Lincoln and the Civil War

February 8th, 2009

February 12, 2009 is the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.  This anniversary is generating books, TV specials, and heightened attention to the most revered of American presidents.  Many books have been written about Lincoln, some better than others.  Fred Kaplan offers a useful look at Lincoln books, good and bad, with recommendations of the best.

In this photo taken at the Antietam battlefield, Lincoln is shown standing between Allan Pinkerton and Major General John A. McClernand.  I spent a day on that battlefield in an academic tour with an historian from the faculty of the Army War College.  Walking the ground at Antietam, in addition to visiting and studying other battlefields of the Civil War and seeing hundreds of photos of the carnage, has given me an enduring vision of the horrors of that war.

All war is hell, as General Sherman knew, but this war exceeds the limits of imagination.  As a professional soldier who’s had the responsibility of leadership in combat, I can’t fathom how thousands of soldiers were motivated to march upright into the teeth of that period’s rifled muskets and accurate cannon.

Lincoln was keenly aware of the deaths and grievous wounds of soldiers on both sides of that conflict, all of them Americans, sometimes with friends and even members of the same families on opposite sides of the line.  All commanders, including presidents, feel deeply the casualties that result from their orders and question the tactics and strategy they’ve chosen to follow.  One can only wonder at the self-doubt and tortured emotions that Lincoln had to live with.

Much has been written about the Civil War being fought to free the slaves in the South.  There’s no doubt that some who fought on the Union side had that goal as a primary motivation, while on the other side some fought to preserve slavery.  In reality, however, the Civil War was about economic issues, sovereignty, and the preservation or dissolution of the Union.  Slavery was an important factor, and it has led to Lincoln being hailed as “The Great Emancipator.”  But freeing the slaves wasn’t his primary goal.  In his own words,    

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to 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. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.

Learning more about Lincoln is a good thing; it brings a greater appreciation of the history of our country and the horrors of the war Lincoln had to prosecute. 

There are also two superb historical novels that help understand what life was like for soldiers in the Civil War.  One is The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, which focuses on one Union soldier and his comrades.  If you’ve only seen the movie with Audie Murphy, you should also read the book.  The other is The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, an account of the Battle of Gettysburg, which proved to be the turning point of the war, from the perspective of commanders on both sides.  This book was also the source of a movie, Gettysburg, but even if you’ve seen it, you should read the book.

(This article was also posted at Centerfield.)


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10 Responses to “Lincoln and the Civil War”



  1. Kevin |

    One of the things that I find most fascinating about President Lincoln is the historical backdrop from whence he came.

    As a freshman Congressman from Illinois he had harshly criticized the Mexican-American War as illegal and immoral. This was a man with deep convictions, both moral and Constitutional, about war before he was ever presented with the reality of the Civil War. Which seems to make him rather unique in American history.

    That’s not to say that other war presidents had no moral convictions. But I’m not aware of any who had opposed a previous war on any grounds, much less the principled reasons that the then Congressman Lincoln had opposed the Mexican-American War.

    I don’t know what, if any, conclussions to draw from that. Mostly I just find it deeply fascinating.


  2. Kevin |

    That said… something entirely different struck me as I read your post and I want to treat it differently, thus the separate comment.

    Your own experience as a professional soldier with combat experience is central here.

    One of the things that has always struck me as… odd is what seems to me to be a regression in American military strategy after the War of Independence. There, being outnumbered and outgunned, the rag-tag American soldiers adopted guerrila tactics they’d learned at the hands of the native Indians and declined to meet the British soldiers in open battle, preferring instead to shoot from cover and use the element of surprise to even out the odds.

    You mentioned how the Civil War soldiers would “march upright into the teeth of that period’s rifled muskets and accurate cannon.” We saw that taken to a further extreme in the trench warfare of WWI.

    I’d be very interested in your thoughts and observations on this seeming regression in military tactics.


  3. Tom |

    Two very good points, Kevin. On the first point, I think that behind that rough-hewn exterior Lincoln was a man of rare political sense and moral sensibility. Had anyone else become president during that period, we might well have seen the U.S. degenerate into two (or more) countries. That outcome is one of history’s great “what-ifs” that’s unknowable, but I don’t think it would have been good. I think it’s fair to say that Americans and the rest of the world owe Lincoln a debt beyond reckoning.

    On the second point, guerilla-type tactics were employed to some extent by American colonial forces against the British and in the French and Indian War, but the frequency and effectiveness of those tactics have often been overstated. They were generally used by inferior forces in circumstances where they didn’t have much choice.

