[Abridged] Presidential Histories

16.) Abraham Lincoln 1861-1865

May 01, 2021 Kenny Ryan
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
16.) Abraham Lincoln 1861-1865
Show Notes Transcript

When Abraham Lincoln was elected, the south didn't take it too well. Before he was even sworn in, seven states had already seceded, and four more joined the confederacy in the months that followed. The fate of the union was at stake.

Follow along as Lincoln goes from country lawyer to U.S. President and then leads the nation to reunification by winning the PR war, finding a general who can win the shooting war, and eventually ending slavery once and for all.

1. Abraham Lincoln – David Herbert Donald
2. Team of Rivals - Doris Kearns Goodwin
3. James Buchanan – Jean H. Baker
4. Polk: The man who transformed the presidency – Walter R. Borneman
5. Embattled Rebel – James M. McPherson
6. Grant – Jean Edward Smith
7. Andrew Johnson – Annette Gordon-Reed

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16.) Abraham Lincoln 1861-1865


Welcome to Abridged Presidential Histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode 16, Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator. 


On March 4, 1861, the United States was a wreck.

Or maybe I should say, what was left of the united states was a wreck.

A decade of disastrous presidential leadership had turned the divide between the north and south into a chasm. After John Brown’s attempted slave insurrection and raid on Harper’s ferry, Southern politicians and their partisan press had so thoroughly convinced their constituents that the election of Abraham Lincoln would lead to the immediate end of slavery and the rape and destruction of their white culture that seven states seceded in the months between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration.

Four more states would secede after he was sworn in.

The fate of the union was at stake.

And Lincoln rose to the moment.

So what made Lincoln a president who could handle this moment? His experience entering office was several decades of practicing law and two years in congress – just two years of government experience. How did he succeed when a line of presidents with far longer resumes had failed?

That’s where we’ll focus today. This won’t be a blow-by-blow of the civil war – you’ll get something closer to that when we reach President Grant in a couple episodes, or, I’d highly recommend you check out the Civil War podcast. 

This will focus on the formative moments of Lincoln’s live and career, and how he triumphed in the three main battlegrounds of the civil war – the political fight to win reelection and keep the union in the war, the struggle to find a general who could win the war, and the battle to eventually end slavery once and for all. 




Abraham Lincoln was born Feb. 12, 1809, in a log cabin in Kentucky, and he had a very complicated relationship with his parents. Lincoln’s father was a poor and uneducated farmer who taught how to tell a good story and to dislike slavery, and not much else. Young Lincoln loved to read and learn, and his father thought that was all a waste of time. Lincoln’s mother died in 1818, when Lincoln was 9 years old, and his father remarried a year later. Luckily for Lincoln, his father married a wonderful woman. When Sarah Bush Johnston arrived, it was like Mary Poppins had just walked through the door. Sarah Bush Johnston encouraged Lincoln’s education and his ambition, and this is when the witty, confident Lincoln we think of really started to take shape.

But Lincoln’s love for his stepmother could not overcome his disdain for his father, so he left as soon as he was able and embarked on a variety of careers. He tried his hand at being a carpenter, a riverboat sailor, a store clerk, a soldier, a merchant, a postmaster, a blacksmith, and a surveyor before finding law and politics – and he stuck to law and politics.

But Lincoln was still pretty rough around the edges when he got started. For one, he used his wit to hurt rather than heal, and it got him in trouble. In 1842, he made fun of a prominent and humorless political rival, and the guy actually challenged Lincoln to a duel, which Lincoln accepted. Lincoln was given his choice of weapon, and he was a foot taller than the other guy, so he chose broadswords. Because when you’re a foot taller than the other guy, that gives you more reach with a weapon like that. When the two reached the dueling ground, I get the sense that the rival sized Lincoln up, calculated that Lincoln would be able to stab him before he could stab Lincoln, and quickly thought better of the duel and agreed to call it off.

The point of this story isn’t just that Lincoln is clever, though, it’s that he was so embarrassed by the near-duel that he never used humor to belittle a rival’s pride again. Unlike some politicians, who use humor as a weapon, Lincoln used it as an olive branch from this point forward. Lincoln is famous for using his sense of humor to make friends, disarm critics, and diffuse tense situations – and that technique began here.

The near-duel wasn’t the only big event in Lincoln’s life in 1842. On Nov. 4 of that year, he married Mary Todd Lincoln, who he’d been on-and-off courting since 1839. They’d have four children together.

In 1847, after years of working as a traveling lawyer in Illinois, a 38-year-old Lincoln turned the friends and supporters he’d made along the way into a successful run for Congress as a member of the Whig party. This was during the Polk administration and at the time of the Mexican-American War. Lincoln opposed the war, a little because Polk was a Democrat, and a little because he thought it was an unjust war of American aggression, and he introduced a series of so-called “Spot” resolutions demanding Polk prove that American blood had been shed on American soil– if you remember episode 11 on Polk, “American blood on American soil” was the rallying cry Polk used to manufacture this war, when, really, the blood had been shed on soil that was, at best, contested, and, at worst, considered by many Americans to belong to Mexico.

