Abraham Lincoln: A Talk by Val Coleman

Talk by Val Coleman given 4 PM Saturday September 15, 2018 at the Sandisfield Arts Center

One in the Coleman/Cohn series of talks on American life and culture


I was raised in Lincoln country, a small town in southern Illinois that was the Goosenest Prarie home of Thomas and Sara Bush Lincoln, parents of our 16th President.  Our house was a Lincoln museum, from a framed five dollar bill (at a time when five bucks was a small fortune) to a legion of books and thousands of postcard-sized notes filled with the fruits of my father’s labors as a Lincoln historian.

Before I go any further, I must tell you that I am convinced that if you see America through the lens of its history,  Abraham Lincoln is the very bloodstream of our country… His natural parents, Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, were storybook American pioneers (Thomas was born in 1778) and his father, Captain Abraham Lincoln, was a member of the Virginia militia in the Revolutionary War.   As children, both Thomas and Nancy braved the Wilderness Road (blazed by Daniel Boone) from Virginia to Kentucky in 1780.  They lived in pounding poverty when Abraham was born in 1809…in time, the family migrated from Kentucky to Indiana and Illinois where our Abraham literally “frontier sculpted” the Constitution as a lawyer and political maverick.  Then he was drawn east across the nation to accept the presidency and  personally orchestrated the end of slavery while winning a civil war.

America incarnate.

Now, one further pause before we start splitting rails.  One night in Charleston Illinois, when I was six or seven, I was awakened by a grand noise of whoops and hollers.  Sneaking down the stairs I found my normally sober and sane mother and father madly four-handed dancing in the living room.

“We found it!” my mother shouted….when it came to Abraham Lincoln, my mother and father were often the same person…..what “they” had found in the basement of a Coles County courthouse was a  fine, crisp and well-stroked original signature of  Thomas Lincoln on a land lease…proving, finally, after a century of  condemnation as a “shiftless illiterate,” that the father of Abraham Lincoln was a literate, functioning landowner.   Both my father and later on, my sister-the-doctor, filled out the story that everyone (including the most notable biographers, Herndon, Burlingame and Sandburg) had ignored or fancified from no evidence.    It turns out, according to my sister’s (Dr. Mary Coleman’s) book and my father’s lifetime of study  that Abraham Lincoln

“grew up in one of the pioneering families  that built the United States.  Struggling first against the British and then against the Native Americans, they preservered and overcame great hardships.  His father, Thomas, was a hard-working religious man who literally conquered wilderness areas, building his own cabins and furniture and carving out his own farmland.  With his generosity, good humor and story-telling skills, he set a fine example for his son to emulate.  Above all, he wanted his son to exceed him, encouraging his cyphering and reading and in this, he succeeded beyond his wildest hopes.”

Incidentally, that rough, solid and pioneering beginning relieves us from the infamous requirement of finding some fancy, blue-blooded ancestor whose DNA made the Great Emancipator possible.    He was what he was… born dirt poor…..when asked later to describe his childhood, the President said, “You can find it in Gray’s elegy…..’the short and simple annals of the poor.’”

So lets get him born.

On the morning of Sunday February 12, 1809, Thomas Lincoln left his log cabin one and a half miles from Hodgenville Kentucky to find a “granny woman” Peggy Walters to assist in the birth of a baby boy to his wife Nancy Hanks.   Tom threw extra wood on the fire as the boy was born on a bed of poles.“What are you going to name him?   someone asked.   “Abraham,” said Nancy, “after his grandfather.”

We are talking here about the real American wilderness….great tracks of land still without the civilizing effect of strong government……filled with angry Indians who were  determined to recover their ancestral home.   Abraham’s namesake grandfather Captain Abraham was killed by a Shawnee Indian in May of 1786 while Thomas Lincoln, Abe’s father, horrified, had to watch. The Indian tried to scalp him but was killed by Mordecai, Thomas’s brother….our Abraham’s uncle. To survive in such country required endless bravery, physical stamina…..unshakable commitment and, if possible, a loving family.

By the way, I was born in 1930,  not that far removed from Lincoln’s 19th Century…..and I vividly remember even in my day the wide expanse of uncivilized forest and barren prairie of the southern middle west.

In 1816 (Abe was seven years old) Thomas decided to move to Indiana, cobbled together a raft,  found and crossed the Ohio River and shouldered his way into the wilderness.   In the cold autumn, the family followed into a “wild and desolate” section of southwestern Indiana called “Hurricane Township”.

