American Civil War
Wonder how Jefferson Davis
Feels, down there in Montgomery, about Sumter.
He must be thinking pretty hard and fast,
For he’s an able man, no doubt of that.
We were born less than forty miles apart,
Less than a year apart–he got the start
Of me in age, and raising too, I guess,
In fact, from all you hear about the man,
If you set out to pick one of us two
For President, by birth and folks and schooling,
General raising, training up in office,
I guess you’d pick him, nine times out of ten
And yet, somehow, I’ve got to last him out.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
Jefferson Davis, first and last president of the Confederacy, was captured by Union cavalry near Irwinville, Georgia one hundred and fifty years ago. Secretly he is happy about this turn of events. He expects to be tried for treason and looks forward to defending himself on Constitutional grounds. Instead, he will spend two years incarcerated, and then be released on bail, never to have his day in court. He would have the misfortune to survive the War for almost a quarter of a century, and to become involved in many querulous debates with former Confederates who sought to blame him for the loss of the War. Far better for Davis if he had been killed by the Union troopers and died, the martyr of the Lost Cause. Instead, he was fated to endure the worst fate for a loser of a great historical turning point: a long life in which to play the role of scapegoat.
Robert E. Lee I think had it right when he said that he could think of no one who could have done as well as Davis as President. A great man who almost led his nation to victory, Davis had the misfortune to be opposed by a greater man leading a stronger nation. In response to his critics, he produced a two volume turgid defense entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881), published, ironically, by a New York publishing house. At 1500 pages it is one of the great unread books of American history, the province of only the most obsessive of Civil War scholars, although Oscar Wilde, strangely enough, proclaimed it a literary masterpiece, although even he admitted that he skimmed the military portions. In recent decades Davis, who had his slaves run his plantation along with their own court system, has been often portrayed as a devil stick figure, as if he had invented slavery, a sort of anti-Lincoln. This is ahistoric rubbish. Davis was a fascinating, and often contradictory, man and the scholarship devoted to him has been sadly lacking. The man who came so close to changing the course of the nation deserves better from the servants of Clio.
T. H. Peabody, a member of the Union cavalry unit that captured Davis gave this account: Continue reading
Something for the weekend: When Johnny Comes Marching Home. One hundred and fifty years ago as soldiers North and South were returning to their homes this song was being played. Written by composer Patrick Gilmore, bandmaster of the 24th Massachusetts in 1863 to comfort his sister who was praying for her fiancée to return safe from the War, it proved immensely popular both North and South with the troops and was sung and played endlessly by them with varied lyrics, all centered upon their dearest hope: to go home after what they usually called this cruel War was over. Gilmore set the tune to another popular song of the day: Johnny Fill Up the Bowl.
The song retained its popularity in subsequent American wars as demonstrated by these renditions of the song by Glenn Miller and the Andrew Sisters: Continue reading
Sherman at the end of his memoirs has a chapter on the military lessons of the war. Two of the most prescient listed by him are the impact of the telegraph and railroads on the War:
For the rapid transmission of orders in an army covering a large space of ground, the magnetic telegraph is by far the best, though habitually the paper and pencil, with good mounted orderlies, answer every purpose. I have little faith in the signal-service by flags and torches, though we always used them; because, almost invariably when they were most needed, the view was cut off by intervening trees, or by mists and fogs. There was one notable instance in my experience, when the signal-flags carried a message. of vital importance over the heads of Hood’s army, which had interposed between me and Allatoona, and had broken the telegraph-wires–as recorded in Chapter XIX.; but the value of the magnetic telegraph in war cannot be exaggerated, as was illustrated by the perfect concert of action between the armies in Virginia and Georgia during 1864. Hardly a day intervened when General Grant did not know the exact state of facts with me, more than fifteen hundred miles away as the wires ran. So on the field a thin insulated wire may be run on improvised stakes or from tree to tree for six or more miles in a couple of hours, and I have seen operators so skillful, that by cutting the wire they would receive a message with their tongues from a distant station. As a matter of course, the ordinary commercial wires along the railways form the usual telegraph-lines for an army, and these are easily repaired and extended as the army advances, but each army and wing should have a small party of skilled men to put up the field-wire, and take it down when done. This is far better than the signal-flags and torches. Our commercial telegraph-lines will always supply for war enough skillful operators. Continue reading
Judging from his melodramatic “Sic, Semper Tyrannis!” at Ford’s Theater after murdering Lincoln, Booth perceived his role of assassin as being his greatest role, a chance to play in real life a doomed Romantic hero, an avenger of a wronged people. The last twelve days of his life, as he eluded capture must have been disappointing for him, as the newspapers he read, including those who had been highly critical of Lincoln, universally condemned his action. Perhaps he perceived that instead of being a hero, he was fated to be cast as a minor villain, remembered solely due to his slaying of a great hero. Booth wrote in his diary, “With every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for … And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.” Continue reading
After the massive bloodletting of the Civil War, one would have hoped that Death would have taken at least a brief holiday in the US. Such was not the case. On April 27th 1865, the SS Sultana, a Mississipi paddlewheeler steamer, constructed in 1863 for the cotton trade, was serving as a transport. Its cargo was appoximately 2500 Union soldiers, many of them former POWS, some of them survivors of Andersonville. The Union soldiers boarded at Vicksburg. The Sultana while in port at Vicksburg had a patch put on its steam boiler. The repair was clearly inadequate, a new boiler being needed. Continue reading
For all his world weary cynicism, General Sherman was a complete innocent when it came to political matters, in which he had little interest. He demonstrated this by the terms of the memorandum of agreement which he entered into with General Johnston on April 18, 1865:
