Editor’s Note: A debate on the cause or causes of the Civil War was held on January 10, 2007 as part of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable’s monthly meeting. It was an intercollegiate-style debate, i.e., two on the affirmative and two on the negative. The resolution debated was: Resolved: That the Institution of Slavery Was the Cause of the Civil War. The negative won, based on a vote of the attendees. Following the debate in that forum, John C. Fazio, the Roundtable President at the time of that debate, weighed in with the following.
The great debate was great. The negative won (i.e., slavery was not the cause of the war). The vote was 39 to 17. Whether this was a reflection of the cogency of the arguments or the persuasiveness of the debaters, I’m not sure. I think the result disturbed a few members, maybe more than a few, because the conventional wisdom that slavery caused the war is very strongly believed by most scholars, students, enthusiasts, etc. Indeed, one member told me that he absented himself intentionally because he felt so strongly that slavery was the cause of the war that just listening to the negative on the issue would cause his blood pressure to go up to a dangerous level.
Anyway, I would like to throw in my two cents, even though nobody asked for it. Do I think slavery caused the war? Well, yes, but with a qualifier, which I’ll get to later. First let us nail slavery down.
Slavery was an issue that divided the states even in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Though the Constitution sanctioned it and this fact was clearly understood by all the states (some said they wouldn’t ratify the Constitution if it didn’t sanction slavery), the Founding Fathers appear to have contemplated its extinction by providing for a termination of the slave trade after 1807. Significantly, however, provisions for the return of fugitive slaves and for counting slaves for purposes of apportioning Congressional representatives (i.e., a slave equals 3/5 of a person) were written right into the highest law in the land and stayed there until the 13th Amendment made them moot. References to slaves and slavery, however, were made euphemistically, which is further evidence that most of the Founding Fathers viewed the institution as an evil, though perhaps a necessary one.
From 1787 right up to the eve of war, Senators and Congressmen never stopped debating the issue. When the debate reached crisis proportions, they compromised. The first major compromise, known as the Missouri Compromise, was made in 1820. It prohibited slavery north of a certain point, following the example of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, but permitted it in Missouri and the Arkansas Territory. This cooled things off for a while, but it wasn’t long before they were at each other’s throats again. The squabbling grew red hot on the issue of whether slavery would be permitted in the territories acquired from Mexico after the war of 1846-1847, so they compromised again. This was the Compromise of 1850.
Again, there was a breather, but again it was followed by more invective, more insults and more threats over everything and anything relating to the peculiar institution and particularly its extension or non-extension into the territories, including the Wilmot Proviso (1846), the Ostend Manifesto (Cuba – 1854), the Kansas-Nebraska Act (“Bleeding Kansas” – 1854), the Topeka Constitution (Kansas – 1855), the sack of Lawrence (Kansas – 1856), John Brown’s depredations at Pottawatomie Creek (Kansas – 1856), the Lecompton Constitution (Kansas – 1857), the Dred Scott decision (1857), John Brown’s depredations at Harper’s Ferry (1859), and the election of 1860. Rhetoric reached such a fever’s pitch that on May 22, 1856, Rep. Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina took a cane and beat Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner with it, mercilessly, in the Senate Chamber, because of a speech by the latter opposing slavery in Kansas and insulting one of Brooks’ relatives.
O.K. So if the elected representatives of the people, or at least of some of the people, fought each other viciously over the issue of slavery for 73 years (1787 to 1860), which struggle culminated in the rupture of the Union, a civil war, 620,000 dead, the end of slavery, the 13th Amendment and the assassination of the savior of the Union and the Great Emancipator, then what more needs to be said? What about that qualifier?
The qualifier is simply this: To say that slavery caused the war is a little bit like saying we work for money. It’s perfectly obvious, isn’t it? Or is it? Do we really work for money? Or do we work for the things that money will give us, namely power and comfort and sometimes independence? If we could have power, comfort and independence from some means other than money, would we care about money? If one of us were the last person on earth and there was no one else to give us a product or service, would money have any meaning for us? When we are at death’s door, will money mean anything to us, or will we gladly give every last dime we have to be restored to good health? St. Paul said that the love of money is the root of all evil, and we do carry some sense of this into our daily pursuit of the stuff, which finds expression in such terms as “filthy lucre.”
Nevertheless, we pursue it because it will give us power and comfort and sometimes independence, which will improve our chances of survival, which, after all is said and done, in the final analysis, is what really motivates everybody all the time. In the same way, it was not slavery as such that caused the war, but slavery as the engine that drove the Southern economy, slavery as a means to ends for slaveholders and for non-slaveholders who benefited from the institution. What were the ends? Power and comfort and sometimes independence. So what, ultimately, caused the war? The love of power, comfort and independence. And what is that if it is not economics? About this time I can almost hear the cries of “Sophistry! What difference does it make if slavery was an end in itself or a means to an end? It’s still slavery and without it the war wouldn’t have been fought. If the Founding Fathers had prohibited it in the Constitution, there would have been no Civil War.” True. And if a fog hadn’t moved in at night to conceal Washington’s retreat from Brooklyn across the East River to Manhattan, in 1776, thereby saving his army and the revolution, there would have been no United States! The point is that the Founding Fathers didn’t prohibit slavery in the Constitution, but actually preserved and protected it, and that is the fact that we have to live with, not what might have been, but what was. So it isn’t sophistry.
The fact is that slavery was guaranteed by the Constitution in the states where it already existed. Northern fire-eaters and abolitionists could rail against it as much as they wanted to, but those who knew anything about the Constitution knew that the institution was untouchable in those states. Lincoln himself said, on the stump and in his First Inaugural, that he had no intention of interfering with the institution in those states where it already existed because, he said, he did not believe that he had the Constitutional authority to do so. And he was quite right about that; he didn’t. Even his Emancipation Proclamation was on shaky legal ground, because it was passed as a war measure (Taney was still on the bench!), which is why he pushed so hard for the 13th Amendment.
So why did the South secede? Because Lincoln’s record was perfectly clear to Southern leadership, even if it wasn’t quite so clear to abolitionists and members of his own party and even if it isn’t quite so clear to some students of the war today. Southern leadership knew that a Republican administration meant that they would no longer control things in Washington as they had done under Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan. Indeed, virtually every President of the United States from Jackson through Buchanan was a Southerner or a Southern sympathizer and therefore catered to Southern interests. Southern leadership knew that though Lincoln would not, because he could not, disturb slavery where it existed, he would draw the line on its extension into the territories. The territories would then be settled by free, white labor, and the entire country, from sea to sea and from Canada to Mexico, would be free, except for the southeast, which would be slave. They foresaw increasing isolation and a pariah status in such a Union, difficulty in getting their runaway slaves back, and the possibility, always, of slave insurrections such as had occurred in Santo Domingo, where, between 1791 and 1804, a series of insurrections had resulted in the annihilation of virtually the entire white population and frightful atrocities. So they left because they felt that their chances of survival were better out of the Union than in it.
So much for the South. What about the North?
Approximately what percentage of Northerners were opposed to slavery for ideological reasons that had nothing to do with economics, i.e., abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Wendell Phillips, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry David Thoreau, John Greenleaf Whittier, Susan B. Anthony, et al., and their supporters, and how many felt, as one Army of the Potomac officer put it: “We’ll take care of the secessionists first and worry about the niggers later”? I maintain that the latter were in the majority at least for most of the war. The evidence is strong that abolitionists were not particularly popular in the North and were positively anathema in the South. They were frequently spat upon, shouted down and otherwise abused when speaking to Northern audiences. They didn’t even try to speak to Southern audiences: They would have been torn limb from limb.
Anti-slavery newspapers were sometimes burned or trashed, as in Cincinnati. In New York, even as late as July 1863, i.e., seven months after the Emancipation Proclamation, there were major riots that targeted blacks, even to torching a black orphanage, which of course resulted in the murder of many of them, including the orphans. Even Lincoln, though in my judgment there is no question that he loathed slavery, had to tread lightly on the subject and frequently make statements in his addresses that were politically expedient but inconsistent with abolitionist sentiment. He countermanded General Fremont’s and General Hunter’s orders liberating the slaves in their departments because he was advised that if he did not do so, many soldiers in his armies would lay down their arms and refuse to fight because they said they were not fighting to free slaves, but to save the Union.
David Wilmot, author of the famous Proviso that would have prohibited slavery in the territories acquired from Mexico (which did not pass), announced that he had no higher motive than to open the territories for settlement by free, white labor and that he had no sympathy for slaves. Staring secession in the face, the Northern-dominated Congress caved. On February 28, 1861, the House approved the Corwin Amendment to the Constitution, which, incredibly, prohibited any future amendment of the Constitution that would abolish or interfere with slavery in the states where it existed, which is to say that it guaranteed slavery in those states in perpetuity! On March 2, 1861, the Senate approved it. It is to be noted that 45 Republicans accepted this concession because they knew that it was acceptable to Lincoln.
The Northern fire-eaters and the Southern fire-eaters hated each other’s guts because they were polarized by economics. The Northerners wanted, inter alia, their protective tariffs, a northern route for the Pacific railroad, money for internal improvements and settlement of the territories by free, white labor, all of which enhanced them economically. The Southerners wanted their bucolic fairyland, their Camelot, with lots of money from domestic and foreign sales of King Cotton, a lifestyle that Margaret Mitchell said went with the wind and is to be found now only in books. The Northern industrialists and merchants hated the planter aristocracy more than they loved slaves. They, for the most part –with some notable exceptions, like Thad Stevens– opposed slavery not so much out of any great compassion for “the negro,” but because it made the planters rich, powerful and arrogant. And, of course, the planters returned the sentiment with respect to Northern industrialists and merchants who became rich, powerful and arrogant by what the Southerners referred to as “the smell of trade.”
So what’s the bottom line?
The bottom line is that it is not true to say that slavery was the cause of the war if by so saying we mean that there was a great outpouring of compassion in the Northern states for the slaves; that a majority of Northerners, therefore, elected Lincoln to rid the country of the pestilential, odious and peculiar institution; that after the fashion of a white knight, he did so, at terrible cost, but a cost deemed by Northerners worth paying because they despised slavery so much. False. That is simply false.
What is true is that the two regions were very different from the beginning; that their differences – social, cultural, economic and political – became greater with time rather than less; that slavery was the engine that drove the Southern agricultural economy with the sanction of the Constitution; that slaveholders had hundreds of millions of dollars invested in their slaves and that to free them would have been economically ruinous to them, besides the enormous social disruption that this would have caused (What were they going to do with 4,000,000 ex-slaves? Annihilation? This was the term used by Jefferson Davis in his first commentary on the Emancipation Proclamation.); that some in the South opposed slavery on ideological grounds, but they were a tiny minority; that some in the North opposed slavery on ideological grounds, but they were also a minority, albeit a somewhat bigger minority than the one in the South; that most Northerners were indifferent to slaves and slavery; and that many Northerners were downright hostile to slaves and had no wish whatsoever to free them, again, most probably for economic reasons, i.e., job competition. (Virulent racism persists in the North in our own time. Martin Luther King said that he saw more race hatred in Cicero, Illinois, than he ever saw anywhere in the South.)
Most Northerners supported their government because it was a democratically elected government that was fighting, first and foremost, as Lincoln himself said in his famous letter to Horace Greeley, to save the Union. The abolition of slavery went with the territory. It went along for the ride, as it were, when Lincoln deemed it necessary to emancipate slaves in states and parts of states that were in rebellion in order to keep foreign powers from intervening in the war (which was imminent and he knew it) and in order to deplete Southern manpower and (the opposite side of the same coin) increase Northern manpower, especially fighting men in his armies.
Am I making excuses for the South?
Not at all. Rupturing the Union is a terrible thing unless done for a very good reason. I submit that the preservation of the institution of slavery is not a good reason, and the fact that it was attempted for economic or socioeconomic reasons does not make it a better reason. Lincoln offered slaveholders compensated emancipation. Stupidly (there is no other word for it), they rejected the offer. Even the border states – even Delaware, which had fewer than 1800 slaves – rejected it. He therefore had no choice but to wage war, a war that was thrust upon him. The war, therefore, was the quintessential American tragedy, occasioned, like Greek tragedy, by a flaw in our character. Grant said it best: All our troubles began with Mexico…Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions.
Let the debate continue. ____________________________________________
Of course, you say, the Constitution caused the Civil War. By recognizing and institutionalizing slavery, the war was inevitable. But this is not the only reason that the Constitution caused the Civil War. There was another, perhaps more important, reason that the founding fathers caused our particular sectional strife. This reason is the electoral college.
The presidency is key to analyzing the impact of the Constitution on the war. The founding fathers envisioned voters electing the best candidates as president and vice president. A quick look at the first few elections reveals their intent. The first administration had George Washington as President and John Adams as Vice President. When Adams was elected President, Thomas Jefferson served as Vice President, even though he was from the rival party. The framers would indeed be shocked to see how we elect our presidents today.
The presidency changed with Andrew Jackson. He portrayed himself as the people’s representative, appealing directly to them for support. The president became the symbolic center of the federal government, as it is still seen today. As a result, the presidency became the focus of partisanship and political parties placed much emphasis on controlling the office. Thus, the method of choosing a president gained great importance. It is here that the framers choice of the electoral college becomes vital.
Concerned about the effect of popular pressure upon the executive, the founding fathers chose to insulate the president from the people. Unfortunately, this played a direct role in the coming of the Civil War. In the first handful of presidential elections, votes were cast not for the presidential candidates, but for slates of party electors pledged to a candidate. In the nineteenth century, however, parties abandoned choosing presidential electors by congressional district and replaced it with granting all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who won the popular vote. This system permitted bloc voting by state.
