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The Life of Abraham Lincoln - 16th President of the United States

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Abraham Lincoln
A House divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved - I do not expect the House to fall - but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.
- Lincoln's 'House Divided' speech, 16 June, 1858.

Abraham Lincoln is widely regarded to be one of the greatest American presidents ever to serve in the office, and is often considered the greatest president of all time. He was the immediate cause and final solution of the American Civil War, his honesty, intelligence and humbleness are legendary and he simply embodied American principles and virtues.

Early Life

Who can put the basic facts better than the man himself? He wrote an autobiography (in the third person) shortly before he became president, which begins with these words:

Abraham Lincoln was born Feb. 12, 18091, then in Hardin, now in the more recently formed county of Larue, Kentucky. His father, Thomas, and grandfather Abraham, were born in Rockingham county Virginia, whither their ancestors had come from Berks county Pennsylvania. His lineage has been traced no farther back than this.

His paternal grandfather Abraham was killed by natives, leaving his father Thomas Lincoln to wander as a labourer, without any education. As Lincoln said, 'He never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name.' Thomas married Nancy Hanks in 1806, and called himself a carpenter, though he mostly supported his family by odd jobs. Nancy Hanks was from an ordinary family in Virginia, but not much is known about her. She taught her husband how to read and write, and gave her children something of a head start in their meagre schooling. Lincoln was obviously grateful to his loving mother, saying years after her death, 'All that I am or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother - blessings on her memory.'

Thomas and Nancy had three children - the oldest being a daughter named Sarah who was born in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. The youngest was Thomas, who died in infancy. Abraham, named after his grandfather, was the middle child.

The Lincolns did not live in poverty by any means, but they were not rich either; they had what can be best described as a comfortable quality of life.

The house where Lincoln was born was on a farm near the Nolin River, a few miles from Elizabethtown. After about two years there, the family moved their farm to Knob Creek. Sarah and Abe occasionally went to a schoolhouse, where they learned mathematics, reading and writing.


In 1816 the family decided to move to Spencer County, Indiana, and Thomas sold the Kentucky farm2. They had to move, as their land titles in Kentucky were causing problems. Kentucky was a slave state, while Indiana banned slavery; Thomas Lincoln opposed slavery and thought it was wrong, and no doubt some of his beliefs spilled over and influenced his young son.

The family travelled in a wagon over the Ohio River and into Indiana to start a farm. The Lincoln's 160 acres of land was in the middle of a thick forest, and to be able to plant a crop, trees had to be cut down. Abe, who was strong even when very young, soon showed his ability with an axe. He continued to use the axe for many years - almost constantly, when he wasn't trying to hunt or helping his father with the harvest (mostly corn, with some wheat). Abe and his father also built the shelter for their family, and they finished a log cabin in 1817.

On 5 October, 1818, Nancy Lincoln, Abe's mother, died of a disease called 'milk sickness.' Her death brought a cloud over the Lincoln household, just as life was beginning to get easier for them. Thomas built the casket, dug the hole and a piece of wood marked the grave. Sarah had to take on the duties of her mother as well as she could, but without an adult female figure, the winter was cold and hard. Unsurprisingly, Thomas left for a visit to Kentucky, and he returned with a wife, Sarah (or Sally) Bush Johnston. She was a widow, with three children of her own, and was a kind mother to Abe. Besides love for the children, she also brought furniture and a bit more money to the house.

Abe had some education in Indiana, but not much. He always regretted the lack of education in later years. However, he could read and write, and later worked on his grasp of the English language. He made his own maths workbook3, and was known to walk miles to find a book he could borrow. He preferred reading books to working on the farm, which his father disliked but his stepmother encouraged. He developed a quick, thoughtful and inquiring mind, yet he was sometimes considered lazy because he often spent time on joking, thinking and talking when he was supposed to be working.

Some of Lincoln's favourite books were Aesop's Tales, the Bible, Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim's Progress and a biography of George Washington. He became quite a storyteller himself, and orated to gatherings of people often, even when he was young.

