Abraham Lincoln - The civil war

The war started badly for the Union. In the first major battle, at Bull Run on 21 July 1861, the inexperienced army of Irvin McDowell was routed by the equally inexperienced Confederates of P. G. T. Beauregard and Joseph Johnston. The slogan "On to Richmond" was shelved, and Lincoln put George B. McClellan in command. But while the general in chief settled down to training the Army of the Potomac, on the diplomatic front danger threatened.

In foreign policy the chief task before the Lincoln administration was to minimize aid from abroad to the Confederacy, especially from Britain and France. Lincoln left much of the task to Secretary of State Seward, though early in his administration it was necessary for him to take charge directly in some crucial cases. At the height of the Sumter crisis, Seward presented Lincoln with a memorandum that not only indicated the desirability of Seward's assumption of the presidential duty but also proposed to avert civil war by resorting to foreign war. Seward wanted to "seek" explanations from Great Britain and Russia, "demand" explanations from Spain and France, "categorically, at once"—because of those nations' supposed violations of the Monroe Doctrine. Presumably war with one or more foreign powers would follow and southerners would join northerners to defend their common country. Though Lincoln had little understanding of diplomacy, his common sense told him to play down the document and give Seward time to calm down. Seward's position was thus saved and he would yet become a great secretary of state.

Indeed, later in 1861, Seward played the pivotal role in defusing the Trent affair. By then Britain had granted "belligerent rights" to the South, but not recognition as an independent nation. The American effort to keep Europe out of the war was succeeding at the diplomatic table, but not on the high seas. In early November, a hotheaded captain of the United States Navy, Charles Wilkes, removed from the British steamer Trent the Confederate emissaries to Britain and France, James M. Mason and John Slidell. As the North, much in need of victories, celebrated, London spoke of war. Then, after a decent interval had passed, Lincoln ordered the release of the southerners. There was to be only one war at a time.

In 1862 and again in 1863 the British and the French pushed mediation attempts that in effect would have meant the recognition of Confederate independence. In the end, the South not only failed to obtain European recognition but was unable to get any truly substantial help. Six raiders were built in British and French shipyards, the most famous of which, the Alabama, caused millions of dollars worth of damage to northern shipping before it was sunk in 1864. Yet northern diplomats, most notably Charles Francis Adams, were competent. Northern grain was important to a Europe that suffered crop failures. Southern cotton in turn was increasingly replaced by the cotton of India and Egypt. The Old World was also beset with uprisings, wars, and threats to the balance of power. By 1863, with the Emancipation Proclamation appealing to Europeans with antislavery sentiments, it was Adams, the American minister to the Court of St. James's, who spoke of Anglo-American war unless the British put an end to the aid trickling to the Confederacy. Ultimately, success on the diplomatic front depended on the outcome on the battlefield.

In 1862 a string of Confederate victories in the East dazzled the world. The navy remained the one bright spot for Lincoln. Indeed, on 9 March, after the iron-sheathed wooden Virginia (the rechristened Union Merrimack , salvaged by the Confederates) threatened Washington, putting fear into president, cabinet, and the city, it was stopped by the ironclad Monitor . Naval warfare was being revolutionized, and the Union continued its domination of the seas.

On land the picture was different. The Army of Northern Virginia was led by the finest southern generals, Robert E. Lee (who took command in mid-1862), Thomas ("Stonewall") Jackson, and James E. Longstreet. They faced the generally larger Army of the Potomac, led by a succession of second-rate generals. Under McClellan, this army tried to come back from the Bull Run defeat in an elaborate campaign on the Virginia Peninsula but failed. In the Shenandoah Valley, Jackson seemed to play with his opponents, albeit bloodily. At Bull Run again, in late August, the Union troops, under John Pope, repeated their fiasco of the previous year. When Lee invaded Maryland, McClellan, fully in command once more, stopped him at Antietam (17 September 1862) in the single bloodiest day of the war. This, however, was a far cry from victory, though Lincoln chose to treat it as such and issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in its wake (22 September). The year ended with the Army of the Potomac, now under Ambrose Burnside, suffering a disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg (13–15 December).

