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HOME > Biographical > Abraham Lincoln > VI THE DARK DAYS OF 1862
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The dark days of 1862 were in April brightened by the all-important news that Admiral Farragut had succeeded in bringing the Federal fleet, or at least the leading vessels in this fleet, past the batteries of Forts St. Philip and Jackson on the Mississippi, and had compelled the surrender of New Orleans. The opening of the Mississippi River had naturally been included among the most essential things to be accomplished in the campaign for the restoration of the national authority. It was of first importance that the States of the North-west and the enormous contiguous territory which depended upon the Mississippi for its water connection with the outer world should not be cut off from the Gulf. The prophecy was in fact made more than once that in case the States of the South had succeeded in establishing their independence, there would have come into existence on the continent not two confederacies, but probably four. The communities on the Pacific Coast would naturally have been tempted to set up for themselves, and a similar course might also naturally have been followed by the great States of the North-west whose interests were so closely bound up with the waterways running southward. It was essential that no effort should be spared to bring the loyal States of the West into control of the line of the Mississippi. More than twelve months was still required after the capture of New Orleans on the first of May, 1862, before the surrender of Vicksburg to Grant and of Port Hudson to Banks removed the final barriers to the Federal control of the great river. The occupation of the river by the Federals was of importance in more ways than one. The States to the west of the river—Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas—were for the first two years of the War important sources of supplies for the food of the Confederate army. Corn on the cob or in bags was brought across the river by boats, while the herds of live cattle were made to swim the stream, and were then most frequently marched across country to the commissary depots of the several armies. After the fall of Port Hudson, the connection for such supplies was practically stopped; although I may recall that even as late as 1864, the command to which I was attached had the opportunity of stopping the swimming across the Mississippi of a herd of cattle that was in transit for the army of General Joe Johnston.

In April, 1862, just after the receipt by Lincoln of the disappointing news of the first repulse at Vicksburg, he finds time to write a little autograph note to a boy, "Master Crocker," with thanks for a present of a white rabbit that the youngster had sent to the President with the suggestion that perhaps the President had a boy who would be pleased with it.

During the early part of 1862, Lincoln is giving renewed thought to the great problem of emancipation. He becomes more and more convinced that the success of the War calls for definite action on the part of the administration in the matter of slavery. He was, as before pointed out, anxious, not only as a matter of justice to loyal citizens, but on the ground of the importance of retaining for the national cause the support of the Border States, to act in such manner that the loyal citizens of these States should be exposed to a minimum loss and to the smallest possible risk of disaffection. In July, 1862, Lincoln formulated a proposition for compensated emancipation. It was his idea that the nation should make payment of an appraised value in freeing the slaves that were in the ownership of citizens who had remained loyal to the government. It was his belief that the funds required would be more than offset by the result in furthering the progress of the War. The daily expenditure of the government was at the time averaging about a million and a half dollars a day, and in 1864 it reached two million dollars a day. If the War could be shortened a few months, a sufficient amount of money would be saved to offset a very substantial payment to loyal citizens for the property rights in their slaves.

The men of the Border States were, however, still too bound to the institution of slavery to be prepared to give their assent to any such plan. Congress was, naturally, not ready to give support to such a policy unless it could be made clear that it was satisfactory to the people most concerned. The result of the unwise stubbornness in this matter of the loyal citizens of Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Maryland was that they were finally obliged to surrender without compensation the property control in their slaves. When the plan for compensated emancipation had failed, Lincoln decided that the time had come for unconditional emancipation. In July, 1862, he prepares the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was his judgment, which was shared by the majority of his Cabinet, that the issue of the proclamation should, however, be deferred until after some substantial victory by the armies of the North. It was undesirable to give to such a step the character of an utterance of despair or even of discouragement. It seemed evident, however, that the War had brought the country to the point at which slavery, the essential cause of the cleavage between the States, must be removed. The bringing to an end of the national responsibility for slavery would consolidate national opinion throughout the States of the North and would also strengthen the hands of the friends of the union in England where the charge had repeatedly been made that the North was fighting, not against slavery or for freedom of any kind, but for domination. The proclamation was held until after the battle of Antietam in September, 1862, and was then issued to take effect on the first of January, 1863. It did produce the hoped-for results. The cause of the North was now placed on a consistent foundation. It was made clear that when the fight for nationality had reached a successful termination, there was to be no further national responsibility for the great crime against civilisation. The management of the contrabands, who were from week to week making their way into the lines of the Northern armies, was simplified. There was no further question of holding coloured men subject to the possible claim of a possibly loyal master. The work of organising coloured troops, which had begun in Massachusetts some months earlier in the year, was now pressed forward with some measure of efficiency. Boston sent to the front the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments composed of coloured troops and led by such men as Shaw and Hallowell. The first South Carolina coloured regiment was raised and placed under the command of Colonel Higginson.

