Whatever hope the rebellious South had for continuing its fight until the North grew tired of the bloody struggle died – not with the surrender of Lee at Appomattox Court House in April 1865 – but rather on the hills outside of Nashville Tennessee, when Confederate General John Bell Hood and his Army of Tennessee were crushed in the last great battle of the Civil War in December 1864.
This last desperate clash of armies that December 15th and 16th, however, was just one of the battles fought in Nashville that month. Commanding Union General George Thomas, while preparing to fight Hood, also had to fight President Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, Army Chief of Staff Halleck and Commander in Chief U.S. Grant to retain his job and to confront the enemy according to his plan and timetable. Hood, with his ruined left arm and missing right leg, already struggling with pain, medication, and alcohol, also had to fight a crippling winter storm.
As that December began almost everything was going the Union’s way: Lincoln had been reelected, Grant still had General Robert E. Lee, and his Army of Northern Virginia, under siege at Petersburg while General William T. Sherman was about to take Savannah after his devastating march through Georgia. All was going well, except Hood’s army was marching towards Nashville with 25,000 to 30,000 men (Thomas thought he had a larger force) to take that city and then to move on to threaten Kentucky and Ohio – actions which, even if partially successful, could change the outcome of the war.
Nashville, which fell to the Union without a fight in 1862 after the fall of Ft. Donelson, had grown in importance and population during the war from 30,000 to about 100,000 as it became “a communication, transportation and supply center for Federal military operations in the west.” The South’s failure to even try to retake Nashville during the war was a measure of its inability to defend its territory.
Given Nashville’s extensive fortifications – encircled with forts and redoubts, along with the Cumberland River acting like a moat around some of it, Hood could have taken months to plan an attack with 120,000 men and still have failed. But this was Hood – and nothing would stop him from trying.
Jefferson Davis (“You must first beat him (the enemy)…and advance to the Ohio River”), in picking Hood to replace General Johnston in Atlanta that July, followed Lincoln’s example in his selection of Grant – he needed a fighter and he got one. Hood did fight – first by attacking General William T. Sherman outside Atlanta, and then by invading Tennessee to try to relieve the pressure on Lee in Virginia and the people of Georgia. Despite the great odds against him, he could have achieved some level of success had his tenacity been matched by wisdom.
As the Army of Tennessee made its way towards Nashville, Hood, due to command failures, let General John M. Schofield’s army, sent by Sherman to reinforce Thomas, slip through his lines outside the small town of Spring Hill 30 miles south of Nashville on November 29th. The next afternoon, Hood (“We shall make the flight!”) launched a frontal assault against entrenched Union rear guard positions in Franklin, 18 miles south of Nashville, as Schofield continued his march to reinforce Thomas.
Hood’s army was badly beaten, suffering over 8,000 casualties, including 6 generals killed, in just four hours. In recent years, as the Battle of Franklin has received more attention, it has become popular to treat Nashville as almost an afterthought – a historical mistake. As one writer puts it: “Hood was knocked down at Franklin – but he was knocked out in Nashville.”
Unchallenged on their way, Hood, still dreaming of reinforcements from Texas, reached the outskirts of Nashville and began to prepare a defense for the attack he knew would be coming – but first he and his men would have to fight the weather. Thomas’ men had the same weather but their forts and redoubts were built, most were well rested, all were well clothed, shod and fed, and the delays caused by the soon to be frigid climate worked to Thomas’ advantage giving him time to refit his cavalry. It was a far different story for Hood’s bedraggled army.
The relatively mild Tennessee weather in early December took a sudden turn for the worse the night of the 8th. A cold rain soon turned to snow and by the next morning the ground was frozen, covered with snow and sleet. This was followed by 6 days of rain, freezing rain and sleet – Nashville, and its environs, was encased in ice These conditions were brutal for the mostly barefooted rebels (one historian says only 25 men in the whole army had shoes or parts of shoes on their feet) already severely weakened in Franklin, without warm clothes or much in the way of food and their cannons, caissons and wagons up to their hubs in mud. Demoralized, cold, hungry troops now had to break frozen soil to try to establish defenses for the attack they knew would be coming when the weather broke. It must have seemed that even the Lord was against them. (I once lived through one of these ice storms as a resident in that area – we were paralyzed for days).
Thomas meanwhile was under attack by his superiors in Washington and Petersburg for what, in their growing panic at the advancing southern army, was their perception that he was just too slow in taking on Hood. Thomas, although not as ready as he wanted to be, gave into pressure and was going to attack on the 10th when the ice storm hit the area suspending his plans. (“A terrible storm of freezing rain has come today which will make it impossible for our men to fight.”) When Grant (“I was never so anxious during the war as at that time”) heard of further delay, he asked Halleck to draw up orders relieving Thomas, to be replaced by Schofield (who may have been behind misleading information getting to Grant). Halleck resisted (“No one here wishes General Thomas’ removal”) and these orders were never sent.
