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

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The Man who was President The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The Conqueror of a Great Rebellion

XI. The Turning Point of the Civil War

In the summer of 1863 the Confederate armies reached their greatest strength. It was then that, flushed with military ardor, and made bold by what seemed to the southern leaders an unbroken series of victories on the Virginia battlefields, General Lee again crossed the Potomac River, and led his Army into the North. He went as far as Gettysburg in Pennsylvania; but there, on the third of July, 1863, suffered a disastrous defeat, which shattered forever the Confederate dream of taking Philadelphia and dictating peace from Independence Hall. This battle of Gettysburg should have ended the war, for General Lee, on retreating southward, found the Potomac River so swollen by heavy rains that he was obliged to wait several days for the floods to go down. In that time it would have been quite possible for General Meade, the Union commander, to follow him and utterly destroy his Army . He proved too slow, however, and Lee and his beaten Confederate soldiers escaped. President Lincoln was inexpressibly grieved at this, and in the first bitterness of his disappointment sat down and wrote General Meade a letter. Lee "was within your easy grasp," he told him, "and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. . . . Your golden opportunity is gone and I am distressed immeasurably because of it." But Meade never received this letter. Deeply as the President felt Meade's fault, his spirit of forgiveness was so quick, and his thankfulness for the measure of success that had been gained, so great, that he put it in his desk, and it was never signed or sent.

The battle of Gettysburg was indeed a notable victory, and coupled with the fall of Vicksburg, which surrendered to General Grant on that same third of July, proved the real turning-point of the war. It seems singularly appropriate, then, that Gettysburg should have been the place where President Lincoln made his most beautiful and famous address. After the battle the dead and wounded of both the Union and Confederate armies had received tender attention there. Later it was decided to set aside a portion of the battlefield for a great national military cemetery in which the dead found orderly burial. It was dedicated to its sacred use on November 19, 1863. At the end of the stately ceremonies President Lincoln rose and said:

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

"But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate--we cannot consecrate- -we cannot hallow--this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

With these words, so brief, so simple, so full of reverent feeling, he set aside the place of strife to be the resting place of heroes, and then went back to his own great task--for which he, too, was to give "the last full measure of devotion."

Up to within a very short time little had been heard about Ulysses S. Grant, the man destined to become the most successful general of the war. Like General McClellan, he was a graduate of West Point; and also like McClellan, he had resigned from the Army after serving gallantly in the Mexican war. There the resemblance ceased, for he had not an atom of McClellan's vanity, and his persistent will to do the best he could with the means the government could give him was far removed from the younger general's faultfinding and complaint. He was about four years older than McClellan, having been born on April 27, 1822. On offering his services to the War Department in 1861 he had modestly written: "I feel myself competent to command a regiment if the President in his judgment should see fit to intrust one to me." For some reason this letter remained unanswered, although the Department, then and later, had need of trained and experienced officers. Afterward the Governor of Illinois made him a colonel of one of the three years' volunteer regiments; and from that time on he rose in rank, not as McClellan had done, by leaps and bounds, but slowly, earning every promotion. All of his service had been in the West, and he first came into general notice by his persistent and repeated efforts to capture Vicksburg, on whose fall the opening of the Mississippi River depended. Five different plans he tried before he finally succeeded, the last one appearing utterly foolhardy, and seeming to go against every known rule of military science. In spite of this it was successful, the Union Army and Navy thereby gaining control of the Mississippi River and cutting off forever from the Confederacy a great extent of rich country, from which, up to that time, it had been drawing men and supplies.

The North was greatly cheered by these victories, and all eyes were turned upon the successful commander. No one was more thankful than Mr. Lincoln. He gave Grant quick promotion, and crowned the official act with a most generous letter. "I do not remember that you and I ever met personally," he wrote. "I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further." Then, summing up the plans that the General had tried, especially the last one, he added: "I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong."

Other important battles won by Grant that same fall added to his growing fame, and by the beginning of 1864 he was singled out as the greatest Union commander. As a suitable reward for his victories it was determined to make him Lieutenant-General. This Army rank had, before the Civil War, been bestowed on only two American soldiers--on General Washington, and on Scott, for his conquest of Mexico. In 1864 Congress passed and the President signed an act to revive the grade, and Grant was called to Washington to receive his commission. He and Mr. Lincoln met for the first time at a large public reception held at the Executive Mansion on the evening of March 8. A movement and rumor in the crowd heralded his approach, and when at last the short, stocky, determined soldier and the tall, care-worn, deep-eyed President stood face to face the crowd, moved by a sudden impulse of delicacy, drew back, and left them almost alone to exchange a few words. Later, when Grant appeared in the great East Room, the enthusiasm called forth by his presence could no longer be restrained, and cheer after cheer went up, while his admirers pressed about him so closely that, hot and blushing with embarrassment, he was forced at last to mount a sofa, and from there shake hands with the eager people who thronged up to him from all sides.