Two consequences resulted from bloc voting. First was to amplify the importance of the most populous states, which, of course, controlled the most electoral votes. The second was greater in impact and caused the Civil War. It permitted sectional parties. With support confined to the North, the Republican party could not have won a presidential contest based on the popular vote. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln won with less than forty percent of the vote. However, since his support was concentrated in the North, with its majority of electoral votes, he won. As the recipient of all the electoral votes of each state he won, Lincoln swept ninety-eight percent of the North’s electoral votes while winning only fifty-four percent of the vote in these states. The Republican party could only win under an approach where the winner took all of a state’s electoral votes.
The rise of the sectional Republican party led to the war. When national politics were controlled by two truly national parties, it was nearly impossible for the political gridlock that led to the war to occur. With a constituency drawn from both North and South, a party was forced into compromise and sectional accord. Even when the slavery issue rose to the fore, the two-party system was able to deflect its impact. The Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act are examples of the system at work.
For the system to work properly, though, both parties must be accepted as legitimate. A truly sectional party, however, finds it difficult to gain such legitimacy. Since its support is limited to a certain geographic area or particular issue, the opposition finds it difficult to treat it as a legitimate contender. The Free Soil and Know Nothing parties are proof of this. In 1860, Southerners refused to give the Republican party this standing. From their perspective, Lincoln’s election was more than one party assuming power from another, a temporary setback that could be overturned in the next election. As a party whose sole purpose was the elimination of slavery, in the South’s eyes, the Republican success was a turning point. Slavery would be ended, the Southern way of life destroyed. Returning a Democrat to power in 1864 could not put back into place that which had been destroyed. This was different than, say, repealing a tariff that had been put in place. The nation could not be returned to the status quo that stood prior to 1860. Faced with such a situation, the choice for Southerners was clear. If the South remained in the Union, it faced the end of its way of life. To save the society they had built, Southerners could not remain in the Union. Secession seemed the only way out.
It is no great leap to claim that the creation of the Republican party, a truly sectional party in its first years, was the crucial link in the chain of events leading to the Civil War. The success of the party was a direct outcome of the electoral college. Since this system allowed a candidate who won a state to receive all of its electoral votes, it permitted the scenario that resulted in Lincoln’s victory. The founding fathers were truly visionaries. They created a system that has not only survived, but adapted well for over two hundred years. They were not perfect, however. They could not foresee every possibility or consequence of their creation. Nor should they be expected to. The conclusion is clear, though, the Constitution caused the Civil War. ____________________________________________
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the fall of 2000.
They say when it rains, it pours. And just when the United States was locked in a deadly struggle with the Confederacy, just when the military picture was at its bleakest, just when Abraham Lincoln’s desk was piled highest, it looked very likely that Great Britain – the mightiest empire on the face of the Earth – would, for the third time in ninety years, wage war against us. Fortunately, it didn’t happen. A conflict spanning the Atlantic was averted, and the U.S.-British war of 1861 became the war that never was.
By the fall of 1861, the Confederacy looked like it had a real chance to succeed. There had been victories at Ft. Sumter, at Bull Run, Big Bethel, Carthage, Wilson’s Creek and Ball’s Bluff, and more were in the offing. But Confederate President Jefferson Davis knew that if his new nation was to be assured of survival, powerful friends across the seas would be invaluable. He dispatched two diplomats, James M. Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana, to be Confederate commissioners, or envoys. Mason and Slidell were to go to Britain and France, respectively. These were the military and economic superpowers of the day. Davis knew his history: French and Dutch help had been key to American success in the Revolution; now, perhaps, foreign assistance would help win Southern independence.
Mason and Slidell were originally to leave aboard the newly-refitted warship C.S.S. Nashville but, when the U.S. Navy got wind of the scheme and posted four warships to stop it, they left instead aboard a blockade runner and former privateer, the Gordon (also sometimes called the Theodora), on a $10,000 charter. They snuck out from Charleston harbor after 1 a.m. on October 12, 1861 under cover of a heavy downpour. Their mission was no secret, although when and how they’d leave Southern shores was supposed to be.
Five days later the Gordon put Mason and Slidell ashore at Cardenas, Cuba, and they took a train to Havana. The island of Cuba was at the time still part of the Spanish Empire, another European power remaining neutral in the Civil War but leaning a bit towards the Confederacy. In Havana, Mason and Slidell were wined and dined by the diplomatic community before transferring to a British mail steamer, the Trent, to continue their voyage to Europe.
However, patrolling off the Cuban coast was the steam sloop U.S.S. San Jacinto, commanded by Charles Wilkes. Wilkes had already made a name for himself as, according to historian Jay Monaghan, it was “a success partly marred by a [U.S. Navy] court-martial held after his return on charges [filed] by his disgruntled companions.”
When he learned of the presence of Mason and Slidell on Cuban soil, Wilkes met with his officers to discuss the possibility of seizing the two Confederate emissaries. His first officer, Lt. Donald M. Fairfax, advised against it, noting that Americans had fought the War of 1812 in part because the British (ironically enough) had done just what Wilkes was now proposing to do – stop a neutral ship and remove, at gunpoint, those he wished.
Fairfax didn’t change Wilkes’s mind, though. On his own authority and without orders, he decided to stop the Trent and capture her Confederate passengers. On November 7, 1861, Wilkes intercepted the unarmed Trent in the Old Bahamas Channel, 300 miles east of Havana. He hoisted the Stars and Stripes and twice fired warning shots over her bow, forcing her to halt.
By coincidence, the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was out of commission at the time of Mason and Slidell’s capture, and it was nearly two weeks before the Trent arrived in England, bringing news of the incident. The British government was furious when it learned, on November 28, the full story of the illegal seizure. Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, told his Cabinet, “You may stand for this, but [I’ll be] damned if I will!” The British monarch, Queen Victoria, shared Palmerston’s outrage. One report from the time about the reaction among the British public claimed, “I have never seen so intense a feeling of indignation in my life.” A senior American diplomat in London wrote that Mason and Slidell’s seizure would “do more for the Southerners than ten victories, for it touches John Bull’s honor, and the honor of his flag.” (John Bull was the symbol of Britain at the time, much as Uncle Sam was and is of the U.S.)
As one historian wrote, “Lincoln watched every word that might be used against him by his enemies at home, who suspected that he planned to turn loose the prisoners. At the same time he left an open passage for retreat with honor if popular sentiment were sufficiently to permit him to do so. Had he said definitely that he would hold the commissioners it would have amounted to an ultimatum to Her Majesty’s Government, and had he said definitely that he would return them he would have lost power at home. Only a few intimates noted Lincoln’s guarded words, his hope for the cooling influence of time. Most of the people raged at what they called his indecision. Later they called it masterly intuition.”
After some stalling, the President decided to find a peaceful way out of the Trent crisis. “One war at a time,” he is said to have remarked. In Cabinet meetings on Christmas Day and the day after, 1861, his administration adopted a face-saving compromise: Mason and Slidell would be released, but the U.S. would stand by its right to have arrested them in the first place. Seward briefed senior members of Congress, none of whom were delighted with the decision, but all of whom understood it.
The crisis was over. As historian Chester Hearn wrote, “The United States had lost face, but the Confederacy had lost her best opportunity for European intervention. During the balance of the war no other issue brought Great Britain so close to war.” The U.S. had also obeyed international law, much to its credit; virtually any objective observer would agree that Capt. Wilkes had acted illegally in seizing diplomatic envoys from a neutral ship bound for a neutral port.
The Trent incident and its peaceful resolution by no means ended the threat of foreign intervention in the war. Still, the risk of foreign intervention was never as great as it was immediately after the Trent incident. ____________________________________________
The cost of political greatness, it’s been said, is to be forced to campaign long after your death. That’s certainly true of George Washington, whose name, image and legacy were appropriated by the Confederacy. ____________________________________________
George Washington is rightly called the “Father of our Country.” Born on February 22, 1732, near Wakefield, Virginia, he was a planter, surveyor, soldier in the French and Indian War, a politician in Virginia’s House of Burgesses and member of the first and second Continental Congresses. A natural leader with extensive military training, he served as commander in chief of the Continental Army through eight hard years of war, sometimes holding his army together by sheer force of will. He rejected a crown, which many of his officers would gladly have given him. He presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and, of course, was the first president of the United States, from 1789 to 1797. He died in peaceful retirement at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799. More than any other individual, Washington was responsible for securing the independence of the United States, and for establishing a government that would ensure its survival and success. Its capital rightly bears his name.
It is not surprising, therefore, as civil war loomed on the horizon, that both North and South would claim Washington as their patron of democracy. After all, no one then stood higher in the public’s estimation. Historian Joseph J. Ellis wrote, “If there was a Mount Olympus in the new American republic, all the lesser gods were gathered farther down the slope” from Washington. As historian Anne Sarah Rubin noted: “Far and away the most often invoked icon of the Revolutionary War period was George Washington. Throughout the antebellum period he was beloved by Northerners and Southerners alike and by 1861 had come to symbolize all that was virtuous and heroic about the American Revolution.”
Abraham Lincoln invoked the first president as the storm clouds of war gathered. In his Cooper Union speech in New York City on February 27, 1860, Lincoln rejected Southern charges that the young Republican Party was merely a sectional party, something that Washington had warned against in his 1796 Farewell Address. Lincoln said: “Could Washington himself speak, would he cast the blame of sectionalism upon us, who sustain his policy, or upon you who repudiate it? We respect the warning of Washington, and we commend it to you, together with his example pointing to the right application of it.” Noting Washington’s strong commitment to the Union, Lincoln criticized those who made “invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.” Upon leaving Springfield, Ill., for the last time on February 11, 1861, the president-elect said, “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.”
Southerners, too, claimed Washington as their guiding spirit. A member of the Georgia delegation to the 1861 Confederate constitutional convention in Montgomery, Ala., even proposed that the new Southern nation be named the “Republic of Washington,” and many other Southern leaders invoked Washington’s name for political advantage.
Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the permanent president of the Confederate States of America on Washington’s birthday in 1861. In his inaugural address, Davis said, “On this the birthday of the man most identified with the establishment of American independence, and beneath the monument erected to commemorate his heroic virtues and those of his compatriots, we have assembled to usher into existence the permanent government of the Confederate States.” The Confederacy, he vowed, would “perpetuate the principles of our Revolutionary fathers. The day, the memory, and the purpose seem fitly associated….We are in arms to renew such sacrifices as our fathers made to the holy cause of constitutional liberty.” Although neither Davis nor Confederate General Robert E. Lee ever claimed the title for themselves, they were often called “second Washingtons.”
At first glance, it appears obvious that the Confederate States of America would seize upon the figure of Washington as a patriotic symbol, putting him on its great seal and holding him up as an icon of secession. He was a Virginian, after all, beloved throughout the country. He had owned slaves. He had led armies in rebellion against a remote, tyrannical power. Many Southerners believed that they were fighting a second American Revolution; some said that had Washington been alive in 1861, he would have supported the Confederacy.
A closer look, however, casts a dark shadow over that assertion.
Washington was firmly, indeed unshakably, for the Union. On June 8, 1783, just two years after his triumph at Yorktown, Washington sent a message to all the state governors, urging them to downplay local jealousies in order to strengthen the Union. He wrote:
[I]t is indispensable to the happiness of the individual states, that there should be lodged somewhere, a supreme power to regulate and govern the general concerns of the…republic, without which the Union cannot be of long duration. That there must be a faithful and pointed compliance on the part of every state, with the…proposals and demands of Congress, or the most fatal consequences will ensue; that whatever measures have a tendency to dissolve the Union, or contribute to violate or lessen the sovereign authority, ought to be considered as hostile to the liberty and independency of America, and the authors of them treated accordingly….[W]ithout an entire conformity to the spirit of the Union, we cannot exist as an independent power.
Three years later, with the need for a stronger federal government even more apparent, Washington wrote to future Chief Justice of the United States John Jay in August 1786, “I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation without having lodged somewhere a power, which will pervade the whole Union in as energetic a manner, as the authority of the state governments extends over the several states.”
In late 1786, the inhabitants of western Massachusetts took up arms against monetary policies imposed by their own elected government. Historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote that Washington “was outraged by the very idea of rebellion against a republican government…in the years that followed the winning of independence, as the power of Congress continued to wane, his great worry had been that the failure of the states to support the union would ‘destroy our national character, and render us as contemptible in the eyes of Europe as we have it in our power to be respectable.'” The difficulties the state and national governments faced in putting down Shays’ Rebellion highlighted the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and eventually led to the convening of the Constitutional Convention and the strengthening of the federal government.
After the Constitutional Convention had done its work and adjourned, Washington wrote in November 1787, “[T]here are characters who prefer disunion, or separate confederacies to the general government which is offered to them…but as nothing in my conception is more to be deprecated than disunion, or these separate confederacies, my voice, as far as it will extend, shall be offered in favor of [the Union].” Morgan wrote that once Washington was president, he “identified the national interest so closely and so personally with the new national government that he could scarcely recognize the validity of any kind of dissent…[He] had borne the brunt of a war that was needlessly prolonged because of the supineness of the central government. He had watched the nation approach the point of dissolution in the 1780s, a development that threatened everything he had fought for.” Washington wrote to the Irish patriot Sir Edward Newenham in 1788 that, under the new Constitution, the United States would be “nearer to perfection than any government hitherto instituted among men.” He agreed with Jefferson, who confided to him in 1794, “I can scarcely contemplate a more incalculable evil than the breaking of the union into two or more parts.”
As president, Washington was true to his principles. To put down the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 — the first major insurrection against the authority of the United States — he used military force, demanding that federal law be obeyed. The dissolution of the Union, he wrote at the time, would be “the most dreadful of all calamities.” He warned, “If the laws are to be trampled upon with impunity, and a minority (a small one too) is to dictate to the majority, there is an end put, at one stroke, to republican government.” Calling on the militias of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to stop the armed rebellion against a federal excise tax on distilled spirits, the president announced that the military’s first duty is “to combat and subdue all who may be found in arms in opposition to the national will and authority.”