If any personal description of me is thought desirable, it may be said, I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing on an average one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and grey eyes - no other marks or brands recollected

At six feet and four inches by the age of 19, Lincoln would seem tall by today's standards - and this was especially the case in the early 1800s. He was skinny, and had long legs (so he had a somewhat gangly appearance), and yet he must have been extremely strong, if the stories of his power are even half true. As physically strong as he was, Lincoln was also very strong intellectually for his age. He was known to be interested in politics, and occasionally wrote about it.

He apparently spent quite a lot of his time at the county store (which was a popular gathering spot), telling stories with skill, and in great quantity. Even as a boy he was the life of the party, so to speak. His father had to force Abe to end his visits to the store during the daytime, because men would wander there to hear his stories instead of working.


In 1830, when Abe was 21 years old, the family changed directions again and went to Illinois - largely because of an outbreak of milk sickness. Indiana life was becoming harder and harder on the Lincolns, with disease spreading and problems of bad soil. With a few other families, the Lincolns travelled for two weeks, ending up near Decatur on the Sangamon River. Abe worked with his father to build the farm and plant the crop. When the family was settled, Abe was ready to leave.

In 1831, a man called Denton Offutt, impressed by Abe, offered him a job at a store in New Salem, Illinois (near Springfield) as a clerk. Lincoln accepted and left his family. They moved to Coles County after he left them, and stayed there - finally finding a place where they could set down roots. And so, Lincoln began life on his own for the first time.

Independent Abe

In New Salem, Lincoln lived in a room behind the store he worked in, but he earned little. The people of New Salem were kind to him, fed him, did favours for him and even introduced him to great literature, such as the works of Shakespeare, Robert Burns and Thomas Paine. In return, he chopped wood, was kind to children, and was considered reliable, honest and gentle.

It was here he was first nicknamed 'Honest Abe,' because he went to great lengths to see that the customer was not overcharged and the product was what they paid for.

Since the job of a clerk allows for a lot of downtime in between customers, Lincoln had the opportunity to read many books, and conquer language. The fact that Lincoln had so much time to read was a symptom that the business was failing - indeed, the store was about to be bankrupted.

Lincoln was left without a job when the business finally collapsed. The Black Hawk War began in 1832, and Abe signed on as a volunteer. His company of New Salem men elected him a captain, despite his having been in the area for less than a year. He was honoured and humbled by this, and he discovered that he had a knack for leadership. He enlisted three times, serving a total of 90 days. He never saw any combat, but was considered a good soldier.

After returning to New Salem, he was encouraged by friends to campaign for a seat in the state legislature. He needed a job after all, so he announced his candidacy in March 1832. With only ten days between his return from the service and the election, he couldn't campaign much. He ran as a Whig, as he disliked Andrew Jackson's presidency. Unfortunately, the district he was campaigning in was strongly for Andrew Jackson, so he lost. However, in his own precinct, he received 277 votes out of about 300, showing how much people he knew liked and respected him.

After losing the election, he also found himself without a job. He wanted to study law and eventually practice it, but he didn't think he had enough of an education. He decided to enter into a partnership with a man he served with in the Black Hawk War, William Berry. They bought three shops on credit, but as Lincoln recalled, the enterprise 'did nothing but get deeper and deeper in debt,' and in only a few months the shops failed. Since Berry died a few years later, Lincoln had to work for 15 years before he cleared the partnership's debts (about US$1,100). But he paid back every cent he owed.

In May, 1833, Abe found a new job. He was appointed as Postmaster of New Salem, and was reputed to be one of the worst in the history of the town. However, he was hard-working and sometimes walked miles just to deliver a single letter. The benefit for him was that he could read several newspapers and keep up with current affairs.

Soon after, the surveyor of his county offered to make Abe a deputy, to which he agreed. Not knowing anything at all about surveying, he prepared by studying hard. However, he didn't have time to do much in the job before the election of 1834 rolled around.

...Try, Try Again!

By 1834 Lincoln's public profile had risen (as postmaster, he got to know all of the people of New Salem, and as a surveyor he made friends all around the area). His goal of a seat in the Illinois legislature remained unfulfilled, so he ran again at a Whig. He won by a large margin, and went to the capital. In his first term Lincoln was very quiet, but he watched and listened intently to the proceedings. The most prominent and powerful member of the Illinois Legislature then was Stephen Douglas, who would plague Lincoln later in life.