Lincoln was largely ignored, though – These resolutions didn’t even earn a mention in Polk’s diary – and he caught some blowback for it back home, where his lack of war support was considered unpatriotic. He resigned from office after just one term and spent most of the next decade practicing law.

Lincoln was a successful, if not spectacular lawyer. He was known for how friendly and honest he was in the court room – this is when he earned the nickname honest Abe.

But Lincoln couldn’t stay away from politics for long. He couldn’t help himself! As the whig party collapsed, he drifted toward the Republican party, which was eagerly recruiting him. In 1856, he made it official and ditched the dead whigs for the up-and-coming Republicans, who put him in charge of the Illinois state party. Lincoln embraced the Republican’s anti-slavery platform, identified slavery as the cause of the nation’s problems, and, echoing a past senator’s famous speech in opposition to slavery and secessionist, declared, “liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” He actually finished second in the running for the party’s vice presidential candidate in the 1856 election. So, yeah. Lincoln didn’t have much political experience, but he was definitely a big blip on the radar of this new party.

In 1858, Lincoln decided he was ready to run for higher office again, but he wasn’t willing to settle for congress this time. He wanted the Senate, and to get there, he’d have to defeat one of the most powerful senators of the 1850’s – Stephan A Douglas, savior of the compromise of 1850 and architect of the Kansas-Nebraska act. The time for the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates is here.

The Lincoln Douglas debates were a series of 7 debates – one for each of Illinois 7 congressional districts – that were held from August to October 1858. But these weren’t just local affairs. Illinois was a battleground state – half Republican and half Democrat. And Douglas was a national figure, so these debates were national news. Journalists used the nation’s expanding telegraph system to report every debate in full, so everyone around the country heard the core of the two men’s rival philosophies – popular sovereignty for Douglas, and inalienable rights for Lincoln. Douglas believed that what’s legal and illegal should always be determined by popular vote, while Lincoln believed there were certain unalienable rights that no majority should be able to take away. It’s actually a pretty great debate and you can argue both sides of it. Should everything be up for a vote in a democracy? Or are there inalienable rights – and if so, what are they? This was a fascinating election.

Lincoln performed pretty well in these debates, but almost as important as his arguments was how he presented himself to Illinois voters. Douglas traveled in a special train designed for comfort and entertainment, and he showed up dressed to the nines for every debate, while Lincoln dressed in plain clothes and traveled by passenger car so he could mingle with the voters. 

In the end, Lincoln was defeated by the antiquated way Illinois used to elect its senators. Back in 1858, Illinois senators were elected by the state legislature, so if you wanted to win the senate, you had to help your party win the legislature. You could almost think of it like a state-wide electoral college, which is probably why a constitutional amendment ended the system in 1913. The republicans won their statewide races for other offices – indicating they won the state’s popular vote – but, like the electoral college, the popular vote doesn’t amount to much if the votes aren’t where you need them. The Democrats won the state legislature and the legislature reelected Douglas to the senate.

When Lincoln lost his senate race in 1858, he thought his political career was over, but he insisted the fight for liberty would endure, saying, “The cause for civil liberties must not be surrendered at the end of one or even 100 defeats.”

In Lincoln’s case, there’d be just this one defeat. The 1860 presidential election is here, and Lincoln is going to shock the Republican party, and then the nation, by winning the party’s nomination, and then the presidency.

Lincoln had several well-established rivals for the 1860 Republican nomination. 

New York Governor William Seward, who we’ve been hearing about since episode 13 on Millard Fillmore, was a big one, but he was viewed as too radical on abolition for the party’s moderates. 

Ohio Governor Salmon Chase was a party titan, but his impressive pedigree was undermined by his complete lack of charisma.

Pennsylvania senator Simon Cameron and Missouri lawyer Edward Bates were the other major contenders, but both had once been know-nothing’s, and neither would ever be able to win the immigrant vote.

Which left Lincoln, and his clever convention strategy. As the convention approached, Lincoln – who, per the norm of the time, wouldn’t be on site – picked his floor managers wisely and embraced a strategy that had successfully nominated Presidents Polk and Pierce. Quote, “My name is new in the field, and I am not the first choice of a great many. Our policy, then, is to give no offense to others. Leave them in a mood to come to us if they shall be compelled to give up their first love.” 

To be fair, Lincoln was being modest. Lincoln finished second on the first ballot – 70 delegates behind Seward, and 50 ahead of anyone else – then closed the gap on the second ballot, and won on the third. It helped that he was popular in the Midwest – a region the Republicans needed to gain strength to win in 1860 – and his floor managers were no dummies. When they heard Seward was bringing in trainloads of supporters from New York to pack the convention hall with pro-Seward cheerleaders, they rushed their own trainloads of Lincoln supporters, printed duplicate tickets, and told their guys to arrive early so they could take all the seats. Seward’s loyalists were unable to enter the hall, and Lincoln enjoyed loud and vociferous support during every ballot.

