Presidency of Abraham Lincoln

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The presidency of Abraham Lincoln began on March 4, 1861, when he was inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States, and ended upon his assassination and death on April 15, 1865, 42 days into his second term. Lincoln was the first member of the recently-established Republican Party elected to the presidency. He was succeeded by Vice President Andrew Johnson. Lincoln presided over the Union victory in the American Civil War, which dominated his presidency.

Lincoln took office following the 1860 presidential election, in which he won a plurality of the popular vote in a four-candidate field. Almost all of Lincoln's votes came from the Northern United States, as the Republicans held little appeal to voters in the Southern United States. A former Whig, Lincoln ran on a political platform opposed to the expansion of slavery in the territories. His election served as the immediate impetus for the outbreak of the American Civil War. During the 16 weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day, seven slave states declared their secession from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. After being sworn in as president, Lincoln refused to accept any resolution that would result in Southern secession from the Union. The Civil War began weeks into Lincoln's presidency with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, a federal installation located within the boundaries of the Confederacy.

Lincoln was called on to handle both the political and military aspects of the Civil War, facing challenges in both spheres. As commander-in-chief, ordered the suspension of the constitutionally-protected right to habeas corpus in the state of Maryland in order to suppress Confederate sympathizers. He also became the first president to institute a military draft. As the Union faced several early defeats in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War, Lincoln cycled through numerous military commanders during the war, finally settling on General Ulysses S. Grant, who had led the Union to several victories in the Western Theater. Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed about millions of slaves in Confederate-held territory, and established emancipation as a Union war goal. In 1865, Lincoln was instrumental in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which made slavery unconstitutional. Lincoln also presided over the passage of important domestic legislation, including the first of the Homestead Acts, the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, and the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862. He ran for re-election in 1864 on the National Union ticket, which was supported by War Democrats in addition to Republicans. Though Lincoln feared he might lose the contest, he defeated his former subordinate, General George B. McClellan of the Democratic Party, in a landslide. Months after the election, Grant would essentially end the war by defeating the Confederate army led by General Robert E. Lee. Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, five days after the surrender of Lee, left the final challenge of reconstructing the nation to others.

Following his death, Lincoln was portrayed as the liberator of the slaves, the savior of the Union, and a martyr for the cause of freedom. Political historians have long held Lincoln in high regard for his accomplishments and personal characteristics. Alongside George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt, he has been consistently ranked both by scholars and the public as one of the top three greatest presidents, often as number one.

Election of 1860[edit]

Lincoln being carried by two men on a long board.
"The Rail Candidate"—Lincoln's 1860 candidacy is depicted as held up by the slavery issue—a slave on the left and party organization on the right.

Lincoln, a former Whig Congressman, emerged as a major Republican presidential candidate following his narrow loss to Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in the 1858 Senate election in Illinois.[1] Though he lacked the broad support of Republican Senator William H. Seward of New York, Lincoln believed that he could emerge as the Republican presidential nominee at the convention after multiple ballots. Lincoln spent much of 1859 and 1860 building support for his candidacy, and his Cooper Union speech was well-received by eastern elites. Lincoln positioned himself in the "moderate center" of his party; he opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories but did not favor the abolition of slavery in slave states.[2] On the first ballot of the May 1860 Republican National Convention, Lincoln finished second to Seward. Ignoring Lincoln's strong dictate to "Make no contracts that bind me",[3] his managers at the convention maneuvered to win Lincoln's nomination on the third ballot. Delegates then nominated Senator Hannibal Hamlin from Maine for vice president.[4] The party platform opposed the institutionalization of slavery in the territories but pledged not to interfere with it in the states. It also endorsed a protective tariff and internal improvements such as a transcontinental railroad, and promised to settlers a free quarter-section of public land.[5][6]

The 1860 Democratic National Convention met in April 1860, but adjourned after failing to agree on a candidate. A second convention met in June and nominated Stephen Douglas as the presidential nominee, but several pro-slavery Southern delegations refused to support Douglas, as they demanded a strongly pro-slavery nominee. These Southern Democrats held a separate convention that nominated incumbent Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky for president. A group of former Whigs and Know Nothings formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell for president. Breckinridge and Bell would primarily contest the South, while Lincoln and Douglas would compete for votes in the North. Republicans were confident after these party conventions, with Lincoln predicting that the fractured Democrats stood little chance of winning the election.[7]

1860 electoral vote results.

On election day, Lincoln carried all but one Northern state to win an Electoral College majority with 180 votes to 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell, and 12 for Douglas. Lincoln won a popular vote plurality of about 40 percent, garnering 1,766,452 votes to 1,376,957 for Douglas, 849,781 for Breckinridge, and 588,879 for Bell.[8] Lincoln won the election without carrying a single Southern state. 82.2 percent of eligible voters took part in the contentious election, the second highest turnout in U.S. history. Despite Republican success in the presidential election, the party failed to win a majority in either house of Congress.[9]

Transition period[edit]

Threat of secession[edit]

Following Lincoln's victory, all the slave states began considering secession, and South Carolina started its process. Lincoln was not scheduled to take office until March 1861, leaving incumbent Democratic President James Buchanan, a "doughface" from Pennsylvania who had been favorable to the South," to preside over the country until that time.[10] President Buchanan declared that secession was illegal while denying that the government had any power to resist it. Lincoln had no official power to act while the secession crisis escalated.[11] Lincoln was barraged with advice. Many wanted him to provide reassurances to the South that their interests were not being threatened.[12] Realizing that soothing words on the rights of slaveholders would alienate the Republican base, while taking a strong stand on the indestructibility of the Union could further inflame Southerners, Lincoln chose a policy of silence. He believed that, given enough time without any overt acts or threats to the South, Southern unionists would carry the day and bring their states back into the Union.[13] At the suggestion of a Southern merchant who contacted him, Lincoln did make an indirect appeal to the South by providing material for his friend Senator Lyman Trumbull to insert into his own public address. Republicans praised the address, Democrats assailed it, and the South largely ignored it.[14]

In December 1860, both the House and Senate formed special committees to address the unfolding crisis. Lincoln communicated with various Congressmen that there was room for negotiation on issues such as fugitive slaves, slavery in the District of Columbia, and the domestic slave trade. However he made it clear that he was unalterably opposed to anything which would allow the expansion of slavery into any new states or territories.[15] On December 6, Lincoln wrote to Congressman Kellogg, on the House committee, that he should: "entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery. The instant you do, they have us under again; all our labor is lost, and sooner or later must be done over. Douglas is sure to be again trying to bring in his [popular sovereignty]. Have none of it. The tug has to come & better now than later."[16]

In mid-December, Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, the chairman of the Senate committee, proposed a package of six constitutional amendments, known as the Crittenden Compromise. The compromise would protect slavery in federal territories south of the 36°30′ parallel and prohibit it in territories north of that latitude, with newly admitted states deciding on the status of slavery within their borders. Congress would be forbidden from abolishing slavery in any state (or the District of Columbia) or interfering with the domestic slave trade. When Seward and Weed tried to pressure Lincoln into supporting the compromise, he resisted.[17] Still resistant to the expansion of slavery into the territories, Lincoln privately asked Republican Senators to oppose the compromise, and it failed to pass Congress.[18]

Deepening crisis[edit]

Following the admission of Kansas in 1861, there were 19 free states and 15 slave states

Lincoln believed that Southern threats of secession were mostly bluster and that the sectional crisis would be defused, as it had in 1820 and 1850. But Southerners were outraged by the election of the anti-slavery Lincoln, who they viewed as a sectional candidate. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina voted to secede, and six other Southern states seceded in the next forty days. In February, these Southern states formed the Confederated States of America (CSA) and elected Jefferson Davis as provisional president. Despite the formation of the CSA, the slave-holding states of Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri still remained part of the union.[19]

In February 1861, two final political efforts were made to preserve the Union. The first was made by a group of 131 delegates (including: six former cabinet members; 19 ex-governors; 14 former senators; 50 former representatives; 12 state supreme court justices; and one former president, John Tyler, who presided) sent by 21 states to a Peace Conference, held at the Willard's Hotel in the nation's capital.[20] The convention adopted, and submitted to Congress, a seven-point constitutional amendment proposal similar in content to the earlier Crittenden Compromise. The proposal was rejected by the Senate and never considered by the House.[21][22] The second effort was a "never-never" constitutional amendment on slavery, that would shield domestic institutions of the states from Congressional interference and from future constitutional amendments. Commonly known as the Corwin Amendment, the measure was approved by Congress and sent to the state legislatures for ratification.[21] While only ratified by a few states, Congress did not set a time limit for its ratification, thus the amendment is still technically pending.[23][24]

