Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

               Abraham Lincoln November 1863

            The figure of Abraham Lincoln looms large in the mind’s eye of most Americans today.  There is debatably no figure in the history of the United States that more works have been written about than this important president.  Much of this work praises him, perhaps too much.  Some of this work vilifies him and makes outrageous claims attempting to discredit the great work that he accomplished for this country.  The unifying factor behind all these works is that Abraham Lincoln was one of the most important and influential men in defining the United States, as we know it today.

One of the things that made Lincoln so successful as president and so prominent in history afterward was his feel for public opinion.  The Civil War was an unpopular war in the North.  The North was politically divided between the Republican and Democratic parties, which often held very different views on the war.  At the beginning of the war, the stated purpose was the preservation of the Union. This goal was especially important to Lincoln, who viewed the American experiment, and the American principles of freedom and democracy as, “The last best hope on earth.”  In his annual Message to Congress on December 1, 1862, just one month before the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln argues that the purpose of the emancipation of the slaves was specifically for the preservation of the Union.

There is considerable controversy over Lincoln’s stance on slavery.  While it is clear that in the end, he supported abolition of slaveryEmancipation Proclamation and worked to get the Thirteenth Amendment ratified, many say that such actions were political expedients and that Lincoln’s slowness in beginning these measures are sure signs of his ambivalence towards the issue.  If you investigate closely however, the conclusion you are most likely to come to is not that he was ambivalent, but that he was in fact greatly opposed to slavery.  What you will find instead of ambivalence is the wiles of a skillful politician.  What seems to us, 150 years later, to be caution and reluctance to address the issue of slavery, was really an acute awareness of the status of public opinion.  Lincoln said was opposed to slavery, and fought against the expansion of slavery, but he understood that slavery was constitutionally protected.  He expressed this view to some prominent abolitionists.

            “I did not consider that I had the right to touch the “State” institution of “Slavery” until all other measures for restoring the Union had failed … The moment came when I thought that slavery must die, that the nation might live! … Many of my strongest supporters urged Emancipation before I thought it indispensable and, I may say, before I thought the country ready for it.  It is my conviction that had the proclamation been issued six months earlier than it was, public sentiment would not have sustained it.”

Historical study vindicates Lincoln’s view as Democratic gains in the Congressional elections of 1862 exhibited voter dissatisfaction with the preliminary emancipation proclamation. The preservation of the Union was the foremost in Lincoln’s mind, but emancipation was clearly a goal that was to be worked towards as well.  The time was simply not yet ripe.

Lincoln had to keep fragile Northern morale from breaking under the strain of the conflict.  In order to achieve this, Lincoln had to avoid upsetting the public by premature actions in areas that were not broadly supported, and also had to produce successful results that would energize those flagging and unenthusiastic portions of the Northern coalition.  It was because of this necessity that we see the early stages of the war carried out in such a hectic and confused way, particularly in the Eastern theaters.  As has been mentioned, Lincoln was extremely attuned to the needs of the people and what was necessary in order to garner their support.  What he lacked was a complete grasp of the military necessities.  Lincoln was not a military man.  He had no prior experience with military operations or strategy, and this affected his decisions as Commander in Chief.  Many have argued, and rightly so, that Lincoln was not ideal for the military post he inherited with the presidency.

Lincoln was interested with what the people needed.  They needed a quick victory.  Fragile moral needs success and decisive victory.  It cannot sustain a protracted war.  This is what Lincoln pressed his commanders for.  He saw the social and political necessities.  Conversely, at the start of the Civil War, the military was in no condition to mount the kind of decisive campaigns that the President wanted.  A large percentage of the senior officer corps had defected to the Confederacy, and the logistical preparations necessary for the desired operations were simply non-existent.  Much of the early blundering and defeat met by Northern commanders in the early part of the war, particularly in the East was the result of hurried or rushed operations to which sufficient preparation time was not allowed.  Poor generalship also had a significant effect, but if operations had been allowed to mature, this deficiency might have been lessened somewhat.

These defeats are examples of Lincoln’s strengths and weaknesses.  He had an acute sense of timing and understood how to gauge public opinion, making decisions accordingly.  He attempted to strengthen moral with quick decisive strokes early on in the war.  They were met with disaster.  As the war progressed and the tactical initiative slowly shifted towards the North, he was gradually able to achieve some success.  One of his most significant successes was the accurate judgment of when the public was prepared to accept the Emancipation Proclamation.  His successes showcase his intuition and his national awareness.  The military defeats in the beginning of the war, mark examples of the sacrifice of military prudence to the needs of the masses.

In conclusion, Abraham Lincoln was an extraordinary figure.  While he does not represent the finest Commander in Chief the nation has known, he cannot be marred by excessive criticism.  His political victories expose an agile statesman, if not an agile tactician.  What is undeniable is that this man forever changed the nation; and people will forever remember him as the man who preserved the Union.

Wyatt Fairlead

The Civil War

Before I take a bunch of flack from Civil War buffs, I realize that to try to explain the causes of the Civil War in 1200 words is completely absurd.  This is an essay that I had to do for my college course, and  was forced, and I repeat Forced, to write under the limitations of four pages double spaced.  For anyone who has tried to do it, you will agree that those four pages fill up very fast, and I used every last line for this essay.  I therefore beg you to read this essay with a little forgiveness.  Secondly, my goal with this essay is not to state an opinion on the war.  The goal of this essay is to be factual and nothing else.  Caveat over.  I am proceeding with the post.

