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Biography of Abraham Lincoln


Home > Social Studies > Holidays > Presidents Day > Abraham Lincoln > The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln > Lincoln and the War

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The New President The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Unsuccessful Generals

Chapter VII. Lincoln and the War

It is one thing to be elected President of the United States,-- that means triumph, honor, power: it is quite another thing to perform the duties of President,--for that means labor, disappointment, difficulty, even danger. Many a man envied Abraham Lincoln when, in the stately pomp of inauguration and with the plaudits of the spectators ringing about him, he took the oath of office which for four years transforms an American citizen into the ruler of these United States. Such envy would have been changed to deepest sympathy if they could have known what lay before him. After the music and cannon were dumb, after the flags were all furled and the cheering crowds had vanished, the shadows of war fell about the Executive Mansion, and its new occupant remained face to face with his heavy task--a task which, as he had truly said in his speech at Springfield, was greater than that which rested upon Washington.

Then, as never before, he must have realized the peril of the nation, with its credit gone, its laws defied, its flag insulted. The South had carried out its threat, and seven million Americans were in revolt against the idea that "all men are created equal," while twenty million other Americans were bent upon defending that idea. For the moment both sides had paused to see how the new President would treat this attempt at secession. It must be constantly borne in mind that the rebellion in the Southern States with which Mr. Lincoln had to deal was not a sudden revolution, but a conspiracy of slow growth and long planning. As one of its actors frankly admitted, it was "not an event of a day. It is not anything produced by Mr. Lincoln's election. . . . It is a matter which has been gathering head for thirty years." Its main object, it must also be remembered, was the spread of slavery. Alexander H. Stephens, in a speech made shortly after he became the Confederate Vice-President, openly proclaimed slavery to be the "corner-stone" of the new government. For years it had been the dream of southern leaders to make the Ohio River the northern boundary of a great slave empire, with everything lying to the south of that, even the countries of South and Central America, as parts of their system. Though this dream was never to be realized, the Confederacy finally came to number eleven States (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia), and to cover a territory of more than 750,000 square miles--larger than England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Germany and Switzerland put together, with a coast line 3,500 miles long, and a land frontier of over 7,000 miles.

President Buchanan's timidity and want of spirit had alone made this great rebellion possible, for although it had been "gathering head for thirty years" it was only within the last few months that it had come to acts of open treason and rebellion. President Buchanan had opportunity and ample power to crush it when the conspirators first began to show their hands. Instead he wavered, and delayed, while they grew bold under his lack of decision, imagining that they would have a bloodless victory, and even boasting that they would take Washington for their capital; or, if the new President should thwart them and make them fight, that they would capture Philadelphia and dictate the peace they wanted from Independence Hall.

By the time Mr. Lincoln came into office the conspiracy had grown beyond control by any means then in the hands of a President, though men on both sides still vainly hoped that the troubles of the country might be settled without fighting. Mr. Lincoln especially wished to make very sure that if it ever came to a matter of war, the fault should not lie with the North.

In his inaugural address he had told the South that he would use the power confided to him to hold and occupy the places belonging to the Government, and to collect the taxes; but beyond what might be necessary for these objects, he would not use force among the people anywhere. His peaceful policy was already harder to follow than he realized. Before he had been President twenty-four hours word came from Major Anderson, still defying the conspirators from Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, that his little garrison was short of food, and must speedily surrender unless help reached them. The rebels had for weeks been building batteries to attack the fort, and with Anderson's report came the written opinions of his officers that it would require an Army of 20,000 men to relieve it. They might as well have asked for twenty thousand archangels, for at that time the entire Army of the United States numbered but 17,113 men, and these were doing duty, not only in the Southern and Eastern States, but were protecting settlers from Indians on the great western frontier, and guarding the long Canadian and Mexican boundaries as well. Yet Anderson and his men could not be left to their fate without even an attempt to help them, though some of the high military and naval officers hastily called into council by the new President advised this course. It was finally decided to notify the Confederates that a ship carrying food, but no soldiers, would be sent to his relief. If they chose to fire upon that it would be plainly the South, and not the North, that began the war.