Arrival in Washington, D.C.[edit]

On February 11, 1861, Lincoln boarded a special train that over the course of the next two weeks would take him to the nation's capital.[25] Lincoln spoke several times each day during the train trip. While his speeches were mostly extemporaneous, his message was consistent: he had no hostile intentions towards the South, disunion was not acceptable, and he intended to enforce the laws and protect property.[26]

Rumors abounded during the course of the trip of various plots to kill Lincoln. Samuel Felton, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad, hired detective Allan Pinkerton to investigate reports that secessionists might try to sabotage the railroad along the route. In conducting his investigation Pinkerton obtained information that indicated to him that an attempt on Lincoln's life would be made in Baltimore. According to his sources, when Lincoln arrived in the city a gang of armed men would stage a diversion to distract the city police, giving designated assassins an opportunity to kill Lincoln.[27] As a result of the threat, the travel schedule was altered, tracks were closed to other traffic, and the telegraph wires even cut to heighten security. Lincoln, dressed in an overcoat, muffler, and soft wool hat, and his entourage passed through Baltimore's waterfront at around 3 o'clock in the early morning of February 23, and arrived safely in the nation's capital a few hours later. The unannounced departure from the published schedule as well as the unconventional (for Lincoln) dress led to critics and cartoonists accusing him of sneaking into Washington in disguise.[28] Lincoln met with Buchanan and Congressional leaders shortly after arriving in Washington. He also worked to complete his cabinet, meeting with Republican Senators to obtain their feedback.[29]

First inauguration[edit]

Photograph showing the March 4, 1861, inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in front of U.S. Capitol Building

Lincoln, aware that his inaugural address would be delivered in an atmosphere filled with fear and anxiety, and amid an unstable political landscape, sought guidance from colleagues and friends as he prepared it. Among those whose counsel Lincoln sought was Orville Browning, who advised Lincoln to omit the overly aggressive phrase "to reclaim the public property and places which have fallen". He also asked his former rival (and Secretary of State-designate) William Seward to review it. Seward exercised his due diligence by presenting Lincoln with a six-page analysis of the speech in which he offered some 49 suggested changes; of which the president-elect incorporated 27 into the final draft.[30]

Lincoln's first presidential inauguration occurred on March 4, 1861 on the East Portico of the United States Capitol. Chief Justice Roger Tanney administered the oath of office.[31]

Prior to taking the oath, Lincoln delivered his inaugural address. He opened by attempting to reassure the South that he had no intention or constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in states where it already existed. He promised to enforce the fugitive slave laws and spoke favorably about a pending constitutional amendment that would preserve slavery in the states where it currently existed. He also assured the states that had already succeeded that the federal government would not "assail" (violently attack) them.[32][33] After these assurances, however, Lincoln declared that secession was "the essence of anarchy" and it was his duty to "hold, occupy, and possess the property belonging to the government".[34] Focusing on those within the South who were still on the fence regarding secession, Lincoln contrasted "persons in one section or another who seek to destroy the Union as it exists" versus "those, however, who really love the Union."[35] In his closing remarks Lincoln spoke directly to the secessionists, and asserted that no state could secede from the Union "upon its own mere motion" and emphasized the moral commitment that he was undertaking to "preserve, protect, and defend" the laws of the land.[36] He then concluded the address with a firm but conciliatory message:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.[37]



William Henry Seward - edited.jpg Gideon Welles cph.3b20114.jpg
William Seward (left) and Gideon Wells (right)
served in Lincoln's cabinet throughout his presidency.
The Lincoln Cabinet[38]
Office Name Term
President Abraham Lincoln 1861–1865
Vice President Hannibal Hamlin 1861–1865
Andrew Johnson 1865
Secretary of State William H. Seward 1861–1865
Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase 1861–1864
William P. Fessenden 1864–1865
Hugh McCulloch 1865
Secretary of War Simon Cameron 1861–1862
Edwin M. Stanton 1862–1865
Attorney General Edward Bates 1861–1864
James Speed 1864–1865
Postmaster General Montgomery Blair 1861–1864
William Dennison Jr. 1864–1865
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles 1861–1865
Secretary of the Interior Caleb Blood Smith 1861–1862
John Palmer Usher 1863–1865

Lincoln began the process of constructing his cabinet on election night.[39] As he did, Lincoln attempted to reach out to every faction of his party with a special emphasis on balancing anti-slavery former Whigs with former free-soil Democrats, in an effort to create a cabinet that would unite the Republican Party.[40] Lincoln's eventual cabinet would include all of his main rivals for the Republican nomination. He did not shy away from surrounding himself with strong-minded men, even those whose credentials for office appeared to be much more impressive than his own.[41] In late November, he met with Vice President-elect Hamlin, Senator Trumbull, and Donn Piatt, an Ohio editor and politician, to discuss cabinet selections.[42]

The first cabinet position filled was that of Secretary of State. It was tradition for the president-elect to offer this, the most senior cabinet post, to the leading (best-known and most popular) person of his political party. William Seward, was that man and in mid-December 1860, Hamlin, acting on Lincoln's behalf, offered the position to him. He was slow to formally accept, doing so two weeks later.[43] He would remain as Secretary of State throughout Lincoln's presidency and continue in that position after Lincoln's death.[44]

Lincoln's choice for Secretary of the Treasury was Ohio Senator Salmon P. Chase, Seward's chief political rival.[45] Seward, among others, opposed the selection of Chase because of both his strong antislavery record and his opposition to any type of settlement with the South that could be considered appeasement for slaveholders. They would lobby against Chase right up to Lincoln's inauguration.[46] Chase would repeatedly threaten to resign to serve his own ends and finally Lincoln surprised him by accepting in 1864.[47] He would be replaced by William P. Fessenden. When he reluctantly took office, the economy was in dire straits. After a remarkable turn-around, Fesserden resigned only eight months later.[48] He was in turn replaced by Hugh McCulloch.[48]

The most problematic selection made by Lincoln was that of Simon Cameron as the Secretary of War. Cameron was one of the most influential public leaders in the crucial political state of Pennsylvania, but he was also alleged to be one of the most corrupt.[49] He was opposed within his own state by the faction led by Republican Governor-elect Andrew G. Curtin and Republican party chairman A. K. McClure, who sent a long letter to Lincoln protesting his consideration of Cameron and, at Lincoln's invitation, met with the president-elect in Springfield on January 3, 1861. Nonetheless, by Inauguration Day the competing factions realized that it was important to business interests that at least some Pennsylvanian be in Lincoln's cabinet. Cameron was then finally made Secretary of War.[50] Historian William Gienapp believed that the final selection of Cameron for this soon-to-be-critical position was a clear indicator that Lincoln did not anticipate a civil war.[51] Feeling that Cameron was not capable of handling the War Department, Lincoln tactfully removed Cameron in January 1862 by appointing him as the ambassador to Russia.[52] Cameron was replaced by Edwin Stanton, a staunchly Unionist pro-business conservative Democrat who moved toward the Radical Republican faction. Nevertheless, he worked more often and more closely with Lincoln than any other senior official.[53]

Lincoln had discussed with Weed the possibility of nominating a Southerner to the cabinet.[43] In December 1860, he meet with Edward Bates of Missouri. Bates, a former conservative Whig, had been one of Lincoln's rivals for the presidential nomination. He accepted Lincoln's offer of Attorney General. Bates said that he had declined a similar offer from Millard Fillmore in 1850, but the gravity of present events mandated that he accept.[54] Bates would resign in 1864 after several disagreements with Lincoln, culminating in his resentment at not being nominated to the Supreme Court.[55] He was replaced by James Speed, the older brother of Lincoln's close friend, Joshua Fry Speed.[56]