Soon enough though, he was rising through the ranks of the legislators and became one of the leading members of the Illinois Whig party. He was admitted to the bar in 1836 and moved to Springfield the following year. He was re-elected in 1836, 1838 and again in 1840, though declined re-election after that. In his second term he served as Whig Floor Leader, leading the party on many issues, including the establishment of a state bank, the building of infrastructure and changing the capital city of Illinois from Vandalia to Springfield.

On the issue of slavery, he was somewhat ambivalent. He declared it an evil practice, but did not believe that the federal government should be able to ban slavery in states practising it. He considered this to be his position his entire life.

Lawyer Lincoln

Lincoln studied law with borrowed books when the legislature was out of session, and on 9 September, 1836, he was granted a licence by two justices of the Supreme Court to practice law in all courts of the state. In early 1837 his name was entered on the roll of attorneys in the office of the clerk of the Supreme Court, and he started a practice with John T Stuart (who had urged him to go into law). The Stuart and Lincoln firm lasted until 1841, when he joined in partnership with Stephen Logan which lasted until 1844.

His final partnership was with the young William Herndon, which apparently existed from December 1844 until Lincoln's death.

Give our clients to understand that the election of a president makes no change in the firm of Lincoln and Herndon.

Lincoln tried many cases, and handled legal matters for small fees occasionally. He gained experience and established a good knowledge of the law.


Nothing new here except my marrying, which to me, is a matter of profound wonder.

Not long after Lincoln moved from New Salem to Springfield, he met and dated Mary Todd - a woman from an aristocratic family of Lexington, Kentucky who lived with her sister in Springfield. Mary Todd was a socialite, known for etiquette and sophistication, while Lincoln, though also a socialite, was not. She was intelligent, passionate and rather high strung. They decided to be married, and set the wedding date for 1 January, 1841.

The wedding was called off, either by Abe not showing up or calling it off behind the scenes. Lincoln had an emotional breakdown, lasting more than a year. He did not want to be re-elected in 1842, as he was unstable. However, by the middle of that month, he was reconciled with Mary Todd and they were married on 4 November, 1842.

Mary and Abraham fought often and passionately. They had four sons; Robert Todd, born in 1843 who would go on to be Secretary of War under two presidents; Edward Baker, who was born in 1846 but died at age three; William Wallace, who was born in 1850 but died at age 11 when his father was president; and Thomas (Tad), born 1853, who was very ill and died in 1871.

The family was fairly well-to-do. They sometimes had a servant, and could afford a good life, with Lincoln bringing money in as a lawyer and politician.

Politics Again

In 1846, Lincoln decided it was time to run for the US Congress. He had paid his dues to the Whig Party several times over, campaigned all across Illinois for the Whig presidential candidates, William Henry Harrison and Henry Clay (a man whom he admired and respected), and was long overdue for a nomination to Congress. As the majority of people in his district belonged to the Whig party, their nominee was basically assured victory. He won with the largest margin of victory in the history of the district and took office on 6 December, 1847.

As a new representative, Lincoln couldn't manage to gain a strong national reputation in Congress, but he spoke out against President James Polk over the Mexican War, which was ending as he took office - something that would prove unpopular in his district. He also supported the Wilmot Proviso, a proposal to ban slavery in the land the US would gain from the treaty ending the Mexican War. Lincoln also travelled widely to campaign for the successful Whig presidential candidate in 1848, Zachary Taylor.

After completing his term in Congress, Abe did not seek re-election - because he had no chance of winning the nomination. In fact, party leaders had already arranged for another nominee in the next election. He hoped his trips to promote President Taylor would warrant him a position as Commissioner of the General Land Office, but he wasn't successful in his bid for the appointment.

After this, he retired from political life for about five years and concentrated on his career as a successful circuit lawyer. He took more high profile cases than he had before, and his reputation strengthened. He once received a US$5,000-fee for representing Illinois Central Railroad in a tax case. By the beginning of the next decade, Lincoln was one of the foremost lawyers in the state.

In 1854 the Illinois Democratic Senator was Stephen Douglas, who had been in the Illinois legislature at the same time as Lincoln. Douglas was one of the shrewdest politicians of the time... almost an anachronism. He was a great debater and an expert campaigner. He did not believe slavery was wrong or evil, and furthermore, didn't care if it spread to more states or not.

