Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was the American President who led his country through the brutal and destructive Civil War in the 1860’s. He is remembered as a man of principle that held his country together, fought to defeat slavery and was assassinated just after victory had been attained.

Lincoln was born in In Western Kentucky in 1809. His family were backwoods people who worked the remote land and tamed the native forest. They moved to Indiana then Illinois. His father owned a few hundred acres on the margin of the Union. Young Abraham was always reading and scribbling. He read the Bible and other Christian literature avidly, although he was not a particularly devout man. He was not keen on the extreme physical nature of the life, but he fulfilled his duties and became proficient with an axe chopping wood. He was a giant of a man at 6 feet 4 inches, 193 cm. He had long legs and a big head that made him look comical and even ugly.

He did not have a positive relationship with his father and made his own way in Illinois. He ran a business transporting goods on the large rivers leading to the Mississippi and he opened a general store. All the time he was reading voraciously. He would be a clerk or a postmaster and soon got into politics and tried to get elected in Illinois. Without education, money and influence he did better than expected without success. He was self-taught in Law, and got elected in Illinois to state legislature in the Whig party. He served six terms and had a successful law practice. He would ride out to remote areas and settle disputes with his literary wisdom and homespun common-sense. Many cases related to the transportation industries or land disputes as the country looked to expand westwards.

He was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1846. He was loyal to his party supporting economic improvement, especially for transport links to the expanding areas to the West, an end to slavery and peace in the war with Mexico. He did not get re-elected and returned to his practice. But by the early 1850’s the Whig party was split on the issue of slavery in the new territories. The Northern states were mostly free of slavery, but the southern states had widespread slavery on the rich plantations. The slave trade from Africa, started by the British, allowed the labour-intensive work to be profitable with cheap African labour. The North was mainly free of slaves, but there was some in the border states like Maryland. The Kansas-Nebraska act was outlining the legal attitude to slavery in the new territories as the USA expanded westwards. Some of the Whig party were against it, Lincoln was definitely against it.

He had traded up and down the Mississippi on his flat boat, and would have seen the injustice meted out to black people. He also had read about the principles by which the USA had based the Republic and saw slavery as a direct challenge to those principles. He stood for the Senate and lost, but he was fast becoming involved in politics and was an unlikely leading light of the new Republican party. Formed out of the failed Whig party and some anti-slavery Democrats, this was the latest political movement. Lincoln was a moderate in the party on the issue of slavery. Some thought slavery a sin and others saw it as a block to progress. Lincoln saw it a stain on the countries Constitutional principles and feared for the break-up of the country.

He again ran for the Senate in Illinois in 1858. He was up against Democrat Stephen Douglas. There were seven very well attended debates that were covered nationally. The issue was slavery and Lincoln stated that morally it was against the values of the country, whereas Douglas said that freedom of the people meant that the white man was free to choose slavery or not. Lincoln narrowly lost the election and was bitterly disappointed, but he had put himself on the political map.

But the slavery debate was at the forefront of the political agenda and he was persuaded to stand for President. He had demonstrated that he was the intellectual leader of the debate and the party. The long hours of study had paid off. He won the nomination for the Republican party and stood against Douglas for the Northern Democrats, and Bell and Breckiniridge in the south. The country was becoming polarised on the slave issue. The party did most of the work with good poster and leaflet campaigns. He focussed on the issues not on himself. The General Election had an 82.2% turnout. This was for an election when no, woman, child or slave was allowed the vote. Lincoln won the delegates for the North and West, but nothing from the South. He was President, the battle lines were being drawn.

Before the inauguration he toured the country by train, introducing himself to the people. Many in the South were nervous about Lincoln and his anti-slavery ways. They felt their way of life was being threatened. The South was based on plantation life. Hot and sticky, with a certain hierarchy with plantation owners at the top and slaves at the bottom. Very much a Christian region, but the white church would not challenge slavery and the black church was separate. Cotton, tobacco and other cash crops gave the region its wealth. These were exported through the ports ranging from the Virginia ports in the East, through to New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi and onto Texas.