Lincoln proposed Montgomery Blair of Maryland for the position of Postmaster-General. Blair came from a prominent political family. His father, Francis P. Blair, was a close and influential adviser to President Andrew Jackson.[57] Lincoln felt the addition of Blair from the border state of Maryland would help to keep the Border States and Upper South from seceding.[58] Blair was asked to resign in 1864[59] and replaced by William Dennison.[60]

Lincoln tasked Vice President-elect Hamlin with finding a someone from a New England state for the cabinet. Hamlin recommended Gideon Welles of Connecticut, a former Jacksonian Democrat who had served in the Navy Department under President James K. Polk. Other influential Republicans concurred, and Wells became Secretary of the Navy.[61] He would serve the entire duration of Lincoln's presidency, and continue in that position after Lincoln's assassination.[62]

Caleb Blood Smith of Indiana was a former Whig representing the same type of midwestern constituency as Lincoln. His critics faulted him for some of his railroad ventures, accused him of being a Doughface, and questioned his intellectual capacity for a high government position. Among those who did support Smith were Seward and close Lincoln adviser David Davis. In the end, Smith's selection for Secretary of the Interior had much to do with his campaign efforts on behalf of Lincoln and their friendship.[63] Smith would serve less than two years before resigning due to poor health.[64] He was replaced by John Palmer Usher.[64]

New federal agencies[edit]

Among the federal agencies established or that began operations during Lincoln's presidency were:

Judicial appointments[edit]

BEP engraved portrait of Salmon P. Chase, sixth Chief Justice of the United States, 1864 – 1873
BEP engraved portrait of Salmon P. Chase, sixth Chief Justice of the United States, 1864 – 1873

Lincoln's declared philosophy on court nominations was that "we cannot ask a man what he will do, and if we should, and he should answer us, we should despise him for it. Therefore we must take a man whose opinions are known."[65] He made five appointments to the United States Supreme Court while president:[66]

Lincoln also appointed 27 judges to the United States district courts during his time in office. He appointed none to the United States circuit courts.[67][68]

American Civil War[edit]

Attack on Fort Sumter[edit]

1861 Map of U.S. states and territories showing two phases of secession.
1861 United States Secession Crisis map.
   States that seceded before April 15, 1861
   States that seceded after April 15, 1861
   States that permitted slavery, but did not secede
   States of the Union where slavery was banned
   U.S. territories, under Union Army control


Shortly before the November election, the general-in-chief of the army, Winfield Scott, had prepared a memorandum for President Buchanan (which was subsequently shared with Lincoln) in which he warned that there was a danger of "the seizure of a number of federal forts on the Mississippi River and on the Eastern coast, including the vulnerable installations at Charleston harbor". Scott recommended that "all those works should be immediately so garrisoned as to make any attempt to take any one of them by surprise or coup de main ridiculous".[69] Buchanan dismissed Scott's suggestions as provocative to the South.[70]

The day before Lincoln's inauguration, Scott wrote to Seward to suggest that Fort Sumter be abandoned. Scott saw four options for the administration—a full-scale military operation to subdue the South, endorsement of the Crittenden Compromise to win back the seceded states, the closure of Southern ports and the collection of duties from ships stationed outside the harbors, or directing the seven Southern states that had declared secession to "depart in peace".[71]

Decision to relieve the fort[edit]

Lincoln concentrated on the most immediate question of whether to maintain or abandon Fort Sumter, which was located near Charleston. By the time Lincoln assumed office seven states had declared their secession and had seized all federal property within their bounds, except for Fort Sumter, Fort Pickens near Pensacola, and two small forts in the Florida Keys. Any hope Lincoln might have had about using time to his advantage in addressing the crisis was shattered on his first full day in office, when he read a letter from Major Robert Anderson, the commander at Fort Sumter, stating that his troops would run out of provisions within four to six weeks.[72]

At a meeting on March 7, Scott and John G. Totten, the army's chief engineer, said that simply reinforcing the fort was not possible, although Welles and his top assistant Silas Stringham disagreed. Scott advised Lincoln that it would take a large fleet, 25,000 troops, and several months of training in order to defend the fort. On March 13, Montgomery Blair, the strongest proponent in the cabinet for standing firm at Fort Sumter, introduced Lincoln to his brother-in-law, Gustavus V. Fox. Fox presented a plan for a naval resupply and reinforcement of the fort. The plan had been approved by Scott during the last month of the previous administration, but Buchanan had rejected it. Scott had earlier advised Lincoln that it was too late for the plan to be successful, but the President was receptive to the proposed mission.[73]

Gustavus Fox, a U.S. Navy veteran, became a key figure in the Navy Department after his role in the Fort Sumter crisis.[74]

The Fox proposal was discussed at a cabinet meeting, and Lincoln followed up on March 15 by asking each cabinet member to provide a written answer to the question, "Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort-Sumpter [sic], under all circumstances, is it wise to attempt it?" Only Blair gave his unconditional approval to the plan. No decision was reached, although Lincoln told at least one congressman that if he were forced to surrender Sumter, holding Fort Pickens would still make a symbolic point. In the meantime Lincoln personally dispatched Fox to Charleston to talk to Anderson and independently assess the situation. Lincoln also sent Illinois friends Stephen A. Hurlbut and Ward Lamon to the city on a separate intelligence-gathering mission. The recommendations that came back were that reinforcement was both necessary, since secessionist feeling ran high and threatened the fort, and feasible, despite Anderson's misgivings.[75]

On March 28, however, Scott recommended that both Pickens and Sumter be abandoned, basing his decision more on political than military grounds. The next day a deeply agitated Lincoln presented Scott's proposal to the cabinet. Blair was now joined by Welles and Chase in supporting reinforcement. Bates was non-committal, Cameron was not in attendance, and Seward and Smith opposed resupply. Later that day Lincoln gave Fox the order to begin assembling a squadron to reinforce Fort Sumter.[76]

Surrender of the fort[edit]

The actual dispatch of the squadron was complicated by the failure of Lincoln, Welles, Seward, and the men on the ground preparing the expedition to communicate effectively. Assets needed for the Fort Sumter expedition were mistakenly directed to a separate mission to Fort Pickens.[77] On April 6, with the Sumter mission ready to go, Lincoln sent State Department clerk Robert S. Chew to see South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens and read the following statement:

I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort-Sumpter [sic] with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition, will be made, without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the Fort.[78]

The message was delivered to Pickens on April 8.[79] The information was telegraphed that night to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond. The Confederate cabinet was already meeting to discuss the Sumter crisis, and on April 10 Davis decided to demand the surrender of the fort and bombard it if the demand was refused.[80] An attack on the fort was initiated on April 12, and the fort surrendered the next day. The relief expedition sent by the Union arrived too late to intervene.[81] The attack on Fort Sumter marked the start of the American Civil War.

Early war[edit]

Shortly after the fall of Fort Sumter, Lincoln issued a proclamation calling up a force of seventy-five thousand state militiamen to serve three-month terms. While Northern states rallied to the request, border states such as Missouri refused to provide soldiers. Lincoln called Congress into a special session to begin in July. Though an in-session Congress could potentially affect his freedom of action, Lincoln needed Congress to authorize funds to fight the war against the Confederacy. On the advice of Winfield Scott, Lincoln asked a political ally to offer General Robert E. Lee command of the Union forces, but Lee ultimately chose to serve the Confederacy. Union soldiers in Southern states burned federal facilities to prevent Southern forces from taking control of them, while Confederate sympathizers led a riot in Baltimore. To ensure the security of the capital, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in Maryland, and ignored a court order ordering him to release a detained prisoner. While Lincoln struggled to maintain order in Maryland and other border states, Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee all seceded from the Union. North Carolina was the last state to secede, doing so on May 20.[82]

With the secession of several states, Lincoln's Republicans enjoyed large majorities in both houses of Congress. Additionally, War Democrats such as Andrew Johnson of Tennessee would provide support for many of Lincoln's policies, though Copperhead Democrats advocated peace with the Confederacy.[83] From the start, it was clear that bipartisan support would be essential to success in the war effort, and any action, such as the appointment of generals, could alienate factions on both sides of the aisle.[84] Lincoln appointed several political generals to curry favor with various groups, but especially Democrats.[85] On its return in July 1861, Congress supported Lincoln's war proposals, providing appropriations for the expansion of the army to 500,000 men.[86] Organizing the army would prove to be a challenge for Lincoln and the War Department, as many professional officers resisted civilian control, while many state militias sought to act autonomously. Knowing that success in the war required the support of local officials in mobilizing soldiers, Lincoln used patronage powers and personal diplomacy to ensure that Northern leaders remained devoted to the war effort.[87]

Having succeeded in rallying the North against secession, Lincoln next determined to attack the Confederate capital of Richmond, which was located just one hundred miles from Washington. Lincoln was disappointed by the state of the War Department and Navy Department, and Scott counseled that the army needed more time to train, but Lincoln nonetheless ordered an offensive. As the aged Scott was unable to lead the army himself, General Irvin McDowell led a force of 30,000 men south, where he met a force led by Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard. At the First Battle of Bull Run, the Confederate army dealt the Union a major defeat, ending any hope of a quick end to the war.[88]

A group of men sitting at a table as another man creates money on a wooden machine.
"Running the 'Machine' ": An 1864 political cartoon takes a swing at Lincoln's administration—featuring William Fessenden, Edwin Stanton, William Seward, Gideon Welles, Lincoln and others.

