The Triumph and Tragedy of Lincoln
Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and his rout of the Southern army in Georgia came in time-just-to insure Lincoln’s reelection. During the terrible midsummer of 1864 there had been talk, by ‘Peace Democrats,’ of doing a deal with Davis and getting control of both armies, thus ending both the rebellion and Republican rule. Many prominent Republicans thought the war was lost and wanted to impose Grant as a kind of president-dictator. He wrote to a friend saying he wanted ‘to stick to the job I have’-and the friend showed it to Lincoln. Lincoln observed: ‘My son, you will never know how gratifying that is to me. No man knows, when that presidential grub starts to gnaw at him, just how deep it will get until he has tried it. And I didn’t know but what there was one gnawing at Grant.’ The general put an end to intrigue by stating: ‘I consider it as important to the cause that [Lincoln] should be reelected as that the army should be successful in the field.’
Sherman’s successes in September, and his continued progress through Georgia, swung opinion strongly back in Lincoln’s favor. The increasing desperation of the South, expressed in terrorism, bank-raids, and murder in Northern cities, inflamed the Northern masses and were strong vote-winners for the Republicans. The resentful McClellan fared disastrously for the Democrats. Lincoln carried all but three of the participating states and 212 electoral votes out of 233, a resounding vote of confidence by the people. He entered his second term of office in a forthright but still somber mood, in which the religious overtones in his voice had grown stronger. They echo through his short Second Inaugural, a meditation on the mysterious way in which both sides in the struggle invoked their God, and God withheld his ultimate decision in favor of either:
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes: ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it needs be that offenses come, but woe unto that man by whom the offenses cometh!’ . . .
Fondly do we hope-fervently do we pray-that this mighty scourge of war may pass away.
Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two- hundred-and-fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid with another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.
So Lincoln asked the nation to continue the struggle to the end, ‘With malice to none, with charity to all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.’
The Second Inaugural began the myth of Lincoln in the hearts of Americans. Those who actually glimpsed him were fascinated by his extraordinary appearance, so unlike the ideal American in its massive lack of beauty, so incarnate of the nation’s spirit in some mysterious way. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote (1862):
The whole physiognomy is as coarse a one as you would meet anywhere in the length and breadth of the state; but withal, it is redeemed, illuminated, softened and brightened by a kindly though serious look out of his eyes, and an expression of homely sagacity, that seemed weighted with rich results of village experience. A great deal of native sense, no bookish cultivation, no refinement; honest at heart, and thoroughly so, and yet in some sort, sly-at least endowed with a sort of tact and wisdom that are akin to craft, and would impel him, I think, to take an antagonist in flank, rather than make a bull-run at him right in front. But on the whole I like this sallow, queer, sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it; and, for my small share in the matter, would as lief have Uncle Abe for a ruler as any man that it would have been practical to have put in his place.
Walt Whitman, looking at the President from a height in Broadway, noted ‘his perfect composure and coolness-his unusual and uncouth height, his dress of complete black, stovepipe hat pushed back on the head, dark-brown complexion, seam’d and wrinkled yet canny-looking face, black, bushy head of hair, disproportionately long neck, and his hands held behind him as he stood observing the people.’ Whitman thought ‘four sorts of genius’ would be needed for ‘the complete lining of the Man’s future portrait’-‘the eyes and brains and finger-touch of Plutarch and Aeschylus and Michelangelo, assisted by Rabelais.’
There is a famous photograph of Lincoln, taken at this time, visiting the HQ of the Army of the Potomac, standing with some of his generals outside their tents. These officers were mostly tall for their times but Lincoln towers above them to a striking degree. It was as if he were of a different kind of humanity: not a master-race, but a higher race. There were many great men in Lincoln’s day-Tolstoy, Gladstone, Bismarck, Newman, Dickens, for example-and indeed master spirits in his own America-Lee, Sherman, Grant, to name only three of the fighting men-yet Lincoln seems to have been of a different order of moral stature, and of intellectual heroism. He was a strong man, and like most men quietly confident of their strength, without vanity or self- consciousness-and also tender. Towards the end of the war, Lincoln went to see Seward, his Secretary of State, a man with whom he often disagreed and whom he did not particularly like. Seward had somehow contrived to break both his arm and his jaw in a carriage accident. Lincoln found him not only bedridden but quite unable to move his head. Without a moment’s hesitation, the President stretched out at full length on the bed and, resting on his elbow, brought his face near Seward’s, and they held an urgent, whispered consultation on the next steps the administration should take. Then Lincoln talked quietly to the agonized man until he drifted off to sleep. Lincoln could easily have used the excuse of Seward’s incapacity to avoid consulting him at all. But that was not his way. He invariably did the right thing, however easily it might be avoided. Of how many other great men can that be said?