Douglas held the office of chairman of the Committee on Territories, and as such was responsible for introducing the important Kansas-Nebraska Act. This Act repealed the Missouri Compromise (which made the northern part of the Louisiana territory free of slavery whilst allowing the southern part to have slavery) and said that the people in the Kansas-Nebraska territory should decide for themselves whether or not they should allow slavery. This set a precedent that allowed slavery to continue indefinitely, instead of gradually dying out in time as many anti-slavery campaigners thought it would. The Act was eventually passed, enraging Lincoln and others holding similar views.

This brought Lincoln right back into politics, as he wanted to do all that he could to reverse the effect of the Act. It had ignited great emotion throughout the nation, and especially in the state of Illinois (where there were nearly as many pro-slavery proponents as anti-slavery advocates).

Douglas made his way back to Illinois after the passage of his bill, and received a mixed audience there. In Chicago his visit was greeted with flags at half-mast and an atmosphere of hatred towards him. However, at the state fair in Springfield, Douglas found a relatively favourable crowd - with the notable exception of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln gave a stirring speech, and while Douglas had been supposed to reply, he became angry and confused, and failed to retort.

Lincoln became a plague to Douglas in the 1854 Congressional election, following him around the state and attacking him at every opportunity he could with emotional and strong speeches - campaigning more vigorously than ever for a candidate other than himself. He rose to be the leader of the Illinois opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

I admit, that the emigrant to Kansas and Nebraska is competent to govern himself, but I deny his right to govern any other person without that other person's consent.

He was elected to the Illinois legislature yet again, but resigned in order to campaign for a higher office. He sought the office of US Senator, or at least did not want a supporter of Douglas to be elected. In that era, senators were elected by state legislatures, instead of by popular vote. Lincoln received the most votes in the Illinois legislature (45), but this was five short of a majority. On later ballots, his lead became smaller and smaller, until he was forced to encourage supporters loyal to him to vote for a man named Lyman Trumbull (who at first had no chance of winning), just in order to keep Douglas's supporter from the office. Trumbull triumphed.

Republican Lincoln

With the Whig party splintering apart, mainly through the lack of an official slavery platform, a new party had to fill the void. The Democrats were gaining steam, and so was slavery. As a result, antislavery men from the Free-Soil Party, Whigs and Democrats met and formed the Republican Party. Their main platform was to limit the expansion of slavery.

Lincoln joined the Republicans in 1856, and spoke at the Illinois state convention that year. It is known to have been a tremendous speech, so much so that most reporters forgot about writing their notes on it and few records of it exist. The convention nominated John C Fremont, who went on to lose to Democrat James Buchanan in the election of 1856. Lincoln tirelessly campaigned for Fremont, and following all of his campaigning for the Republicans, he became nationally known and one of the new party's stars.

In 1858, Lincoln was rewarded for his campaigning work by being nominated by the Republicans to run for the US Senate - against his old nemesis Stephen Douglas. He accepted the nomination with his now-famous 'House Divided' speech, which some thought was intended to bring to the fore a conflict between the slavery and anti-slavery states. Lincoln made a few speeches, but then decided to challenge Douglas to a series of debates.

Douglas accepted, and named seven locations for seven debates. Someone close to Douglas congratulated him on getting an opponent he would easily defeat in the debates. Douglas, knowing Lincoln's style and knack for powerful speech, replied that he would rather debate anyone else in the country.

The ensuing debates would become very famous, drawing huge crowds and national interest. The debates were mostly based on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with Douglas defending it on law and Lincoln arguing against it on principle. The first debate was on 21 August, and they ended 15 October. Each man spoke for about an hour and a half, and this (added to regular speeches around the state), had Douglas's voice weak by the time of the election. Lincoln's voice remained strong.

On election day, more votes were given to legislators who would have put Lincoln in the senate, but - due to various complications in the electoral process - Douglas won the office with 54 legislators to Lincoln's 46. And so Douglas served another term in the senate, despite all Lincoln's hard work. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise for Lincoln, as at that time no one had ever been elected from the senate to the presidency, and since that time it is still a rare occurrence.