T. SHERMAN, Major-General commanding.
HEADQUARTERS MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI
IN THE FIELD, RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA, April 18, 1865.
Lieutenant-General U. S. GRANT, or Major-General HALLECK, Washington, D. C.
GENERAL: I inclose herewith a copy of an agreement made this day between General Joseph E. Johnston and myself, which, if approved by the President of the United States, will produce peace from the Potomac to the Rio Grande. Mr. Breckenridge was present at our conference, in the capacity of major-general, and satisfied me of the ability of General Johnston to carry out to their full extent the terms of this agreement; and if you will get the President to simply indorse the copy, and commission me to carry out the terms, I will follow them to the conclusion.
You will observe that it is an absolute submission of the enemy to the lawful authority of the United States, and disperses his armies absolutely; and the point to which I attach most importance is, that the dispersion and disbandment of these armies is done in such a manner as to prevent their breaking up into guerrilla bands. On the other hand, we can retain just as much of an army as we please. I agreed to the mode and manner of the surrender of arms set forth, as it gives the States the means of repressing guerrillas, which we could not expect them to do if we stripped them of all arms.
Both Generals Johnston and Breckenridge admitted that slavery was dead, and I could not insist on embracing it in such a paper, because it can be made with the States in detail. I know that all the men of substance South sincerely want peace, and I do not believe they will resort to war again during this century. I have no doubt that they will in the future be perfectly subordinate to the laws of the United States. The moment my action in this matter is approved, I can spare five corps, and will ask for orders to leave General Schofield here with the Tenth Corps, and to march myself with the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Seventeenth, Twentieth, and Twenty-third Corps via Burkesville and Gordonsville to Frederick or Hagerstown, Maryland, there to be paid and mustered out.
The question of finance is now the chief one, and every soldier and officer not needed should be got home at work. I would like to be able to begin the march north by May 1st.
I urge, on the part of the President, speedy action, as it is important to get the Confederate armies to their homes as well as our own.
I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,
W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General commanding.
Memorandum, or Basis of agreement, made this 18th day of April, A. D. 1865, near Durham’s Station, in the State of North Carolina, by and between General Joseph E. JOHNSTON, commanding the Confederate Army, and Major-General William T. SHERMAN, commanding the army of the United States in North Carolina, both present:
1. The contending armies now in the field to maintain the statu quo until notice is given by the commanding general of any one to its opponent, and reasonable time–say, forty-eight hours–allowed.
2. The Confederate armies now in existence to be disbanded and conducted to their several State capitals, there to deposit their arms and public property in the State Arsenal; and each officer and man to execute and file an agreement to cease from acts of war, and to abide the action of the State and Federal authority. The number of arms and munitions of war to be reported to the Chief of Ordnance at Washington City, subject to the future action of the Congress of the United States, and, in the mean time, to be needed solely to maintain peace and order within the borders of the States respectively.
3. The recognition, by the Executive of the United States, of the several State governments, on their officers and Legislatures taking the oaths prescribed by the Constitution of the United States, and, where conflicting State governments have resulted from the war, the legitimacy of all shall be submitted to the Supreme Court of the United States.
4. The reestablishment of all the Federal Courts in the several States, with powers as defined by the Constitution of the United States and of the States respectively.