Lincoln was well aware of the sufferings of those in the North who actively participated in the struggle. They haunted him. He read to his entourage that terrible passage from Macbeth in which the King tells of his torments of mind:
we will eat our meat in fear, and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams,
That shake us nightly; better be with the dead
Than on the torture of the mind to lie In restless ecstasy.
One man who was also well aware of the suffering was Whitman. Too old to fight, he watched his younger brother George, a cabinet maker, enlist for a 100-day stint which turned into four years, during which time he participated in twenty-one major engagements, saw most of his comrades killed, and spent five months in a horrific Confederate prison. Some 26,000 Union soldiers died in these dreadful stockades, and so great was the Union anger at conditions in them, especially at Andersonville, that its commandant, Major Henry Wirz, was the only Southerner to be punished by hanging. Instead of enlisting, Whitman engaged himself in hospital service, first at the New York Hospital, then off Broadway in Pearl Street, later in Washington DC: ‘I resigned myself / To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.’
In some ways the Civil War hospitals were bloodier than the battlefield. Amputation was ‘the trade-mark of Civil war surgery.’ Three out of four operations were amputations. At Gettysburg, for an entire week, from dawn till twilight, some surgeons did nothing but cut off arms and legs. Many of these dismemberments were quite unnecessary, and the soldiers knew it. Whitman was horrified by what happened to the wounded, often mere boys. He noted that the great majority were between seventeen and twenty. Some had pistols under their pillows to protect their limbs. Whitman himself was able to save a number by remonstrating with the surgeons. He wrote:
From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood.
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not vet looked on it.
More arms and legs were chopped off in the Civil War than in any other conflict in which America has ever been engaged-but a few dozen fewer than might have been, but for Whitman. A paragraph in the New York Tribune in 1880 quoted a veteran pointing to his leg: This is the leg [Whitman] saved for me.’
Whitman calculated that, during the war, he made over boo hospital visits or tours, some lasting several days, and ministered in one way or another to over 100,000 soldiers. His book of poems Drum-Taps records some of his experiences. Not everyone welcomed his visits. One nurse at the Armory Square hospital said: ‘Here comes that odious Walt Whitman to talk evil and unbelief to my boys.’ The scale of the medical disaster almost overwhelmed him-one temporary hospital housed 70,000 casualties at one time. Whitman considered the volume and intensity of the suffering totally disproportionate to any objective gained by the war. Others agreed with him. Louisa May Alcott (1832-88), later author of the famous bestseller Little Women (1868), spent a month nursing in the Washington front-line hospitals before being invalided home with typhoid, and recorded her experiences in Hospital Sketches (1863). This is a terrifying record of bad medical practice, of the kind Florence Nightingale had utterly condemned a decade before, including lethal overdosing with the emetic calomel. At many points her verdict and Whitman’s concurred.
Yet it is curious how little impact the Civil War made upon millions of people in the North. When Edmund Wilson came to write his book on the conflict, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962), he was astonished by how little there was of it. There were hymn-songs, of course: ‘John Brown’s Body,’ Julia Ward Howe’s ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ to rally Northern spirits, Daniel Decatur Emmett’s ‘Dixie’ to enthuse the South. The young Henry James was not there-he had ‘a mysterious wound,’ which prevented serving. Mark Twain was out west. William Dean Howells was a consul in Italy. It was quite possible to live in the North and have no contact with the struggle whatsoever. It is a notable fact that Emily Dickinson (1830-86), America’s greatest poet, lived quietly throughout the war in Amherst without it ever impinging on her consciousness, insofar as that is reflected in her poetry. Of her more than 1,700 poems, not one refers directly to the war, or even indirectly, though they often exude terror and dismay. She was educated at Amherst Academy and spent a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary: otherwise her life was passed at home, eventless, and for the last twenty-five years of her life in almost complete seclusion. Only six of her poems were published in her lifetime and evidently she did not consider it part of the poet’s job to obtain publication. Effectively, she did not emerge as a writer at all until the 1890s, after her death. In a sense, her poetry is internal exploration and could have been written in almost any country, at almost any period of history, with one exception: the South in the 1860s. Had she lived in, say, Charleston or Savannah, she would have been forced to confront external reality in her verse. That is the difference between North and South.