This defeat left Lincoln free to bother Douglas even more. As the Senator moved east, through Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, Lincoln followed, making speeches after Douglas. He also went to New York City to make his famous Cooper Institute Speech, which must have taken him months to research and write up. He ended his speech by saying,

Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.

The speech was received very well in New York City, and with all of the publications in that metropolis, word spread across the nation that Lincoln was a highly-educated and intelligent man. The audience had thought that Mr Lincoln, born in the frontier west, would come to tell funny stories and make them laugh. The speech was actually strictly political and serious, and reaffirmed his position as an intelligent orator and not just an uncultivated westerner. Similar speeches in New England won him the praise and respect of north-eastern Republicans.

The Presidential Election of 1860

The Republican Party held their second convention in Chicago, Illinois, on 12 May, to decide their nomination for the presidency. There were three choices - New York Senator William Seward, Ohio Senator Salmon Chase, and (naturally) Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. Lincoln's speeches in the east had made him a well-known candidate, and he had been nicknamed 'the Railsplitter.'

However, on the first ballot, Seward won 173 and one half votes, Lincoln won 102, with Chase trailing with 49. By the second ballot, Lincoln gained the support of Pennsylvania and Indiana, and was closely behind Seward with 181 votes to 184 and a half votes. In the third ballot Lincoln ran ahead of his rivals, and the state of Ohio gave him four votes originally intended for its own senator, to give him the majority of 233 votes. Maine Senator Hannibal Hamlin was the delegates' choice as a running mate. Lincoln managed to win because he was essentially a moderate in slavery policy, and was thus thought to be the most electable.

Seward and Chase did not go away empty-handed, however. Under the Lincoln administration, they were both given prominent roles. Seward served as Secretary of State and was invaluable in preventing European involvement in the Civil War; he also oversaw the purchase of Alaska from Russia4. Chase ended up as Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury, competently managing the country's finances and paying for the war effort during his time in office. In 1864 he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

And so Lincoln was nominated for the highest office in the land. He stayed in Springfield throughout most of the crucial campaign time, because it was thought to be undignified to campaign for president as one did for lower office. His friends and supporters spread word of Lincoln throughout the land. However, something happened to the Democratic Party that helped the Lincoln campaign more than anything the Republican Party could have achieved themselves.

The Democratic Split

Stephen Douglas, Lincoln's old foe, had become the most politically powerful man in the nation as the leader of the Democrats. It was natural that he would want - or even expect - the office of the president. However, Douglas had managed to alienate the southern Democrats, and so at their convention the Democrats were unable to settle happily on one candidate.

The northern and southern Democrats split into factions, with the northern Democrats nominating Douglas, and the southern Democrats moving their convention across the street and nominating John C Breckinridge5. This assured Lincoln of the northern vote, because it was generally opposed to slavery. Another party, called the Constitutional Union Party, nominated Tennessee Senator John Bell.

Lincoln won handily, with 180 electoral votes - against 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell and only 12 for Douglas6. Douglas had alienated the north's anti-slavery voters, and the southerners were voting for Breckinridge; he did receive quite a few northern votes (from people who favoured slavery), and from some southerners, but in almost every case it was in the minority of each state. In the popular vote, Lincoln received 1,865,908 votes, Douglas 1,380,202, Breckinridge 848,019 and Bell 590,901.

Lincoln's 1,865,908 votes represented just under 40% of the vote, and his opponents in total received 2,819,122 votes. He had won without a single electoral vote from the South. Outgoing President James Buchanan thought that Lincoln could not heal the rift between the two regions, declaring 'I am the last President of the United States.'


Of course, the southern politicians knew that splitting the Democrats would probably lead to the election of the Republicans, which was terrible for them. However, with the election of Lincoln - which symbolised the rise of anti-slavery sentiment - they gained an excuse to finally act for the preservation of slavery. Lincoln's election, however, was by no means the sole catalyst to this action.

The idea of states leaving the Union had been around for decades7, and in the south since states' rights had become a major issue with the nullification crisis thirty years earlier. The election of Lincoln was, so to speak, the straw that broke the camel's back.