Lincoln was back in Springfield, Illinois, when he heard the news. He told the assembled crowd, “Well, gentlemen, there is a little woman at our house who is probably more interested in this dispatch than I am.” – Mary Todd Lincoln had always predicted he’d one day be president and vigorously supported his career.

As Lincoln won the republican nomination, the Democratic convention collapsed over the issue of slavery. Stephen A Douglas – Lincoln’s recent rival for senate – was nominated by northern democrats, but the south rejected him as too hostile to slavery – which is CRAZY when you remember this is the guy who brought us the fugitive slave act of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854. Southern democrats stormed out of the convention and nominated John C Breckinridge instead.

With the Democrats split, Lincoln decided to just stay out of the way and let them implode. While Douglas vigorously campaigned across the country, Lincoln made just one public appearance, gave zero speeches, and simply encouraged Republican party unity. He complained of being bored during the campaign – imagine that.

On election day, Lincoln’s name wasn’t even allowed on the ballot in 10 southern states. Despite that, he still eked out a win thanks to overwhelming northern support. The final tally was 1.9 million votes for Lincoln, 1.4 million for Douglas, 850,000 for Breckinridge, and 590,000 for a third-party union candidate. If you add that up, Lincoln got about 40% of the vote, despite not being on the ballot in 10 states. Lincoln made a killing in the electoral college, where he won 180 electors and swept the north; Douglas, who finished 2nd in the popular vote, only won a single state, Missouri and its 12 electors; Breckinridge swept the deep south and won 72 electors; and the fourth unionist candidate won the upper south and 39 electors.

Lincoln had won.

But… the south wasn’t taking it too well.

Less than a week after the outcome was announced, South Carolina’s state legislature unanimously voted to hold a convention on secession. Eight days later, Georgia followed South Carolina’s lead. Within a month, every state in the lower south had taken steps toward secession. As inauguration day approached, seven states had already seceded, a new confederate government had been formed, and 400 loyal federal troops were trapped at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.

The Civil War is here. And it will be up to Lincoln to win it.


AND SO, on March 4, 1861, 52-year-old Abraham Lincoln, the former one-term Whig Congressman and first ever Republican president, snuck into Washington in the middle of the night, wrapped in a shawl and disguised as a female Pinkerton agent’s invalid brother. Most of the south had already seceded and the threat of assassination was real and credible. Once in D.C., when Lincoln placed his hand on the bible and was sworn in, he faced a challenge greater than any president has faced before or since. The very survival of the nation was at stake.

In lieu of the usual, “what’s going on in the world,” I want to give a quick recap on how we got here. On how the United States went from independence and 1776 to civil war.

The best place to start is the Northwest Ordinance of 1786(?). This was continental congress days, so after the revolution, but before the presidency even existed. The 13 former colonies had overlapping claims to the land west of the Appalachian mountains, and relations between the states were getting chippy over who got what land, so the continental congress decided if the states couldn’t play nicely, it would take the toy away. The lands north of the Ohio River were declared federal territory and slavery was banned there. The southern states voted against this restriction, of course, but in 1786, the north had more votes, so the south lost. 

And you get a sense they never got over that.

In 1804, Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana purchase from France, doubling the size of the United States, and in 1820, a chunk of it applied to join the union as the new state of Missouri. Southerners demanded Missouri be admitted as a slave state while northerners said no way Jose and, right here, less than 40 years after independence, some in the south threatened to secede if they didn’t get their way. Speaker of the House Henry Clay – who was a great hero of Lincoln’s - came up with a compromise – Missouri was admitted as a slave state, but any other states carved from the Louisiana territory north of the 36th 30 parallel would be free, which the south was ok with because, frankly, they weren’t sure the great plains were even survivable to human settlement.

This compromise held for nearly 30 years.

In 1845, President John Tyler annexed the Republic of Texas, and president James K Polk used the annexation to manufacture a war with Mexico and conquer the American southwest, which reopened the question of slavery – would all this newly won territory be free or slave? Once again, some in the south threatened to secede if they didn’t get their way. A much older Henry Clay came up with a new compromise, this time pushed through by Stephen Douglas – remember him? – which said the new land could vote for itself if it wanted to be free or slave – this is what those Lincoln Douglas debates were all about – including newly acquired land north of the old Missouri Compromise line. 

Aspects of this compromise were so unpopular that the old Whig party, which passed it, broke apart and died, and a new anti-slavery party – the Republican party – began to take shape.

It didn’t take long for southerners to begin clamoring for more. There was still a lot of old Louisiana territory land where slavery wasn’t allowed and they wanted to expand there. In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska act, which voided the old Missouri compromise and said the remaining Louisiana purchase land would organize into new territories that would vote for themselves if they’d be free or slave – just like the land taken from Mexico – granting a huge win to slaveholders

And a huge tragedy to the people of Kansas.

