Abraham Lincoln was a fine man, a skillful politician, and a great president. Freed the slaves, of course. His address at the dedication of the military cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863–150 years ago today–is magnificent and heartfelt oratory.
It is also a determined piece of goalpost shifting designed to cope with the fact that Lincoln’s Civil War was a bloody, improvised botch that he rescued by abandoning the positions that had won him the Presidency…
…and by redefining not only that war, but all American wars to come.
Lincoln, as is well known, was no abolitionist in 1860 (i.e. he had no plans to change the status of slaves inside the current slave-holding states). He ran for president on the Republican ticket on a platform of halting the expansion of slavery into the territories, something that the Southern-centric administration of James Buchanan and the deadlocked US Congress had been unable to achieve.
Southern arrogance, presumption, and scheming historically relied on the belief that the North lacked both the will and the means to do anything except bargain away its free-soil convictions when faced with serial Southern extortion by threat of secession. When Lincoln won re-election, the South concluded that Northern forbearance was at an end, and decided to finally make good on its threats.
Southern confidence at secession was bolstered by slave state gains in the 1850s: the Dred Scott decision overturning the Missouri Compromise restrictions on territorial slavery as unconstitutional, the success of Southern intransigence over the Kansas issue in obtaining Buchanan’s recognition of a fraudulent pro-slavery Kansas constitution, the superior ability of the Southern cotton economy to weather the Panic of 1857, and the political dominance of a militant and confrontational anti-North/pro-slavery consensus in the South.
Before Lincoln’s inauguration, with secession abrewin’, Kentucky’s John Crittenden tried to broker a compromise that would have extended the 36 degree 30 minute latitude line (the southern border of Missouri and the demarcation line for slavery in the Louisiana Territory since 1830) out to the California border.
Lincoln rejected the compromise, since the extended line would have permitted slavery in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arizona. He had run on a platform of restricting slavery in the territories, not expanding it, and was understandably loath to abandon his platform and his deeply held convictions even before he took office.
The South’s response to the Lincoln challenge to its political grip in Washington and over national slave policy in the territories was a wave of southern state secessions initiated by South Carolina even before Lincoln was inaugurated.
Ironically—an irony little acknowledged in the universal hagiography surrounding Lincoln and his prosecution of the Civil War—southern secession and the departure of the obstreperous southern delegations from Washington and their enablers from the White House basically assured that in 1860 the disposition of the remaining territories would be determined by the anti-slavery, North-dominated government without the need for a civil war.
Indeed, a Congress freed of Southern disruption was something of a progressive Golden Age, as the Federal government legislated a slew of “national improvements” and social legislation—including, of course, prohibition of slavery in the territories– that the southern delegations had always blocked as favoring the integrated economies of the north at the expense of the Cotton Kingdom.
Alternative scenarios for a Confederate States of America allowed to secede abound, no doubt.
It can be said with some confidence that the South would have done rather well, perhaps successfully executing filibusters like the seizure of Cuba (a plan supported by President Buchanan and thwarted only by the sabotage of Northern anti-slavery zealots) as part of a new slave empire, the promotion of slavery-friendly coup d’etats in Central American states like Nicaragua (William Walker, the entrepreneur of Nicaraguan regime change, was a Southern darling), and annexation of more of Mexico.
The North probably also would have done reasonably well, thanks to its diversified economy and the discovery of gold in California. Foreign trade would have taken a huge knock, at least in the short term (cotton exports were the mainstay of US exports and, indirectly, through the tariff on goods purchased overseas with cotton revenues, served as the foundation of federal government finance as well).
It can also be said with some confidence that the United States would not have tried to hollow out the southern slave economy by offering free refuge to southern slaves fleeing the CSA. The northern anti-slavery platform was an expression of the desire to keep slave labor bottled up in its southeastern homeland, and prevent the establishment of slave economies in new territories that would close off opportunities to white labor.
Maybe the CSA slave economy would have persisted into the 20thcentury; maybe a domestic reform movement would have mediated a transition to a post-slavery economy; maybe a titanic rebellion would have brought a bloody end to the unjust Confederate regime.
Really can’t say.
In any case, Abe didn’t let ‘em go. After making sure that the CSA fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, Lincoln sent his armies into the South.
