In Retrospect: Lincoln’s War

Abraham Lincoln at the front.

Abraham Lincoln at the front.

“I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered. Or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me.”
– Abraham Lincoln, 1862

A glance or two backward at Geoffrey Perret’s Lincoln’s War:

The Monitor and the Merrimac

“Lincoln believed in ironclad warships before the Navy did. In 1848, during his sole term in Congress, he met with Uriah Brown, a man who had devoted over thirty years to thinking about and designing ironclad ships. Here, Brown told him, is the key to the oceans, the warship that will rule the waves; but the Navy considered Brown a crank and a pest.

“Even so, Lincoln took Brown and his ideas seriously, and the time seemed propitious: the United States was currently at war with Mexico. What better chance for a new kind of warship? Lincoln petitioned the House for a grant that would enable Brown to build a large-scale working model. Before the petition could make any progress, peace shattered Brown’s hopes.

“By 1861, however, the navies of Britain and France had built ironclad warships; Italy and Spain were about to follow suit. The only question when the Civil War began was which would build its own ironclad first, the North or the South.

“When Congress convened on July 4, that question had been answered: the Confederates had begun to construct an ironclad using a former United states warship, the Merrimac, now renamed the Virginia . . . .”


“By August 18 the Army of the Potomac was on its way back to Alexandria, from which it had set sail ten weeks and ten battles earlier. Lincoln would hold on to McClellan while hoping for better; the general probably realized that his chance of joining the great captains had come and gone. Over time it became something of a cliche to describe McClellan’s military career as ‘meteoric.’ The term could not be more apt: meteors do not rise; they descend, spectacularly, burning to ashes as they fall.”

Lincoln’s Will to Fight

“Great military countries do not admit defeat: they have to be destroyed. It was always going to be that kind of war – a fight to the death. Lincoln knew it, accepted it and drove on, even while aching for – almost physically at times – field commanders who understood that fact as he had come to understand it during the Bull Run summer of 1861.

“Lincoln’s will to fight was the North’s great invisible weapon; a will that was more than adamantine – it ramified into every aspect of American life. Without the liminal nature of that will, the war would have ended, and so would the Union and its destiny. Any other politician capable of winning the presidency in 1860 or 1864 would have sought a compromise.”

A Great General

“Seeing the egotism that gold braid and stars brought out in a man, Lincoln developed a wry appreciation of ‘my generals.’ On one occasion, he remarked to a visitor that he had recently realized a particular general was something of a philosopher. ‘He has proved himself a really great man,’ said Lincoln. ‘He has grappled with and mastered that ancient and wise admonition, ‘Know thyself.’ He has formed an intimate acquaintanceship with himself, known as well for what he is fitted and unfitted as any man living. This war has not produced another like him.’

“The visitor asked what had brought about this sudden appreciation of the general’s merits. ‘Because,’ replied Lincoln, amusement gleaming in the light of his deep gray eyes, ‘greatly to my relief, and to the interests of the country, he has resigned!’”

The Scholar

“The argument [Lincoln] was looking for did not come from anyone within the government, or even among his friends, still less from the radicals such as Horace Greeley who had been demanding since Fort Sumter that he free and arm slaves, It cam from a Boston shoe and leather merchant. On July 10, 1862, George Livermore presented a paper at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Despite a life in business, Livermore’s deepest interests were scholarly and literary.

“His paper was called ‘An Historical Research Respecting the Opinions of the Founders of the Republic on Negroes as Slaves, as Citizens, and as Soldiers.’ Three months later, Livermore’s presentation – along with the documents it drew upon – was published as a book that went through five editions. A pamphlet presenting its conclusions sold more than one hundred thousand copies.

“Most of Livermore’s book was devoted to black soldiers in the Revolutionary War and included numerous observations such as this, from a Hessian officer: ‘No regiment is to be seen in which there are not Negroes in abundance; and many of them are able-bodied, strong and brave fellows.

“Livermore’s friend Charles Sumner presented Lincoln with a first edition of the book, which Lincoln read, deeply impressed. When he mislaid his copy, Lincoln asked Sumner to send over his own. Edward Bates, the Attorney General, was equally taken.

“Livermore made a convincing case that black men would fight effectively under white officers. Just as important, perhaps, was his reassurance that in arming black soldiers, Lincoln would be doing as George Washington had already done.

“In mid-November, Lincoln acted like a man who suddenly realizes he has wasted valuable time. He almost certainly expected that raising black regiments would follow emancipation, if it happened at all. Now, having read Livermore, he authorized the revival of Hunter’s experiment, the 1st South Carolina Infantry. Black soldiers would precede the Emancipation Proclamation, as if carrying it on their bayonets . . . .

“The morning of January 1, 1863, as the White House buzzed with preparations for the annual New Year’s reception, Lincoln wrote out the Emancipation Proclamation, but was forced to leave it unfinished while he went to greet some of his more important guests. More than two hours passed before he returned upstairs. The signing ceremony was scheduled for noon, in his office, but his right hand was too swollen and numb from shaking hands for him to write the last paragraph. He dictated it to John Nicolay.

“Lincoln feared his hand might tremble as he signed. ‘I have been shaking hands since nine o’clock this morning, till my arm is stiff and numb,’ he told Seward, but he was determined to produce a bold, firm signature. The willed result was a firmer, bolder signature than usual.

“Seward attached the Great Seal of the Union to the proclamation and countersigned. Two days later, the pen that Lincoln had signed with (and almost certainly the one used to write it) was on its way to Boston, in a white wrapper on which Lincoln had written ‘Emancipation Pen.’ It was going to George Livermore.”

Published in: on December 20, 2008 at 12:14 am  Leave a Comment