Border ruffians from Missouri flooded into Kansas as it was organizing into one of these new territories and installed a pro-slavery government through fraudulent elections. Presidents Pierce and Buchanan supported the fraudulent pro-slavery government in Kansas, resulting in the split of the Democratic party, as northerners and southerners decided their differences were greater than their commonalities. 

And that opening allowed the election of President Lincoln.

And then the south began to secede.

For months now, southern politicians and their partisan press had spread the lie that Lincoln was going to abolish slavery the moment he was elected. Further, they were convinced the slaves, once freed, would wage a race war upon southern whites and kill them all. John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where he hoped to spark a slave rebellion only fueled those fears. But that race war stuff was never going to happen. Shoot, Lincoln freeing the slaves wasn’t going to happen. Sure, Lincoln opposed slavery, but all he wanted to do was restore the Missouri compromise and prevent its spread to new federal territory. He had no plans to abolish it in states where it existed when he ran for office. But Lincoln’s words didn’t really matter anymore. The south had come to believe the lie. Southerners lived in an alternate reality political media landscape, and secession made sense as their only option for survival.

And if that sounds similar to the online political partisan echo chambers of today… Yeah. It’s kinda worrisome.

But I’m like 30 presidents away from modern times, so you’ll just have to sit on that thought for a while.

Let’s get back to March 4, 1861. Lincoln has been elected, seven southern states have finally made good on that oft-made threat to secede, four more will follow, and Lincoln has to find a way to save the union and win the war.

He’s going to do it in three ways, and I’m going to get into all three.

FIRST, Lincoln needs to win the PR battle. He needs the limit further secessions, rally the north behind the war, and win reelection so the war can be fought til it’s won.

SECOND, he needs to find generals who can win, and get rid of the guys who can’t. Which isn’t going to be easy when the guys who suck have political patrons who don’t want to see them go.

THIRD, saving the union won’t do much if slavery still exists to continue dividing the country on the other side of the war. It will take time, but Lincoln will come to realize abolition is the answer, and he’ll muster Congress’s support to make it happen.

So, let’s start with the PR battle. Yes, on the day Lincoln was inaugurated, seven states had already seceded, but it was an open question how many more would go. There were still eight slave states left in the union at that point, including Virginia and Maryland, which – look at a map – surround Washington D.C.. Lose both of them, and the game’s over before it’s begun.

If Lincoln was going to have any hope of keeping these states in the union, let alone rallying the north behind the war, he could not be the aggressor. But that put him in a bit of a pickle. How could he force the southern states to stay if he couldn’t invade?

That’s where Fort Sumter comes in.

Fort Sumter, located in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, was one of the last federally held forts in confederate territory. And it was running out of supplies. Most of Lincoln’s advisors urged him to evacuate the fort, saying it would be embarrassing if it fell, and arguing it couldn’t be defended anyway. But in Lincoln’s eyes, that was kind of the point. He announced the fort would not be surrendered and a ship full of supplies was sent its way.

And that’s when confederate forces played right into Lincoln’s hands.

On April 12, 1861, just barely a month after lincoln’s inauguration, confederate forces in South Carolina began firing their cannons at Fort Sumter. Two days later, the fort surrendered.

And then everything went into turbo mode.

The north was outraged at this act of southern aggression. This can’t stand. They’re insulting our honor! Of course we’ll fight to save the union! Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers and all across the north, men enlisted to answer the call.

But, while the shelling of Fort Sumter rallied many in the north to defend the union, the summoning of 75,000 volunteers pushed four of the slave states that were still in the union to secede. These states decided that, they were going to have to fight one way or another, and if they were going to have to fight, they’d rather fight with the confederacy. Three days after Fort Sumter fell, Virginia seceded, followed by Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

The four northern-most slave states hung in the balance – Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware. Without them, the north probably loses the war. And they were already being a pain in Lincoln’s ass. The U.S. army had 16,000 soldiers at the onset of war. And, contrary to what you may have heard about southerners in the army joining the confederacy, most of them stayed loyal to the union. 80% of the officer corps and almost the entire rank and file stuck to the union, but they were almost all deployed out in frontier forts on the Great Plains . There was hardly anybody in Washington D.C. to defend the capital, so the race was on to get those 75,000 initial volunteers down to D.C. before a confederate army could organize and take it.

And that’s when Maryland, which was very wishy washy on this whole “United States” idea, said, “You can’t move your men through Baltimore.”

Which is kind of ridiculous, because the northern rail lines to D.C. all ran through Baltimore. But Lincoln couldn’t afford to lose Maryland, so he said, fine, my men will get out of their trains outside Baltimore, march around it, and walk to D.C.

And then Maryland said, “Actually, we don’t want your soldiers anywhere in Maryland. Please find another way to D.C.”

Which. Well. Virginia already seceded. There was no other way to D.C.

At this point, Lincoln said, quote, “Union soldiers are neither birds to fly over Maryland nor moles to burrow under it.” So heck no, boss. We’ll respect Baltimore, but we’re coming through Maryland.