The six-day weather-related delay finally exhausted Grant’s patience and he ordered General John A. Logan sent west to assume command of Nashville. Logan got as far as Louisville when the weather cleared enough on the 15th for Thomas to finally launch his attack on Hood. Logan was recalled. It’s still uncertain whether Thomas knew how close he came to losing his job.
The battle lines shown on the two maps of the 15th and 16th tell the story of the conflict. It was, according to at least one military authority, “a perfect exemplification of the art of war.” Another authority said: “No battle of the war was better planned and none was so nearly carried out to the letter of the plan as the Battle of Nashville.” General Thomas’ battle plan in this engagement is the only one of the Civil War that is “now studied as a model in European military schools.” It was the only battle of the war that destroyed an army.
Thomas’ forces moved out under cover of an early morning fog and attacked with a diversionary action on Hood’s right, and then hit his thinly defended lines very hard on the left, while holding back reserve units to respond as needed. Hood, without reserves, could only fall back – doing so miles to the south as the first day ended with him barely avoiding a rout. It’s a tribute to the courage of the rebels that, despite their conditions and the losses they sustained the first day, they were able to mount a vigorous defense of their remaining positions the second day. But they could not hold on forever in the face of overwhelming numbers. Their lines broke on Overton Hill and what is now Shy’s Hill. It was then “every man for himself” as the battle finally turned into a rout. Pvt. Owen J. Hopkins of the 182nd Ohio Infantry called Thomas “a God of battles,” writing, “Hood’s demoralized and badly whipped Rebels are flying towards the south…the victory is complete.” The once proud Army of Tennessee would be no more.
Thomas followed in pursuit of the fleeing rebels almost immediately but was hampered by more bad weather – heavy rains that made even streams impassable. Once again he would hear from Halleck stating the obvious. (“Permit me, General to urge the vast importance of a hot pursuit…if you can destroy Hood’s army Sherman can entirely crush out the rebel Military force in the Southern states.”) Finally Thomas, who would have made his life a little easier had he reported on conditions in more detail throughout December, had enough and replied with an angry telegram: “We cannot control the elements…pursuing an enemy through an exhausted country, over mud roads, completely sogged with heavy rains, is no child’s play!” Stanton got Thomas’ message in more ways than one and immediately sent him a telegram assuring him of “the most unbounded confidence in your skill, vigor and determination…to destroy the enemy.” Grant also sent congratulations on the great victory. Thomas would not be bothered again. He continued his pursuit until there was no more army left to pursue.
Mercifully, for the numbers engaged at Nashville (Blue – 50,000 vs. Gray – 23,000), the casualties on both sides were relatively modest (Blue – 3,061 vs. Gray – est. 1,500 with 4,500 captured). Hood had lost his last battle. Thomas won – against Hood and those who tried to interfere with his plans. He would later receive “The Thanks of Congress” for Franklin and Nashville, “one of only 15 army officers so honored during the entire war.” Had the war continued, it was likely that Hood would have been court-martialed for his actions at Franklin.
The North – the United States – was the biggest winner. There would now be no doubt we would remain one country. That fact made this engagement the “most decisive battle of the Civil War” according to Sir Edward Creasy in his “Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World.” Creasy defined a decisive battle as one “of which a contrary event would have essentially varied the drama of the world in all its subsequent scenes.” Other historians agree: “It was the crushing defeat of the Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Nashville that sealed the fate of the Confederacy.”
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.)
Editor’s note: The Lincoln Forum (www.thelincolnforum.org) is an organization that “endeavors to enhance the understanding and preserve the memory of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.” Founded in 1995, the Forum meets each year in Gettysburg, PA, on the anniversary of Lincoln’s address at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Several members of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable are also members of the Lincoln Forum and attend its meeting each year. CCWRT past president and Lincoln Forum member Mel Maurer once again agreed to our request to provide a recap of this year’s event. (Read Mel’s reports on the 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2012 Forums.)
The 15th Annual Lincoln Forum Symposium was held November 16th through November 18th, as always, in Gettysburg, PA (and again this year at the Wyndham Hotel). The theme this year was: “The Coming of Civil War: Enter Lincoln, Exit the South” (year one of a five-year focus on the Civil War Sesquicentennial: 2010-2015.)
Attending with me this year from our Roundtable were Kirk Hinman, Gordon Doble, Betty Bauer and Maynard Bauer. (A conflict in scheduling kept Dick Crews from attending – meaning I had to ask even more questions than usual to make up for his absence. He was missed.)
The speakers this year (a mix of Forum veterans and newcomers) and the information they presented were especially good – not just my opinion but also others attending. Included with this article are the biographies of the speakers whose presentations I will be summarizing in this article. In these summaries I try to focus on what we may not have heard or read before, including little things I learn that help to round out history.
The Forum opened as is its tradition with cocktails and dinner. Forum Chairman, Frank J. Williams, welcomed attendees (between 250 and 300), and introduced Tina Grim to welcome us to Gettysburg. Tina is the Program Manager at the Gettysburg Civil War Institute. She told us of the events planned for that week in town in commemoration of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, including the annual talk on the 19th with Sam Donaldson this year as the speaker, Remembrance Day Weekend, several programs at Gettysburg College and the Majestic Theater.
