1. On Inauguration Day—March 4, 1861—Washington looked like an armed camp. 2.Cavalry and artillery had been clattering through the streets all morning. 3.Troops were everywhere. 4. Rumors of assassination plots, of Southern plans to seize the capital and prevent the inauguration, had put the army on the alert.
5. Shortly after noon, the carriage bearing President James Buchanan and President-elect Abraham Lincoln bounced over the cobblestones of Pennsylvania Avenue, heading for Capitol Hill. Infantrymen lined the parade route. 6. Army sharpshooters crouched on nearby rooftops.
7. Soldiers surrounded the Capitol building, and plainclothes detectives mingled with the crowds. 8. On a hill overlooking the Capitol, artillerymen
manned a line of howitzers and watched for trouble.
9. A long covered passageway had been built to protect the presidential party on its way to the speaker’s platform in front of the Capitol.
10. More than three hundred dignitaries crowded the platform, waiting to witness the swearing-in ceremony. 11. Among them was Stephen Douglas, who had pledged to support the new administration.
12. Lincoln was visibly nervous. 13. He was wearing a new black suit and sporting a neatly clipped beard. 14. He held his silk stovepipe hat in one hand, a gold-headed cane in the other. 15. He put the cane in a corner, then looked around, trying to find a place for the hat. 16. Stephen Douglas smiled and took the hat from him.
17. Lincoln unrolled the manuscript of his inaugural address. 18. He put on his steel-rimmed spectacles and faced the sunlit crowd below.
19. Thousands of people jammed the board square in front of the Capitol, waiting to hear the new president speak.
20. Four months had passed since Lincoln’s election in November. 21. During That time, seven Southern states had left the Union, and four more were about to join them. 22. In February, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi had been sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America. 23. Now, with the Union collapsing, the defiant South was preparing for war.
24. Congressional leaders had tried to find a compromise plan that would hold the Union together. 25. But the Southerners would not budge from their demands. 26. They wanted slavery to be guaranteed not only in the South, but wherever else it might spread—to the western territories, and perhaps even to Central America and the Caribbean. 27. By the time Lincoln left Springfield for Washington on the eve of his
fifty-second birthday, all attempts at compromise had failed.
28. He traveled east on a special presidential train, stopping at dozens of cities, towns, and villages along the route. 29. Thousands of Americans had a chance to see and hear their elected leader for the first time. 30. “Last night I saw the new president,” one man reported.
31. “He is a clever man, and not so bad looking as they say, while he is not great beauty. 32. He is tall…has a commanding figure bows pretty well, is not stiff, has a pleasant face, is amiable and determined.”
33. At Philadelphia, the presidential train was met by detectives who had uncovered evidence of an assassination plot, a plan to murder Lincoln as he traveled through Baltimore the next day. 34. He was persuaded to switch trains and travel secretly through the night to Washington, accompanied by armed guards. 35. When his
night train passed through Baltimore at 3:30 A.M., Lincoln was safely hidden in a sleeping berth.
36. He arrived in Washington at dawn, unnoticed and unannounced.
37. Word of Lincoln’s secret night ride spread fast. 38. Opposition newspapers ridiculed the president-elect, calling his escape from Baltimore “the flight of Abraham.” 39. The abuse became nasty. 40. Hostile editors and politicians snickered at “this backwoods President” and his “boorish” wife. 41. They taunted Lincoln as a hick with a high-pitched voice and a Kentucky twang, an ugly “gorilla” and “baboon.” 42. Lincoln shrugged off the insults as a hazard of his job, but Mary was mortified.
43. He was still living under this cloud when he stood in front of the Capitol on Inauguration Day, ready to take his oath of office as the sixteenth president of the United States. 44. In his speech, he appealed to the people of the South,
assuring them again that he would not tamper with slavery in their states:
45. “In your hands, my dissatisfied countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. 46. The government will not assail you. 47. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. 48. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ it.”
49. Lincoln wanted to believe that the Union could be saved without bloodshed. 50. But that hope was about to vanish. 51. Less than two weeks after his inauguration, he faced his first crisis. 52. Fort Sumter, at the entrance to Charleston harbor in South Carolina still flew the Union flag. 53. The state’s governor was demanding that the fort be given up.