Following the secession of four states after the Battle of Fort Sumter, Lincoln became concerned that the slave-holding border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri would join the Confederacy. Of these four states, Lincoln was least concerned about Delaware, which had a proportionally large pro-Union population. Due to its location, Maryland remained a critical part of the Union. Lincoln continued to suppress Southern sympathizers in the state, but historian Ronald White also notes Lincoln's forbearance in refusing to take harsher measures. Maryland's election of Unionist Governor Augustus Bradford in November 1861 ensured that Maryland would remain part of the Union. Perhaps even more critical than Maryland was Kentucky, which provided access to key rivers and served as a gateway to Tennessee and the Midwest. Hoping to avoid upsetting the delicate balance in the state, Lincoln publicly ordered military leaders to respect Kentucky's declared neutrality, but quietly provided support to Kentucky Unionists. The Confederates were the first to violate this neutrality, seizing control of the town of Columbus, while the Union would capture the important town of Paducah. Like Kentucky, Missouri controlled access to key rivers and had a large pro-Confederate population. Lincoln appointed General John C. Frémont to ensure Union control of the area, but Frémont alienated many in the state by declaring martial law and issuing a proclamation freeing slaves that belonged to rebels. Lincoln removed Frémont and reversed the order, but Missouri emerged as the most problematic of the border states for Lincoln.[89]

Eastern Theater to 1864[edit]

1861 and the Peninsula Campaign[edit]

After the defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, Lincoln summoned Major General George B. McClellan to replace McDowell. McClellan had won minor battles in the Western Virginia Campaign, which had allowed Unionist West Virginia to hold the Wheeling Convention and eventually secede from Virginia.[90] With Lincoln's support, McClellan rejected Scott's Anaconda Plan, instead proposing a strike against Virginia which would end the war with one huge, climactic battle.[91] After Scott retired in late 1861, Lincoln appointed McClellan general-in-chief of all the Union armies.[92] McClellan, a young West Point graduate, railroad executive, and Pennsylvania Democrat, took several months to plan and attempt his Peninsula Campaign, longer than Lincoln wanted. The campaign's objective was to capture Richmond by moving the Army of the Potomac by boat to the Virginia Peninsula and then overland to the Confederate capital. McClellan's repeated delays frustrated Lincoln and Congress, as did his position that no troops were needed to defend Washington.[93]

Photograph of Lincoln and McClellan sitting at a table in a field tent
Lincoln and George McClellan after the Battle of Antietam in 1862.

In January 1862, Lincoln, frustrated by months of inaction, ordered McClellan to begin the offensive by the end of February.[94] When McClellan still failed to launch his attack, members of Congress urged Lincoln to replace McClellan with McDowell or Frémont, but Lincoln decided to retain McClellan as commander of Army of the Potomac over two generals who he felt had already failed. He did, however, remove McClellan as general-in-chief of the army in May, leaving the office vacant. McClellan moved against Confederate forces in March. The Army of Potomac fought the bloody-but-inconclusive Battle of Seven Pines at the end of May. Following the battle, Robert E. Lee took command of Confederate forces in Virginia, and he led his forces to victory in the Seven Days Battles. The Confederate victory effectively ended the Peninsula Campaign.[95]

Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg[edit]

In late June, while the Army of the Potomac was fighting the Seven Days Battles, Lincoln appointed John Pope to command the newly-formed Army of Virginia. On July 11, Lincoln summoned Henry Halleck from the Western Theater of the war to take command as general-in-chief of the army. Shortly thereafter, Lincoln asked Ambrose Burnside to replace McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac, but Burnside, who was close friends with McClellan, declined the post.[96] Pope's forces moved South towards Richmond, and in late August, the Army of Virginia met the Confederate army in the Second Battle of Bull Run, which was another major Union defeat. Following the battle, Lincoln turned to McClellan again, placing him in command of the Army of Virginia as well as the Army of Potomac.[97]

Two days after McClellan's return to command, General Lee's forces crossed the Potomac River into Maryland, leading to the Battle of Antietam in September 1862.[98] The ensuing Union victory was among the bloodiest in American history, but it enabled Lincoln to announce that he would issue an Emancipation Proclamation in January.[99] Following the battle, McClellan resisted the president's demand that he pursue Lee's retreating and exposed army.[100] After the 1862 mid-term elections, Lincoln, frustrated with McClellan's continued inactivity, replaced McClellan with Burnside.[101]

Against the advice of the president, Burnside prematurely launched an offensive across the Rappahannock River and was stunningly defeated by Lee at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December. Not only had Burnside been defeated on the battlefield, but his soldiers were disgruntled and undisciplined. Desertions during 1863 were in the thousands and they increased after Fredericksburg.[102] The defeat also amplified the criticisms of Radical Republicans such as Lyman Trumbull and Benjamin Wade, who believed that Lincoln had mishandled the war, particularly with regards to his selection of generals.[103]

Gettysburg Campaign[edit]

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 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 battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. 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 which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 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 gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Following the Battle of Fredericksburg, Lincoln at first kept Burnside in command, but reassigned the general to Western theater in January 1863 after the Mud March, a failed attempt to begin a new offensive. Lincoln replaced Burnside with General Joseph Hooker, who had served in several battles of the Eastern Theater.[104] With the war dragging on, Lincoln signed the Enrollment Act, which provided for the first military draft in U.S. history.[105] The draft law would spark harsh reactions, including draft riots in New York City and other locations. In April, Hooker began his offensive towards Richmond, and his army encountered Lee's at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Despite possessing a larger army, the Union suffered another major loss at Chancellorsville, though the Confederates also suffered a high number of casualties, including the death of General Stonewall Jackson.[106] Following the Confederate victory, Lee decided to take the offensive, launching the Gettysburg Campaign in June 1863. Lee hoped that Confederate victories in the offensive would empower Lincoln's political opponents and convince the North that the Union could not win the war. After Hooker failed to stop Lee in the early stages of his advance, Lincoln replaced Hooker with General George Meade. Lee led his army into Pennsylvania, and was followed by Meade's Army of the Potomac. While many in the North fretted over Lee's advance, Lincoln saw the offensive as an opportunity to destroy a Confederate army.[107]

The Confederate and Union armies met at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1. The battle, fought over three days, resulted in the highest number of casualties in the war. Along with the Union victory in the Siege of Vicksburg, the Battle of Gettysburg is often referred to as a turning point in the war. Though the battle ended with a Confederate retreat, Lincoln was dismayed that Meade had failed to destroy Lee's army. Feeling that Meade was a competent commander despite his failure to pursue Lee, and Lincoln allowed Meade to remain in command of the Army of the Potomac.[108] The Eastern Theater would be locked in a stalemate for the remainder of 1863.