She also said that author, Jeff Shaara, would be receiving an award over the weekend. (Maynard, Betty and I ran into Shaara at a store in town on Thursday where he was signing books. I talked to him a bit and he told me his last book in his WWI trilogy would be out next year. He was then going to start a new Civil War trilogy with the Battle of Shiloh. I expect that it will focus on Grant.)
Frank then introduced Harold Holzer, Lincoln scholar extraordinaire and keynote speaker at The Soldiers and Sailors Monument rededication this year, to deliver the first paper of the Forum: “The New York Times and the Silent President.” Harold, the author of Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861 and the newly published – with Craig Symonds as co-editor – The New York Times: Complete Civil War, 1861-1865, knows this subject very well – and how to present it. (This talk was also recorded by C-SPAN and was first aired in January. If you saw it you saw the back of my head – my best side – as I ask a question.)
After his election, Lincoln was known to have “said so little for so long” and for that matter, he didn’t have much to say on issues after he made his Cooper Union address. (After saying that Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, before 30,000 people was underappreciated, Harold threw in the fact that the “Lincoln Bible” used by Lincoln that day and later by President Obama was really the Supreme Court Chief Justice’s Bible – used when no other could be found.) The time between Lincoln’s election to the start of his presidency is sometimes called, “Secession Winter,” as various states led by South Carolina attempted to leave the Union.
During this time Lincoln felt that it was best to say nothing rather than to “encourage resistance.” He did not want to enter the ongoing debates on slavery. He maintained that he could say nothing that he had not already said and would not at this time be repetitive. Some have called this approach his “masterful inactivity.” He did not even approve of publishing his old speeches. Lincoln did have good input on the country’s affairs as they played out during this time and despite ever growing pressure for public declarations, he remained publicly quiet. The democrat papers were already misrepresenting his views and he had no intention of working towards any compromises – “would not pay a debt he did not owe.” One wag said that Lincoln only “opened his mouth to eat.”
In addition to not wanting to say or do anything that would further enflame discontent (“trying to keep feet out of wolf traps” – “Let Buchanan have his say”), Lincoln knew that he would not officially be president-elect until the Electoral College voted for him – there was some feeling that actions could be taken that would have thrown the election into the House where anything could have happened. He and Alexander Stephens – the soon to be vice president of the Confederacy – communicated during this period with Lincoln reassuring him that there was, “no cause for concern for the South. He was only for restriction and not elimination.”
Lincoln only began to open up after his election became official – privately he tells Congress – “No, orders it” – not to compromise or “we shall have to do this all over again,” telling Congress to hold firm as “if a chain of steel.” (Harold also added incidentally that “it’s myth” that Lincoln picked his cabinet on election night – the selection was actually a long, slow process.) Herndon described Lincoln as being “as firm as the Rocky Mountains.” There would be no secession and there would be no expansion of slavery. Lincoln then opened up publicly giving 101 speeches after February 11th – mostly on his way to his inauguration.
I asked Harold in the Q&A if the South would have tried to secede if anyone else but Lincoln had been elected. Harold agreed this question could be debated but felt that any northern person elected would have given them their excuse for secession.
Our first speaker was Edna Greene Medford. Hearing her speak is like attending a class with a very good professor – which she is at Howard University. The title of her talk was: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Road to Freedom.” (Edna brought her whole class on the Civil War to the Forum – all three students, all ladies.)
Edna opened by reading an exciting, moving page from the book describing the enslaved Eliza’s escape from the South across a frozen river to freedom. (Edna, an African-American, also related how 29 of her ancestors had left the country for Canada in the 1850s). Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was published in 1852. With more than 500,000 copies sold the first year, it would help shape the nation’s and the world’s opinions on slavery.
Edna’s talk was not a book review but rather focused on the book’s impact during the 1850s as our country was “in decline towards disunion.” Its author was the daughter of a well-known preacher (Lyman Beecher) – she once lived in Cincinnati where she saw slavery escapes from Kentucky, but before the book had limited knowledge of slavery.
Although a novel, the book, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “aroused a sluggish nation on slavery,” and to some degree in the North, where there was no slavery but racial prejudice and segregation. Through its vividly drawn characters, the book humanized slaves for the masses as never before, creating great sympathy for their cause of freedom.
As the book became more and more popular, numerous attacks were made against it and its author. Harriet was criticized for stepping out of the “role of women – unsexing herself.” Southerners called the book “a gross misrepresentation of facts – wide of the truth.” “Uncle Tom is a lie,” they claimed and pointed to their books showing the happiness of slaves. Plays were created from the book, becoming very popular – extending the cause for freedom to new audiences. (The downside of some of these plays was the beginning of the caricature of some blacks that lived on for decades in popular culture. And much later, the name “Uncle Tom” was used negatively during the fight for Civil Rights.)
Europeans appreciated the book. Harriet received international honors including awards in Great Britain. America’s policy on slavery came under even greater attacks from abroad.