Days went on, and by the middle of April the Confederate government found itself forced to a fatal choice. Either it must begin war, or allow the rebellion to collapse. All its claims to independence were denied; the commissioner it sent to Washington on the pretense that they were agents of a foreign country were politely refused a hearing, yet not one angry word, or provoking threat, or a single harmful act had come from the "Black Republican" President. In his inaugural he had promised the people of the South peace and protection, and offered them the benefit of the mails. Even now, all he proposed to do was to send bread to Anderson and his hungry soldiers. His prudent policy placed them where, as he had told them, they could have no war unless they themselves chose to begin it.

They did choose to begin it. The rebellion was the work of ambitious men, who had no mind to stop at that late day and see their labor go for nothing. The officer in charge of their batteries was ordered to open fire on Fort Sumter if Anderson refused to surrender; and in the dim light of dawn on April 12, 1861, just as the outline of Fort Sumter began to show itself against a brightening sky, the shot that opened the Civil War rose from a rebel battery and made its slow and graceful curve upon Sumter. Soon all the batteries were in action, and the fort was replying with a will. Anderson held out for a day and a half, until his cartridges were all used up, his flagstaff had been shot away, and the wooden buildings inside the fort were on fire. Then, as the ships with supplies had not yet arrived, and he had neither food nor ammunition, he was forced to surrender.

The news of the firing upon Fort Sumter changed the mood of the country as if by magic. By deliberate act of the Confederate government its attempt at peaceable secession had been changed to active war. The Confederates gained Fort Sumter, but in doing so they roused the patriotism of the North to a firm resolve that this insult to the flag should be redressed, and that the unrighteous experiment of a rival government founded upon slavery as its "cornerstone," should never succeed. In one of his speeches on the journey to Washington Mr. Lincoln had said that devoted as he was to peace, it might become necessary to "put the foot down firmly." That time had now come. On April 15, the day after the fall of Fort Sumter, all the newspapers of the country printed the President's call to arms, ordering out 75,000 militia for three months, and directing Congress to meet in special session on July 4, 1861. The North rallied instantly to the support of the Government, and offered him twice the number of soldiers he asked for.

Nothing more clearly shows the difference between President Lincoln and President Buchanan than the way in which the two men met the acts of the Southern Rebellion. President Buchanan temporized and delayed when he had plenty of power. President Lincoln, without a moment's hesitation accepted the great and unusual responsibility thrust upon him, and at once issued orders for buying ships, moving troops, advancing money to Committees of Safety, and for other military and naval measures for which at the moment he had no express authority from Congress. As soon as Congress came together on July 4, he sent a message explaining his action, saying: "It became necessary for me to choose whether, using only the existing means . . . . which Congress had provided, I should let the Government fall at once into ruin, or whether availing myself of the broader powers conferred by the Constitution in cases of insurrection, I would make an effort to save it with all its blessings for the present age and for posterity." Congress, it is needless to say, not only approved all that he had done, but gave him practically unlimited powers for dealing with the rebellion in future.

It soon became evident that no matter how ready and willing to fight for their country the 75,000 volunteers might be, they could not hope to put down the rebellion, because the time for which they had enlisted would be almost over before they could receive the training necessary to change them from valiant citizens into good soldiers. Another call was therefore issued, this time for men to serve three years or during the war, and also for a large number of sailors to man the new ships that the Government was straining every nerve to buy, build and otherwise make ready.

More important, however, than soldiers trained or untrained, was the united will of the people of the North; and most important of all the steadfast and courageous soul of the man called to direct the struggle. Abraham Lincoln, the poor frontier boy, the struggling young lawyer, the Illinois politician, whom many, even among the Republicans who voted to elect him President, thought scarcely fit to hold a much smaller office, proved beyond question the man for the task gifted above all his associates with wisdom and strength to meet the great emergencies as they arose during the four years' war that had already begun.