In November 1863, Lincoln was invited to Gettysburg to dedicate the first national cemetery and honor the soldiers who had fallen. His Gettysburg Address became a core statement of American political values. Defying Lincoln's prediction that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here", the Address became the most quoted speech in American history.[109] In 272 words, and three minutes, Lincoln asserted the nation was born not in 1789, following ratification of the United States Constitution, but with the 1776 Declaration of Independence. He defined the war as an effort dedicated to the principles of liberty and equality for all. The emancipation of slaves was now part of the national war effort. He declared that the deaths of so many brave soldiers would not be in vain, that slavery would end as a result of the losses, and the future of democracy in the world would be assured, that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth". Lincoln concluded that the Civil War had a profound objective: a new birth of freedom in the nation.[110][111]

Western Theater and naval blockade[edit]

Despite several defeats in the Eastern Theater, the Union experienced success in the Western Theater, taking control of Tennessee and the Mississippi River by the end of 1863

Compared to the Eastern Theater of the war, Lincoln exercised less direct control over operations that took place West of the Appalachian Mountains. At the end of 1861, Lincoln ordered Don Carlos Buell, commander of the Department of the Ohio, and Henry Halleck, Frémont's replacement as commander of the Department of the Missouri, to coordinate support with Unionists in Kentucky and Eastern Tennessee.[112] General Ulysses S. Grant quickly earned Lincoln's attention, winning the first significant Union victory at the Battle of Fort Henry and earning a national reputation with his victory at the Battle of Fort Donelson.[113] The Confederates were driven from Missouri early in the war as a result of the March 1862 Battle of Pea Ridge.[114] In April 1862, U.S. Naval forces under the command of David Farragut captured the important port city of New Orleans.[115] Grant won further victories at the Battle of Shiloh[116] and the Siege of Vicksburg, which cemented Union control of the Mississippi River and is considered one of the turning points of the war.[117] In October 1863, Lincoln appointed Grant as the commander of the newly-created Division of the Mississippi, giving him command of the Western Theater.[118] Grant and Generals Hooker, George H. Thomas, and William Tecumseh Sherman led the Union to another major victory at the Third Battle of Chattanooga in November, driving Confederate forces out of Tennessee.[119] The capture of Chattanooga left Georgia vulnerable to attack, raising the possibility of a Union march to the Atlantic Ocean, which would divide the Confederacy.[120]

In April 1861, Lincoln announced the Union blockade of all Southern ports; commercial ships could not get insurance and regular traffic ended. The South blundered in embargoing cotton exports in 1861 before the blockade was effective; by the time they realized the mistake, it was too late. "King Cotton" was dead, as the South could export less than 10 percent of its cotton. The blockade shut down the ten Confederate seaports with railheads that moved almost all the cotton, especially New Orleans, Mobile, and Charleston. By June 1861, warships were stationed off the principal Southern ports, and a year later nearly 300 ships were in service.[121] Surdam argues that the blockade was a powerful weapon that eventually ruined the Southern economy, at the cost of few lives in combat. Practically, the entire Confederate cotton crop was useless (although it was sold to Union traders), costing the Confederacy its main source of income. Critical imports were scarce and the coastal trade was largely ended as well.[122] The measure of the blockade's success was not the few ships that slipped through, but the thousands that never tried it. Merchant ships owned in Europe could not get insurance and were too slow to evade the blockade; they simply stopped calling at Confederate ports.[123]

Grant takes command[edit]

Painting of four men conferring in a ship's cabin, entitled "The Peacemakers".
President Lincoln (center right) with, from left, Generals Sherman and Grant and Admiral Porter1868 painting of events aboard the River Queen in March 1865

Grant was one of the few senior general that Lincoln did not know personally, and the president was not able to visit the Western Theater of the war. But Lincoln came to appreciate the battlefield exploits of Grant despite complaints from others in the army.[124] Responding to criticism of Grant after Shiloh, Lincoln had said, "I can't spare this man. He fights."[125] In March 1864, Grant was summoned to Washington to succeed Halleck as general-in-chief, while Halleck took on the role of chief-of-staff.[126] Meade remained in formal command of the Army of the Potomac, but Grant would travel with the Army of the Potomac and direct its actions. Lincoln also obtained Congress's consent to reinstate for Grant the rank of Lieutenant General, which no U.S. officer had held since George Washington.[127] Grant ordered Meade to destroy Lee's army, while he ordered General Sherman, now in command of Union forces in the Western Theater, to capture Atlanta. Lincoln strongly approved of Grant's new strategy, which focused on the destruction of Confederate armies rather than the capture of Confederate cities.[128]

Two months after being promoted to general-in-chief, Grant embarked upon his bloody Overland Campaign. This is often characterized as a war of attrition, given high Union losses at battles such as the Battle of the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. Even though they had the advantage of fighting on the defensive, the Confederate forces had "almost as high a percentage of casualties as the Union forces".[129] The high casualty figures alarmed many in the North, as Grant lost a third of his army. When Lincoln asked what Grant's plans were, the general replied, "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."[130] Despite heavy losses, Lincoln continued to support Grant.[131]

General Sherman led Union forces from Chattanooga to Atlanta, defeating Confederate Generals Joseph E. Johnston and John Bell Hood along the way. Sherman's victory in the September 2 Battle of Atlanta boosted Union morale, breaking the pessimism that had set in throughout 1864.[132] Hood left the Atlanta area to swing around and menace Sherman's supply lines and invade Tennessee in the Franklin-Nashville Campaign. Union Maj. Gen. John Schofield defeated Hood at the Battle of Franklin, and General Thomas dealt Hood a massive defeat at the Battle of Nashville, effectively destroying Hood's army.[133] Lincoln authorized the Union army to target the Confederate infrastructure—such as plantations, railroads, and bridges—hoping to shatter the South's morale and weaken its economic ability to continue fighting. Leaving Atlanta, and his base of supplies, Sherman's army marched with an unknown destination, laying waste to about 20 percent of the farms in Georgia in his "March to the Sea". He reached the Atlantic Ocean at Savannah, Georgia in December 1864. Following the March to the Sea, Sherman turned North through South Carolina and North Carolina to approach the Confederate Virginia lines from the south, increasing the pressure on Lee's army.[134]

During the Valley Campaigns of 1864, Confederate general Jubal Early crossed the Potomac River, and advanced into Maryland. On July 11, two days after defeating Union forces under General Lew Wallace in the Battle of Monocacy, he attacked Fort Stevens, an outpost on the defensive perimeter of Washington. Lincoln was watching the combat from an exposed position; at one point during the skirmish Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes shouted at him, "Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!"[135] Afterward, Grant created the Army of the Shenandoah and put Sheridan in command. Sheridan's orders were to repel Early, and to deal with Confederate guerrillas in the Shenandoah Valley, which he quickly did.[136]

Confederate surrender[edit]

Following the Overland Campaign, Grant's army reached the town of Petersburg, beginning the Siege of Petersburg in June 1864.[137] The Confederacy lacked reinforcements, so Lee's army shrank with every costly battle. Lincoln and the Republican Party mobilized support for the draft throughout the North, and replaced the Union losses.[138] As Grant continued to wear down Lee's forces, efforts to discuss peace began. After Lincoln won reelection in November 1864, Francis Preston Blair, a personal friend of both Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, unsuccessfully encouraged Lincoln to make a diplomatic visit to Richmond.[139] Blair had advocated to Lincoln that the war could be brought to a close by having the two opposing sections of the nation stand down in their conflict, and reunite on grounds of the Monroe Doctrine in attacking the French-installed Emperor Maximilian in Mexico.[140] Though wary of peace efforts which could threaten his goal of emancipation, Lincoln agreed to meet with the Confederates.[141] On February 3, 1865, Lincoln and Seward held a conference at Hampton Roads with three representatives of the Confederate government—Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, Senator Robert M. T. Hunter, and Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell—to discuss terms to end the war. Lincoln refused to allow any negotiation with the Confederacy as a coequal; his sole objective was an agreement to end the fighting and the meetings produced no results.[142]

Grant ground down the Confederate army across several months of trench warfare. Due to the city's important location, the fall of Petersburg would likely lead to the fall of Richmond, but Grant feared that Lee would decide to move South and link up with other Confederate armies. In March 1865, with the fall of Petersburg appearing imminent, Lee sought to break through the Union lines at the Battle of Fort Stedman, but the Confederate assault was repulsed. On April 2, Grant launched an attack that became known as the Third Battle of Petersburg, which ended with Lee's retreat from Petersburg and Richmond. In the subsequent Appomattox Campaign, Lee sought to link up with General Joseph E. Johnston, who was positioned in North Carolina, while Grant sought to force the surrender of Lee's army.[143] On April 5, Lincoln visited the vanquished Confederate capital. As he walked through the city, white Southerners were stone-faced, but freedmen greeted him as a hero, with one admirer remarking, "I know I am free for I have seen the face of Father Abraham and have felt him".[144] On April 9, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox and the war was effectively over.[145] Following Lee's surrender, other rebel armies soon did as well, and there was no subsequent guerrilla warfare as had been feared.


