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Home > Social Studies > Holidays > Presidents Day > Abraham Lincoln > The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln > The Conqueror of a Great Rebellion

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The Turning Point of the War The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The Fourteenth of April

Chapter XII. The Conqueror of A Great Rebellion

The presidential election of 1864 took place on November 8. The diary of one of the President's secretaries contains a curious record of the way the day passed at the Executive Mansion. "The house has been still and almost deserted. Everybody in Washington and not at home voting seems ashamed of it, and stays away from the President. While I was talking with him to-day he said: "It is a little singular that I, who am not a vindictive man, should always have been before the people for election in canvasses marked for their bitterness. Always but once. When I came to Congress it was a quiet time; but always besides that the contests in which I have been prominent have been marked with great rancor."

Early in the evening the President made his way through rain and darkness to the War Department to receive the returns. The telegrams came, thick and fast, all pointing joyously to his reelection. He sent the important ones over to Mrs. Lincoln at the White House, remarking, "She is more anxious that I am." The satisfaction of one member of the little group about him was coupled with the wish that the critics of the administration might feel properly rebuked by this strong expression of the popular will. Mr. Lincoln looked at him in kindly surprise. "You have more of that feeling of personal resentment than I," he said. "Perhaps I have too little of it, but I never thought it paid. A man has not time to spend half his life in quarrels. If any man ceases to attack me, I never remember the past against him." This state of mind might well have been called by a higher name than "lack of personal resentment."

Lincoln and Johnson received a popular majority of 411,281, and 212 out of 233 electoral votes--only those of New Jersey, Delaware and Kentucky, twenty-one in all, being cast for McClellan.

For Mr. Lincoln this was one of the most solemn days of his life. Assured of his personal success, and made devoutly confident by the military victories of the last few weeks that the end of the war was at hand, he felt no sense of triumph over his opponents. The thoughts that filled his mind found expression in the closing sentences of the little speech that he made to some serenaders who greeted him in the early morning hours of November 9, as he left the War Department to return to the White House:

"I am thankful to God for this approval of the people; but while deeply grateful for this mark of their confidence in me, if I know my heart, my gratitude is free from any taint of personal triumph. . . . It is no pleasure to me to triumph over anyone, but I give thanks to the Almighty for this evidence of the people's resolution to stand by free government and the rights of humanity."

Mr. Lincoln's inauguration for his second term as President took place at the time appointed, on March 4, 1865. There is little variation in the simple but impressive pageantry with which the ceremony is celebrated. The principal novelty commented on by the newspapers was the share which the people who had up to that time been slaves, had for the first time in this public and political drama. Associations of negro citizens joined in the procession, and a battalion of negro soldiers formed part of the military escort. The central act of the occasion was President Lincoln's second inaugural address, which enriched the political literature of the nation with another masterpiece. He said:

"Fellow-countrymen: At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

"On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it--all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

"One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.

"Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. 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 must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.' If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet; if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."

The address ended, the Chief Justice arose, and the listeners who, for the second time, heard Abraham Lincoln repeat the solemn words of his oath of office, went from the impressive scene to their several homes in thankfulness and confidence that the destiny of the nation was in safe keeping.

Nothing would have amazed Mr. Lincoln more than to hear himself called a man of letters; and yet it would be hard to find in all literature anything to excel the brevity and beauty of his address at Gettysburg or the lofty grandeur of this Second Inaugural. In Europe his style has been called a model for the study and imitation of princes, while in our own country many of his phrases have already passed into the daily speech of mankind.

His gift of putting things simply and clearly was partly the habit of his own clear mind, and partly the result of the training he gave himself in days of boyish poverty, when paper and ink were luxuries almost beyond his reach, and the words he wished to set down must be the best words, and the clearest and shortest to express the ideas he had in view. This training of thought before expression, of knowing exactly what he wished to say before saying it, stood him in good stead all his life; but only the mind of a great man, with a lofty soul and a poet's vision; one who had suffered deeply and felt keenly; who carried the burden of a nation on his heart, whose sympathies were as broad and whose kindness was as great as his moral purpose was strong and firm, could have written the deep, forceful, convincing words that fell from his pen in the later years of his life. It was the life he lived, the noble aim that upheld him, as well as the genius with which he was born, that made him one of the greatest writers of our time.

