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The War of Liberation
Belching clouds of steam and hazy blue smoke, the stubby little locomotive chugged along the iron rails that wove through the low Allegheny Mountains. While the fireman heaved chunks of walnut and cherry into the roaring firebox, the engineer looked out through his narrow window past the small boiler, the polished brass fittings, the stovepipe-shaped smokestack, watching for the village stations along the way: Relay House, Lutherville, Timonium.... In a rear coach sat Abraham Lincoln, regaling cronies with droll stories and listening imperturbably to politicians who climbed aboard to exhort and complain, while a little party of diplomats silently watched this loose-framed man who, with his seamed face, deep-sunk eyes, and rough cut of a beard, appeared in mourning even as he told his small-town anecdotes.
Love's Station, New Freedom, Jefferson Station, Hanover Junction ... "This is all very pleasant," Lincoln told his listeners, but he had to work on his speech. Retiring to a closed drawing room in the rear of the coach, he sat watching the red-brown mountain slopes and hollows slip by his window. He could see farmers still harvesting grain in the lush Pennsylvania fields. Few young men were visible; these farmers and their fellows all across the North had seen their sons off to war. Lincoln could share their feelings: a year before, his own Willie had sickened and died, while he just now had left his second son, Tad, ill in the White House with Mrs. Lincoln almost hysterical with worry and memories.
That morning—November 18, 1863—the President had left a capital deeply enmeshed in the business of war. At the War Department, Secretary Edwin M. Stanton was following telegraphed reports from the Union forces in Virginia, which were cautiously advancing, and from those in Tennessee, which were readying an attack. The Ordnance Bureau announced that it would accept bids for the manufacture of 71,000 heavy-artillery shells. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles was working on his annual report to Congress. Chief John Ross, whose Cherokee tribe had been exiled for a quarter century in Oklahoma, visited the Indian Bureau with reports and petitions. The Treasury Department announced the next issue of new national banknotes, this time with better printing and paper. The President himself had just proclaimed a place in the city of Omaha as the starting point for the Union Pacific Railway.
Now, in the swaying compartment of the presidential train, Lincoln scratched some more words on a sheet of foolscap. He was bound for Gettysburg, the battlefield where 40,000 Northern and Southern men had been lost to death or wounds less than five months before. He had not much looked forward to the occasion, had found it difficult to compose his thoughts, and his Cabinet had not been keen to accompany him. Secretary of State Seward had come; Treasury Secretary Chase, who was being talked up as Lincoln's likely antagonist in the 1864 election, remained in Washington. People seemed to be playing old-fashioned politics and economics in this dire crisis.
Had Americans become so engrossed in the everyday business of running the war, the mechanics of war, that they had forgotten the goals? Had they lost sight of the values that were being tested, of the purpose of the great experiment that Washington and Hamilton and Jefferson had launched eighty-seven years before? Forced like the Founding Fathers to play politics, Lincoln would transcend the routine play of the political game. Confronted at a cemetery by common people who had lost fathers and brothers, sons and husbands, he would ask them to renew the American experiment in liberty and equality. Asked to dedicate a battlefield, he would reconsecrate a nation.
It was dusk when the presidential special pulled into Gettysburg, which already was overflowing with thousands of visitors. Lincoln and his party were driven to the home of Judge Wills, where they met up with Edward Everett, who was to give the main address. Everett was everything Lincoln was not: a Harvard graduate, governor of Massachusetts, Minister to the Court of St. James's, president of Harvard, senator from Massachusetts, and a member of Boston's social elite. He was also not President, having run on the tail end of John Bell's Constitutional Union ticket in 1860. Now he was best known as probably the most brilliant of Union orators. After chatting with Everett and the other distinguished guests, Lincoln retired, only to be summoned to his window by revelers who wanted a speech. Lincoln offered a few words so self-deprecating that the grumbling crowd headed off in search of Seward to coax a few purple passages from him. Lincoln meantime resumed copying the second draft of his closing sentences.
