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HOME > Biographical > Abraham Lincoln > IX LINCOLN'S TASK ENDED
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On the 11th of April, Lincoln makes his last public utterance. In a brief address to some gathering in Washington, he says, "There will shortly be announcement of a new policy." It is hardly to be doubted that the announcement which he had in mind was to be concerned with the problem of reconstruction. He had already outlined in his mind the essential principles on which the readjustment must be made. In this same address, he points out that "whether or not the seceded States be out of the union, they are out of their proper relations to the union." We may feel sure that he would not have permitted the essential matters of readjustment to be delayed while political lawyers were arguing over the constitutional issue. On one side was the group which maintained that in instituting the Rebellion and in doing what was in their power to destroy the national existence, the people of the seceding States had forfeited all claims to the political liberty of their communities. According to this contention, the Slave States were to be treated as conquered territory, and it simply remained for the government of the United States to reshape this territory as might be found convenient or expedient. According to the other view, as secession was itself something which was not to be admitted, being, from the constitutional point of view, impossible, there never had in the legal sense of the term been any secession. The instant the armed rebellion had been brought to an end, the rebelling States were to be considered as having resumed their old-time relations with the States of the North and with the central government. They were under the same obligations as before for taxation, for subordination in foreign relations, and for the acceptance of the control of the Federal government on all matters classed as Federal. On the other hand, they were entitled to the privileges that had from the beginning been exercised by independent States: namely, the control of their local affairs on matters not classed as Federal, and they had a right to their proportionate representation in Congress and to their proportion of the electoral vote for President. It has been very generally recognised in the South as in the North that if Lincoln could have lived, some of the most serious of the difficulties that arose during the reconstruction period through the friction between these conflicting theories would have been avoided. The Southerners would have realised that the head of the government had a cordial and sympathetic interest in doing what might be practicable not only to re-establish their relations as citizens of the United States, but to further in every way the return of their communities to prosperity, a prosperity which, after the loss of the property in their slaves and the enormous destruction of their general resources, seemed to be sadly distant.

On the 14th of April, comes the dramatic tragedy ending on the day following in the death of Lincoln. The word dramatic applies in this instance with peculiar fitness. While the nation mourned for the loss of its leader, while the soldiers were stricken with grief that their great captain should have been struck down, while the South might well be troubled that the control and adjustment of the great interstate perplexities was not to be in the hands of the wise, sympathetic, and patient ruler, for the worker himself the rest after the four years of continuous toil and fearful burdens and anxieties might well have been grateful. The great task had been accomplished and the responsibilities accepted in the first inaugural had been fulfilled.

In March, 1861, Lincoln had accepted the task of steering the nation through the storm of rebellion, the divided opinions and counsels of friends, and the fierce onslaught of foes at home and abroad. In April, 1865, the national existence was assured, the nation's credit was established, the troops were prepared to return to their homes and resume their work as citizens. At no time in history had any people been able against such apparently overwhelming perils and difficulties to maintain a national existence. There was, therefore, notwithstanding the great misfortune, for the people South and North, in the loss of the wise ruler at a time when so many difficulties remained to be adjusted, a dramatic fitness in having the life of the leader close just as the last army of antagonists was laying down its arms. The first problem of the War that came to the administration of 1861 was that of restoring the flag over Fort Sumter. On the 14th of April, the day when Booth's pistol was laying low the President, General Anderson, who four years earlier had so sturdily defended Sumter, was fulfilling the duty of restoring the Stars and Stripes.

The news of the death of Lincoln came to the army of Sherman, with which my own regiment happened at the time to be associated, on the 17th of April. On leaving Savannah, Sherman had sent word to the north to have all the troops who were holding posts along the coasts of North Carolina concentrated on a line north of Goldsborough. It was his dread that General Johnston might be able to effect a junction with the retreating forces of Lee and it was important to do whatever was practicable, either with forces or with a show of forces, to delay Johnston and to make such combination impossible. A thin line of Federal troops was brought into position to the north of Johnston's advance, but Sherman himself kept so closely on the heels of his plucky and persistent antagonist that, irrespective of any opposing line to the north, Johnston would have found it impossible to continue his progress towards Virginia. He was checked at Goldsborough after the battle of Bentonville and it was at Goldsborough that the last important force of the Confederacy was surrendered.