5. The people and inhabitants of all the States to be guaranteed, so far as the Executive can, their political rights and franchises, as well as their rights of personal property, as defined by the Constitution of the United States and of the States respectively.
6. The Executive authority of the Government of the United States not to disturb any of the people by reason of the late war, so long as they live in peace and quiet, abstain from acts of armed hostility, and obey the laws in existence at the place of their residence.
7. In general terms–the war to cease; a general amnesty, so far as the Executive of the United States can command, on condition of the disbandment of the Confederate armies, the distribution of the arms, and the resumption of peaceful pursuits by the officers and men hitherto composing said armies.
Not being fully empowered by our respective principals to fulfill these terms, we individually and officially pledge ourselves to promptly obtain the necessary authority, and to carry out the above programme.
W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General, Commanding Army of the United States in North Carolina.
J. E. JOHNSTON, General,
Commanding Confederate States Army in North Carolina.
The agreement had been masterminded by Breckenridge, a canny politician and former Vice-President of the United States. If accepted, the agreement would have short-circuited Reconstruction and basically re-established state governments in the Confederate States as if the War had never occurred. Lincoln would not have accepted this, and in the wake of his assassination the terms were angrily repudiated by Washington as indicated by this letter from Stanton to Grant:
War Department, Washington City, April 21, 1865
The memorandum or basis agreed upon between General Sherman and General Johnston having been submitted to the President, they are disapproved. You will give notice of the disapproval to General Sherman, and direct him to resume hostilities at the earliest moment.
The instructions given to you by the late President, Abraham Lincoln, on the 3d of March, by my telegraph of that date, addressed to you, express substantially the views of President Andrew Johnson, and will be observed by General Sherman. A copy is herewith appended.
The President desires that you proceed immediately to the headquarters of Major-General Sherman, and direct operations against the enemy.
Edwin M. Stanton,
Secretary of War. Continue reading
Although he had no idea where the fugitive President of the Confederacy precisely was, Robert E. Lee on April 20, 1865 wrote his final report to Davis which contained a plea for peace instead of partisan warfare:
Robert E. Lee
April 20, 1865
The apprehensions I expressed during the winter, of the moral [sic] condition of the Army of Northern Virginia, have been realized. The operations which occurred while the troops were in the entrenchments in front of Richmond and Petersburg were not marked by the boldness and decision which formerly characterized them. Except in particular instances, they were feeble; and a want of confidence seemed to possess officers and men. This condition, I think, was produced by the state of feeling in the country, and the communications received by the men from their homes, urging their return and the abandonment of the field. The movement of the enemy on the 30th March to Dinwiddie Court House was consequently not as strongly met as similar ones had been. Advantages were gained by him which discouraged the troops, so that on the morning of the 2d April, when our lines between the Appomattox and Hatcher’s Run were assaulted, the resistance was not effectual: several points were penetrated and large captures made. At the commencement of the withdrawal of the army from the lines on the night of the 2d, it began to disintegrate, and straggling from the ranks increased up to the surrender on the 9th. On that day, as previously reported, there were only seven thousand eight hundred and ninety-two (7892) effective infantry. During the night, when the surrender became known, more than ten thousand men came in, as reported to me by the Chief Commissary of the Army. During the succeeding days stragglers continued to give themselves up, so that on the 12th April, according to the rolls of those paroled, twenty-six thousand and eighteen (26,018) officers and men had surrendered. Men who had left the ranks on the march, and crossed James River, returned and gave themselves up, and many have since come to Richmond and surrendered. I have given these details that Your Excellency might know the state of feeling which existed in the army, and judge of that in the country. From what I have seen and learned, I believe an army cannot be organized or supported in Virginia, and as far as I know the condition of affairs, the country east of the Mississippi is morally and physically unable to maintain the contest unaided with any hope of ultimate success. A partisan war may be continued, and hostilities protracted, causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country, but I see no prospect by that means of achieving a separate independence. It is for Your Excellency to decide, should you agree with me in opinion, what is proper to be done. To save useless effusion of blood, I would recommend measures be taken for suspension of hostilities and the restoration of peace.
