from Washington, which he viewed as a nest of rascals and traitors, so his telegrams to the White House had to be edited by the supervisor of telegraph messages, who realized that Lincoln would have to fire McClellan for insubordination if he saw them. When Lee attacked, McClellan believed reports that he was horribly outnumbered and retreated to better defensive positions. There was a seven-day-long battle but Lee could not achieve a decisive victory and McClellan was unwilling to take the offensive so it was a bloody stalemate.

The telegram exchanges between Lincoln and McClellan grew increasingly bizarre. One telegram would demand 50,000 men or the army was lost. The next message would state that he had conducted a brilliant retreat unparalleled in the annals of war, the troops were now in review, bands were playing and all he needed was another 100,000 men and he would win the war. Lincoln’s replies stressed with growing impatience that there were no more men. McClellan may have believed that he was a genius, but few in Washington aside from his Democrat supporters shared that opinion since he had not won a single victory. Since a scapegoat was required, Democrats rallied around McClellan to attack Secretary of War Stanton. Despite the rising crescendo of attacks on Stanton, Lincoln stood by him, refusing to ask for his resignation. McClellan’s failure had wider ramifications, since there was a real chance that Britain would decide that a Union victory was impossible, and recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation, which would be a signal to the rest of Europe to open relations with the rebels. When Lincoln inspected McClellan’s position in July, the general took the time to draft a letter stating that Lincoln must not emancipate the slaves but he should appoint another General in Chief, an unsubtle hint to be restored to his former rank.

Lincoln’s Search for a replacement for McClellan (March 1862-March 1864)

Henry Halleck

Henry HalleckUnknown to McClellan, Lincoln had already decided to appoint Halleck General in Chief, acknowledging that McClellan’s approach was unable to win the war. Halleck was selected because he had written several books on military strategy and because he had won a number of victories in the West, even though Grant had actually done the fighting.

After consulting with Halleck, McClellan was ordered to bring his army back to Washington but a sudden Confederate advance confused the situation and revealed Halleck’s indecisive nature. McClellan had been ordered to link up with an army led by General John Pope, who had won a reputation as an aggressive commander in the West, and McClellan feared that Pope, not himself, would command the combined army, which would greatly outnumber Lee, hopefully ensuring victory. Realizing the danger, Lee moved first, hitting Pope while he was still alone. This approach was made easier by McClellan’s lengthy, intentional delay, leaving Pope had to face an army of roughly equal size alone during the Second Battle of Bull Run. McClellan held back, waiting for confirmation that he, not Pope, would command. If Pope would be in charge, then a defeat would be useful since he would undoubtedly be asked to save Washington.

George McClellan

George McClellanAfter Pope was thrashed by Lee at the Second Battle of Bull Run in late August, Lincoln grudgingly decided to fire Pope and give McClellan sole command of the Army of the Potomac.

When it became clear that corruption in the War Department meant that troops were receiving substandard equipment, Lincoln fired Cameron as Secretary of War, even though there was no evidence that he had made a personal profit, just that he had permitted his friends and cronies to profit. Appointed minister to Russia in January 1862, Cameron was replaced by Edwin Stanton, former attorney-general in James Buchanan’s administration, even though Stanton had publicly humiliated Lincoln during a high-profile case involving the McCormick Reaper company in Cincinnati seven years earlier, ignoring Lincoln’s existence even though they were part of the same defense team. Lincoln knew that Stanton had the necessary ability and there was no time during war for personal grudges. Lincoln’s decision proved correct, since Stanton immediately commenced a reform of the War Department. In fact, the two men gradually grew to respect each other.

Halleck and Stanton had both urged the president to remove McClellan from command, while several other members of the cabinet opposed the decision, but Lincoln felt that only McClellan could reorganize the demoralized army and save Washington. McClellan would soon be tested when Lee invaded Maryland in September, hoping that a victory on Union soil would win British support. The two armies clashed at Antietam on September 17, and McClellan claimed a complete victory since he had blocked the invasion, believing it unimportant to prevent Lee from escaping, which infuriated Lincoln.