As Southern states were subdued, critical decisions had to be made as to their leadership while their administrations were re-formed. Of special importance were Tennessee and Arkansas, where Lincoln appointed Generals Andrew Johnson and Frederick Steele as military governors, respectively. In Louisiana, Lincoln ordered General Nathaniel P. Banks to promote a plan that would restore statehood when 10 percent of the voters agreed to it. Lincoln's Democratic opponents seized on these appointments to accuse him of using the military to ensure his and the Republicans' political aspirations. On the other hand, the Radicals denounced his policy as too lenient.[146] As victory in the war looked increasingly likely after July 1863, Northerners debated how to re-integrate the South. Democrat Reverdy Johnson called for a withdrawal of the Emancipation Proclamation and amnesty for the Confederates. By contrast, Radical Republicans such as Charles Sumner argued that the South had lost all rights by rebelling. In his ten percent plan, Lincoln sought to find a middle ground, calling for the emancipation of Confederate slaves and the re-integration of Southern states once ten percent of voters in a state took an oath of allegiance to the U.S. and pledged to respect emancipation.[147] Radical Republicans thought that policy was too lenient and proposed an "ironclad oath," which would have prevented anyone who supported the Confederacy from voting in Southern elections. In 1864, the Radicals won passage of the Wade-Davis Bill, but it was vetoed by Lincoln. The Radicals retaliated by refusing to seat representatives elected from the three states with reconstituted governments.[148]

Cartoon of Lincoln and Johnson attempting to stitch up the broken Union
A political cartoon of Vice President Andrew Johnson (a former tailor) and Lincoln, 1865, entitled The 'Rail Splitter' At Work Repairing the Union. The caption reads (Johnson): "Take it quietly Uncle Abe and I will draw it closer than ever." (Lincoln): "A few more stitches Andy and the good old Union will be mended."

As the war drew to a close, Lincoln's presidential Reconstruction for the South was in flux. Lincoln was determined to find a course of action that would reunite the nation as soon as possible and not permanently alienate the Southerners. When Lincoln went to Richmond, Virginia on April 5 to survey the fallen capital of the Confederacy for himself, he was asked by General Godfrey Weitzel how the defeated Confederates should be treated; Lincoln replied, "Let 'em up easy."[149] Lincoln signed into law Senator Charles Sumner's Freedmen's Bureau bill that set up a temporary federal agency designed to meet the immediate material needs of former slaves. The law assigned land for a lease of three years with the ability to purchase title for the freedmen. Lincoln stated that his Louisiana plan did not apply to all states under Reconstruction. Shortly before his assassination, Lincoln announced he had a new plan for Southern Reconstruction. Discussions with his cabinet revealed Lincoln planned short-term military control over Southern states, with eventual readmission under the control of Southern Unionists.[150] Lincoln did not take a definitive stand on black suffrage, stating only that "very intelligent blacks" and those that had served in the military should be granted the right to vote.[151]

Historian Eric Foner notes that no one knows what Lincoln would have done about Reconstruction, and asserts that "Lincoln's ideas would undoubtedly have continued to evolve."[152] Foner also asserts that,

Unlike Sumner and other Radicals, Lincoln did not see Reconstruction as an opportunity for a sweeping political and social revolution beyond emancipation. He had long made clear his opposition to the confiscation and redistribution of land. He believed, as most Republicans did in April 1865, that the voting requirements should be determined by the states. He assumed that political control in the South would pass to white Unionists, reluctant secessionists, and forward-looking former Confederates. But time and again during the war, Lincoln, after initial opposition, and come to embrace positions first advanced by abolitionists and Radical Republicans..... Lincoln undoubtedly would have listened carefully to the outcry for further protection for the former slaves.... It is entirely plausible to imagine Lincoln and Congress agreeing on a Reconstruction policy that encompassed federal protection for basic civil rights plus limited black suffrage, along the lines Lincoln proposed just before his death."[152]

Ending Slavery[edit]

Lincoln met with his Cabinet for the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation draft on July 22, 1862. L-R: Edwin M. Stanton, Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln, Gideon Welles, Caleb Smith, William H. Seward, Montgomery Blair and Edward Bates

Early actions[edit]

Throughout the first year and a half of his presidency, Lincoln made it clear that the North was fighting the war to preserve the Union and not to end slavery. Lincoln did seek the eventual abolition of slavery and explored the idea of compensated emancipation, including one proposed test case which would have seen all Delaware slaves freed by 1872.[153] He also met with Fredrick Douglass and other black leaders, discussing the possibility of a colonization project in Central America.[154] Abolitionists criticized Lincoln for his slowness in moving from his initial position of non-interference with slavery to one of emancipation. In an August 22, 1862, letter to Horace Greeley he explained:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was". ... 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.[155]

As the Civil War continued, freeing the slaves became an important wartime measure for weakening the rebellion by destroying the economic base of its leadership class. On August 6, 1861, Lincoln signed the Confiscation Act of 1861, which authorized court proceedings to confiscate the slaves of anyone who participated in or aided the Confederate war effort. The act however, did not specify whether the slaves were free.[156] In April 1862, Lincoln signed a law abolishing slavery in Washington, D.C., and, in June, he signed another law abolishing slavery in all federal territories. The following month, Lincoln signed the Confiscation Act of 1862, which declared that all Confederate slaves taking refuge behind Union lines were to be set free.[157]

Emancipation Proclamation[edit]

The same month that Lincoln signed the Second Confiscation Act, he also privately decided that he would pursue emancipation as a war goal. On July 22, 1862, Lincoln read to his cabinet a preliminary draft of a proclamation calling for emancipation of all slaves in the Confederacy. As the Union had suffered several defeats in the early part of the war, Seward convinced Lincoln to announce this emancipation plan after a significant Union victory so that it would not seem like a move of desperation.[158] Lincoln was forced to wait several months until the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam.[159]

The Emancipation Proclamation, announced on September 22 and put in effect January 1, 1863, applied in the eleven states that were still in rebellion in 1863, and thus did not cover the nearly 500,000 slaves in the slave-holding border states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland or Delaware) which were Union states. Those slaves were freed by later separate state and federal actions. The state of Tennessee had already mostly returned to Union control, under a recognized Union government, so it was not named and was exempted. Virginia was named, but exemptions were specified for the 48 counties then in the process of forming the new state of West Virginia, as well as the seven additional counties and two cities in the Union-controlled Tidewater region.[160] Also specifically exempted were New Orleans and 13 named parishes of Louisiana, which were mostly under federal control at the time of the Proclamation. These exemptions left 300,000 slaves unemancipated.[161] Despite these exemptions and the delayed affect of the proclamation, the Emancipation Proclamation added a second purpose of the war, making it about ending slavery as well as restoring the Union.[162]

Thirteenth Amendment[edit]

Lincoln became more vociferously anti-slavery as the war continued, and authorized the arming of black soldiers despite considerable resistance from many whites.[163] In December 1863, a proposed constitutional amendment that would outlaw slavery was introduced in Congress; though the Senate voted for the amendment with the necessary two-thirds majority, the amendment did not receive sufficient support in the House.[164] On accepting the 1864 National Union nomination, Lincoln told the party that he would seek to ratify a constitutional amendment that would abolish slavery in the United States.[165] After winning re-election, Lincoln made ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (as it would become known) a priority. With the aid of large majorities in both houses of Congress, Lincoln believed that the could permanently end the institution of slavery in the United States.[166] Though he had largely avoided becoming involved in Congressional legislative processes, Lincoln gave the ratification struggle his full attention. Rather than waiting for the 39th Congress to convene in March, Lincoln pressed the lame duck session of the 38th Congress to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment as soon as possible. Lincoln and Seward engaged in an extensive lobbying campaign to win their votes. In a vote held on January 31, the House narrowly cleared the two-thirds threshold in a 119-56 vote.[167] The Thirteenth Amendment was sent to the states for ratification, and Secretary of State Seward would proclaim its adoption on December 18, 1865.

