Abraham Lincoln — Facts, Information and History on the Life of the 16th U.S. President
Facts, information and articles about the life of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President Of the United States
Abraham Lincoln Facts
February 12, 1809, Hodgenville, Kentucky
April 15, 1865, Petersen House, Washington, D.C.
March 4, 1861 – April 15, 1865
Served Four Terms in Illinois Legislature
Member of U.S. House of Representatives
16th President of the United States
Commander in Chief During Civil War
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Abraham Lincoln Summary
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States of America, who successfully prosecuted the Civil War to preserve the nation. He played in key role in passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which officially ended slavery in America. Murdered by John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln became the first U.S. president to be assassinated. Prior to his election as president in 1860, he had successful careers as a lawyer and politician in Illinois, serving several terms in the state legislature and one in the U.S. House of Representatives. He also holds the distinction of being the only U.S. president to receive a patent; in 1849, he designed a system for lifting riverboats off sandbars.
Abraham Lincoln’s Life: Youth
Abraham Lincoln was born on Sinking Springs Farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky, on February 12, 1809, to Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln. He was named for his paternal grandfather. His birthplace is believed to have been a 16-foot by 18-foot log cabin, which no longer exists. Lincoln had a sister, Sarah, who was two years and two days older than he was, and a younger brother, Thomas, who died in infancy.
When Abraham was two, the family moved to nearby Knob Creek Farm. Five years later, the family moved again, to the wilderness on Little Pigeon Creek in Indiana. On October 5, 1818, his mother died, reportedly of “milk sickness,” caused by drinking milk from cows that have eaten a poisonous, blossoming plant called snakeroot. Thomas Lincoln remarried a year later, to Sarah Bush Johnston, a woman of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, whom he had known for many years. She had three children by a previous marriage, Elizabeth, Matilda, and John. Although Abraham and his father were never close, Sarah and nine-year-old Abraham formed a loving relationship that continued throughout their lives. She encouraged him in his attempts to educate himself, which he did by borrowing and studying books.
Lincoln Moves To Illinois
In 1830, when Abraham was 21, the family moved to Illinois. He performed odd jobs and took a flatboat of goods to New Orleans. At New Salem, he was a partner in a store at that failed and would be many years paying off the last of the store’s creditors, an obligation he referred to as “the National Debt.” Elected captain of a militia unit during the 1832 Black Hawk War—an election he later would say pleased him more than any other—he saw no combat, but he met the man who would change his life in many ways: John Todd Stuart.
Lincoln Becomes A Lawyer
Stuart and Lincoln both ran for the Illinois General Assembly that year; Stuart won, Lincoln didn’t. Two years later, however, both men won election. The more experienced Stuart, known as “Jerry Sly” for his skills at management and intrigue, showed Lincoln the ropes and loaned him law books, that he might study to become an attorney. In 1836, Lincoln received a license to practice law. He would go on to establish a respectable record as an attorney and was often hired by the Illinois Central Railroad.
Lincoln won reelection to the General Assembly in 1836, 1838, and 1840; among his accomplishments was a major role in getting the state capital moved to Springfield. He did not actively seek the post again after 1840, but won the popular vote in 1854; however, he resigned so he would be eligible for election to the U.S. Senate.
Lincoln Goes To Congress
In 1846, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he gave the infamous “Spot” speech about the war that had begun with Mexico. He demanded President James K. Polk reveal the exact spot on which American blood had been shed, starting the war, and whether that spot was on American or Mexican soil.
The speech may have been a reflection of words his “beau ideal” statesman, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, had uttered in a speech Lincoln heard while visiting Lexington, Kentucky, on the way to Washington. Or it may have been a partisan maneuver—Lincoln was a Whig, Polk a Democrat—to ingratiate himself with the older Whigs in Washington. Popular opinion in most of the country supported the war, and newspapers around the country ridiculed him as “Spotty Lincoln.” He did not run for reelection to Congress in 1848, but for the first time in its history, his home district elected a Democrat instead of a Whig. He spent the next several years focusing on his law practice to support his growing family.
In the Illinois legislature, he’d served with Ninian Wirt Edwards of Springfield, the son of a former governor of Illinois. Edwards’ wife was the former Elizabeth Todd of Lexington, Kentucky. When her younger sister, Mary, came from Lexington Lincoln became smitten; as Ninian observed, “Mary could make a bishop forget his prayers.” Although facts are unclear, an understanding apparently developed between Lincoln and Mary, but they parted ways in December of 1840 or January of 1841. Over a year later, a friend brought them back together, and they wed November 4, 1842.
There have long been stories—begun by Lincoln’s long-time law partner, William Herndon—that Lincoln had previously been engaged to Ann Rutledge in New Salem and had nearly lost his mind when she died. However, she was betrothed to another and there is no verifiable evidence of any romantic relationship or understanding between her and Lincoln. Neighbors’ stories indicate Lincoln did take her death hard. He was always prone to fits of “melancholia”—depression—and one state legislator claimed Lincoln told him he wouldn’t carry a pocket knife for fear he’d use it to harm himself.
Family Life With Mary Todd Lincoln
Abraham and Mary Lincoln would produce four children: Robert Todd, named for Mary’s father; Edward (Eddie) Baker, named for a close friend; William (Willie) Wallace, named for Dr. William Wallace, who had married Francis, another Todd sister, and had become close friends with Lincoln; and Thomas (Tad), named for Lincoln’s father who had died two years earlier. Eddie died in 1850, Willie in 1862, and Tad in 1871. Only Robert lived to adulthood; the last of his descendants would die in 1985, ending the Abraham Lincoln family line. (Learn more about Mary Todd Lincoln)
Although Lincoln did not seek office himself during these years, he remained active in the Whig Party, counseling candidates who sought his advice and occasionally responding to speaking requests. In 1854, he essentially was campaign manager for Richard Yates, who was running for the General Assembly. Lincoln did not want to be elected to that body again himself because he knew the legislature would be electing a new U.S. Senator during its coming term, to fill the position of James Shields, who had moved to the Minnesota Territory. (At that time, nearly 60 years before the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provided for direct election of senators by the voters, they were chosen by each state’s legislature.) By Illinois law, sitting state legislators could not be elected to the U.S. Congress—and Lincoln desperately wanted to become the new senator, a position he said he would prefer over being president. Regardless, eventually he reluctantly agreed to run . He won more votes than any other candidate but resigned in order to keep his senatorial chances open.
His hopes were dashed again when the vote for senator was taken in 1857. Despite a strong start, he saw that a Democrat would be elected unless the Whigs united, so he threw his supporters’ votes to another candidate.
Since the early 1830s, abolitionists—those who adamantly favored abolishing slavery everywhere in the United States—had become increasingly strident. Even many people like Lincoln who did not approve of slavery also did not approve of the sectional divisiveness engendered by the abolitionists. Slaveholding states—virtually all of which were in the South—in responding to abolitionists’ attacks defended the “peculiar institution” of slavery more vociferously, and sectional tensions grew.
A Nation Dividing
In 1854, a passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed residents of any new states admitted to the Union to decide for themselves whether or not the state would be free or slaveholding. In the 1857 Dred Scott decision the Supreme Court ruled that neither the Declaration of Independence nor the rights guaranteed by the Constitution applied to Negroes and never had. As a result of these events, many who had disassociated themselves with abolitionists’ agitation began drifting into their camp, and the abolitionists movement intensified.
Like his father, Lincoln opposed slavery; however, he also deplored abolitionists’ activities because they threatened to cause a schism in the nation. In regard to “slavery agitation” he said, “In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand'”
Notes for a speech he delivered in Ohio clearly articulate his opinions on the slavery issue in the 1850s:
“We must not disturb slavery in the states where it exists, because the Constitution, and the peace of the country both forbid us – We must not withhold an efficient fugitive slave law, for the constitution demands it – But we must, by a national policy, prevent the spread of slavery into new territories, or free states, because the constitution does not forbid us, and the general welfare does demand such prevention.” (Abraham Lincoln, (September 16–17, 1859), Notes for Speech in Kansas and Ohio)
The Whig Party to which he had always been dedicated was dying. By 1854, a new party, the Republicans, was taking its place. Comprised of old Whigs, disaffected Democrats and members of the Native American Party (“Know-Nothings”), its unifying theme was opposition to the institution of slavery. In 1856, Lincoln joined the new party.