54. On March 15, Lincoln learned that Sumter was running out of supplies. 55. While the
fort was not of great military value, the president had pledged to defend federal property in the South. 56. Sumter had become a symbol of Northern determination, and Lincoln had to make a decision. 57. If he sent supplies, he risked and armed attack and war. 58. If he didn’t, the fort could not hold out for long.
59. He consulted with his military staff and members of his cabinet, but they could not agree on what should be done. 60. Lincoln himself was uncertain. 61. All the troubles and anxieties of his life, he later said, were nothing compared to the weeks that followed.
62. Finally the president acted. 63. On April 6 he notified the South Carolina governor that a supply fleet was about to sail for Charleston.
64. As the Union ships approached the city on the morning of April 12, rebel cannons ringing the harbor opened fire on Fort Sumter.
65.The American Civil War had begun.
66. On April 14, Lincoln heard that the fort had surrendered after a blistering thirty-six-hour bombardment. 67. That day he issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers for enlistments of ninety days, which seemed long enough. 68. Surely the rebellion would be put down by then.
69. Stephen Douglas called at the White House and again offered his support. 70. Despite his disagreements with Lincoln, he wanted to preserve the Union. 71. Then Douglas left for Illinois to denounce the rebels and rally Northern Democrats to the Union cause. 72. A month later he was dead of typhoid fever at the age of forty-eight.
73. The North mobilized. 74. Troops poured into Washington, ready to defend the capital.
75. Across the Potomac River, Virginia had joined the Confederacy. 76. From his office windows, Lincoln could see rebel flags flying over buildings
in Alexandria, Virginia.
77. Everyone in Washington believed that the war would end quickly. 78. The North claimed the loyalty of twenty-three states with a population of 22 million. 79. The eleven states of the Confederacy had about 9 million people, and nearly 4 million of them factories to produce ammunition and guns, a network of railroads to transport troops, and a powerful navy that could blockade Southern ports.
80. But if the North had most of the industry and population, the South held a monopoly on military talent. 81. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, was a professional soldier. 82. And Southerners make up a high proportion of the country’s skilled military commanders.
83. Lincoln’s biggest headache during the early years of the war would be to find competent generals who could lead the Union to victory.
84. By early summer, both sides were
training large armies of volunteers, many of them inexperienced boys who could barely handle a rifle. 85. Northern newspapers were calling for a massive drive against the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia. 86. “On to Richmond!” became the popular rallying cry.
87. In July, Union forces under General Irwin McDowell marched into Virginia.
88. McDowell had been ordered to capture the crucial railroad junction at Manassas, about twenty-five miles southwest of Washington.
89. From there, he would sweep down to Richmond and crush the rebellion.
90. Word spread through Washington that McDowell would begin his attack on Sunday, July 21. 91. That morning dozens of politicians and their wives, newspapermen, and other spectators drove down from Washington in buggies and carriages to watch their army defeat the rebels.
92. None of these people had ever seen a battle,
and they had little idea what to expect. 93. They brought along picnic baskets, champagne, and opera glasses, camped on a hillside, and waited for the action to begin.
94. Lincoln waited anxiously in the White House. 95. The first reports to reach him were confusing—the two armies had met at a muddy little creek called Bull Run. 96. They were advancing and retreating I turn. 97. Several hours later, Lincoln received word of a disaster. 98. Union troops had broken ranks. 99.McDowell’s army had been routed.
100. The president stayed up all that night, listening to the stories of congressmen and other civilians who had fled in panic before the retreating troops. 101. The Union army had fallen apart. 102. Soldiers and sightseers alike had stampeded back to Washington. 103. As dawn broke, Lincoln stood at a White House window and watched his mud-splattered troops straggling
back into the capitol through the fog and rain.