A key factor was that the officer corps was largely Democratic, and the senior officers of the Army of the Potomac were deeply loyal to McClellan, so there was genuine talk of the need to replace Lincoln with a stronger man who would treat the army better, and ensure that war remained a professional affair where civilian property, like slaves, was considered off-limits. McClellan felt that emancipation and the suspension of habeas corpus had managed to destroy the nation’s free institutions, replacing them with despotism. This sentiment expresses the key problem, namely that many northerners simply did not view the ownership of human beings as tyranny. Aware that McClellan was more popular with the army than he was, Lincoln delayed replacing McClellan, even though he felt that McClellan had missed a valuable opportunity to destroy the enemy army at Antietam. After inspecting the army of the Potomac, and studying military matters, as well as observing the massive number of Union troops on leave, Lincoln realized that neither the people nor the general in charge of the army were willing to accept that they were at war. McClellan thought that overwhelming force and strategy would win the war without any destruction, casualties or chaos, failing to understand that war meant destruction, casualties and chaos.

Ambrose Burnside

Ambrose BurnsideTired of generals who were unwilling to fight, once the elections were over Lincoln replaced Buell with Rosecrans and McClellan with Ambrose Burnside, who looked like a general but was insecure and did not think he was able to command an entire army. Burnside was chosen because he was a subordinate of McClellan, so he would be more acceptable to the army, but he would prove to be a good judge of his own character when he launched a series of frontal assaults against Fredericksburg on December 13 that produced nothing other than twelve thousand casualties. Hoping to redeem himself, Burnside led his army to cross the Rappahannock River in January but the huge mass of men became stuck in the mud, drenched with cold, driving rain. Presented with another disaster, Lincoln replaced Burnside with one of his greatest critics, his own subordinate Joe Hooker, who became the fourth commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Joe Hooker

In the spring of 1863, the Union forces were poised to commence a massive assault against the Confederacy, including a powerful naval assault against the vital port of Charleston, South Carolina, Grant was preparing another attempt against Vicksburg, Rosecrans was moving into eastern Tennessee, and Hooker was planning to move against Lee.

Grant was stuck in front of Vicksburg, and the naval assault on Charleston had failed, but Hooker was advancing towards Lee. Despite the advantage of a powerful, well-trained army that outnumbered Lee two to one, Hooker was outfought at Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6 1863), and had to retreat. This period was one of the worst of Lincoln’s presidency, which was not aided by a mutual loathing between Halleck and Hooker. Lincoln gave him another chance but when Lee suddenly dashed towards Maryland before turning to strike at Pennsylvania and Hooker still refused to attack, claiming that he was outnumbered, Lincoln lost patience, and accepted his resignation, replacing him with General George Meade.

George Meade

George MeadeThe two armies encountered each other at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 where Lee suffered such heavy casualties that he abandoned his invasion of the north. The battle had lasted three days, and Lincoln spent most of his time in the telegraph office, where he was frequently joined by Stanton, Seward, Welles and Senators Sumner and Chandler. Unaware that the enemy’s losses were proportionally larger, Meade was shocked by his own casualty list and refused to pursue Lee, despite repeated urgings from Halleck and Lincoln, causing Lincoln to explode with frustration and anger. Fortunately, Vicksburg had finally surrendered to Grant. While Lincoln fumed that Meade had missed a rare opportunity to finally destroy Lee’s army, the twin defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg ensured that Britain would not recognize the Confederacy. From that point on, a Union victory was inevitable. In addition, Grant had become Lincoln’s favorite general because he won victories and he never asked for reinforcements. Moreover, Grant strongly supported Lincoln’s plan to enlist escaped slaves from the Mississippi region to deprive the Confederacy of needed rural labor, while increasing the size of the Union army.

Emancipation Proclamation

The dire military situation and the realization that the war would not be won in the near future were propelling the president to accept the need for emancipation. Another factor was the steady stream of advice from American ambassadors in Europe, stating that emancipation would prevent recognition of the Confederacy. He had resisted increasingly harsh criticism from abolitionists, pointing out that they considered only their own needs while he had to consider the nation, where emancipation was far from universally popular. To ensure that his views were fully understood, Lincoln wrote a letter to Horace Greely’s Tribune, the leading abolitionist newspaper, on August 22, 1862, which was widely reprinted, stating that his primary goal was the preservation of the Union, therefore he was equally willing to end slavery or to strengthen it if he thought that either action would save the Union.