I am with great respect, yr obdt svt
R. E. Lee
Although it was a Wednesday, many contemporary observers in the United States thought that April 19, 1865 felt like a Sunday. Funeral rites were being conducted for Abraham Lincoln at the White House and a national holiday, a national day of mourning, was proclaimed. After the funeral service at the White House, Lincoln’s body began its long trek back to Springfield, where it would pass through 180 cities with the people of the country given an opportunity to pass by Lincoln’s coffin. The funeral sermon was preached by Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington that Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln attended. He had been close to both Lincolns, the Lincolns had chosen him to preach the funeral sermon when their son Willie died, and he would accompany the body back to Springfield and preach the final funeral sermon there. His sermon at the White House was a powerful effort and reflected a willingness to see the Hand of God in all things, a common sentiment at that time, that most of us today, even those of us who are religious, lack, especially when something terrible occurs. God is relegated, in much contemporary religious thought, to being either a divine Santa Claus, or an ineffectual, albeit well meaning, divinity, who stands apart from the frequently terrible things that occur in this vale of tears and weeps with us. I think Gurley is closer to the truth, even with his patina of Calvinism, as to the nature of I AM who created the universe. Here is the text of the sermon:
AS WE STAND HERE TODAY, MOURNERS AROUND THIS COFFIN AND AROUND THE LIFELESS REMAINS OF OUR BELOVED CHIEF MAGISTRATE, WE RECOGNIZE AND WE ADORE THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD. His throne is in the heavens, and His kingdom ruleth over all. He hath done, and He hath permitted to be done, whatsoever He pleased. “Clouds and darkness are round about Him; righteousness and judgment are the habitation of His throne.” His way is in the sea, and His path in the great waters, and His footsteps are not known. “Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? Deeper than hell; what canst thou know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea. If He cut off, and shut up, or gather together, then who can hinder Him? For He knoweth vain men; he seeth wickedness also; will He not then consider it?”–We bow before His infinite majesty. We bow, we weep, we worship.
“Where reason fails, with all her powers,
There faith prevails, and love adores.”
It was a cruel, cruel hand, that dark hand of the assassin, which smote our honored, wise, and noble President, and filled the land with sorrow. But above and beyond that hand there is another which we must see and acknowledge. It is the chastening hand of a wise and a faithful Father. He gives us this bitter cup. And the cup that our Father hath given us, shall we not drink it?
God of the just, Thou gavest us the cup:
We yield to thy behest, and drink it up.”
“Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.” O how these blessed words have cheered and strengthened and sustained us through all these long and weary years of civil strife, while our friends and brothers on so many ensanguined fields were falling and dying for the cause of Liberty and Union! Let them cheer, and strengthen, and sustain us to-day. True, this new sorrow and chastening has come in such an hour and in such a way as we thought not, and it bears the impress of a rod that is very heavy, and of a mystery that is very deep. That such a life should be sacrificed, at such a time, by such a foul and diabolical agency; that the man at the head of the nation, whom the people had learned to trust with a confiding and a loving confidence, and upon whom more than upon any other were centered, under God, our best hopes for the true and speedy pacification of the country, the restoration of the Union, and the return of harmony and love; that he should be taken from us, and taken just as the prospect of peace was brightly opening upon our torn and bleeding country, and just as he was beginning to be animated and gladdened with the hope of ere long enjoying with the people the blessed fruit and reward of his and their toil, and care, and patience, and self-sacrificing devotion to the interests of Liberty and the Union–O it is a mysterious and a most afflicting visitation! But it is our Father in heaven, the God of our fathers, and our God, who permits us to be so suddenly and sorely smitten; and we know that His judgments are right, and that in faithfulness He has afflicted us. In the midst of our rejoicings we needed this stroke, this dealing, this discipline; and therefore He has sent it. Let us remember, our affliction has not come forth out of the dust, and our trouble has not sprung out of the ground. Through and beyond all second causes let us look, and see the sovereign permissive agency of the great First Cause. It is His prerogative to bring light out of darkness and good out of evil. Surely the wrath of man shall praise Him, and the remainder of wrath He will restrain. In the light of a clearer day we may yet see that the wrath which planned and perpetuated the death of the President, was overruled by Him whose judgements are unsearchable, and His ways are past finding out, for the highest welfare of all those interests which are so dear to the Christian patriot and philanthropist, and for which a loyal people have made such an unexampled sacrifice of treasure and of blood. Let us not be faithless, but believing. Continue reading
My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.