In 1860, both sides had the expectation of some sort of sharp, decisive military confrontation: either a Northern triumph that would discredit the CSA as a viable nation and bring the seceding states back into the Union, or convincing Southern victories that would demonstrate to the Union, Great Britain, and France that the CSA could hold its own in a defensive war and should be allowed to depart the Union.
The only administration figure in the North who seemed to have a firm grasp of what was going on was Winfield Scott, an extremely capable but by 1860 superannuated general who had performed with distinction in the War of 1812 and brilliantly in the Mexican War of 1846. He looked at the Union’s untrained armies with disdain and proposed that they be carefully drilled and deployed as part of a three-year navy-based strategy to choke the CSA with an Atlantic/Caribbean/Mississippi River blockade.
This cautious protracted war strategy was anathema to Lincoln’s political team, setting the stage for four years of ineffectual butchery on a truly modern scale. Military commanders on both sides were apparently unable to grasp the new math of the rifled barrel, which extended the range of accurate fire to 250 yards and allowed defenders to fire and reload repeatedly and easily mow down a force attacking from the front. Frontal assaults, however, were the norm in the Civil War; Pickett’s charge is only the most notable example. The Civil War resulted in more than 620,000 military deaths, more than the combined “butcher’s bill” to Americans in World War I and World War II combined.
Lincoln sent a continuous parade of troops and generals into Virginia in an attempt to conquer Richmond (the CSA capital) and end the war. They all failed.
Everybody blames the generals, not Lincoln for choosing the generals in the first place and his insistence on a more aggressive strategy. CSA president Jefferson Davis had much better luck choosing his generals. Maybe because sons of the South were over-represented in the military and fighting a defensive war is easier than attack. Maybe also because Davis was a West Point graduate and former Secretary of War in the United States government just prior to secession and had a better idea of what he was doing.
I don’t think that General George McClellan, who commanded the Army of the Potomac twice, is due for any reputational rehab, owing to his exaggerated estimates of enemy strength and his near-neurotic inability to attack. But there might have been something to McClellan’s contemptuous disdain for Lincoln and his expectations for battlefield success. Hard-charging Ulysses Grant, who took over the Army of the Potomac, spent much of the war either losing more tens of thousands in defeats in Northern Virginia or stalemated before Richmond, just as McClellan did—and wound up the war with Sherman’s help pretty much according to Winfield Scott’s timetable for culmination of an incremental, suffocating blockade.
By 1862, the war was a political disaster. Northern Democrats—willing to tolerate southern slavery, indeed an independent CSA—were a sizable and vocal minority. A neverending parade of northern defeats raised the distinct possibility that a new Congress might become a center of Democratic agitation for a negotiated peace.
At this fateful juncture, Lincoln decided to double down. As he is quoted in James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom:
“Those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy the government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt.”
Lincoln, unable to gain the easy victories on the battlefield that might obtain a quick Confederate submission to the Union and, given the already horrific losses, finding personally and politically intolerable the prospect of a peace settlement on the basis of traditional southern prerogatives a.k.a. slavery, made a fateful decision to escalate. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the Confederate states.
It might be pointed out that emancipation was always considered the atomic bomb of political conflict vis a vis the South. During the Revolutionary War, a key factor in Virginian support for independence was the British governor’s attempt to level the military playing field by announcing the emancipation of slaves who fought alongside the British. Fear of a slave rebellion fomented by Northern abolitionists was a mainstay of Southern paranoia and white military preparedness in the 1850s (John Brown’s raid didn’t help), and the CSA regarded Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as the height of irresponsible infamy.
The feared black jacquerie never materialized, but the Emancipation Proclamation did achieve its strategic objective. It made a negotiated settlement between the CSA and the Union based on the status quo ante virtually impossible and guaranteed the prolongation of the war until, hopefully, the North could finally bring its massive industrial and population superiority (4:1) to bear on the South.
In order to obscure the fact that Lincoln’s decision to employ it was a sign that the Union was stuck in a military and political cul-de-sac, he waited for a Union victory at another butcher-ground, Antietam, in September 1862 (according to historian James McPherson, 6000 dead and 16,000 wounded total on both sides, “four times the total suffered by American soldiers at the Normand beaches on June 6, 1944. More …than fell in combat in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War combined”), in order to provide the suitable public relations backdrop for the announcement on January 1, 1863.