There is a short time between the election of a US president and the date when he officially takes office (nowadays this is from the election until 20 January of the next year). At that time the period lasted from the election until March, during which several states pre-empted any decisions by Lincoln on slavery by declaring themselves independent of the Union, and therefore of Lincoln's authority.

South Carolina was the first to secede, passing an Ordinance of Secession on 20 December. Before Lincoln took office, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas had left the Union. Four other states - Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia - later joined the Confederacy, with the latter two states being especially reluctant or ambivalent in joining.

The Confederacy set up its government first in Montgomery, Alabama, and later in Richmond, Virginia. It elected its own government, similar to the Union's but with more emphasis on states' rights. Jefferson Davis was eventually elected president with Alexander Stephens as vice president.

Lincoln left Springfield on 11 February, 1861 on his journey east. He went through Philadelphia8, where he learned his life had been threatened, and so picked up his journey's pace to Washington DC.

Lincoln's First Administration

On 4 March, 1861, Lincoln was administered the oath of office by Chief Justice Roger Taney and became the 16th President of the United States, and the first Republican president. In his inaugural address, Lincoln did not pledge any immediate action against the south, but asserted that the federal government would hold onto its possessions with military force. However, he pleaded for the preservation of the Union, and said that he would not attempt to abolish slavery in existing lands, but would only try to prevent it from expanding. He ended his speech with the words:

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend' it.'
I am loath 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 cords 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 again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

His cabinet was an able and intelligent group of people, with Seward and Chase appointed to the roles already mentioned. Seward was considered to be the strongest and most intelligent man in the entire cabinet. However, he was so powerful and intelligent that he essentially tried to run the government and have Lincoln give him more and more power. Lincoln rebuffed him rather politely on 1 April of the first year, and after that the cabinet was, more or less, in harmony.

The post of Secretary of War originally went to Simon Cameron, but in 1862 he resigned and was replaced with Edwin Stanton, who served faithfully and competently. The vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, stayed at home in Maine through most of his time in the administration, reflecting the complete lack of importance attached to the vice-president in those days. Gideon Welles was appointed Secretary of the Navy, and oversaw the growth of the Union's navy necessary to accomplish the plans of Lincoln's generals.

During the inauguration, Stephen Douglas stood with the new president and held his characteristic top hat. After the speech, he shook Lincoln's hands and told him he would try to help him preserve the Union. When the Civil War was raging, Douglas stood by his promise, and briefly helped him, until he died on 3 June, 1861.

Within less than a month, Lincoln's position of holding onto federal forts in the south was tested. Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour was running low in supplies, and Lincoln wouldn't let the south take the fort, and so he informed the Confederate government that he was having the fort resupplied. This was a calculated ploy on Lincoln's part to get the Confederates to fire the first shots of the war, and they did so, on 12 April. Sumter fell, just over a month after Lincoln took office.

The south took Fort Sumter, but as the Confederate troops fired against the American flag, the remaining people in the Union were just that - in union; united against the south, despite their doubts of Lincoln and their divisions on certain ideas.


Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

Lincoln called up the militia and asked for 75,000 short-term volunteers to join the military. The number needed to be small because it had to look as if Lincoln expected a short and swift war, to keep morale up. The states filled their quotas of men several times over9, and there were many than the 75,000 Lincoln had requested.

The number would have been higher, but President Buchanan (who preceded Lincoln) had chosen not to buy military supplies, so a large force would be grossly undersupplied (they were, even at only 75,000 men). The south, on the other hand, was very well supplied, having bought arms from the north and elsewhere around the world in anticipation of a war.

Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus10 for Confederate sympathisers in the North, expanded the military and spent money without Congress approving it. He believed that the war powers endowed on the president in the Constitution allowed this, and justified this to the Congress when it met. Lincoln would later state for various other actions, that if the south would ignore the Constitution to break the Union, he would ignore the Constitution to preserve the Union.

There was significant public pressure to end the war quickly, and before the terms of the 75,000 volunteers had ended. Lincoln sent an army forward, and General McDowell advanced to take the Manassas Railroad Junction on 21 July - the subsequent battle was known as the First Battle of Bull Run. People assumed that this would be a decisive battle - so much so that people went to the site of the battle for a picnic. The Confederacy won the battle however, and ended hopes of a quick war. Lincoln became resigned to a long, difficult conflict.