The Lincoln Douglas Debates
In 1858, he engaged in a legendary series of debates across Illinois with the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Sen. Stephen Douglas. The five-foot, four-inch Douglas—”the Little Giant”—and the lanky, six-foot-four Lincoln faced off over the issue of expanding slavery beyond the states where it currently existed. Lincoln carefully made a distinction between slavery where it existed and its expansion into new territories and states. The debates grew national attention, and Lincoln was invited to speak in other states. (Read more about the Lincoln Douglas Debates)
The national attention he received resulted in the Republican Party making him its presidential candidate in the 1860 election. On the divisive matter of slavery, the Republican platform supported prohibiting slavery in the territories but opposed interfering with it in the states where it already existed.
The Democratic Party split, producing two candidates, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. An independent Constitutional Union Party ran John Bell of Tennessee as its candidate. Two other independent parties formed but failed to carry a single state in the fall elections. Breckinridge carried the Deep South and two slave-holding East Coast states, Maryland and Delaware; Bell won Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia; Douglas only carried Missouri. Lincoln won every Northern state, California and Oregon; although he failed to win a majority of the popular vote in this drawn-and-quartered election, he won enough electoral votes—180 compared to 123 for all his opponents combined—to become the 16th president.
President Abraham Lincoln
On December 20, nearly three months before Lincoln would take office (presidential inaugurations occurred in March at that time), South Carolina officially seceded from the Union. It was soon joined by all states of the Deep South. They feared the rise of this new, sectional party that opposed expansion of slavery. If the peculiar institution was not allowed to spread, slaveholding states would be outnumbered, and they feared losing the political power that protected slavery.
For weeks, president-elect Lincoln said nothing as state after state renounced its compact with the United States, though it is questionable whether anything he said would have halted the secession movement. Previous presidents under whom secession was threatened—Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor—had both said they would send troops to force states to remain in the Union but never had to take that action. Lincoln, faced with the reality of losing a section of the country, felt he did have to after Confederate guns fired during the Battle of Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861.
The Civil War Begins
He called for 75,000 troops to suppress the Southern rebellion. Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee then seceded, refusing to fight their fellow Southerners and claiming Lincoln had overreached his authority because Congress was not in session and therefore could not authorize a war.
The new president knew little of military affairs, but just as he had educated himself as a youth, he began a self-education in the art of war, checking books of military history out of the Library of Congress. From this reading, and perhaps from an innate sense of what needed to be done, he at times seemed to understand better than some of his generals that destroying the enemy’s armies was more important than capturing the Confederate capital.
He endured outright insubordination from one commander, Major General George B. McClellan, in charge of the largest Union army. Lincoln said he’d hold McClellan’s horse if it would help to win the war, but once he determined “Little Mac” was too cautious to win much of anything, he removed him. Not until March of 1864, when he placed Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in charge of all Union armies, did Lincoln find a general in whom he had trust. Grant had previously won major victories at the Siege of Fort Donelson, Battle of Vicksburg, and Battle of Chattanooga.
Lincoln, in choosing his cabinet, had selected those men he felt most capable of handling the duties of the posts he asked them to fill. Some of them had hoped during the last election that they would be filling the chair of the presidency. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin called the Lincoln Cabinet “A Team of Rivals.” His willingness to work with men, some of whom he knew had a low opinion of him—at least initially—says much about Lincoln’s character and his determination to do whatever it took to preserve the Union.
The Emancipation Proclamation
In the autumn of 1862, following the Battle of Antietam, he announced his Emancipation Proclamation. It granted freedom to slaves—but only to those in the areas still in rebellion, which didn’t recognize his authority. It was a war measure, meant to prevent European recognition of the slaveholding Confederacy, and it shifted the war from one to preserve the Union to one that would both preserve the Union and end slavery.
Other controversial war measures taken by Lincoln and his administration included infringing on some Constitutional rights, including suspending habeas corpus and shutting down newspapers that opposed the war. He signed the bill admitting West Virginia as a state of the Union, although it had been formed from Virginia without the permission of the state’s government at Richmond, which many, including half of his cabinet members, believed was a violation of Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution. Nevada was admitted at least in part to provide another pro-Union state.
Lincoln Reelected In 1864
In presidential elections of 1864, Lincoln believed he would not be reelected. The war had dragged on for over three years, draining the treasury. Major battles, like the Battle of Shiloh, the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Battle Gettysburg, and the Battle of Chickamauga, had each produced over 10,000 casualties, far beyond anything the nation had experienced in previous wars. Grant’s current campaign in Virginia had already suffered nearly 50,000 losses. Radical abolitionists in the North were upset with him for not pressing harder on the slavery issue.
The Democratic Party, banking on war weariness, was running George McClellan, the former general, as their candidate, under the slogan, “The Union as it was, and the Constitution as it is,” and pledging a truce with the Confederacy. Indeed, Lincoln might have lost his bid for re-election, and with it the war, had Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman not captured Atlanta in early September, giving the Union a major victory. Other contributing factors included Lincoln allowing soldiers in the armies to vote in their camps, something that had never been done before. The Democrats themselves made several missteps that hurt their chances. Lincoln won reelection and in his second inaugural address called for, “malice toward none, with charity for all,” attempting to set the stage for a reconciliation with the South.
He had personally experienced the “divided house” he’d once warned of. All but one of his wife’s half-siblings fought for the Confederacy or married men who did, and one of her full brothers became a Confederate surgeon. Only three of her sisters in Illinois and their husbands remained firmly with the Union.
The End Of The Civil War
On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the largest Confederate army to Grant following the Appomattox Campaign and the Appomattox Courthouse, virtually ending the war. Lincoln, asked what should be done with the citizens of the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, responded, “I’d let ’em up easy, let ’em up easy.”
Abraham Lincoln Assassinated
With the light of victory clearly breaking over the horizon, Lincoln and Mary went to Ford’s Theater on the night of April 14 to see the comedy, “Our American Cousin.” During the performance, an actor and staunch Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth slipped into the presidential box and shot Lincoln in the head. The president died the following morning. Within 24 hours, not a shred of black crepe was to be had in the nation’s capitol as homes, stores and government buildings were draped in mourning. Even some Southern newspapers condemned the assassination.
Lincoln was laid to rest in Springfield, Illinois. In 1876, a counterfeiting gang attempted to steal his body, to exchange it for their master engraver, who had been imprisoned. The plan was thwarted, and when the president’s body was placed in a new tomb in 1901, some 4,000 pounds of cement were poured on top of his coffin to prevent any future attempts.
The popular image of Lincoln has changed many times. He is beloved as the Great Emancipator and the Savior of the Union, but many people, particularly in the South, regard him as a tyrant and a dictator. He has been accused of being racist, though his views were in keeping with those of most Americans of his times. During his presidency, association with black leaders such as Frederick Douglass seem to have made his racial views more enlightened than those of most mid-19th-century Americans.
His primary focus as president always was on restoring the United States as a single nation under the Constitution; ending slavery was secondary to that goal. However, the Thirteenth Amendment, banning slavery throughout the United States, was passed only after Lincoln pulled political strings and granted favors in return for “Aye” votes. It had already failed once in the House, prior to Lincoln’s backroom negotiations. In the words of Thaddeus Stevens, “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
Lincoln’s service as president is also notable for the day of thanksgiving he proclaimed on the last Thursday of November 1864. America’s modern Thanksgiving holiday dates from that first national observation.
To learn more about the assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre including information on John Wilkes Booth and HistoryNet Articles, please see our Abraham Lincoln Assassination page.
Abraham Lincoln was the most photographed President of his era. There are portraits, lithographs, and photos of many highlights of his Presidential term.
Abraham Lincoln Quotes
Abraham Lincoln was one of the most famous writers/orators in American history, known for pithy and insightful sayings like “A house divided against itself cannot stand” and “Four score and seven years ago” the opening phrase of the Gettysburg address.