I had myself some experience in Louisiana with the work of moulding plantation hands into disciplined soldiers and I was surprised at the promptness of the transformation. A contraband who made his way into the camp from the old plantation with the vague idea that he was going to secure freedom was often in appearance but an unpromising specimen out of which to make a soldier. He did not know how to hold himself upright or to look the other man in the face. His gait was shambly, his perceptions dull. It was difficult for him either to hear clearly, or to understand when heard, the word of instruction or command. When, however, the plantation rags had been disposed of and (possibly after a souse in the Mississippi) the contraband had been put into the blue uniform and had had the gun placed on his shoulder, he developed at once from a "chattel" to a man. He was still, for a time at least, clumsy and shambly. The understanding of the word of command did not come at once and his individual action, if by any chance he should be left to act alone, was, as a rule, less intelligent, less to be depended upon, than that of the white man. But he stood up straight in the garb of manhood, looked you fairly in the face, showed by his expression that he was anxious for the privilege of fighting for freedom and for citizenship, and in Louisiana, and throughout the whole territory of the War, every black regiment that came into engagement showed that it could be depended upon. Before the War was closed, some two hundred thousand negroes had been brought into the ranks of the Federal army and their service constituted a very valuable factor in the final outcome of the campaigns. A battle like that at Milliken's Bend, Mississippi, inconsiderable in regard to the numbers engaged, was of distinctive importance in showing what the black man was able and willing to do when brought under fire for the first time. A coloured regiment made up of men who only a few weeks before had been plantation hands, had been left on a point of the river to be picked up by an expected transport. The regiment was attacked by a Confederate force of double or treble the number, the Southerners believing that there would be no difficulty in driving into the river this group of recent slaves. On the first volley, practically all of the officers (who were white) were struck down and the loss with the troops was also very heavy. The negroes, who had but made a beginning with their education as soldiers, appeared, however, not to have learned anything about the conditions for surrender and they simply fought on until no one was left standing. The percentage of loss to the numbers engaged was the heaviest of any action in the War. The Southerners, in their contempt for the possibility of negroes doing any real fighting, had in their rushing attack exposed themselves much and had themselves suffered seriously. When, in April, 1865, after the forcing back of Lee's lines, the hour came, so long waited for and so fiercely fought for, to take possession of Richmond, there was a certain poetic justice in allowing the negro division, commanded by General Weitzel, to head the column of advance.

Through 1862, and later, we find much correspondence from Lincoln in regard to the punishment of deserters. The army penalty for desertion when the lines were in front of the enemy, was death. Lincoln found it very difficult, however, to approve of a sentence of death for any soldier. Again and again he writes, instructing the general in the field to withhold the execution until he, Lincoln, had had an opportunity of passing upon the case. There is a long series of instances in which, sometimes upon application from the mother, but more frequently through the personal impression gained by himself of the character of the delinquent, Lincoln decided to pardon youngsters who had, in his judgment, simply failed to realise their full responsibility as soldiers. Not a few of these men, permitted to resume their arms, gained distinction later for loyal service.

In December, 1862, Jefferson Davis issued an order which naturally attracted some attention, directing that General Benjamin F. Butler, when captured, should be "reserved for execution." Butler never fell into the hands of the Confederates and it is probable that if he had been taken prisoner, the order would have remained an empty threat. From Lincoln came the necessary rejoinder that a Confederate officer of equal rank would be held as hostage for the safety of any Northern general who, as prisoner, might not be protected under the rules of war.