Thomas carpentered a “half faced” camp, a home of three sides where they lived for the first year in Indiana……brutally open to the wind and weather.

In 1817, after the family had left the half-faced camp, Nancy Hanks became terribly ill….a victim of the “milksick” in which cows contracted the sickness by eating a toxic substance called “tremetol” and passing a terrible viral disease on through their milk.   To this day we still don’t really know what the “milksick” was…..many physicians have compared it to the viral Spanish flu that killed hundreds of thousands during the First World War.

On October 15, 1818, Nancy died.  Abraham was nine.

He lived in Indiana for 12 more years until he reached his “majority” – 21 years.   For many of these years, for 10 cents a day, he split rails, built fences, dug wells, cut pork, cleared land, painted his cabin and, interestingly, operated a ferry on Anderson Creek (a tributary of the Ohio River).  Abe and a buddy also “worked” a ferry on the Ohio and was astonished when they got a silver dollar for a days work.  Abe and a friend, Allan Gentry, actually travelled down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

It is said  by the way,that Lincoln got hold of  his first axe at age six….he promptly cut his hand…a scar that he proudly showed to most anyone in the white house. 

His father re-married a remarkable woman, Sara Bush Johnson, who is considered by all historians to be a saintly, loving influence to Abraham Lincoln.

There is a good deal of detail to gather regarding his education, intellectual and social growth in the Indiana years, from ages seven to twenty one.  He ATE literature as best he could find it in a primitive world….reading in any form, from borrowed books, newspapers and public documents.    He particularly loved biographies of people and nations if he could get his hands on them.   And he began his lifelong study of the law in these early years.   He apparently consumed much of the Bible…..in a slightly less than devout fashion….calling it in later years “the richest source of pertinent quotations”  and “but for it we could not know right from wrong.”   There was, in young Lincoln, a stunning if slightly skeptical gift….the seeds of a powerful intellect and above anything else, the instinct, judgement and prose of a great writer.   Edmund Wilson, the American literary critic said about the author of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Innaugural, “Alone among American presidents it is possible to imagine Lincoln, grown up in a different milieu, becoming a distinguished writer of a not merely political kind.”


  1. Illinois. Most of us have seen Robert Sherwood and Raymond Massey’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” One of those signature films that forever define an epic American story.   It is somewhat accurate historically if you can stomach the sentimental wash.   In March of 1830, the family, including a 21-year old Abe, crossed the river at Vincennes Indiana and arrived near Decatur Illinois (shortly, the older folks retraced their steps  back to Coles County  and set up permanent residence at Goosenest Prairie, a few miles from Charleston, Illinois …where your friend and lecturer grew up).   But Abe had his majority and he set out on his own and eventually settled himself in the town of New Salem……

Abe grasped his new, independent life with a will.     He built a flatboat and traveled to New Orleans carrying live hogs and barralled pork.   He clerked in the general store and immediately developed a reputation as a decent, fair-minded man.   One Mrs. Hannah Armstrong remembered him as “first rate”, “pleasant and kind”.  One woman bought a dress from him paying him $2.37. Later in the day, he realized that he has overcharged her six and a quarter cents and he sought her out to pay her back.  Through this, he acquired (and never lost) the appellation, “Honest Abe.” Lincoln’s innate affability and charm mixed with his physical prowess (he was a very sturdy six feet four inches….giant in those days….) in a famous wrestling match, in which he took on all the “Clary Grove Boys” and fought them to a draw….gaining their everlasting respect…..they  became his everlasting personal and importantly political supporters.

During this period, Abe mastered grammar and assiduously learned English composition from a string of local teachers, one of whom called him “astonishing”…..however, to his dying day he never lost his primitive lingo…….he actually opened his immortal Cooper Union speech with “Mr. Cheerman” and throughout his life said “waal” for “well”, “thar for “there” and “git” for “get”. More important, somewhere through here he became friends with a tavern keeper named James Rutledge and his daughter Ann who became his first and in some ways only his true love.

