Six Encounters with Lincoln: A President Confronts Democracy and Its Demons

Six Encounters with Lincoln: A President Confronts Democracy and Its Demons

by Elizabeth Brown Pryor


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143111238
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/06/2018
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 501,087
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Brown Pryor (1951–2015) combined careers as an award-winning historian and a senior diplomat in the American Foreign Service. She was the author of the biography Clara Barton: Professional Angel, considered the authoritative work on the founder of the American Red Cross, and Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, which won the 2008 Lincoln Prize, the 2007 Jefferson Davis Award, the 2008 Richard B. Harwell Book Award, and the 2007 Richard S. Slatten Award for Excellence in Virginia Biography.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt


Of course it was a dismal day. The sky was as leaden as the national mood. Washington, D.C., had suffered incessant storms that winter, and on March 12, 1861, the roads were sticky with mud from the latest squall. Nervous residents could not help comparing the gloomy weather to the turbulent politics threatening the country. Seven Southern states had left the Union since the election of Abraham Lincoln, forming a new Confederate States of America. The outgoing Buchanan administration had only halfheartedly defended federal property against the secessionists, and efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis were faltering. Now it appeared that the new government was following the same uncertain path. “We are a weak, divided, disgraced people, unable to maintain our national existence,” the Republican magnat eGeorge Templeton Strong wrote in alarm. The New York Herald agreed. It was a “deplorable state of affairs,” complained its editors. “All joy, all hope, is fled.”

Against this dreary backdrop a curious apparition appeared about midday. At the stolid, neoclassical War Department a large group of military officers in full-dress uniform was assembling, their gold-crested buttons and vivid sashes piercing the dull light. Falling into two columns, they lined up behind Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the Army’s venerable chieftain. In perfect formation, they marched to the Executive Mansion along the tree-lined footpath that connected the two buildings. At the door Scott himself solemnly rang the bell. The United States Army had come to call on its new commander in chief.

By one count, seventy-eight men paraded into the East Room. Such a large group overfilled the space and they began to snake around the perimeter in an undulating line. The officers were resplendent in dark blue frock coats, tall patent leather boots, gilt scabbards, and black-plumed hats. Set against the shabby yellow wallcovering of the “nation’s parlor,” their presence was all the more splendid. It was a “spectacular exhibition,” noted one of the company; another observert hought he had “never seen an equal number of such fine-looking men in uniform.” They stood at attention, kid-gloved fingers lightly pressing the stripes of their trousers, silently awaiting the President. After a few moments, Lincoln entered, accompanied by several cabinet members. Some officers had been influenced by newspaper accounts to expect an afternoon of jesting,and now they were surprised. The man before them was as clumsy as his descriptions, but his face was deadly serious.

The new president had good reason to be grave. Since taking the oath of office on March 4, he had been confronted with multiple crises, sometimes on an hourly basis. Two days into the job, Lincoln learned that the Confederate Congress had called out 100,000 troops to protect its territory. The attorney general and the secretary of war had just informed him that there was no legal way to stop the shipments of arms reportedly being rushed to Charleston, New Orleans, and nearby Baltimore. Samuel Cooper, a New Yorker who had served for a decade as adjutant general of the Army, left his post on March 6 and headed straight forthe Confederate capital—taking with him detailed knowledge of personnel, matériel, and federal intentions. On March 11 the rebel government adopted a constitution containing elaborate legal justifications for a separate nation. Adelegation from that “nation” was in Washington at the moment, underinstruction to establish “diplomatic ties.” Humiliation was in the air, asfederal institutions unraveled and Southern sympathizers sniggered over everything from congressional defections to the disappearance of patent files. Worse yet, the country was broke. When Buchanan’s treasury secretary Howell Cobb followed his native state of Georgia out of the Union, he left the nation bankrupt.

Most pressing was the question of whether to withdraw United States forces from Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. This crisis had been transferred to Lincoln just hours after his inauguration. Since his election, occupation of the fortress had beenan emotional flashpoint: a contest between the South’s angry belief that it was no longer governed by consent and Northern determination to protect Union prerogatives and Union property. On March 5 the War Department received a letter from the officer in charge of the garrison, Major Robert Anderson, stating that provisions were nearly exhausted and that Confederate leaders were blockading the harbor, forcing a showdown. Lincoln would have to reinforce the fort or retreat, with all the symbolism that implied.