At the date of his second inauguration only two members of Mr. Lincoln's original cabinet remained in office; but the changes had all come about gradually and naturally, never as the result of quarrels, and with the single exception of Secretary Chase, not one of them left the cabinet harboring feelings of resentment or bitterness toward his late chief. Even when, in one case, it became necessary for the good of the service, for Mr. Lincoln to ask a cabinet minister to resign, that gentleman not only unquestioningly obeyed, but entered into the presidential campaign immediately afterward, working heartily and effectively for his reelection. As for Secretary Chase, the President was so little disturbed by his attitude that, on the death of Roger B. Taney, the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, he made him his successor, giving him the highest judicial office in the land, and paying him the added compliment of writing out his nomination with his own hand.

The keynote of the President's young life had been persevering industry. That of his mature years was self-control and generous forgiveness. And surely his remark on the night of his second election for President, that he did not think resentment "paid," and that no man had time to spend half his life in quarrels, was well borne out by the fruit of his actions. It was this spirit alone which made possible much that he was able to accomplish. His rule of conduct toward all men is summed up in a letter of reprimand that it became his duty, while he was President, to send to one young officer accused of quarreling with another. It deserves to be written in letters of gold on the walls of every school and college throughout the land:

"The advice of a father to his son, 'beware of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in, bear it that the opposed may beware of thee,' is good, but not the best. Quarrel not at all. No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper and the loss of self-control. Yield larger things to which you can show no more than equal right; and yield lesser ones though clearly your own. Better give your path to a dog than be bitten by him in contesting for the right. Even killing the dog would not cure the bite."

It was this willingness of his to give up the "lesser things," and even the things to which he could claim an equal right, which kept peace in his cabinet, made up of men of strong wills and conflicting natures. Their devotion to the Union, great as it was, would not have sufficed in such a strangely assorted official family; but his unfailing kindness and good sense led him to overlook many things that another man might have regarded as deliberate insults; while his great tact and knowledge of human nature enabled him to bring out the best in people about him, and at times to turn their very weaknesses into sources of strength. It made it possible for him to keep the regard of every one of them. Before he had been in office a month it had transformed Secretary Seward from his rival into his lasting friend. It made a warm friend out of the blunt, positive, hot-tempered Edwin M. Stanton, who became Secretary of War in place of Mr. Cameron. He was a man of strong will and great endurance, and gave his Department a record for hard and effective work that it would be difficult to equal. Many stories are told of the disrespect he showed the President, and the cross-purposes at which they labored. The truth is, that they understood each other perfectly on all important matters, and worked together through three busy trying years with ever-increasing affection and regard. The President's kindly humor forgave his Secretary many blunt speeches. "Stanton says I am a fool?" he is reported to have asked a busy-body who came fleet-footed to tell him of the Secretary's hasty comment on an order of little moment. "Stanton says I am a fool? Well"--with a whimsical glance at his informant--"then I suppose I must be. Stanton is nearly always right." Knowing that Stanton was "nearly always right" it made little difference to his chief what he might say in the heat of momentary annoyance.

Yet in spite of his forbearance he never gave up the "larger things" that he felt were of real importance; and when he learned at one time that an effort was being made to force a member of the cabinet to resign, he called them together, and read them the following impressive little lecture:

"I must myself be the judge how long to retain in, and when to remove any of you from his position. It would greatly pain me to discover any of you endeavoring to procure another's removal, or in any way to prejudice him before the public. Such endeavor would be a wrong to me, and much worse, a wrong to the country. My wish is that on this subject no remark be made, nor question asked by any of you, here, or elsewhere, now, or hereafter."