Nowadays, president’s are often vetted for their military service.   Lincoln got in just under the wire….served as an elected captain (his first electoral victory that he said “gave him more pleasure than  any other”) in the Fourth Illinois Regiment of Mounted Volunteers in the Black Hawk War.   Although he never served in combat, he and his men came upon the mutilated bodies of men women and children from the “Battle of Stillman’s Run”.   He occasionally defied his own men….one day an old Indian came into camp bearing a permission-to-visit slip and was attacked by his men….Lincoln intervened and saved the man’s life.   Although he mocked himself for not engaging in combat, he was proud of his role in the Black Hawk War…earned a huge 175 dollars and forty acres of public land….and made friendships that lasted his lifetime. He was, everyone agreed, a fine Captain, as his grandfather had been.

For a man whose life, in the end,was shot through with war, pain and an overbearing wife, Abe Lincoln’s brief encounter with Ann Rutledge was beautiful and important.   Her death left him so deeply stricken that some thought he might lose his mind.  He met her soon after he returned from the Black Hawk War and.. there is no other word for it… fell deeply in love.  She,  according to fairly objective friends, was comely, intelligent and gentle….caught in a commitment made by her father to marry another man.  The man vanished and she and Abe walked and talked endlessly, read books together  and soon planned marriage.  Two intellectually curious young people.  She suddenly contracted typhoid  fever.   She was out of her head calling for Abe when she died. He truly suffered…..Long after she died, one of his friends said, “Abe and I would be alone perhaps in the store on a rainy night and Abe would sit there, his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands, the tears dropping through his fingers.”

Their romance, and her epitaph  was beautifully commemorated in Edgar Lee Master’s “Spoon River Anthology”

Out of me unworthy and unknown                                    The vibrations of deathless music                                                                     “With malice toward none, with charity for all”                                   Out of me the forgiveness of millions towards millions                                   And the beneficent face of a nation                                   Shining with justice and truth.                                   I am Anne Rutledge who sleeps beneath these weeds                                   Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln,                                   Wedded to him, not through union                                   But through separation.                                   Bloom forever O Republic                                   From the dust of my bosom.



Now, I must collect my thoughts and tell you about the period from 1832 to 1849 (23 to 40 in Abraham years)….a period best described as his years as a frontier legislator.   But that doesn’t do it……we are out on the western fringe of American constitutional democracy which in many ways is a political nightmare.   The constitution, ratified in 1787 is mirrored in the states with most states having a lower house of representatives, a senate and a governor.  The new imperative of voting means that folks, many  for the first time in their lives, cast their ballots and find themselves engaged in the frantic and imprecise business of democratic choice in a world where an axe, a wagon, a horse, a gun and a daily war with weather, and hunger have shaped their lives.

Abe Lincoln was at the heart of it …. Clerking in a New Salem store and  serving as Postmaster and a surveyor…..he lived for the next book he could read…. Blackstone’s Commentaries, English Grammar, Precedents in Pleading,  led him into the study and practice of law but most important, he was drawn into the free-wheeling political world and in 1832 announced his candidacy for the Illinois House of Representatives….he lost and at the same time his store failed and he found himself deeply in debt.  He met his obligations.

Understand, we are on the outer western fringes of America…the theoretical structures of democracy and an actual constitution….added to a decent (usually Christian) upbringing,  are all there is to create and sustain a civilized society.

On August 4, 1834 Abe is elected for the first time to the Illinois legislature and becomes a Whig, an old English political party that out there represented the more liberal cast of  mind.    His native eloquence and taste for controversy led him into a series of political dustups over the next 20 years such as leading the movement to move the state capitol from tiny Vandalia to Springfield…which will forever be Lincolnian…..he is, of course, buried there.  He simultaneously practiced law,  including over 200 appearances before the Illinois Supreme Court.

He was everywhere, including the parlor of one Mary Todd, an upper crust lady of questionable temperament.  A bumpy courtship ended in marriage on November 4, 1842.   Although Lincoln often worried about his choice, the marriage produced four children, two of whom die in his lifetime. We will meet Mary later and I will try very hard to be fair….

Lincoln had a vast and varying practice and service as a lawyer and legislator.  Over the years he represented temperance advocates, railroads, petty thieves, wrestlers, murderers….even a slave owner, a case that he lost and ultimately regretted.   In 1847 he traveled to Washington and took his seat at the a Illinois representative in the United States House of Representatives and in 1848 met William Seward (who eventually became his Secretary of State) and Stephen A. Douglas….his pre-eminent opponent….In a way he had found his path to the presidency.  In February of 1851, his much-misunderstood father died.   His stepmother held on and saw her stepson become president.

The breadth of Lincoln’s burgeoning intellect and broad political point of view served him well in these early political years but the remainder of his life was overwhelmed with a single, savage issue……slavery.    So let’s take a look at the “peculiar institution” in Abraham Lincoln’s middle years.