The north was becoming heavily industrialised. Timber and furs had been traditional, but heavy industries were exploiting coal and iron ore reserves. The effects of the British Industrial Revolution were bringing wealth and power to the northern region. The Christianity of the North focussed on the immorality of slavery and drove the abolition movement. Both saw opportunity to the West, where untapped agricultural land of the prairies, the mountainous Rockies and the golden Californian coast beckoned. The two cultures were fighting each other, but influence on the West was at stake as well.

Lincoln stated that he had no intention of ending slavery in the South. His main aim was to hold the Union together and not extend slavery westwards. But the Southern states started to secede and formed a Confederacy. The commander of Fort Sumter on the South Carolina coast, requested more provisions. This ratcheted up the tensions of two sides that had lost faith in each other, and the south fired upon the Fort which surrendered. The Civil War had begun. Virginia joined the rebels and the Confederate capital was theirs at Richmond. It was exposed, being close to Washington DC. Missouri, Maryland and Kentucky were close to secession, but they all stayed in the Union. They all had some slaves and were crucial as the swing states that Lincoln knew he had to keep on his side. Although he would stand on principle, he maintained a wise head to protect the union and not be too extreme.

Lincoln steered a clam and moderate path between those that wanted compromise and those that demanded abolition. He continued to put the coherence of the Union first, and the slavery issue second. He worked to protect the Unions interests abroad, knowing that there was a lot of trade with Europe from the South.

Lincoln had been a Captain in the militia that had fought the Black Hawk War, so he had some idea of military matters. He read about strategy and figured the need to protect Washington and be aggressive towards the enemy, rather than capture territory. He also realised the importance of capturing strategic points that would be concerned with communications and trade. Vicksburg on the Mississippi was one of them.

The USA had little experience in War. There were some disputes with Britain and border clashed with Mexico and the native Americans, but it was not a warlike nation. Many people had started to colonise the Country 250 years previously. They had escaped from European religious wars of the 17th Century and sought a new life, religious freedom and peace in the brave new world. There were tough pioneers, but the fighting spirit of the Europeans remained in Europe.

So, when the battles started in Virginia, there was little understanding of the nature of War. Many thought it would be over in 90 days. The North had a numerical advantage in population, an industrial economy to produce materiel and a greater navy to control trade. But there was a lack of experience or understanding of strategy. Also, military technology had advanced and the strategic teaching, based on Napoleonic conflicts that ended 46 years previously was based on a much less efficient musket. The rifled musket was more accurate and powerful. Previously troops would have lined up 30m apart, now they should have been 100m apart. The bullets were a large ½ inch in calibre and a hit would remove a limb or if it hit the abdomen, death was the normal outcome. The result was an incredible casualty rate of 9%, which is unmatched by any accurately recorded war.

The North was surprised by losing the first few exchanges to the South. Not surprisingly, new troops were not keen to stand their ground, and many routed at their first taste of war. George McClellan was appointed to lead the Northern Army by Lincoln. His main task was to siege Richmond, although he had been trained at West Point, he did not perform well and was inert, seeking greater advantage before attacking. He never did. The other Northern Generals lacked skill and experience, by contrast the Southerners, led by Robert E. Lee, had some brave swashbuckling Generals. Stonewall Jackson who refused to budge an inch, Jeb Stuart a brilliant cavalry leader and others who kept the North at bay for four years.

Lincoln had gone through the main Generals, without success. There were some disasters like Fredericksburg, where the Union troops were marched in a line uphill to a well defended Confederate position, and slaughtered. Tactics were severely lacking.  Lincoln turned to a lower ranked officer called U.S. Grant, who he promoted. Grant had been successful in the campaign for Vicksburg in the West. He attacked Lee in Virginia later. But Lee had led his army North into Pennsylvania in 1863. Here he would take on the Union in the decisive battle of the War at Gettysburg. The first day saw a crucial stand by the men of Maine, who securing the left flank of the Union line at the hill of Little Big Top. The second day saw Picketts charge, where the South ran into the Northern rifles and were lost.