After Virginia left the Union, Lincoln offered Robert E Lee the position as head of the Union forces. Though he did not like the decision to secede, Lee went over to the Confederate side to join with his native Virginia. Lincoln had trouble with generals throughout the war, and shuffled through many before it was through. This will not attempt to serve as an Entry on the American Civil War, though.

In the north, there was wide disagreement on the objectives of the war. Some wanted to simply sustain the Union, while the goal of abolitionists was to end slavery. The fact was that if the main goal was to end slavery, then this would endanger the entire war effort. Four border states that allowed slavery - Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri - would probably feel threatened by such a position, which would seriously hurt the Union effort. In particular, if Maryland seceded then the Union capital of Washington DC would be encircled by the Confederacy (with Virginia to the south and Maryland to the north). Lincoln's moderate position was essential to keeping the Union forces together.

The war kept Lincoln pinned inside Washington DC, working hard and for long hours. His problems with poor generals continued and his domestic life offered little relief - his son William Wallace died in 1862, and his wife was suspected of treason and disloyalty. After the defeats of Chancellorsville and Fredricksburg, Lincoln wondered in desperation what the country would think. Lincoln's morale dropped with the troops' morale.

The Emancipation Proclamation

In the summer of 1862, Lincoln decided that his policy towards slavery wasn't helping anything; most northerners wanted slavery to be abolished; freed slaves were able to serve in the Union army; and destroying slavery would seriously harm the southern labour-force and economy. Lincoln's cabinet advised him against a move to abolish slavery, but when he told them that he intended to free slaves in rebel states, Secretary of State Seward told him he should wait until the Union had a major victory.

The Battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg, which the Union won on 17 September, 1862, gave Lincoln a suitable opportunity. He issued a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation on 22 September, stating that in the rebelling territories the slaves '...are, and henceforth shall be, free'. The real proclamation was issued on 1 January, 1863. This had no immediate impact, because the Union couldn't enforce the decree on the better part of the Confederacy until the war was won.

The border states that stayed with the Union were not affected with this decree either, because it didn't apply to them. Lincoln was afraid that if he ordered the slaves to be freed in those states, they would leave the Union. He did urge the border states to free their slaves, and said he would compensate them for their losses.

Despite its historical significance, the Emancipation Proclamation did little immediate emancipating. However, it brought a new moral principle to the war, and started the nation on the road to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed all slavery in the United States.

Late Union Victories

The Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania (fought from 1 - 3 July, 1863) turned the battles of the war by defeating a Confederate force numbering about 75,000. However, after the Confederates began to retreat, Union general George Meade didn't pursue. This enraged Lincoln, and he had Meade's power limited. The next day (4 July) Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, fell to Union General Ulysses S Grant. This marked the beginning of the end for the south, and Lincoln said in a letter:

Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time.

On 19 November, Lincoln went to the Gettysburg battlefield to help dedicate a new cemetery there. Lincoln carefully wrote out 272 words, beginning with the famous line:

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.

It was one of his most powerful speeches, and was short and sweet - only lasting about two minutes. It is now known simply as the Gettysburg Address.

In early 1864, Lincoln put General Grant in charge of the Union armies and he began to aggressively approach the Confederate capital. Around the same time, General William Tecumseh Sherman began a march from Tennessee to the sea, destroying everything of military value in his path, including the cities of Atlanta, Savannah and Columbia.

The Election of 1864

For the election of 1864, a little-known party named the Union Party was formed, composed of Republicans and pro-war Democrats. In June, it nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate as president, and as vice president, Andrew Johnson. Johnson was a senator from Tennessee, who had fought and nearly succeeded, to keep Tennessee in the Union. The Democrats nominated George McClellan, who had served (rather unfortunately) as a Union general in the war, with George Pendleton of Ohio as his running mate. Another party, calling itself the Radical Republicans, nominated John Fremont, but he withdrew shortly before the election.

Lincoln was rather unpopular in the late summer, and he thought that he was unlikely to be re-elected, but a series of Union victories won him the approval of the public. Admiral Farragut captured Mobile Bay on 5 August, William Sherman captured Atlanta on 2 September and General Sheridan's cavalry ran the Confederacy from the Shenandoah Valley. Morale and confidence rose as the war again ran the way of the Union, and Lincoln's chances improved greatly.