But not only in cloistered New England was the war distant. In vast stretches of America, it had virtually no effect on the rapid development of the country. Not that Westerners were indifferent to the war. They favored the Union because they needed it. The South was protesting not only against the North’s interference in its ‘peculiar institution’ but against the growth of government generally. But Westerners, for the time being at least, wanted some of the services that only federal government could provide. As the historian of the trails through Oregon and to California put it, ‘Most pre-Civil War overlanders found the United States government, through its armed forces, military installations, Indian agents, explorers, surveyors, road builders, physicians and mail-carriers to be an impressively potent and helpful force.’ Up to the outset of the Civil War, go percent of the US Army’s active units were stationed in the seventy-nine posts of the transMississippi-7,090 officers and men in 1860. Withdrawal of many units once the war began made Westerners realize quite how dependent they were on federal power.
Lack of troops raised problems in the West and may have encouraged the Indians to take advantage. There were raids and massacres, and the settlers responded by raising volunteers and using them. They were less experienced at dealing with Indians than the regular units, and their officers were often prone to take alarm needlessly and overreact-all the good commanders were out east, fighting. What was liable to happen was demonstrated at Sand Creek in the Colorado Territory on November 29, 1864, just after Lincoln’s reelection. Following Indian atrocities, a punitive column consisting of the Third Colorado Volunteers, under Colonel John M. Chivington, attacked a camp of 500 Cheyennes. Their leaders, Black Kettle and White Antelope, believed a peace treaty was in effect and said they had turned in their arms. The volunteers slaughtered men, women, and children indiscriminately, killing over 150, and returning to Denver in triumph, displaying scalps and severed genitals like trophies. This Sand Creek massacre was later investigated by a joint Committee of Congress, and Chivington condemned, though he was never punished. The Cheyennes retaliated brutally on several occasions, and on December 21, 1866, after the war was over, in combination with Lakotas and Arapahos, they ambushed and slaughtered eighty men under the command of Colonel William J. Fetterman, one of the worst defeats the US Army suffered at Indian hands.
In some ways the Civil War hastened the development of the West because, by removing the Southern-Democratic majority in both Houses of Congress, it ended a legislative logjam which had held up certain measures for decades and impeded economic and constitutional progress. For instance, the Californian engineer-promoter Theodore D. Judah, representing a group of San Francisco bankers and entrepreneurs, contrived in the spring of 1861, immediately after the Southerners had left Washington, to lobby the Pacific Railroad Act through Congress. This was entirely a venture to benefit the North and the Northwest. It involved the railroads receiving from the federal government a 400-foot right of way, ten alternate sections of land for each mile of track, and first-mortgage loans of $16,000 per mile in flat country, $32,000 in foothills, and $48,000 per mile in the mountains-an enormous federal subsidy, in effect, which would only have passed over Southern dead bodies. In the event, the subsidy did not prove enough for this giant undertaking and was increased by a further Act of Congress in 1864, the Southerners still being absent.
In fact the North and West got their revenge, during the Civil War, for the many defeats they had suffered at the hands of Southern legislators in the thirty-two years 1829-60. By 1850 the Southern plantation interests had come to see the cheap-land policy in the West as a threat to slavery. Their senators killed the Homestead Bill of 1852, and in 1860, after Southerners made unavailing efforts to kill a similar Bill, President Buchanan vetoed it. Thus a Homestead Bill became an important part of Lincoln’s platform and in 1861 it marched triumphantly through Congress. This offered an enterprising farmer 160 acres of public land, already surveyed, for a nominal sum. He got complete ownership at the end of six months on paying $1.50 an acre, or for nothing after five years’ residence. This eventually proved one of the most important laws in American history, the consequences of which we will examine shortly. The removal of Southern resistance also speeded up the constitutional development of the West. Kansas entered the Union as a free state in 1861, Nevada in 1864, and Nebraska soon after the end of the war in 1867. Meanwhile the administration extended the territorial system over the remaining inchoate regions beyond the Mississippi. The Dakotas, Colorado, and Nevada territories were organized in 1861, Arizona and Idaho in 1863, and by 1870 Wyoming and Montana had also become formal territories on the way to statehood.