Domestic policy[edit]

While Lincoln is usually portrayed bearded, he first grew a beard in 1860 at the suggestion of 11-year-old Grace Bedell (Lincoln as a symbol of his opposition to war, never grew a mustache.)

Economic policy[edit]

Lincoln adhered to the Whig understanding of separation of powers under the Constitution, which gave Congress primary responsibility for writing the laws while the executive enforced them. Lincoln vetoed only four bills passed by Congress; the only important one was the Wade-Davis Bill.[168] He signed the Homestead Act in 1862, making millions of acres of government-held land in the West available for purchase at very low cost. The Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, also signed in 1862, provided government grants for agricultural colleges in each state. The Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864 granted federal support for the construction of the United States' First Transcontinental Railroad, which was completed in 1869.[169] The passage of the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Acts was made possible by the absence of Southern congressmen and senators who had opposed the measures in the 1850s.[170]

Lincoln presided over the expansion of the federal government's economic influence in several other areas. Other important legislation involved two measures to raise revenues for the federal government: tariffs (a policy with long precedent), and a new federal income tax. In 1861, Lincoln signed the second and third Morrill Tariff, the first having become law under Buchanan. Also in 1861, Lincoln signed the Revenue Act of 1861, creating the first federal income tax.[171] This created a flat tax of 3 percent on incomes above $800 ($21,800 in current dollar terms), which was later changed by the Revenue Act of 1862 to a progressive rate structure.[172] The creation of the system of national banks by the National Banking Act provided a strong financial network in the country and established a national currency. In 1862, Congress created, with Lincoln's approval, the Department of Agriculture.[173]

Other policies[edit]

In 1862, Lincoln sent General Pope to put down the "Sioux Uprising" in Minnesota. Presented with 303 execution warrants for convicted Santee Dakota who were accused of killing innocent farmers, Lincoln conducted his own personal review of each of these warrants, eventually approving 39 for execution (one was later reprieved).[174] In his final two annual messages to Congress Lincoln called for reform of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and federal Indian policy. However, as the war to preserve the Union was Lincoln's primary concern, he simply allowed the system to function unchanged for the balance of his presidency.[175]

In response to rumors of a draft, the editors of the New York World and the Journal of Commerce published a false draft proclamation which created an opportunity for the editors and others employed at the publications to corner the gold market. Lincoln's reaction was to send the strongest of messages to the media about such behavior; he ordered the military to seize the two papers. The seizure lasted for two days.[176]

Lincoln is largely responsible for the institution of the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.[65] Before Lincoln's presidency, Thanksgiving, while a regional holiday in New England since the 17th century, had been proclaimed by the federal government only sporadically and on irregular dates. The last such proclamation had been during James Madison's presidency 50 years before. In 1863, Lincoln declared the final Thursday in November of that year to be a day of Thanksgiving.[65]

In June 1864, Lincoln approved the Yosemite Grant enacted by Congress, which provided unprecedented federal protection for the area now known as Yosemite National Park.[177]

Foreign policy[edit]

The U.S. and the CSA both recognized the potential importance of foreign powers in the Civil War, as a European intervention could greatly aid the Confederate cause, much as French intervention in the American Revolutionary War had helped the United States gain its independence.[178] At the start of the war, Russia was the lone great power to offer full support to the Union, while the other European powers had varying degrees of sympathy for the Confederacy.[179] Nonetheless, foreign nations were officially neutral throughout the Civil War, and none recognized the Confederacy, marking a major diplomatic achievement for Secretary Seward and the Lincoln Administration.

Although they remained out of the war, the European powers, especially France and Britain, factored into the American Civil War in various ways. European leaders saw the division of the United States as having the potential to eliminate, or at least greatly weaken, a growing rival. They looked for ways to exploit the inability of the U.S. to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. Spain invaded the Dominican Republic in 1861, while France established a puppet regime in Mexico.[180] However, many in Europe also hoped for a quick end to the civil war, for both humanitarian purposes and due to the economic disruption caused by the war.[181]

Lincoln's foreign policy was deficient in 1861 in terms of appealing to European public opinion. The European aristocracy (the dominant factor in every major country) was "absolutely gleeful in pronouncing the and American debacle as proof that the entire experiment in popular government had failed." Diplomats had to explain that United States was not committed to the ending of slavery, and instead they repeated legalistic arguments about the unconstitutionality of secession. Confederate spokesman, on the other hand, were much more successful by ignoring slavery and instead focusing on their struggle for liberty, their commitment to free trade, and the essential role of cotton in the European economy.[182] However, the Confederacy's hope that cotton exports would compel European interference did not come to fruition, as Britain found alternative sources of cotton and experienced economic growth in industries that did not rely on cotton.[183] Though the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately end the possibility of European intervention, it rallied European public opinion to the Union by adding abolition as a Northern war goal. Any chance of a European intervention in the war ended with the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, as European leaders came to believe that the Confederate cause was doomed.[184]


The British textile industry depended on cotton from the South, but it had stocks to keep the mills operating for a year and in any case the industrialists and workers carried little weight in British politics. Knowing a war would cut off vital shipments of American food, wreak havoc on the British merchant fleet, and cause the immediate loss of Canada, Britain, with its powerful navy, refused to go along.[185]

Though elite opinion in Britain tended to favor the Confederacy, public opinion tended to favor the United States. Large scale trade continued in both directions with the United States, with the Americans shipping grain to Britain while Britain sent manufactured items and munitions. Immigration continued into the United States. British trade with the Confederacy was limited, with a trickle of cotton going to Britain and some munitions slipped in by numerous small blockade runners. The Confederate strategy for securing independence was largely based on the hope of military intervention by Britain and France, but Confederate diplomacy proved inept. With the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, the Civil War became a war against slavery that most British supported.[186]

A serious diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and Great Britain arose late in 1861. The Union Navy intercepted a British mail ship, the Trent, on the high seas and seized two Confederate envoys en route to Europe. The incident aroused public outrage in Britain; the government of Lord Palmerston protested vehemently, while the American public cheered. Lincoln ended the crisis, known as the Trent Affair, by releasing the two diplomats, who had been seized illegally.[187]

British financiers built and operated most of the blockade runners, spending hundreds of millions of pounds on them; but that was legal and not the cause of serious tension. They were staffed by sailors and officers on leave from the Royal Navy. When the U.S. Navy captured one of the fast blockade runners, it sold the ship and cargo as prize money for the American sailors, then released the crew. The British shipyard (John Laird and Sons) built two warships for the Confederacy, including the CSS Alabama, over vehement protests from the United States. The controversy would ultimately be resolved after the Civil War in the form of the Alabama Claims, in which the United States finally was given $15.5 million in arbitration by an international tribunal for damages caused by British-built warships.[188]


Emperor Napoleon III of France sought to re-establish a French empire in North America, with Mexico at the center of an empire that he hoped might also come to include a canal across Central America. In December 1861, France invaded Mexico. While the official justification was the collection of debts, France eventually established a puppet state under the rule of Maximilian I of Mexico. In October 1862, fearing that a re-unified United States would threaten his restored French empire, Napoleon III proposed an armistice and joint mediation of the American Civil War by France, Britain, and Russia. However, this proposal was declined by the other European powers, who feared alienating the North. Napoleon's bellicose stands towards Russia in the 1863 January Uprising divided the powers and greatly diminished any chance of a joint European intervention.[189] The United States refused to recognize Maximilian's government and threatened to drive France out of the country by force, but did not become directly involved in the conflict even as Mexican resistance to Maximilian's rule grew. With the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the U.S. increased pressure on France to withdraw from Mexico, and the French presence in the Western hemisphere would be a major foreign policy issue for Lincoln's successor.[190]

Elections held during the Lincoln administration[edit]

Mid-term elections of 1862[edit]

The mid-term elections in 1862 brought the Republicans severe losses due to sharp disfavor with the administration over its failure to deliver a speedy end to the war, as well as rising inflation, new high taxes, rumors of corruption, the suspension of habeas corpus, the military draft law, and fears that freed slaves would undermine the labor market. The Emancipation Proclamation announced in September gained votes for the Republicans in the rural areas of New England and the upper Midwest, but it lost votes in the cities and the lower Midwest.[191]