The news came as a shock, for Lincoln had wanted to move slowly, to buy time, allay passions, and reassure nervous Unionists south of the Mason-Dixon Line. As president-elect he had tried to downplay the crisis, terming it “artificial” and claiming there was “nothing going wrong.” Once he realized that something was going terribly wrong, andthat matters had moved beyond cool reflection, he hoped the separatist fervorwould burn itself out. His deliberative political style would prove a handicap,as every day the situation in Charleston became more perilous. While Lincolntemporized, South Carolina strengthened its defenses. Anderson told hissuperiors he needed twenty thousand soldiers to defend the fort, a numberlarger than the entire standing army. Now he impatiently awaited thePresident’s reply. “I thought the policy of this new admins. would have beendeveloped by this time,” he complained the day before the Army reception,adding that Lincoln’s promise to “put the foot down firmly” against secession appearedeasier said than done. In fact, the President was getting a swift lesson inthe difference between a campaigner’s offhand remarks and the grimresponsibility of actually leading the nation through perilous times. Thedilemma had paralyzed his predecessor—though Buchanan later claimed he hadstood ready to support Anderson, if only he had been asked. No matter howmeek—or even traitorous—Buchanan’s inaction seemed, Lincoln now found himselfhesitating in just the same manner. “Is it possible that Mr. Lincoln is getting scared[?]” wrote an influential Illinoisan. “I know the responsibility isgrate; But for god sake . . . I don’t want to bequeath this damnable questionto any posterity.”     

    The Sumter situation was particularly tricky, for it was not just a question of defending a fort or robustly exerting executive authority. It was coupled with an urgent need to keep those slave states that straddled North and South in the Union.These “border states” included Missouri, the President’s native Kentucky, andthe entire region surrounding the nation’s capital. Of these, Virginia was mostsignificant, not only because of its proximity to Washington, but in terms of size, industrial output, and prestige. Maryland, whose communication lineslinked the government to the rest of the nation, was also of criticalimportance. The ties that attached these states to the Union were fraying inMarch 1861, and their leaders made clear that any “coercion” against the Southwould result in those bonds being cut completely.

    The tension between these two issues—the need to restore confidence in the border states,yet firmly uphold federal laws and national dignity—had, in fact, been a theme of Lincoln’s inaugural address. That had been a tense day, the proceedingsclouded by rumors of Confederate insurrection or attempted assassination.General Scott had summoned all his imposing powers to ensure the newpresident’s safety, calling up hundreds of troops to guard the Capitol groundsand personally commanding the sharpshooters placed on adjacent roofs. Lincolnwas not yet master of simple, compelling statements, and his long messageattempted to placate hostility on all sides, while conceding nothing. Despitean emotional appeal to the shared history that bound together the Americanpeople, the laboriously crafted address received a mixed response, both Northand South. “Never did an oracle, in its most evasive response, receive so many,and such various interpretations, as did the President’s inaugural,” observedthe New York Times. Within the military it sparked general dismay. “MrLincolns inaugural came to day,” wrote an officer named William T. H. Brooks,who was stationed in Texas. “If it can appease or quiet the troubled waters itmust bear a different interpretation from what I can give it.” At Fort Sumter,officers saw little in the speech to resolve either their dilemma or thenation’s. “We have just received the inaugural and from it we derive no hope atall that there will be any peaceful settlement,” wrote Assistant Surgeon SamuelWylie Crawford, despairing that “so many qualifications” in the President’swords would undermine the address’s impact. Soldiers wanted to hear a simpledeclaration of intent, but this speech smacked of equivocation. “A steel handin a soft glove” was how Major Samuel Heintzelman described it, a few daysbefore stepping into the East Room to greet the President. “I fear it will leadto Civil War.”         

    The Sumter issue pressed on Lincoln to the point that he was physically ill, losing sleep and suffering chronic headaches. Before the end of that tempestuous March, his wife reported he had keeled over from worry and fatigue. One of his aides referred to those days as “the terrible furnace time,” when public anxiety was stoked to the limit, and old patterns of governing melted away in the political fire. Lincoln wanted desperately to avoid appearing as stymied as Buchanan yet found himself unable to formulate a decisive policy. He later told Orville Hickman Browning, a Republican ally, that all the “troubles and anxieties of his life had not equaled” those he faced during the Sumter crisis.

Table of Contents

Foreword vii

Note to the Reader xiii

Introduction 1

1 A Wary Handshake 11

2 Pfunny Pface 65

3 Two Emancipators Meet 119

4 Of Fathers and Sons 153

5 Hell-Cats 213

6 The Hollow Crown 269

7 Epilogue to the Hollow Crown: Lincoln and Shakespeare 329

Abbreviations 337

Notes 339

Bibliography 413

Illustration Credits 463

Index 465

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