Edna in her conclusion said the book, of course, did not bring about the war but did during those times of change become an important element of what she called “a confluence of events that did lead to the war.”
We learned, in response to a question, that contrary to Civil War mythology, Lincoln probably never told Harriet, when they first met, that “She was the little lady who started the war.” Lincoln, in fact, said he never read the book. Holzer added that while that was true, Lincoln did read Harriet’s, “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in which she defends the facts presented in her first book. Holzer also said that while Lincoln always claimed that he didn’t read novels, he actually did read them. (So much for “Honest” Abe on recreational reading.)
The question, “Did U.S. Grant own slaves?” was also asked – Edna deferred to John Marszalek for the answer. John said that Grant bought one slave and then later freed him and that he also inherited a slave that he also freed. Grant’s wife owned slaves from her father and Grant did not interfere with that ownership.
Our second speaker was Gary Ecelbarger – his talk was entitled: “Lincoln’s Great Comeback.” Gary is a dynamic speaker – using no notes – he had us wondering whether or not Lincoln was actually going to get the nomination for president at the 1860 convention. (Some members may recall on our field trip to the Shenandoah Valley, when Maynard was president, that Gary led the tour of the Kernstown Battlefield.)
It would take 233 votes in the Republican Convention in 1860 to win the nomination for president. At that time it was the tradition that, “The office should seek you” and not you the office, so there was no overt campaigning by any of the candidates. Not that there wasn’t campaigning behind the scenes through various friends and associates. Gary reminded us that at this point in his career, Lincoln was a loser: he had lost two Senate races. He also had no national prominence – except as loser – and if nominated, the candidate would probably have to face Stephen Douglas, who Lincoln had lost to twice. Despite all of that, Lincoln told his friends in 1859 that he “wanted the presidency,” and a shadow campaign was initiated to get it.
Lincoln would then give 30 speeches in eight states throughout 1859 and then gave his seminal Cooper Union talk in February of 1860 – clearly stating who he was and what he stood for. Despite his work, Lincoln was not even listed as a candidate on the pamphlet for the convention. The first victory in his quest came when his supporters managed to have the convention held in Chicago (Lincoln’s home field), a supposedly neutral site.
The convention began on May 16 with balloting scheduled for the next day. Lincoln’s strategy was: 1) to give no offense, 2) to accumulate partial votes from states, 3) to get commitments for the second ballot, 4) to hold off Seward on the first ballot and get enough votes to come in second. (With a large number of Favorite Sons to be nominated, there was no way that Seward could win on the first ballot.)
Gary took us through the pre-balloting maneuvering, state by state as Lincoln rolled up enough votes (partial and whole states) to come in second on the first ballot also achieving his goal of getting at least 100 votes. Seward would get 173 votes and Lincoln, 102. The Lincoln strategy – getting partial votes and commitments for the second ballot paid off as on that ballot he got 181 votes and Seward 184.5. The momentum was now Lincoln’s as the third ballot was taken – ending first with Lincoln at 231.5 and Seward at 181 – and three votes were switched to Lincoln giving him, 234.5 and the nomination. (Some clever home town managing of the convention, on ballots and timing, also helped Lincoln to win.)
Craig Symonds followed Gary with his talk entitled: “The Sumter Crisis: Learning on the Job.” (Craig was a speaker for us when Bob Boyda was president.) In this talk Craig takes us through Lincoln’s learning process as a man with no executive or military leadership experience as he faced his first military crisis at Fort Sumter.
With its secession, South Carolina and then the Confederacy considered all military forts on “their land,” their property. The Union, under Lincoln, did not see it that way. Especially vulnerable to takeovers in South Carolina were Fort Moultrie, outside Charleston, and in Charleston Bay, Fort Sumter. Major Robert Anderson, commander at Moultrie had a garrison of 75 men – which included 14 musicians. Sumter which had been under construction since 1816, was still not finished and was occupied only by laborers. Anderson knew he couldn’t defend Moultrie and moved his garrison to Sumter to protect them. (Anderson told Lincoln that it would take 20,000 men to defend his position – of course there were only 15,000 men in the army at that time, before many left for the Confederacy.)
Craig pointed out that Sumter was bought and paid for by the Union and not the state but it quickly became a symbol of secession. Anderson made his move while Buchanan was still in office. The South accused him of violating a “gentlemen’s agreement” to take no action. Buchanan finally stood firm on something – he told them, “It was just a move,” and did not order the garrison to leave the island fort.
Anderson occupied the fort but without enough supplies to stay very long and when a supply ship – Star of the West, attempted to reach him it was fired on and had to withdraw. Things were heating up. Lincoln as president was faced with how to show resolve without firing the first shot – Craig asked: “Was he good or just lucky?” Both.
Lincoln sought the advice of experts, including General Winfield Scott (overweight now but still very sharp militarily), and members of his cabinet. Various approaches were considered, including abandoning Sumter and then making a principled stand at Ft. Pickens in Florida – a more readily defensible fort. Montgomery Blair said Sumter must be held. Scott suggested holding on to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. A consultant named Gustavus Vasa Fox was brought in to work out a plan to use tug boats, defended by warships to supply the fort under the cover of night. Fox even visited Sumter – with permission from the South who did not know his real mission. Fox believed that his tug plan would work.