He was no abolitionist.  But of course, he wrote and promulgated the Emancipaation Proclamation …..there was some “getting there”.


Chattel slavery began in this hemisphere in the early 16th Century, minutes after Columbus showed up.  By the time Abraham Lincoln became a political contender, it had settled in the American south, some eleven states below the Mason-Dixson Line had created economies dependent upon African-American slave labor in the cruelest, inhumane sense.   At issue specifically in 1858…Lincoln and his most powerful antagonist, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, were joined in a series of  debates for the US Senate seat in Illinois…slavery was spoken finally…out loud and clear.

Briefly, something called The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed Congress in 1854 written by Douglas.  The law overturned the Missouri Compromise which had kept lid on slavery for some three decades by restricting slavery to the South,   The Kansas-Nebraska now offered settlers of new territories the ability to decide whether to admit slaves within their borders.   Douglas called this “popular sovereignty”.  Lincoln was appalled…he thought that popular sovereignty was a plot to spread slavery nationwide…..One of those new territories, Kansas, for example had exploded into bloody violence between pro and anti-slavery settlers.  Incredibly, at the same time, the US Supreme Court issued the infamous “Dred Scott” decision holding that blacks could never be US citizens…directly contradicting Lincoln’s long-held view that, as originally written in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal”.

Lincoln’s much more complicated position was spelled out in  detail in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates  throughout the state of Illinois in 1858. Lincloln was, frankly, altering his talks to suit the general persuation of each audience.      The Illinois legislature was to either re-elect Stephen Douglas or elect Abraham Lincoln as the US Senator  from Illilnois.  Douglas was a Democrat (which was then the party that tolerated  slavery) and Lincoln was a Republican (a relatively new party consisting of Whigs and various liberals including a variety of anti-slavers).  The seven debates which ranged up and down the state of Illinois, were actually a national phenomena…..newspapers and telegraph wire services spread the texts of the debaters far and wide.  Both men were eloquent beyond anything that had been heard since the 18th Century.

Interestingly, one of the most telling debates took place in my home town, Charleston Illinois, on September 8, 1858.  Lincoln arrived from nearby Mattoon in  a huge parade with bands and banners including a float carrying 32 young women, each representing a state of the union…with one banner held by a “comely maiden” reading “Kansas will be free!”

Lincoln had been warned that the town of Charleston did not favor “Negro Equality”….and shaped his speech through the narrow waters of  his position… arguing that he was not in favor of making Negros voters or jurors or that he approved of intermarriage.   But in his infamous satiric vein  he argued that “Judge Douglas seems to be in constant horror of black citizenship (which could only be disposed by the state legislature) I propose that the best means to prevent it is that the Judge be kept at home and placed in the State Legislature to fight the measure.”  Douglas, squeezed by Lincoln’s homeboy charm, thundered his racist screed: “I say this government was created on the white basis for white men and their posterity forever…..the negro As……..

And on and on in seven Illinois towns…fascinating the nation.  It was overture   A first battle of a civil war, fought with words well spoken.

He lost to Douglas.

Now we come to what I think is the seminal moment.   Sometime in the afternoon of October 17, 1859 Lincoln opened a telegram from one James A Briggs, a New York Republican activist  which asked him to speak in New York City.  For all his stump speaking he had never talked in New York City….he was pleased and set about to prepare a talk that would once and for all describe the stupidity of slavery in historical, constitutional terms and thereby confront Sen. Douglas’ “popular sovereignty.”   The speech not only stunned its immediate audience but through reproduction in most newspapers, carried the message far and wide.  Here is what he argued…..That the founding fathers had never intended to sanction or spread slavery and had actually, in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, decreed that vast new sections of the country would be free.  Here was a tall, gangling Illinois rail-splitter teaching American history  to what was probably the most politically sophisticated gathering in the nation.  And he said much more… including a sensitive look at John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry that had happened a month earlier.  In this talk, known forever as the “Cooper Union Address” Abraham Lincoln laid out in crisp historical terms the terrifying future of a nation wrapped in slavery.


As of this moment, February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln had, with words, thrust himself into Republican nomination for President of the United States.  The great struggle which was centered on slavery both in the South but even more profoundly in the new territories to the west….was to be adjudicated by the 1860 presidential election.