Emancipation Proclamation CabinetWhen representatives from the border-states rejected his appeal to accept a program of gradual emancipation, Lincoln was forced to recognize that slave-owners would never voluntarily free their slaves. Compelling them to free their slaves would simply drive them into the arms of the rebels, so he resolved to back the confiscation bill that was currently the subject of a fierce battle in Congress between liberal Republicans and Democrats and conservative Republicans. The bill would permit the confiscation of property of anyone who aided the rebellion, so plantation owners in territory captured by Union forces would have their slaves freed, while any slave that reached Union lines would automatically become free. Blacks would even be permitted to enlist in the army. Siding with the liberal Republicans, Lincoln signed the bill into law. In fact, he went further, using his authority as Commander in Chief of the army to proclaim that all slaves in the rebel states, even those belonging to loyalists, would become free on January 1, 1863.

Meeting with his cabinet on July 22, 1862, Lincoln’s proposal received the support of a majority of the cabinet: Smith opposed the measure, but remained silent; Blair warned that it would cost the Republicans dearly during the fall elections; and Chase advocated a more gradual approach, which seems bizarre given his long struggle for the abolition of slavery, unless he feared that Lincoln’s proclamation would win the support of radical Republicans, who had previously backed Chase, which would likely end his chances of becoming president in 1864. However, Seward persuaded him to wait until the north had won a major victory before issuing the proclamation.

Even though Antietam was not the victory he had wanted, Lincoln decided it was sufficient, and resolved to announce his emancipation proclamation. The news was welcomed by Republicans but opposed furiously by Democrats. One Democrat in particular was incensed. McClellan vowed that he would not fight to free slaves, describing the proclamation as an accursed doctrine. Emancipation proved to be extremely unpopular in the army as well, creating a dangerous threat to morale. While the proclamation was naturally criticized by the Confederacy, pro-Union leaders in the south called it treachery. In England, the proclamation combined with the Union victory at Antietam convinced the cabinet to postpone recognition of the Confederacy until the situation changed.

The proclamation had an impact during the fall election when the Republicans lost so many seats that they barely retained control of Congress, and a complete defeat seemed likely during the 1864 presidential election. The loss should not have been a surprise, since Lincoln had been elected with a minority of votes, the war was not going well, and the burden on the economy was almost unbearable. Aside from widespread resentment against emancipation, Democrats had also successfully stoked public anger against Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus.

Chase initially had been the only member of Lincoln’s cabinet arguing for black enlistment but Stanton had also come under the influence of senators Wade, Chandler and Stevens, who were early and vocal proponents of black soldiers. Once the proclamation had been signed, Stanton urged Lincoln to permit the raising of black regiments. Given the deep resentment among the army towards the idea of black soldiers, Lincoln and Stanton decided that they would be paid less and would be formed in segregated units under white officers. The hordes of escaped slaves arriving at Union lines soon became a serious logistical problem. While the able-bodied men became soldiers, huge numbers of refugees had to be kept in the south to avoid inflaming the situation in the north, but they also had to be fed. Lincoln had foreseen this problem and quickly sent Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, an extremely capable administrator, south to allocate the refugees into the army, as military laborers or as paid laborers on the plantations, according to their ability. A trial colonization project in Haiti had already failed, leaving Lincoln convinced that the freed slaves had to be resettled in the south.

However, black enlistment was not enough to meet the army’s need for men, so the government introduced the draft, which lit a match to an already explosive anti-war sentiment, forcing Lincoln to respond with drastic measures against anyone accused of treason.