Having made the decision that the CSA could not return to the Union without discarding slavery—essentially ruling out the strategy of a negotiated settlement triggered by the South’s military setbacks, as was envisioned in the beginning of the war—Lincoln made another leap. Instead of adopting what we today might call “containment” or a “cold war”—a relatively low key economic and military competition—Lincoln determined to pursue a war of annihilation with the South: to crush its armies, its political system, and its will to resist and “reconstruct” it in the image of the Union.
This is where a lot of Northerners parted company with Abraham Lincoln. Fighting for the Union was on the agenda for most northerners; fighting for conquest and occupation of the South in order to secure slave rights was not.
Lincoln’s support in the New England/Northern Ohio belt of rock-ribbed Republicans remained solid after emancipation. Most of the Union army appears to have been intent on finishing the job. Peace Democrats, a sizable minority, the notorious “Copperheads”, were something else. Opposition to Lincoln in Democratic strongholds was an old story. At the onset of the war, the city of New York had pondered the possibility of seceding and declaring itself a free city in sympathy with the South, since the international cotton trade (and financing of cotton production) served as a foundation for Gotham’s wealth.
Add to that the deep-rooted racism of the poor urban whites who considered exclusion of black labor, free or slave, as indispensable to their economic well-being.
Add to that the fact that Lincoln was trampling on the Constitution (as it was originally constructed to protect slavery in the South) and his 1860 electoral platform (which was all about Union and said nothing of emancipation), and the horrendous cost of a war which was not going particularly well thanks to some combination of Lincoln’s inexperience and the deadly incompetence of his generals, and by 1864, the year of the campaign for Lincoln’s re-election, one has the makings of a particularly bubbly stew of dissent.
Turning to McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, a narrative of Lincoln’s dealings with the Democrats makes for interesting reading.
Clement Vallandigham (stress on the second syllable, please), an Ohio Democrat, is the designated villain of the piece.
“Vallandigham professed himself a better unionist than the Republicans whose fanaticism had provoked this ruinous war. These same Republicans, he continued, were now fighting not for Union but for abolition. And what had they accomplished? ‘Let the dead at Fredericksburg and Vicksburg answer.’ He proposed an armistice and burshed aside the objection that it would preserve slavery. “I see more of barbarism and sin, a thousand times, in the continuance of this war…and the enslavement of the white race by debt and taxes and arbitrary power’ than in Negro slavery.”…In the West, “identity with the South and hostility to the Northeast gave rise to talk among western Democrats of a ‘Northwest Confederacy’ that would reconstruct a Union with the South, leaving New England out in the cold…However bizarre such a scheme appears in retrospect, it commanded much rhetorical support during the war. ‘The people of the West demand peace, and they begin to more than suspect that New England is in the way,’ warned Vallandigham…”
By 1864, the split between Democrats and Republicans within the North was almost as complete as the split between northerners and southerners at the onset of the war.
The Democrats gained majorities in lower chambers in the Illinois and Indiana statehouses. McPherson takes up the narrative:
“When the two legislatures began work on bills to take control of state troops away from the Republican governors…these governors decided to act. With the acquiescence of the Lincoln administration, in June 1863 Richard Yates of Illinois used an obscure clause of the state constitution to prevent the legislature from meeting. Indiana’s iron-willed Oliver P. Morton simply persuaded Republican legislators to absent themselves, thereby forcing the legislature into adjournment for lack of a quorum. For the next two years Morton ran the state without a legislature—and without the usual appropriation. He borrowed from banks and business, levied contributions on Republican counties, and drew \$250,000 from a special service fund in the War Department…”
In 1863, responding to an order from General Burnside (commander of the Department of the Ohio) banning “expressed or implied treason”, Vallandigham made an anti-war speech. Burnside had him arrested, had him arrested and he was convicted by a military commission, which recommended imprisonment for the war’s duration. A writ for habeus corpus was filed and denied, since Lincoln had suspended the writ.
Seeking to turn his political lemons into lemonade, Lincoln banished Vallandigham to the Confederacy, presumably to taint his anti-war position with the implication of treasonous fealty to the CSA (Vallandigham spurned southern hospitality and reappeared in Canada to continue his by then quixotic campaign for governor of Ohio). Lincoln also characterized Vallandigham as a “wily agitator” using anti-war rhetoric to encourage desertions and weaken the war effort.
