Lincoln in 1863

by Fred Ray on January 22, 2010 · 3 comments

I’m taking a look at Abe Lincoln as president—not as angel or devil—in an attempt to determine what his real war policies were, especially in relation to the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid and toward civilians (i.e. “hard war”). It isn’t that easy, since Mistah Linkum was a consummate (and slippery) politician in his time and a revered figure in ours as The Great Emancipator. Nevertheless, he still needs to be looked at fairly.

Like any good politician, Lincoln took care to associate himself with acts of mercy (e.g. commuting death sentences) and progressive political acts like emancipation, and was equally careful to avoid being connected to less savory acts—which, to be fair, every war leader must deal with—such as assassination and war on civilians. Thus we are unlikely to find any sort of smoking gun ordering these things, so I think it’s a mistake for historians to limit themselves to what Lincoln said. You also have to look at what he—and more importantly the people who worked for him—actually did.

The other thing, as I will address in this post, is what the situation looked like at the time these acts and decisions were made. We live in a different time both morally and politically, and tend to read the zeitgeist of our own time into the past. Specifically I’m going to take up the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid, and what the war situation would have looked like to Lincoln in the winter of 1863-64.

Lincoln inherited an explosive situation when he took office in 1861, but he and most of his cabinet (and a great many people in the North) came into office believing that the Confederacy was an aberration—an artificial creation of a small group of slave-owning aristocrats without any real popular support. The mass of the Southern people, he thought, remained loyal to the Union and would reassert themselves given half a chance. An early defeat would crystallize the opposition and the Confederacy would collapse. Even though the Confederates won the first battle at Manassas, Lincoln continued his approach of reaching out to the Southern moderates (sound familiar?) with a policy of conciliation rather than conquest. McClellan’s careful approach to Richmond exemplified this. Surely if Richmond fell the Confederacy would crumble … but it didn’t. Mark Grimsley, in Hard Hand of War, gives a good picture of the development of this policy.

Now fast forward to 1863. Lincoln has had to accept that this is a war and not just a localized rebellion. Still he hopes that the war might be won that year. There has been triumph and tragedy. In the West Rosecrans drives Bragg out of Tennessee and Grant conducts a brilliant campaign in Mississippi that isolates Vicksburg. There is a land and naval campaign to capture Charleston, where the rebellion began. In the East the Union loses at Chancellorsville but is victorious at Gettysburg in early July, and the next day an entire rebel army surrenders at Vicksburg. For a brief euphoric instant at midsummer it seems that Meade’s army will destroy that of Robert E. Lee, and that the rebellion will end then and there.

But it is not to be. Lee escapes to Virginia with his army intact, bitterly disappointing Lincoln. The land and sea attack on Charleston, which began so promisingly, fails, and the Confederates reverse the situation in the West with a victory that fall at Chickamauga. Even though Grant breaks the siege of Chattanooga in November the Federals are no closer to Atlanta or Richmond than they were that spring, and the Confederacy remains unsubdued.

Lincoln, nevertheless, clings to his idea that given an opportunity the loyal majority will assert themselves and the rebellion will collapse. But he’s also beginning to think that he’s running out of time. The war has dragged on for three years with no real end in sight, and he has to think about his increasingly doubtful chances of re-election that fall. The final pill, however, is Meade’s loss of nerve at Mine Run in December, or so Lincoln sees it. He had entertained great—and unreasonable—hopes of Meade delivering another Gettysburg in Virginia, but instead the Federals cancel their attack, retreat, and go into winter quarters. Lincoln is not there, of course, to see the appalling conditions and the strength of the Confederate fortifications, which probably would have delivered a Fredericksburg instead.

The situation in early 1864, as seen from the White House, looks rather gloomy.

More to come…

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