A decision was made on March 28th to reinforce / re-supply Sumter and Pickens. Supplies would be sent in early April. Lincoln decided that he would send notice of the sending of supplies only after the mission started – only supplies but if challenged, reinforcements would then be sent. Did he do this to force the South to attack? That is not clear and if they had allowed the supplies, no military action would have been taken.
Jefferson Davis considered Lincoln’s notice and decided that to allow supplies would make him look weak, so he ordering the firing on Sumter. The South with its 9 million people (5 million free) and agricultural society began a war with the 20 million people (all free) and their manufacturing society in the North.
Lincoln, although inexperienced, knew enough to be patient and to seek advice from a variety of well-informed people before developing a plan that could have avoided hostilities – with cooperation from the South – if it worked and if it did not would make the South the aggressor in a war. He was learning on the job.
I asked Craig what, if any, advice Davis sought during this time. Craig said that Davis considered himself to be the expert and so did not seek much advice from anyone. Lincoln, the Mohawk War Captain of a few men who never saw battle, outfoxed Davis, the former Secretary of War.
I was also able to ask Craig at lunch (maybe that was why he never sat with me again) if it was prearranged that Anderson would surrender if fired on. He said, not directly, but that it was accepted that Sumter could not be held. He went on to describe how it all happened. The South began its bombardment at 4:30 a.m. Anderson waited to be sure it was what it seemed to be. He decided at 8:30 that it was and began to return fire. Eventually, the Sumter flagpole was hit and fell, downing the flag. The South wondered if this meant surrender, so under a white flag, General P.G.T. Beauregard rowed out to the fort to find out. Anderson told him that it did not mean surrender but as long as Beauregard was there, he would surrender the fort. (By now, Craig’s soup was getting cold so I asked no more questions.)
Our first speaker in the afternoon session was John Marszalek. John spoke to our Roundtable on Halleck when I was president and will speak to us again in May – on U.S. Grant. His talk was entitled: “The Old Army on the Eve of War.”
John began by telling us that as conditions worsened during the 1850s pointing towards an eventual conflict, the North thought that the South was bluffing on secession while the South thought that the North would never fight to prevent it. He then described the contrasting development in both regions during the 1850s with the North’s focus on manufacturing and the South’s on agriculture, mostly cotton – King Cotton based on slave labor.
There were 15,259 men in the U.S. Army in 1859 including 1009 officers. Most of the Army was based on the frontier. West Point was considered to be elitist. There was a total of 200 West Point graduates in 1860. Of these, there were 821 still in service – 197 of these would become Confederates. (John noted that it was a “myth that most went to the South.”) West Point was primarily focused on engineering and many West Pointers had left service for jobs as engineers – canal building, manufacturing, etc. with better pay. (958 graduates did not serve during the war.)
The culture of the country at that time and before did not favor a large standing army – some even felt that no more than an army of 1000 would ever be needed (with the use of state militias as backup if needed.) When the war started, there were only two officers in service who had ever led a large force – one was 75 years old and the other 77 – and no one had ever led forces the size of those needed for this war. John also noted as an aside the lack of maps for military purposes, saying that good ones just did not exist. Obviously the “Old Army” would not be enough to win any war.
John then told us how no one could have predicted in 1860 that Grant, Sherman and even Halleck would lead the North to victory. They did enjoy the old army, Sherman was bored, Grant drank (but John told us the views of Grant as a drunk were hogwash), and Halleck, who had succeeded in the old army and who wrote the “Book on Military Theory,” was in administration. Grant and Sherman had both left the service and would need to use political connections to get back in. These three do succeed and with Lincoln, form a new army, moving, under their leadership, into modern warfare. The South, John told us, with Davis, Lee and Jackson never did grow out of the old army and its ways.
After the war, the army was once again reduced and then limited to frontier duty by act of Congress. It would take several more decades – until the 1900s – for real reform.
Our next speaker was William W. Freehling who was new to the Forum. We all hoped he would return for another talk. His topic was: “Lincoln’s Forgotten Southern Republicans.”
In trying to summarize these talks, I’m always aware of how poorly they represent the speakers – a “you had to be there” type of thing. This is especially true of this talk as the very distinguished professor, with great humor, led us through some facts and considerations on the South and its Republican influences.
Lincoln was not as little known in the 1850s as is often thought, Freehling told us, reminding some that Lincoln had come in second for the vice president nomination on Fremont’s 1856 ticket. Lincoln and his views on national issues were known to many. Cassius Clay (no not that one), a southern Kentuckian, who came in second, wanted to establish the party in the South. Freehling said that virtually no one talked about slavery in the South but Clay did and so did other southern Republicans. Some southerners feared a revolt of slaves if slavery were discussed. (The speaker’s claim that 20% of the South was Republican was questioned but he answered with the logic of how he arrived at that figure. He also pointed out that Lincoln did get some popular votes in the South.)