By August 1863, black regiments were already transforming the war, either relieving white units from garrison duty or serving as front-line units. Lincoln’s decision to enlist black soldiers may have been a necessity, but it was not popular, especially in the mid-west, where Copperheads (peace Democrats) had been attacking the president over the suspension of habeas corpus and the introduction of the draft in order to continue a war that was bankrupting the nation. White mobs attacked recruiting officers in the mid-west, while there were a number of draft riots, and men were especially angry that anyone could avoid the draft by paying $300, which had been imposed by Congress despite strenuous opposition from Lincoln and Stanton. The worst riots occurred in New York City when white workers, mostly Irish, burned draft offices and then rampaged through the black part of the city, killing hundreds of blacks, as well as any white policeman or citizen who tried to interfere, for three days. The riots in New York had likely been sparked by speeches made by Copperhead politicians, in particular, a speech by New York Governor Horatio Seymour on July 4, where he accused the federal government of exceeding its constitutional authority by forcing white men into an ungodly conflict on behalf of black men. Even though the initial assault on governmental buildings was clearly organized, Lincoln refused to order an official investigation because he feared that it would simply provoke more riots and unrest, which would distract attention from the war. As a result, the fall elections would be a litmus test of voters’ acceptance of his policies, especially emancipation, the draft, martial law and black soldiers, so he felt justified when Republican candidates swept the state elections that fall.

The Republican victory was welcome, but the Union defeat at Chickamauga was discouraging. Lincoln had tired of Rosecrans but waited until several days after the state elections in Ohio, where native-son Rosecrans was popular, in October to give Grant command of the armies in the west, and Grant promptly fired Rosecrans, replacing him with Thomas.

The Gettysburg Address

Pennsylvania’s state government had initiated the idea of a National Soldiers’ Cemetery on the Gettysburg battlefield, and Lincoln agreed to speak at the commemoration ceremony in November, viewing it as an excellent opportunity to remind people that the war was being fought not just to suppress a rebellion but to preserve democracy in the United States. Whenever he had free time, he would work on the speech, but the speech remained unfinished when he arrived at Gettysburg, so he stayed up late the night before the ceremony rewriting the speech. Lincoln’s address was short, a mere two paragraphs, incredibly brief by the standards of the time, especially after four hours of speeches and prayers, but it was powerful, although no one at the time could have predicted the speech’s impact. Lincoln himself had been disappointed in the speech. Actually, the speech had ended so quickly that the restive audience had barely noticed that he had started, but it was well-received by newspapers, while his opponents attacked it and the belief in equality it stressed.

Fearing that he might lose the 1864 election or not even be nominated by his party, Lincoln focused on introducing his approach to reconstruction to the Confederate areas that had already been retaken by Union forces. Those areas had been given state governments manned by white politicians from the area who had opposed secession. The policy was a mixed success, and liberal Republicans in Congress argued that reconstruction was the responsibility of Congress, not the president. In particular, liberal leader Senator Sumner opposed Lincoln’s policy of limiting the political vote to whites. Sumner believed that only former slaves would be loyal, therefore they should receive the vote. The thought of giving blacks the right to vote disgusted conservative Republicans, who backed Lincoln against the liberals. The feuding within the Republican party did not worry Lincoln, but he feared that if all citizens of rebel states were given the vote, they would simply use their numbers to retake control of the state legislature and return the same people to power that had started the war in the first place. To avoid that problem, Lincoln decided that large segments of southern society would have to be disenfranchised, including all former Confederate civilian officials; all men who had the rank of colonel or higher; and anyone who had resigned from the Union army or Congress to join the Confederacy. Everyone else would receive a the right to vote after they had sworn allegiance to the United States. The plan was accepted by Congress, ending the Republican feuding, at least for the moment.

Lincoln seeks nomination for a second term

Although it had become traditional since Andrew Jackson’s presidency for presidents to only serve a single term, Lincoln wanted a second term to prove that his policies were popular but he was not the first choice of Republican leaders. The various factions within the Republican party did not oppose Lincoln’s overall objectives, but simply questioned whether he had the leadership and administrative ability needed to accomplish those objectives. Chase had pinned his hopes on the tradition of single-term presidencies, and did not expect Lincoln to run for a second term. When it became clear that Lincoln intended to run for a second term, Chase presumed that he would represent the radical Republicans and Lincoln the conservative Republicans. Chase was clearly campaigning even though he remained in Lincoln’s cabinet and refused to actually admit that he was campaigning. His numerous letters to politicians and journalists followed the same theme, Lincoln had made numerous errors but he would do a better job, not that he sought the presidency, although he would naturally accept the burden if pushed by his countrymen. Obviously, this was not a secret, but Lincoln remained unconcerned, believing that it was better to keep his rival in plain sight.