Abraham Lincoln Facts
There are many interesting facts about the life of Abraham Lincoln, like the fact that only one of his children, Robert Todd, survived to adulthood. View some little known facts about Lincoln as well as frequently asked questions about the 16th President of the United States
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 rank as one of the most famous debates in history. Though vying for a Senate seat, the debates, which centered around the institution of slavery, had a great effect on the future presidency for Lincoln.x
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln, the spouse of Abraham Lincoln, is one of the most prominent first ladies in history. Born to a prominent Southern family, she helped her husband’s political career. Following his assassination, she remained in mourning until her death in 1884. In 1875, a court judged her insane for a time.
The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, freed all slaves in areas still in rebellion against the federal government. Delivered soon after the Union victory at the battle of Antietam, it motivated the Northern war effort and gave the war a higher purpose.
The Gettysburg Address
The Gettysburg Address, written and delivered by Abraham Lincoln after the battle of Gettysburg, is one of the most famous speeches in American History.
A skilled statesman and orator, Abraham Lincoln gave many memorable speeches, including his most famous, the Gettysburg Address, which is considered one of the greatest speeches in American history.
Few figures in American History are as significant and memorable as Abraham Lincoln. From his birth in 1809 to his assassination in 1864 to the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922, the timeline of Abraham Lincoln’s life and legacy changed our nation profoundly.
Robert Todd Lincoln
Robert Todd Lincoln was the firstborn son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. He served in the Union Army and was Secretary of War under President Garfield. He witnessed Garfield’s assassination, and was present at the assassination of President McKinley.
Abraham Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated. He was shot by John Wilkes Booth at the Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865.
Articles Featuring Abraham Lincoln From HistoryNet Magazines
Abraham Lincoln: The Lawyer
Abraham Lincoln spent only four of his 56 years as president of the United States. Yet, given the importance of the events that marked his 1861-65 term of office, the nation’s admiration for him as a man of courage and principle, and the abundance of photographic images that recorded his presidency, it is hard for most people to think of him as anything else.
But there were other facets to the career of this man who led the nation through the Civil War years. Prior to his presidency, Lincoln honed his political skills and aspirations through the practice of law.
In 1837, while serving in the Illinois state legislature, Lincoln completed his legal training and joined the office of John Todd Stuart in the new Illinois capital at Springfield. Except for a sojourn in Washington, D.C., as a Whig Congressman during 1847-49, the law remained the future president’s chief occupation until his election to the White House in 1860.
In his book Life of Lincoln, William H. Herndon* stated that his partner was a good lawyer but not a scholarly one. Lincoln, he wrote, was “strikingly deficient in the technical rules of law….I doubt if he ever read a single elementary law book through in his life. In fact, I may truthfully say, I never knew him to read through a law book of any kind.”
This assessment has been disputed or at least modified by those who have since studied Lincoln’s law career. But whether or not Lincoln lost some cases due to a lack of technical expertise on certain points of law, the fact remains that he was a successful trial attorney. He knew, everyone agrees, how to win over a jury.
The bulk of Lincoln’s courtroom work took place away from Springfield as he traveled twice a year with the presiding judge and fellow lawyers to the county seats of Illinois’ Eighth Circuit Court. Since most of those who served on the juries in these small towns were farmers and other country folk, Lincoln—himself a product of a rural environment and by nature a slow talker—recognized the need to argue his cases in the simplest and most straightforward manner. As one observer noted, “his illustrations were often quaint and homely, but always clear and apt, and generally conclusive. . . . His wit and humor and inexhaustible store of anecdotes, always to the point, added immensely to his powers as a jury advocate.”
A medical malpractice suit—Fleming vs. Rogers & Crothers—in which Lincoln represented the physician defendants is a case in point.
Just after midnight, on the morning of October 17, 1855, the sleeping residents of Bloomington, Illinois, awoke to the sound of fire bells ringing throughout the community. Before long a crowd of more than 4,000 had congregated to watch firemen struggle to contain the blaze that had begun in the livery stable behind the Morgan House and had spread to neighboring buildings. By the time the fire was extinguished, most of the buildings on the block, including those housing the newspaper offices of the Central Illinois Times and Bloomington Pantagraph, had been destroyed; only the bank and a hardware store remained.
There was one fatality—William Green, a local drayman—and among those injured was Samuel G. Fleming, a carpenter from Bloomington who suffered two broken thighs when a Morgan House chimney collapsed on him. Fleming was carried to the home of his brother John, where he was treated by Drs. Thomas P. Rogers, Jacob R. Freese, and Eli K. Crothers. Dr. Freese set and bandaged Fleming’s left leg, while Crothers worked on the right, assisted by Dr. Rogers. The physicians dressed the limb, Freese later said, “with care and in the same manner as I have seen it done by some of the most celebrated Surgeons of this Country, and in the same manner as is recommended by some of the best authors on Surgery.”
At least one of the doctors visited Fleming daily for the next two weeks and each was satisfied with his progress. In fact, Dr. Freese claimed in a deposition taken in August 1857 that Fleming had stated that, “‘He was getting along first rate, and that, were it not for the confinement, He would scarcely Know that his thighs were broken—so little pain did he suffer.”
That changed about 16 days after the accident, when Fleming began to experience severe pain at the “fracture point of the right leg….” When his sister, who had been nursing him since a week after his injury, ran her hand along the fracture, she thought that she “could discover it misplaced.” The doctors, however, believed the leg was mending as it should and merely ordered an increase in morphine for the injured man. A few days later, Dr. Crothers told Fleming that his pain was a symptom of pleurisy, not anything to do with his leg.
Twenty-four days after the fire, Dr. Rogers, who had been out of town for some time, visited Fleming and removed the bandages. The doctor remarked, according to Miss Fleming, that the legs “were crooked as Ram’s horns.” Rogers sent for the other doctors, and the three measured Fleming’s legs, one of which was found to be almost an inch shorter than the other. They redressed the legs, this time changing the arrangement of the splints.
Eight days later, the trio again removed the bandages and found, Dr. Freese stated, “the left one doing well—but the right one had a considerable bend at the point of fracture. The fracture was originally oblique, and now we found the lower Sharp point of the upper Portion of the thigh bone bending outward from a proper line of the bone—when in sound condition.”
This time, the physicians recommended that Fleming allow them to “break up” the adhesions, reset the thigh, and let the leg again begin the knitting process. After careful discussions with the three doctors, the patient and his family agreed to this procedure.
Dr. Freese administered chloroform to Fleming. He was assisted by Isaac M. Small, a cabinet maker and medical student who was present on this occasion only out of curiosity. Once Fleming was thought to be unconscious, Small stated, Dr. Crothers began “manipulating the limb—That is to break up and re-adjust the fracture, [and] Dr. Rogers took hold of the foot with a view to produce the proper amount of extension.”
As it happened, however, Fleming had not felt the full effects of the chloroform and soon began to scream in pain, ordering the doctors to stop. Dr. Crothers, explained to the patient that if they did not continue, his leg would always be deformed and he would suffer permanent damage, with the possibility of continuing pain and discomfort. Nonetheless, Small remembered, Fleming once again screamed at the doctors to “let him alone, he had suffered enough.” Relatives present in the room reinforced Fleming’s decision, so the doctors discontinued the procedure. Crothers, according to Small, told Fleming “that he would not be responsible for the result, unless [they continued], but acceding to his wishes, they again bandaged the right leg.”
By spring, the leg had healed, but, as Dr. Crothers had expected, it was badly misshapen, causing Fleming to have limited mobility and to walk with a limp. Fleming blamed the doctors for the condition of his leg and, after securing the services of a team of six lawyers, filed suit on March 28, 1856, in the McLean Circuit Court against Drs. Crothers and Rogers.
In his declaration, Fleming alleged that his attending physicians had deliberately failed “to use due and proper care, skill and diligence” in caring for his broken thighs. As a result of this negligence, the suit claimed, Fleming had “thereby suffered and underwent great and unnecessary pain and anguish and…is much reduced and weakened in body…,” and his legs, having healed in an “unsightly and unnatural a manner,” were “crooked, misshapen and useless.” As compensation for his suffering and the expenses incurred during his convalescence, the plaintiff demanded payment by the defendants of $10,000.