    Modern warfare is characterized by maneuver to apply shock and firepower at the enemy’s weakest point. It’s been that way at least since the development of Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics in WWII. Direct assaults happen, of course, when the attacking force has overwhelming power and in some situations by smaller formations, but that’s not a tactic of choice. Long-range, highly-accurate weapons, special operations, and airpower also add new dimensions to modern warfare.

    In the Civil War and WWI, tactics fell behind technology, with the result that in the Civil War, troops marched directly at highly-accurate rifled muskets. In WWI, troops assaulted trenches across no-man’s land, only to be cut down from the flanks by enfilading fire from newly-developed machine guns. Rapid maneuver to strike the enemy’s flanks, rear, and lines of communication was not really possible during the Civil War except for limited cavalry raids. However, I’ve always thought if at least one side in WWI had elected not to face the other side from trenches but to maneuver to gain advantage, there would have been far fewer casualties and history might have been different.

    I’ll never cease to be in awe of soldiers who marched directly into enemy fire in any war. I can only imagine the fear they must have felt and the courage it must have taken to keep going. Again, I recomment The Red Badge of Courage and The Killer Angels if you haven’t already read them.


  4. Jan |

    I think the American Civil War was a disaster for all concerned. When I was a GI in the early 1960s, I was harrassed by cops in Southern states for driving a car with Yankee license plates, that’s how much emotional fallout was still around 100 years after the war. In contrast, Norway and Sweden avoided civil war and parted company with no big impact on themselves or the world.


  5. Tom |

    I agree that the Civil War was a disaster. And having grown up mostly in the South, I can vouch for the fact that there are still people down there who haven’t forgotten. When you consider that more Americans died in that war, on both sides, than the total combat deaths in all other wars we’ve been involved in, the magnitude of the disaster comes into focus.

    I don’t know enough about Norway and Sweden to know whether there’s a comparison. It seems to me that Lincoln and others were determined to preserve the Union for good reasons. Who knows whether they would have made the same choice when it was all over and the magnitude of the cost was known.


  6. Brian Bagent |

    Unfortunately, the myth still abounds that Lincoln freed the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation was political grandstanding, and Lincoln admitted as much. If the South hadn’t really seceded, the EP couldn’t be enforced legally because it was never law; and if the South had seceded and the EP was actually law, it couldn’t be enforced on a foreign country.


  7. Tom |

    Brian, no doubt the Emancipation Proclamation had little practical effect, but it was symbolically important. The Civil War did have the result of ending slavery, although popular sentiment and political reality would probably have ended it even if a war hadn’t been fought over secession. It just would have taken longer.

    Whenever I hear “slavery reparations” discussed, I have to wonder what would be paid to whom and by whom. Over 600,000 soldiers died from combat wounds and disease in the Civil War. About 350,000 of those were Union soldiers. Given that one of their objectives was the abolition of slavery, would the ancestors of those 350,000 dead be required to pay reparations? Or would they receive reparations? Just a thought.


  8. Gateway Pundit |

    […] President Abraham Lincoln at the Antietam battlefield (Opinion Forum) […]


  9. Melvin Pratt |

    There is a lot of revisionist “historians” denigrating Lincoln, especially Ron Paul’s comments about how he should have bought the slaves instead of fighting a horrific civil war to free them. That wasn’t an option at the time–many southern states had seceded before Lincoln reached Washington–there was a plot on his life in Baltimore and he had to sneak into the capital for his inauguration. This debate forgets a basic moral principle here, that slavery was a vile and evil thing. Present day revisionists, and libertarians forget the Fugitive Slave Act, which was pushed through Congress by southern Democrats and made it a federal crime for anyone to aid a run-away slave. You couldn’t feed them, hide them, or transport them, and you were required to lend assistance to a slave owner and the local sheriff in recapturing an escaped slave. Recaptured slaves were routinely and brutally beaten. Frequently they were marked or mutilated in some way to show that they were “bad” slaves. A slave owner pursuing a run-away slave could beat the slave to death, and that was not a crime in North or South after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. A number of Northern abolitionist were prosecuted under Federal law for assisting run-away slaves, none were convicted and this jury nullification of slave law really angered southerns and made them feel that northerners didn’t respect their private property rights.


  10. Brian |

    Melvin,

    My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to 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. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. — Abraham Lincoln

    There is also this:

    I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races — that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior and I as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. — Abraham Lincoln, as cited in “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,” Roy Basler, ed. 1953 New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press

    As cited by EBONY Magazine Executive Editor Lerone Bennett, Jr

    We didn’t go into the war to put down slavery, but to put the flag back; and to act differently at this moment would, I have no doubt, not only weaken our cause, but smack of bad faith… — Abraham Lincoln


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