Lincoln attended a memorial, at Gettysburg, and despite some long speeches, made a memorable address in 272 words. He pledged that the lives lost would not be wasted and that the nation was born in liberty and equality for all and that slavery was the issue worth fighting for.

The main Confederate army had been broken. In 1864 Grant unsuccessfully confronted Lee in Virginia, Sheridan countered Early’s raids in the Shenandoah to his West. Sherman plunged into the deep south, burning Atlanta and laid waste to Georgia and South Carolina. He took the war to the Plantation’s, it was the first modern war. The emancipation of the slaves was beginning.

Wilmington was the last port to be shut. Its costly capture meant there was no more trade for the South. The stranglehold had begun, Richmond would fall on 9th of April 1865 and the end had come.

Lincolns Generals, who started as disobedient and incompetent, finally found their feet through four years of experience, and a new way to win.  There were devastating consequences in human loss and suffering and horrendous conditions in prison camps. The emotional devastation, as some families were divided and many shattered with post-traumatic stress, would linger on. The spiritual damage, as a nation so Godly, but divided, saw its faith sacrificed on the altar of war. The outcome for some, was a rapacious, self-interested charge West. Ruthless railway builders, cattle barons and speculators, exploited the virgin territory and laid waste to the native population.

The war led to a cynicism in some that challenged the principles that Lincoln stood for. He stuck to his guns. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in all but 2 states. He had to walk a thin line to keep the border states in line. He maintained the principle that the Union was what they were fighting for and never acknowledged the Confederacy.

His popularity was meagre to say the least and he was certainly not guaranteed re-election in 1864. But he got it and after a pithy, but short acceptance speech, he worked on the 13th Amendment to end slavery for the Union. By fair means or foul, he managed to engineer a close victory for the 13th Amendment that ended slavery. The consensus was for peace, but he knew that he had to defeat slavery otherwise the whole war would have achieved nothing. By expert political manoeuvring, Lincoln gained enough support to prevent the southern states from rejecting it on return to the Union. There were peace talks, knowledge of this would have prevented the vote, but managed to stymie these privately.

There was much talk of resettlement of African Americans elsewhere, forced land seizures and reconstruction after the war. But Lincoln still took the middle, sensible and hands-off policy. We never found out what he would have done about these issues, as he was assassinated at a theatre on 14 April. Ironically the theatre was a place of peace for old Abe who was tired beyond belief. He could rest and not be disturbed for a few hours. He died at the pinnacle of his career, possibly only appreciated in the very last few days, as his wisdom bore fruit.

He was a singular man of principle, gained from book knowledge and legal and political experience. Having the confidence of a man brought up in the hostile surroundings of the pioneering West. Clear in his priorities, he knew that the principles of the founding fathers were what he was fighting for. Holding the Union together and ending slavery when possible. His selfless devotion to the cause, corralling those on all sides to focus on the important path. Never giving into moral collapse and knowing that the horror of this war can only be mitigated by a reunification and an end to slavery. He used all the talents available to him and all means necessary to achieve them. Single minded in his actions, wise in his analysis and patient in his application, his clear-sightedness saw the future for his country.

He was proved right by history, but the cost to the American Dream was immense. Perhaps we could consider what would have become of the USA if there had been a permanent cessation or slavery had not ended or there had been no resolution after the conflict.

He stood by the principles of his country and if he did not make it a better place I am sure he prevented it being a worse place. But he gave an example to all of us, he had studied diligently on many subjects. He was an avid reader of the Bible, but held to its tenets with an open hand, applying its principles in an openminded way for all, in line with the Constitution.

Who knows what he could have achieved if he lived. It does not matter, he won and would not flinch from the total moral victory that was required. I believe he saved the Constitution of the United States of America. I believe it is the birth-right of all Americans, yes go out and be successful, yes make a profit, yes live the American dream, yes promote your values around the world. But above all else America, save and promote your Constitution.

Liberty and equality for all, for health, wealth and the pursuit of happiness.

God Bless America!

Conway-Laird (2017)

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