It took several terrifying months, but the union army reached D.C. before the confederates, and by making the confederates the aggressor, Lincoln was able to keep all four the border states in the union. On July 4, 1861, he rallied the words of the English Language to give an impassioned rationale for why the North had to fight the war.  

This war was, quote, “Essentially a people’s contest. On the side of the union, it is a struggle for maintaining ... (the) substance of government, whose leading object, is to elevate the condition of men-to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”

Now, I’m going to start talking about the generals in a moment, because this is about when the real fighting starts, but before I do, I want to wrap up this thread on how Lincoln won the war of words that was the PR war. And I want to stress, keeping north in the war was every bit as important as knocking the south out of it. If northern willingness to fight reaches zero, the war’s over, the Union loses.

Lincoln needed to keep that northern willingness to fight above zero, and he was going to have to walk some fine lines to do it, because the civil war is going to last four years, and it’s going to look hopelessly bad for the union for quite a bit of it.

One of Lincoln’s first big moves to keep the north behind the war came on Sept. 24, 1862, when he suspended the writ of habeas corpus for anyone, quote, “Guilty of any disloyal practice affording aid and comfort to rebels against the authority of the United States.” 

Basically, this meant if you supplied the rebels, supported the rebels, or potentially even spoke out in favor of the rebels, you could be imprisoned without a trial. Tough luck, freedom of speech.

Now, this isn’t as unconstitutional as it sounds. The constitution specifically says you can suspend the writ of habeas corpus when the suppression of rebellion requires it. But that didn’t make it any more popular in the north, especially when Lincoln didn’t initially explain or defend his decision. Yes, this act had a chilling effect on anti-war rhetoric, but the Republicans paid for it in the 1862 midterms and it raised serious questions about whether Lincoln could win reelection in 1864. If Lincoln lost reelection before the war was over, well, a democrat administration’s willingness to fight would likely be zero.

But Lincoln wasn’t blind to this threat, so he started looking for ways to make sure his supporters in the army – which wanted to win the war – could vote. Government clerks and soldiers were given furloughs to go come and cast their ballots, and the first ever mail-in ballots were deployed in 1864. 

Lincoln also started being much more vocal in the defense of his administration and the war effort. He wrote pamphlets, he wrote letters, and he gave speeches. On Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of a battlefield cemetery near Washington D.C., Lincoln gave one of the most powerful speeches of his presidency, clearly articulating why the war had to be fought and won. The Gettysberg address is short, so I’ll read it here in full.

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 cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our 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.

When the democrats nominated former union general George McClellan – a man we’ll learn more about in a bit – as their presidential candidate in Chicago on a platform calling for peace with the south, the Republicans dubbed the Democratic platform “The Chicago surrender.”

Everyone knew what 1864 was a referendum on. Peace or War. After hundreds of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands wounded, and billions of dollars spent, did the north have the heart to keep fighting? 

As poorly as the war had often gone, Lincoln was able to rally the nation behind him, handily winning reelection with 55% of the popular vote, 212-21 in the electoral college, making him the first president to win reelection since Andrew Jackson 32 years earlier. Yeah. That’s right. Nobody had won reelection in 32 years, so this was HUGE. Lincoln’s reelection was the final proof that he had won the PR war – the north’s willingness to fight would not be defeated.

But he did still have to destroy the confederate willingness or ability to fight. He still had to win the war. So let’s rewind a bit to those turbocharged days of April, 1861 after Fort Sumter had fallen, but before the first major battle had been fought.

When Lincoln needed to find a general who could win this war.


Ok, so, after Fort Sumter had fallen, but before the first major battle had been fought, Abraham Lincoln called the most respected and experienced man in the army to help him win the war – General Winfield Scott – Ol’ Fuss n Feathers!

That’s right, Scott, who we first met during the War of 1812, and who attained incredible fame during his audacious conquest of Mexico City during the Mexican-American war, was still around and kicking. But, at 74 years old, he was nowhere near young enough to lead this war.

Lincoln had reached out to ask him, who should he put in charge of the Union Armies?

And that’s when Scott thought back on one of his favorite subordinates from those campaigns in Mexico: Robert E. Lee.

Make the offer, Lincoln said.

So an offer was made.

But Lee said no. Lee was a Virginian, and Virginia had just seceded, so he’d stick with his state.

But, I want to highlight here, Winfield Scott was also a Virginian. And he stayed loyal to the union. So, it’s not like Lee didn’t have a choice in the matter.

But that was small consolation to Lincoln, who had to find another general.

Lincoln landed on General Irvin McDowell, a 23-year army veteran who had served in Mexico. 

By early July, a union army of fresh volunteers had assembled in Washington D.C., and Congress was eager to see it used. Few Americans had ever seen an army this big, and how organized could those confederates be? This would be a cakewalk. Plus, maintaining an army is expensive. Let’s win this war quick so we can send everyone home.

McDowell didn’t feel his army was ready – because, remember, these people had all just signed up a few months earlier. But he wasn’t really given much choice in the matter. Congress wanted him to attack, and so he had to attack.