Once the rebellion was almost bloodlessly suppressed, he wrote to his friend and Revolutionary leader Edmund Pendleton: “I hope, and believe, that the spirit of anarchy in the western counties of [Pennsylvania], to quell which the force of the Union was called for, is entirely subdued…the spirit with which the militia turned out, in support of the Constitution, and the laws of our country…does them immortal honor. [R]epublicanism is not the phantom of a deluded imagination: on the contrary…under no form of government will laws be better supported, liberty and property better secured, nor happiness be more effectually dispensed to mankind.” He also wrote in May 1797 to Revolutionary War general William Heath that Americans should be “indignant at every attempt [of those who] should presume to sow the seeds of distrust or disunion among ourselves.”
Washington would have denounced the view of many Confederate leaders that the Union was merely a temporary, convenient alliance between the states. He was never in any doubt that the Union was intended to be permanent, despite the Constitution’s silence on the point. In 1783 Washington wrote that the first thing “essential to the well being, I may even venture to say, to the existence of the United States as an independent power [is] an indissoluble Union of the states under one Federal head.” After the Whiskey Rebellion, he wrote of his satisfaction that “my fellow citizens understand the true principles of government and liberty [and appreciate] their inseparable union.” As new states and their citizens joined the Union, Washington said the nation should bind “those people to us by a chain which never can be broken.”
In his Farewell Address of September 1796, Washington wrote: “To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliances however strict between the parts can be an adequate substitute. They must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced…[the federal government] has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty…the Constitution which at any time exists, ’till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.” In the address, his last major statement to the nation, Washington expressed his hope that “Union and brotherly affection may be sacredly maintained.”
Given his strong support for the Union, it follows that George Washington was no zealot in defense of states’ rights; far from it. In 1777, during the Revolution, he was criticized by some members of the Continental Congress for permitting New Jersey citizens who had been forced to swear allegiance to the British Crown to expunge this by swearing allegiance, not to their state, but to the United States. After the Revolution he saw, under the weak Articles of Confederation that then guided the relationship between the states, the dangers of states’ preeminence over the federal government — as when New York, with impunity, negotiated a private treaty with the Indians to its own advantage.
In a July 1783 letter to historian and educator the Rev. William Gordon, Washington wrote:
It now rests with [Congress]…to make this country great, happy, and respectable; or to sink it into littleness; worse perhaps, into anarchy and confusion; for certain I am, that unless adequate powers are given to Congress for the general purposes of the Federal Union that we shall soon moulder into dust and become contemptible….We are known by no other character among nations than as the United States; Massachusetts or Virginia is no better defined, nor any more thought of by foreign powers than the County of Worcester in Massachusetts…or Glouster County in Virginia…yet these counties, with as much propriety might oppose themselves to the laws of the state in [which] they are, as an individual state can oppose itself to the Federal Government, by which it is, or ought to be bound. [When counties] come in contact with the general interests of the state, when superior considerations preponderate in favor of the whole, their voices should be heard no more; so it should be with individual states when compared to the Union….I think the blood and treasure which has been spent [in building the nation] has been lavished to little purpose, unless we can be better cemented; and that is not to be effected while so little attention is paid to the recommendations of the sovereign power.
Washington concluded, “[W]hen the band of Union gets once broken, every thing ruinous to our future prospects is to be apprehended; the best that can come of it, in my humble opinion, is that we shall sink into obscurity, unless our civil broils should keep us in remembrance and fill the page of history with the direful consequences of them.”
Following the Revolution and to the end of his days, in fact, Washington was concerned that disunion would make America the plaything of European powers. Given the diplomatic flirtations of Great Britain and France with the Confederacy, this was quite prescient. Washington wrote in 1783, “[T]he United States came into existence as a nation, and if their citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own…it is in their choice, and depends upon their conduct, whether they will be respectable and prosperous, or contemptible and miserable as a nation…[it would be an] ill-fated moment for relaxing the powers of the Union, annihilating the cement of the confederation, and exposing us to become the sport of European politics, which may play one state against another to prevent their growing importance, and to serve their own interested purposes.” He insisted, “It is only in our united character…that our independence is acknowledged, that our power can be regarded, and our credit supported among foreign nations.”
George Washington did not share the view of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and other leading Southerners that he was a citizen of his state first, and of the United States second. It was Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Robert E. Lee’s own father, who most famously eulogized Washington as “a citizen, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” This was part of a memorial resolution that Lee introduced not in the Virginia legislature, but in the U.S. House of Representatives. Virginia was not Washington’s “country.” He believed that love of country meant “giving every possible support and cement to the Union,” and wrote in 1796: “Citizens by birth or choice of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”
Washington’s last will and testament began with what historian Richard Norton Smith called “an unmistakable political statement.” Washington described himself as “a citizen of the United States, and lately President of the same.” Smith observed, “Not [as] ‘a citizen of Virginia,’ not as a Southerner or a Tidewater aristocrat, but as an American, Washington chose to round out his life with the creed to which he had devoted himself for forty years.” Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Joseph J. Ellis wrote that the “core of Washington’s vision” was the Union, and suggested that “[a] reincarnated Washington…would have gone with Lincoln and the Union in 1861.” Another Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, Garry Wills, agreed, “He was as ardent a proponent of union as President Lincoln would be, and he had in some measure foreseen that this would be the great trial of the republic.”
One states’ rights issue in particular bothered Washington. Even though he and his wife, Martha, owned and oversaw the work of more than 250 slaves at Mount Vernon, he was not an enthusiastic supporter of the “peculiar institution.” Historian Roger Bruns noted: “As he grew older, he became increasingly aware that it was immoral and unjust. Long before the Revolution, Washington had taken the unusual position of refusing to sell any of his slaves or to allow slave families to be separated.” Although at the beginning of the Revolution he opposed using black soldiers, he eventually worked with Congress to allow “free Negroes” to join the Continental Army and even introduced measures to permit enslaved blacks to serve in return for their freedom.
After the Revolution, Washington told an English friend, “I clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.” He said soberly that if the South were ever to try to divide the nation over the issue of slavery, he would “move and be of the northern” part. He wrote to his friend John Francis Mercer on September 9, 1786, “I never mean…to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees.” Ten years later, he wrote to Robert Morris, a major financier of the Revolution, “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see some plan adopted for the gradual abolition” of slavery. As president, Washington signed legislation enforcing the prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern Territory, and wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette that he considered it a wise measure.
Throughout his life, he was known as a benign slaveholder (although admittedly, to 21st-century eyes, that’s virtually an oxymoron). Washington, alone among the slaveholding framers of the Constitution, included provisions in his will for the freeing of his personal slaves, adding that, prior to their emancipation, Mount Vernon slaves should “be taught to read and write, and brought up to some useful occupation.” At the time, Virginia law prohibited teaching slaves to read.
“Deo Vindice” was the motto that appeared below the mounted figure of Washington on the Great Seal of the Confederacy: “God Vindicates.” Whether or not God vindicates the Confederacy is a question probably best left to theologians and other thinkers and philosophers. It is very clear, however, that had he lived to see it, Washington would not have supported the Confederacy. His principles were timeless, his commitment to the Union was absolute, his opposition to slavery had grown strong and his personality was such that he surely would never have been swayed by the secessionist hysteria of the early 1860s. No one worked harder or did more than George Washington to see that the United States would become — and remain — one nation, indivisible. ____________________________________________
One hundred and forty years ago, a man hailed as a modern Robinson Crusoe made a brief appearance in newspapers across the world and continues today to impact genealogists, historical societies and miscellaneous bloggers throughout the world-wide web. And he was, with all moral certainty, long dead.
Ten a.m. on March 31, 2015 marked the 150th Anniversary of the sudden conflagration that consumed the U.S. army transport steamer General Lyon in the storm-wracked Atlantic Ocean, sixty miles offshore from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Over 500 men, women and children either burned to death or were drowned as the ship drifted, engulfed in flames, toward the shore in near hurricane conditions with little hope of rescue. The USAT steamer General Sedgwick approached and managed to pick up 29 survivors, all men, losing its own first engineer (B. F. Skinner of Connecticut) to the sea in the rescue effort.
Amongst those lost in this voyage to safety from Wilmington NC to Fort Monroe VA and on to Washington DC and New York were:
Federal troops released on parole from rebel prison camps, most of them still debilitated by months and years of captivity – homeward bound at last to Ohio and Pennsylvania, to New York and Michigan, to Massachusetts, Vermont and other states.
Civilians from North and South Carolina – men and women with their children; men alone; women alone and with children, many set on board by their relatives to escape to “safety.” Huddled amongst the crowd, a handful of captured rebel soldiers and one hopeful deserter. The crew of the ship were civilians too.
Soldiers whose time of duty had expired and were released to go home. Two hundred and seven members of the 56th Illinois were on board – all but five died.
Rescue efforts ceased on April 1, 1865 as the ship burned down to the waterline and was left to drift ashore, if it did not sink first. And that introduces the subject of a cruel hoax – one that is kept alive today through the medium of the Internet, along with so much other misinformation. It involved one of the 56th Illinois dead – a man named Henson G Rains.
Rains was a corporal in Company K of the 56th Illinois and not much remains to us of his life whereas in death he lives on in popular mythology. Even his name is a small mystery for, although he’s carried as “Henson” on the Illinois military records, he’s “Henry” in the 1860 Federal Census and in the actual muster rolls in the National Archives. Then again, when his father applied for a dependent pension in 1883, he used the name “Henson” and so it appears in the National Archives veteran pension records. By either name, he would have been largely forgotten by the world beyond his own family if not for a very strange occurrence, ten years after the General Lyon was destroyed.
On May 14, 1875 the Chicago newspaper Inter Ocean published a letter from G. B. Raum of Harrisburg, Illinois. Raum revealed the astounding news that Henson G Rains, far from being dead these past ten years, had miraculously survived and had written to his father in Galena, Illinois from London, England pleading for assistance.
“Application has been made to the Secretary of War,” Raum reassured the readers, “to have our minister at London requested by cable to have Rains cared for and funds furnished him for his return home . . . to be restored to his friends.”
The letter went on to say that Rains, escaping the burning deck of the General Lyon and hurling himself into the sea, had clung to a wave-tossed cabin door along with a companion, Lieutenant Butler, but they were not rescued. Instead they drifted for four days until picked up by a schooner which deposited them on a desert island. Butler died but Rains lived on the island for ten years until March 1875 when he was taken aboard the Vengeance, a “British man-of-war,” and transported to a safe berth in Guy’s Hospital, London.
“The stories of Robinson Crusoe and the hero of ‘Foul Play’ are probably excelled in interest by the adventures of this gallant soldier . . . (who) . . . with an endurance scarcely to be credited, resisted death from cold, hunger, and thirst,” thundered Raum.
From that day until June 10, 1875, the story spread through newspapers in Illinois, New York, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, South Carolina and Pennsylvania. Like Rains, it crossed the Atlantic and showed up in Edinburgh, Scotland and Durham, England. Yet it appears not to have been published in New York and London.
The timing seemed curious. Rains’ “letter to his father” must have reached Galena almost exactly ten years after his family learned of his terrible fate. If only G. B. Raum, not a foolish or cruel man, had told us details of the letter and the envelope that contained it – did it have a British stamp and was the letter perhaps dated April 1st, 1875?
Brigadier General Green Berry Raum had once been the major of the 56th Illinois and was wounded when leading that regiment and the 10th Missouri in the charge up Missionary Ridge in the battles of Chattanooga. After noble and meritorious military service in the war, he opened a successful law practice in Chicago and went on to build the Cairo and Vincennes Railroad Company in Illinois, becoming its first president. He was elected to Congress as a Republican in 1867. Between 1876 and 1883 he was U.S. Commissioner of Internal Revenue and was Commissioner of Pensions from 1889 to 1893. One must surely deny that a man who was a brave soldier, a politician, taxman, bureaucrat and lawyer would knowingly be a willing participant in a falsehood.
For it was all a hoax, as reported in the National Republican newspaper of Washington D.C. on July 7, 1875. Having received “letters from persons in Illinois” (note the plurals), the Secretary of War had pursued the matter through the U.S. representative in London, General Schenck. On July 6, the Secretary in Washington received Schenck’s official report that “no such man as Henson Raines (sic) has been in Gray’s Hospital during the past ten years and it is believed the whole story is a hoax.” Furthermore, wrote the United States Minister in the U.K., “. . . there is no such British vessel as the Vengeance.”
One hopes that the Minister had in fact pursued his enquiries at Guy’s Hospital and the newspaper had misreported his reply; there was and is no such hospital as Gray’s in London.
In 1875 there actually did exist a British second-rate “line-of-battle” ship named HMS Vengeance. However, in 1861 it had been deemed unfit for sea-going service and became a “receiving ship,” moored safely in harbor and used to house new “recruits” to the Navy, often impressed men who found it more difficult to escape from a ship than from any land-based housing. This vessel did not sail and could by no means have sailed anywhere near a desert island in the Atlantic and survived the attempt.
Those other “letters from persons in Illinois” must have been the source for an additional detail in the National Republican. Rains’ island was inhabited by cannibals! Somehow, Minister Schenck refrained from pointing out the distinct lack of “desert islands” in the Atlantic, let alone one terrorized by flesh-eating natives.
But his determination of false report seems to have made no world-wide news impact whatsoever. There appears no letter from Green B. Raum commenting upon the horrible disappointment that must have been experienced by Rains’ family and friends.