To plead their case, Crothers and Rogers turned to attorneys David Brier, Jessie Birch, L. L. Strain, and Andrew W. Rogers, all of Bloomington. To counter the presence on the plaintiff’s legal team of lawyer Leonard Swett, who was known for his grasp of medical issues and the subject of anatomy, Crothers also sought the counsel of Abraham Lincoln and John Stuart.
The former partners, who took the lead in the doctors’ defense, had only a week to prepare their case before the Circuit Court’s spring term opened in Bloomington on April 7, 1856. They requested a continuance from Judge David Davis on the grounds that Dr. Rogers, “the major physician, is now so unwell as to be unable to attend the present term of court, and…his personal presence at the trial is necessary to enable them to conduct the defense of the case properly….” Rogers, they stated, had “visited said plaintiff much more frequently than did said Cerothers [sic.] and…has the more intimate acquaintance with, and perfect knowledge of the whole case.” Judge Davis, having been assured that Dr. Rogers would be able to attend the Court’s fall term, continued the case until then but required the defendants to pay the court costs.
Judge Davis and Lincoln enjoyed a close working relationship, as well as a personal friendship. Lincoln traveled with other attorneys who followed Davis’s circuit in a “circus like caravan,” often entertaining the judge and his fellow lawyers after hours with his humorous stories and anecdotes. The judge respected the future president’s legal opinions and his skill as a hardworking frontier lawyer and occasionally asked Lincoln to take the bench in his absence. As a result of this interaction, Judge Davis became one of Lincoln’s mentors.
This apparent conflict of interest was not uncommon on the circuit and rarely aroused objections from other lawyers familiar with the rigors of travel within the Court’s jurisdiction. Younger attorneys on the trial circuit often sought the services of Lincoln, whose experience and presence in the courtroom had earned their respect.
When the Fleming case was called before Judge Davis in September, the defendants again requested a postponement. Dr. Freese, it seemed, had moved to Cincinnati on short notice and had not been able to give his deposition to the attorneys before leaving Bloomington. His testimony was considered vital to the defense because he was present “when plaintiff’s limb was first set, and knows that it was [done] properly . . . .” Likewise he was there when the leg was examined several days later and “saw that it was right then . . . .” Freese had also taken part in the consultation at which the doctors decided not to take immediate action in the hope that the bone “would improve without rebreaking.” And no other witness, the deposition concluded, could so knowledgeably testify to the correctness of the doctors’ efforts on the day that the attempt was made to break the bone’s adhesions. Judge Davis—assured that Freese’s testimony would be available at the next court term and that “this application is not made for delay, but that justice may be done”—again granted the continuance at the defendants’ expense.
Lincoln, William Herndon noted, possessed a “keen sense of justice, and struggled for it, throwing aside forms, methods, and rules, until it appeared as pure as a ray of light flashing through a fog-bank. . . . [W]hen he had occasion to learn or investigate any subject he was thorough and indefatigable in his search. He not only went to the root of the question, but dug up the root, and separated and analyzed every fiber of it.” For this kind of effort, Lincoln, who was always handling several cases simultaneously and who was, during the mid-1850s, heavily involved in politics, required the time that the two continuances provided.
Before Fleming vs. Rogers and Crothers finally came to trial in the spring of 1857, Lincoln had sought instruction from Dr. Crothers in the more technical medical aspects of the case. Using chicken bones to demonstrate his points, Crothers described the chemistry of bone growth and the organic changes that take place in bones during the aging process.
Lincoln found that Crothers’ use of the chicken bones made the technical medical evidence completely comprehensible, and he immediately decided to adopt the same technique in the courtroom. It would not be the only time that the frontier-bred Lincoln would use farm-related metaphors to make his points to a jury or, as president, to Congress and the American people.
During the well-attended, week-long trial, 15 doctors and 21 other witnesses testified on behalf of the plaintiff. The defendants also called upon a bevy of medical men to buttress their claims. Many years after the trial, Dr. Crothers’ daughter Lulu wrote that she had been told of an exchange that took place during Lincoln’s cross-examination of Fleming on the witness stand. When Lincoln asked the plaintiff if he were able to walk, she related, Fleming answered that he could, “but my leg is short, so I have to limp.” At that, Miss Crothers continued, Lincoln dramatically replied: “Well! What I would advise you is to get down on your knees and thank your Heavenly Father, and also these two Doctors that you have any legs to stand on at all!”
Lincoln saved his lesson on how bones heal for his summation to the jury. Then, holding up two chicken-leg bones—one from an old chicken and the other from a young one—he demonstrated to the jury their respective texture and resilience. The bones of the young bird were supple, while those of the old chicken were brittle and broke easily. Fleming, being in middle age, Lincoln pointed out, would have bones more closely resembling the latter than the former. Unable, according to Lulu Crothers, to “remember about the lime or calcium deposited in older peoples’ bones,” Lincoln told the jurors that the bone from the older chicken, “has the starch all taken out of it—as it is in childhood.”
This graphic demonstration had the desired effect on some of the jurors, a majority of whom probably entered the courtroom predisposed toward Fleming and prejudiced against the more affluent defendants. After 18 hours of deliberation, the jurors failed to reach a decision. Judge Davis put the case over to the fall term of court.
By September, the doctors had suffered the loss of another vital witness from the Bloomington area. Isaac Small, who had helped to administer the chloroform to Fleming at the time the attempt was made to re-break his right thigh bone, had moved to Nashville, Tennessee. Judge Davis’s decision to grant this latest continuance in the Fleming suit, however, was based more on Lincoln’s preoccupation at the time with an important regional case involving the Rock Island Bridge—the first built over the Mississippi River—and the importance of east-west transportation to the expanding United States.
Just before 1857 came to an end, Brier and Birch, two of the other attorneys for the defense, asked the judge for a change of venue for the case on the grounds that Fleming had “undue influence over the minds” of the people of McLean County, where the first trial had been heard. The plaintiff’s lawyers not objecting, Davis ordered the case transferred to the Logan County Circuit Court, whose county seat of Lincoln was, ironically, named for opposing counsel.
The retrial of the case never took place, both sides having agreed to a settlement before the March 1858 court term began. The doctors named in the suit agreed to pay the fees incurred by Fleming, whose expense probably totaled less than a thousand dollars.
The “Chicken Bone Case” illustrates the great communicative skills of Abraham Lincoln, who understood his audiences—in this case, the jury—and used wit and metaphor to explain complex issues. Soon after the Fleming suit was settled, Lincoln became preoccupied with the race for U.S. senator from Illinois. Nominated by the new Republican Party in June, Lincoln engaged in a series of debates with the Democratic incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas, that propelled him onto the national political stage.
Although Lincoln lost that election, the campaign was an important step on his road to the White House. Once elected president, he used his language skills to craft carefully worded public statements that rank among America’s greatest expressions of political philosophy. And to a great extent, he used the talents that he had honed as an Illinois circuit lawyer to maintain popular support in the North for the war effort and to develop a political constituency that sustained the army in the field.
*Four years after John T. Stuart, who had encouraged Lincoln’s legal studies, took him in as a partner in 1837, Lincoln joined the firm of Stephen T. Logan, again as a junior partner. In 1844, Lincoln teamed up with William H. Herndon, this time as a senior partner.
Charles M. Hubbard is the Dean of Lincolniana and Associate Professor of History at Lincoln Memorial University.
This article was originally published in the August 1998 issue of American History magazine.
Abraham Lincoln: Commander In Chief
More out of necessity than inclination, Abraham Lincoln became one of the most active commanders in chief in American history, directly influencing and managing events and generals in every field of operations during the Civil War. Never before had a president been able to communicate his desires to far-off commanders as quickly as Lincoln was able to. He could do this because of recent inventions that speeded communication, most notably the telegraph.
Lincoln’s active managerial style was most prominent in 1863. At the beginning of that year, the Union was poised on all fronts to take the offensive. In the West, Federal forces were preparing to move down the Mississippi River to capture Vicksburg, Miss., the last major port along that river not already in Union hands. When this was done, the Confederacy would be cut in two. In Tennessee, a Northern army had fought the Confederates to a draw at Stones River and was preparing to push the Southerners out of middle and eastern Tennessee. In the East, after suffering many defeats in 1862, Union forces had a new commander and were preparing to take the war deeper into Virginia.