Out west, then, they just got on with it, and made money. The mining boom, which had cost the South any chance of California becoming a slave state, continued and intensified, thus pouring specie into Washington’s war-coffers. The classic boomtown, Virginia City, emerged 7,000 feet up the mountains of Nevada, and was immortalized by Mark Twain. The gold and silver were embedded in quartz, and elaborate crushing machinery-and huge amounts of capital- were needed for the big-pay mines, the Ophir, Central, Mexican, Gould, and Curry. Experienced men from Cornwall, Wales, and the German mountains poured in. The Comstock Lode became the great mineralogical phenomenon of the age. It went straight through Virginia City, from north to south, and laboring men earned the amazing wages of $6 a day, working in three shifts, round the clock. So, as Twain wrote, even if you did not own a ‘piece’ of a mine-and few did not- everyone was happy; ‘Joy sat on every countenance, and there was a glad, almost fierce intensity in every eye, that told of the money-getting schemes that were seething in every brain and the high hope that held sway in every heart. Money was as plentiful as dust; every individual considered himself wealthy and a melancholy countenance was nowhere to be seen.’
Any shots fired in these parts had nothing to do with the Civil War but reflected the normal human appetites of greed, lust, anger, and envy. And, as Mark Twain put it, ‘the thin atmosphere seemed to carry healing to gunshot wounds, and therefore to simply shoot your adversary through both lungs was a thing not likely to afford you any permanent satisfaction, for he would be nearly certain to be around looking for you within the month, and not with an opera glass, either.’ The miners, most of whom were heavily armed, chased away any Indians who stood between them and possible bullion, ignoring treaties. Gold was found in 1860 on the Nez Perce Indians’ reservation at the junction of the Snake and Clearwater rivers. The superintendent of Indian affairs reported: ‘To attempt to restrain these miners would be like attempting to restrain the whirlwind.’ With Washington’s attention on the war, protection of reservations had a low priority and the miners did what they pleased. They created the towns of Lewiston, Boise on the Salmon River, and in 1864 Helena. Idaho was a mining-created state; so was Montana, formed out of its eastern part, and Wyoming Territory. Nor was gold and silver the only lure-it was at Butte, Montana, that one of the world’s great copper strikes was made. The miners were almost entirely young men between sixteen and thirty; the women nearly all whores. But it was creative: seven states, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana owe their origins to mining-and the key formation period, in most cases, was during the Civil War.
It was totally different in the South: there, nothing mattered, nothing could occur, but the war. Concern for the war, anxiety to win the war, was so intense that people forgot what it was really about. Davis himself forgot to the point where he was among the earliest to urge that slaves should be manumitted in return for fighting for the South. Resistance to this idea was, at first, overwhelming, on the ground that blacks would not or could not fight-this despite the fact that 180,000 blacks from the North were enlisted in the Union army and many of them fought very well indeed. Arguing with a senator who was against enlisting blacks at any price, Davis in exasperation declared: ‘If the Confederacy falls, there should be written on its tombstone, “Died of a theory.” As the Union army sliced off chunks of the South and liberated its slaves, many flocked to join the army-apart from anything else, it was the only way they could earn a living. Slavery itself was breaking down, even in those parts of the South not yet under Union rule. Slaves were walking off the plantations more or less as they chose; there was no one to prevent them, and no one to hunt them once they were at liberty. There was no work and no food for them either. So they were tempted to cross the lines and enlist in the Union forces. Hence Davis redoubled his efforts to persuade the Confederate Congress to permit their enlistment. As he put it, ‘We are reduced to choosing whether the negroes shall fight for us, or against us.’
Eventually on March 13, 1865, Congress accepted his arguments, but even then it left emancipation to follow enlistment only with the consent of the owner. Davis, in promulgating the new law, added a proviso of his own making it compulsory for the owner of a slave taken into war service to provide manumission papers. But by then it was all too late anyway. Granted the fact that slaves formed more than a third of the South’s population at the beginning of the Civil War, their prompt conscription would have enormously added to the strength of the Confederate armies. And most of them would have been willing to fight for the South, too-after all, it was their way of life as well as that of the whites which was at stake. It is a curious paradox, but one typical of the ironies of history, that black participation might conceivably have turned the scales in the South’s favor. But obstinacy and ‘theory’ won the day and few blacks actually got the chance to fight for their homeland.