In the end, we are left to contemplate a bereaved father in Galena, IL who may have received a letter that claimed to be from his long-dead son and that:
Likely was dated April 1, 1875 or received on that day,
Referred to a non-existent Lieutenant Butler (no such name is in the 56th Illinois or on any passenger list),
Spoke of rescue by a schooner, the captain of which callously abandoned two men instead of delivering them to safety,
Described a cannibal-inhabited desert island located between Wilmington NC and Europe,
Claimed a voyage on a non-existent ship,
Spoke of treatment in a hospital that had no record of such a sensational patient,
And was not sent directly, nor yet presented in person, to the U.S. minister in London.
It will never be known who perpetrated this hoax and against whom it was employed. Perhaps Henson’s father was the victim and approached Raum, a successful lawyer and formerly a commander of Henson’s regiment, for assistance in dealing with a complicated international transaction. Raum had power and influence in Washington, after all. Perhaps someone wished to damage Green B. Raum.
Whoever did it and for whatever reason it was done, the story appears today again and again across the Internet. Breathless enthusiasts add it, usually without critical thought, to their websites in tones of wonder and amazement. It even appears on the pages of more sober organizations, including the Washington Times in 2012 where it is described as “apocryphal” and “unverified” – when “verifiably false” would the accurate phrase.
The story of the General Lyon and the men, women and children who died so horribly on March 31 and April 1, 1865 is tragic. One hundred and fifty years ago, their voyage from imprisonment, destitution and danger in the South to the safe havens of the North came to a fiery and terrifying end. Henson G. Rains is one who lost his life that day and, as Green B. Raum ended his letter so long ago, “surely truth is stranger than fiction” and infinitely preferable.
Lincoln Memorial University must be in Illinois or Washington, D.C. or Kentucky, right? No, no, and no, Lincoln Memorial University is in one of the strongest of Confederate states, Tennessee.
Ah, but located where in Confederate state of Tennessee? Lincoln Memorial is in East Tennessee of course, and more specifically in the Cumberland Gap. The new $300 million dollar highway US 25E tunnel from Tennessee to Kentucky goes within a whisker of the campus of Lincoln Memorial University.
How did a college named after the leader of the enemy, Abraham Lincoln, get started in Tennessee? Several people were involved but the most recognizable to us Civil War buffs is Union General O.O. Howard. Howard remembered his commitment to fulfill Lincoln’s request in 1863 that after the war he build a great university in the gap for the people of the area.
The University received its charter from the State of Tennessee naturally on February 12, 1897. The college today (2019) prospers with about 4,700 students but Lincoln would be surprised to see his University of Illinois more than 10 times larger.
One of Lincoln’s biggest tactical errors in the Civil War was that he committed thousands of men and material to take and, more important, hold the Cumberland Gap. He thought you could not win the war without controlling the Gap.
At the beginning of the War, he sent telegram after telegram telling Kentucky commanding General William T. Sherman to take and occupy the Gap. Sherman asked field General George Thomas to do it. Thomas said he had green troops and no supplies to do the job.
After four months of inactivity, the Confederates made the first move. They marched 3,000 men into the Gap and dug in. Lincoln was furious. He made Sherman’s life so miserable that Sherman gave up his Kentucky command and went home to Ohio very depressed.
Lincoln thought he had a big break three months later when the 3,000 Confederate troops, for no apparent reason, pulled out of the Gap and returned to Knoxville. It was now a year into the War and with Sherman not blocking Lincoln’s fury, George Thomas had to act. He took 5,000 men into the Gap and dug in. At first, Thomas was surprised that the Confederates did not attack. However, after three weeks he understood why the Confederates had left. The enemy became food and supplies. The mountain roads were but twisting ruts, not roads that could support thousands of troops. After a heavy rain, supplies might not arrive for two weeks.
Thomas finally got the War Department to let his troops cover the flank of Buell’s invasion of Tennessee and marched his troops off to Nashville.
In the spring of 1863, Ambrose Burnside came through the Gap with his Ninth Corps (which included Cleveland units). He did not stop but proceeded to Knoxville. Yes, this same Ninth Corps that had such a hard time taking the bridge at Antietam Creek in 1862. This would prove to be the only large troop movement through the Cumberland Gap during the Civil War.
During the balance of the War, both Confederate and Union troops occupied the Cumberland Gap for short periods. At the end of the war in 1865, a few hundred colored Union troops occupied the clearly militarily worthless Gap. By then, Lincoln and the War Department had learned that new technologies, such as railroads and steam-powered ships, had made the Cumberland Gap useless.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from a chapter of Dale Thomas’s book, Lincoln’s Old Friends of Menard County, Illinois. After his failure to win the Whig nomination for Congress in 1843, Lincoln wrote to a political associate: “It is truly gratifying to me to learn that while the people of Sangamon [County] have cast me off, my old friends of Menard [County] who have known me longest and best of any, still retain their confidence in me.”1
On April 7, 1832, fife and drum announced the spring muster of militiamen around the region of New Salem. All white males from eighteen to forty-five, according to state law, had to assemble four times a year, but the regulation was often ignored in favor of a yearly muster. William G. Greene, twenty years old, stood in a casual formation with his cousins, Bennet Abell and Mentor Graham, along with Lincoln and the other men who were part of the Thirty-first Regiment of Illinois. A militiaman was supposed to “provide himself with a good musket or rifle with proper accoutrements.”2 But these citizen soldiers did not look like a military unit with “some sitting, some lying, some standing on one foot, some on both — every variety of weapon, the cornstalk, the umbrella and riding whip predominating.”3
Nine days later, Governor John Reynolds of Illinois called for mounted volunteers to reinforce federal troops opposing Black Hawk, chief of the Sauks and Foxes, who had led his braves across the Mississippi River, one hundred miles northwest of New Salem. Black Hawk, sixty-seven at the time, had violated an agreement to stay out of Illinois, but his initial purpose was planting corn until some local militiamen fired the first shots in what became known as the Black Hawk War. Most of the fighting would take place near the northern border of Illinois. If there had been a true emergency in the state, Reynolds could have called up the entire militia of one hundred and fifty thousand, but the Indians only numbered between four and five hundred braves.4
Volunteers to fight Black Hawk eventually totaled around nine thousand men, most of whom were motivated by an intense hatred of Native Americans. Less than twenty years earlier, the Territorial Government of Illinois had given a fifty dollar bounty for a “hostile” Indian’s scalp and only two dollars for a wolf’s pelt. “An antipathy since childhood,” wrote an Englishman traveling through Illinois, “they should not mind shooting an Indian than a wild cat or raccoon.”5
According to a biography written in 1863, Lincoln had a somber conversation with Greene after hearing of Reynolds’s request for volunteers.6 “I shall enlist,” he said, “Black Hawk is one of the most treacherous Indians there is, and I hope he will be shot.”
“Just like an Indian,” Greene said. “The only way to keep them in their place is to show them no quarter.”
“I don’t know about that,” Lincoln said, “though I am certain we have got to fight Black Hawk to save ourselves. He is a cunning, artful warrior, and determined to massacre all the whites he can.”
Twenty-three years old and nearly out of work, Lincoln may have seen the political advantages of being a war veteran, as he was considering a run for state representative. “In less than a year,” he later wrote, “Offutt’s business was failing — had almost failed — when the Black Hawk war of 1832 — broke out.” New Salem swelled with “military ardor. Enlistments progressed rapidly.”7 On April 21, Lincoln, Greene, John Rutledge, Royal Clary, William F. Berry, and Jack Armstrong joined the other young men of the region, who were mostly in their early twenties or late teens, traveling to Richland and volunteering for thirty days. They were assigned to Company A of the first division of Illinois forces to fight the “British Band” as Black Hawk’s warriors were called.8
Before leaving New Salem, Greene, now a private, claimed his father had spoken to the men without Lincoln’s knowledge: “There’s no question about it, Abe is altogether the best man for captain.” They were in agreement, but many of them believed Lincoln was too modest to be a candidate. “Well then, you must keep the matter close, but have a fair understanding among yourselves. Whisper the matter about, so that every vote will be right.”9
“We will press him into service,” Pvt. Greene said. After the election, he humorously greeted him: “Captain Lincoln, your honor!”
“None of your fun at my expense,” Lincoln answered, knowing Greene was kidding and showing respect at the same time.10 Lincoln later wrote that he “joined a volunteer company, and to his own surprise, was elected captain of it,.. [and] has not since had any success in life which gave him so much satisfaction.”11
The New Salem Company rode to Beardstown, joining the other volunteers who awaited orders to move north. “The whole time that I was out,” an enlistee from St. Clair County said, “I never witnessed a company drill…. I never heard a roll-call in the whole Brigade.” He felt like the men were “going on some frivolous holiday excursion, and not to encounter hostile Indians.”12 On the last day of April, the citizen army left for Yellow Banks on the Mississippi River. The carnival atmosphere soon turned into a nightmare of cold rain, swollen streams, and prairie mud. Motivated by promises of food and whiskey at the end of the journey, the army found neither as it rode into Yellow Banks on the night of May 3. Hungry volunteers openly cursed Governor Reynolds, army commander, as they waited for two days before steamers arrived with supplies. In the mean time, local farmers suffered the foraging of militiamen, unlike Black Hawk’s braves who had passed through the region a month earlier. Reynolds’ militia met the federal troops at Fort Armstrong on May 7, and the two armies moved northeast from the mouth of Rock River in pursuit of Black Hawk. After the thirty day enlistment expired, the New Salem Company was disbanded, and most of the men returned home without seeing any action. Lincoln, however, reenlisted twice as a private, serving until a month before the war ended with the Battle of Bad Axe on August 2, 1832.13
Speaking on the floor of Congress in 1848, Lincoln joked about his militia days in which he had never seen any fighting: “By the way, Mr. Speaker, did you know I am a military Hero? Yes sir; in the days of the Black Hawk war, I fought, bled, and came away…. I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes; and, although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry.”14
Greene was impressed with his company commander, especially when an “old Indian came to camp & delivered himself up, showing us an old paper written by Lewis Cass, stating that the Indian was a good & true man. Many of the men of the Army said, ‘we have come out to fight the Indians and by God we intend to do so.’ Mr. Lincoln in the goodness & kindness and humanity & justice of his nature stood — got between the Indian and the outraged men — saying — ‘Men this must not be done — he must not be shot and killed by us.’ Some of the men remarked – – ‘The Indian is a damned Spy.’ Still Lincoln stood between the Indian & the vengeance of the outraged soldiers… Some of the men said to Mr. Lincoln — ‘This is cowardly on your part Lincoln.’ Lincoln remarked, ‘If any man thinks I am a coward let him test it,’ rising to an unusual height. One of the Regiment made this reply to Mr. Lincoln last remarks –‘Lincoln — you are larger & heavier than we are.’ ‘This you can guard against — Choose your weapons,’ replied Mr. Lincoln somewhat sourly. This soon put to silence quickly all charges of the cowardice of Lincoln.”15
Prior to Lincoln saving the Indian’s life, Royal Clary, who told the same story as Greene, said they came upon the scene of a battle that had just taken place: “Whites lost 12 killed — found 11 — 25 were wounded. They were horribly mangled — heads cut off — hearts taken out – disfigured in every way… [And some time later, the] Indians had committed depredations on Fox River — had killed some men, women & children… We saw the scalps they had taken [at the Pottawatomie camp] — scalps of old women & children.”16
Two weeks before the August election, Lincoln returned to New Salem. “Having lost his horse, near where the town of Janesville, Wisconsin, now stands,” Greene recalled, “he went down Rock River to Dixon in a canoe. Thence he crossed the country on foot to Peoria, where he again took [a] canoe to a point on the Illinois River, within forty miles of home. The latter distance he accomplished on foot.”17
While campaigning, Lincoln stayed with the Abells, whose cousin later took most of the credit for suggesting he enter politics. “Going to send you to the Legislature,” Greene supposedly had said to Lincoln, who thought he was joking: “You are crazy, William, and all the rest of you who entertain such a thought. What! Run me, nothing but a strapping boy, against such men of experience and wisdom!”18 In the end, though, Lincoln agreed, but he was not optimistic about his chances of being successful. “That is impossible. I should not expect to be elected…”19
A mile north of the Abell farm that summer, Lincoln spoke in the new town which would soon outgrow and eclipse New Salem. Greene stood in the crowd as Lincoln “addressed the people in the town of Petersburg on the election and the causes which he advocated. It was what the world would call an awkward speech, but it was a powerful one, cutting the center every shot.”20
On August 6, 1832, the voters of Sangamon County selected four state legislators from a list of thirteen. Even though New Salem precinct gave him 277 out of 300 votes cast, Lincoln finished eighth in the county where he was generally not known. Grateful for the support given him, Lincoln “was now without means and out of business, but was anxious to remain with his friends who had treated him with so much generosity, especially as he had nothing elsewhere to go.”21
Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858, Vol. I, 106.
Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809 -1858, Vol. I, 120.
“Independent Military Companies of Sangamon County,” (Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 3:23).
William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, 76.
Cecil Eby, That Disgraceful Affair, the Black Hawk War, 99 -100.
William M. Thayer, The Pioneer Boy and How He Became President, 245.
Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859 -1865, Vol. II, 164.
Database of Illinois Black Hawk War Veterans on website of the Illinois State Archives.
Thayer, 247 -249.
Fehrenbacher, Vol. II, 164. Lincoln may have been originally elected captain on April 7, 1832 and reelected two weeks later on the farm of Greene’s father; Eby, 108.
Ibid., 110 -112. Thayer, 252 -253.
Fehrenbacher, Vol.I, 214.
Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, ed., Herndon’s Informants, 18-19.
Michael Burlingame, ed., An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, 19.
Thayer, 254 -255.
Wilson and Davis, 20. President Lincoln appointed William Graham Greene the collector of internal revenue for Illinois.
Fehrenbacher, Vol.II, 164.