On July 21, 1861, McDowell’s army met the confederate army at the town of Manassas in the first battle of Bull Run. More than a few overconfident senators and civilians traveled along with picnic blankets to watch what they were confident would be a victory. What they saw instead was a disaster. The battle began well enough for the north, but the timely arrival of confederate reinforcements and the lack of training among northern soldiers turned an almost victory into terrible defeat. The army was sent feeling back to D.C., and Lincoln replaced General McDowell with General George McClellan – that’s right, the same George McClellan who will run for president as a Democrat against Lincoln in 1864.

And thus began a procession of seven different generals who would attempt to lead the army of Virginia to victory over the next four years.

Which is ridiculous.

And the problem kind of boiled down to flaws in 1860’s American military thought.

At the start of the war, Lincoln went to the library and got a bunch of books on military history and studied them. He knew he wasn’t an expert, so he wasn’t going to micro manage his generals, but he would say to them, “hey guys, I don’t want to be a pest but, maybe, just maybe, we should destroy enemy army?”

Which might sound like an obvious thing to do, but his generals weren’t doing it! Because, in their eyes, destroying the enemy army was not how you won a war.

The most influential book on American military thought at this time was Elements of Military Art and Science, by Henry Halleck. Henry Halleck spent most of the war as the Union’s commander in chief overseeing all its generals and the big-picture union war strategy. In Elements of Military Art and Science, Halleck wrote that wars could and should be won purely through the strategic capturing and holding of land. In his view, the ideal strategist didn’t fight any battles at all, they just maneuvered their enemy into defeat, which is kind of like trying to play chess but saying you’re not allowed to capture any enemy pieces. Sure, Maneuver is part of war. But it’s not all of war.

But it was to Halleck, and many of the generals on both sides of this conflict.

Which made for a lot of bad generalship. Are you ready? I’m going to run you through seven generals in four years in 30 seconds. McDowell was replaced by McLellan after the union defeat at Bull Run, and then McLellan was replaced by Pope after the failed peninsular campaign, And then Pope was replaced by round 2 of McLellan after Pope lost the second battle of Bull run, and then McLellan was replaced by Burnside after McLellan won the battle of Antietam, but allowed Lee’s army to escape what should have been a war-ending victory, and then Burnside was replaced by Hooker after Burnside lost the battle of Fredericksburg, and then Hooker was replaced by Meade after Hooker lost the battle of Chancellorsville, and then Meade was replaced by Grant after Meade won the battle of Gettysburg, but failed to follow up by taking the fight to Lee.

And then Grant won the war.

We’ll get more into Grant when we get to our episode on President Grant, which is going to be awesome, but, in short, he won because he thought the purpose of war was destroying the enemy army. That’s right. Grant had already captured several confederate armies during his campaigns out west. When Lincoln put Grant in charge of the East, he finally found a general who could fight.

The final campaign of the war was a brutal slog, but, with Lincoln’s support, Grant never wavered. Where other generals might throw a punch and say, “Ow, that kind of hurt my knuckle. I’m going to stop punching now.” Grant kept punching until the fight was over.

On April 2, 1865, Grant captured the confederate capital of Richmond. A week later, he accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. But between those two dates, Lincoln traveled down to the captured confederate capital with one of his sons, Tad, and walked its streets. When the freed slaves saw him and recognized him, they rushed to greet him. They all wanted to shake the hand of the man who had set them free.

Which brings me to the third metaphorical battlefield of the Civil War  – emancipation.

Because, it wasn’t easy, but if Lincoln hadn’t freed those slaves, then the whole damn war would have been for nothing.

So, one last time, let’s turn back the dial to the early days of the war, when the south had just seceded because it was convinced Lincoln was going to free all the slaves, and when Lincoln was insisting there was no way he was going to do that.

One of my favorite things about Lincoln was the way he allowed his thoughts and opinions to grow and evolve over the course of his life. From a young age, Lincoln had been anti-slavery because his father had been anti-slavery, but that didn’t mean Lincoln was necessarily an abolitionist. Shoot, during the Lincoln Douglas debates, he said he did not favor “Social or political equality” for African Americans. As late as that date, 1858, he was one of the many northerners who didn’t want slavery to expand, but who probably still thought whites were a superior race. He believed African Americans had the right to, quote, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which meant no slavery, but that didn’t mean he believed in full equality – yet.

At the start of the war, Lincoln didn’t want to touch slavery, because, of all of his balancing acts, this was the highest tight rope. If he moved too fast on slavery, he would push the slave-holding border states, including all-important Maryland – into confederate arms. But if he moved too slow on slavery, he would lose the support of his own party, where the abolitionist wing was increasingly clamoring for the end of slavery altogether.

Over the course of four years, Lincoln, incredibly, pleased both side at the critical times necessary to keep the border states in, his party loyal, and eventually end slavery for good.