104. Until now, Lincoln had turned for strategic advice to his general in chief, seventy-five-year-old Winfield Scott. 105. Scott had proposed his famous “anaconda plan” to surround the South and squeeze it into submission—a blockade of the Southern coast and occupation of the Mississippi River. 106. Lincoln felt that the plan didn’t go far enough. 107. He wanted his commanders to take the offensive wherever they could. 108. After Bull Run, he resolved to tighten the naval blockade, call up more troops for longer enlistments, and launch three offensives at once—into Virginia, into Tennessee, and down the Mississippi.
109. He gave command of the Eastern armies to General George B. McClellan, a thirty-five-year-old veteran of the Mexican War.
110. McClellan was vain, pompous, and opinionated, but Lincoln had faith in him.
111. The president brushed off criticism of the general’s rude behavior by saying, “Never mind.
112. I will hold McClellan’s stirrups if he will bring us victory.”
113. McClellan trained his growing army with meticulous care, but as the months passed, he showed no signs of moving against the rebel forces massed in Virginia. 114. “Don’t let them hurry me, is all I ask,” he said. 115. When the first snows fell at the end of 1861, McClellan’s troops were not yet ready for battle. 116. On the western front, it was the same story. 117. Union commanders built up their forces and drilled their men, but they weren’t ready to fight.
118. Congress and the public were losing patience. 119. Why weren’t the generals fighting? 120. Was Lincoln too inexperienced to handle his job? 121. A Congressional committee began to investigate the conduct of the war. 122. Generals were called in from the field to testify on Capitol
123. Lincoln, too, was tired of the delays. 124. But he wasn’t a military man himself, and he was reluctant to overrule his commanders.
125. And he had other troubles besides—corruption in the War Department, angry disputes within his cabinet, and mounting criticism from Congress. 126. Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio called the Lincoln administration “blundering, cowardly, and inefficient.”
127. By now, the president had serious misgivings about the professional soldiers who were running the war. 128. He had collected a library of books on military strategy, and he studied them late into the night, just as he had once studied law and surveying. 129. Attorney General Edward Bates had told Lincoln that it was his presidential duty to “command the commanders…. The nation requires it, and history will hold you responsible.” 130. Lincoln began to play an active
role in the day-to-day conduct of the war, planning strategy and sometimes directing tactical maneuvers in the field.
131. He found relief from the pressures of the war during his private hours in the white House. 132. Robert Lincoln was now studying at Harvard University, but eleven-year-old Willie and eight-year-old Tad lived with their parents in the executive mansion. 133. They romped through the house, bursting into solemn conferences, playing tricks on cabinet members, making friends with the staff, and collecting a menagerie of pets, including a pony that they rode around the White House grounds, and a goat that slept on Tad’s bed.
134. Lincoln took the boys with him to visit troops camped along the Potomac. 135. And he joined in their games, wrestling with his sons on the expensive Oriental carpets Mary had bought when she redecorated the White House.
136. During the darkest moments of the war,
Lincoln was able to throw off his fits of despair in the company of his two boys.
137. In February, 1862, both boys came down with fevers. 138. Tad recovered, but Willie took a turn for the worse, tossing and turning through the night as his parents sat by his bedside, bathing his face and trying to comfort him.
139. Willie died on February 20—the second son to be taken from the Lincolns. 140. Mary was so overwhelmed with grief, she could not attend the funeral. 141. For three months she refused to leave the White House. 142. She would never fully recover from her emotional breakdown.
143. Lincoln plunged into the deepest gloom he had ever known. 144. He had felt a special bond of understanding with Willie, and now he grieved as never before. 145. Again and again, he shut himself in his room to weep alone.
146. As Willie lay dying, the pace of the war was
quickening offensive in the West, winning the first Northern victories of the war. 147. By the spring of 1862, the North had captured New Orleans and was gaining control of the crucial Mississippi River. 148. While the news was encouraging, the cost in human lives horrified everyone.
149. During a single two-day battle at Shiloh Church in southern Tennessee, thirteen thousand Union soldiers had been killed or wounded.
150. On the Eastern front, General McClellan had finally led his huge army into Virginia. 151. Instead of marching overland to Richmond, as Lincoln had urged, McClellan shipped his troops to the tip of the York Peninsula, landing seventy-five miles southeast of Richmond. 152. Then he moved up the peninsula to attack the Confederate capital from the rear.