References (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)
In 1857, Charles Farrar Brown became the local editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and began to write articles about an itinerant showman named Artemus Ward. Later moving on to Vanity Fair in New York City, Brown’s humorous commentary of the news was admired and enjoyed by Lincoln. “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day,” he told his Cabinet, “if I did not laugh I should die…”
On his way to Washington in February of 1861, President-elect Lincoln stayed overnight in Cleveland. On February 15, Lincoln stood on the second floor balcony of the Weddell House Hotel and spoke to a large crowd.
“A devotion to the constitution, to the union and to the laws, to the perpetual liberty of the people of this country. It is, fellow citizens, for the whole American people and not for one single man alone to advance a great cause… If all do not join now to save the good old ship of the Union this voyage, nobody will have a chance to pilot her on another voyage.”
A plaque marks the site now occupied by the Rockefeller Building at the corner of West 6th and Superior.
Academy of Music
In November of 1863, John Wilkes Booth played the lead role in Shakespeare’s Richard III on the stage of the Academy of Music. The theater was located on Bank Street (West 6th), a block north of the Weddell House.
On the journey to Springfield in April of 1865, the funeral train carrying the assassinated President stopped in Cleveland. A hundred thousand mourners stood in the rain and paid their respects on the city’s Public Square.
John Milton Hay
John Hay held the position of assistant personal secretary to President Lincoln. After marrying the daughter of a wealthy Clevelander, he became a resident of the city. Hay co-authored the ten-volume, Abraham Lincoln: A History. He served as Ambassador to Great Britain and Secretary of State. In July of 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt attended Hay’s funeral. The archangel Michael looks down at the gravesite in Lake View Cemetery on Cleveland’s eastern border.
The Emancipation Proclamation is probably the strangest document in American history; strange because it is susceptible of at least three interpretations which appear to be mutually exclusive, but which are not, and strange because its genesis is equally enigmatic, with at least three solid reasons offered for it. The only thing not strange about it is its effects, North, South, and abroad, immediate and long term. It won the war, preserved the United States as one nation, and ended slavery. Quite a lot for a one page document. How could it be? Let’s see.
A. The Moral Imperative
Some historians and students of the period are fond of pointing to this or that statement made by Lincoln prior to emancipation that evidences his unwillingness to think of the Negro as an equal, a refusal to accept him or her as such, and a refusal to interfere with the institution of slavery in those states of the Union where it already existed. These statements are easily explained in terms of political expediency, i.e., that to a degree, Lincoln, as with all politicians, was playing to his audience and the convictions he knew they held. But a careful reading of the literature and his record demonstrates beyond any doubt his utter loathing of the institution of slavery and his desire and intention to do something about it if and when he could, but not in such a way as to effect a cure that would be worse than the disease, which is to say to lose the Union in the process of destroying human bondage in that Union. If we want to know what Lincoln really felt about the institution, it is enough to know that the Southern leaders of his day announced in advance that if he were elected to the Presidency they would secede from the Union, and also to know that upon the fulfillment of that condition they promptly did so.
2. The Abolitionists
In addition to his personal imperative regarding the peculiar institution, Lincoln was under pressure from abolitionists who, though their hostility to slavery was no greater than his, appeared to be more principled than he because they openly advocated immediate and total freedom for all slaves regardless of consequences. Thus, men like William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, John Greenleaf Whittier and Frederick Douglas, and women like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Susan B. Anthony, could and did question the antislavery credentials of a President who in their eyes moved so slowly on the issue. These people were anything but stupid Americans. They were, in fact, very bright. But they either didn’t know, or if they knew, they didn’t care, that precipitate and comprehensive action of the kind they advocated would very likely result in the loss of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri to the Confederacy, border states whose loyalty to the government had, in some cases, been assured by Lincoln only by heavy-handed and even extra-Constitutional means and therefore remained precarious. Lincoln knew and cared a great deal about the border states because he realized that to lose them was to lose the war, the Union, and, at least for the foreseeable future, emancipation.
3. The Radicals
From the radicals in his own party, too, came pressure. The South did not have a monopoly on fire-eaters. There were just as many in the North, but of a different stripe. Men like Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania in the House, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Benjamin Wade of Ohio in the Senate, and Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, spoke often and forcefully against the “evil” of slavery, made almost daily visits to the White House, and demanded that steps be taken as quickly as possible to assure the extinction of “the harlot, slavery.” Faced with secession of their southern brethren, they steadfastly opposed compromise of any kind with “the Slave Power.” As with the abolitionists, these men were intelligent and dedicated, but whereas the abolitionists’ altruism was unalloyed, the Radical Republicans’ was somewhat diluted by a strain of personal animus against slaveholders.
4. Commanders in the Field
On at least three occasions prior to Lincoln’s issuance of the Proclamation, the fear of loss of one or more of the border states to the Confederacy forced him to countermand, and in one case to sack the author of, orders of his commanders in the field who had taken it upon themselves to liberate slaves in their areas of command. These commanders were General Benjamin Butler, in command of Fort Monroe, Virginia, General John C. Fremont, Commander of the Union Army in St. Louis (who was sacked), and General David Hunter, commanding the Department of the South.
5. Lincoln Redux
It was left to Lincoln to steer a safe and sane path between and around extremes, to wend his way through the forest of conflicting interests and ideologies. He did not have the luxury of being a radical, a conservative, or a liberal. He knew what he wanted – Union and Emancipation – but he knew, too, that he could accomplish both only in the fullness of time. “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at flood, leads on to fortune” (said Shakespeare in Julius Caesar). None knew it better than Lincoln. None made decisions, based on that truism, with greater sagacity. None, ultimately, had better results.
But there was another factor that separated Lincoln from his abolitionist and radical Republican contemporaries. Like them, he detested slavery, but unlike them, he did not detest the slaveholders. As he so often did, Lincoln put himself in the place of his adversary and imagined that he would behave about the same if he had been a product of the same circumstances. It was for these reasons that he explored measures short of war to deal with the slavery issue, the issue that had bedeviled the Union since its inception, i.e., colonization, return to Africa, gradual emancipation with compensation, and action by individual states.
B. Issuance as War Measure
Lincoln issued his Proclamation as a war measure, i.e., under his Constitutional authority as Commander in Chief of the Union armies, as to which he had a plenary concept (Art. II, Section 2). He did so for several reasons. First, he believed that the Constitution did not otherwise empower him to interfere with the institution of slavery in those states in which it already existed. Second, he had tried and failed to persuade the border states to voluntarily and gradually free slaves within their jurisdictions with compensation to slaveholders from the Federal Government. Indeed, in December, 1862, after he had issued his Proclamation, but before its effective date, he proposed a Constitutional Amendment that would authorize Congress to compensate slave owners in those states that agreed to legislate slavery out of existence. When he realized that the border states would not accept gradual emancipation, he resolved to accomplish what he could with the military edict that he had already prepared in the event of such refusal. He was convinced that the tide had reached flood stage, that events, foreign and domestic, required a bold stroke and that to fail to make it, and quickly, was to risk catastrophe. Thus, his resort to his Constitutional war powers.
In what sense was the Proclamation a war measure? In several senses. In the second paragraph it refers to the preliminary Proclamation of September 22 wherein it is stated that “…the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons (i.e., slaves in those states or parts of states whose people were in rebellion against the United States)…” Accordingly, the slaves encountered by conquering Union armies in those states or parts of states previously in rebellion were free men and women who could never again be enslaved by any person under the jurisdiction of the United States. Further, and still alluding to the preliminary Proclamation, Lincoln unequivocally invoked the war powers of the Constitution for his authority, i.e., “…by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” Still further, in the same paragraph, he makes the purpose of the Proclamation as a war measure crystal clear, i.e., “…and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion…”
So that there will be no mistake about his authority, purpose, or intent, and now no longer alluding to the Proclamation of September 22, he restates all three in the sixth paragraph:
And by virtue of the power and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated states and parts of states are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
In the eighth paragraph he announces that newly freed slaves will be accepted into the armed service of the United States for non-combat duty and “to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” Again, in the final paragraph, he refers to the Proclamation as an act “…warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity.” The Proclamation was made as a military measure, and as a military measure it worked.
C. Foreign Intervention
In England’s case, the ruling class was, not surprisingly, pro-Southern. It easily identified with the planter aristocracy and had been, for many years, close to the South economically (cotton) and socially. The Times of London, its major mouthpiece, was strongly pro-Southern. The Confederacy, of course, made a concerted effort to tap into the veins of support for its cause. In March, 1861, i.e., even before the war began, it sent William L. Yancey, Pierrre A. Rost, and A. Dudley Mann to England, France, Russia, and Belgium for this purpose. Later, other missions were sent to Ireland, Spain, the Vatican, Mexico, and West Indian colonies. These missions failed largely because the countries solicited were chary of committing themselves to one side or the other in the conflict at such an early date. They failed, further, because of the efforts of the energetic and superbly able American Minister, Charles Francis Adams. It has been said that ultimate Union success owes as much or more to the work of this man than to all the battlefield victories.
Nevertheless, in the late summer of 1862, after Confederate successes on the battlefield (the Peninsular Campaign, Second Bull Run) gave the distinct impression that the Confederacy might indeed prevail, Adams warned Seward that a British offer to mediate the conflict was imminent. Such an offer would be tantamount to formal recognition of the Confederacy, because after it was rejected by the Administration, as it surely would be, the rejection would be taken by the British as justification for recognition and intervention. Earl Russell, the British Foreign Secretary, and Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, agreed that in late summer or early fall they would call a meeting of Palmerston’s Cabinet and ask for their approval of the offer of mediation. They agreed, further, however, to condition the calling of the meeting on the outcome of Lee’s invasion of the North in Maryland. If Lee were successful, they would go ahead with it. If not, they would postpone it and wait to see what developed. In a very real sense, then, the one in a million chance of Lee’s losing his battle plans and McClellan’s finding them changed the entire course of history by assuring the continuation of the United States as one country. After Antietam, the threat receded. After the Emancipation Proclamation, it was almost gone. After the twin Federal victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, it disappeared completely.
There was still another reason that mitigated against the British recognition and intervention. By chance, in the years leading up to the war, Europe had had poor grain harvests. Productivity in the United States remained high, despite the war, due to the use of new reapers and binders. American exports of grain went a long way toward relieving Britain’s food shortage. Bad as it wanted cotton, it wanted American wheat even more, and it was unlikely, therefore, to do anything that would jeopardize those imports.
As for France, she, like Britain, was a monarchy and therefore suspicious if not hostile to democracy. Napoleon III, her monarch, did not give a fig about the Union either and would have been only too happy to see the experiment on the other side of the Atlantic fail, but he would not do anything unilaterally, i.e., without the backing of England. France’s real interest was Mexico, where she had taken advantage of the war to set up a puppet government under Maximilian as Emperor. After Appomattox, Phil Sheridan was sent to the border with 50,000 troops. France got the message and pulled its troops out. The natives took over and Maximilian was executed.
Russia, the other major power, presented an interesting case. Because of her distance from the United States, intervention would have been much more difficult for her than for the other two major powers. Regardless, it now appears that St. Petersburg had no inclination to support the Southern cause, though elements of its ruling class may have been sympathetic. The economic ties that bound the United States to England and France were all but nonexistent in the case of Russia. That two Russian fleets dropped anchor in the fall of 1863 in American waters, one at San Francisco and the other at New York, had nothing to do with supporting the North. Their purpose was to prevent them from being icebound in their own waters in the event of war with England and France, which, at the time and due to the imperial ambitions of all three countries, notably in Central Asia, was a distinct possibility.
III. The Proclamation
Lincoln’s state of mind in July 1862, is best described in his own words. In a conversation with the painter, Frank Carpenter, who painted the famous illustration of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, he said:
It had got to be midsummer, 1862. Things had gone on from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics or lose the game. I now determined upon the adoption of the emancipation policy; and without consultation with, or knowledge of, the cabinet, I prepared the original draft of the proclamation, and after much anxious thought called a cabinet meeting upon the subject… I said to the cabinet that I had resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice, but to lay the subject-matter of a proclamation before them, suggestions as to which would be in order after they had heard it read.
Actually, Lincoln omitted to say that on July 13, 1862, the day after his last meeting with representatives of the border states and nine days before the cabinet meeting to which he refers, he discussed emancipation with the two cabinet members who were closest to him, Gideon Welles and William Seward. He read a draft of the Proclamation to them. They were left nearly speechless, but what they did manage to say was generally favorable. Encouraged, Lincoln, at a regularly scheduled meeting on July 22, 1862, presented his entire cabinet with what he called his “preliminary” Emancipation Proclamation, advising them that he wished to issue it immediately. Their reaction, not surprisingly, was mixed, but Lincoln had taken the precaution of telling them in advance that he was asking for their advice only as to the form of the document, not its substance. The latter, he said, he was firmly committed to. Seward suggested that because of recent military reversals in the eastern theater (the Peninsular Campaign), immediate issuance would be construed as an act of desperation (which, in a sense, it was) and that it would be better, therefore, to wait for a more propitious time, i.e., after a Union victory, to issue it. This was sage advice and Lincoln accepted it. Assured that foreign intervention was not imminent (though it remained a serious threat), he would wait for a Union victory. Thanks to the loss of Lee’s battle plans during his invasion of Maryland, McClellan gave Lincoln his victory at Antietam on September 17. Again, in Lincoln’s own words:
When Lee came over the river, I made a resolution that if McClellan drove him back I would send the proclamation after him. The battle of Antietam was fought Wednesday, and until Saturday I could not find out whether we had gained a victory or lost a battle. It was then too late to issue the proclamation that day; and the fact is I fixed it up a little Sunday, and Monday I let them have it.
This was September 22. After reading a second draft to the Cabinet, he issued his preliminary Proclamation, which announced that emancipation would become effective on January 1, 1863, in those states “in rebellion” that had not, during the interim period, ceased hostilities. He issued and signed the supplementary or real Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It is not a particularly long document, so here it is in full:
“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
“That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”
Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:
Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans), Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth), and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.