Next morning, what was to be a grand parade of pomp and pageantry turned into a struggling procession of democracy. Lincoln, dressed in black and wearing a tall hat and white gauntlets, his huge frame draped over a little horse, led the procession, behind blue-clad soldiers; soon he was slouched down, sometimes shaking the hands that were extended to him, at other times appearing to be lost in thought. Then came politicians, dignitaries, religious committees, telegraph men, a hospital corps, Knights Templar, Masons, Odd-Fellows, literary and scientific representatives, the press, firemen, and citizens. Soldiers with bandages and crutches limped alongside. After an hour the bloated and disorganized column had wound its way uphill to the cemetery. Then there was more confusion when Everett could not be found. While bands played, Lincoln waited patiently and people milled about. Everett finally showed up, the meeting started, the invocation was offered. Then America's most respected orator rose.
With rolling periods and many a classical allusion, Everett re-created the drama of the three-day battle. He could see the battlefield itself over his listeners' heads. There ahead, on that fateful July morning, in the distance, Union cavalry on Seminary Ridge had begun the fighting. A little closer lay the town itself, through whose twisting streets the blue-clad infantry had fled as the first day's fighting ended. A sweep of Everett's left arm took in the Peach Orchard, where reinforcements in blue and gray had clashed on the second day. There, on the slopes of Little Round Top, boys from Maine and Alabama had rushed up to club one another. There, amidst the rocks of Devil's Den, other men had been blown to pieces by cannons firing point-blank.
Glancing right, the orator could see Culp's Hill, where Ewell's Louisianans had almost turned the Union flank that second day. And ahead, beneath that copse of trees visible a half mile away, the battle had reached its climax. Fifteen thousand Virginians, led by ringlet-haired George Pickett, had stormed across the wheatfields, across the lower slopes of Cemetery Ridge and Hill, up, up toward the center of the Union lines. Shells, canister, bullets cut down the charging Confederates, but here the survivors broke through. And then they wavered. Assailed from front and flank, they finally turned to flee. The last great assault of Robert E. Lee's army had washed back down from the crest, and now Edward Everett stood there, speaking at the high-water mark of the Confederacy.
While a hymn was sung, Lincoln drew from his pocket the two pages of his own speech and adjusted his spectacles. The dignitaries behind him shifted in their seats. Then the audience quieted.
"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new Nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
Lincoln's words, spoken in a high, almost metallic tone, carried to the farthest reaches of the crowd. He held his manuscript in both hands but hardly glanced at it.
"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 battlefield of that war. We are met to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting-place of those who here gave their lives that that nation might live."
The President's words were carrying over the crowd to the battlefield itself, still littered with broken guns, scattered bits of uniforms, shattered caissons, stripped trees, thousands of spent bullets, the carcasses of unburied horses. The air stank of rot and death.
"It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract." Here the President's voice broke, and his hands seemed to tremble. "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 that they have thus far so nobly carried on. 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 here gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom; and that Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Manning the Front
Twenty-eight months earlier, in July 1861, Lincoln had peered out the White House windows at pale ghosts of soldiers, caked with the grime of battle, stumbling along Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol, at glassy-eyed cavalrymen swaying slack in their saddles—a beaten army, reduced almost to a rabble. These were the bloodied survivors of the first battle of Bull Run. During the next few days, as he sat in the cabinet room talking with generals and foot soldiers or tossed fitfully at night on the sofa in his office, the President had penciled the rudiments of a grand strategy. Before then, he and his generals had not bothered much with broad war planning, for the struggle was expected to be brief, but Northern illusions had died on that battlefield soaked with the blood of hundreds of Billy Yanks.
Tighten the blockade of Southern ports—drill and discipline the existing volunteer forces—hold insecure, divided Baltimore with a "gentle, but firm, and certain hand"—step up organization and operations in the West—reorganize the forces in northern Virginia as rapidly as possible: these were the essentials of the President's immediate strategy. Behind it lay a grand strategy for a massive, collective military and economic effort: simply to overpower the South along the vast land and sea fronts, ultimately to divide and dismember it. Topography dominated Northern strategy. Sprawling from northern New England to northern Alabama, the vast Appalachian chain cut the eastern states into two huge theaters of combat, with few connections between them for large armies; to the west, across the Mississippi, lay another theater.