The year 1863 promised more of the same as "Fighting Joe" Hooker, his army outnumbering Lee's more than two to one, was beaten back at Chancellorsville, Virginia, on 1–4 May. Not until Lee ventured north again to Gettysburg did the tide appear to turn. There, during the first three days of July, in a bitter encounter, the Army of the Potomac under its newest commander, George G. Meade, decisively defeated the Confederates of invincible repute. Thereafter to the end of 1863 and beyond, the Union side in the East seemed to be satisfied to rest on its Gettysburg laurels, Lincoln's passionate efforts to the contrary notwithstanding.

In the West, by contrast, the finest northern generals, the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and George H. Thomas, faced weak Confederate generals. Though here, too, the war had its shifting tides, on the whole federal arms proved victorious. In February 1862, Grant captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson with substantial naval support, only to be stopped at Shiloh, Tennessee, in a very bloody draw (6–7 April). On 1 May the Union navy took New Orleans, and five days later the Mississippi River fleet took Memphis. Indeed, throughout the war the Union navy was largely successful. A high point of the western campaigns, as well as of army-navy cooperation, came with the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and its surrender to Grant on 4 July 1863, the day after the battle of Gettysburg. "The signs look better," Lincoln wrote in a public letter in August. "Peace does not appear so distant as it did."

In its broadest terms, the goal of the war had always been clear to the president (though in its many significant details, change was continuous). In his war message in 1861 he had already explained:

This is essentially a People's contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.

In the fall of 1863, Lincoln went to the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg to help dedicate the Soldiers' National Cemetery. He gave a two-minute address there to America, the world, and to history:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln understood that one of his chief tasks as president was to keep alive the northern will to fight. The challenge of the task was all the greater because the North had the wherewithal to win the war. Lincoln believed not only that right was on the side of the Union but knew that might was too. Might certainly could be more readily measured.

In his war message in 1861, Lincoln had pointed to the material superiority of the North. More than three years later, in his last annual message, he would emphasize that the North was actually " gaining strength, and may, if need be, maintain the contest indefinitely.. . . The national resources, then, are unexhausted, and, as we believe, inexhaustible." The North had to bring this superiority to bear on the battlefield. Though Lincoln's conduct of the war had many facets—he even considered taking command in the field—his principal military duty was to rally the people.

At the start of the war the North had perhaps 22 million people against the South's 5 million to 6 million whites and 3.5 million blacks. The North's railroad mileage was twice that of the South's; the cash value of its farms two and a half times greater; and the cash value of its manufactured products about ten times greater. More than 25 percent of the population of the free states was urbanized, as against 10 percent of the slave states. Forty percent of the Union population was engaged in agriculture, compared to 84 percent of the Confederate population. The value of northern farmland was two and a half times the value of land in the slave states, and its agriculture was much more mechanized. Twice as many of the free states' school-age children attended school—not counting the slave population of the South, which was not only unschooled but almost wholly illiterate.

Not surprisingly for one who spent the bulk of his public career in Illinois dealing with matters economic, Lincoln's military direction from the White House always carried a large economic ingredient. One of his earliest moves of the war had been the establishment of the blockade of the southern ports, which, by the close of the war, grew to be deadly effective. He insisted that his military make good use of the railroads. He advocated, from late 1862, the use of black troops, in part because the step not only added to northern military strength but also because it weakened southern economic strength. He emphasized the significance of the Mississippi Valley, new weapons, and even the use of reconnaissance balloons.

More subtle links also existed between Lincoln's progressive economic persuasion and his innovative strategic notions, which some historians speak of as his "military genius." Thus, the man who in the 1840s demanded from Congress a centralized and coordinated plan of national improvements in the 1860s made like demands upon his generals for centralization of authority and coordination of plans. And so the Union's unified command system and its central, overall plan of strategy were born. Similarly, Lincoln's decisive championship of cordon offense (advancing on the enemy on every front, thus pitting all the northern resources against all the southern ones) stemmed primarily from his conviction that economic might, more than anything else except morale, would determine the outcome of the war. This oft-attested conviction was fundamental to his recognition that the objective of the Union forces should be not the conquest of territories but the destruction of opposing armies, the destruction of "the most important branch of . . . resources"—men.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Lincoln's military policy was the drastic rate at which federal commanders were replaced. In the East, for example, in a period of two years he removed the general in charge seven times. He was criticized harshly then, and since, for failing to support his commanders in defeat. Yet Lincoln's actions reflected a core aspect of his outlook, which under the pressure of war became extreme: he conducted a ruthless campaign of pushing the successful to the fore. His view that in the Civil War one side stood for the "open field" for all, while the other side was against it, thus received more than symbolic corroboration. In the Confederacy the men who held the chief commands early in the war would, with the exception of those who had been killed, be there at war's end. In contrast, there would not be a single general commanding a main army in the Union service of 1865 who had held high command at the beginning of the struggle. In this respect, Lincoln's American dream had triumphed on the battlefield too.