As promising as the Union outlook was at the beginning of the year, there would be many problems and disappointments before 1863 ended. Lincoln would be forced to deal with numerous commanders who failed to understand that the main objective of the Union military machine should be defeating the Confederate armies, not merely occupying enemy territory. Lincoln often had to beg his commanders to take action, or relieve and replace a general when he failed to prosecute the war in an aggressive manner.
The stage had been set in July 1862, when Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck had replaced Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan as general in chief of the Union Army. Lincoln hoped that he had found a competent leader to aggressively prosecute the war without much direction from the White House, and at first glance Halleck appeared to be a fine choice. He was a West Point graduate with many years of experience in the Regular Army who had captured Corinth, Miss.
Events, however, soon showed that Halleck was not the aggressive general Lincoln believed him to be. After the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Manassas in August 1862, Halleck seemed to lose confidence in both himself and his generals, and adopted a style of giving suggestions and advice to his subordinates rather than direct orders. He explained his indirect approach to managing his generals’ tactics this way: “To order a general to give battle against his own wishes and judgement is to assume the responsibility of a probable defeat. If a general is unwilling to fight, he is not likely to gain victory.”
Lincoln came to view Halleck as “little more than a first rate clerk,” and the president was forced to take a more active role in military matters than he would have liked. Although Lincoln continued to work through Halleck, he also often communicated directly with his field commanders by telegraph. Earlier in 1862, Lincoln had made a wise move by establishing governmental control of the U.S. telegraph system. Initially, telegraph operations were under the Signal Corps but by 1863, they were placed under a separate entity known as the U.S. Military Telegraph Service. During the course of the war, Lincoln became a common sight at War Department’s telegraph office, reading and composing telegrams that allowed him to follow and supervise Union operations in all theaters of the war.
Lincoln’s main military concerns were focused on three major areas of operation: the Mississippi River, Tennessee, and northern Virginia. Initially, each of these areas had a main field commander with whom Lincoln would have many dealings over the course of the year. In the West, the campaign to capture the last major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River was under the direction of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had proved to be an aggressive general, winning several important victories in 1862 that helped to clear the Confederate presence from western Tennessee. Promoted to head the Department of the Tennessee when Halleck left to become general in chief, in November 1862, Grant launched a campaign to capture Vicksburg by an overland route through the state of Mississippi. Confederate cavalry raids on his supply lines forced Grant to cancel this operation and return his army to its initial starting point near Memphis, Tenn. The persistent commander then determined that his next attempt to capture Vicksburg would be via the Mississippi River itself.
In central Tennessee, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans was in command of the Army of the Cumberland. In October 1862, he had relieved Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell as head of the army. By January 1, 1863, Rosecrans had fought a Confederate army at the Battle of Stones River, forcing the Southerners to withdraw. Rosecrans was then poised to begin a campaign to drive the Confederates from the eastern half of the state.
In northern Virginia, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside led the Union Army of the Potomac at the start of 1863. But due to Burnside’s crushing defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Lincoln had lost faith in his ability to lead the army, and he soon replaced him with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Lincoln had his doubts about Hooker, too, mainly due to his vocal criticism of Burnside, but he had performed well as a corps commander and talked aggressively about what he intended to do in the spring campaign.
Politics played a major part in the initial stages of Grant’s advance on Vicksburg. In 1862, a politically appointed general named John A. McClernand, a Democrat, had been authorized by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to raise troops in several northwestern states as an expeditionary force for use in capturing Vicksburg. The wording of the order made it appear that McClernand would be in command of the operation. But after McClernand had raised the troops and sent them to Memphis, Grant simply took control of the soldiers for his operations down the Mississippi.
Although he disliked and distrusted McClernand, Grant wisely retained him as a corps commander, knowing that Lincoln wished to keep the Illinois Democrat in an important capacity for political reasons. McClernand was not satisfied by the arrangements, and he appealed directly to Lincoln. The president responded directly to McClernand: “I have too many family controversies (so to speak) already on my hands to voluntarily, or so long as I can avoid it, take up another. You are now doing well—much better than you could possibly be if engaged in open war with Gen. Halleck. Allow me to beg that for your sake, for my sake, & for the country’s sake, you give your whole attention to the better work.”
Lincoln also let Grant know when he thought a particular project was especially important. The long winter months had hampered the offensive capabilities of Grant’s army. In order to keep his men occupied and make them feel they were making some headway against the Confederates, Grant had his soldiers work on cutting a canal that would bypass the Vicksburg defenses. Although Grant had little hope of success for the effort, Lincoln felt the project was important. In a January 25 telegram, Halleck told Grant: “Direct your attention particularly to the canal proposed across the point. The President attaches much attention to this.”
The president’s attention was also focused on the Army of the Cumberland and General Rosecrans in central Tennessee. Following Stones River, Rosecrans had the full support of the administration and was advised by Stanton, “There is nothing within my power to grant yourself or your heroic command that will not be carefully given.” But Rosecrans stalled in making any further move against the enemy. As weeks dragged by, Rosecrans continued to request more supplies from the government while making no effort to move. Lincoln’s frustration mounted.
The government tried many different tactics to get Rosecrans to advance, but to no avail. Finally, in an apparent attempt to infuse some spirit of competition between Rosecrans and Grant, Halleck sent each a telegram that offered what could fairly be interpreted as a bribe. The general in chief told them that he was authorized to award a major generalcy in the Regular Army to the first commander who could win an “important, decisive victory.” Instead of choosing to consider it an incentive for good performance, or at the very least ignoring it as Grant did, Rosecrans decided to be insulted by the message. He let his superiors know that he was offended, further worsening relations between himself and Washington.
Meanwhile in the East, the Army of the Potomac was being reorganized in the early months of 1863. Lincoln was still uncertain about Hooker mainly due to his outspoken opinions about the government and Burnside. Hooker had used such terms as “imbecile” and “played out” in describing the president and the government. He even went so far as to say that “nothing [will] go right until we have a dictator, and the sooner the better.”
During the next few months, however, Hooker proved to be a good administrator of the army, reorganizing it into an efficient fighting force. By April, it was ready once again to begin offensive operations. Because of Virginia’s proximity to Washington, Lincoln maintained closer personal contact with and supervision of the general than he did with his western commanders. The president even personally reviewed Hooker’s army on April 6 and gave the general a verbal push, telling him that it was time for his army to move. The Northern public was growing weary of inaction by the Army of the Potomac.
Approximately 130,000 Union soldiers were present for duty in the upcoming Chancellorsville campaign, a large, powerful force with which Hooker could assault the Army of Northern Virginia’s approximately 60,000 soldiers. Having done all that he could to ensure success, Lincoln should have felt confident about victory. But he still had his doubts about the campaign, saying, “I expect the best, but I am prepared for the worst.”
The president could not visit and actively supervise the Union armies in the West, but he could send a personal representative to be his eyes and ears. When the government began to get complaints about Grant from various parties, Lincoln dispatched Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana on a fact-finding mission in April. The commander in chief’s anxiety about Grant was alleviated by Dana’s report, which echoed his later feelings that the general was “an uncommon fellow—the most modest, the most disinterested, and the most honest man I ever knew.”
That spring, Grant attempted several different schemes to bypass the Confederate defenses at Vicksburg. While none proved successful, at least he and his command were making attempts to defeat the enemy. Their efforts did not go unnoticed in Washington, but Lincoln was concerned that Grant was dividing his army before the enemy, which might prove costly. He wanted Grant to unite with Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ forces moving north out of New Orleans. In a telegram to Grant dated April 2, Halleck echoed Lincoln’s concerns, warning him, “The division of your army into small expeditions destroys your strength, and when in the presence of the enemy, is very dangerous…what is most desired…is that your forces and those of General Banks should be brought into co-operation as early as possible.”