Lincoln’s Farewell to Springfield, February 11, 1861
Something for the weekend. The Funeral March of President Lincoln. One hundred and fifty years ago the North was convulsed in grief, as it mourned the commander in chief who just had successfully concluded the bloodiest war in American history. Lincoln belongs to the entire nation, but Illinois has always taken pardonable pride in her favorite son. On May 1-May 3, 2015 Springfield, Illinois will be commemorating the funeral of Lincoln:
Mary Todd Lincoln, prostrated with grief, angrily resisted all suggestions and pleas that Lincoln be buried in Washington, and brought him home to Illinois, along with the body of their son Willie. Continue reading
One hundred and fifty years ago news traveled slowly outside of areas with operating telegraphs, and so it was that news of Lincoln’s assassination reached General Sherman in North Carolina on April 17, as he was on his way to discuss with General Joseph E. Johnston the surrender of Johnston’s army. Here is the portion of Sherman’s memoirs where he discussed what happened at the meeting:
Just as we were entering the car, the telegraph-operator, whose office was up-stairs in the depot-building, ran down to me and said that he was at that instant of time receiving a most important dispatch in cipher from Morehead City, which I ought to see. I held the train for nearly half an hour, when he returned with the message translated and written out. It was from Mr. Stanton, announcing the assassination of Mr. Lincoln, the attempt on the life of Mr. Seward and son, and a suspicion that a like fate was designed for General Grant and all the principal officers of the Government. Dreading the effect of such a message at that critical instant of time, I asked the operator if any one besides himself had seen it; he answered No! I then bade him not to reveal the contents by word or look till I came back, which I proposed to do the same afternoon. The train then started, and, as we passed Morris’s Station, General Logan, commanding the Fifteenth Corps, came into my car, and I told him I wanted to see him on my return, as I had something very important to communicate. He knew I was going to meet General Johnston, and volunteered to say that he hoped I would succeed in obtaining his surrender, as the whole army dreaded the long march to Charlotte (one hundred and seventy-five miles), already begun, but which had been interrupted by the receipt of General Johnston’s letter of the 13th. We reached Durham’s, twenty-six miles, about 10 a.m., where General Kilpatrick had a squadron of cavalry drawn up to receive me. We passed into the house in which he had his headquarters, and soon after mounted some led horses, which he had prepared for myself and staff. General Kilpatrick sent a man ahead with a white flag, followed by a small platoon, behind which we rode, and were followed by the rest of the escort. We rode up the Hillsboro’ road for about five miles, when our flag bearer discovered another coming to meet him: They met, and word was passed back to us that General Johnston was near at hand, when we rode forward and met General Johnston on horseback, riding side by side with General Wade Hampton. We shook hands, and introduced our respective attendants. I asked if there was a place convenient where we could be private, and General Johnston said he had passed a small farmhouse a short distance back, when we rode back to it together side by side, our staff-officers and escorts following. We had never met before, though we had been in the regular army together for thirteen years; but it so happened that we had never before come together. He was some twelve or more years my senior; but we knew enough of each other to be well acquainted at once. We soon reached the house of a Mr. Bennett, dismounted, and left our horses with orderlies in the road. Our officers, on foot, passed into the yard, and General Johnston and I entered the small frame-house. We asked the farmer if we could have the use of his house for a few minutes, and he and his wife withdrew into a smaller log-house, which stood close by. Continue reading
In hundreds of posts since 2008 at The American Catholic and Almost Chosen People, I have examined various facets of the public life of Abraham Lincoln. Of course, the most important part of Lincoln’s life came, as it will for each of us, after his death when he stood before God for the particular judgment. In this life the outcome of that judgment is unknown to us. However, I think the record is well-established that during the Civil War Lincoln found his mind and his heart turning increasingly towards God.
Lincoln throughout his life had read the Bible and effortlessly used scriptural quotes in his speaking and writing, both in public and in private. Lincoln had the Bible in his bones, and often turned to it. Lincoln’s religious opinions are not simple to discern, however, as Mark Noll in a perceptive article skillfully points out.
In 1846 when Lincoln ran successfully for Congress against a well known Protestant minister, Peter Cartwright, he was attacked as an “infidel” and a scoffer against religion. In a pamphlet Lincoln responded: “That I am not a member of any Christian church is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular… I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, or scoffer at, religion.” Before the election campaign Lincoln went to one of the revival meetings of Cartwright, probably to scope out the opposition. During the meeting Cartwright asked all those who were intent on going to Heaven to stand, and Lincoln remained seated. Cartwright then asked all those who were intent on going to Hell to stand, and Lincoln once again remained seated. Cartwright then inquired of Lincoln directly where Lincoln intended to go since he stood neither for Heaven nor Hell. Lincoln responded that he intended to go to Congress.