In the Confederate capital at Richmond, planning and calculating in his own "White House," President Jefferson Davis had fully understood the advantages topography gave the South. Union troops would have a hard time fighting their way south through the bristling Virginia defenses, across six muddy rivers running west-east, while Confederate forces could easily move west and north along the wide Shenandoah Valley, a natural route of invasion toward Pennsylvania and Maryland. Farther west, on the other hand, the river and valley system favored the Union. "The Cumberland and Tennessee rivers were highways of invasion into Tennessee, northern Mississippi, and northern Alabama," in James McPherson's summation, "while the Mississippi River was an arrow thrust into the heart of the lower South." Southern generals were also superior to Northern, Davis felt. And he could hardly avoid comparing the two commanders-in-chief—he with his West Point training, background in Southern military exploits and traditions, Mexican War combat, secretaryship of war, as against Lincoln's three months of inglorious service against Indians—which Old Abe himself mocked.
Above all, Davis would exploit the South's military advantage in not needing to invade the North or destroy its armies. He could stand on the defensive—the Yanks had to come to him. "We seek no conquest," he had told the Confederate Congress in the first days of the war, "no aggrandizement, no concession of any kind from the States with which we were lately confederated." He seemed to find a moral superiority in the South's defensive posture. "All we ask is to be let alone."
To preserve the Union—his highest immediate goal—Lincoln could not let the secessionists alone. Month after month he had pressed his generals to carry the fight to the enemy in Virginia and Tennessee. By the beginning of 1863, after a series of ferocious encounters, capped by a second battle of Bull Run that again sent the Union forces reeling, the war had settled into a bloody stalemate. Union naval squadrons had closed most Southern ports, but numerous small vessels slipped through, and a handful of Confederate cruisers harried Northern merchant ships on the high seas. All three main Union armies were bogged down in the winter mud, far from their objectives. The Army of the Potomac sprawled in its northern Virginia camps after its most recent rebuff. In central Tennessee, the Army of the Cumberland lay at Murfreesboro, decimated by a "victory" in which a quarter of its ranks had fallen. And on the Mississippi, the Army of the Tennessee, which had advanced farthest into the Southern heartland, seemed the most hopelessly mired. The blue-clad soldiers shoveled, shivered, and sickened in the Mississippi swamps, while their commander vainly sought a way around the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg.
Northern prospects had seemed bright enough toward the end of 1862 for Lincoln to move ahead on his supreme political act of the war—emancipation. But even as the President was readying his final proclamation of January 1, 1863, Lee's men at Fredericksburg had virtually massacred a much larger Union force, arousing the anger of Northerners against their own military and political leadership. Exclaimed Lincoln, on hearing the outcome at Fredericksburg, "If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it."
In the North, talk had grown of compromise and peace. "Copperheads," as their detractors called them, organized to resist the draft and force Washington to end the war. On the floor of the House, Clement Vallandigham of Ohio charged Lincoln with despotism and failure. A wave of desertions swept through the Northern armies. Some of the farmboys-turned-soldiers resented Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Why should they fight and die for "niggers"? Some soldiers felt their officers were incompetent. Finding the war meaningless as well as miserable, and knowing the heavy burdens falling on their womenfolk on the farm, thousands simply walked away from camp and headed home. The Army of the Potomac alone reported 85,000 men absent. Some were caught, and gunfire occasionally punctuated the quiet of the Union camps throughout the winter of 1862–63 as alleged deserters were shot.
Would spring mean new hope? Northern power was mounting as masses of men and matériel were thrown into the fray, but somehow superior numbers and munitions did not bring victory. The problem was leadership. Lincoln had run through a string of generals—McDowell, Pope, McClellan, Burnside. He wanted a man who could fight and win.
Such a commander was emerging in the West. Stumpy, plain-dressed, constantly smoking or chewing on a cigar, forty-one-year-old Major General Ulysses S. Grant hardly cut a heroic military figure. To some he was known mainly as a sometime drunk within the army and a failure outside it. Rival generals dismissed his February 1862 victory at Fort Donelson, the North's first striking success in the war, as a fluke; scandal-hungry reporters overlooked his calm courage at the battle of Shiloh and charged him with being drunk on the field.
Excerpted from The Workshop of Democracy by James MacGregor Burns. Copyright © 1985 James MacGregor Burns. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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