On April 4, Grant notified Halleck in a dispatch that he was prepared to march his army down the west bank of the Mississippi while “a portion of the naval fleet” would run past the Confederate batteries by night. Then the Navy would ferry his men to the east bank of the river, where they would be on the same side as their objective—Vicksburg. In mid-April, Grant did just what he said he would do. Amazingly, only one naval vessel was lost when the Union navy ran past the guns on Vicksburg’s bluff. Grant’s gamble, contrary to all military logic, paid off, and by the end of the month his army was on the east bank of the river south of Vicksburg and ready to take the fight to the enemy.
Hooker was also ready to fight by the end of April. In a series of brilliant maneuvers, he managed to keep the South in the dark about his intentions and get his army across the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers without interference. Once the army began to move, Lincoln monitored its progress by telegram. On April 27, Lincoln telegraphed Hooker, “How does it look now?” Ninety minutes later, the commander replied: “I am not sufficiently advanced to give an opinion. We are busy. Will tell you as soon as I can, and have it satisfactory.”
On May 1, the Union and Confederate forces collided in a region known as the Wilderness. Over the next three days, a tremendous battle would be fought near a crossroads known as Chancellorsville. Lincoln knew little about the battle until Hooker’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, sent the following message: “Though not directed or specially authorized to do so by General Hooker, I think it not improper that I should advise you that a battle is in progress.”
Later during the battle, Butterfield informed Lincoln: “The battle has been most fierce and terrible. Loss heavy on both sides. General Hooker slightly, but not severely, wounded.” Impatient with the lack of information, and perhaps a little alarmed, Lincoln wired back: “Where is General Hooker?”
Finally, on May 5, Butterfield sent a telegram to Lincoln (that was not received until the next day) explaining the dire situation that Hooker and the Army of the Potomac faced. Butterfield advised that the army was still south of the Rappahannock in a strong position, but that Hooker believed it was possible the enemy might have crossed the river and turned his right flank. Butterfield said Hooker believed that “circumstances…make it expedient…that he should retire from this position to the north bank of the Rappahannock for his defensible position.” Momentarily in despair at the prospect of another Union defeat, Lincoln exclaimed after reading the report: “My God! My God! What will the country say! What will the country say!”
By May 7, Lincoln was back to trying to actively manage the army and salvage something from a bad situation. He wrote Hooker to ask if the general had another plan to rebound from this most recent Union defeat. “Have you already in mind a plan wholly or partially formed?” Lincoln wondered. “If you have, prosecute it without interference from me. If you have not, please inform me, so that I, incompetent as I may be, can try and assist in the formation of some plan for the army.”
While Grant and Hooker were moving—with variable results—Rosecrans continued to tarry in Tennessee. By the end of May 1863, Lincoln’s patience with Rosecrans was nearly at an end. It seemed that no one in the government, including Lincoln, could get him to engage the enemy. Not only did Lincoln want Tennessee cleared of the enemy, he also wanted to ensure that the Confederates were prevented from reinforcing their army facing Grant at Vicksburg. On May 23, Lincoln telegraphed Rosecrans directly, “I would not push you to any rashness, but I am very anxious that you do your utmost, short of rashness, to keep [General Braxton] Bragg from getting on to help [General Joseph] Johnston against Grant.” The Army of the Cumberland commander replied: “Dispatch received. I will attend to it.”
But he failed to “attend to it.” On June 2, Halleck informed Rosecrans that if he did not soon move, some of his troops would be transferred to help Grant. The next day, Halleck telegraphed Rosecrans that intelligence indicated that enemy troops in his front were leaving to oppose Grant. Halleck added, “If you cannot hurt the enemy now, he will soon hurt you.” On June 11, the general in chief again telegraphed Rosecrans, informing him of the president’s great dissatisfaction with his inaction. Still he failed to move.
On the same day, Rosecrans responded to Halleck that he had held a council of war with his corps and division commanders, and they had a much different view of events than did Washington. They believed that it was not advisable to move until the fate of Vicksburg had been decided. Rosecrans offered a military maxim that an army should not attempt to fight two decisive battles at the same time. Halleck shot back with a maxim of his own: Councils of war do not fight.
Finally, on June 23, after much prodding by Lincoln and Halleck, Rosecrans finally began his much-awaited advance southward. During the next two weeks, through efficient movement but little actual combat, Rosecrans managed to maneuver the Confederate forces completely out of middle Tennessee. But much to Lincoln’s dismay, Rosecrans missed what should have been the real objective of the campaign, the destruction of the enemy. That failure would come back to haunt him.
In the East, Hooker had intended to launch another campaign against Lee after Chancellorsville. On May 13, Lincoln met with Hooker in Washington. There he gave the general a letter indicating that the time to hit the enemy’s extended lines of communication had passed. Lincoln now expected Hooker to do no more than keep the Confederates at bay with occasional harassing cavalry raids while he put the Army of the Potomac back in good condition.
Over the course of the next few weeks, General Robert E. Lee launched his second invasion of the North in less than a year. It was Hooker’s job to shadow the Confederates and keep his army between the enemy’s forces and Washington. Every decision had to be checked with Lincoln, for he had by then lost nearly all confidence in the Army of the Potomac’s commander. Realizing that the president had no faith in him, Hooker offered his resignation, and perhaps to his surprise, Lincoln immediately accepted it.
The president promoted Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, a corps commander in the Army of the Potomac, to command the army. Halleck informed Meade that he was “free to act as you may deem proper under circumstances as they arise.” Lincoln had chosen Meade because the general hailed from the state in which a major battle was likely to be fought. Lincoln believed that Meade, a Philadelphian, would lead his army well in Pennsylvania, “on his own dunghill.”
The Army of the Potomac met the enemy near the town of Gettysburg, Pa., on July 1. Once the battle was joined, Lincoln kept up with the action via telegrams sent to the War Department. There he read Meade’s dispatches on the first, second and third days of the battle. The last told of the enemy’s withdrawal from the battlefield. Victory had been achieved.
Meanwhile, Grant’s campaign to capture Vicksburg was making steady progress. His main problem was that he faced two separate Confederate armies in Mississippi. One occupied Vicksburg, while the other was assembling at Jackson. Not wanting these two forces to unite, Grant moved his army between them.
Grant’s forces clashed with elements of the Confederate troops from Vicksburg at Champion’s Hill on May 16, and the Southerners then retreated into the defenses around Vicksburg. Grant quickly attempted to take the city by assault, but failed and then turned to a siege to starve out the defenders. As the weeks went by, Halleck reminded Grant that time was of the utmost importance and that the siege “should be pushed day and night.” But Grant could do little but wait out the enemy.
Finally, on July 4, the waiting ended for Grant, Lincoln and the country. Grant sent a message up the Mississippi to be telegraphed Halleck, informing him that the “enemy surrendered this morning.”
The president was in the War Department when the announcement came over the wire on July 7. A humble Lincoln sent Grant a gracious letter of appreciation: “I do not remember that you and I have met personally. 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. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do what you finally did….When you got below and took Port Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong.”
Following Grant’s success, Meade came under pressure to finish off Lee’s army before it could retreat back across the Potomac River. Halleck telegraphed Meade on July 7 that he had given the Confederates a hard blow and that he should follow it up and “give him another before he can reach the Potomac.” On the same day, Halleck forwarded to Meade the text of a note from Lincoln stating that Vicksburg had fallen and “if General Meade can complete his work…by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.”
Lincoln became convinced that Meade would allow the enemy to escape unless he was pressured to attack. On July 8, Halleck once again urged Meade to attack the enemy’s divided forces as soon as possible–ordering forced marches if necessary. Finally, on July 12, Meade notified Washington that he would attack the next day. Lincoln was in the telegraph office when the message was received. “They will be ready to fight a magnificent battle when there is no enemy there to fight,” Lincoln scoffed.
The president proved to be right. As he predicted, Lee’s army escaped across the Potomac with little additional harm done to it. Lincoln was truly devastated by Meade’s failure to destroy Lee. His feelings about the matter are most evident in a letter that he composed to Meade but never sent him: “I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape, he was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our recent successes have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.”
Lincoln, however, was not ready to give up on Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac. He had, after all, won a major, if incomplete, victory against Lee. Very few others could boast of that. Lincoln decided to “try him farther.”