If the president's outlook ever wavered, the booming prosperity of the wartime North helped strengthen it. Government purchases for military needs stimulated various sectors of industry and much of farming. Expanding industries included transportation, iron and steel, woolen clothing, shoes, munitions, and coal. Farmers increased production greatly. Even though one-third of farm-workers went into the army, exports of wheat, corn, pork, and beef to Europe doubled. Farms and factories made the first widespread use of laborsaving machines such as the reaper and the sewing machine. The war forced the economy into an early form of mass production, and the nation expanded as settlers moved westward.

Though war brought prosperity to the North, financing the war was a most difficult undertaking. Taxes and money borrowed from the people in the form of war bonds became the major sources of northern finance, though paper money and consequent inflation played their part too.

The laboring people's wages did not keep up with inflation through much of the war, and there were strikes. Predictably, Lincoln took the side of the laborers. Almost invariably strikers had "just cause" for their action, he explained, and even as employers were denouncing the supposed illegal nature of unions, Lincoln received union members in the White House. Repeatedly he warned against "the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above labor ." When he sent his ideas to Congress, warning that if working people surrendered their political power "it would be used to close the door of advancement" against them, it grew painfully clear that in these matters the president was not in step with much of the leadership of his country. The House of Representatives, laying the groundwork not only for the modern American economy but also for the abuses of the Gilded Age, snubbed the president's message. Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens explained the tabling of Lincoln's message by saying that there was "no appropriate committee on metaphysics in the House." Copperhead Clement Vallandigham agreed: "I presume it will go to the Committee of Unfinished Business." And as one historian added, "Unfinished business it remained for the rest of the century."

Some of the victorious troops fresh from Gettysburg were sent to New York City to put down anti-draft riots. Conscription had been employed first in 1862, and more freely in 1863, to stimulate volunteering for the Union army (the same was the case in the Confederacy), and in New York resistance degenerated into the worst riot of American history up to that time. For Lincoln the "most notable feature" of the riots was "the hanging of some working people by other working people." "It should never be so," he stated. "The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds." The words might have come from one of his European admirers, Karl Marx, indicating the idea's international currency, though Lincoln had something quite American in mind. The workingmen hanged were blacks. The riots of 1863 may have been less a protest against the draft, or class distinctions, than against Lincoln's policy toward black people.

Lincoln had always been egalitarian to the bone and opposed to slavery. As a young politician, he had found the courage to denounce slavery in the Illinois House of Representatives. By the 1850s his sentiments had become the centerpiece of his politics, but as president, his job was to reforge a nation the southern part of which was slave owning. He had to do this by rallying the northern, mostly free part of the nation, which included not only the crucial border states that saw slavery as sacred but also huge numbers of negrophobes in such places as the northwestern heartland of Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois and the city of New York.

Accordingly, the president moved with great caution toward emancipation, starting in late 1861. When, about the same time, his impetuous commander of the western department, John Charles Frémont, declared the slaves of the Missouri rebels summarily freed, Lincoln said no. He requested the repeal of the order, and when he failed to obtain compliance, he fired the general. In April and May of 1862 when General David Hunter issued similar proclamations of emancipation in the southern department the president once again countermanded the orders. Over the years he would often state his determination "not to go forward fast enough to wreck the country's cause."

