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Born near Hodgenville, Ky. on February 12, 1809, Lincoln was the central figure of the Civil War, and is regarded by many historians and laymen as not only the foremost of our presidents but also the greatest American of all time. With scant formal education, from a poor family, this frontier lawyer held the nation together through the worst crisis in its history. A leader of weaker will or fainter vision might well have failed either to win the Civil War or end the institution of slavery. With good reason, he is viewed as the savior of the American union and the “Great Emancipator.”
Lincoln was born into an obscure backwoods family who moved to Indiana when he was 7. His mother died 2 years later and his father married a widow, Sarah Bush Johnston, who exerted a good influence on the boy. Though his education was limited to a few months in a 1-teacher school, Lincoln avidly read books such as the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress and Weemss Life of Washington.
Growing to a muscular 6’4″, he supported himself by manual labor until he was 21, when he settled in New Salem, Ill. There he continued his self-education while serving as storekeeper, militia captain in the Black Hawk War, and postmaster. In 1832, he lost a race for the state legislature but won a seat as a Whig 2 years later, serving 4 terms and gaining statewide popularity for his homespun wit and integrity.
During this period, Lincoln also began his private study of law, borrowing books from a local attorney, and was licensed to practice in 1836. Increasingly successful as a circuit rider, he settled in Springfield, the new capital. In 1844, 2 years after his marriage to Mary Todd of Lexington, Ky., a young woman of aristocratic pretensions, he formed a partnership with William H. Herndon and went on to become one of Illinois ablest lawyers.
In 1847, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and during his single term became known for both his opposition to the Mexican War and the institution of slavery. After switching allegiance to the new Republican Party in 1856, Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate against the “Little Giant,” Stephen A. Douglas. Though Lincoln lost, the race attracted national attention because of the candidates widely reported debates over the issue of slavery in the territories. Lincoln’s standing was further enhanced on February 27, 1860, when, in New York City, before an influential audience, he delivered his brilliant Cooper Union speech, in which he argued the Federal governments power to limit slavery in the territories.
In July the Republicans nominated Lincoln for the presidency on the third ballot at the convention in Chicago. The Democratic Party split into Northern and Southern factions, each with its own presidential candidate. Lincoln’s election the following November, over 3 other candidates, with only 40% of the popular vote, was unacceptable to Southern politicians and became the pretext for first South Carolina and in quick order 10 other states to secede from the Union.
By the time Lincoln arrived in Washington to be sworn in as the nations 16th president, 4 Mar. 1861, the Confederate States of America had been formed. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln tried to woo the South back into the Union, but after the bombardment of Fort Sumter , April 12, he called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress “the insurrection,” declared a blockade of Southern ports, and authorized the suspension of Habeas Corpus in areas threatened by pro-secessionist elements. Only after the war was under way and the reins of the presidency were firmly in his hands did Lincoln call Congress to meet July 4, 1861, in a special session that he had already enacted by executive decree. Thereafter the history of Lincoln’s administration followed the course of the Civil War.
A man of gentle spirit, Lincoln accepted the fact that only a vigorous prosecution of the war would restore the Union. His will to win never flagged despite enormous battle casualties and much political opposition, a substantial amount of it coming from members of his cabinet and from among the Radical Republicans.
As commander in chief, Lincoln not only took care to win and keep the affection of the ordinary Union soldier but also displayed a surprising aptitude for military strategy. While he fumbled in his selection of generals, he learned from his mistakes. At considerable political risk, he dismissed the popular Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan because of his failure to lead the Army of the Potomac to victories. And despite pressure from ardent abolitionists, he countermanded premature efforts by army commanders to ban slavery in their jurisdiction.
Ever the masterful politician, he always took care not to alienate his basic constituency, the ordinary citizenry of Northern and Western states, while advancing the progress of the war. His Emancipation Proclamation was carefully framed to avoid offense to loyal but slave-owning states; only those slaves in Confederate-controlled areas were declared free at that early stage of the war.
Though charges of disloyalty were made against his wife because 4 of her brothers and 2 of her brothers-in-law served in the Confederate army, Lincoln ignored them, as he did much brutal criticism of his administration and his personal character. Added to the crushing burdens of his office were private griefs over the death of his 12-year-old son, Willie, in 1862, and the often shrewish behavior of his emotionally unstable wife. To conceal his melancholy, he often told earthy stories, to the disgust of some of his more polished cabinet members.
In general, Lincoln was an inefficient administrator, running his office like a large law firm, with a staff of 2 male secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. He also made himself needlessly accessible to office seekers and special pleaders. But he was a superb leader, unswerving in his goal of restoring and preserving the Union. He also used his skills as a speaker to great advantage. His inaugural speeches and his Gettysburg Address are masterpieces of American oratory.
Lincoln showed a surprisingly sure grasp of foreign affairs, skillfully avoiding a war with Great Britain in the Trent Affair and winning European goodwill with his Emancipation Proclamation. In domestic affairs, the Homestead Act of 1862 is the most notable achievement of his administration.
But the war overshadowed nonmilitary congressional concerns. Though by 1864 Federal forces had reopened the Mississippi River and brought large sections of the South under Federal control, many in the North despaired of victory as casualties mounted in Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s offensive against Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln himself doubted first his chances of renomination, then his ability to defeat the Democratic candidate, the still-popular former general McClellan, who ran on a “Peace Platform” and who blamed Lincoln for prolonging the war.
Adm. David C. Farragut’s naval success at Mobile Bay, August 5, The fall of Atlanta to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman September 2, and Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s successful Shenandoah Valley Campaign later that fall vindicated Lincoln’s firm war policy. McClellan carried only 3 states, with 12 electoral college votes to Lincoln’s 212. By Christmas, Sherman had marched to the sea and the Confederacy was rapidly falling apart. With the surrender of Lees army at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, the war ended.
The humane character of Lincoln was best demonstrated by his policy of reconciliation with the South, as expressed in his second inaugural address, March 4, 1865, in which he spoke of “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” His death from an assassins bullet a few weeks later on April 15, not only cut short a great mans life but also delayed the restoration of the American union. The fate of the nation passed into the hands of lesser men.