When Chase volunteered to go home to Ohio to campaign for the pro-Union candidate against Democrat Clement Vallandigham, who advocated peace at any cost, even the resumption of slavery, Lincoln agreed. Chase would undoubtedly also campaign for himself, but it was worth the risk to ensure the defeat of the Democrats, and Chase did bring victory in his home state, while the Democrat candidate was also defeated in Pennsylvania. Chase unfortunately believed that he deserved all the credit, that the President and recent victories had nothing to do with it, therefore he overestimated his support. Again. As Chase’s supporters became increasingly blatant in their unofficial campaign, Chase continued to protest that he was uninvolved. Discreet approaches to the other members of the cabinet failed to win their support or encouragement but he ignored the signs. Stanton had remained friends with Chase, although not as close as before, but Stanton had grown to respect Lincoln, so Chase did not even have his backing. When Chase’s allies distributed a circular to a hundred leading Republicans advocating the nomination of Chase since Lincoln would never be re-elected, it provoked such a severe reaction that the Republican party in Ohio passed a unanimous resolution supporting Lincoln, ending Chase’s hopes, and forcing him to publicly withdraw from the presidential race.

Ulysses Grant Takes Command (March 1864)

Ulysses GrantDetermined to reinvigorate the Union army, Lincoln promoted Grant to lieutenant general, a rank that had last been used when George Washington commanded the army, and General in Chief of all Union armies, in March, leaving Sherman in command of the army in the west, which proved to be an extremely popular decision. Lincoln would have promoted Grant sooner but the general was being courted by both Republicans and Democrats as a presidential candidate, and Lincoln did not want to elevate a potential rival. This reluctance disappeared after he received a letter from Grant swearing that he had no interest in becoming president. Given the size of the army, Halleck became chief of staff, Grant set the strategy and plans, and Meade actually executed the plans as commander of the Army of the Potomac, roles that suited each man perfectly. Grant would keep Lee busy while Sherman marched through Georgia to capture Atlanta, damaging the Confederate economy. This concerted plan was what Lincoln had been demanding since the start of the war. More important, he needed a victory if he was going to win the election.

Hoping to oblige, Grant hit Lee hard in May and continued to hit hard, but the direct approach produced astonishing casualties because Lee had chosen the Wilderness, a dense maze of bogs and ravines, as the battleground, which made it impossible for Grant to employ his greater advantages in manpower and artillery. At the end of the bloodletting, Lee was safe behind his defences, and Grant did not know what to do next. Although heartbroken by the long lines of wounded arriving in Washington, Lincoln remained confident that Grant would persevere despite the horrendous casualties.

1864 Presidential Election

Lincoln did not attend the Republican convention and stated that he did not care who was selected as vice president. It is unknown why he made no effort to keep Hamlin, but he may have felt that Hamlin was too radical, and would the alienate the War Democrats and conservative Republicans needed to win the election. Most important, the position simply was not considered that important at the time. Senator Andrew Johnson, former governor of Tennessee, was chosen as vp because he was a War Democrat, and the sole southern Senator to remain in the Senate after the outbreak of war. All that Lincoln needed was a decisive victory but Sherman was advancing at snail’s pace through Georgia, and Grant still appeared unable to get Lee to fight in the open.

Although the members of the cabinet feuded among themselves, driven by personal jealously and genuine political differences, they were all effective in their duties. Stanton had revitalized the War Department; Blair had modernized the primitive postal system to create a national system which enabled the soldiers to remain in touch with their distant families; Welles oversaw the dramatic expansion of the navy; and Chase provided the key service of finding the money needed to pay for the war. Most important, they were all personally loyal to Lincoln, so he kept them in their positions. However, there was one exception, Salmon P. Chase. Aside from conspiring to win the presidential nomination without openly declaring his candidacy, Chase had repeatedly pressured Lincoln to agree to policy decisions by threatening to resign. Tiring of the conflict and more secure in his position now that he had the nomination, when Chase offered yet another resignation as a veiled threat to have his way in a dispute over the position of assistant treasurer of New York, Lincoln accepted Chase’s resignation, replacing him with Maine Senator William Fessenden, stunning Chase and angering liberal Republicans in the Senate, who began talking about supporting Fremont instead.