This is one of the most remarkable speeches ever made by a President. Washington was never more dignified; Jackson was never more peremptory.

The President's spirit of forgiveness was broad enough to take in the entire South. The cause of the Confederacy had been doomed from the hour of his reelection. The cheering of the troops which greeted the news had been heard within the lines at Richmond, and the besieged town lost hope, though it continued the struggle bravely if desperately. Although Horace Greeley's peace mission to Canada had come to nothing, and other volunteer efforts in the same direction served only to call forth a declaration from Jefferson Davis that he would fight for the independence of the South to the bitter end, Mr. Lincoln watched longingly for the time when the first move could be made toward peace. Early in January, 1865, as the country was about to enter upon the fifth year of actual war, he learned from Hon. Francis P. Blair, Sr., who had been in Richmond, how strong the feeling of discouragement at the Confederate capital had become. Mr. Blair was the father of Lincoln's first Postmaster-General, a man of large acquaintance in the South, who knew perhaps better than anyone in Washington the character and temper of the southern leaders. He had gone to Richmond hoping to do something toward bringing the war to a close, but without explaining his plans to anyone, and with no authority from the government, beyond permission to pass through the military lines and return. His scheme was utterly impracticable, and Mr. Lincoln was interested in the report of his visit only because it showed that the rebellion was nearing its end. This was so marked that he sent Mr. Blair back again to Richmond with a note intended for the eye of Jefferson Davis, saying that the government had constantly been, was then, and would continue to be ready to receive any agent Mr. Davis might send, "with a view of securing peace to the people of our one common country."

Hopeless as their cause had by this time become, the Confederates had no mind to treat for peace on any terms except independence of the southern States; yet, on the other hand, they were in such straits that they could not afford to leave Mr. Lincoln's offer untested. Mr. Davis therefore sent north his Vice-President, Alexander H. Stephens, with two other high officials of the Confederate government, armed with instructions which aimed to be liberal enough to gain them admittance to the Union lines, and yet distinctly announced that they came "for the purpose of securing peace to the two countries." This difference in the wording of course doomed their mission in advance, for the government at Washington had never admitted that there were "two countries," and to receive the messengers of Jefferson Davis on any such terms would be to concede practically all that the South asked.

When they reached the Union lines the officer who met them informed them that they could go no farther unless they accepted the President's conditions. They finally changed the form of their request, and were taken to Fortress Monroe. Meantime Mr. Lincoln had sent Secretary Seward to Fortress Monroe with instructions to hear all they might have to say, but not to definitely conclude anything. On learning the true nature of their errand he was about to recall him, when he received a telegram from General Grant, regretting that Mr. Lincoln himself could not see the commissioners, because, to Grant's mind, they seemed sincere.

Anxious to do everything he could in the interest of peace, Mr. Lincoln, instead of recalling Secretary Seward, telegraphed that he would himself come to Fortress Monroe, and started that same night. The next morning, February 3, 1865, he and the Secretary of State received the rebel commissioners on board the President's steamer, the River Queen.

This conference between the two highest officials of the United States government, and three messengers from the Confederacy, bound, as the President well knew beforehand, by instructions which made any practical outcome impossible, brings out, in strongest relief, Mr. Lincoln's kindly patience, even toward the rebellion. He was determined to leave no means untried that might, however remotely, lead to peace. For four hours he patiently answered the many questions they asked him, as to what would probably be done on various subjects if the South submitted; pointing out always the difference between the things that he had the power to decide, and those that must be submitted to Congress; and bringing the discussion back, time and again, to the three points absolutely necessary to secure peace-- Union, freedom for the slaves, and complete disbandment of the Confederate armies. He had gone to offer them, honestly and frankly, the best terms in his power, but not to give up one atom of official dignity or duty. Their main thought, on the contrary, had been to postpone or to escape the express conditions on which they were admitted to the conference.

