In my conclusion to Turning Points of the American Civil War, I suggest that Lincoln’s assassination was perhaps a turning point of the war rather than just a tragic coda that followed the surrender at Appomattox.
In his outstanding book Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, my colleague Brian Matthew Jordan articulated an idea that was instrumental in my thinking: “if anything, Appomattox was halftime,” he wrote. That’s because, as he told me in a 2105 interview for ECW, the veterans themselves knew “military triumph on the battlefield hadn’t settled all the issues, and they were keenly aware of the unfinished social and political work of this war.” That gave me pause to reconsider events in April 1865 and reconceptualize the war’s overarching narrative.
It stands to reason that Lincoln, as newly re-elected president would have had much to say about how the “unfinished social and political work of the war” would have been addressed. Instead, that fell, in turns, to the embattled Andrew Johnston, the vengeful Radical Republicans in Congress (with whom Johnston had an adversarial relationship), and eventually to President Ulysses S. Grant.
It’s impossible to know how Reconstruction would have played out under Lincoln’s guiding hand, but we have several strong bits of evidence to suggest a much different approach than the one that ended up unfolding.
The first, of course, is the compassionate vision Lincoln articulated at the end of his Second Inaugural Address:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
How does a sweeping vision like that play out in practical terms? Lincoln offered some thoughts during a March 28, 1865, conference with Grant, William T. Sherman, and Admiral David Porter aboard the River Queen and, a few days later on April 4, when he visited Richmond following the fall of the Confederate capital. While the former conversation went unrecorded, he summed up his sentiment for listeners in Richmond: “let ‘em up easy.” (For more on this, see my afterword, “With Malice Toward None,” in Bert Dunkerly’s ECWS book To the Bitter End: Appomattox, Bennett Place, and the Surrenders of the Confederacy.)
We have another piece of textual evidence that suggests in even clearer terms how Lincoln might have guided Reconstruction. It comes from a July 1863 exchange Lincoln had with Gen. John Schofield, then in command of the Department of Missouri. Lincoln expected to occupy a “middle position,” as he called it, being just tough enough to keep the peace but not too tough as to provoke even worse dissent.
The parallels to the postwar South aren’t perfect, but they’re close enough to be instructive. As a loyal border state, Missouri enjoyed a tumultuous peace at best, with pro-Union and pro-Confederate bands of guerrillas operating across the land and residents often, literally, at each other’s throats.
Unfortunately, Schofield proved too aggressive in the job, riling up opposition rather than calming it. Of particular note was a feud the general picked with the editor of the pro-Union Missouri Democrat in St. Louis. Lincoln urged Schofield to drop it, but Schofield—his dander up—persisted. By mid-July, Lincoln finally convinced the general to desist, and in doing so, clearly laid out his intent for martial law: “Let your military measures be strong enough to repel the invader and keep the peace, and not so strong as to unnecessarily harass and persecute the people.”
In the context of Reconstruction, there would have been no need to “repel the invader,” of course, but every other part of Lincoln’s instruction would have held true—particularly “keep the peace” and don’t “harass and persecute.” It sounds like a firm but gentle hand very much in keeping with his later “let ‘em up easy.”
The northern victory in the Civil War may have forced the southern states back into the Union, but it didn’t do much to win back southern hearts and minds. Appomattox might’ve been an end to the fighting, but the road to peace stretched well beyond the battlefield. Lincoln expected to lead the way “with malice toward none, with charity toward all,” but never had the chance. Where his path might have led, no one can say, of course.
But with his assassination, the road took a sharp, unexpected turn.