153. Unfortunately, he advanced so slowly and cautiously, the rebels had plenty of time to muster their defenses.
154. In June, as McClellan paused outside Richmond, waiting to attack, rebel troops commanded by Robert E. Lee launched a surprise counter-offensive. 155. During seven days of bitter fighting, McClellan was driven all the way back to the James River. 156. His long-awaited campaign to take Richmond had been a bloody failure. 157. More than twenty-three thousand of his troops were either dead, wounded, or missing.
158. Meanwhile, the rebels had been battering Union armies in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. 159. As the casualty lists piled up on his desk, Lincoln wondered if the war would ever end. 160. In the all-important Eastern theatre, the North had yet to win a victory.
161. For months, Lincoln had been shuffling his generals around, trying to find field commanders he could count on and a reliable general in chief to direct the war effort. 162. The elderly and ailing Winfield Scott had been
persuaded to retire. 163. McClellan had stepped in as supreme commander, but he had little talent for strategic planning. 164. When he sailed with his army for Virginia, Lincoln decided to act as his own general in chief. 165. Then he called on General Henry W. Halleck to fill the top military command post. 166. But Halleck was another disappoint. He offered good advice, but he shrank from making decisions. 167. Once again, Lincoln had to make them.
168. The toughest decision facing Lincoln, however, was the one he had to make about slavery. 169. Early in the war, he was still willing to leave slavery alone in the South, if only he could restore the Union. 170. Once the rebellion was crushed, slavery would be confined to the Southern states, where it would gradually die out. 171. “We didn’t go into the war to put down slavery, but to put the flag back,” Lincoln said. 172. “To act differently at this moment would, I
have no doubt, not only weaken our cause, but smack of bad faith.”
173. Abolitionists were demanding that the president free the slaves at once, by means of a wartime proclamation. 174. “Teach the rebels and traitors that the price they are to pay for the attempt to abolish this Government must be the abolition of slavery,” said Frederick Douglass, the famous black editor and reformer. 175. “Let the war cry be down with treason, and down with slavery, the cause of treason!”
176. But Lincoln hesitated. 177. He was afraid to alienate the large numbers of Northerners who supported the Union but opposed emancipation. 178. And he worried about the loyal, slaveholding border states—Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware—that had refused to join the Confederacy. 179. Lincoln feared that emancipation might drive those states into the arms of the South.
180. Yet slavery was the issue that had divided the country, and the president was under mounting pressure to do something about it.
181. At first he supported a voluntary plan that would free the slaves gradually and compensate their owners with money from the federal treasury. 182. Emancipation would begin in the loyal border states and be extended into the South as the rebel states were conquered. 183. Perhaps then the liberated slaves could be resettled in Africa or Central America.
184. Lincoln pleaded with the border-state congressmen to accept his plan, but they turned him down. 185. They would not part with their slave property or willingly change their way of life. 186. “Emancipation in the cotton is simply an absurdity,” said a Kentucky congressman.
187. “There is not enough power in the world to compel it to be done.”
188. Lincoln came to realize that if he
wanted to attack slavery, he would have to act more boldly. 189. A group of powerful Republican senators had been urging him to act. 190. It was absurd, they argued, to fight the war without destroying the institution that had caused it. 191. Slaves provided a vast pool of labor that was crucial to the south’s war effort. 192. If Lincoln freed the slaves, he could cripple the Confederacy and hasten the end of the war.
193. If he did not free them, then the war would settle nothing. 194. Even if the South agreed to return to the Union, it would start another war as soon as slavery was threatened again.
195. Besides, enslaved blacks were eager to throw off their shackles and fight for their own freedom. 196. Thousands of slaves had already escaped from behind the lines. 197. Thousands more were ready to enlist in the Union armies. 198. “You need more men,” Senator Charles Sumner told Lincoln, “not only at the North, but at
the South, in the rear of the rebels. 199. You need the slaves.”