But there were landmines. The first of which came from the army, where abolitionist generals got a bit ahead of themselves on the freeing the slaves front. General John C. Fremont, the 1856 Republican presidential candidate who was now a general responsible for winning the war in the west, issued a proclamation in the opening days of the war saying all rebel slaves were to be emancipated, which – remember Lincoln’s balancing act – freaked out Maryland and Kentucky – two slave states that were still in the union, but thinking about quitting it. The abolitionist wing of the Republican party loved this proclamation, but Lincoln was forced to countermand it to prevent the Maryland and Kentucky from fleeing the union. He also pointed out that if generals started exerting political power with edits like this, dictatorship wouldn’t be far off, and so the north generally lined up behind Lincoln, but man, he was not happy with Fremont after that.

But appeasing the border states didn’t mean giving up on his campaign promises. Lincoln had run on a platform of ending the spread of slavery to federal territories, so, in June 1862, he signed a law outlawing slavery there, basically totally ignoring the Dredd Scott supreme court case, which had said the government couldn’t do that.

Which also raises the question of, when can the supreme court be ignored, but I’ll just leave that thought for you to chew on.

1862 was also the year Lincoln started giving emancipation more consideration. And, once again, the border states were a factor, but this time they were a factor in favor of emancipation. There were two reasons. First, as long as slavery existed in the border states, they might bolt for the confederacy. And second, Europe. The people of Europe were very anti-slavery, but they were also very economically dependent on southern cotton, which they weren’t getting because the north had blockaded southern ports at the start of the war. The sooner Lincoln could clearly make this a war between slave states and free states, the sooner he could feel confident Europe wouldn’t intercede on the south’s behalf.

So, on March 6, 1862, Lincoln urged congress to pass a bill allowing the federal government to pay any state or, the district of Columbia, for the emancipation of their slaves. Which was huge! No president had ever supported a proposal that might end slavery anywhere, and here was Lincoln, getting such a proposal passed into law! Buuuuut. None of the border states took the feds up on the offer. Only Washington D.C. emancipated its slaves on April 16.

So Lincoln started thinking bigger.

He started thinking, maybe it’s time to emancipate everybody. 

In June, 1862, Lincoln started working on the emancipation proclamation – the document that would end slavery in all rebel states. He spent months developing the logic of the document. Whenever abolitionists would visit, he argued with them and made the case for keeping slavery, which forced them to give him compelling arguments he could later use on why it should be abolished. On July 22, he presented the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, where his Secretary of State William Seward raised one valid concern. If he issued it at the wrong time, it might be perceived by Europe and the south as an act of desperation – as Lincoln trying to inspire a slave revolt in the south because he knew he couldn’t win on the battlefield. Lincoln needed to wait until after a great union victory before revealing it.

Luckily, he didn’t have to wait long.

On Sept. 17, 1862, Lincoln’s second general, George McLellan, defeated Lee in the battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history. This was the battle that disappointed Lincoln because, while McLellan won the field, he hadn’t destroyed Lee’s army, so the war continued. but, as far as the needs of the emancipation proclamation went, this would be enough. Five days later, Lincoln issues the emancipation proclamation, announcing all slaves in rebel-held territory would be freed on January 1, 1863, if the south refused to surrender. 3.5 million people would be freed.

Theoretically, at least.

Because, sure, Lincoln may have said all those slaves in the south were free, but, until the union army could get to them, they were still slaves.

The emancipation proclamation was a huge deal in the north. The abolitionists loved it. They held rallies and wrote glowing newspaper editorials. But the north wasn’t all abolitionists. You still had 4 slave states in the union – how do you think they felt? And what about the army – the Democrats in the army became borderline insurrectionary.

But, as it turned out, Lincoln’s delayed announcement was the right move. The announcement may have gotten the union boiling, but it didn’t boil over. On January 1, 1863, the emancipation proclamation went into effect, and Lincoln expanded on it by finally allowing the recruitment of African Americans into the army and giving up on an idea he’d long had of resettling African Americans to Africa. From this point on, Lincoln would look for ways to integrate the freedmen in American society.

In 1864, Lincoln took his final steps toward ending slavery in the union for good. As president, he had felt confident in his powers to end slavery in rebel territory. But to do so nationally, he needed a constitutional amendment. But this wouldn’t be easy. When Lincoln won reelection in 1864, the confederacy realized its goose was cooked. So it sent peace delegates north to try and get the most favorable terms it could – you know, like maybe preventing an amendment against slavery. Lincoln knew that if the war-weary north was told it could have peace now if it didn’t pass the amendment, it might never get passed. So he didn’t tell anyone the peace commissioners had been sent. But that’s not all he did. In addition to keeping the peace delegates secret, he ordered his cabinet to grease as many palms as necessary to secure the amendments passage. Honest Abe decided that, at least this once, maybe honorable ends could justify dishonest means. 

On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th amendment by the barest of margins. It was ratified later that year. The 13th amendment ended slavery by giving citizenship to anyone born on American soil. A couple of those border states had finally bowed to the will of history and ended slavery earlier in 1865, but Delaware and Kentucky didn’t abolish it until the amendment forced them to.