Now we come to the infamous Chicago Republican convention…..held in a large purpose-built building, more of a warehouse, called the Wigwam.    1860 was the crucial year.   Lincoln had become a serious (if second to William Henry Seward) Republican candidate.   It was a new party, in its second presidential bid, and it represented a new and suddenly credible anti-slavery position largely, of course, in the north.  Lincoln, believe it or not, had fierce friends……led by  one Judge David Davis who took command and dispatched his troops in squads of two or three to convince to lobby delegations.  Their strategy was simple, defeat Seward who was a powerful New York “radical” abolitionist far ahead in most calculations…and win on the third ballot.   With endless drama (and promises of appointive offices, much to Lincoln’s dismay)  it worked.  The Platform was written by the peripatetic Horace Greely, editor of the New York Tribune…who would invest Lincoln’s life in many ways for the next five years.  The platform, despite Greely’s objection ended up with an ambiguous but fairly strong anti-slavery plank

that stirred up a peck of trouble just before Lincoln was named, and was the principal troublemaker in the subsequent campaign.  On the evening of May 18 the two sides  (Lincoln’s and Sewards’s)  were formally voted on.  Judge Davis had done his work, when Lincoln was seconded 5000 men and women jumped up and gave a deafening yell…..a thousand steam whistles, hotel gongs, a tribe of Comanches led the  screaming.  One observer said that the tumult and the stamping of feet made every plank and pillar in the building quiver.      Abraham Lincoln was nominated on the third ballot….his operatives celebrated wildly, drinking gallons of whiskey and carrying rails through the streets.

From May until November Lincoln, believe it or not, did NOT campaign….he wrapped up his  law practice, hired two young  “secretaries” John Nicolay and John Hay to manage his correspondence.   He defeated Stephen Douglas, John Breckinridge and John Bell to become the first Reupubican president.  He received 180 of the 303 electoral votes while winning a plurality of 40 percent of the popular vote.

In a sense he has come out from nowhere…a tall, lanky stranger, from Kentucky and Illinois…full of wit and wisdom….a thoughtful, brilliant man with no social credentials  has captured the presidency at its most vulnerable time.

The United States of America was about to fall apart. The Confederacy was materializing at this very moment.

Seven of the southern states,  South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas seceded from the Union.  Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas joined them four months later making an ll-state Confederacy.  The Confederacy, complete with a president and all the impedimenta of a “unrecognized government” was established in February of 1861.   I found a single sentence, spoken by the Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, that fully explains what was happening and what was to come.   Called the “Cornerstone Speech, Stephens declared that

“The cornerstone of the new government rests on the great truth that the negro is not equal to    the white man, that   slavery – subordinaton to the superior race – is his natural and normal   condition.  This, our   new  government,  is the first in history of the world based on this great   physical, philosophical  and   moral truth.” 

If I may, I would like to slow down for a minute and describe our 16th President at the brink of a brutal civil war.   Lincoln was, above all else, a rational and compassionate man…..The sharp edge of the axe and the near-hysteria of a frontier democracy had honed his considerable intellect so that he could cope with the insanity of half a nation breaking loose and at the same time help him find both the civic leaders and soldiers to save the Union.   He was prepared to do whatever was necessary to accomplish that….including even some stunning compromises….he stood in the middle ground, the “radical” abolitionists on one side and the compromised slavers on the other.  He was, like any great “father” (and we called him “father Abraham”) …. prepared to do literally anything within reason to save the nation that had finally, just four score and five years before institutionalized freedom and democracy.

He, as usual, found the right words at the right time…..the final sentences of his first inaugural  said it best,  “I am loth to close…..we are not enemies, but friends, we must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.  The mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, , to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when touched as they surely will be by the better angels of our nature.”

On  January 31, 1861 Lincoln (still in Illinois) visited his stepmother Sara Bush Lincoln in Coles County cabin for the last time.


Once again, permit me to fill in a missing but important piece.  Of all our presidents, Abraham Lincoln was the funniest.    Carl Sandburg called him “the first true humorist to occupy the White House.”   His stories and jokes invested  both his personal and political conversations..  He was constantly saying “That reminds of the time…or the story….” and he would launch into an anecdote, usually cast from his Illinois upbringing.    A contemporary jokester waxed poetic, “his flow of humor was a sparkling spring gushing out of a rock.” Lincoln himself said “Jokes and jests are the vents of my moods.”  There is a famous anecdote about two Quaker women discussing Lincoln and the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis.  The first Quaker lady said that she believed the Confederates would win the war because Davis was a praying man.  The second Quaker lady said  that Lincoln was a praying man too.  “Yes,” the first admitted,”but the Lord will think that Abraham is joking.”   It only remains to mention that Lincoln inherited his story-telling humor from his father also known far and wide as a very funny man.

