This is first in a series entitled “The Greatest Presidents in American History”
Perhaps no other president in US history matured more during his presidency than did Abraham Lincoln. Certainly no President suffered more hardships not related to his own poor choices. Lincoln did in fact guide the Union through the Civil War, changed the cause of the war from saving the nation to abolishing slavery, and create a new national conscience that remains intact today.
Lincoln entered office in March 1861 just one month after the Confederate States of America had been officially created.
In his inaugural speech Lincoln addressed three key issues;
1. He didn’t intend to interfere with slavery
2. He believed dissolution of the Union was impossible
3. He underscored the fact that he didn’t intend to ignite civil war
A month later the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and the Civil War began.
Following a string of Union defeats and a succession of Union Generals, Lincoln educated himself on the strategies and tactics of war. It seemed he grasped the situation before most of his generals.
In the midst of managing the war and refereeing his rival cabinet members, Lincoln suffered perhaps his greatest loss, the death of his 11 year old son William (Willie) Wallace Lincoln in February 1862. It was the second child the Lincoln’s had lost, the first had died in 1850.
Willie’s death plunged his mother, Mary Lincoln, into insane grief. She never really recovered and spent much of the remainder of her term as first lady consulting spiritualists and spending money.
Meanwhile, President Lincoln battled to keep his wits despite his intense grief and his own chronic depression. Of Willie, Lincoln was reported as saying “It is hard, hard to have him die.” Willie had been the happy child, the child that brought sunshine into every room he entered.
In September 1862 Lincoln issue the first part of what is known as the Emancipation Proclamation. Part one declared permanent freedom to all slaves in Confederate States that didn’t rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863. Part Two was issued on January 1 and conferred freedom on all slaves in ten Confederate States. Freedom was not granted to Union Border States of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware.
One major impact of the Proclamation was that it all at once brought foreign sympathies over to the Union. No European nation would then side itself with the Confederacy. It was doomed.
On July 1, 1863 the Battle of Gettysburg began and then raged until the end of the day on July 3. The battle caused more casualties than any other of the war. It turned the tide in the Union’s favor but with General Meade’s failure to pursue General Lee across the Potomac, the chance to destroy Lee’s army and end the war was gone. The war would go on for almost two more years.
On Thursday November 19, 1863 Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, probably the most well-known speech in American history. Prior to Lincoln’s address, well known orator Edward Everett spoke for two hours. Then, to a crowd of more than 10,000 people-all standing in silence- Lincoln, in a voice that’s was said everyone could hear-spoke…
Four score 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 battle-field 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.
There were mixed reactions to the speech but whether everyone at the time knew it or not, it injected a new spirit and meaning into the war. For the first time, people really understood why the Union was fighting.
On March 4, 1865, having been re-elected, Lincoln delivered his second inaugural speech. It was another masterpiece of capturing how far Lincoln had come in understanding and wisdom, especially the final sentences…
If God wills that it [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’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.
Barely a month later war officially ended on April 9, 1865. Some 620,000 soldiers had died, probably three or four times that many wounded, and no one knows how many civilians were killed.
On Good Friday April 14 Lincoln woke after having the best night sleep he could remember in a long time. The only disturbing thing had been the recurring dream; he had again that night. In the dream he stood on a ghostly ship that was moving through the darkness toward some nebulous far off shore.
The Lincolns took a carriage ride that day and talked about the good days that lay ahead. They’d suffered enough; it was time to move. He talked about how they’d travel after he left office; to Europe, to California, and then back to Illinois.
That night, in a heavy fog, the Lincolns rode to Ford’s Theater to watch a performance of the comedy play “Our American Cousin.” Sometime about half-way through the play, John Wilkes Booth entered the Lincoln’s box and fired a single shot into Abraham Lincoln’s head.
Lincoln was carried across the street to a boarding house and placed onto a bed. All during the night the mortally wounded president lay while close friends gathered in the room. It was reported that his wife Mary screamed out “Kill me, shoot me too.” Mary never mentally nor emotionally recovered.
Around 7:22 he breathed his last. Abraham Lincoln died on April 15, 1865. One eyewitness said, “The man who had ever kept so much of the child about him, died as sweetly and peacefully as an infant.”
Lincoln’s Secretary of War was reported as saying “Now he belongs to the ages.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Team of Rivals-The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
Joshua Wolf Shenk: Lincoln’s Melancholy-How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness
Ken Burns: The Civil War(PBS Series)
David Grubin: Abraham and Mary Lincoln-A House Divided (PBS Series)
Stephen B. Oates: With Malice Toward None-A Life of Abraham Lincoln
New York Times: April 15, 1865