When the Senate and Congress passed a harsher reconstruction bill than Lincoln wanted on July 2, he vetoed it, claiming that Congress did not have the authority to ban slavery. Infuriated, Republican senators and congressmen ranted in the press against Lincoln. The president’s popularity fell further when Confederate general Jubal Early suddenly attacked Maryland, threatening Washington, in mid-July, although a desperate attack by troops commanded by General Lew Wallace delayed Early long enough for Grant to send reinforcements to drive Early away from the capital. When Lincoln ordered the draft of an additional 500,000 men, he was harshly criticized, especially since Congress had abolished the right to commute military service by paying $300. Grant understood that Lincoln’s political situation depended on a military victory, and he tried to give that victory, but both he and Sherman were stuck in long, wearying sieges.

Lincoln’s own supporters were convinced that he would be defeated by McClellan, the Democratic candidate. McClellan had announced that he would bring peace by allowing the south to keep slavery if it returned to the Union. Despite a depressed acceptance of his future defeat, Lincoln, supported by cabinet members Seward, Stanton and Fassenden, refused to negotiate with the Confederacy, even though negotiation would probably ensure victory during the election. Worse, he realized that if he lost the election, the new president would likely recognize the Confederacy, bringing an end to the Union. The refusal to abandon emancipation threatened to cost him the support of War Democrats and the conservative Republicans, who were beginning to seek a replacement candidate, since Lincoln seemed bound to lose.

Lincoln’s chances looked bleak until a message from Sherman arrived on September 3, days after the Democratic Convention, stating “Atlanta is ours and fairly won.” Other, smaller Union victories restored Lincoln’s confidence, and he made it clear that he would not consider resigning as Republican candidate, he would not open negotiations with the Confederacy, and he would not break his promise to black people by permitting a return to slavery.

McClellan still remained a threat, since he was backed by powerful banking, industrial and railroad tycoons, and working class men afraid that the Emancipation Proclamation meant equality with blacks, as well as liberals opposed to Lincoln’s suppression of habeus corpus and free speech, while the draft remained extremely unpopular. Hoping to mend fences with the Radicals, Lincoln asked Postmaster Montgomery Blair, an object of radical hatred, to resign from the cabinet, where he had been feuding with Stanton with months. It is a tribute to Lincoln’s generous nature that he retained the loyalty of the powerful Blair clan despite the forced resignation of Montgomery Blair. Even Chase agreed to campaign on behalf of Lincoln, motivated by the hope of appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, while the abolitionist wing were naturally opposed to McClellan. Lincoln’s courtship of Republican liberals was aided by independent candidate John Fremont’s decision to resign from the race in order to ensure that McClellan was defeated, thus preventing the return of slavery. Fremont had realized that he had little chance of victory, especially when he learned that radical senators like Wade and Chandler would be backing Lincoln now that Blair had left the cabinet.

1864 Electoral CollegeDespite the genuine possibility of defeat, Lincoln refused to stack the deck in his favor by speeding up the admission of the territories of Colorado and Nebraska to the Union, even though they would have voted for him. The Democrats were confident that the majority of the soldiers would vote for McClellan, believing that his former troops still worshipped him. They would be wrong. In the end, Lincoln won handsomely, thanks partially to the overwhelming support of the military, but the win was less a mandate for his views on emancipation and more a reaction against McClellan.

Second Presidential Term

Starting a second term, Lincoln could have replaced his entire cabinet, but he was happy overall with the men, now that the key troublemakers, Chase and Blair, were gone. They came from different wings of the party, but factional infighting was reduced. Most important, no one was more aware of the achievements of Seward, Stanton, Bates and Welles than Lincoln. Bates left the cabinet because he was too old to continue, and he was replaced by James Speed, the brother of Joshua Speed, Lincoln’s old roommate in Springfield, because Lincoln trusted him, he was respected, and he had been a loyal Union man in Kentucky, a critical border state. Once again demonstrating his inability to hold a grudge, Lincoln appointed Chase chief justice because he was the best choice, even though the key members of his cabinet urged him to select Blair. The decision paid off, and Lincoln received more support from the Radicals in Congress for his reconstruction plan for the south.