Since this is the story of Mr. Lincoln's life, and not of the Civil War, we cannot attempt to follow the history of the long contest as it unfolded itself day by day and month by month, or even to stop to recount a list of the great battles that drenched the land in blood. It was a mighty struggle, fought by men of the same race and kindred, often by brother against brother. Each fought for what he felt to be right; and their common inheritance of courage and iron will, of endurance and splendid bravery and stubborn pluck, made this battle of brothers the more bitter as it was the more prolonged. It ranged over an immense extent of country; but because Washington was the capital of the Union, and Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, and the desire of each side was to capture the chief city of the other, the principal fighting ground, during the whole war, lay between these two towns, with the Alleghany Mountains on the west, and Chesapeake Bay on the east. Between the Alleghanies and the Mississippi River another field of warfare developed itself, on which some of the hardest battles were fought, and the greatest victories won. Beyond the Mississippi again stretched another great field, bounded only by the Rocky Mountains and the Rio Grande. But the principal fighting in this field was near or even on the Mississippi, in the efforts made by both Unionists and Confederates to keep and hold the great highway of the river, so necessary for trade in time of peace, and for moving armies in time of war.

On this immense battle-ground was fought one of the most costly wars of modern times, with soldiers numbering a million men on each side; in which, counting battles and skirmishes small and great, an average of two engagements a day were fought for four long years, two millions of money were used up every twenty-four hours, and during which the unholy prize of slavery, for which the Confederate States did battle, was completely swept away.

Though the tide of battle ebbed and flowed, defeat and victory may be said to have been nearly evenly divided. Generally speaking, success was more often on the side of the South during the first half of the war; with the North, during the latter half. The armies were equally brave; the North had the greater territory from which to draw supplies; and the end came, not when one side had beaten the other, man for man, but when the South had been drained of fighting men and food and guns, and slavery had perished in the stress of war.

Fortunately for all, nobody at the beginning dreamed of the length of the struggle. Even Lincoln's stout heart would have been dismayed if he could have foreseen all that lay before him. The task that he could see was hard and perplexing enough. Everything in Washington was in confusion. No President ever had such an increase of official work as Lincoln during the early months of his administration. The halls and ante-rooms of the Executive Mansion were literally crowded with people seeking appointment to office; and the new appointments that were absolutely necessary were not half finished when the firing on Fort Sumter began active war. This added to the difficulty of sifting the loyal from the disloyal, and the yet more pressing labor of organizing an immense new Army .

Hundreds of clerks employed in the Government Departments left their desks and hurried South, crippling the service just at the time when the sudden increase of work made their presence doubly needed. A large proportion of the officers of the Army and Navy, perhaps as many as one-third, gave their skill and services to the Confederacy, feeling that their allegiance was due to their State or section rather than to the general government. Prominent among these was Robert E. Lee, who had been made a colonel by Lincoln, and whom General Scott had recommended as the most promising officer to command the new force of 75,000 men called out by the President's proclamation. He chose instead to resign and cast his fortunes with the South, where he became the head of all the Confederate armies. The loss to the Union and gain to the Confederate cause by his action is hard to measure, since in him the Southern armies found a commander whose surpassing courage and skill inspired its soldiers long after all hope of success was gone. Cases such as this gave the President more anxiety than all else. It seemed impossible to know whom to trust. An officer might come to him in the morning protesting devotion to the Union, and by night be gone to the South. Mr. Lincoln used to say at this time that he felt like a man letting rooms at one end of his house while the other end was on fire.

The situation grew steadily worse. Maryland refused to allow United States soldiers to cross her territory, and the first attempt to bring troops through Baltimore from the North ended in a bloody riot, and the burning of railroad bridges to prevent help from reaching Washington. For three days Washington was entirely cut off from the North, either by telegraph or mail. General Scott hastily prepared the city for a siege, taking possession of all the large supplies of flour and provisions in town, and causing the Capitol and other public buildings to be barricaded. Though President Lincoln did not doubt the final arrival of help, he, like everyone else, was very anxious, and found it hard to understand the long delay. He knew that troops had started from the North. Why did they not arrive? They might not be able to go through Baltimore, but they could certainly go around it. The distance was not great. What if twenty miles of railroad had been destroyed, were the soldiers unable to march? Always calm and self-controlled, he gave no sign in the presence of others of the anxiety that weighed so heavily upon him. Very likely the visitors who saw him during those days thought that he hardly realized the plight of the city; yet an inmate of the White House, passing through the President's office when the day's work was done and he imagined himself alone, saw him pause in his absorbed walk up and down the floor, and gaze long out of the window in the direction from which the troops were expected to appear. Then, unconscious of any hearer, and as if the words were wrung from him by anguish, he exclaimed, "Why don't they come, why don't they come

The New York Seventh Regiment was the first to "come." By a roundabout route it reached Washington on the morning of April 25, and, weary and travel-worn, but with banners flying and music playing, marched up Pennsylvania Avenue to the big white Executive Mansion, bringing cheer to the President and renewed courage to those timid citizens whose fright during this time had almost paralyzed the life of the town. Taking renewed courage they once more opened their houses and the shops that had been closed since the beginning of the blockade, and business began anew.