In fact, Lincoln decimated McClellan in the Electoral College, with 212 to 21 votes. He got about 400,000 more popular votes than his opposition. McClellan only carried three states - Delaware, Kentucky and New Jersey. Since the south didn't vote, this election was less complicated and easier for Lincoln.

Lincoln's Second Administration

By his second inauguration, Lincoln saw an end to the Civil War approaching. Most of General Lee's troops were tired or out of combat, and General Grant's hard work and strong strategy were closing in on Richmond. Lincoln could now leave the war to his generals, as he had finally found several competent commanders who could be trusted in their duties.

By the time of the inauguration, on 4 March, 1865, Lincoln's face showed signs of ageing - more ageing than would have been expected in just four years. He had suffered greatly from stress and lack of sleep during the most intense points of the war.

Washington DC was very muddy and wet during the ceremony, but thousands of people stood to watch Lincoln take the oath again. The newly-completed dome of the capital stood behind him resolutely. Like George Washington, his second inaugural address was short and to the point. The speech had an air of conciliation, and of gentle treatment of the south during Reconstruction. The last words of the speech were:

… 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.

Shortly over a month after his inauguration, the last major event of the Civil War (and of Lincoln's presidency) took place. On 9 April, 1865, (almost four years exactly since the firing on Fort Sumter), General Robert E Lee surrendered his army to General Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Lincoln had his general give the southerners good terms. They were allowed to go home and keep their horses. This meant that the majority of the Confederate army was gone. The war was essentially over.

Lincoln didn't have enough time to formalise his plan of reconstruction. However, it was clear that he still had patience with the Confederate states, and would grant them statehood again. He said on 11 April that 'finding themselves safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad.' He also spoke about Louisiana, which was applying for statehood again. He said:

Still the question is not whether the Louisiana government, as it stands, is quite all that is desirable. The question is, 'Will it be wiser to take it as it is, and help to improve it; or to reject, and disperse it?' Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining, or by discarding her new state government?


President Lincoln knew, ever since his election, that there were people who wished him dead. Some historians think that every day that Lincoln lived in the White House his life was in danger.

On 14 April, 1865, during a production of Our American Cousin, an actor by the name of John Wilkes entered Ford's Theatre in Washington made his way up to the president's box and shot him. He leapt onto the stage (breaking his leg) and shouted 'Sic Semper Tyrannis'11, which is the state motto of Virginia. Lincoln was taken to a nearby house, and died at 7.22am on 15 April (Good Friday), with his family and several government officials in the room.

After his death, the nation mourned almost unanimously. His enemies praised him and his supporters wept as a train carrying his body went from Washington westward to Springfield. Though he wasn't a very popular president while he lived - with every move he made scrutinised - his death made people feel guilty. Indeed, people loved him after his death. Even Robert E Lee, the most respected southerner of all, later said of the surrender of his army that he surrendered as much to Lincoln's goodness as he did to the Union forces.

On 4 May, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois. His body was moved to a huge monument after its construction in 1874, where many of his descendants were also laid to rest. John Wilkes Booth was killed without trial, and an official investigation was made into the existence of a conspiracy to kill Lincoln...

Further Reading

1Interestingly, the same day as Charles Darwin was born.2For US$20 in cash and US$280 in whisky.3This workbook is preserved today, and included a short poem:
Abraham Lincoln
His hand and pen
He will be good but
God knows When.
4Which was known as 'Seward's Folly'.5Mary Todd Lincoln's cousin.6He only managed to get three votes in a split vote from New Jersey and nine votes from Missouri.7Though it is not often remembered, several New England states nearly left the Union because the War of 1812 was extremely unpopular there.8While visiting Independence Hall, Lincoln raised an American flag with 34 stars, including the rebelling states. Throughout the war, he refused to accept the decision of the Confederacy and never took those stars off his flags.9Somewhat interestingly, the governor of Massachusetts had anticipated a civil war for years, and was so prepared for it that the state produced the most initial troops.10Which prevents unlawful or injudicial imprisonment.11'Thus Always to Tyrants' in Latin.

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