I have always thought that Mary Todd Lincoln, his wife and most perceptive observer, best understood Lincoln’s religious views: “From the time of the death of our little Edward, I believe my husband’s heart was directed towards religion & as time passed on – when Mr. Lincoln became elevated to Office – with the care of a great Nation, upon his shoulders – when devastating war was upon us then indeed to my knowledge – did his great heart go up daily, hourly, in prayer to God – for his sustaining power When too – the overwhelming sorrow came upon us, our beautiful bright angelic boy, Willie was called away from us, to his Heavenly Home, with God’s chastising hand upon us – he turned his heart to Christ.”
Certainly Mr. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address gives strong evidence that Lincoln had thought long and very hard about God and human affairs. Lincoln occasionally gave hints that indicated that he was thinking about his own destiny in the hereafter. In August of 1864 it looked as if Lincoln was headed to electoral defeat. A group of Wisconsin politicians visiting the White House suggested that perhaps Lincoln’s prospects would improve if he would agree to drop the Emancipation Proclamation in exchange for the Confederate states returning to the Union. Lincoln responded briskly:
“I should be damned in time and in eternity were I to do that. I will keep faith with the gallant black soldiers who have fought and died for this nation at Port Hudson and Olustee. The Proclamation sticks.”
As for the Bible, Lincoln gave frequent public and private comments that indicated his great respect for the book of books. When Lincoln received the gift of a Bible from freed slaves in Maryland he made the following statement: “In regard to this great book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.“
In the summer of 1864 Lincoln spent an evening with perhaps his closest friend Joshua F. Speed. When Speed arrived Lincoln was reading the Bible. Speed recounted the incident as follows: “As I entered the room near night, [Lincoln] was sitting near a window reading his Bible. Approaching him, I said, ‘I am glad to see you profitably engaged.’ ‘Yes,’ said he, ‘I am profitably engaged.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘if you have recovered from your skepticism I am sorry to say that I have not!’ Looking me earnestly in the face, and placing his hand upon my shoulder, he said: ‘You are wrong Speed; take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith and you will live and die a happier and better man.’”
Very significant evidence as to the impact on Lincoln of the death of his son Willie and the war is given by Phineas Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington that Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln regularly attended. In response to an inquiry as to whether Lincoln was a scoffer, Gurley replied as follows: ” I do not believe a word of it. It could not have been true of him while here, for I have had frequent and intimate conversations with him on the Subject of the Bible and the Christian religion, when he could have had no motive to deceive me, and I considered him sound not only on the truth of the Christian religion but on all its fundamental doctrines and teachings. And more than that, in the latter days of his chastened and weary life, after the death of his son Willie, and his visit to the battlefield of Gettysburg, he said, with tears in his eyes, that he had lost confidence in everything but God, and that he now believed his heart was changed, and that he loved the Savior, and, if he was not deceived in himself, it was his intention soon to make a profession of religion.”
So much for the historical record. When it comes to something of the heart and soul like religion, prose and facts can take us only so far. Time to call on a poet.
Stephen Vincent Benet 87, four score and seven, years ago wrote an epic poem on the American Civil War, John Brown’s Body. Courtesy of Project Gutenberg, it is available on line here. In this section of the poem I think he gets close to the truth of Abraham Lincoln and his turning to God during the war. Lincoln is sitting in the telegraph office at the War Department anxiously awaiting news of the battle of Antietam: Continue reading
On Friday April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln and his wife planned to go to Ford’s Theater in the evening. But first, Lincoln had a day of work ahead of him, which included a cabinet meeting.
Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, made this notation in his diary regarding the cabinet meeting that occurred at noon:
On April 11, 1865, Abraham Lincoln made his last speech. It was to a jubilant crowd that had gathered at the White House in celebration of the surrender of Lee. The speech was an impromptu effort and clearly indicated that Lincoln was shifting gears from the War to the problems of Reconstruction. Here is the text of that speech:
We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart. The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and the surrender of the principal insurgent army, give hope of a righteous and speedy peace whose joyous expression can not be restrained. In the midst of this, however, He from whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten. A call for a national thanksgiving is being prepared, and will be duly promulgated. Nor must those whose harder part gives us the cause of rejoicing, be overlooked. Their honors must not be parcelled out with others. I myself was near the front, and had the high pleasure of transmitting much of the good news to you; but no part of the honor, for plan or execution, is mine. To Gen. Grant, his skilful officers, and brave men, all belongs. The gallant Navy stood ready, but was not in reach to take active part.