All presidents are overwhelmed with office seekers, but Lincoln was particularly affected.   Literally thousands of hungry “patriots” besieged him, filling his office in Springfield and ultimately badgering him in the White House seeking his patronage.  The two secretaries, 28-year-old John G. Nicolay and 22-year-old John Hay….. probably saved his sanity by organizing and sorting his appointments for the rest of his life.  He formed his cabinet with what Doris Goodwin called “A Team of Rivals”….they were all contenders of one sort or another for the Presidency…..that he had defeated in Chio.   William Seward, Secretary of State, Simon Cameron, Secretary of War (ultimately Edwin Stanton), Edward Bates as Attorney General, Gideon Welles (he  with the beard resting on his chest) as Secretary of the Navy, Montgomery Blair as Postmaster General and Caleb Smith as Secretary of  the Interior.


The civil war began on April 12, 1861 when the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.  The garrison surrendered two days later.  It was to be our bloodiest war.

“McDowell, McClellan, Pope, McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, Meade and Grant.”  Somewhere in my life, probably out of cussedness, I memorized that no-rhyme limerick…..The seven Generals who led the Union Army of the Potomac……Lincoln’s principal (and eastern) army. It is the nexus of Lincoln’s impossible job as Commander In Chief.   Until he found Grant and Sherman, the war in the east was at best a draw…..it took a man of incredible foresight, the ability to project beyond the moment, to survive.

It was an impossibly long and frustrating war…..a lesser man (indeed there were lesser men who  lost faith….see Horace Greeley below) would not have survived.   To make some  sense out of all this, I will briefly describe only three battles, coming as they did at critical moments.  The war literature is amazing, particularly Lincoln’s letters to his Generals…..who he consistently out-talked, out-manuvered and, until the end, out-Generaled.

We’ll start with the First Battle of Bull Run.   Since the capital of the nation, Washington DC was bordered by Virginia, a soon-to-be Confederate state…..the dispositions of the armies were chock-a-block.   At first there were 30,000 Confederate forces and upwards of 50,000 Union forces in Northern Virginia.  Most of the Union men were on 90 day enlistments – about to expire – so Lincoln urged General McDowell (the first General in my limerick) to attack immediately.  After delays (more about delays later) the attack began.    Lincoln sat in the Washington telegraph office to get moment-to-moment reports.  (In fact he was sitting there for most of the war).  It went badly for the Union and soon, defeated Union soldiers were arriving in Washington.   (One of the successful skirmishes by the Union was led by  young Lieutenant  George Armstrong Custer.)   The failed battle gained much of its notoriety because civilian citizens of Washington, by the droves, watched the battle from nearby high ground next to Bull Run and Manassas.  Luckily, the Confederates did not press their advantage and besiege Washington.  But it was a disaster, apparently terrifying everyone except the President.  Horace Greeley, the rambunctious but frightened editor of the New York Tribune wrote Lincoln a  letter after the battle despairing the war, and begging Lincoln to give up before more lives were lost.   Lincoln, famously, put the letter in his desk drawer in the White House without answering it.

One hundred and twenty four indecisive battles later…..on January 1, 1863…Abraham Lincoln ordered the freedom of some 3.5 million slaves in the Confederate states.  It would, when conjoined with the 13th Amendment absolutely end of slavery in these United States.   Called “the Emancipation Proclamation” he wanted his cabinet to know when he first discussed the plan in a cabinet meeting that he “had resolved upon this step and had not called them together to ask their advice.”  He drafted the plan using his “war powers” as commander in chief.   It has often been called “a momentous decision on emancipation that would define both his presidency and the civil war.”   There was much dross involved….thoughts about “colonization” and questions about the eligibility of slaves outside the 11 states of the Confederacy….but ultimately, Lincoln lived to see the Emancipation Proclamation become unassailable law.