And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.
And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.
And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.
Just before affixing his signature, Lincoln said to the few friends who were with him in his study, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.”
In truth, the Emancipation Proclamation was both an end and a beginning. It was the capstone on all the measures that had until then been taken to prohibit slavery or to free slaves and that had therefore seriously eroded the institution and prepared the nation for the Thirteenth Amendment. These included:
The Northwest Ordinances of 1784, 1785, and 1787, wherein Congress prohibited slavery in the area north of the Ohio River to the Great Lakes and west of Pennsylvania to the Mississippi River;
Article I, Section 9 (I), of the Constitution, which authorized Congress to prohibit the importation of slaves after 1807, a clear signal that the framers – most of them – found the institution to be loathsome and planned for its eventual extinction;
Lincoln’s order of March 13, 1862, forbidding all Union officers to return fugitive slaves, thus in effect annulling the fugitive slave laws despite the fact that they were enacted pursuant to Art. IV, Section 2, of the Constitution;
Congress’s abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia (by the Senate on April 3, 1862; by the House on April 11, 1862; signed into law by the President on April 16, 1862);
Congress’s declaration on April 10, 1862, that the Federal Government would compensate slave owners who freed their slaves;
Congress’s prohibition of slavery in United States territories, on June 19, 1862, thus nullifying the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision and putting to rest the question that had set region against region since 1847, i.e., would the territories acquired from Mexico be slave or free?;
The Second Confiscation Act (signed into law on July 17, 1862), which provided for the liberation of the slaves (in addition to other penalties) of persons convicted of rebelling or in any way aiding and abetting the rebellion against the authority of the United States, as well as those slaves who escaped from such persons and sought refuge within Union lines, or who were captured by Union forces or deserted by their masters and came under control of the United States Government, or who were in places occupied by rebel forces that were afterwards occupied by Union forces.
Some observers felt that this last Act made the Emancipation Proclamation superfluous, but it was not so: the former was much more limited than the latter. It did not, for example, apply to loyal slaveholders. Further, by its language, slaves could be freed only on a case by case basis in Federal courts. The Proclamation, by contrast, freed all slaves, of loyal slaveholders and of disloyal ones, in all areas of the country in rebellion against the national authority, i.e., its duly elected government – all 4,000,000 of them in one fell swoop.
At the same time that it was the capstone of all the piecemeal measures that had preceded it and that had eroded the peculiar institution, it represented the beginning of the end of the Confederacy, made possible the freedom of slaves everywhere in the country, de jure and de facto, and paved the way for the Thirteenth Amendment, which guaranteed that the institution would never reappear within our borders.
There are basically three interpretations of the Proclamation, all three of them true or substantially true.
B. The First Interpretation
The first interpretation is that the Proclamation freed no slaves. Those slaves who were in states and parts of states that were in rebellion remained slaves because the power of the Federal Government could not reach them, or in any case had not reached them. Their masters, obviously, completely ignored Lincoln’s edict. Those slaves who were in states or parts of states that had never been in rebellion, or that were no longer in rebellion because they were then in Union hands, were exempt from emancipation. Therefore, it follows that the document did not free one single slave.
Though there was much truth in this sentiment, it was never entirely true, which is to say that the Proclamation did in fact give de facto as well as de jure freedom to some slaves, albeit only a few, immediately. These were slaves who were being held by Union forces as “contraband of war,” in contraband camps, after escaping from their masters and reaching Union lines. Upon the effective date of the Proclamation, they were told by their keepers that they were free to leave. Still other slaves had stayed behind on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia after their occupation by Union forces early in the war and after whites had fled to the mainland. They, too, were told that they were free to leave after the Proclamation became effective and after it was read to them.
It needs to be said, further, that Lincoln did not have the constitutional authority to abolish slavery in the entire nation. He could do so in the South because of his war prerogatives, but that authority did not extend to areas where there was no war, i.e. free states and border states.
C. The Second Interpretation
The second interpretation is that the Proclamation freed some slaves, but left others in bondage. The only distinction between this and the first interpretation is the recognition that the slaves in states and parts of states that were in rebellion were free de jure even if not yet free de facto – a distinction of enormous significance. According to the first interpretation, the slaves in the Confederacy were simply, and conveniently for the scoffers, interpreted as being still in bondage because their masters willed it and because the physical power to undo their masters’ will had not reached them. The second interpretation rests upon the premise, as Lincoln and his Attorney General, Edward Bates, contended, that the states that comprised the Confederacy were never out of the Union; that the Constitution made no provision for secession; and that the Union was, therefore, perpetual.
Accordingly, the slaves in states and parts of states still in rebellion on January 1, 1863 (and they are named in the Emancipation Proclamation), were, from that date forward, free in law, and when the Union armies regained control of those states and parts of states, they would encounter not slaves, but free men and women whose status as such had already been proclaimed by a document that had the force of law (unless and until a court of competent jurisdiction would declare otherwise) because it had been prepared and issued by the Commander in Chief of the Union Armies as a measure whose purpose was to subdue persons who had taken up arms against those armies. The slaves remaining in bondage, of course, were those in border states and those in areas that were then in Union hands but could not yet be said to be parts of states that were not in rebellion.
D. The Third Interpretation
The third interpretation is that the Proclamation freed all the slaves everywhere. As with the second interpretation, this interpretation rests on the premise that the states and parts of states that were in rebellion were never out of the Union, but also upon the premise that once the slaves in the states or parts of states that were in rebellion were given their de facto freedom by conquering Union armies, slavery was as good as dead in the border states as well because its maintenance therein would have been a hopeless anachronism in a Union of free states. All of this was quite likely foreseen by William Lloyd Garrison, the foremost and fervent abolitionist, when he said that the Emancipation Proclamation was “an act of immense historical consequence,” and by Frederick Douglas, who wrote that “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.”
A. In General
If the genesis of the Proclamation was multifaceted, and the interpretations fluid, there never was the slightest ambiguity about its effects. They were immediate, profound, and changed the course of history. Lincoln, of course, knew that his Proclamation would be very controversial. But Lincoln also knew that the benefits far outweighed the risks. When the dust had cleared, it was obvious that the Proclamation had changed the whole character of the war because it had infused the Federal Government and the forces fighting for it with a new purpose, greater even than the cause of Union. That purpose, of course, was freedom and its extension to a class of persons who had been torn from their native habitats and brought to our shores by force and under the most despicable conditions and who, once here and for two and half centuries thereafter, had been yoked to endless toil and poverty and made to suffer virtually every indignity, every cruelty and every atrocity that one people could conceive of visiting upon another. This, more than any other factor in the Civil War, with the possible exception of John Frances Adams’s diplomacy, assured Union victory.
B. The Political Fallout
Reaction, of course, was mixed. Predictably, the radicals and abolitionists said the Proclamation did not go far enough. Conservatives and Northern Democrats, particularly Copperhead Democrats, who opposed the war and who were willing to accept both secession and slavery, said it went too far. But most Northerners were neither radical, nor abolitionist, nor anti-war Democrats; they were a part, rather, of the great middle ground that eschews extremes, and it was not long, therefore, before there were celebrations all over the land as the new spirit – the moral impetus provided by the Proclamation – took hold of the minds and hearts of most citizens, black and white. Later, however, the enemies of emancipation would have their say, expressing themselves violently in the New York draft riots of July, 1863, in which blacks were specially targeted, even a black orphanage, and in which many were killed, including orphans. In the mid-term elections, the Democrats, running on an anti-emancipation platform, gained 28 seats in the House and also captured the governorships of New York and New Jersey. The results persuaded some historians to conclude that most Northerners were opposed to the Proclamation, but it was not so. Critics pointed out that Democratic victories were by narrow margins, that the Republicans had actually gained five seats in the Senate and that soldiers who were unable to vote because they were in the field were mostly Republican. Moreover, even with the Democratic gains, and even with the loss of support of some War Democrats, who had supported Lincoln on the goal of Union, but who would not support emancipation as a war goal, the Republicans maintained a comfortable control of the Congress due to their alliance with the Unionist Party of pro-war Democrats.
C. The Slaves
The slaves heard and believed, because, of course, they wanted to believe. Legal niceties had no meaning for them. All they knew was that they were free because “Mistuh Linkum” said they were. His Proclamation was read to them wherever it could be, usually by a Union soldier. They rejoiced, they wept. Booker T. Washington, writing 35 years later (Up From Slavery (1901)), remembered 1865, when he was a nine-year-old boy:
As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom… Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper – the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.
The slaves did not have to be literate (word of mouth would do) to know that the Proclamation was an open invitation to desert their masters and make their way to Union lines, where they would not only acquire their de facto freedom, but also be “received into the armed service of the United States.” What more could a slave ask for? – freedom and a uniform to go with it! The effect was immediate and electric. A Union officer in Virginia said that he saw slaves in his camp that had come all the way from North Carolina, that the slaves “know all about the Proclamation and they started on the belief in it.” Then and later, slaves told how they had been motivated to run by the Proclamation, how they considered it their ticket to freedom. The Union officers noted that the attitude of “the negroes” had changed dramatically, that they no longer considered themselves slaves, but free and independent men and women. Nothing could more unfit a man or women for slavery than a belief that he or she was no longer a slave, but free. And why should they not believe it? Did not the Proclamation say that “…the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom”? And did it not also say that “…such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service”? If the invitation had been embossed in gold it could not have been clearer or more effective. All it lacked was an R.S.V.P. The meaning of these lines was as clear to Southern leaders as it was to slaves. On January 12, 1863, Jefferson Davis said that the Proclamation meant the extermination of the Negro race. He also said that it encouraged mass assassination of their masters. Well, not quite, but Davis knew that the trickle of runaway slaves would soon become a flood and that the Union’s gain in manpower and soldiers was the Confederacy’s loss in labor.
Interestingly, when the war was over and as time passed, it was the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation rather than any of the piecemeal measures that had preceded it, and rather, even, than the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, that blacks remembered as the defining moment in their long and painful march from bondage. For many years, they would assemble on New Year’s Day, at some convenient location – most likely a church – and listen to a reading of the Proclamation, usually accompanied by singing, prayer and/or an oration. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Proclamation (1913), James Weldon Johnson, a black poet, penned these memorable lines:
O Brothers mine, to-day we stand Where half a century sweeps our ken,
Since God, through Lincoln’s ready hand, Struck off our bonds and made us men.
Just fifty years–a winter’s day– As runs the history of a race; Yet, as we look back o’er the day, How distant seems our starting place!
Then, in a more assertive tone, making certain that humility did not replace self-confidence, he said:
This land is ours by right of birth, This land is ours by right of toil We helped to turn its virgin earth, Our sweat is in its fruitful soil.
To gain these fruits that have been earned, To hold these fields that have been won, Our arms have strained, our backs have burned, Bent bare beneath a ruthless sun.
Then should we speak but servile words, Or shall we hang our heads in shame? Stand back of new-come foreign hordes, And fear our heritage to claim?
No! stand erect and without fear, And for our foes let this suffice– We’ve brought a rightful sonship here, and we have more than paid the price . . .
That for which millions prayed and sighed That for which tens of thousands fought, For which so many freely died, God cannot let it come to naught.
Blacks, indeed, had a very long way to go to achieve true equality of opportunity and equality before the law. Years, decades, more than a century of intimidation, violence, lynchings, disenfranchisement, and discrimination lay ahead of them. But the Proclamation represented a beginning, a first step, and no one knew it better than they.
D. The Armies
Many in the military protested the Proclamation, as Lincoln knew they would. It was not, they said, what they had signed on for, not what they were fighting for. Some soldiers even deserted. But when it became clear that the effect of the Proclamation would be to put more numbers in their ranks, thereby increasing their chances of victory and hastening the war’s end, the great majority of servicemen accepted the Proclamation and the blacks who were soon in uniform, if not as equals, then at least as the enemy of my enemy and therefore my friend. Further, it would not be long before they proved their worth on the battlefield and therefore came to be regarded as more than the enemy of my enemy, but as comrades in arms.
Between 1863 and 1865, 300,000 blacks fought for the Union. By the end of the war, 186,000 blacks were in uniform, armed and fighting for the cause of Union and “a new birth of freedom,” 93,000 from Confederate states, 40,000 from border states and 53,000 from free states. In addition, another 19,000 blacks served in the Navy. This was a tremendous plus for the Union cause and a deathblow to the Confederacy. Further, it should not go unsaid that 38,000 black Union soldiers gave the last full measure of devotion, many of whom were killed in cold blood when they were taken prisoner.
E. Foreign Intervention
The Proclamation put an immediate end to the threat of recognition of the Confederacy and intervention in the war by England or France, the only countries that posed the threat of either. Regardless of what the ruling classes in each country thought about the democratic experiment across the ocean, and regardless of the advantages that might accrue to them by a division of the United States, their governments simply could not ignore public opinion, which, after the issuance of the Proclamation, was solidly on the side of the Federal government now that it had committed itself to the abolition of slavery, which both countries had previously abolished. Neither country’s government could afford to be seen as supporting slavery.