The next day at one o'clock the President, in the presence of the cabinet and a few other officials, made a little speech, and gave him his commission. Grant replied with a few words, as modest as they were brief, and in conversation afterward asked what special duty was required of him. The President answered that the people wanted him to take Richmond, and asked if he could do it. Grant said that he could if he had the soldiers, and the President promised that these would be furnished him. Grant did not stay in Washington to enjoy the new honors of his high rank, but at once set about preparations for his task. It proved a hard one. More than a year passed before it was ended, and all the losses in battle of the three years that had gone before seemed small in comparison with the terrible numbers of killed and wounded that fell during these last months of the war. At first Grant had a fear that the President might wish to control his plans, but this was soon quieted; and his last lingering doubt on the subject vanished when, as he was about to start on his final campaign, Mr. Lincoln sent him a letter stating his satisfaction with all he had done, and assuring him that in the coming campaign he neither knew, for desired to know, the details of his plans. In his reply Grant confessed the groundlessness of his fears, and added, "Should my success be less than I desire and expect, the least I can say is, the fault is not with you."

He made no complicated plan for the problem before him, but proposed to solve it by plain, hard, persistent fighting. "Lee's Army will be your objective point," he instructed General Meade. "Where Lee goes there you will go also." Nearly three years earlier the opposing armies had fought their first battle of Bull Run only a short distance north of where they now confronted each other. Campaign and battle between them had swayed to the north and the south, but neither could claim any great gain of ground or of advantage. The final struggle was before them. Grant had two to one in numbers; Lee the advantage in position, for he knew by heart every road, hill and forest in Virginia, had for his friendly scout every white inhabitant, and could retire into prepared fortifications. Perhaps the greatest element of his strength lay in the conscious pride of his Army that for three years it had steadily barred the way to Richmond. To offset this there now menaced it what had always been absent before--the grim, unflinching will of the new Union commander, who had rightly won for himself the name of "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.

On the night of May 4, 1864, his Army entered upon the campaign which, after many months, was to end the war. It divided itself into two parts. For the first six weeks there was almost constant swift marching and hard fighting, a nearly equally matched contest of strategy and battle between the two armies, the difference being that Grant was always advancing, and Lee always retiring. Grant had hoped to defeat Lee outside of his fortifications, and early in the campaign had expressed his resolution "to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer"; but the losses were so appalling, 60,000 of his best troops melting away in killed and wounded during the six weeks, that this was seen to be impossible. Lee's Army was therefore driven into its fortifications around the Confederate capital and then came the siege of Richmond, lasting more than nine months, but pushed forward all that time with relentless energy, in spite of Grant's heavy losses.

In the West, meanwhile, General William T. Sherman, Grant's closest friend and brother officer, pursued a task of almost equal importance, taking Atlanta, Georgia, which the Confederates had turned into a city of foundries and workshops for the manufacture and repair of guns; then, starting from Atlanta, marching with his best troops three hundred miles to the sea, laying the country waste as they went; after which, turning northward, he led them through South and North Carolina to bring his Army in touch with Grant.

Against this background of fighting the life of the country went on. The end of the war was approaching, surely, but so slowly that the people, hoping for it, and watching day by day, could scarcely see it. They schooled themselves to a dogged endurance, but there was no more enthusiasm. Many lost courage. Volunteering almost ceased, and the government was obliged to begin drafting men to make up the numbers of soldiers needed by Grant in his campaign against Richmond.

The President had many things to dishearten him at this time, many troublesome questions to settle. For instance, there were new loyal State governments to provide in those parts of the South which had again come under control of the Union armies--no easy matter, where every man, woman and child harbored angry feelings against the North, and no matter how just and forbearing he might be, his plans were sure to be thwarted and bitterly opposed at every step.

There were serious questions, too, to be decided about negro soldiers, for the South had raised a mighty outcry against the Emancipation Proclamation, especially against the use of the freed slaves as soldiers, vowing that white officers of negro troops would be shown small mercy, if ever they were taken prisoners. No act of such vengeance occurred, but in 1864 a fort manned by colored soldiers was captured by the Confederates, and almost the entire garrison was put to death. Must the order that the War Department had issued some time earlier, to offset the Confederate threats, now be put in force? The order said that for every negro prisoner killed by the Confederates a Confederate prisoner in the hands of the Union armies would be taken out and shot. It fell upon Mr. Lincoln to decide. The idea seemed unbearable to him, yet, on the other hand, could he afford to let the massacre go unavenged and thus encourage the South in the belief that it could commit such barbarous acts and escape unharmed? Two reasons finally decided him against putting the order in force. One was that General Grant was about to start on his campaign against Richmond, and that it would be most unwise to begin this by the tragic spectacle of a military punishment, however merited. The other was his tender-hearted humanity. He could not, he said, take men out and kill them in cold blood for crimes committed by other men. If he could get hold of the persons who were guilty of killing the colored prisoners in cold blood, the case would be different; but he could not kill the innocent for the guilty. Fortunately the offense was not repeated, and no one had cause to criticize his clemency.