The Civil War

By Don TroianiOne of my favorite Civil War paintings.

By Don Troiani
One of my favorite Civil War paintings.

The Civil War represents a conundrum in the history of this nation.  It is a subject that divides and creates controversy in and amongst the citizenry of America to this day.  In terms of net affect on the nation’s development and current makeup, the Civil war is unparalleled, with the possible exception of the Revolutionary War.  The plantation system and “king cotton” collapsed directly because of this prodigious struggle.  The Civil War nearly succeeded in permanently dividing an entire nation and in many cases did permanently divide families, the very fabric of the nation.  After all that bloodshed and violence, all that suffering and separation, there is argument over what was the root cause.

It is important to understand that purpose of the war and the cause of the war can be two totally different things.  Many consider the Civil War to be a war about slavery; others consider it to be a war about states rights.  Still others contend that the real purpose for the war was the preservation of the Union.  The general consensus is that the Civil War was inevitable, a ticking bomb armed at the ratification of the Constitution, and finally out of time in April 1861.

Those who say that the war was about slavery would in part be correct.  From a Northern perspective, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the war became about slavery.  Many of the Southern states succeeded from the Union in direct response to the election of Abraham Lincoln.  His extreme unpopularity in the South came from his Republican views primarily having to do with trade and his personal conviction against slavery, from which he drew significant public support.  In this sense also, slavery had a great deal to do with the war.  Lincoln’s association with the abolitionist agenda, in the Southern mind, if not in reality, and his subsequent election, triggered the beginning of the snowballing secessionist movement.

Of course, there are those who argue that the Civil War was actually about states’ rights and that slavery was only one of many issues in which the Federal Government was overstepping its bounds.  Those who hold this position are also correct in their perception of what the war was about.  The whole purpose of the war to the Southerner was to protect their rights, and state autonomy, from the Federal Government.  Whether rightly or wrongly, the only way they saw to protect those rights was to secede and start afresh.  Jefferson Davis is even reputed to have said during the war, “We are not revolutionists… We are not engaged in a Quixotic fight for the rights of man; our struggle is for inherited rights… We are upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution.  We are conservative.” Southerners went to war to protect what they considered to be their rights.  Consequently, states’ rights were also a clear purpose of the Civil War.

Perhaps those who hold the position that the overarching purpose of the Civil war was for the preservation of the Union are the most correct.  This is not because either side fought primarily for this reason, but because a decision on this point was a necessity for the political objective of either side to be achieved.  In the South, rights could only be protected by remaining separate from the Union.  In the North, the preservation of the Union was at times a stated purpose of the war, especially in Lincoln’s mind.  But even excluding this; in order for the entirely political objective of freeing the slaves to be achieved, the South had to be kept from separating.  If the North had let the South go, there would have been no war.  Therefore, it is reasonable to say that the overarching purpose of the war was to decide if the Union was to be preserved or divided.

In light of this, many consider the issue of states’ rights to be the preeminent issue, perhaps even reaching the new level of being the root cause of the Civil War.  It is difficult to think that the issue of states’ rights alone was the fundamental root of the war, however.  While the issue of states’ rights certainly goes deeper than the issue of slavery specifically, it is interesting that only the Southern states considered states’ rights as being infringed.  The Federal Government was not enacting laws that were only infringing on some states’ rights.  What was it then, that was causing the South to feel its sovereignty was endangered, that did not trouble the North?  In the South, the cause of the war was states’ rights.  They believed that the Federal government was infringing on those rights.  The government, however, was infringing on the Southern states’ rights no more than it was infringing on the Northern states’ rights; and it was infringing on their rights, if in fact it was infringement, at the Northern states behest.

The conclusion that is becoming more and more prevalent is that the dichotomy between the North and South was not purely ideological but also very practical.  The North was an entirely different place from the South.  The North was industrialized and modern.  Its commercial needs required a strong central government.  The South was agrarian.  It supported traditionally decentralized government to promote its trade overseas and its autonomy.  The North and the South were two essentially opposite social systems, and because of this it was impossible to put in place laws, which would help one of them, and not somehow be unfavorable to the other.

The question of whether or not the Civil War was inevitable or not is not a simple yes or no answer.  In one sense, the Civil War was not inevitable.  Theoretically, all it would have taken to prevent the war was for either side to have changed their societal structure to match the other.  This is almost ludicrous to say, because it is nearly impossible to change the structure of society in a short period of time.  The social systems of a region are something that grow and develop, and to try to change it inorganically is dangerous at best.  The fact remains, however, that the war was not inevitable, in the strictest sense.

On the other hand, it is an entirely true statement to say that the Civil War was inevitable if the status quo remained the same. The same government cannot effectively govern two entirely different social structures, with completely opposite and diverse needs.  Some unifying factors are necessary.  In a governmental setting, diversity is manageable; dichotomy is impossible.  I believe this is what the attack on Fort Sumter meant.  Up until that time the public had been living in two categories.  The one, still believed that things could be concluded peacefully, the other, had already made the decision that irreconcilable differences divided the two regions and that either the South would slip away, or there would be conflict.  The attack on Fort Sumter was the official signal that the game was up.  It was time to choose sides.  As for me, I do not know what my decision would be, but I know that when news of the attack came, the world would have never looked the same again.

Wyatt Fairlead