By these recent successes the re-inauguration of the national authority — reconstruction — which has had a large share of thought from the first, is pressed much more closely upon our attention. It is fraught with great difficulty. Unlike a case of a war between independent nations, there is no authorized organ for us to treat with. No one man has authority to give up the rebellion for any other man. We simply must begin with, and mould from, disorganized and discordant elements. Nor is it a small additional embarrassment that we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of reconstruction.
As a general rule, I abstain from reading the reports of attacks upon myself, wishing not to be provoked by that to which I can not properly offer an answer. In spite of this precaution, however, it comes to my knowledge that I am much censured for some supposed agency in setting up, and seeking to sustain, the new State government of Louisiana. In this I have done just so much as, and no more than, the public knows. In the Annual Message of Dec. 1863 and accompanying Proclamation, I presented a plan of re-construction (as the phrase goes) which, I promised, if adopted by any State, should be acceptable to, and sustained by, the Executive government of the nation. I distinctly stated that this was not the only plan which might possibly be acceptable; and I also distinctly protested that the Executive claimed no right to say when, or whether members should be admitted to seats in Congress from such States. This plan was, in advance, submitted to the then Cabinet, and distinctly approved by every member of it. One of them suggested that I should then, and in that connection, apply the Emancipation Proclamation to the theretofore excepted parts of Virginia and Louisiana; that I should drop the suggestion about apprenticeship for freed-people, and that I should omit the protest against my own power, in regard to the admission of members to Congress; but even he approved every part and parcel of the plan which has since been employed or touched by the action of Louisiana. The new constitution of Louisiana, declaring emancipation for the whole State, practically applies the Proclamation to the part previously excepted. It does not adopt apprenticeship for freed-people; and it is silent, as it could not well be otherwise, about the admission of members to Congress. So that, as it applies to Louisiana, every member of the Cabinet fully approved the plan. The message went to Congress, and I received many commendations of the plan, written and verbal; and not a single objection to it, from any professed emancipationist, came to my knowledge, until after the news reached Washington that the people of Louisiana had begun to move in accordance with it. From about July 1862, I had corresponded with different persons, supposed to be interested, seeking a reconstruction of a State government for Louisiana. When the message of 1863, with the plan before mentioned, reached New-Orleans, Gen. Banks wrote me that he was confident the people, with his military co-operation, would reconstruct, substantially on that plan. I wrote him, and some of them to try it; they tried it, and the result is known. Such only has been my agency in getting up the Louisiana government. As to sustaining it, my promise is out, as before stated. But, as bad promises are better broken than kept, I shall treat this as a bad promise, and break it, whenever I shall be convinced that keeping it is adverse to the public interest. But I have not yet been so convinced. Continue reading
The choice of the two officers to oversee the surrender ceremony at Appomattox, Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Confederate General John Brown Gordon, was quite appropriate. In a War where the vast majority of soldiers were volunteers and not regular soldiers, both these Generals were volunteers, not professional soldiers. They both during the War saw more combat than most professional soldiers see in an entire career. After the War both became active in politics and both often spoke of the need for love of the reunited nation and a forgetting of the angry passions of the Civil War, while ever remembering the courage of the men who had fought it, especially the courage of those who never came back from the War.
Chamberlain helped begin the healing of the dreadful wounds to the nation caused by the War at Appomattox. As the Confederates passed by, Chamberlain ordered a salute to them by the Union troops. He explained why he did this:
“I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;–was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?” Continue reading
Something for the weekend. I Am a Rebel Soldier sung by Waylon Jennings. Stephen Vincent Benet in his epic poem on the Civil War, John Brown’s Body, follows, in part of his poem, a Confederate Georia cavalry unit in the Army of Northern Virginia, the Black Horse Troop. On the way to Appomattox they met their destiny guarding the rear of their expiring Army. I have always thought this was a fitting tribute to the men of that Army who endured to the end.
Wingate wearily tried to goad
A bag of bones on a muddy road
Under the grey and April sky
While Bristol hummed in his irony
“If you want a good time, jine the cavalry!
Well, we jined it, and here we go,
The last event in the circus-show,
The bareback boys in the burnin’ hoop
Mounted on cases of chicken-croup,
The rovin’ remains of the Black Horse Troop!
