The Unexpected Turn

TurningPoints-logoIn 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.

9 Responses to The Unexpected Turn

  1. The assassination was a turning point in many ways. The white soldiers and leadership knew him as the steel willed opponent who had beaten them. The black population saw him as a liberator and redeemer. But the “martyrdom” obscured the reality of the task ahead of him, and his own mixed signals that were always part of his political method, as he flexibly responded to the task at hand. The political reorganization of a shattered south, as well as the social and economic integration of a massive new free labor component was a monumental task. Immediately before his death Lincoln’s lukewarm abolitionist and Radical Republican allies were furious over signs of Presidential “weakness” as reflected in his Louisiana 10% plan. But at least Lincoln had an established political power base; as that queerist of creatures, a Union loyal southern Democrat, Andrew Johnson had none. I think the central factor that ultimately defeated an extended Reconstruction was the awful human cost of the Civil War. Modern historians can bemoan the failure and seek to assess blame, but the truth is I think fairly simple. The massive bloodletting of the War, the thousands of ruined bodies and souls that came home to the North, the delayed lives that families wished to take up again, created a powerful inertia against continued effort. And ironically that cost must be in large part be laid at Lincoln’s feet. His historian partisans act as if his growth in military leadership skills was some form of inherent virtue. His learning curve was disastrously long, and his incompetent micromanagement only ended when he hired the politically subtle and manipulative Grant to run the engine of war. But the delay had given the Confederacy time to learn the art of the defense, which almost cost Lincoln his second term. The Union prevailed, but the cost in blood was far too high. Lincoln might have sought to rationalize it to himself via the messianic language of his Second Inaugural, but others paid the butcher’s bill.

  2. I think the great Civil War historian James McPherson had it about right. He speculated that Lincoln would have gone easy on the South in the immediate aftermath of the war. However, Lincoln would have been angered by the South’s defiance in the post-war period, McPherson said. The Black Codes, which in effect re-imposed slavery in most deep South states, would have outraged Lincoln, McPherson speculated. And, of course, the emergence of the KKK and its domestic terrorism would not have been tolerated by Lincoln.

    Lincoln’s view of blacks evolved during the war. At first, he emphasized that saving the Union was by far the most important reason for opposing secession. But he gradually came to believe emancipation was an equally important goal – for moral, political and military reasons. And his respect for the black race dramatically increased during the war. Frederick Douglass, one of the great intellects of his day, and the sacrifices of black troops on the battlefield did much to change Lincoln’s thinking.

    Bottom Line: By the middle of his second term, Lincoln would have been siding far more with the “vengeful Radical Republicans in Congress” than opposing them. In light of Southern intransigence toward basic civil rights for blacks, Lincoln would have heartily endorsed the vast majority of Reconstruction laws.

    1. I don’t really like to say “this would have happened” because there’s really no way to tell. We can only make guesses based on evidence.

      I think of Lincoln’s pocket veto of the Congress’s Reconstruction plan in the summer of ’64. Already the radicals were planning their vengence, and Lincoln wasn’t buying in. Whether he would’ve had the political adroitness to continue to outmaneuver them throughout his second term, who knows–but he had a marvelous ability to outmaneuver pretty much anyone. I suspect he’d have also applied the ability toward the problem of the Black Codes and other such defiant Southern actions. Many are the people who underestimated Lincoln only to regret it later!

      And who’s even to say Lincoln would’ve called it quits after two terms? Perhaps he might’ve seen the unfinished work of Reconstruction as an urgent-enough call to run a third time? Conversely, who’s to say his health would’ve held out to last a full second term? As someone else on this thread mentioned, he was a physical and emotional wreck by April 1865….

  3. It is my judgment that even if Lincoln had lived to complete his second term, it would not have made a big difference in the South. He had accomplished his goals of Union and Emancipation, in the defense of which he had stood like granite. His job and his time on history’s stage were largely done. The war was over and the country was re-united. The Emancipation Proclamation had done as much as it could. Union troops occupying the eleven states of the Confederacy encountered not slaves, but free men and women, thanks to the Proclamation The border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware had already abolished slavery or soon would. Likewise West Virginia. The continuation of slavery in these states would have been a hopeless anachronism in a Union of otherwise free states.The 13th Amendment had already been ratified by the Senate and the House. Indeed, when one studies the assassination, one cannot help but feel that Lincoln himself sensed a gathering storm, a stacking of impropitious circumstances that portended a destiny whose time had come and which would memorialize the end of his era. Regardless, the struggle made him old before his time. He was a very unhealthy man at 56; one can see it in the final photos that were taken of him. Despite his great political skills, his condition would have made him less effective in peace than he had been in war. Reconstruction could not help but be an ordeal for everyone concerned. Societies are not turned upside down without severe dislocation. Political turmoil, economic hardship and mass murder of freedmen, especially in the backwoods, out of sight of occupying Union forces, would have occurred regardless of who was in the White House. The only saving grace is that it lasted only 11 years.

  4. As regards McPherson and other Lincoln votaries like Holzer, I believe they ultimately see the Lincoln for the 21st Century that they wish to see. They create paradigms of a hoard of KKK night riders, Lost Cause matrons, Lee biographers and zombie Confederate statues terrorizing the newly enfranchised freemen. Then the Great Egalitarian Superlincoln descends upon them, along with his allies of the Equal Justice League, Sumner, Stevens and O.O.Howard (A/K/A One-Armed Man) to save the day. In truth, no one knows what would have happened. Lincoln had received an adrenaline shot from Appomattox and his Richmond field trip, but he was a physical and emotional wreck, already looking down the road to retirement. Like the country he led, he was too exhausted for any long term coherent policy. The previous four years had transformed the nation more than the “fourscore and seven” intoned by the Gettysburg Address.

  5. To me, Lincoln dying was akin to the death of FDR in the waning months of WWII. Some on the Axis side might have taken some inspiration from it, but the writing was on the wall concerning their fate. There were still some sizeable Confederate forces that had to be dealt with. Guerilla warfare options had not ceased just because Lee had rejected them in the lead up to Appomattox. We can’t possibly know what would have happened had he lived, but there is some evidence that Lincoln just wanted to put it all in the past and rebuild. Remember that there were some pressing international issues that needed addressing, especially that of Mexico which was under French occupation, and that was supported by Great Britain and Spain. It stands to reason that, given his track record on such things, Lincoln would have pressed to do anything to get the country reunited again. He had stated that he would have allowed slavery to continue if that had resulted in the Union being maintained. So whether he would have done anything to interfere with efforts in Southern states to subjugate blacks is something we can never ever know. We like to think he would have, but political realities would have no doubt been hard to overcome.

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