When Sherman and his army disappeared in the south during his march towards the sea, where an entire army lived off the land, while burning its way through some of the richest farmland in the south, much of the North, Lincoln included, worried that Sherman and his army would be cut off, surrounded and eliminated. The outside world had no news of Sherman’s army for 32 days, and they were nervous days for Lincoln, since the defeat of his army would mean the war would last even longer, something growing numbers of voters had no patience for. Meanwhile, Sherman’s troops had left a path of devastation sixty miles wide behind them, wrecking every railroad, burning any food they could not carry and killing every animal. When the army reached Savannah, the news flashed across the north that the army had not only survived but had prevailed, ruining the state of Georgia and denying the rest of the Confederacy the food it desperately needed. News of Sherman’s feat reached Washington on the evening of December 14, and a message announcing the destruction of a Confederate army at Nashville arrived the next day.

The Thirteenth Amendment

Following these two major victories, Lincoln turned his attention to the proposed Thirteenth Amendment, which would emancipate all of the slaves, personally lobbying reluctant conservative Republicans and Democrats. The amendment had passed in the Senate the previous spring, but it had failed to pass the House where the congressmen had voted along party lines. His efforts bore fruit when the amendment was approved by the required two thirds of Congress, although it was a tight vote, and it seems likely that several Congressmen were swayed by promises of patronage or other practical benefits. The galleries in the House were packed when the Amendment was put to a vote and officially passed on January 31, 1865.
Unfortunately, his relationship with his wife had dissolved over the past couple of years, especially after the death of their son Willie in 1862, and they spent little time together.

Many politicians thought his fascination with humorous stories and the writings of humorists was a distraction and unsuitable given the situation, but it was Lincoln’s method of dealing with the crushing burden of leading a nation during wartime.
Despite Lincoln’s hard work to push through conscription to provide Grant and Sherman with the men they needed, he shared their respect for the soldiers, and rarely permitted men to be executed or punished for being AWOL, often interfering with the War Department if the case was brought to his personal attention, and ordering the men to be pardoned. He extended mercy whenever possible to the families of Confederate soldiers, claiming that he would rather make his enemies his friends.

Hampton Roads Conference

When the defeat of the Confederacy seemed imminent, Lincoln set terms of unconditional surrender, and he continued to work even though he was exhausted and in poor health. Meeting with Seward and three peace commissioners sent by the Confederacy, Vice President Alexander Stephens, former Senator R. M. Hunter and former Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, on Grant’s flagship the River Queen for four hours on February 3, at what became known as the Hampton Roads Conference, he insisted that negotiations would commence only after the states had stopped their armed rebellion, and he would not relent on emancipation. Stephens had asked for a temporary cessation of hostilities to let passions on both sides cool, but Lincoln refused to consider the idea. Seward informed the commissioners that Congress had just passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which made it clear that there would be no return to slavery.

Radical Republicans were outraged when they learned that Lincoln was meeting with peace commissioners from the South, fearing that he would abandon emancipation to obtain peace, and congressman Thaddeus Stevens delivered a speech that savaged the president. However, after Lincoln submitted a report to Congress on the conference, the congressmen realized that he had simply wanted the commissioners to openly state their goals, and a number of congressmen, including Stevens, made speeches praising Lincoln. There is no denying that Lincoln did want peace, since he proposed paying four hundred million dollars to the Confederate states to cover the value of the freed slaves, but the proposal was unanimously rejected by his cabinet, who stated that only fighting would end the war. Davis would have refused the offer anyway.

During the reception after the second inaugural, police guarding the entrance initially refused to permit former slave and leading abolitionist Frederick Douglass to enter, but a guest informed Lincoln who sent a message allowing him to come in. Busy shaking hands, Lincoln loudly greeted Douglass as a friend, called him over and briefly sought his opinion about the inaugural address, which may not sound important, but Douglass became the first African-American to be received formally at the White House by a president.