The war staggered forward….the Union armies were led twice by the diminuative George B. McClellan a serious, ambitious military leader who almost drove Lincoln out of his mind with his endless battlefield delays.  He had “the slows” Lincoln said often….and unltimately replaced him.  One of his replacements was George Gordon Meade, in charge during the quintessential battle of Gettysburg where the tide grudgingly turned.   At virtually the same time, far out west bordering the Mississippi, the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg fell to Ulysses S. Grant, the hard-fighting, and ostensibly hard-drinking General about whom it was said that Lincoln, much impressed with Grant’s aggressive and successful tactics,  upon hearing that Grant liked his whiskey too much said, “Tell me what brand he drinks and I’ll send him some.”

But we’ll take a look at Gettysburg, the true turning point of the war.   In June of 1863, Robert E. Lee, the Commanding General of the Confederate armies decided that he was winning and shot north into Pennsylvania.  From different directions, the Confederates started streaming towards the small town Gettysburg.   For the first three days of July the bloodiest battle in United States history took place.  Lee lost a third of his army, Meade lost a fifth.   It was the battle of Seminary Ridge, Little Round Top and Pickett’s charge….an  insane suicidal charge up a small mountain of an entire southern division into the Union cannons.  It has been said in my family that my great grandfather John Henry Martin Barton was in the southern army that attacked.  Probably as important as the battle itself, was the aftermath.  Defeated, Lee began to pull south and re-cross  the Potomac River.  Lincoln was not happy.  The time had come, he thought, to destroy the Confederate army and Meade (as so many other Generals) was “resting” , “gathering resources”.  Lincoln was especially upset by Meade’s proclamation to “drive the invaders from our soil”.   Exasperated, Lincoln asked “Will the Generals never get that idea out of their heads…the whole country is our soil!”


To fulfill a promise, I’m going to stop the middle of the civil war to properly describe Lincoln’s  much maligned wife. After reading almost everything in sight (Lincoln is number 3 in the number of books  written about him, Jesus Christ and Napoleon are numbers one and two)  I have come to the conclusion that Mary Todd Lincoln was much misunderstood and certainly NOT crazy.  She was the  daughter of a prosperous Kentucky banker….and undoubtedly taught Lincoln his “manners” in fancy society….  She bore and raised four boys, two of whom died in the President’s lifetime, she kept her home intact when young Abraham was on the “circuit” and she on most occasions fulfilled her role as First Lady.   There were on the other hand….public displays of jealousy that frequently embarrassed the president, frantic buying sprees with government funds and an almost pathological need to be noticed and applauded in every public situation.  After the assassination, Mary Lincoln wore black for most of the rest of her life.  Her son, Robert, did not share his father’s patience with him mother.   Less than ten years after her husband’s death, Robert saw that she was put on trial for “insanity” and convicted in Chicago.   She was not permitted to prepare her defense but after three months in a sanitarium was released.   She spent the final years of her life  in the house she had shared with Abraham in Springfield, Illinois.    She simply couldn’t cope.


In the summer of 1863 a solemn ceremony consecrating the site of the battle of Gettysburg was organized with the famous orator Edward Everett as the principal speaker.  Lincoln was asked to speak as well….  He was drawn to the talk because he believed that the central idea of the war was to prove that “popular government was not an absurdity” and that “Union soldiers had died in the effort to prove that self-government was viable for all nations, not just the United States.” There has been much speculation about how and when he wrote the speech.    Everett’s talk lasted a full hour…and, in truth, it was not bad.  When his turn came, the president took two sheets of paper from his pocket, glanced at them and began…..

“Four score and seven years ago….”   (Do the math, 87 years earlier was 1776…..) The audience was profoundly moved…Lincoln, in two minutes had made his case ….. ending with a stirring anthem of democracy,   “that these dead shall not have died in vain.  That the nation shall, under God shall have new birth of freedom and that Government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth.”    That nation, with the exception of his ancient enemies, was transfixed.  Although he still had face re-election within a year, Abraham Lincoln had found the words that would immortalize him, a prairie railsplitter, who loved and spoke for ALL of  his country, from its hardscrabble frontier, from ocean to ocean….to the brutal bloodletting of the civil war.


From September  through November in the year 1864, as the war raged through the belly of America….and even, eventually into the heart of south….a savage re-election campaign was waged.  Unremarkably, Lincoln’s Democratic opponent was the little General of the “slows” George B. McClellan.  Despite everything, McClellan’s party was still unresolved in their commitment to the war….and were doing business with the “copperheads” — anti-war northerners led by one Clement Vallandingham.   In its Chicago convention, the Democratic Party fashioned a “peace plank” which called for a restoration of rights of the southern states unimpaired suggesting that slavery would be preserved under a Democratic administration. McCllellan, who had led the Union armies on three occasions, waffled…..indicating that he had no objection to a compromise settlement of the war, leaving slavery intact within a restored Union.