Lincoln further defended the operation of the military court—which he declared was applicable to the entire Union, which was an effective war zone. In McPherson’s account:
“With a homely but effective metaphor, Lincoln affirmed that he could no more believe that the necessary curtailment of civil liberties in wartime would establish precedents fatal to liberty in peacetime “than I am able to believe that a man could contract so strong an appetite for emetics during temporary illness, as to persist in feeding upon them through the remainder of his healthful life.”
Insert ironic, emetics-assisted sigh here.
Another speed bump on the road to freedom was, of course, the infamous draft riots of New York City, fueled by a combination of racist working class resentment at emancipation, the inequities of the draft, and local Democratic resistance to Lincoln’s war agenda.
In the event, it was the political boost from Sherman’s occupation of Atlanta and not President Lincoln’s persuasiveness on civil rights that assured his re-election (and a sizable Republican majority in Congress) in 1864 over the modified-hangout peacenik Democratic candidate McClellan. Anti-war agitation proved as limited and ineffectual in the north as emancipation-fueled liberation struggle in the south.
Lincoln finally put paid to the demoralized Democrats by pushing through the Thirteenth Amendment. Contrary to the impression given by Steven Spielberg’s film, the campaign to pass the amendment was not a particularly perilous struggle. Lincoln could have waited out the lame duck Congress with its heavy cargo of defeated Democrats, or even called in the new, Republican-dominated Congress early for a special session to pass the amendment. Instead, he prevailed upon a number of soon-to-be-retired Democrats to support the amendment on the grounds of profit, not principle, and thereby claimed a complete political victory over his northern opposition.
With this perspective, let’s go back to the Gettysburg Address. A beautiful speech, delivered in 1863 a few months after the great Union victory against an invading Confederate Army.
Also delivered in the shadow of the Emancipation Proclamation, a slew of bloody defeats in the war, the looming presidential campaign.
Also reflecting Lincoln’s decision to kill his way out of his military and political cul-de-sac by laying the recasting his war of conquest against the South as a moral imperative.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The decision to repurpose and escalate the Civil War paved the way for eventual Northern victory but also created serious difficulties for Lincoln and the nation. First of all, the switch to the “new birth of freedom” narrative meant, with the inescapable irony that dogs American history, that the freedom of the vociferous and significant anti-war partisans in the North had to be squelched.
Instead of letting the South go to seek its own destiny, the United States was committed to destroying it militarily and politically, and undertaking a long exercise of reconstruction in the south—what we now call “nation-building”—that today has still not achieved the seamless and productive political and cultural union of north and south.
And in order to justify a war whose aims were, by any close reading of the constitution as it stood in 1862, unconstitutional and opposed by a vast majority of voters (in a peacetime environment, opposition to emancipation was something that most northern as well as southern whites happily endorsed), it was necessary to stretch the law to its breaking point…and justify the carnage because, well, “Freedom”—an excuse that Lincoln’s successors, including both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have both been most happy to invoke.
Amid the horrible consequences of the Civil War there was one good, if imperfect outcome—the end of slavery and the commencement of a bitter 150 year struggle, equivocally supported at times by the Federal government and US white society, for full African-American equality.
Today, the Civil War is regarded as the United States’ first “good war”. It has to be. Because it was America’s bloodiest and least legal war. Otherwise, it would be impossible to explain or justify. And I believe that’s why the Civil War remains a lodestone for American politicians, patriots, and warbirds and the Gettysburg Address is a sacred text. Because if we can justify and exalt the Civil War and its 600,000 dead, we can justify and exalt any war.
When the moral claims are absolute, there are few limits on the bullets, bombs, falsehoods, and lawbending and lawbreaking employed to achieve them—even if the actual victories for freedom are as partial, equivocal, and fleeting as they turned out to be in places like Iraq and Libya.
Was the Civil War “right” or “necessary”? Despite the war’s dismal history as a prolonged slaughter enabled by a cavalcade of northern military and political miscalculation and public relations chicanery, it’s hard to line up on the opposite side. There is a dearth of plausible scenarios for the termination of Southern slavery, other than Lincoln’s decision to emancipate in order to prolong and escalate the war in order to avoid ending it with something less than victory.
But one can only wish there had been a better way.
Portrait of Lincoln in 1865, Alexander Gardner
Illustration: On Antietam Battlefield, 1862 Matthew Brady