VI. The Thirteenth Amendment
Towards the end of the war, when it became increasingly clear that the Union would prevail, Lincoln and those who supported emancipation, by then a clear majority in the North, became concerned that the Proclamation, as a war measure, would not survive a legal challenge when the war was finally over. “A question might be raised,” Lincoln said, “whether the proclamation is legally valid. It might be urged that it only aided those that came into our lines, and that it was inoperative as to those who did not give themselves up.” There was also concern for the freedom of those slaves who had not been freed by the Proclamation (about 40,000 in Kentucky; somewhat less than 2,000 in Delaware) as well as for the children of slaves who had been freed by it, but whom, the court’s might decide, were not affected by it. For these reasons, Lincoln pushed hard, during his 1864 campaign for re-election, for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit involuntary servitude throughout the country and thus make its return to any part of the country impossible. His work was made easier by the abolition of slavery by state action in the border states of Maryland and Missouri. Maryland’s new Constitution, which abolished slavery, passed by a narrow vote of its people, including its loyal soldiers in the field, in October, 1864, and took effect the following month. In Missouri, the institution was ended on January 11, 1865, by an executive proclamation of Governor Thomas C. Fletcher.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provided that:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The Amendment was first introduced in the House in the spring of 1864 and failed to pass. It was re-introduced and finally passed by the House on January 31, 1865, after Lincoln took energetic measures to support it. He insisted that its passage be added to the Republican Party platform for the Presidential election of 1864. Further, he persuaded fence-sitters of the necessity of passage, sometimes with promises of patronage. He even went as far as to release from military prisons certain Confederates who were related to Democratic members of Congress. Lincoln prevailed, but by means that caused Thaddeus Stevens to remark that “The greatest measure in the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
The Amendment was proposed to the legislatures of the several states by the 38th Congress on January 31, 1865. The following day, Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of Congress submitting the proposed Amendment. It was declared, in a proclamation of the Secretary of State (Seward), dated December 18, 1865, to have been ratified by the legislatures of 27 of the 36 states. Dates of ratification extended from February 1, 1865, through December 6, 1865. The Amendment was subsequently ratified by eight additional states, from December 8, 1865, through March 1995.
The last nail had finally been driven into the coffin of slavery in the United States, but it was a nail that would not have been driven had not the Emancipation Proclamation paved the way by preserving the United States as one nation. The Amendment, of course, made the Proclamation superfluous and moot any challenge that might have been made to its legality. But all of this was merely legal conclusion. Though superfluous in law, it remained a beacon in fact, a brilliant burst of light that had illuminated a dark and dreary landscape and that finally brought reality in line with the principle set forth in the Declaration of Independence four score and seven years earlier: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. ____________________________________________
The First Riddle: What Was the Name of President Lincoln’s Coachman?
The name of an earlier coachman was Patterson McGee. He was discharged on February 10, 1864, apparently under a cloud and against his wishes. Shortly after his discharge, the White House stables burned. Because he was observed at the scene of what was assumed to be a crime, he was arrested for arson, but had to be released for lack of evidence. It has been suggested that the deliberate torching of the stables may in fact have been an assassination attempt. In any case, after the assassination, McGee left for Europe, in late 1865, aboard the Peruvian, the same ship that carried John Surratt there.1
According to Mr. Lincoln’s White House, the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, and the Lincoln Institute, Edward “Ned” Burke was a White House steward and coachman who left the President’s employ in early 1862, but returned to White House service in 1865. During part of the interim period, he was replaced by McGee. It was this Burke, says the author of Employees and Staff, who drove the Lincoln’s to Ford’s Theatre on April 14.
George S. Bryan, however, writes that the name of the Lincoln coachman who drove the presidential party to Ford’s Theatre was not Edward “Ned” Burke, but Francis Burke.2 For authority, he cites Vol. II of the Trial of John H. Surratt in the Criminal Court for the District of Columbia, p. 792, and Burke’s statement in the Archives of the Judge Advocate General. Page 792 of the transcript contains testimony given by Francis P. Burke, who identifies his employment in April, 1865, as “the coachman of President Lincoln,” and who states that he drove the President’s carriage to the theater. This would appear to be quite authoritative. But there is more.
Edward Steers Jr., in one of his works, writes that the coachman was Francis P. Burke,3 which appears to be correct. But in another of his works, he identifies the coachman as Ned Burke,4 apparently a reference to Edward “Ned” Burke, which appears to be wrong. W. Emerson Reck also calls the coachman Ned Burke.5
Anthony Pitch agrees with Bryan and with Steers’s The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia in claiming that the coachman was Francis Burke.6 He, too, references the Surratt trial testimony and the Archives statement. On the other hand, Jim Bishop wrote that the coachman who drove the carriage to the theater was Francis Burns.7 This appears to be wrong, a melding of a correct first name with an incorrect surname. Making the identical mistake are Michael O’Neal,8 H. Donald Winkler,9 Champ Clark,10 and even Carl Sandburg,11 all of whom identified the coachman as Francis Burns. Even the very recently published (2011) Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever, by Bill O’Reilly, makes the same mistake.
The preceding five examples clearly illustrate how historical error takes on a life of its own. One original source, William H. Crook, appears to confirm Bryan, Pitch and, partially, Steers. Crook makes two references to “Burke” and writes that:
When the President and his wife went to the theater, they would step into a carriage at the White House and drive directly to their destination, just as any other gentlemen and lady in private life would do. Burke, the big, burly Irish coachman, would pull up his horses, and the footman, Charley Forbes, would swing down to the sidewalk and open the door of the carriage…12
Another original source, Thomas F. Pendel, on the other hand, merely adds to the confusion by referring to “Ned Burke,” “Burke” (twice), and “Edward Burke.”13 Charles Higham also adds to the confusion by referring to Lincoln’s “regular coachman” as Francis Bourke.14
Though it appears that at least part of the confusion, probably the greater part, stems from repetition of the errors of others, part must also be due to a similarity of names. There was on the White House staff, for example, one Edward McManus, a doorkeeper described as a “genial little Irishman.” He was called, affectionately, “Old Edward.” Despite his surname, he was kept on the White House payroll as “Burke,” i.e., Edward Burke, which must surely have something to do with the numerous erroneous references to Lincoln’s coachman as Edward Burke, or Ned Burke, or Edward “Ned” Burke. He incurred Mrs. Lincoln’s displeasure early in 1865 and therefore lost the post of doorkeeper, though he was not officially discharged until June of that year. He was replaced by Thomas Pendel. Another doorkeeper and steward was Thomas Burns, who was dismissed during the last winter of the war. Surely his name must tie into the erroneous references to Francis Burns as the coachman.15
Conclusion: Lincoln’s coachman was Francis P. Burke (not Edward Burke, Ned Burke, Edward “Ned” Burke, Francis Bourke, or Francis Burns). The testimony at the Surratt trial and the statement in the Archives of the Judge Advocate General are from the horse’s mouth or, more accurately, from the mouth of the horse’s driver.
The Second Riddle: With Whom Did Burke Drink at the Star Saloon during an Intermission?
Burke, “the big, burly Irish coachman” who also happened to be a heavy drinker (the Lincolns had chronic problems with the drinking habits of their coachmen), drove the presidential party, through Washington’s muddy streets, from the White House to Ford’s Theatre. Upon arrival at the theater, with its impressive façade, Burke pulled the carriage up to a wooden platform, or horse block, that stood at the curb to facilitate the transfer of coach passengers from the carriage to the theater. Forbes, the footman, swung down to open the carriage door. The presidential party then stepped onto the block and was escorted through the arched passageways of the main entrance into the theater by Forbes and John Parker, who had gone ahead on foot and was now waiting for their arrival. After the presidential party had exited the carriage, Burke drove it forward some 30 to 50 feet, where he parked it for the duration of the performance. He would sit in the carriage until it was time to drive the presidential party back to the White House or, perhaps, to Senator Harris’s home.
Almost, that is to say that on at least one occasion while the performance was in progress, Burke, by his own admission, left the carriage and, in the company of “two of my friends,” went next door to Peter Taltavul’s Star Saloon for an ale.16 At the trial of John Surratt, in 1867, more than two years after the assassination, there was this exchange between Burke and defense attorney Richard Merrick:
Q. Were you on the box most of the night?
A. I was all the time that night, with the exception that two of my friends whom I knew asked me to go in and take a glass of ale with them. I left a man in charge of the carriage until I returned.
Q. At what time did you go in and take a glass of ale?
A. I think after the first act was over.
Q. How long did you remain taking that glass of ale?
A. I suppose about five or ten minutes.
Q. And then returned to the carriage?
A. I then returned to the carriage and went on to the box.
Q. Did you remain there?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. I understand you to say you remained all the time on the box, with the exception of these five or ten minutes.
A. I remained after the carriage first came.
Q. Did you observe anybody coming round your carriage and peeping into it?
A. No; I took no notice. They may have passed by. I saw no one looking into the carriage. I did not see anybody…
Q. You did not go to sleep, did you?
A. Oh, no.
One wonders why Burke was called as a witness in Surratt’s trial, but not in the trial of the conspirators two years earlier, but we will pass over that as another of the many quirks that so often occur in the record of the Lincoln assassination.
In the Archives of the Judge Advocate General, Burke states that his two friends were the “special police officer and the footman of the President.” Virtually every historian of the assassination has concluded that the “special police officer” was Parker, inasmuch as he was a member of the Metropolitan Police Force who had been “specially” appointed to fill a vacancy in the White House detail in the spring of 1865, after the detail had been created in November 1864. This was known to all concerned. Another reason for so concluding was that Parker and Forbes were together when the presidential party arrived, had escorted the party to the presidential box, and then had assumed positions near the box for the rest of the first act of the play, then in progress, or at least some part of it. Other reasons favoring Parker were that drinking was one of his favorite pastimes (one of the earlier charges brought against him was drunkenness) and that, as a presidential bodyguard, he was reasonably well known to both Forbes and Burke. And still another reason is the way Burke words the invitation, namely “two of my friends whom I knew asked me to…take a glass of ale with them.” It is more likely that “two of my friends whom I knew” would reference fellow White House personnel than a City police officer who was more likely than not to be a stranger to Burke.
Nevertheless, Michael Kauffman believes that the officer referred to is not Parker, but “a uniformed officer who was assigned to the front of the building, whether Lincoln was there or not.”17 This officer is described in the transcript of the John H. Surratt trial as “one policeman from the City police” who was there to keep people from sitting or loafing in front of the theater.18 Why Kauffman (who is otherwise a meticulous researcher and a fine writer) favors this officer as Burke’s friend, rather than Parker, he does not say. We are asked to believe that Parker, who loved his pint, was still in the theater guarding the President and party, even though it was not his responsibility to do so (per Kauffman), while his companions, Forbes and Burke, were next door imbibing with a police officer whose responsibility it was to keep people from sitting or loafing in front of the theater. One may fairly ask: If this police officer went off with Forbes and Burke, who was policing the front of the theater?
The preponderance of the evidence is that Burke’s “friends,” described as the “special police officer and the footman of the President,” were Parker and Forbes and that Kauffman is simply mistaken. (Even the luminaries go astray occasionally.) That is the conclusion of virtually every historian but Kauffman and it is also mine.
But I will take it a step further and say that even if the “special police officer” were the City Police Officer who was responsible for the front of the building, which I and just about everyone who has addressed the issue regards as most improbable, we may be certain that Parker was not guarding the presidential box at the time, but was off somewhere else doing God knows what – chatting with patrons or flirting are possibilities – most likely in Taltavul’s himself. Parker’s temperament and style were not attuned to stationary guard duty, not where and when there was opportunity to better gratify his senses.
It is worth mentioning that Kauffman believes that Parker’s culpability is a moot point inasmuch as “anyone would have allowed Booth into the box,” and it therefore does not matter who was drinking with Forbes and Burke. I do not think so. Not when the evidence indicates that even the milquetoast Forbes challenged Booth. Does Kauffman really believe that Lincoln’s self-appointed bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, a giant of a man who valued Lincoln’s life more than his own, would have passed Booth? Or Eckert, another towering physical specimen? Or even Crook or Pendel? It is all but inconceivable.
It is entirely possible that Burke went into the adjacent bar more than once that evening. He was a pretty good tippler, as noted earlier, and it seems a bit of a stretch that he would spend almost two hours sitting on the box if he could enjoy a drink and company a few feet away, especially if he had someone to leave in charge of the carriage, as he said he did. We will probably never know. But what we can be reasonably certain of is that he was in the bar, when he said he was in the bar, longer than five or ten minutes. A drink is almost never taken in such a brief period of time, especially when one is with others, enjoying companionship and conviviality. The length of such periods and the amount of beverage consumed are almost always minimized, especially when there is good reason to do so, as there was in this case. (What police officer has not been told by a DUI, who has a blood alcohol content of more than twice the legal limit, that all he had was “a couple of beers”?)
The President had been shot and died as a result of it. The last impression that Burke would wish to create was that he was somehow careless of his duties, and in favor of drink no less. He knew that both Parker and Forbes had been severely chastised for failing the President, and he would not wish to be too closely associated with them at a time when they were seriously derelict in their duties. So he would put the best spin on it that he could, and he did. It is of little moment, as far as he is concerned, because it was never his duty to guard or protect the President, and no one has ever suggested that it was. The episode is significant, however, insofar as it demonstrates the almost unbelievable negligence of Parker and Forbes, particularly Parker, in leaving the President and his party completely unprotected at a time when they were most vulnerable, i.e., during an intermission. It is so bizarre, in fact, that one could read into it, if one is inclined to credit suspicions as to Parker’s complicity in the crime, a foreknowledge on his part that no harm was to come to the President at that time.
Conclusion: Lincoln’s coachman, Francis P. Burke, had at least one drink, in Taltavul’s Star Saloon, with John F. Parker and Charles Forbes, during an intermission of the play, probably after the first act, and in so doing left the President and his party completely unguarded, an extremely reprehensible act.
The Third Riddle: How Did the Presidential Party Get to the Theater?
There are at least three versions of this.