Exquisite timing and knowing the limits of the possible were key elements in Lincoln's success as a leader. At first, he hoped to bring the great change to America as gently "as the dews of heaven." His desire for gradualism was supplemented with promises of compensation, for the slave owners stood to lose billions of dollars worth of "property." He hoped thus to induce voluntary action on the part of individual states. And he knew, too, that the slaves would need substantial help to enjoy their newfound freedom. Into his hopes Lincoln put his whole "soul," to borrow the word used independently by two of his confidants, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Supreme Court Justice David Davis. Toward the end of 1862, too late, he still gave beautiful and oft-quoted expression to these hopes:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.. . . As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.. . . Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.. . . In giving freedom to the slave , we assure freedom to the free —honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.

He had worked with representatives of border slave states, with congressmen, with the general public, but the fact was that the gentle road to drastic change, ever difficult, in a time of civil war and revolution was quite unrealistic. It was bound to fail.

Congress moved ahead, too, with the two separate Confiscation Acts that authorized seizing the private property of Confederate military personnel and civilians. But it was the White House that led the way to African-American freedom. In the summer of 1862, Lincoln decided in favor of immediate abolition of slavery. From then on, he concentrated formidable political powers on bringing as much of the country behind this revolutionary policy as possible.

In August an attack on him by the influential editor of the New York Tribune helped his cause. In "The Prayer of Twenty Million," Horace Greeley accused the president of moving too slowly, deferring too much "to Rebel Slavery." Lincoln replied with a thunderous no and an oath of allegiance to the Union:

If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or 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 had thus seemingly rebuffed the abolitionist left, though in fact he was about to take their side. His intended audience was that large conservative segment of the electorate that opposed the freeing of the slaves—some at any cost, except the cost of the Union. The Union was the common cause on which nearly all northerners could agree, and there Lincoln took his stand. When he would make his decision for emancipation public, he would thus do so on conservative grounds.

A second way to make emancipation acceptable to a reluctant northern public was through the advocacy of black colonization outside the United States, most probably in Central America or Africa. Many northerners feared that the end of slavery in the South would inundate the North with blacks. They would accept emancipation only if it were accompanied by the removal of blacks from America. It was therefore good politics for the president to advocate colonization. He managed to follow this political road in part because he himself still had fears about how successfully the two races could break out of their old relationship. Though at some level of consciousness Lincoln understood the impossibility of the colonization idea, for a time in late 1862, he made much of the policy.

Thus, on the surface it was an uncomplicated Unionist and colonizationist who issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on 22 September 1862—after Lee's armies were repelled in the battle of Antietam. But in a deeper sense Lincoln was more of an emancipator than a Unionist. And even as he issued the Final Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863, freeing the slaves in the areas still in rebellion, he forgot, almost with indecent haste, about colonization. He had spent none of the paltry sum Congress had appropriated for the purpose. Instead, he focused increasing attention on reconstructing a nation of blacks and whites.

Emancipation itself was a central step in reconstructing the United States. The war had begun with the announced goal of restoring the Union as it was in 1860. In 1861, surely by 1862, the goal had shifted toward Reconstruction, the reshaping of the Union without slavery. As the war continued and then veered toward a close, a further shift occurred, expanding the goal of the struggle to include union, emancipation, and movement toward civil rights for the freedman. The interplays between the North and the South, between factions in both, and between Congress and the executive in Washington were complex, but the central issue remained the role of African Americans in American society. Lincoln moved behind a radical vanguard but ahead of northern opinion, not to mention white American opinion in general and at times ahead of the consensus of his Republican party as well. The question to him was not " 'Can any of us imagine better?' but 'Can we all do better?' " With this clear, pragmatic motto before him, he led Americans toward acceptance of ever greater black freedom.

The president consistently refused to recognize the validity of secession ordinances and, in legal terms, looked upon the Union as an unbroken and unbreakable unit. The war constituted a set of problems that he, as commander in chief, had to deal with, and Reconstruction measures fell into this category of problems. At the same time, he was ready to allow Congress a substantial and constitutionally legitimate role in the Reconstruction process.

In the middle of 1863, as parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Virginia, and all of Tennessee came under the control of federal arms, Lincoln brought into being local military governments. Their chief task was to rally southern Unionists, subdue and keep away rebels and their sympathizers, and bring about a new day for blacks.