They returned to Richmond and reported the failure of their efforts to Jefferson Davis, whose disappointment equalled their own, for all had caught eagerly at the hope that this interview would somehow prove a means of escape from the dangers of their situation. President Lincoln, full of kindly thoughts, on the other hand, went back to Washington, intent on making yet one more generous offer to hasten the day of peace. He had told the commissioners that personally he would be in favor of the government paying a liberal amount for the loss of slave property, on condition that the southern States agree of their own accord to the freedom of the slaves.* This was indeed going to the extreme of liberality, but Mr. Lincoln remembered that notwithstanding all their offenses the rebels were American citizens, members of the same nation and brothers of the same blood. He remembered, too, that the object of the war, equally with peace and freedom, was to preserve friendship and to continue the Union. Filled with such thoughts and purposes he spent the day after his return in drawing up a new proposal designed as a peace offering to the States in rebellion. On the evening of February 5 he read this to his cabinet. It offered the southern States $400,000,000 or a sum equal to the cost of war for two hundred days, on condition that all fighting cease by the first of April, 1865. He proved more liberal than any of his advisers; and with the words, "You are all against me," sadly uttered, the President folded up the paper, and ended the discussion.

* Mr. Lincoln had freed the slaves two years before as a military necessity, and as such it had been accepted by all. Yet a question might arise, when the war ended, as to whether this act of his had been lawful. He was therefore very anxious to have freedom find a place in the Constitution of the United States. This could only be done by an amendment to the Constitution, proposed by Congress, and adopted by the legislatures of three-fourths of the States of the Union. Congress voted in favor of such an amendment on January 31, 1865. Illinois, the President's own State, adopted it on the very next day, and though Mr. Lincoln did not live to see it a part of the Constitution, Secretary Seward, on December 18, 1865, only a few months after Mr. Lincoln's death, was able to make official announcement that 29 States, constituting a majority of three- fourths of the 36 States of the Union, had adopted it, and that therefore it was the law of the land.

Jefferson Davis had issued a last appeal to "fire the southern heart," but the situation at Richmond was becoming desperate Flour cost a thousand dollars a barrel in Confederate money, and neither the flour nor the money were sufficient for their needs. Squads of guards were sent into the streets with directions to arrest every able-bodied man they met, and force him to work in defense of the town. It is said that the medical boards were ordered to excuse no one from military service who was well enough to bear arms for even ten days. Human nature will not endure a strain like this, and desertion grew too common to punish. Nevertheless the city kept up its defense until April 3. Even then, although hopelessly beaten, the Confederacy was not willing to give in, and much needless and severe fighting took place before the final end came. The rebel government hurried away toward the South, and Lee bent all his energies to saving his Army and taking it to join General Johnston, who still held out against Sherman. Grant pursued him with such energy that he did not even allow himself the pleasure of entering the captured rebel capital. The chase continued six days. On the evening of April 8 the Union Army succeeded in planting itself squarely across Lee's line of retreat; and the marching and fighting of his Army were over for ever. On the next morning the two generals met in a house on the edge of the village of Appomattox, Virginia, Lee resplendent in a new uniform and handsome sword, Grant in the travel-stained garments in which he had made the campaign--the blouse of a private soldier, with the shoulderstraps of a Lieutenant-General. Here the surrender took place. Grant, as courteous in victory as he was energetic in war, offered Lee terms that were liberal in the extreme; and on learning that the Confederate soldiers were actually suffering with hunger, ordered that rations be issued to them at once.

Fire and destruction attended the flight of the Confederates from Richmond. Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, carrying with them their more important state papers, left the doomed city on one of the crowded and overloaded railroad trains on the night of April 2, beginning a southward flight that ended only with Mr. Davis's capture about a month later. The legislature of Virginia and the governor of the State departed hurriedly on a canal-boat in the direction of Lynchburg, while every possible carriage or vehicle was pressed into service by the inhabitants, all frantic to get away before their city was "desecrated" by the presence of the Yankees. By the time the military left, early on the morning of April 3, the town was on fire. The Confederate Congress had ordered all government tobacco and other public property to be burned. The rebel General Ewell, who was in charge of the city, asserts that he took the responsibility of disobeying, and that the fires were not started by his orders. Be that as it may, they broke out in various places, while a mob, crazed with excitement, and wild with the alcohol that had run freely in the gutters the night before, rushed from store to store, breaking in the doors, and indulging in all the wantonness of pillage and greed. Public spirit seemed paralyzed; no real effort was made to put out the flames, and as a final horror, the convicts from the penitentiary, overpowering their guards, appeared upon the streets, a maddened, shouting, leaping crowd, drunk with liberty.