Though the only horse you could call real black
Is the horsefly sittin’ on Shepley’s back,
But, women and children, do not fear,
They’ll feed the lions and us, next year.
And, women and children, dry your eyes,
The Southern gentleman never dies.
He just lives on by his strength of will
Like a damn ole rooster too tough to kill
Or a brand-new government dollar-bill
That you can use for a trousers-patch
Or lightin’ a fire, if you’ve got a match,
Or makin’ a bunny a paper collar,
Or anythin’ else–except a dollar.
Old folks, young folks, never you care,
The Yanks are here and the Yanks are there,
But no Southern gentleman knows despair.
He just goes on in his usual way,
Eatin’ a meal every fifteenth day
And showin’ such skill in his change of base
That he never gets time to wash his face
While he fights with a fury you’d seldom find
Except in a Home for the Crippled Blind,
And can whip five Yanks with a palmleaf hat,
Only the Yanks won’t fight like that. Continue reading
Who, after your best was spent and your Spring lay dead,
Yet held the intolerable lines of Petersburg
With deadly courage.
You too are a legend now
And the legend has made your fame and has dimmed that fame,
–The victor strikes and the beaten man goes down
But the years pass and the legend covers them both,
The beaten cause turns into the magic cause,
The victor has his victory for his pains–
So with you–and the legend has made a stainless host
Out of the dusty columns of footsore men
Who found life sweet and didn’t want to be killed,
Grumbled at officers, grumbled at Governments.
That stainless host you were not. You had your cowards,
Your bullies, your fakers, your sneaks, your savages.
You got tired of marching. You cursed the cold and the rain.
You cursed the war and the food–and went on till the end.
And yet, there was something in you that matched your fable.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
It was fitting that one of the great armies of American history would go out of that history with a salute from its commander, Robert E. Lee.
Against high odds Lee and his army had come close to creating a new nation. Always outnumbered, with troops often dressed in rags, ill-fed, ill-supplied, he led his men to magnificent victories in the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Fighting another great general, Grant, he achieved a stalemate in 1864 against an army that had more than a two-to-one advantage, and prolonged the life of his country by almost a year. A fighting general with a propensity for taking huge risks, he was also a humane man with unfailing courtesy for both friend and foe. In this final order he told the men who loved him, how much he loved them: Continue reading
And so the Civil War ended. Oh, not immediately. The surrender process throughout the Confederacy would take until June, and skirmishes would be fought. But with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, no one, except perhaps Jefferson Davis, north or south, doubted that the Civil War had ended with a Union victory. At Appomattox Lee and Grant, with the ways in which they both behaved at this all important event in American history, planted the seeds of American reunification.
Lee, as ever noble, viewed surrender as a painful duty, and trusted in Grant to give just terms. Grant, who would forbid the firing of cannon salutes in celebration of the surrender, gave as his main term that the Confederates simply go home and get on with their lives, agreeing to them taking with them a horse if they claimed one to help with the spring planting, and specifying that Confederate officers would retain their side arms so that he would not have to accept Lee’s sword in token of surrender.
The best account of the surrender is Grant’s, contained in his memoirs:
When I had left camp that morning I had not expected so soon the result that was then taking place, and consequently was in rough garb. I was without a sword, as I usually was when on horseback on the field, and wore a soldier’s blouse for a coat, with the shoulder straps of my rank to indicate to the army who I was. When I went into the house I found General Lee. We greeted each other, and after shaking hands took our seats. I had my staff with me, a good portion of whom were in the room during the whole of the interview.
What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.
General Lee was dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new, and was wearing a sword of considerable value, very likely the sword which had been presented by the State of Virginia; at all events, it was an entirely different sword from the one that would ordinarily be worn in the field. In my rough traveling suit, the uniform of a private with the straps of a lieutenant-general, I must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form. But this was not a matter that I thought of until afterwards.
We soon fell into a conversation about old army times. He remarked that he remembered me very well in the old army; and I told him that as a matter of course I remembered him perfectly, but from the difference in our rank and years (there being about sixteen years’ difference in our ages), I had thought it very likely that I had not attracted his attention sufficiently to be remembered by him after such a long interval. Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting. After the conversation had run on in this style for some time, General Lee called my attention to the object of our meeting, and said that he had asked for this interview for the purpose of getting from me the terms I proposed to give his army. I said that I meant merely that his army should lay down their arms, not to take them up again during the continuance of the war unless duly and properly exchanged. He said that he had so understood my letter. Continue reading