Lincoln's correspondence during 1862, a year which was in many ways the most discouraging of the sad years of the war, shows how much he had to endure in the matter of pressure of unrequested advice and of undesired counsel from all kinds of voluntary advisers and active-minded citizens, all of whom believed that their views were important, if not essential, for the salvation of the state. In September, 1862, Lincoln writes to a friend:

"I am approached with the most opposite opinions expressed on the part of religious men, each of whom is equally certain that he represents the divine will."

To one of these delegations of ministers, Lincoln gave a response which while homely in its language must have presented to his callers a vivid picture of the burdens that were being carried by the leader of the state:

"Gentlemen," he said, "suppose all the property you possess were in gold, and you had placed it in the hands of Blondin to carry across the Niagara River on a rope. With slow, cautious, steady steps he walks the rope, bearing your all. Would you shake the cable and keep shouting to him, 'Blondin, stand up a little straighter! Blondin, stoop a little more; go a little faster; lean more to the south! Now lean a little more to north! Would that be your behaviour in such an emergency? No, you would hold your breath, every one of you, as well as your tongues. You would keep your hands off until he was safe on the other side."

Another delegation, which had been urging some months in advance of what Lincoln believed to be the fitting time for the issuing of the Proclamation of Emancipation, called asking that there should be no further delay in the action. One of the ministers, as he was retiring, turned and said to Lincoln: "What you have said to us, Mr. President, compels me to say to you in reply that it is a message to you from our Divine Master, through me, commanding you, sir, to open the doors of bondage, that the slave may go free!" Lincoln replied: "That may be, sir, for I have studied this question by night and by day, for weeks and for months, but if it is, as you say, a message from your Divine Master, is it not odd that the only channel He could send it by was that roundabout route through the wicked city of Chicago?"

Another version of the story omits the reference to Chicago, and makes Lincoln's words:

"I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal His will to others on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed He would reveal it directly to me.... Whatever shall appear to be God's will, I will do."

In September, 1862, General Lee carried his army into Maryland, threatening Baltimore and Washington. It is probable that the purpose of this invasion was more political than military. The Confederate correspondence shows that Davis was at the time hopeful of securing the intervention of Great Britain and France, and it was natural to assume that the prospects of such intervention would be furthered if it could be shown that the Southern army, instead of being engaged in the defence of its own capital, was actually threatening Washington and was possibly strong enough to advance farther north.

General Pope had, as a result of his defeat at the second Bull Run, in July, 1862, lost the confidence of the President and of the country. The defeat alone would not necessarily have undermined his reputation, which had been that of an effective soldier. He had, however, the fatal quality, too common with active Americans, of talking too much, whether in speech or in the written word, of promising things that did not come off, and of emphasising his high opinion of his own capacity. Under the pressure of the new peril indicated by the presence of Lee's troops within a few miles of the capital, Lincoln put to one side his own grave doubts in regard to the effectiveness and trustworthiness of McClellan and gave McClellan one further opportunity to prove his ability as a soldier. The personal reflections and aspersions against his Commander-in-chief of which McClellan had been guilty, weighed with Lincoln not at all; the President's sole thought was at this time, as always, how with the material available could the country best be served.

McClellan had his chance (and to few men is it given to have more than one great opportunity) and again he threw it away. His army was stronger than that of Lee and he had the advantage of position and (for the first time against this particular antagonist) of nearness to his base of supplies. Lee had been compelled to divide his army in order to get it promptly into position on the north side of the Potomac. McClellan's tardiness sacrificed Harper's Ferry (which, on September 15th, was actually surrounded by Lee's advance) with the loss of twelve thousand prisoners. Through an exceptional piece of good fortune, there came into McClellan's hands a despatch showing the actual position of the different divisions of Lee's army and giving evidence that the two wings were so far separated that they could not be brought together within twenty-four hours. The history now makes clear that for twenty-four hours McClellan had the safety of Lee's army in his hands, but those precious hours were spent by McClellan in "getting ready," that is to say, in vacillating.

Finally, there came the trifling success at South Mountain and the drawn battle of Antietam. Lee's army was permitted to recross the Potomac with all its trains and even with the captured prisoners, and McClellan lay waiting through the weeks for something to turn up.