The greater part of the three months' regiments had been ordered to Washington, and the outskirts of the capital soon became a busy military camp. The great Departments of the Government, especially of War and Navy, could not immediately handle the details of all this sudden increase of work. Men were volunteering rapidly enough, but there was sore need of rations to feed them, money to pay them, tents to shelter them, uniforms to clothe them, rifles to arm them, officers to drill them, and of transportation to carry them to the camps of instruction where they must receive their training and await further orders. In this carnival of patriotism and hurly-burly of organization the weaknesses as well as the virtues of human nature quickly showed themselves; and, as if the new President had not already enough to distress and harass his mind, almost every case of confusion and delay was brought to him for complaint and correction. On him also fell the delicate and serious task of deciding hundreds of novel questions as to what he and his cabinet ministers had and had not the right to do under the Constitution.

The month of May slipped away in all these preparatory vexations; but the great machine of war, once started, moved on as it always does, from arming to massing of troops, and from that to skirmish and battle. In June small fights began to occur between the Union and Confederate armies. The first large battle of the war took place at Bull Run, about thirty-two miles southwest of Washington, on July 21, 1861. It ended in a victory for the Confederates, though their Army was so badly crippled by. its losses that it made no further forward movement during the whole of the next autumn and winter.

The shock of this defeat was deep and painful to the people of the North, not yet schooled to patience, or to the uncertainties of war. For weeks the newspapers, confident of success, had been clamoring for action, and the cry, "Forward to Richmond," had been heard on every hand. At first the people would not believe the story of a defeat; but it was only too true. By night the beaten Union troops were pouring into the fortifications around Washington, and the next day a horde of stragglers found their way across the bridges of the Potomac into the city.

President Lincoln received the news quietly, as was his habit, without any visible sign of distress or alarm, but he remained awake and in his office all that Sunday night, listening to the excited tales of congressmen and senators who, with undue curiosity, had followed the Army and witnessed some of the sights and sounds of battle; and by dawn on Monday he had practically made up his mind as to the probable result and what he must do in consequence.

The loss of the battle of Bull Run was a bitter disappointment to him. He saw that the North was not to have the easy victory it anticipated; and to him personally it brought a great and added care that never left him during the war. Up to that time the North had stood by him as one man in its eager resolve to put down the rebellion. From this time on, though quite as determined, there was division and disagreement among the people as to how this could best be done. Parties formed themselves for or against this or that general, or in favor of this or that method and no other of carrying on the war. In other words, the President and his "administration"--the cabinet and other officers under him--became, from this time on, the target of criticism for all the failures of the Union armies, and for all the accidents and mistakes and unforeseen delays of war. The self-control that Mr. Lincoln had learned in the hard school of his boyhood, and practised during all the long struggle of his young manhood, had been severe and bitter training, but nothing else could have prepared him for the great disappointments and trials of the crowning years of his life. He had learned to endure patiently, to reason calmly, never to be unduly sure of his own opinion; but, having taken counsel of the best advice at his command, to continue in the path that he felt to be right, regardless of criticism or unjust abuse. He had daily and hourly to do all this. He was strong and courageous, with a steadfast belief that the right would triumph in the end; but his nature was at the same time sensitive and tender, and the sorrows and pain of others hurt him more than did his own.

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The New President The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Unsuccessful Generals

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The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln


A President's Childhood

Captain Lincoln

Lawyer Lincoln

Congressman Lincoln

The Champion of Freedom

The New President

Lincoln and the War

Unsuccessful Generals

Freedom for the Slaves

The Man Who Was President

The Turning Point of the War

The Conqueror of a Great Rebellion

The Fourteenth of April

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Abraham Lincoln Unit of Study

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The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A Biography

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The Gettysburg Address

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