What was Happening during the Civil War on or about Lincoln’s February 12th Birthday?

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2019-2020, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

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Since this month’s regular meeting falls on Lincoln’s birthday it was thought appropriate to highlight what was taking place during the Civil War years 1861 through 1865 on or about Lincoln’s birthday.

On February 12th, 1861 how happy was Lincoln on his birthday??? Open hostilities had not yet begun between North and South, and President-Elect Lincoln was on a train from Illinois for Washington, D.C. to attend his first inauguration. Lincoln already knew that he had his work “cut out for him” and that’s putting it mildly. In December of 1860, defiant South Carolina had seceded from the Union followed quickly and ominously in January of 1861 by the states of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and, in early February, Texas. On February 4, the newly seceded states met for a convention in Montgomery, Alabama and on February 8 adopted a Constitution for a Confederate Government and the 9th elected Jefferson Davis President of the Confederacy – some birthday present! As Lincoln left Illinois, he knew that he was going to have at the very least, a tumultuous term ahead of him as President. His train was making numerous whistle stops and on February 12th, Lincoln spent part of his birthday giving a speech in Cincinnati to the “German Industrial Association” but to the chagrined press did not reveal his plans for the widening crisis. I guess that one could say that Lincoln had a happy birthday, since he had been elected president and was about to be inaugurated, but he surely was greatly troubled by secession. On a scale of one to ten with ten being the best, let’s say Lincoln’s happiness quotient on his 1861 birthday as only a “five.”

By February 12, 1862 the war was well underway. However, Lincoln had reason to be enjoying shall we say a “happier” birthday than in 1861. Grant was on the move in the West with a superb combined arms effort having skillfully deployed both army and brown water navy assets to capture Fort Henry on February 6th and was in process of placing Fort Donelson under siege in Tennessee. Grant would soon capture Donelson, and these two great tactical victories opened up the Cumberland River making the industrial center of Nashville vulnerable. In the East, in another display of good use of both army and naval resources, General Burnside captured Roanoke Island on the North Carolina Coast on February 8th; the important Federal Blockade of the Confederate seaboard began to take shape and most of the North Carolina coast would fall to Burnside over the next few months. On a scale of one to ten, Lincoln’s birthday happiness in 1862 had to be close to an “eight” pushing “nine!”

By February 12, 1863 one could say that things had worsened and Lincoln probably was less happy on his birthday. General Lee looked invincible having recently defeated the Union Army of the Potomac the previous December at Fredericksburg. After a frustrating string of failed commanders, Lincoln appointed “Fighting” Joe Hooker commander of that army. In late January, Lincoln wrote a now famous letter to the boisterous Hooker in response to rumors of Hooker seizing the reins of government saying, “Only those generals, who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.” Lincoln further urged him to “beware of rashness.” Hooker nevertheless in February continued to infamously and rashly boast while preparing for what became known disastrously to the North as the Chancellorsville campaign: “My plans are perfect. May God have mercy on General Lee for I will have none!” Due to the continued bleak military results in the East, we’ll call Lincoln’s happiness on his 1863 birthday a “three.”

On his birthday in 1864, things were relatively quiet. The great victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg had been achieved the previous summer. It must have been quite a pensive time for Lincoln as his reelection fight for the coming fall was taking shape and his soon to be presidential challenger, General McClellan, had announced in October 1863 that he was interested. Abe however was in the process of finding the solution to the military puzzle in the East formulating his plans to put Grant in complete command. Lincoln would, and on March 12th promoted Grant to General-in-Chief of all Union armies. On a scale of one to ten, because of the justifiably high hopes for Grant in the East, let’s call Lincoln’s February 12th happiness quotient a “seven.”

In 1865, one presumes that this was the happiest of Lincoln’s Civil War birthdays. He had won reelection – the first president to do so since Andrew Jackson in 1832 – and the Electoral College convened to confirm it on his birthday. Lee’s army was virtually trapped at Petersburg south of Richmond (that’s a teaser for Steve Pettyjohn’s upcoming field trip) and Sherman’s march to Savannah had made complete victory look certain. Lincoln’s goal of reuniting the country was nearly at hand and his famous – and I think his best speech out of so many good ones – the second inaugural address, must have been gestating in his presidential mind. On that February 12th, Lincoln was 56 – and on a scale of one to ten, let’s call this one a very happy “ten!”