The real issue between 1852 and 1860 was the expansion of slavery, not its elimination. Freehling told us that, after Kansas and Texas, there were really no territories for slaves to be brought into – there were just not enough slaves for expansion. The Republican Party did not support John Brown and his actions.
He referenced a book of that era by a man named Hinton Helper entitled: Compendium of the Impending Crisis of the South in which a revolt is predicted against slaveholders. As the South did not talk about slavery, it also did not debate it: slavery was and always would be to them. The most prominent southern Republican was Frank Blair of Missouri who told his people: “We don’t need slavery.” His approach was to buy a colony property and ship freed slaves to it. (“We have slavery, because we have blacks.”)
With Lincoln, the South feared – far more than no expansion of slavery – was that he would build a Southern Party of Republicans through patronage to non-slaveholders, etc. and then, through debate in the South, achieve an end to slavery from within. Lincoln, when asked a direct question on this strategy after his election, avoids a direct answer but he does desire that the South find a way to free slaves itself even to considering a colonization plan with payments to slaveholders.
There was no more talk of any colonies with the Emancipation Proclamation – the South wouldn’t solve the slavery problem so Lincoln did and, had he lived, his planned moderate approach to reconstruction may have avoided the problems that followed the Radical Republicans’ reconstruction policies. While Lincoln did not initially believe that blacks should become full citizens, his views changed and he began to think in terms of full equality for them.
Freehling’s belief that, with Lincoln, the South feared the rise of the anti-slavery Republican Party in the South, which would eventually end slavery, provided us with a new perspective on the South. As we will learn in the first talk the next day by Peter Carmichael, “You don’t want to mess with Southern culture.”
At dinner that night, Frank Williams presented the Annual Leonard Volk Life Mask Award (the award being a replica of the life mask made of Lincoln by Volk in 1860.) Prior recipients were Ford’s Theater and The Soldiers’ Home. The Lincoln Home in Springfield received the award this year – accepted by its curator, Tim Townsend.
After the award presentation, George Buss, noted Lincoln re-enactor, who has spoken and performed at our Roundtable twice, read excerpts from Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address – excellent as always.
Frank Williams was the speaker that evening. The title of his talk was simply: “Lincoln’s Education.” He began by reminding us of the enigma of Lincoln – “one of the examples of the American Dream.” How did this backwoods boy become our greatest president? Through intellect, strength of character, a disciplined mind and a self education through his extensive and varied reading as a person, politician and military leader.
Frank walked us through the young lawyer Lincoln’s reading of the law, treaties, and court sessions as he handled cases on land, bad debts, libels, etc. He was admitted to the bar in 1837 and was known to “root for facts” digging them up and analyzing them in his work – and he never stopped working to improve his writing – honing his skills as a lawyer (or just as a thinker – using resources of the Library of Congress to study Euclidean Geometry to improve his logical talents.)
Lincoln said that if all of his time were put together, that he had about one year of formal education. One time, when filling out a form, next to the line reading “Education,” he wrote “Defective.” However he read anything he could get his hands on. His early books included: A Life of Washington, Aesop’s Fables, The King James Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress. (Close readings of Lincoln’s words will see how these works influenced his thinking and writing.) His hero was Washington; his biography showed Lincoln the potential of man.
Early life experiences also added to his education: a harsh father without ambition, losing his mother when he was nine years old, life on the prairie including the terrible winter of 1816, the building of his flat boat and his ferry boat business, the Black Hawk War (lack of supplies for troops) – “he studied everything – he learned.” (Some trivia: Lincoln used his flat boat at times to ferry passengers to larger boats in the river. He was charged with running a ferry boat without a license but was then found not guilty since his boat was not technically a ferry boat under the law.)
Other books he read that influenced him were those brought to his home by his stepmother, Sarah. These books included: Arabian Nights, Lessons in Elocution and Robinson Crusoe. Sarah recalled that it took Lincoln awhile to learn, that: “he must understand all of it – and then he didn’t forget it.” We also know that he had a love of Shakespeare and the poems of Robert Burns and Walt Whitman (who he loved to read out loud.) As president he read and studied books on military strategy.
Lincoln’s father never supported his reading and thought Lincoln to be just lazy (and maybe he was at times since he always hated physical labor.) Contrary to some historians, Lincoln was not in bondage to his father – it was the system at that time that wages of children belonged to their parents until they were 21 years old. (Lincoln’s father hated slavery and was known for his storytelling, so Lincoln did receive this much of a legacy from him.)
“What do we take from his education?” “He was not a naturally brilliant man.” (But maybe he was; someone in the audience later pointed out that someone had pegged Lincoln’s IQ at 140) He worked to learn and to use what he learned. Lincoln was taken as something of a plodder in his studies. (Horace Greeley called him an “exhaustive” learner.) Lincoln knew how to learn and with his love of reading and great books it may be said (as I always tell the students I speak to) that he had some of the best teachers in the world.
In answering a question, Frank said that history shows that Lincoln was always against slavery and for the preservation of the Union. He also pointed out that the First Inaugural Address was a stern speech in support of the Union.
