The American Civil War is best remembered as the conflict that freed the slaves, but the abolition of slavery wasn’t even among the original aims of the northern war effort. Abolition had been widely advocated in the North for decades, but it was far from universally embraced at the outbreak of hostilities in 1861. There were indeed four slaveholding states that remained in the Union—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—and President Abraham Lincoln, aware of their strategic “border” location and wary of tipping their fragile loyalty toward the Confederacy, was careful not to antagonize them by suggesting that abolition was even an incidental goal of the Northern cause.
Throughout the first two years of a conflict far bloodier than anyone had anticipated, Lincoln repeatedly articulated what he felt that cause to be: the preservation of the Union. The existential threat to the United States represented by the South’s secession was to him his sole mandate to wage such a costly war. This was not merely a politically expedient public posture, but his own personal conviction: as he wrote privately to Horace Greeley in 1862
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.
Lincoln’s own personal views on slavery are difficult to determine and have been much debated. His comments and observations on the subject are often confusingly contradictory, reflecting an ambivalence about race common even among the most “enlightened” individuals of the day. There is, however, much evidence to suggest that Lincoln’s perspective on slavery evolved over time, and certainly by late 1862 he had come to see in the abolition of slavery a higher cause through which the war’s unprecedented slaughter might be redeemed.
In 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves of the Confederacy. Although this grand gesture actually did nothing for slaves within the Union itself, it did help give a renewed sense of purpose to the war-weary North. Later that same year, while consecrating the site of the war’s bloodiest battle, Lincoln gave his most eloquent expression of this new, higher meaning. The Gettysburg Address affirmed for all—and for all time—that the Civil War was no longer merely a struggle to preserve a political union; it was now a moral crusade.
Gates: The urge to judge Lincoln outside of his times is a strong one. It’s worth remembering, that his every decision was made in the context of the greatest crisis in our nation’s history. Any misstep and the country could fall apart. By the summer 1863, two-and-a-half years into the war, over a quarter of a million Americans had already lost their lives and there seemed to be no end in sight. We can see toll it took on Lincoln – in 30 short months in office, he seemed to have aged a lifetime.
At Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee took the battle into the heart of the north. Union forces beat him back, but Lincoln’s generals failed to pursue lee’s damaged army, allowing him to escape back to the safety of the south. Lincoln was despondent. His son, Robert found his father with his head buried in his hands, weeping with disappointment. Lincoln knew the war would continue, and with it would come many more casualties.
Faust: I think he felt an enormous burden of making decisions that he knew would cost lives. And it’s not as if he was removed from the impact of those decisions. Washington was in the center of the war. It was filled with hospitals that were themselves filled with the casualties of battles like Antietam and battles in Virginia. And so Lincoln saw the impact of his decisions in a very direct way.
Gates: Harvard president drew Gilpin Faust has written a moving book on the meaning of death during the civil war. She helped me understand Lincoln’s struggle to lend support to a nation in the midst of almost unimaginable grief and suffering.
Faust: Lincoln was deeply touched by death throughout his life. He lost his mother as a young child. He lost a child of his own before he came to Washington as president. He lost a second child, his young son Willie, who died in 1862, so in the midst of civil war. So Lincoln himself was mourning losses through much of his life.
Some of the most poignant and I think famous of Lincoln’s writings are condolence letters that he wrote during the war to family members of those who died. And in one in particular that I think of as you ask this question, he wrote to a young woman named fanny McCullough, who was...just could not be consoled after the death of her father.
And he talked about how sorrow comes to all. I think it hurt him deeply to think of all this loss. And yet he saw death and life as very much intertwined and inseparable.
Gates: Whatever had sustained Americans to this point-- their belief in a just and righteous god; the hope that they’d see their loved ones again in the afterlife--that faith was crumbling with each passing day.
Faust: even with the kinds of religious belief that assured salvation and comforted individuals that their losses would not be eternal… the war was a constant challenge to the depth of that belief, to the persistence of that belief. “How could god have allowed this,” and so it was a time that introduced doubt and a certain amount of irony and questioning into religious belief. I think one of the ways he thought about death was that he had to make it worth something because otherwise the cost would be unbearable
Gates: After so many days on my journey, I had come to understand Lincoln’s struggle to invest the war with as much meaning as he could -- the preservation of the union and the republic, the destruction of slavery. It was here at Gettysburg that he was finally able to express all of that meaning.
On a blustery afternoon on November 19th, 1863, a bare-headed Lincoln rose to deliver his address. All around him, witnesses said, hung the lingering stench of death. Clinton: I think he thought that he ought to be present in the blood shed and the suffering -- that it was wrong for him to pretend that he could in any way be apart from it
Clinton: At Gettysburg you saw a man whose spirit had been purified in the fires of the slaughter of the civil war, in the determination he had to hold the union together. And it was– you know, in just a couple of hundred words he was able to say how all Americans either were feeling or should be feeling.
Gates: We all know how it starts – four score and seven years ago. It is familiar to any American and in many ways, we’ve taken it for granted. But if you look closer you realize it is a work of genius – in just 272 words Abraham Lincoln was able to make us believe that liberty and union were inextricably linked -- he made us understand that the war was now about slavery without ever mentioning the word. Throughout his presidency, Lincoln used the power of seemingly simple, but profoundly eloquent language—to express and ennoble his cause. Lincoln’s language is the key to understanding the greatness of the man himself.
Voice over –with graphic
• A house divided against itself cannot stand,
• Let us have faith that right makes might,
• The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present,
• The better angels of our nature,
• With malice toward none with charity for all,
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