In the first scenario, Mrs. Lincoln, Major Rathbone, and Miss Harris were told by the President, who was “engaged,” to go on ahead to the theater. Charles Forbes accompanied them to the theater (the carriage presumably being driven by coachman Francis P. Burke) and then returned to the White House for the President. Forbes then accompanied the President to the theater and from the carriage to the box. In this scenario, it is unclear whether Mrs. Lincoln, Rathbone, and Harris waited at the theater for the President to arrive before ascending to the dress circle and the presidential box, or took their places in the box upon arrival, with the President arriving later and being escorted to the presidential box separately.19 Significantly, for reasons that will become manifest soon enough, in this scenario, Rathbone and Harris are at the White House before the presidential carriage leaves for the theater.
In the second scenario, the President and Mrs. Lincoln left the White House together at approximately 8:10, together with the presidential footman, Charles Forbes, sometimes referred to as the President’s “messenger,” “personal attendant,” “valet,” “servant,” or simply “a White House aide.” Heavily whiskered and bearded, Forbes looked much older than his 30 years, but, unfortunately, his judgment reflected his actual years, not his apparent ones. The carriage was driven by the President’s coachman, Burke, who drove it first to the home of New York Senator Ira Harris to pick up the President’s and Mrs. Lincoln’s guests for the evening. The Senator was the father of Clara Harris and the stepfather of Major Henry Rathbone. Clara and Henry were engaged to be married. They did not accompany the Lincolns from the White House, but were picked up at the Senator’s home and then driven to Ford’s Theatre in the presidential carriage. This scenario is the most commonly accepted one and is contained in nearly all accounts of the assassination.20
The third scenario has the Lincolns, Rathbone, and Harris all leaving the White House at the same time in the same carriage, without any guard or escort, all arriving at the theater at the same time.21
It seems strange that something as simple and basic as how the presidential party made their way to the theater cannot be known with certainty, but there it is. In any case, let us consider the foregoing scenarios and try for a conclusion.
In my judgment, we may safely disregard at least part of the first version, which is contained in Charles Forbes’s 1892 affidavit. The affidavit attests to other improbabilities, which is not surprising when we consider that it was sworn to 27 years after the fact and, more importantly, that Forbes had an axe to grind, namely, to deny entirely or at least to minimize his culpability in the assassination.22 Forbes’s description of doubling back to pick up the President and driving him to the theater separately from the rest of the party is, to my knowledge, found nowhere else in the literature of the subject, which is massive. It seems likely that, as the President’s footman, he must have accompanied the President on many outings to the theater and elsewhere and that he is, therefore, conflating the events of the evening of April 14 with the events of another outing, inasmuch as, on its face, there does not appear to be a self-serving motive in his description of the double-back. It is not as easy to dismiss one of the other two accounts, because both come with strong authority, but dismiss one we must, because they are irreconcilable. Someone has made a mistake, due to a failure of memory, carelessness, or simply repetition of an error or errors of others.
The best original authority for the second scenario is the testimony of Rathbone himself, given at the trial of the conspirators. He said, under oath:
On the evening of the 14th of April last, at about twenty-minutes past eight o’clock, in company with Ms. Harris, I left my residence at the corner of Fifteenth and H Streets, and joined the President and Mrs. Lincoln, and went with them, in their carriage, to Ford’s Theatre, on Tenth Street.23
So what is the problem? Why do we not simply reject the third scenario and go with Rathbone and what is clearly the majority opinion? First, because the statement “…in company with Miss Harris, I left my residence…and joined the President and Mrs. Lincoln, and went with them in their carriage to Ford’s Theatre” can be interpreted to mean that upon leaving his residence he stepped into the carriage, which already had the President and Mrs. Lincoln on board, or can be interpreted to mean that he stepped into the carriage, which was then driven back to the White House for the purpose of joining the Lincolns before being driven to the theatre. Second, because the source of the account, in which they all left together is Noah Brooks, the California journalist who was closer to Lincoln than almost anyone else was, who saw him almost every day in the last two and a half years of the war, and who was there, at the White House, when the presidential party left. He states categorically, in his letter of April 16: “Speaker Colfax and your correspondent were at the house just before he went out for the last time alive…Mrs. Lincoln’s carriage was at the door, seated in it being Miss Harris, daughter of Senator Harris of New York, and Major Rathburn (Rathbone), her step-brother. The President and wife entered and drove off without any guard or escort.” (My emphasis.)
Further, Forbes’s account, otherwise dubious, is consistent with Brooks’s account at least as to the guests being at the White House prior to departure. He says: “…I still had it (a picture Tad Lincoln had given him) in my pocket when Mrs. Lincoln and her guests were ready to start for the theatre. The President told them to go ahead…I accompanied them to the theatre…” (My emphasis.) Still further, another very strong source, the literary giant and Lincoln scholar Carl Sandburg, wrote that “In the carriage into which the President and his wife stepped were Henry Reed Rathbone, assigned by Stanton to accompany the President, and his fiancée, Miss Clara Harris…The carriage left the White House with its four occupants, coachman Francis Burns (sic) holding the reins, and alongside him the footman and valet, Charles Forbes.”24 And still further, Clara M. Laughlin, one of the early historians of the assassination, wrote, in 1909, that Mrs. Lincoln, in preparing for the evening, sent word to Miss Harris and Major Rathbone that “the White House carriage would call for (them) a little after eight, and, further, that when the carriage finally left the White House for the theater, “The young sweethearts were in festive mood at the evening’s prospect, and the President responded to it with much happiness in their care-free company.”25 Ms. Laughlin cites as authority for the last quote information given to her directly by Rathbone’s and Harris’s son, Mr. Henry R. Rathbone Jr. of Chicago, which should nail it down.
For the foregoing and following reasons, I come down on the side of Forbes, Brooks, Sandburg, and Laughlin and against the overwhelming majority of historians of the assassination, who hold for the second scenario.
It is less likely that guests of the President of the United States and the First Lady would impose upon them by asking that they be specially called for on the way to the theater, than that they would arrange to be taken to the White House in time for the departure. The evidence shows that it is United States Senator Ira Harris probable that the White House sent the presidential carriage (i.e., coachman Burke and Forbes) to pick them up at Clara’s father’s home and then brought them to the White House in time for everyone to leave together, a scenario that can be interpreted to be consistent with presidential guard Thomas Pendel’s account26 in addition to the accounts already given. Pendel, after describing a final conversation between the President, Mrs. Lincoln, George Ashmun of Massachusetts, and Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax in the main entrance of the White House, says that “Ned Burke (sic) and Charles Forbes, the coachman and footman, respectively, drove over to a private residence, and took in the coach Major Rathbone and Miss Harris, who was the daughter of Senator Ira T. Harris, of New York.” Observe that he does not say that the Lincolns were in the coach when it was driven to the Harris home.27 While this would explain how the guests got to the White House from Senator Harris’s home, it cannot be reconciled with those accounts which have the presidential carriage being driven by the coachman, with Forbes, the President, and Mrs. Lincoln on board, first to Senator Harris’s home, to pick up the guests, on the way to the theater.
Because Rathbone’s testimony is susceptible of two interpretations, it is possible to reconcile it with the third scenario. The testimony may reasonably be interpreted to mean that he and his fiancée left their residence at about 8:20 and joined the President and Mrs. Lincoln at the White House and then went with them, in their carriage, to the theater. Some might say that such a construction is tortured, but is it really? The supposition is that, if Rathbone and Harris left for the White House at 8:20, there would be no way the party could have reached the theater by 8:30, which all indications are they did. The supposition, further, is that the President and Mrs. Lincoln left the White House at 8:10, which would get them to Senator Harris’s residence at about 8:20 and the theater by 8:30, if we interpret Rathbone’s testimony to mean that when he and Clara left her father’s home, they stepped into Lincoln’s carriage and were then driven directly to the theater with the Lincolns.
The problem with these suppositions is that they are posited on very precise timing, i.e., the carriage leaves the White House at exactly 8:10, it takes exactly 10 minutes to reach Senator Harris’s home, it takes exactly 10 more minutes to reach the theater, and it arrives at the theater at exactly 8:30. But we know enough to know that such precision rarely obtains in the real world, and there is sufficient ambiguity in the eyewitness accounts, both as to the time the play began and the time of the arrival of the presidential party, to justify a conclusion that it did not obtain in this case. As an illustration of imprecision in estimates of time, consider the letter written by eyewitness John Downing Jr. on April 26, 1865, in which he says that “shortly after eight, the President, Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Harris…and… Major Rathbone, arrived and took their positions…”28 Shortly after eight? When almost everyone else says about 8:30?
The greater likelihood is that the carriage left the White House some time after 8:00, with the guests on board, and that it arrived at the theater some time between then and 8:30, and that by the time the presidential party actually made their way from the carriage into the theater, through the lobby, up to the dress circle, and into their box, it was about 8:30. Even if it were 8:20 or 8:40, it would very likely be remembered and recorded as “about 8:30,” which fits with most eyewitness accounts.
Conclusion: The presidential party, consisting of the President, Mrs. Lincoln, Major Henry Rathbone, and Miss Clara Harris, left the White House in the same carriage and at the same time, driven by the President’s coachman, Francis P. Burke, and with Charles Forbes, the President’s footman, aboard. The presidential carriage was probably used to bring Rathbone and Harris to the White House. The carriage was not accompanied by a military guard or escort when it left the White House.
I opt for this conclusion despite the weight of secondary authority against it because it represents the greater probability. The secondary authority is, I believe, a case of repetition of the mistakes of others and of historical error acquiring a life of its own. To opt for the second scenario is to hold that Noah Brooks, who was at the White House when the carriage left, and Carl Sandburg, a preeminent Lincoln scholar, and Clara M. Laughlin, who wrote what she was told by Rathbone’s and Harris’s son, erred – a tough row to hoe. It is also to hold that Charles Forbes, in his 1892 affidavit, not only lied about his whereabouts when Booth struck, something he had a motive to lie about, but also lied about the whereabouts of the guests when the carriage left the White House, something he had no motive to lie about.
Charles Higham, Murdering Mr. Lincoln: A New Detection of the 19th Century’s Most Famous Crime, New Millennium Press, 2004, pp. 118, 119, 238.
George S. Bryan, The Great American Myth, Americana House, Inc., 1940, pp. 62, 165, 168, 175.
Edward Steers, Jr., The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia, Harper Perennial, 2010, pp. 106, 107.
Edward Steers, Jr., Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, The University Press of Kentucky, 2001, p. 104.
W. Emerson Reck, A. Lincoln: His Last 24 Hours, University of South Carolina Press, 1987, p. 60.
Anthony S. Pitch, “They Have Killed Papa Dead!”: The Road to Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln’s Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance, Steerforth Press, 2008, pp. 106, 112.
Jim Bishop, The Day Lincoln Was Shot, Harper & Row, 1955.
Michael O’Neal, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: Opposing Viewpoints (Great Mysteries), Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1949, p. 55.
H. Donald Winkler, Lincoln and Booth: More Light on the Conspiracy, Cumberland House, 2003, pp. 101, 102, 113.
Champ Clarke, The Assassination: Death of the President, Time-Life Books, 1987, p. 82.
Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years, Reader’s Digest Association, 1954, 1970, pp. 580-581.
William H. Crook, Memories of the White House: The Home Life of Our Presidents from Lincoln to Roosevelt, comp. and ed. by Henry Rood, Little Brown, Boston, 1911, pp. 29, 30.
Thomas Pendel, Thirty-Six Years in the White House: A Memoir of the White House Doorkeeper from Lincoln to Roosevelt, Washington: Neale, 1962, pp. 13, 32, 33, 40.
Charles Higham, op.cit., p. 118.
Margaret Leech, Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865 (New York Review Books Classics), Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1941, p. 300.
Trial of John H. Surratt in the Criminal Court for the District of Columbia, Hon. George P. Fisher Presiding, Volume 2, p. 792; Francis Burke Statement in the Archives of the Judge Advocate General.
Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, Random House, 2004, p. 475, note 25.
Trial of John H. Surratt in the Criminal Court for the District of Columbia, Hon. George P. Fisher Presiding, Volume 1, p. 559.
Affidavit sworn to by Charles Forbes, September 17, 1892. Chicago Historical Society; Timothy S. Good, We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts, 1995, p. 102.
Here are just a few: Otto Eisenschiml; Why Was Lincoln Murdered? Faber and Faber, London, 1937, p. 32; Harold Holzer, The President Is Shot!: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Boyds Mills Press, 2004, p. 105; Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, Random House, 2004, p. 224; Thomas Pendel, Thirty-Six Years in the White House: A Memoir of the White House Doorkeeper from Lincoln to Roosevelt, Washington: Neale, 1962, p. 40; Anthony Pitch, “They Have Killed Papa Dead!”: The Road to Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln’s Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance, Steerforth Press, Hanover, New Hampshire, 2008, p. 106; W. Emerson Reck, A. Lincoln: His Last 24 Hours; University of South Carolina Press, 1987, p. 60; George S. Bryan, in The Great American Myth (Americana House, Inc., 1940), says: “…we know that no less than five persons saw the President with Mrs. Lincoln in the carriage as it was driven from the Executive Mansion to call for Miss Harris and her fiancée’ at Senator Harris’ residence (Fifteenth and H Streets).” (p. 224) Regrettably, he does not name them.
Michael Burlingame, Ed., Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, The Johns Hopkins University Press, New York and London, 1998, p. 188.
George S. Bryan, in The Great American Myth (op.cit.), refers to Forbes’s affidavit as one “whose whole effect is to shake confidence in the man’s essential trustworthiness” (p. 224).
Benjamin Perley Poore, The Conspiracy Trial for the Murder of the President and the Attempt to Overthrow the Government by the Assassination of its Principal Officers, Volume 1, p. 192.
Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years, Readers Digest Association, 1954, 1970, p. 580.
Clara M. Laughlin, The Death of Lincoln: The Story of Booth’s Plot, His Deed and the Penalty (1909), Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, pp. 74, 77.
Pendel, op.cit., p.40.
Ibid, pp. 39,40.
Louis A. Warren Library, quoted in Good, op.cit., p. 66.
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