By August, Meade’s army had shrunk to two-thirds the strength it had boasted in July. Several thousand men had been discharged when their enlistments expired. A division was sent to South Carolina for siege operations, and more than 1,500 men were sent to New York City to quell draft riots. Lee actually mounted a minor offensive against Meade, forcing the Union general to fall back from the Rappahannock River toward Washington. Meade checked this movement with a clash at Bristoe Station and eventually pushed southward again. The Federals won a victory at Rappahannock Station in November, but their weak advance ground to a halt later that month along Mine Run. Aside for minor operations against the enemy, the Army of the Potomac would do nothing more until the spring of 1864.
In Tullahoma, Tenn., during the summer of 1863, Rosecrans once again settled into a secure base and began stockpiling supplies for a vague advance sometime in the future. Lincoln wanted a quick advance by the Army of the Cumberland into the strategically important eastern part of the state. The president said that he wanted to do “as much for East Tennessee as I would, or could, if my own home & family were in Knoxville.” Rosecrans again was slow in moving, and once again telegrams flew from Washington to Tennessee in an effort to get the overly deliberate general to move. Finally, on August 4, Halleck telegraphed Rosecrans, “Your forces must move forward without delay.”
The army finally began advancing on August 16. Over the next several weeks, Bragg’s Confederate army retreated into Georgia, abandoning the key railroad center of Chattanooga. Believing that he had the enemy in full retreat and forgetting that Bragg still had an intact army, Rosecrans continued his advance into Georgia. After he belatedly realized that his own army was overextended, Rosecrans attempted to consolidate his force in defensive positions near Chickamauga Creek, 10 miles south of Chattanooga. The Confederates struck the Union positions on September 19, and in a vicious two-day battle Rosecrans and his army were sent scurrying back to Chattanooga.
Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana was with the Union army at Chickamauga and telegraphed Lincoln details of the defeat on September 20. A rattled Rosecrans wired Washington the same day, saying that he was uncertain whether his army could hold Chattanooga. Lincoln responded immediately that he still had confidence in the general and that the government would do all it could to assist him.
By September 22, concerned that he had not heard from Rosecrans in two days, Lincoln wired him and asked the condition of his forces in Chattanooga. Rosecrans responded that he held the town with 30,000 men but that their fate was in the hands of God—hardly a response to instill confidence. Lincoln continued to try to help Rosecrans restore his faith in himself and his army. But privately, Lincoln had his doubts about Rosecrans, who he said was acting “confused and stunned, like a duck hit on the head.”
On September 23, the Confederate siege of Chattanooga began. The trapped Rosecrans needed help, and Lincoln attempted to find a way to send him reinforcements, debating the best way to do this with Halleck and Stanton. The secretary of war proposed to send soldiers from Meade’s army by railroad. He said that 20,000 troops could be moved in a few weeks—Halleck said such an operation would more likely take a few months.
The two-hour debate ended with Lincoln accepting Stanton’s proposal, and soon the efficiency of the Union railroad system was proven when more than 15,000 men quickly arrived in the vicinity of Chattanooga to augment Rosecrans’ force.
By mid-October, Lincoln had decided that a change in the command system in the West was in order. Grant was promoted to head a unified command that included most of the armies and departments from Tennessee westward. Lincoln gave Grant authority to retain or relieve Rosecrans. Grant chose the latter, replacing the lethargic general with Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas. Grant then proceeded to Chattanooga to take personal command of the efforts to break the siege.
The siege of Chattanooga was broken on October 30 when a small supply line—dubbed the Cracker Line—was opened into the city. Between November 23 and 25, the Union armies under Grant at Chattanooga launched a concerted offensive to clear the Confederates from around the city that ended with Bragg’s army in full retreat southward to Georgia.
By the end of 1863, it was clear to Lincoln that in Grant he had found the aggressive commander he had been seeking since the beginning of the war. In March 1864, Lincoln promoted Grant to lieutenant general, and appointed him general in chief of the Union armies. From this point until the end of the war, the president would no longer actively manage military matters. Having Grant at the helm saved the president time and energy.
The course of events in 1863 had forced Lincoln to become an active commander in chief. It is hard to imagine generals such as Rosecrans ever moving without pressure from above. On all fronts except Grant’s, inaction might have remained the order of the day if not for the president’s vigorous involvement in the prosecution of the war. Perhaps there might not have been the Union defeats at Chancellorsville and Chickamauga, but there might not have been the Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg or Chattanooga, either.
After 1863 the Confederacy’s main armies would undertake no more major offensives, and the Southern bid for a separate, independent nation would fail. Had it not been for Lincoln’s active management of military affairs and steady prodding of his commanders, the outcome of the Civil War and the history of the United States would likely have been very different.
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Abraham Lincoln: Tyrant, Hypocrite or Consummate Statesman
Most Americans—including most historians—regard Abraham Lincoln as the nation’s greatest president. But in recent years powerful movements have gathered, both on the political right and the left, to condemn Lincoln as a flawed and even wicked man.
For both camps, the debunking of Lincoln usually begins with an exposé of the “Lincoln myth,” which is well described in William Lee Miller’s 2002 book Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography. How odd it is, Miller writes, that an ‘unschooled’ politician ‘from the raw frontier villages of Illinois and Indiana’ could become such a great president. ‘He was the myth made real,’ Miller writes, ‘rising from an actual Kentucky cabin made of actual Kentucky logs all the way to the actual White House.’
Lincoln’s critics have done us all a service by showing that the actual author of the myth is Abraham Lincoln himself. It was Lincoln who, over the years, carefully crafted the public image of himself as Log Cabin Lincoln, Honest Abe and the rest of it. Asked to describe his early life, Lincoln answered, “the short and simple annals of the poor,” referring to Thomas Gray’s poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Lincoln disclaimed great aspirations for himself, noting that if people did not vote for him, he would return to obscurity, for he was, after all, used to disappointments.
These pieties, however, are inconsistent with what Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, said about him: “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” Admittedly in the ancient world ambition was often viewed as a great vice. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus submits his reason for joining the conspiracy against Caesar: his fear that Caesar had grown too ambitious. But as founding father and future president James Madison noted in The Federalist, the American system was consciously designed to attract ambitious men. Such ambition was presumed natural to a politician and favorable to democracy as long as it sought personal distinction by promoting the public good through constitutional means.
What unites the right-wing and left-wing attacks on Lincoln, of course, is that they deny that Lincoln respected the law and that he was concerned with the welfare of all. The right-wing school—made up largely of Southerners and some libertarians—holds that Lincoln was a self-serving tyrant who rode roughshod over civil liberties, such as the right to habeas corpus. Lincoln is also accused of greatly expanding the size of the federal government. Some libertarians even charge—and this is not intended as a compliment—that Lincoln was the true founder of the welfare state. His right-wing critics say that despite his show of humility, Lincoln was a megalomaniacal man who was willing to destroy half the country to serve his Caesarian ambitions. In an influential essay, the late Melvin E. Bradford, an outspoken conservative, excoriated Lincoln as a moral fanatic who, determined to enforce his Manichaean vision—one that sees a cosmic struggle between good and evil—on the country as a whole, ended up corrupting American politics and thus left a “lasting and terrible impact on the nation’s destiny.”
Although, Bradford viewed Lincoln as a kind of manic abolitionist, many in the right-wing camp deny that the slavery issue was central to the Civil War. Rather, they insist, the war was driven primarily by economic motives. Essentially, the industrial North wanted to destroy the economic base of the South. Historian Charles Adams, in When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession, published in 2000, contends that the causes leading up to the Civil War had virtually nothing to do with slavery.
This approach to rewriting history has been going on for more than a century. Alexander Stephens, former vice president of the Confederacy, published a two-volume history of the Civil War between 1868 and 1870 in which he hardly mentioned slavery, insisting that the war was an attempt to preserve constitutional government from the tyranny of the majority. But this is not what Stephens said in the great debates leading up to the war. In his “Cornerstone” speech, delivered in Savannah, Ga., on March 21, 1861, at the same time that the South was in the process of seceding, Stephens said that the American Revolution had been based on a premise that was ‘”fundamentally wrong.” That premise was, as Stephens defined it, “the assumption of equality of the races.” Stephens insisted that instead: “Our new [Confederate] government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man. Slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great and moral truth.”
