Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Abraham Lincoln by Mary A. Hamilton
The Story of Abraham Lincoln by  Mary A. Hamilton

The War

War began in Virginia. West Virginia was free, East Virginia slave-holding; the State was the natural meeting-place for the two armies. On the 21st July they met at Bull Run: the engagement could hardly be called a battle—on neither side was there any order or discipline. More than once during the day the Southern army seemed to be beaten, but it rallied, and the Federalists, as the Union soldiers were called, broke into a disgraceful retreat, which became an awful panic. The fugitives poured into Washington, haggard and dust-stained: everything seemed lost. Lincoln did not go to bed all night; he paced up and down in his room, expecting that the victorious Confederate army would march upon Washington, and the war be at an end. It did not come. The opportunity was lost. A battle had been gained; that was all.

The moral effect of the battle of Bull Run was very great indeed. The South thought the war was over, the North saw that it had only begun.

At first, the Confederates seemed to have great advantages. The army was the one profession for a Southern gentleman; nearly all their young men were trained at the military academy at West Point, and a great many of the officers of the United States army had been Southerners. These men now left the Union army and gave their services to the Confederates; among them was General Robert Lee, who became General-in-Chief of the Confederate army. Lincoln's difficulties were greatly increased by the fact that so many officers and men went over to the Confederates. At the beginning, the South had a larger and better-trained army in the field; and at first there were plenty of volunteers. But after Bull Run, she thought the war was finished; and events proved that, in a long war, the North must win by reason of her greater staying power.

The South was as enthusiastic as the North, and at the beginning better prepared, but not equal in resources of any sort. The South was entirely dependent on agriculture; all the necessaries of life came from the North and from Europe. Whereas the South had to import all her ammunition, the North had powder-magazines of her own, and a people of mechanics. And the Confederacy was soon to find that men are useless without arms. Great sufferings were endured, wonderful invention and patience was shown, on both sides there was great heroism; but in the end the resources of the North decided the day.

Lincoln threw all his energy into the task of getting ready an army, and in a short time the Northern soldier was as well trained and equipped as the Southern.

The battle of Bull Run roused the North: quickened by shame, the people were ready to fight to the bitter end. For the next two years, however, they were disheartened by continual disaster: army after army was destroyed, position after position lost: gloom descended on the nation. In the dark times of defeat men turned upon Lincoln and blamed him

His position was difficult indeed. As head of the State, he was also commander of the army; but he had to entrust the actual man agement of the campaigns to others. He followed and understood their tactics, but was too wise to try to direct their movements. Only occasionally did he offer advice—wise advice, which his generals were not always wise enough to accept. At first the generals were not men of great ability. M'Clellan, the commander, drilled his army in a wonderful way, but never used it to any effect. In the Virginian campaign of 1861 and 1862 he threw away numberless opportunities. His place was taken by Burnside at the end of 1862; but not until the rise of Ulysses S. Grant did Lincoln discover a really great commander. The generals quarrelled with one another, and all were ready to complain of the President. Lincoln's difficulties were increased by the fact that many people, when they found that the North was not going to conquer immediately, said that the war was a mistake: the South ought to be allowed to go if it wanted to. Lincoln did not think it right to let the South go: and because to keep it was proving difficult, was never to him a reason for ceasing to do what he saw to be right.

The newspapers abused Lincoln because the war, instead of being finished in three months, seemed likely to last for years. For long his own Cabinet was hardly loyal to him: each member thought he could manage affairs better himself. Seward, who was Chief Secretary, thought Lincoln stupid, and was anxious to arrange everything; but as experience of his chief taught him he became Lincoln's devoted admirer. Chase the Treasurer plotted against him: Stanton the War Secretary openly declared that "things would go all right but for the imbecile at the head." Stanton had no sense of humour, and an ungovernable temper. He did not understand Lincoln at all for a long time: his jokes puzzled and annoyed him, and he used to jump up and down with rage. He did not see that to a man of a deeply melancholy nature like Lincoln, a dreamer and something of a poet, some outlet, some way of escaping from himself, was necessary. Lincoln was marvellously patient with Stanton, and won his deep affection. The Cabinet might criticise; but Lincoln's firm will dominated them all. The policy of the Government was the President's policy.

No quality is so hard to appreciate, until it succeeds, as patience; and for two years Lincoln was patient, and few understood.