We soldiers learned only later some of the complications that preceded that surrender. President Davis and his associates in the Confederate government had, with one exception, made their way south, passing to the west of Sherman's advance. The exception was Post-master-General Reagan, who had decided to remain with General Johnston. He appears to have made good with Johnston the claim that he, Reagan, represented all that was left of the Confederate government. He persuaded Johnston to permit him to undertake the negotiations with Sherman, and he had, it seems, the ambition of completing with his own authority the arrangements that were to terminate the War. Sherman, simple-hearted man that he was, permitted himself, for the time, to be confused by Reagan's semblance of authority. He executed with Reagan a convention which covered not merely the surrender of Johnston's army but the preliminaries of a final peace. This convention was of course made subject to the approval of the authorities in Washington. When it came into the hands of President Johnson, it was, under the counsel of Seward and Stanton, promptly disavowed. Johnson instructed Grant, who had reported to Washington from Appomattox, to make his way at once to Goldsborough and, relieving Sherman, to arrange for the surrender of Johnston's army on the terms of Appomattox. Grant's response was characteristic. He said in substance: "I am here, Mr. President, to obey orders and under the decision of the Commander-in-chief I will go to Goldsborough and will carry out your instructions. I prefer, however, to act as a messenger simply. I am entirely unwilling to take out of General Sherman's hands the command of the army that is so properly Sherman's army and that he has led with such distinctive success. General Sherman has rendered too great a service to the country to make it proper to have him now humiliated on the ground of a political blunder, and I at least am unwilling to be in any way a party to his humiliation."

Stanton was disposed to approve of Johnson's first instruction and to have Sherman at once relieved, but the man who had just come from Appomattox was too strong with the people to make it easy to disregard his judgment on a matter which was in part at least military. The President was still new to his office and he was still prepared to accept counsel. The matter was, therefore, arranged as Grant desired. Grant took the instructions and had his personal word with Sherman, but this word was so quietly given that none of the men in Sherman's army, possibly no one but Sherman himself, knew of Grant's visit. Grant took pains so to arrange the last stage of his journey that he came into the camp at Goldsborough well after dark, and, after an hour's interview with Sherman, he made his way at once northward outside of our lines and of our knowledge.

On Grant's arrival, Sherman at once assumed that he was to be superseded. "No, no," said Grant; "do you not see that I have come without even a sword? There is here no question of superseding the commander of this army, but simply of correcting an error and of putting things as they were. This convention must be cancelled. You will have no further negotiation with Mr. Reagan or with any civilian claiming to represent the Confederacy. Your transactions will be made with the commander of the Confederate army, and you will accept the surrender of that army on the terms that were formulated at Appomattox." Sherman was keen enough to understand what must have passed in Washington, and was able to appreciate the loyal consideration shown by General Grant in the successful effort to protect the honour and the prestige of his old comrade. The surrender was carried out on the 26th of April, eleven days after the death of Lincoln. Johnston's troops, like those of Lee, were distributed to their homes. The officers retained their side-arms, and the men, leaving their rifles, took with them not only such horses and mules as they still had with them connected with the cavalry or artillery, but also a number of horses and mules which had been captured by Sherman's army and which had not yet been placed on the United States army roster. Sherman understood, as did Grant, the importance of giving to these poor farmers whatever facilities might be available to enable them again to begin their home work. Word was at once sent to General Johnston after Grant's departure that the, only terms that could be considered was a surrender of the army, and that the details of such surrender Sherman would himself arrange with Johnston. Reagan slipped away southward and is not further heard of in history.