While Republicans were discouraged, Democrats were energized and did especially well in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and New York. The Republicans did maintain their majorities in Congress and in the major states, except New York. The Cincinnati Gazette contended that the voters were "depressed by the interminable nature of this war, as so far conducted, and by the rapid exhaustion of the national resources without progress".[191]

Election of 1864[edit]

Lincoln and Johnson campaign poster

With Democratic gains in the mid-term elections, Lincoln felt increasing pressure to finish the war before the end of his term.[192] Hoping to rally unionists of both parties, Lincoln urged Republican leaders to adopt a new label for the 1864 election: the National Union Party.[193] By the end of 1863, Lincoln had won the respect of many in his part, but his re-nomination was not assured, as no president had won a second term since Andrew Jackson in 1832. Chase emerged as the most prominent potential intra-party challenger, and Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy led a covert campaign for Chase's nomination.[194] When Chase decided not to run in March 1864, Radical Republicans cast about for a new candidate. In May 1864, a group of Radical Republicans nominated John Frémont for president. Despite recent setbacks in the Western Theater of the war, the June 1864 National Union National Convention nominated Lincoln for president. Though Hamlin hoped to be re-nominated as vice president, the convention instead nominated Andrew Johnson, the military governor of Tennessee. Lincoln had refused to weigh in on his preferred running mate, and the convention chose to nominate Johnson, a Southern War Democrat, in order to boost the party's appeal to Unionists of both parties.[195]

By August, Republicans across the country were experiencing feelings of extreme anxiety, fearing that Lincoln would be defeated. The outlook was so grim that Thurlow Weed told the president directly that his "re-election was an impossibility." Acknowledging this, Lincoln wrote and signed a pledge that, if he should lose the election, he would nonetheless defeat the Confederacy by an all-out military effort before turning over the White House:[196]

This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.[197]

Lincoln did not show the pledge to his cabinet, but asked them to sign the sealed envelope. The president also requested Frederick Douglass to develop a plan for as helping as many slaves as possible to escape from the South before his term expired.[198][199]

1864 Electoral College vote results

Lincoln’s re-election prospects grew brighter after the Union Navy seized Mobile Bay in late August and General Sherman captured Atlanta a few weeks later.[200] These victories relieved Republicans' defeatist anxieties, energized the Union-Republican alliance, and helped to restore popular support for the administration’s war strategy. With these victories, the underlying disarray within the Democratic Party came to the surface.[201] The 1864 Democratic National Convention met at the end of August, nominating General George McClellan as their presidential candidate. The divided Democrats adopted a platform calling for peace with the Confederacy, but McClellan himself favored continuing the war. McClellan agonized over accepting the nomination, but after the Union victory in Atlanta, he accepted the nomination with a public letter. According to historian Ronald C. White, McClellan's letter sought to make it clear that he wanted to re-unify the U.S., but opposed the Emancipation Proclamation.[202]

Lincoln campaigned on the themes of "No Peace Without Victory and "Union and Liberty." Press hostile to Lincoln labeled the president a tyrant or accused him of promoting miscegenation, while McClellan's opponents accused him of being a traitor. The final election results gave Lincoln a major victory, as he took 55% of the popular vote and 212 of the 233 electoral votes.[203]


The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln, designed by John B. Bachelder and painted by Alonzo Chappel (1868), depicting together those who visited the dying president throughout the night and early morning of April 14–15, 1865.

Shortly after 10:00 p.m. on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated while attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre with his wife and two guests. Lincoln was shot in the back of his head by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. The mortally wounded president was immediately examined by a doctor in the audience and then carried across the street to Petersen’s Boarding House where he died At 7:22 a.m. the following morning.[204]

Booth had also plotted with fellow conspirators, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt to also kill Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Johnson. They hoped to revive the Confederate cause by creating chaos through destabilizing the federal government. Although Booth succeeded in killing Lincoln, the larger plot failed. Seward was attacked, but recovered from his wounds, and Johnson's would-be assassin fled Washington upon losing his nerve. With the failure of the plot to assassinate Johnson, Johnson succeeded Lincoln, becoming the 17th President of the United States.

Lincoln's body lay in state in the East Room of the White House and then in the Capitol Rotunda through April 21, when his coffin was taken to the B&O Station.[205] Funeral services were held in Washington, D.C., and then at additional locations as the funeral train retraced, with a few alterations, Lincoln's 1,654 miles (2,662 km) 1861 journey as president-elect.[206] He was buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield on May 4.

Constitutional amendments[edit]

States admitted to the Union[edit]

Two new states were admitted to the Union while Lincoln was in office:

Historical reputation and legacy[edit]

Lincoln's image is carved into the stone of Mount Rushmore.

In surveys of U.S. scholars ranking presidents conducted since the 1940s, Lincoln is consistently ranked in the top three, often as number one.[214][215] A 2004 study found that scholars in the fields of history and politics ranked Lincoln number one, while legal scholars placed him second after Washington.[216] In presidential ranking polls conducted in the United States since 1948, Lincoln has been rated at the very top in the majority of polls: Schlesinger 1948, Schlesinger 1962, 1982 Murray Blessing Survey, Chicago Tribune 1982 poll, Schlesinger 1996, C-SPAN 1996, Ridings-McIver 1996, Time 2008, C-SPAN 2009 and C-SPAN 2017. Generally, the top three presidents are rated as 1. Lincoln; 2. George Washington; and 3. Franklin D. Roosevelt, although Lincoln and Washington, and Washington and Roosevelt, are occasionally reversed.[217]

Redefining the republic and republicanism[edit]

The successful reunification of the states had consequences for the name of the country. The term "the United States" has historically been used, sometimes in the plural ("these United States"), and other times in the singular, without any particular grammatical consistency. The Civil War was a significant force in the eventual dominance of the singular usage by the end of the 19th century.[218] Legal historian Paul Finkelman argues that Union victory in the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments, which were ratified after Lincoln's death but were made possible by the Civil War, changed the nature of the Constitution. The Union victory and the subsequent Supreme Court case of Texas v. White ended debate regarding the constitutionality of secession and Nullification by the states. In addition to ending slavery, the Reconstruction Amendments enshrined Constitutional clauses promoting racial equality.[219]

In recent years, historians such as Harry Jaffa, Herman Belz, John Diggins, Vernon Burton and Eric Foner have stressed Lincoln's redefinition of republican values. As early as the 1850s, a time when most political rhetoric focused on the sanctity of the Constitution, Lincoln redirected emphasis to the Declaration of Independence as the foundation of American political values—what he called the "sheet anchor" of republicanism.[220] The Declaration's emphasis on freedom and equality for all, in contrast to the Constitution's tolerance of slavery, shifted the debate. As Diggins concludes regarding the highly influential Cooper Union speech of early 1860, "Lincoln presented Americans a theory of history that offers a profound contribution to the theory and destiny of republicanism itself."[221] His position gained strength because he highlighted the moral basis of republicanism, rather than its legalisms.[222] Nevertheless, in 1861, Lincoln justified the war in terms of legalisms (the Constitution was a contract, and for one party to get out of a contract all the other parties had to agree), and then in terms of the national duty to guarantee a republican form of government in every state.[223] Burton (2008) argues that Lincoln's republicanism was taken up by the Freedmen as they were emancipated.[224]

See also[edit]


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Works Cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Cox, LaWanda (1981). Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0-87249-400-8. 
  • Green, Michael S. (2011). Lincoln and the Election of 1860. Concise Lincoln Library. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0-8093-3035-0. 
  • Nicolay, John George and John Hay. Abraham Lincoln: a History (1890), 10 volumes; online at Volume 1 and Volume 2 vol 6
  • Randall, James G. (1997) [First published in four volumes in 1945, 1952 and 1955]. Lincoln the President. Volume One. Boston, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0306807548. Volume One covers Lincoln's life as far as Gettysburg, focusing mainly on his presidential administration. 
  • Randall, James G. (1997) [First published in four volumes in 1945, 1952 and 1955]. Lincoln the President. Volume Two. Boston, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0306807556. Volume Two concentrates on Lincoln the person - his conversation, his personality, his daily tasks, his marriage, his sense of humour - and covers his life from the period of the Emancipation Proclamation up to the final triumph of Appomattox and his untimely death. 

External links[edit]

U.S. Presidential Administrations
Preceded by
Lincoln Presidency
Succeeded by
A. Johnson