The End of the Civil War

After the Confederates abandoned Richmond on April 1, and General Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, the war was basically over, fortunately since Lincoln and Grant had both feared the cost of another major battle, or worse, that Lee would escape Grant’s trap and commence guerrilla warfare. Disregarding calls for vengeance, Lincoln was determined to be merciful and would not try the rebel leaders for treason, although he hoped that they would make his life easier and flee the country. This forgiveness was not popular with everyone in the government, including Vice-president Johnson, who believed fervently that treason must be punished. However, this approach was strongly supported by the three senior Union generals and the army itself, which was doing the actual fighting. While Lincoln was in favor of limited suffrage for blacks, he did not consider interracial marriage, full suffrage, or anything else related to genuine equality. As a result, the radicals were still unhappy with his proposals. At the same time, conservative republicans thought that he was going too fast. This disagreement with his approach fuelled a struggle between Congress and the executive over who had the real power.


Naturally, many southerners and sympathizers were angered by the fall of the south, and some sought revenge. Lincoln was looking forward to finishing his term and starting his life, when he decided to attend a play at Ford’s Theatre, where he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865. Lincoln fell into a coma and died nine hours after the shooting.

Related Movies:

Abrahm LincolnAbraham Lincoln

Directed by D. W. Griffith, starring Walter Huston and Una Merkel
Abraham Lincoln’s life is presented through a series of episodes that examine his early live of Ann Rutledge, legal career, failed attempt to win a Senate seat, presidential election, and the Civil War. (full review)

Young Mr. LincolnYoung Mr. Lincoln

Directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda and Alice Brady
Abraham Lincoln prepares for his first big case, courts his future wife and debates whether to enter politics. (full review)

Abe Lincoln in IllinoisAbe Lincoln in Illinois

Directed by John Cromwell, starring Raymond Massey and Ruth Gordon
Young lawyer Abraham Lincoln falls in love with society belle Mary Todd, whose relentless ambition drives him to pursue a political career, despite his deep-rooted reluctance. (full review)

The Tall TargetThe Tall Target

Directed by Anthony Mann, starring Dick Powell and Adolphe Menjou
A discredited detective learns of a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln as he travels by rail through Baltimore to his inauguration. (full review)

The Conspirator

Directed by Robert Redford, starring Robin Wright and James McAvoy
Lawyer Frederick Aiken defends Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house, where John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators plotted the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.


Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones
Balancing the conflicting needs of the radical and conservative factions of the Republican Party, President Abraham Lincoln struggles to convince enough Democrats to vote for the Thirteenth Amendment, which will abolish slavery. (full review)

Further Reading:

With Malice Toward None: A Biography of Abraham Lincoln-Stephen B. Oates, New York: Harper Perennial, 2011.

A solid, one-volume account of Abraham Lincoln’s life and career that is a perfect introduction to Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years: One-Volume Edition-Carl Sandburg, new York: Galahad Books, 1993.

Originally written in the 1920s, when memories of the period were fresher, Sandburg makes Lincoln’s environment come alive, so that the reader understands the hardships and rough conditions that people faced. A skilled writer, he doesn’t just relate the facts but includes sentences like the following about Ann Rutledge and Lincoln’s relationship: “probably they formed some mutual attachment not made clear to the community; possibly they loved each other and her hand went into his long fingers whose bones told her of refuge and security.” Because the book contains so much of Lincoln’s writings and quotes attributed to him, it is the best book to get an appreciation of the man, but its explanation of the time and environment that he lived in is its weak point. The bulk of the book deals with the Civil War, roughly a quarter of the book covers his life prior to the presidency. He provides superb character sketches of the main politicians and generals on both sides during the war, illustrating the complexities of each man with several paragraphs, making it easier to understand that the war was caused and carried out by a collection of men unaccustomed to the idea that anyone else could be right. Sandburg is so determined to give readers an accurate impression of Lincoln the man that he devotes a chapter to Lincoln’s humorous stories, repeating dozens of them, which can become tiresome.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln-Doris Kearns Goodwin, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Lincoln-David Herbert Donald, New York: Touchstone, 1995.

While Donald has undoubtedly performed impressive research, he is not a spell-binding writer. He simply presents Lincoln’s history in a straightforward manner.