At the end of 1863 the president proposed his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. It included the "10 Percent Plan"—well received in Congress—which called for the formation of civilian governments when one-tenth of the voting population of 1860 took the oath of allegiance to the United States. Emancipation was not to be open for discussion in these states. Many citizens were proscribed from participation in the political process either as voters or officeholders: individuals who had held diplomatic or civil posts in the Confederacy, Confederate officers above the rank of colonel, those who had resigned from the armed forces of the United States or from any branches of the government, and those who had mistreated federal prisoners of war. His proposal notwithstanding, Lincoln insisted that flexibility should be the key to Reconstruction and that different plans might be needed in different times and places.

Louisiana became Lincoln's test case. Initially he had overestimated southern unionism there, as elsewhere in the South. When satisfactory Reconstruction failed to materialize, he increasingly involved himself in personally directing the Louisiana experiment. His style combined daring, strength, and coercion with caution, conciliation, and ambiguity. It demanded movement, but only step by step, and entailed the use of patronage, the military, and other tools of presidential power. It included a precise, lawyerly command of the language, a unique eloquence, and a genius for ambiguity. This last quality, though needed, helped confuse many Radicals in Congress (and later historians as well).

The president created a government, under General Nathaniel P. Banks, that struck down slavery, provided for public schools for blacks and whites, and empowered the state legislature to enfranchise blacks. As white Louisiana Unionists faced the hostile pro-Confederate majority, Lincoln labored with finesse to keep the former united—hence, much of his ambiguity. Yet, as early as August 1863, Lincoln was ready to have the color line on the franchise breached. In March 1864 he wrote his famous letter to Governor Michael Hahn calling for voting rights for "very intelligent" blacks and black veterans because "they could probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom." Rather than being a mere suggestion for "private consideration," this was a "directive," as historian LaWanda Cox has shown, and was understood as such by Louisiana leaders. In short, Lincoln led the Unionists toward black suffrage while pretending to stay in the background.

Ironically, the Radicals in Washington tried to strike down the Louisiana free-state movement in the name of black suffrage and Lincoln's abuse of military power. The conflict that then developed between the executive and the legislature sometimes overshadowed the cooperation between the two, not merely in various areas of governmental work but specifically on Reconstruction. Lincoln had, after all, worked well with Congress to abolish slavery in the territories and the District of Columbia; to admit West Virginia, split off from Virginia, as a new free state; and to smooth out disagreements over the 1862 Confiscation Act. And they would later work together in establishing the Freedmen's Bureau to help care for the freed slaves and, most momentously, in pushing through Congress the Thirteenth Amendment, thereby abolishing slavery under the Constitution.

Nonetheless, early in 1864, Lincoln provoked a split with the Radicals. Congressman Henry Winter Davis of Maryland and Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio produced a somewhat muddled bill in favor of congressional Reconstruction. Though the bill did not call for black suffrage, it had the aura of Radicalism about it. Lincoln pocket vetoed the bill—the only important veto of his presidency—much less because of the larger issues of Reconstruction than because of the upcoming presidential election. While the Wade-Davis bill had wound its way through Congress, the president had remained silent. Then, to the surprise of many, including his friends in Congress, he declined to sign the measure. Probably many of his friends would have refused to support the Wade-Davis bill if they had known his position. As correspondent Noah Brooks summed it up in Washington in Lincoln's Time (1895), it was only when the executive acted that "for the first time men who had not seriously opposed the passage of the . . . bill began to wish that it had never gone to the President."

It seems that Lincoln wanted the opportunity to veto the bill and draw a sharp line between himself and the Radicals. A few days earlier, equally surprisingly but to the same effect, he accepted the resignation of Chase, the resident Radical of the cabinet. But then, elections are usually won at the center, and Lincoln did win. Soon after he was quite ready to accept more than the Wade-Davis policy for Reconstruction and appoint Chase chief justice of the United States.

Although the Wade-Davis veto soured Lincoln's relations with an important element of his party, its wider political benefits were much needed. After the military successes of 1863, above all at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the year 1864 brought reversals, with the end of the war appearing no closer than before. In the western theater Nathaniel Banks led an expedition into the Red River region of Texas and into dismal failure. Sherman, who had succeeded Grant in the western command that spring, commenced to move from Chattanooga against Atlanta, but the able General Joseph Johnston managed to slow his progress significantly. In the East, progress seemed even slower and was extremely costly. Grant, recently appointed general in chief by Lincoln, promptly took up headquarters with the Army of the Potomac to lead it in person. In the Wilderness region of Virginia (5–7 May), around Spotsylvania Courthouse (8–21 May), and at Cold Harbor (3 June), the new general in chief suffered such heavy casualties that some in the North called him "Butcher Grant."