November 18th – Morning
After a short report on the state of the Forum by Frank and a preview of next year’s programs – the theme will be “Lincoln on the Home Front” (Ed Bearss will lead a battlefield tour for the first 50 to register for the Forum), our first speaker was introduced.
Peter Carmichael’s topic was: “Southern Perception of Lincoln in the Wake of the 1860 Election.” (This talk was recorded by C-Span and was aired in January so it may be on again some day.)
In this talk Carmichael sought to give us an understanding of the Southern culture with its ingrained traditions of honor (its way of life) and slavery. It seemed that some in the audience thought he was trying to justify the South and they showed some displeasure. Others, like me, appreciated the perspectives he gave us that help explain the great differences that led to the war. (As was pointed out in the Q&A, misunderstood and unappreciated cultural differences still lead to wars and insurrections. The more we understand such things the better.)
Carmichael is a bright guy who has an evangelist’s style of speaking. His background in Civil War history – North and South – was apparent in his talk. I’ll just try to cover some of his main points – hoping that you will see him on C-Span one of these days. He told us the South had a long tradition of “honor” (protection of self, home, family, friends and country) and which, if offended in any way, needed “satisfaction” to resolve, often in a duel. He pointed out that all cultures have their own unique systems that help to make them what they are. Any attack on slavery was an attack to them – not on the practice itself – but on their way of life.
It was this “honor” for example that led Lee, while opposed to secession, to the South once the states were attacked. Lee cared deeply about slavery – it did matter to him but it was his honor that made him a Confederate according to Carmichael. It was for the South, “Honor over Union.” We often hear that most of the southern soldiers did not and never did own slaves – they fought for their honor, their way of life especially when Union forces came into their states. The North also had its culture – community, family, faith etc. – but with a broader mix of people from different cultures it did not have the long held traditions of the South.
After this talk, I had a better understanding than before of the Southern culture, including slavery, in what it thought was its modern society. I had the impression, although not put this way by the speaker, that war could have been avoided if some way could have been found for the South to come to a realization that slavery had to be eliminated on its own since it would never accept any other entity telling it what to do especially when it came to its “principles.” Ingrained cultural principles still play a part in differences between nations – sometimes still leading to wars. They must be addressed if we are ever to have meaningful relationships with other countries especially those that seem so strange to us. (For example, I doubt that China will ever be browbeaten into improved Civil Rights – given its culture, those improvements must come from within.)
The second feature presentation that morning was the annual panel discussion – a favorite where we are given the opportunity to participate with our questions. The topic for the panel (Frank Williams – moderator, Harold Holzer, Craig Symonds, Michael Lind, Peter Carmichael and William Freehling) was: “Could the War Have Been Avoided?
Freehling went first. He said the broader question was how things got so bad between the North and South in the 1850s and focused on John Brown – his capture and the speech he gave before being hung – and the influence it had. The 1850s for all panelists were the road to war. Carmichael focused on the two economic systems – wage labor vs. slave labor setting up an inevitable conflict. Holzer agreed that a collision was inevitable given the actions of the 1850s. And to Harold, any Republican elected president would have brought on secession – maybe Lincoln just faster than someone else. Symonds called the actions of the 1850s over slavery, new territories, extension of practices, etc. those that led to an inevitable confrontation – sooner or later. Marszalek said it all came down to slavery. All seemed to agree that by 1860, not much could have been done to avoid a war of some kind and duration without allowing secession.
Some thoughts and facts that came out of the questions that were asked: Symonds pointed out that at the beginning of the 1850s, the South was stronger than the North and it could have won a war at that time – timing was critical. The roles reversed as the decade progressed and manufacturing developed in the North. Holzer said that no one had a clue about what it would take to wage or to win a war. Lind said there was a gradual polarization of sides.
I had the last question. If war was inevitable, as all of the panelists agreed, why was there no preparation on either side of any significance before it broke out? They really didn’t have a good answer. (This presentation was recorded by C-Span and was to have been aired on January 22 and 23rd. It may be repeated at some future date.)
November 18th – Afternoon
The Forum tried something new this year for this afternoon – breakout sessions wherein most of the speakers held Q&A meetings with the attendees divided between them – with up to 20 at each of the meetings. This is a good idea but it did not work well for the session I attended which shared a room with another session, making it very difficult to hear or to engage in any conversations. These were the only sessions sharing a room and such sharing will not be repeated next year. (There was also an option for new attendees to take a bus tour of the battlefield.)
November 18th – Evening – Dinner
Our own Maynard and Betty Bauer were honored at dinner as the couple which has been married the longest – 60 years and counting. Each received a small prize. Congratulations to them.
The Annual Richard Nelson Current Award was presented to Mark Neely, Jr. – described as “The Lincoln Scholar of his generation.” Professor Neely was also the speaker. His topic was: “The Essence of Anarchy: The Problem of Secession after 150 Years.”