For nearly 100 years, slavery had been the one issue above all others that divided Americans and gave lie to the creed that all men were created equal. Finally, it was over.

On April 11, 1865, less than a week after Lincoln’s trip to a captured Richmond, he gave a speech in Washington D.C. where he came out in favor of African American suffrage for, quote “The very intelligent and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.” Which isn’t universal suffrage, but I have to say, looking at the trajectory of Lincoln’s thoughts on African Americans, I think this was the first step to taking the country there.

What Lincoln didn’t know was a theater actor named John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd that day. And when Booth heard Lincoln come out in support of African American suffrage, he lost it. Booth had already been plotting to kidnap Lincoln with a ring of conspirators. Now, he was convinced, Lincoln must die. 

Three days later, Booth entered Lincoln’s box at Ford Theater and shot the great emancipator in the back of the head. Lincoln was carried to a house across the street and placed in a bed that was too short for his long body. He died at 7:22 the next morning. He was 56 years old.

Lincoln had no chance for last words. But, as he died, his secretary of War Edwin Stanton offered his own, saying of Lincoln, quote, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

And thus passed perhaps the greatest of all our presidents. Shot dead by an assassin, he the first American president to meet that fate. He wouldn’t be the last.

Most of that story, you probably knew the broad strokes of. You knew Lincoln won the war, freed the slaves, and was killed at Ford Theater. But, the crazy thing is, as busy as he was with all of that, he did so much more. Two new states were admitted during Lincoln’s administration – West Virginia, which split off from confederate Virginia to stay in the union in 1863, and Nevada, which became a state in 1864. Lincoln also signed the homestead act, which opened the millions of acres of western land to cheap and easy settlement; he signed the Morrill Act, which enabled the creation of 69 land grant colleges, like Cornell, Ohio State, and my alma mater, Texas A&M, which totally should have gotten into the 2020 college football playoffs ahead of Ohio State, but I’m not bitter about it; Lincoln signed bills supporting the creation of the first national railroad, the first revenue tax, and basically the first non-gold backed U.S. dollar.

He was an incredibly accomplished president.

Internationally, the world was changing, too.

Have you ever ridden the tube in London? The first section of the London underground was opened in 1863, during the American civil war. Victor Hugo published Les Mis in 1862, and the second Mexican Empire was founded as a French puppet state with a European monarch at its head in 1864. Under french emperor Luis Napoleon’s direction, it offered limited support to the confederacy during the Civil War.

Ok, so, what was it about Lincoln that allowed him to be such a successful president? How had he steered the country through its greatest crisis, despite entering the white house as one of our least experienced presidents ever?

I think the answer is humility and his sense of humor.

Lincoln is famous for the humorous stories and jokes he would tell to diffuse tense situations, which, you can imagine, there were many of during the war. Lincoln had built a cabinet of very talented but disagreeable personalities. Many of the men had their own presidential ambitions, and the whole crew could have easily turned into a viper’s nest. But Lincoln used his humor to effectively disarm them. One example of this is when he was told his secretary of war had called him a fool. “Did Stanton call me a fool?” Lincoln asked in mock astonishment, “Yes,” he was reassured, “Well, I had better go over and see Stanton about this. Stanton is usually right.” When a leader is willing to humble themselves through humor, it reveals a confidence that puts others at ease, bridges divides, and refocuses everyone’s attention on what’s really important – the task at hand. 

Before I get to the ending music today, I need to tell you about a little mistake I made. In our previous episode, you heard me interview historian Thomas Balcerski for a deeper dive on president James Buchanan. That interview came about when Tom reached out to me a few months back and said, if I wanted to interview him when I reached Buchanan, he’d be game. So I did and I thought it was great fun, and it sounds like you did, too. So I decided I’d try to interview a historian or two again about Abraham Lincoln. But, well, I wasn’t sure how hard these historians would be to get a hold of if I was the one reaching out to them… so I emailed six. 

Five responded.

All five said yes.

So. Following this episode, you’ll get FIVE interviews with FIVE historians on different aspects of Lincoln’s life, legacy, and administration. The only historian I didn’t hear back from was Doris Kearns Goodwin, so if you want to hear Doris on this show, drop her a line and ask her to get back to me.

After the five historian interviews, because I’m a real glutton for punishment, you’ll get a bonus episode on confederate president Jefferson Davis, where we’ll look at the southern perspective of the Civil War and take a good hard look at the “Lost Cause” myth of the civil war – which is basically the history of the war that former confederates told to make themselves feel better in the years after their defeat, and which became surprisingly pervasive in how modern Americans remember the war.

So, yeah. You will get seven episodes of Abridged Presidential History this month. This probably won’t ever happen again, because that would bury me, but it will happen this month, because you guys are awesome and you deserve it. Thank you for your support.

Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.

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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.

The primary biography for today’s episode was Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald.

In our next episode, I’ll talk to the first of those historians - Lewis Majur – for a deeper dive on emancipation and Lincoln’s hopes for reconstruction.

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.