Numbers of good and influential men, dismayed at the amount of blood and treasure that the war had already cost, and disheartened by the calls for still more soldiers that Grant's campaign made necessary, began to clamor for peace--were ready to grant almost anything that the Confederates chose to ask. Rebel agents were in Canada professing to be able to conclude a peace. Mr. Lincoln, wishing to convince these northern "Peace men" of the groundlessness of their claim, and of the injustice of their charges that the government was continuing the war unnecessarily, sent Horace Greeley, the foremost among them, to Canada, to talk with the selfstyled ambassadors of Jefferson Davis. Nothing came of it, of course, except abuse of Mr. Lincoln for sending such a messenger, and a lively quarrel between Greeley and the rebel agents as to who was responsible for the misunderstandings that arose.

The summer and autumn of 1864 were likewise filled with the bitterness and high excitement of a presidential campaign; for, according to law, Mr. Lincoln's successor had to be elected on the "Tuesday after the first Monday" of November in that year. The great mass of Republicans wished Mr. Lincoln to be reelected. The Democrats had long ago fixed upon General McClellan, with his grievances against the President, as their future candidate. It is not unusual for Presidents to discover would-be rivals in their own cabinets. Considering the strong men who formed Mr. Lincoln's cabinet, and the fact that four years earlier more than one of them had active hopes of being chosen in his stead, it is remarkable that there was so little of this.

The one who developed the most serious desire to succeed him was Salmon P. Chase, his Secretary of the Treasury. Devoted with all his powers to the cause of the Union, Mr. Chase was yet strangely at fault in his judgment of men. He regarded himself as the friend of Mr. Lincoln, but nevertheless held so poor an opinion of the President's mind and character, compared with his own, that he could not believe people blind enough to prefer the President to himself. He imagined that he did not want the office, and was anxious only for the public good; yet he listened eagerly to the critics of the President who flattered his hopes, and found time in spite of his great labors to write letters to all parts of the country, which, although protesting that he did not want the honor, showed his entire willingness to accept it. Mr. Lincoln was well aware of this. Indeed, it was impossible not to know about it, though he refused to hear the matter discussed or to read any letters concerning it. He had his own opinion of the taste displayed by Mr. Chase, but chose to take no notice of his actions. "I have determined," he said, "to shut my eyes, so far as possible, to everything of the sort. Mr. Chase makes a good Secretary, and I shall keep him where he is. If he becomes President, all right. I hope we may never have a worse man, and he not only kept him where he was, but went on appointing Chase's friends to office.

There was also some talk of making General Grant the Republican candidate for President, and an attempt was even made to trap Mr. Lincoln into taking part in a meeting where this was to be done. Mr. Lincoln refused to attend, and instead wrote a letter of such hearty and generous approval of Grant and his Army that the meeting naturally fell into the hands of Mr. Lincoln's friends. General Grant, never at that time or any other, gave the least encouragement to the efforts which were made to array him against the President. Mr. Lincoln, on his part, received all warnings to beware of Grant in the most serene manner, saying tranquilly, "If he takes Richmond, let him have it." It was not so with General Fremont. At a poorly attended meeting held in Cleveland he was actually nominated by a handful of people calling themselves the "Radical Democracy," and taking the matter seriously, accepted, although, three months later, having found no response from the public, he withdrew from the contest.

After all, these various attempts to discredit the name of Abraham Lincoln caused hardly a ripple on the great current of public opinion, and death alone could have prevented his choice by the Republican national convention. He took no measures to help on his own candidacy. With strangers he would not talk about the probability of his reelection; but with friends he made no secret of his readiness to continue the work he was engaged in if such should be the general wish. "A second term would be a great honor and a great labor; which together, perhaps, I would not decline," he wrote to one of them. He discouraged officeholders, either civil or military, who showed any special zeal in his behalf. To General Schurz, who wrote asking permission to take an active part in the campaign for his reelection, he answered: "I perceive no objection to your making a political speech when you are where one is to be made; but quite surely, speaking in the North and fighting in the South at the same time are not possible, nor could I be justified to detail any officer to the political campaign . . . and then return him to the Army ."