Neely teaches constitutional law and hearing him was as if we were sitting in his classroom – it was a very scholarly presentation, one in which he, among other things, emphasized the importance of constitutional law and the teaching of it. (I had the impression from his words such teaching must be a dying profession.)
Neely began by telling us that constitutional history is crucial to understanding secession. He said that Lincoln didn’t think about secession very much or very long – really not until 12-16-1860 with the South Carolina Convention. What Lincoln thought about secession: 1) No state can get out of the Union without the consent of other states, 2) In his First Inaugural, he called secession the “essence of anarchy” and 3) He also said it was not democratic but rather anti-democratic.
Neely asked if secession was stampeded, some kind of coup or a popular movement. He then led us through the process of ratifying or de-ratifying a constitution raising these questions on the secession process: was it rushed, was any delegate fraud involved, was it debated and fully heard by people and was it a popular movement?
His answers were: 1) Yes, it was rushed in South Carolina. It took this state 116 days to ratify the Constitution and only 86 days to de-ratify it. 2) Fraud? Out of 889 delegates only one was contested – should have been more, 3) Debate adequate? Ratification allowed plenty of time for debate, de-ratification did not – much based on 166,000 copies of various documents and pamphlets and 4) Popular? No, it was anti-popular and the convention did more than it was supposed to.
He also pointed out that the ratification process likewise had some problems with some fraud and tricks, too, but the conclusion relative to secession is that those states seceding did not follow constitutional law – and he closed by saying without the study of constitutional law we would never know that.
The final presentation of the evening and the 2010 symposium was given by Jim Getty – who has been a speaker for us – reading selections from Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. He was excellent as always.
One of the treats of these symposiums is the opportunity to literally rub elbows with its speakers and presenters and others in attendance that may also be authors. One of these authors was John G. Sotos, a doctor who has written a book entitled, The Physical Lincoln Complete. It’s a comprehensive examination of every aspect of Lincoln health – or lack thereof. Dr. Sotos concludes that Lincoln would not have lived much more than a year if he had not been shot. And that it was not Marfan syndrome that would have killed him but rather something called “multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B (MEN2B)” a type of cancer. I now have this book and will be writing an article about his findings for The Charger. I was able to discuss his conclusions with him in the buffet line one day. (The book is a brick and looks imposing but it’s really two volumes in one: the first volume is the narrative and finding and the second is a complete reference volume with all of his research. It’s written for civilians in a very readable style with some humor, too. It’s far from dry and is as much history book as medical.)
The success of any event can be measured by how sorry you are to see it end and how much you look forward to the next one. The 2010 Lincoln Forum was a great success.
My thanks as always to Hank Ballone for his generosity in allowing me to add his great photos to this report – and for his patience every year as Crews and I pester him to take our pictures.
My thanks too to Betty and Maynard Bauer for their invaluable editing of this report – correcting misspellings and typos and for getting my train of thought back on track from time to time.
Biographies of the 2010 Lincoln Forum Speakers (from the Forum program)
Click on a 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.
Peter S. Carmichael, newly named Director of the Civil War Institute, and Fluhrer Professor of Civil War History, at Gettysburg College, previously taught history at Penn State (where he earned his Ph.D.), Western Carolinas University, Virginia Commonwealth University, UNC-Greensboro, and West Virginia University. A highly popular lecturer, his books include The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion. He is at work on a new volume entitled Black Rebels, exploring the experience of slaves who served as soldiers in the Confederacy.
Gary Ecelbarger is the author of seven books, most notably The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination (2008). He has also written biographies of Frederick W. Lander and “Black Jack” Logan and a history of Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah. The Western New York native was educated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and spent 16 years working in medical intensive care units. A professional history tour guide, Ecelbarger has written dozens of articles about personalities and events of the Civil War era.
Harold Holzer, vice chairman of the Forum, served as co-chair of the U. S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission from 2001-2010, and now chairs its successor organization, the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. Author, co-author, or editor of 36 books, including the award-winning Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861, he won a 2005 second-place Lincoln Prize for Lincoln at Cooper Union, and the 2008 National Humanities Medal from the President of the United States. His new book, co-edited with Craig L. Symonds, is The New York Times Complete Civil War.
Edna Greene Medford, a frequent speaker at The Lincoln Forum, where she serves as a member of the Board of Advisors, is professor of history and chairman of the department at Howard University, where in 2009 she chaired a major bicentennial conference on Lincoln. The former director of New York’s African Burial Ground project, she has appeared regularly on C-SPAN, and was recently elected a member of the Board of the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. The author of many articles and reviews, she is the author of Lincoln and Emancipation and a co-author of The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views.
Hon. Frank J. Williams is founding Chairman of the Lincoln Forum, former member of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, and a newly elected member of the Board of the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. Among his many books are Judging Lincoln and, with Roger Billings, the new Abraham Lincoln, Esq.: The Legal Career of America’s Greatest President. He earlier served as President of the Lincoln Group of Boston and the Abraham Lincoln Association (whose prestigious “Lincoln the Lawyer” award he earned in 2009), and currently serves as President of the Ulysses S. Grant Association.