The influence of arms also moved in Lincoln’s favor….Atlanta fell to Sherman, Admiral Farragut (he of “damn the torpedoes”) captured Mobile Bay and a new Union hero, General Philip Sheridan registered a series of cavalry victories throughout the south.

By the way, President Lincoln had a penchant for visiting his troops.    From time to time, life in the  telegraph office bored him….and wearing his stovepipe hat and usually sitting ridicuolously on a skinny horse he went, in some cases, towards the teeth of battle….memorably at Fort Stevens where he (and Mary) literally ducked incoming fire.

The Democrats used everything they could muster, including open racism, to defeat him. He was constantly accused of supporting racial intermarriage which by the way he openly opposed. They  accused Lincoln of being “a cunning and cruel tyrant, inhuman, wicked….coarse, vulgar, and obscene….thereby secretly black”   Some newspapers actually proposed that he be killed. The New York Daily News called him a “bloody minded fanatic….an insensate destroyer”  The Wisconsin Democrat said,  “the man who votes for Lincoln now is a traitor….we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with a dagger point for the public good.”    He was “descended from blacks….his physical and physiognomical proportions of his face and hands, and especially his feet, testify strongly of the plantation.”

Mary Lincoln got her share of the attacks…..sometimes, the accusations actually had merit.  She apparently had done some unjustified purchasing, she had appropriated some several thousands of dollars for “personal adornment”.  Hat shops, jewelers, clothing stores sent stunning bills to the white house.

This time Lincoln and his allies did campaign….but there were egregious political troubles.  Horace Greely and William Cullen Bryant, substantial allies, had their own dustups with some of Lincoln’s appointments.   The state of Kentucky, barely in the Union and still fussing with slavery, made threats to join McCllellan but came back into the fold when Lincoln brought them to the white house and made a powerful little speech to them that included a near immortal statement “If slavery is not wrong….then nothing is wrong.”

He won.   55.4 percent of the popular vote and a lopsided electoral of 212 to 21, carrying all the Union states except Kentucky, Delaware and New Jersey.  Probably the most thoughtful reaction to  Lincoln’s victory came from an English newspaper, the London Daily News.   “his logic, his jokes, his plain common sense , his shrewdness, his unbounded reliance on honesty and straightforwardness, went right to their hearts…..the like of which the world never saw before” Another admirer said, “He is the most perfect representative of the purely American character in public life.”


The war reached for its climax as Sherman (on Lincoln’s advice) marched from Atlanta to the sea and Grant brought a raging Army of the Potomac up through the “Wilderness” and captured Richmond, ….the Confederate capital.

The next six months are a bizarre and heroic Third Act of American history.  As follows:

November 8, 1864…..Abraham Lincoln is re-elected  after being savaged in a campaign pitting the apologists for slavery against an increasingly triumphant Union. January 13, 1865…..The Thirteenth Amendment, codifying the Emancipation Proclamation and  ending slavery in the United States  forever, is enacted,  pending ratification. March 4, 1865….Lincoln delivers his Second Innaugural Address…probably his most magnificent speech…..a startling effort to heal the wounds of the nation…beginning with “….until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”… and ending with “.With malice towards none; with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us 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 a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” April 4, 1865….Lincoln visits Richmond, the just-captured Confederate capital…he walks the streets with virtually no protection.  He was surrounded by cheering black residents, suddenly free.. April 9, 1865….Robert E. Lee surrenders to Ulyssess Grant at Apommatox Courthouse.  The surrender terms, dictated by Lincoln, permit the Confederate soldiers to keep their guns and their horses and go home peacefully. April 14, 1865….Waking up from a terrifying dream, Lincoln, with Mary and a Major Rathbone go to Ford’s Theatre to see a comedy “Our American Cousin”.   He is supposed to be protected by a white house policeman who chose to leave the president and sit in a better viewing seat. A famous actor, John Wilkes Booth, son of Junius Brutus Booth and brother of Edwin Booth…. half drunk…burst into the President’s balcony seat just above stage left and shot a single bullet from a Derringer pistol into Lincoln’s head.    He died a few hours later….His Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton…spoke for all of us,

“Now he belongs to the ages.”

Thank you.