The record of Lincoln's relations to the events of the War would not be complete without a reference to the capture of Jefferson Davis. On returning to Washington after his visit to Richmond, Lincoln had been asked what should be done with Davis when he was captured. The answer was characteristic: "I do not see," said Lincoln, "that we have any use for a white elephant." Lincoln's clear judgment had at once recognised the difficulties that would arise in case Davis should become a prisoner. The question as to the treatment of the ruler of the late Confederacy was very different from, and much more complicated than, the fixing of terms of surrender for the Confederate armies. If Davis had succeeded in getting out of the country, it is probable that the South, or at least a large portion of the South, would have used him as a kind of a scapegoat. Many of the Confederate soldiers were indignant with Davis for his bitter animosities to some of their best leaders. Davis was a capable man and had in him the elements of statesmanship. He was, however, vain and, like some other vain men, placed the most importance upon the capacities in which he was the least effective. He had had a brief and creditable military experience, serving as a lieutenant with Scott's army in Mexico, and he had impressed himself with the belief that he was a great commander. Partly on this ground, and partly apparently as a result of general "incompatibility of temper," Davis managed to quarrel at different times during the War with some of the generals who had shown themselves the most capable and the most serviceable. He would probably have quarrelled with Lee, if it had been possible for any one to make quarrel relations with that fine-natured gentleman, and if Lee had not been too strongly entrenched in the hearts of his countrymen to make any interference with him unwise, even for the President. Davis had, however, managed to interfere very seriously with the operations of men like Beauregard, Sidney Johnson, Joseph Johnston, and other commanders whose continued leadership was most important for the Confederacy. It was the obstinacy of Davis that had protracted the War through the winter and spring of 1865, long after it was evident from the reports of Lee and of the other commanders that the resources of the Confederacy were exhausted and that any further struggle simply meant an inexcusable loss of life on both sides. As a Northern soldier who has had experience in Southern prisons, I may be excused also from bearing in mind the fearful responsibility that rests upon Davis for the mismanagement of those prisons, a mismanagement which caused the death of thousands of brave men on the frozen slopes of Belle Isle, on the foul floors of Libby and Danville, and on the rotten ground used for three years as a living place and as a dying place within the stockade at Andersonville. Davis received from month to month the reports of the conditions in these and in the other prisons of the Confederacy. Davis could not have been unaware of the stupidity and the brutality of keeping prisoners in Richmond during the last winter of the War when the lines of road still open were absolutely inadequate to supply the troops in the trenches or the people of the town. Reports were brought to Davis more than once from Andersonville showing that a large portion of the deaths that were there occurring were due to the vile and rotten condition of the hollow in which for years prisoners had been huddled together; but the appeal made to Richmond for permission to move the stockade to a clean and dry slope was put to one side as a matter of no importance. The entire authority in the matter was in the hands of Davis and a word from him would have remedied some of the worst conditions. He must share with General Winder, the immediate superintendent of the prisons, the responsibility for the heedless and brutal mismanagement,—a mismanagement which brought death to thousands and which left thousands of others cripples for life.

As a result of the informal word given by Lincoln, it was generally understood, by all the officers, at least, in charge of posts and picket lines along the eastern slope, that Davis was not to be captured. Unfortunately it had not proved possible to get this informal expression of a very important piece of policy conveyed throughout the lines farther west. An enterprising and over-zealous captain of cavalry, riding across from the Mississippi to the coast, heard of Davis's party in Florida and, "butting in," captured, on May 10th, "the white elephant."

The last commands of the Confederate army were surrendered with General Taylor in Louisiana on the 4th of May and with Kirby Smith in Texas on the 26th of May. As Lincoln had foreshadowed, not a few complications resulted from this unfortunate capture of Davis, complications that were needlessly added to by the lack of clear-headedness or of definite policy on the part of a confused and vacillating President. During the............
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