What Did Mr. Lincoln Know? (Conclusion)

I several previous posts I looked at President Lincoln’s relationship to the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid to get some idea of his culpability in the assassination attempt on Jefferson Davis and the Confederate leadership.

In the first, I looked at the military and political situation in the winter of 1863-64, how Lincoln’s hopes of ending the war in the summer of 1863 had been dashed, his perception that the time left to put down the rebellion was running out, and his decision—never committed to writing—to take the gloves off and wage a harsh war against the South as a whole.

Next I considered, given the above, how Lincoln saw his options that winter and how he viewed his enemy, the Confederacy. In spite of the almost total failure of his policy of reconciliation, Lincoln still clung to the belief that the Confederacy was the creation of a few slaveholders and the bulk of the population remained loyal to the Union. This view was reinforced by his spy ring in Richmond, which suggested that removing the “head and front” of the rebellion would summarily end it. The idea of a surgical strike doing what armies had failed to do was just too good to resist.

There was still the question of leadership. The next post looked at how the raid was structured outside the army’s normal of command, and how Judson Kilpatrick and Ulric Dahlgren gained leading roles in the affair. Dahlgren in particular had few qualifications for such an important and sensitive assignment other than being a FOL (Friend of Lincoln).

Then, I posted about the consequences of the raid, which were almost uniformly bad for the Union, generating lots of bad publicity and hardening Confederate resistance, noting that there has never been an official denial.

Finally, I looked the relationship between Lincoln and his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton. Was Lincoln simply a weak president who was unaware of a rogue operation by his secretary of war? There seems to be little evidence for that. In spite of their political and personal differences the two men worked well together, and there seems to be no question that Lincoln was in charge and well aware of how the war was being conducted.

My conclusion is that Lincoln did know very well what the raid’s ultimate purpose was, but like any good politician tried to distance himself from it as much as possible. Barring the extremely unlikely event that some sort of written evidence will turn up, there will be no smoking gun implicating Lincoln. Nevertheless, given the totality of the circumstances, I think the only logical conclusion is that the president did know. The final link of causation, to me, is the presence of Ulric Dahlgren, who had no connection with any of the raid’s organizers or commanders but Abraham Lincoln, whom he knew very well. By putting Dahlgren in charge, which he almost certainly did, the president assumed an active part in the conspiracy.

I will have more to say about Lincoln and the harsh war policy when I get around to reviewing some of the recent books on guerrilla warfare.

So where does that leave the Great Emancipator? Is he hero or war criminal, or like most wartime presidents, maybe a little of both? You decide.

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