The North could celebrate the death of J. E. B. Stuart, if the death of a gallant foe is a suitable occasion for celebration. But that the Confederates remained very much alive was quickly demonstrated when Jubal Early moved up the Shenandoah Valley toward Washington. At the very time the North had expected the fall of Richmond, Washington was being threatened instead (11 July). Lincoln, as well as assorted cooks and clerks quickly pressed into defensive service, came under fire. To top it all, the Union soldiers, bogged down to a siege at Petersburg, tunneled under the Confederate lines and exploded a section thereof with a mine only to fail in exploiting the advantage. The fiasco was made spectacular by its very novelty.

The president at times despaired of reelection. His own party put up challengers from its Radical wing, first Chase and then Frémont, but Lincoln parried them with relative ease. His aim was to attract the center of the electorate, which would decide the election. The Democrats—themselves divided into various factions, notably for and against war—moved in the same direction and nominated a war Democrat, General George McClellan, as Lincoln's opponent. However, to the Republicans' advantage, the Democrats did so on a peace platform.

The president and his party used their power and considerable political skills to great advantage. They changed the party name from Republican to Union to enlarge its appeal. The vice presidential nomination was taken from the colorless incumbent, Hannibal Hamlin, and given to a loud southern Unionist, Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a "self-made man" like Lincoln. Nevada was rushed into the Union to gain additional Republican votes. Also, large efforts were made to garner the military vote.

All the same, the president knew that ultimately it was upon the fortunes of war that all else depended and the northern forces began to prevail late in 1864. In August, Tennessee-born Admiral David Farragut, famous for his victory at New Orleans and his pithy "Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead," won the battle of Mobile Bay; in September, Sherman took Atlanta, and Sheridan purged the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

In November, Lincoln won reelection with 2.2 million votes, giving him a convincing majority of 400,000. (The electoral vote was 212–21.) McClellan carried only Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey. The war was going to be finished. There were minor irregularities in the election but they were overshadowed, as Lincoln understood, by the stupendous fact that in the midst of a great civil war, elections were held at all. "It shows," he told a group of serenaders, "how sound , and how strong we still are." Lincoln's understanding of history was as fine as was his leadership.

Yet the war was taking its toll on him. The vigorous middle-aged man who had taken office in 1861 had become the almost old man who appears in his last photograph. Mary Todd, his lovely bride, had grown old too, and after the loss of their twelve-year-old son, Willie, in 1862, she began to lose her grip on reality. Lincoln's heart grew heavy. He said there was a tired spot inside him that nothing could touch. Around him there were death and devastation. The casualties of the war—both North and South—continued to mount, by the end reaching 1.5 million men, including about 620,000 dead—this in a nation of 31.5 million.

Reelected to the presidency, Lincoln said, "I do not impugn the motives of any one opposed to me. It is no pleasure to me to triumph over any one." He added soon after, "So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man's bosom."

On 15 November, Sherman left Atlanta, beginning the march to the sea. From Atlanta east, the troops lived off the country and destroyed what they could not take. Sherman believed that the Confederacy should not be allowed to live from the southern harvest or have a happy, secure backcountry. Savannah fell before Christmas. Lincoln frankly admitted that he had doubts about Sherman's march and gave all the credit for success to the general. In the new year, Sherman started his march northward through the Carolinas. The war fought there was a newer and uglier kind of war. Columbia, South Carolina, went up in flames—at whose hands, historians still debate.

Sheridan had followed like tactics in the Shenandoah Valley. He seemed ready to use any means to prevent the valley from provisioning Lee's armies or any other army that might try to attack Washington via that route. Bushwhacking southern guerrillas ensured the campaign's deterioration into scorched-earth tactics. The rich, beautiful Shenandoah Valley fell victim to total war. It was a blessing when, at last, Grant broke the grip of Lee, who on 2 April abandoned Richmond. Seven days later Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

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