He himself made no long speeches during the summer, and in his short addresses, at Sanitary Fairs, in answer to visiting delegations, and on similar occasions where custom and courtesy obliged him to say a few words, he kept his quiet ease and self-command, speaking heartily and to the point, yet avoiding all the pitfalls that beset the candidate who talks.

When the Republican national convention came together in Baltimore on June 7, 1864, it had very little to do, for its delegates were bound by rigid instructions to vote for Abraham Lincoln.

He was chosen on the first ballot, every State voting for him except Missouri, whose representatives had been instructed to vote for Grant. Missouri at once changed its vote, and the secretary of the convention read the grand total of 506 for Lincoln, his announcement being greeted by a storm of cheers that lasted several minutes.

It was not so easy to choose a Vice-President. Mr. Lincoln had been besieged by many people to make known his wishes in the matter, but had persistently refused. He rightly felt that it would be presumptuous in him to dictate who should be his companion on the ticket, and, in case of his death, his successor in office. This was for the delegates to the convention to decide, for they represented the voters of the country. He had no more right to dictate who should be selected than the Emperor of China would have had. It is probable that Vice-President Hamlin would have been renominated, if it had not been for the general feeling both in and out of the convention that, under all the circumstances, it would be wiser to select some man who had been a Democrat, and had yet upheld the war. The choice fell upon Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who was not only a Democrat, but had been appointed by Mr. Lincoln military governor of Tennessee in 1862.

The Democrats at first meant to have the national convention of their party meet on the fourth of July; but after Fremont had been nominated at Cleveland and Lincoln at Baltimore, they postponed it to a later date, hoping that something in the chapter of accidents might happen to their advantage. At first it appeared as if this might be the case. The outlook for the Republicans was far from satisfactory. The terrible fighting and great losses of Grant's Army in Virginia had profoundly shocked and depressed the country. The campaign of General Sherman, who was then in Georgia, showed as yet no promise of the brilliant results it afterward attained. General Early's sudden raid into Maryland, when he appeared so unexpectedly before Washington and threatened the city, had been the cause of much exasperation; and Mr. Chase, made bitter by his failure to receive the coveted nomination for President, had resigned from the cabinet. This seemed, to certain leading Republicans, to point to a breaking up of the government. The "Peace" men were clamoring loudly for an end of the war; and the Democrats, not having yet formally chosen a candidate, were free to devote all their leisure to attacks upon the administration.

Mr. Lincoln realized fully the tremendous issues at stake. He looked worn and weary. To a friend who urged him to go away for a fortnight's rest, he replied, "I cannot fly from my thoughts. My solicitude for this great country follows me wherever I go. I do not think it is personal vanity or ambition, though I am not free from these infirmities, but I cannot but feel that the weal or woe of this great nation will be decided in November. There is no program offered by any wing of the Democratic party but that must result in the permanent destruction of the Union."

The political situation grew still darker. Toward the end of August the general gloom enveloped even the President himself. Then what he did was most original and characteristic. Feeling that the campaign was going against him, he made up his mind deliberately the course he ought to pursue, and laid down for himself the action demanded by his strong sense of duty. He wrote on August 23 the following memorandum: "This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be reelected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration, as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward."

He folded and pasted the sheet of paper in such a way that its contents could not be seen, and as the cabinet came together handed it to each member successively, asking him to write his name across the back of it. In this peculiar fashion he pledged himself and his administration to accept loyally the verdict of the people if it should be against them, and to do their utmost to save the Union in the brief remainder of his term of office. He gave no hint to any member of his cabinet of the nature of the paper thus signed until after his reelection.

The Democratic convention finally came together in Chicago on August 29. It declared the war a failure, and that efforts ought to be made at once to bring it to a close, and nominated General McClellan for President McClellan's only chance of success lay in his war record. His position as a candidate on a platform of dishonorable peace would have been no less desperate than ridiculous. In his letter accepting the nomination, therefore, he calmly ignored the platform, and renewed his assurances of devotion to the Union, the Constitution, and the flag of his country. But the stars in their courses fought against him. Even before the Democratic convention met, the tide of battle had turned. The darkest hour of the war had passed, and dawn was at hand, and amid the thanksgivings of a grateful people, and the joyful salute of great guns, the real presidential campaign began. The country awoke to the true meaning of the Democratic platform; General Sherman's successes in the South excited the enthusiasm of the people; and when at last the Unionists, rousing from their midsummer languor, began to show their faith in the Republican candidate, the hopelessness of all efforts to undermine him became evident.

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The Man who was President The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The Conqueror of a Great Rebellion

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The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln


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Lincoln and the War

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