It is quite possible that the very size and suddenness of the disaster served in a measure to lessen its evil effects; for the burning of seven hundred buildings, the entire business portion of Richmond, all in the brief space of a day, was a visitation so sudden, so stupefying and unexpected as to overawe and terrorize even evildoers. Before a new danger could arise help was at hand. Gen. Weitzel, to whom the city surrendered, took up his headquarters in the house lately occupied by Jefferson Davis, and promptly set about the work of relief; fighting the fire, issuing rations to the poor, and restoring order and authority. That a regiment of black soldiers assisted in this work of mercy must have seemed to the white inhabitants of Richmond the final drop in their cup of misery.

Into the rebel capital, thus stricken and laid waste, came President Lincoln on the morning of April 4. Never in the history of the world has the head of a mighty nation and the conqueror of a great rebellion entered the captured chief city of the insurgents in such humbleness and simplicity. He had gone two weeks before to City Point for a visit to General Grant, and to his son, Captain Robert Lincoln, who was serving on Grant's staff. Making his home on the steamer that brought him, and enjoying what was probably the most restful and satisfactory holiday in which he had been able to indulge during his whole presidential service, he had visited the various camps of the great Army, in company with the General, cheered everywhere by the loving greetings of the soldiers. He had met Sherman when that commander hurried up fresh from his victorious march from Atlanta; and after Grant had started on his final pursuit of Lee the President still lingered. It was at City Point that the news came to him of the fall of Richmond.

Between the receipt of this news and the following forenoon, before any information of the great fire had reached them, a visit to the rebel capital was arranged for the President and Rear Admiral Porter. Ample precautions for their safety were taken at the start. The President went in his own steamer, the River Queen, with her escort, the Bat, and a tug used at City Point in landing from the steamer. Admiral Porter went in his flagship; while a transport carried a small cavalry escort, as well as ambulances for the party. Barriers in the river soon made it impossible to proceed in this fashion, and one unforeseen accident after another rendered it necessary to leave behind the larger and even the smaller boats; until finally the party went on in the Admiral's barge rowed by twelve sailors, without escort of any kind. In this manner the President made his entry into Richmond, landing near Libby Prison. As the party stepped ashore they found a guide among the contrabands who quickly crowded the streets, for the possible coming of the President had already been noised through the city. Ten of the sailors armed with carbines were formed as a guard, six in front, and four in rear, and between them the President and Admiral Porter, with the three officers who accompanied them, walked the long distance, perhaps a mile and a half, to the centre of the town.

Imagination can easily fill in the picture of a gradually increasing crowd, principally of negroes, following the little group of marines and officers with the tall form of the President in its centre; and, when they learned that it was indeed "Massa Lincum," expressing their joy and gratitude in fervent blessings and in the deep emotional cries of the colored race. It is easy also to imagine the sharp anxiety of those who had the President's safety in their charge during this tiresome and even foolhardy march through a town still in flames, whose white inhabitants were sullenly resentful at best, and whose grief and anger might at any moment break out against the man they looked upon as the chief author of their misfortunes. No accident befell him. He reached General Weitzel's headquarters in safety, rested in the house Jefferson Davis had occupied while President of the Confederacy; and after a day of sightseeing returned to his steamer and to Washington, there to be stricken down by an assassin's bullet, literally "in the house of his friends."

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The Turning Point of the War The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The Fourteenth of April

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