This speech is conspicuously absent from the right’s revisionist history. And so are the countless affirmations of black inferiority and the “positive good” of slavery—from John C. Calhoun’s attacks on the Declaration of Independence to South Carolina Senator James H. Hammond’s insistence that “the rock of Gibraltar does not stand so firm on its basis as our slave system.” It is true, of course, that many whites who fought on the Southern side in the Civil War did not own slaves. But, as Calhoun himself pointed out in one speech, they too derived an important benefit from slavery: ‘With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.’ Calhoun’s point is that the South had conferred on all whites a kind of aristocracy of birth, so that even the most wretched and degenerate white man was determined in advance to be better and more socially elevated than the most intelligent and capable black man. That’s why the poor whites fought—to protect that privilege.
Contrary to Bradford’s high-pitched accusations, Lincoln approached the issue of slavery with prudence and moderation. This is not to say that he waffled on the morality of slavery. “You think slavery is right, and ought to be extended,” Lincoln wrote Stephens on the eve of the war, “while we think it is wrong, and ought to be restricted.” As Lincoln clearly asserts, it was not his intention to get rid of slavery in the Southern states. Lincoln conceded that the American founders had agreed to tolerate slavery in the Southern states, and he confessed that he had no wish and no power to interfere with it there. The only issue—and it was an issue on which Lincoln would not bend—was whether the federal government could restrict slavery in the new territories. This was the issue of the presidential campaign of 1860; this was the issue that determined secession and war.
Lincoln argued that the South had no right to secede—that the Southern states had entered the Union as the result of a permanent compact with the Northern states. That Union was based on the principle of majority rule, with constitutional rights carefully delineated for the minority. Lincoln insisted that since he had been legitimately elected, and since the power to regulate slavery in the territories was nowhere proscribed in the Constitution, Southern secession amounted to nothing more than one group’s decision to leave the country because it did not like the results of a presidential election, and no constitutional democracy could function under such an absurd rule. Of course the Southerners objected that they should not be forced to live under a regime that they considered tyrannical, but Lincoln countered that any decision to dissolve the original compact could only occur with the consent of all the parties involved. Once again, it makes no sense to have such agreements when any group can unilaterally withdraw from them and go its own way.
The rest of the libertarian and right-wing case against Lincoln is equally without merit. Yes, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and arrested Southern sympathizers, but let us not forget that the nation was in a desperate war in which its very survival was at stake. Discussing habeas corpus, Lincoln insisted that it made no sense for him to protect this one constitutional right and allow the very Union established by the Constitution, the very framework for the protection of all rights, to be obliterated. Of course the federal government expanded during the Civil War, as it expanded during the Revolutionary War, and during World War II. Governments need to be strong to fight wars. The evidence for the right-wing insistence that Lincoln was the founder of the modern welfare state stems from the establishment, begun during his administration, of a pension program for Union veterans and support for their widows and orphans. Those were, however, programs aimed at a specific, albeit large, part of the population. The welfare state came to America in the 20th century. Franklin Roosevelt should be credited, or blamed, for that. He institutionalized it, and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon expanded it.
The left-wing group of Lincoln critics, composed of liberal scholars and social activists, is harshly critical of Lincoln on the grounds that he was a racist who did not really care about ending slavery. Their indictment of Lincoln is that he did not oppose slavery outright, only the extension of it, that he opposed laws permitting intermarriage and even opposed social and political equality between the races. If the right-wingers disdain Lincoln for being too aggressively antislavery, the left-wingers scorn him for not being antislavery enough. Both groups, however, agree that Lincoln was a self-promoting hypocrite who said one thing while doing another.
Some of Lincoln’s defenders have sought to vindicate him from these attacks by contending that he was a “man of his time.” This will not do, because there were several persons of that time, notably the social-reformer Grimké sisters, Angelina and Sarah, and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who forthrightly and unambiguously attacked slavery and called for immediate and complete abolition. In one of his speeches, Sumner said that while there are many issues on which political men can and should compromise, slavery is not such an issue: “This will not admit of compromise. To be wrong on this is to be wholly wrong. It is our duty to defend freedom, unreservedly, and careless of the consequences.”
Lincoln’s modern liberal critics are, whether they know it or not, the philosophical descendants of Sumner. One cannot understand Lincoln without understanding why he agreed with Sumner’s goals while consistently opposing the strategy of the abolitionists. The abolitionists, Lincoln thought, approached the restricting or ending of slavery with self-righteous moral display. They wanted to be in the right and—as Sumner himself says—damn the consequences. In Lincoln’s view, abolition was a noble sentiment, but abolitionist tactics, such as burning the Constitution and advocating violence, were not the way to reach their goal.
We can answer the liberal critics by showing them why Lincoln’s understanding of slavery, and his strategy for defeating it, was superior to that of Sumner and his modern-day followers. Lincoln knew that the statesman, unlike the moralist, cannot be content with making the case against slavery. He must find a way to implement his principles to the degree that circumstances permit. The key to understanding Lincoln is that he always sought the meeting point between what was right in theory and what could be achieved in practice. He always sought the common denominator between what was good to do and what the people would go along with. In a democratic society this is the only legitimate way to advance a moral agenda.
Consider the consummate skill with which Lincoln deflected the prejudices of his supporters without yielding to them. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates during the race for the Illinois Senate, Stephen Douglas repeatedly accused Lincoln of believing that blacks and whites were intellectually equal, of endorsing full political rights for blacks, and of supporting “amalgamation” or intermarriage between the races. If these charges could be sustained, or if large numbers of people believed them to be true, then Lincoln’s career was over. Even in the free state of Illinois—as throughout the North—there was widespread opposition to full political and social equality for blacks.
Lincoln handled this difficult situation by using a series of artfully conditional responses. “Certainly the Negro is not our equal in color—perhaps not in many other respects; still, in the right to put into his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned, he is the equal of every other man. In pointing out that more has been given to you, you cannot be justified in taking away the little which has been given to him. If God gave him but little, that little let him enjoy.” Notice that Lincoln only barely recognizes the prevailing prejudice. He never acknowledges black inferiority; he merely concedes the possibility. And the thrust of his argument is that even if blacks were inferior, that is not a warrant for taking away their rights.
Facing the charge of racial amalgamation, Lincoln said, “I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that because I do not want a black woman for a slave, I must necessarily want her for a wife.” Lincoln is not saying that he wants, or does not want, a black woman for his wife. He is neither supporting nor opposing racial intermarriage. He is simply saying that from his antislavery position it does not follow that he endorses racial amalgamation. Elsewhere Lincoln turned antiblack prejudices against Douglas by saying that slavery was the institution that had produced the greatest racial intermixing and the largest number of mulattoes.
Lincoln was exercising the same prudent statesmanship when he wrote to New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley asserting: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” The letter was written on August 22, 1862, almost a year and a half after the Civil War broke out, when the South was gaining momentum and the outcome was far from certain. From the time of secession, Lincoln was desperately eager to prevent border states such as Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri from seceding. These states had slavery, and Lincoln knew that if the issue of the war was cast openly as the issue of slavery, his chances of keeping the border states in the Union were slim. And if all the border states seceded, Lincoln was convinced, and rightly so, that the cause of the Union was gravely imperiled.
Moreover, Lincoln was acutely aware that many people in the North were vehemently antiblack and saw themselves as fighting to save their country rather than to free slaves. Lincoln framed the case against the Confederacy in terms of saving the Union in order to maintain his coalition—a coalition whose victory was essential to the antislavery cause. And ultimately it was because of Lincoln that slavery came to an end. That is why the right wing can never forgive him.
In my view, Lincoln was the true “philosophical statesman,” one who was truly good and truly wise. Standing in front of his critics, Lincoln is a colossus, and all of the Lilliputian arrows hurled at him bounce harmlessly to the ground. It is hard to put any other president — not even George Washington — in the same category as Abraham Lincoln. He is simply the greatest practitioner of democratic statesmanship that America and the world have yet produced.
This article was written by Dinesh D’Souza and originally published in the April 2005 issue of American History Magazine.
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