200. All along, Lincoln had questioned his authority as president to abolish slavery in those states where it was protected by law. 201. His Republican advisors argued that in time of war, with the nation in peril, the president did have the power to outlaw slavery. 202. He could do it in his capacity as commander in chief of the armed forces. 203. Such an act would be justified as a necessary war measure, because it would weaken the enemy. 204. If Lincoln really wanted to save the Union, Senator Sumner told him, he must act now. 205. He must wipe out slavery.
206. The war had become an endless nightmare of bloodshed and bungling generals. 207. Lincoln doubted if the Union could survive without bold and drastic measures. 208. By the summer of 1862, he had worked out a plan that would hold the loyal slave states in the Union,
while striking at the enemies of the Union.
209. On July 22, 1862, he revealed his plan to his cabinet. 210. He had decided, he told them, that emancipation was “a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union.” 211. For that reason, he intended to issue a proclamation freeing all the slaves in rebel states that had not returned to the Union by January 1, 1863. 212. The proclamation would be aimed at the confederate South only. 213. In the loyal Border States, he would continue to push for gradual, compensated emancipation.
214. Some cabinet members warned that the country wasn’t ready to accept emancipation.
215. But most of them nodded their approval, and in any case, Lincoln had made up his mind.
216. He did listen to the objection of William H. Seward, his secretary of state. 217. If Lincoln published his proclamation now, Seward argued, when Union armies had just been defeated in
Virginia, it would seem like an act of desperation, “the last shriek on our retreat.” 218. The president must wait until the Union had won a decisive military victory in the East. 219. Then he could issue his proclamation from a position of strength. 220. Lincoln agreed. 221. For the time being, he filed the document away in his desk.
222. A month later, in the war’s second battle at Bull Run, Union forces commanded by general John Pope suffered another humiliating defeat. 223. “We are whipped again,” Lincoln moaned. 224. He feared now that the war was lost. 225. Rebel troops under Robert E. Lee were driving north. 226. Early in September, Lee invaded Maryland and advanced toward Pennsylvania.
227. Lincoln again turned to General George McClellan—Who else do I have? 228. He asked—and ordered him to repel the invasion. 229.The two armies met at Antietam Creek in
Maryland on September 17 in the bloodiest single engagement of the war. 230. Lee was forced to retreat back to Virginia. 231. But McClellan, cautious as ever, held his position and failed to pursue the defeated rebel army. 232. It wasn’t the decisive victory Lincoln had hoped for, but it would have to do.
233. On September 22, Lincoln read the final wording of his Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. 234. If the rebels did not return to the Union by January 1, the president would free “thenceforward and forever” all the slaves everywhere in the Confederacy.
235. Emancipation would become a Union war objective. 236. As Union armies smashed their way into rebel territory, they would annihilate slavery once and for all.
237. The next day, the proclamation was released to the press. 238. Throughout the North, opponents of slavery hailed the measure, and black
people rejoiced. 239. Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist, had criticized Lincoln severely in the past. 240. But he said now: “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.”
241. When Lincoln delivered his annual message to Congress on December 1, he asked support for his program of military emancipation:
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. 242. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves…In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.”
243. On New Year’s Day, after a fitful night’s sleep, Lincoln sat at his White House desk and put the finishing touches on his historic decree. 244. From this day forward, all slaves in the rebel states were “forever free.” 245. Blacks who wished to could now enlist in the Union army and sail on Union ships. 246. Several all-black
regiments wee formed immediately. 247. By the end of the war, more than 180,000 blacks—a majority of them emancipated slaves—had volunteered for the Union forces.
248. They manned military garrisons and served as front-line combat troops in every theatre of the war.
249. The traditional New Year’s reception was held in the White House that morning.
250. Mary appeared at an official gathering for the first time since Willie’s death, wearing garlands in her hair and a black shawl about her head.
251. During the reception, Lincoln slipped away and retired to his office with several cabinet members and other officials for the formal signing of the proclamation. 252. He looked tired.
253. He had been shaking hands all morning, and now his hand trembled as he picked up a gold pen to sign his name.
254. Ordinarily he signed “A. Lincoln.”
255. But today, as he put pen to paper, he carefully wrote out his full name. 256. “If may name ever goes into history,” he said then, “it will be for this act.”