A letter written by Lincoln on the 13th of October shows a wonderfully accurate understanding of military conditions, and throws light also upon the character and the methods of thought of the two men:

"Are you not overcautious when you assume that you cannot do what the enemy is constantly doing? Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim? As I understand, you telegraphed General Halleck that you cannot subsist your army at Winchester unless the railroad from Harper's Ferry to that point be put in working order. But the enemy does now subsist his army at Winchester, at a distance nearly twice as great as you would have to do, without the railroad last named. He now waggons from Culpeper Court House, which is just about twice as far as you would have to do from Harper's Ferry. He is certainly not more than half as well provided with waggons as you are.... Again, one of the standard maxims of war, as you know, is to 'operate upon the enemy's communications without exposing your own.' You seem to act as if this applies against you, but cannot apply it in your favour. Change positions with the enemy, and think you not he would break your communication with Richmond in twenty-four hours?... You are now nearer Richmond than the enemy is by the route you can and he must take. Why can you not reach there before him, unless you admit that he is more than your equal on a march? His route is the arc of a circle, while yours is the chord. The roads are as good on your side as on his ... If he should move northward, I would follow him closely, holding his communications. If he should prevent our seizing his communications and move towards Richmond, I would press closely to him, fight him, if a favourable opportunity should present, and at least try to beat him to Richmond on the inside track. I say 'Try'; if we never try, we shall never succeed.... If we cannot beat him when he bears the wastage of coming to us, we never can when we bear the wastage of going to him.... As we must beat him somewhere or fail finally, we can do it, if at all, easier near to us than far away.... It is all easy if our troops march as well as the enemy, and it is unmanly to say that they cannot do it."

The patience of Lincoln and that of the country behind Lincoln were at last exhausted. McClellan was ordered to report to his home in New Jersey and the General who had come to the front with such flourish of trumpets and had undertaken to dictate a national policy at a time when he was not able to keep his own army in position, retires from the history of the War.

The responsibility again comes to the weary Commander-in-chief of finding a leader who could lead, in whom the troops and the country would have confidence, and who could be trusted to do his simple duty as a general in the field without confusing his military responsibilities with political scheming. The choice first fell upon Burnside. Burnside was neither ambitious nor self-confident. He was a good division general, but he doubted his ability for the general command. Burnside loyally accepts the task, does the best that was within his power and, pitted against a commander who was very much his superior in general capacity as well as in military skill, he fails. Once more has the President on his hands the serious problem of finding the right man. This time the commission was given to General Joseph Hooker. With the later records before us, it is easy to point out that this selection also was a blunder. There were better men in the group of major-generals. Reynolds, Meade, or Hancock would doubtless have made more effective use of the power of the army of the Potomac, but in January, 1863, the relative characters and abilities of these generals were not so easily to be determined. Lincoln's letter to Hooker was noteworthy, not only in the indication that it gives of Hooker's character but as an example of the President's width of view and of his method of coming into the right relation with men. He writes:

"You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable if not an indispensable quality.... I think, however, that during General Burnside's command of the army, you have taken counsel of your ambition and have thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honourable brother officer. I have heard of your recently saying that both the army and the government needed a dictator. Of course it was not for this but in spite of it that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain success can set up as dictators. What I now ask of you is military success and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the best of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all its commanders.... Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories."

Hooker, like Burnside, undoubtedly did the best that he could. He was a loyal patriot and had shown himself a good division commander. It is probable, however, that the limit of his ability as a general in the field was the management of an army corps; he seems to have been confused in the attempt to direct the movements of the larger body. At Chancellorsville, he was clearly outwitted by his opponents, Lee and Jackson. The men of the army of the Potomac fought steadily as always but with the discouraging feeling that the soldiers on the other side of the line had the advantage of better brain power behind them. It is humiliating to read in the life of Jackson the reply given by him to Lee when Lee questioned the safety of the famous march planned by Jackson across the front of the Federal line. Said Lee: "There are several points along the line of your proposed march at which your column could be taken in flank with disastrous results." "But, General Lee," replies Jackson, "we must surely in planning any military movements take into account the personality of the leaders to whom we are opposed."

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