From The Gettysburg Battlefield To The Appomattox Courthouse
In the Eastern theater of the war, Union forces suffered a major defeat at the battle of Second Bull Run (30 August 1862). On 17 September 1862 General McClellan’s army halted General Lee’s invasion of Maryland at the battle of Antietam, a bloody engagement at which 25,000 were killed, wounded, or went missing in action. When McClellan failed to pursue and capture Lee’s weakened army, allowing it to retreat into Virginia, Lincoln relieved the general and replaced him with General Ambrose E. Burnside. Burnside’s forces suffered horrendous casualties when they were defeated at the battle of Fredericksburg on 13 December. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, while applauded by abolitionists and many Republicans, was condemned by many Northern Democrats. On 24 September 1862, two days after he issued the Preliminary Proclamation, Lincoln extended the suspension of habeas corpus across the entire country. In response, the president’s critics labeled him a dictator. In the mid-term elections Democrats made gains in several Northern states and picked up more than thirty seats in the U. S. House of Representatives. Republicans maintained control of Congress, however.
The year 1863 proved to be a turning point in the Civil War. After inflicting a crushing defeat on federal forces at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May, Lee’s army commenced a second invasion of the North. In an epic three-day (1-3 July) battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lee lost one third of his army (nearly 28,000 men). On 4 July, General Grant’s three-month siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, resulted in the surrender of nearly 30,000 Confederate troops. Despite these victories, a serious peace movement emerged in the North among Democrats, labeled “Copperheads” by the Republican press. Nevertheless, the military situation seemed to be improving as General Grant’s forces drove the Confederate army out of Tennessee. On 19 November 1863 Lincoln was invited to deliver “a few appropriate remarks” for the dedication of a new military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But it was the noted orator Edward Everett, not the president, who was the featured speaker of the day. As it turned out, Everett’s two-hour speech was overshadowed by Lincoln’s two-minute, 272-word address, with the former long forgotten and the latter now considered one of the finest speeches in the English language.
In March 1864, Lincoln named Ulysses S. Grant general in chief of all Union armies. The president heartily supported Grant’s ambitious strategy of a broader war which targeted both the Confederate armies and the South’s socioeconomic infrastructure. Grant traveled to Virginia to engage General Lee’s forces while other Union armies moved against Confederate troops in Georgia and Louisiana. Although Grant’s massive assaults gradually wore down Lee’s army, the latter fought valiantly in defense of Southern soil. During May and June 1864 Grant’s and Lee’s armies fought to a draw at the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. Grant’s Virginia campaign produced more than 60,000 Union casualties in just two months of fighting. Despite the staggering number of battlefield deaths, Lincoln’s resolve did not bend. He issued a call for 500,000 more enlistments.
The carnage produced by General Grant’s Virginia campaign shocked the Northern public and emboldened the peace movement. As the 1864 presidential election approached, Lincoln’s political prospects appeared to be rapidly fading. In June, Lincoln was re-nominated for a second term by the Republican Party (renamed temporarily as the Union Party) at its national convention in Baltimore. The party also nominated Andrew Johnson, a pro-war Democrat from Tennessee, for the vice presidency (dropping Vice President Hamlin from the ticket). The Democratic Party held its convention in Chicago in August and nominated General George B. McClellan for president and adopted a platform that called for a peaceful end to the war. By the time Democrats held their convention, many in the North, including Lincoln himself, believed that the president would be defeated in the November election. Several days after Democrats chose their ticket, however, General William T. Sherman and his Union forces captured Atlanta after a long siege. Sherman’s success revived Northern morale as well as Lincoln’s campaign. On 8 November 1864 Lincoln was re-elected by a near-landslide, capturing more than 55 percent of the popular vote (without a single vote in the South) and 212 of 233 electoral votes.
President Lincoln was inaugurated for a second term on 4 March 1865. His eloquent inaugural address, considered by many to be his finest political speech, was conciliatory rather than self-righteous in tone. Noting that slavery was the cause of the war, Lincoln told the nation—North and South—that the conflict was God’s retribution for allowing the institution to exist: “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’” Preparing the nation for a non-punitive reconstruction plan for the South, Lincoln closed his remarks with a call for reconciliation: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
When Lincoln delivered his inaugural address, the long and bloody Civil War was entering its final phase. The Confederacy was collapsing as General Sherman’s army, after capturing Atlanta, embarked on a campaign of destruction through Georgia and the Carolinas, and General Grant’s forces closed in on Lee’s battered troops and the city of Richmond. On 2 April 1865 the Confederate capital was evacuated. Two days later President Lincoln toured the city and was greeted by hundreds of freed blacks. On 9 April, a week after Richmond fell to Union troops, General Lee surrendered his army to General Grant at Appomattox Court House. Although some Confederate forces remained in the field, the war was essentially over (it would officially end in May 1865).
As celebrations broke out across the North, President Lincoln was eager to enact a reconstruction policy that would heal the nation’s wounds and hoped to see the adoption of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery everywhere in the United States. The latter was on its way to becoming a reality. On 31 January 1865 Congress, with the active support of Lincoln, passed the constitutional amendment. Although not required by law, Lincoln decided to sign the measure to show his commitment to the abolition of slavery. He was undoubtedly pleased when, on 1 February, Illinois became the first state to ratify the amendment. Unfortunately, Lincoln did not live to see the Thirteenth Amendment become part of the U.S. Constitution on 18 December 1865. In his final speech, delivered at the White House on 11 April, Lincoln for the first time publicly expressed his wish that voting rights be extended to black men in the reconstructed South, especially those who were educated and who had served in the Union Army.