England and France were inclined to recognise the Confederacy. The English point of view was not one which reflected any glory on the nation. Lord Palmerston said, "We do not like slavery, but we want cotton." And a poem in Punch expressed the general point of view, against which only a few Englishmen protested—

"Though with the North we sympathise,

It must not be forgotten

That with the South we've stronger ties,

Which are composed of cotton,

Whereof our imports mount unto

A sum of many figures;

And where would be our calico

But for the toil of niggers?"

France agreed with England. Under such circumstances there was a great danger that, unless the North proved itself able to cope with the Rebellion, England or France might send help to the Confederates. For two years the North did not prove this; for two years it seemed, except to the very far-seeing, almost certain that the South would win.

The Northern plan of campaign was to attack and close round the Confederacy: to do this it was necessary to cross the Potomac river, and clear away the Southern armies that blockaded it. The Potomac was the centre of operations, while fighting went on constantly in Virginia and Missouri. Everything went against the North.

On the 9th of August a desperate encounter took place at Wilson's Creek, at which the Union army lost nearly two thousand men, including prisoners, and large supplies of arms and ammunition. In September the Confederates won a victory at Lexington, and in October the Federal troops were defeated at Ball's Bluff.

Lincoln's plan was gradually to shut the South in, driving it behind its own boundaries by means of the armies invading from north and west, and blockading the ports from the sea. So far the first half of the plan was not successful. But the Civil War was won to a very large extent by the Northern navy. By blockading the Southern ports it prevented the South from getting supplies from Europe; and since the South depended for supplies of every sort from abroad, it was in a desperate position when cut off from the sea.

More fortunate on sea than on land, Lincoln found in David Farragut an admiral almost as great as Nelson. Farragut was a Southerner by birth, but he had served for fifty years in the United States navy, and refused to desert it now. Patriotism to him meant devotion not to the pride but to the best interests of his country, and he thought that North and South could only attain their best interests when united. In April the Northern army suffered a severe defeat on land at the battle of Shiloh—the most disastrous yet experienced; but the news was balanced by the tidings of Farragut's capture of New Orleans. The fighting in the harbour was tremendous.

"Don't flinch from that fire, boys," cried the admiral; "there is a hotter fire for those who don't do their duty!"

Inspired by his example, his men did not flinch, and the town was captured. The North needed all the encouragement such naval victory could give it, for things were going very badly. Stonewall Jackson, the Southern commander, carried everything before him in Virginia. Washington was in danger; there was a panic in the capital. Jackson, however, did not want to attack Washington. His plan was to compel M'Clellan, who was slowly moving south to attack the Confederate capital at Richmond, to turn north again.

There was fighting all through June; Jackson had been joined by Lee, the Confederate Commander-in-Chief. On the 1st of July a battle was fought at Malvern Hill. Lee and Jackson were defeated. M'Clellan ought now to have pushed on to Richmond, the Confederate capital, instead of which, with extraordinary stupidity, he continued to retreat.

In August, the second battle of Bull Run resulted in another victory for the South. Both sides lost an extraordinary number of men. The panic in Washington grew more acute when, early in September, Lee prepared to invade Maryland. M'Clellan again delayed when he ought to have forced an engagement. The people of Maryland received the Southern army very coldly. On the 17th the armies met at Antietam. The battle was not really decisive; the losses of the North were as great as those of the South; but it put an end to their invasion. Lee recrossed the Potomac River to Virginia. M'Clellan again wasted time. He waited six weeks before pursuing Lee. In November M'Clellan was at last superseded.

Events had gradually led Lincoln to see the necessity of taking one great step—the freeing of the slaves. The question of slavery was at the bottom of the war; it was the great division between North and South. Two reasons led Lincoln to take this step now. One was that he knew the negroes when free would fight, for the most part, for the North; and the North needed every help she could find. The other was the great difficulty of knowing what to do with the negro slaves which fell into the hands of the conquerors of any part of Southern territory. On the 22nd of September, very soon after the news of the battle of Antietam and Lee's retreat from Maryland had arrived, Lincoln called a meeting of his Cabinet. None of them knew why he had summoned them.

They found the President reading Artemus Ward; one story amused him so much that he read it aloud. They all laughed a great deal except Stanton, who could never see a joke, and did not understand that Lincoln must have broken down altogether under the fearful strain of all he had to bear, if he had not been able sometimes to forget himself. When he had finished reading the story, the President's face grew grave again. He drew from his pocket a large sheet of foolscap, covered with his straight, regular writing, and read it to the Cabinet.


Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.

It was the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that, after January 1st of the coming year, all slaves were to be free; that Government would pay some compensation to loyal owners. No one dared oppose Lincoln when his mind was made up. His reason for introducing Emancipation now was, that he thought it would help the cause of Union, and that cause was to him sacred beyond everything. "As long as I am President," he said later, "this war shall be carried on for the sole purpose of restoring the Union. But no human power can subdue this rebellion without the use of the Emancipation policy."

His first object in everything was to hold the American nation together as one whole. But, at the same time, he detested slavery as much as any man. "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." An opportunity had now come when to strike a blow at slavery was to assist the Union cause. By freeing the blacks, Lincoln provided the North with a new resource, at the time when the South had nowhere to turn to for fresh resources. By declaring the abolition of slavery an unchangeable part of the Union, which the South must accept before peace could be made, he won the sympathy of Europe for the North, and prevented it from sending help to the South at a time when such help would have changed the balance of affairs.

Up till now both England and France had shown themselves ready to sympathise with the South. English newspapers abused Lincoln and the North in the most violent language. In the English dockyards vessels had been built and equipped which were used by the South as privateers to do great damage to the Northern navy. One of these was the famous Alabama. But when the war was a war against slavery, English feeling was all on the side of the North.

The United States was made a really free country: slavery, which had made such a name a mockery, was wiped off the statute book.

Lincoln showed rare judgment and courage in doing what he did at this time. At first a large section in the North was opposed to Emancipation, but gradually all united in admiring the wisdom of Lincoln's action. The South knew that if they were conquered slavery was gone. And however black things might look, Lincoln and the North were not going to give in till they did conquer. They had set their teeth; they were going to fight to the bitter end.

M'Clellan had been dismissed, but his successors were not much more successful. In December Burnside threw away thousands of lives in an attempt to scale Mary's Heights. Men were shot down in heaps by the enemy, and the army fell into a panic; a battle against overwhelming odds ended in a complete defeat. Lincoln's heart bled for the loss of so many splendid citizens: there was deep indignation in Washington, much of it vented against the President.

The darkest moment of the war came when, in May, the news of the battle of Chancellorsville reached the Government. Hooker met Jackson: a long and fearfully bloody battle followed. There were dreadful losses on both sides: another valuable opportunity of pressing south was lost. In the battle "Stonewall" Jackson was killed, shot accidentally by his own men; a disastrous loss to the Southern side, though the North was defeated.

All hope seemed gone from the North.

Up till now the North had lost more than the South. It had suffered most of all from a lack of really able commanders. Now, however, Lincoln discovered a really great general in Ulysses S. Grant, and from this time on the fortune of the war began to change.

The North was richer: it had more men, money, and resources to draw on; in a long struggle the South was bound to be worn out. Grant saw this and planned accordingly. Grant had distinguished himself, early in the war by the capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, on the Mississippi, in February 1862; in the following April he had driven the Confederates back to Corinth after one of the most expensive battles of the war. Grant was a man of the most reckless personal courage; as a general his great fault was that he exposed his men needlessly. Complaints were early made of him to Lincoln; but Lincoln's wonderful eye discerned a great soldier in Grant. "I can't spare that man; he fights." Later he was told that Grant drank. "Pray tell me what brand of whisky he takes, that I may send a barrel to each of my other generals."

Lincoln and Grant always understood each other. Each was a man of intense strength of character, given to doing things rather than talking of them. Grant had not Lincoln's tenderness of heart, or the beauty of his pure and generous nature; but he had his power of concentrating his whole mind upon the task in hand. He knew Lincoln's secret: "Work, work, is the main thing."

The battle of Chancellorsville, May 1863, was for the North the darkest moment of the war; things were never so dark again. Only Lincoln's supreme faith and courage could have risen from such a series of defeats unshaken. The newspapers were full of abuse of the President; plots were on foot against him to prevent his re-election when the time came. In February he had lost his son Willie after a long and painful illness. But he never quailed.

And his patience was at last to be rewarded. After Chancellorsville his unflinching belief in the justice of his course, in spite of opposition and discontent, was to be rewarded: he was to look, if only for a moment, upon an America not only free but united.

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