M EANWHILE a great man was coming into power. This was Abraham Lincoln. He was the son of very poor people and his earliest days were spent in the utmost poverty and want. His home in Kentucky was a wretched little log cabin without doors or windows, and the bare earth for a floor. But in spite of his miserable and narrow surroundings Lincoln grew up to be a great, broad-minded loveable man.
He was very anxious to learn, and he taught himself nearly all he knew, for in all his life he had only two or three months of school. The few books he could lay hands on he read again and again till he almost knew them by heart.
Lincoln grew to be a great, lanky, hulking boy. He had the strongest arm and the tenderest heart in the countryside, and was so upright in all his dealings that he earned the name of Honest Abe.
Everybody loved the ungainly young giant with his sad face and lovely smile, and stock of funny stories.
He began early to earn his living, and was many things in turn. He did all sorts of farm work, he split rails and felled trees. He was a storekeeper for a time, then a postmaster, a surveyor, a soldier. But none of these contented him; he was always struggling towards something better.
While keeping shop he began to study law, and when he was not weighing out pounds of tea and sugar he had his head deep in some dry book. While trying his hand at other jobs, too, he still went on studying law, and at length he became a lawyer.
Even before this he had taken great interest in politics and had sat in the Illinois House of Representatives, and at length in 1846 he was elected to Congress.
But he only served one term in the House, after which he returned to his law business and seemed for a time to lose interest in politics.
But the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill aroused him again. As a boy he had been to New Orleans. There he had seen the slave market. He had seen negro parents parted from their children, and sold to different masters. He had seen them chained like criminals, beaten and treated worse than beasts of burden, and from these sights he had turned away with an aching heart. "Boys," he said, to his companions, "let's get away from this. If ever I get a chance to hit that thing, I'll hit it hard."
And he did not forget what he had seen; the memory of it was a constant torment and a misery to him. And now the chance had come, and he hit "that thing" hard.
The Great Emancipator
He challenged Douglas, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, to go round the country with him and make speeches on the great subject of the day: Douglas to take one side of the question and Lincoln the other. It was a bold thing to do, for Douglas was considered the greatest speaker of the time, and Lincoln was scarcely known. But the speeches made Lincoln famous and henceforth many of the men in the North looked upon him as their leader. He wanted to have slavery done away with, but above all he loved his country. "A house divided against itself," he said, "cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure half-slave, half-free. I do not expect the Union to be divided. I do not expect the House to fall. But I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other."
He had no bitterness against the South, for he loved his whole country, South as well as North. It was slavery he hated, not the slave-holders. But the slave-holders hated him and his ideas. So when in November, 1860, Lincoln was chosen President the Southern States declared that they would not submit to be ruled by him.
As you know, the new President is always chosen some months before the end of the last President's term. Lincoln was thus chosen in November, 1860, but did not actually become President till March, 1861.
So with Buchanan still President several of the Southern States declared themselves free from the Union. South Carolina led the rebellion. Amid great excitement, a new declaration of independence was read, and union with the other states was declared to be at an end.
The example of South Carolina was soon followed. Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas all declared their union with the States at an end. They then joined together. And calling themselves the Confederate States, they elected a President, drew up a Constitution, and made ready to seize the Union forts and arsenals.
Meanwhile President Buchanan knew not what to do. He tried to steer both ways at once. He said the Southern States had no right to break away from the Union, but he also said that the Government had no power to force them to return. In reality, however, his heart was with the South, and he believed that the Southerners had just cause for anger. So the Southerners soon came to believe that the President would let them go their own way. Some of the Northerners, too, thought a division would be a good thing, or at least that disunion was better than war. "Let the slave states depart in peace," they said. But others would not hear of that, and were ready to fight to the last if only the Union might be preserved.
The country was fast drifting towards war; and soon the first shot was fired. Charleston, the harbour of South Carolina, was guarded by two forts, Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter. Fort Moultrie was large, needing about seven hundred men to guard it properly, and Major Anderson, who was in command, had only sixty men under him. So, seeing that the people of South Carolina were seizing everything they could, and finding that the President would send him no help, he drew off his little force to Fort Sumter which could be more easily defended.
Again and again Major Anderson asked for more men, and at length an ordinary little passenger vessel was sent with two hundred and fifty men. But when the little ship steamed into Charleston harbour the Southerners fired upon it. And as it had no guns on board or any means of defence it turned and sped back whence it had come. Thus the first shots in the Civil War were fired.