‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.’
Abraham Lincoln, in response to an editorial by Horace Greeley
With the exception of a few days, Lincoln’s time as president was spent trying to stop a war. Before he was inaugurated, half of the states that made up the United States had seceded or were threatening to. Lincoln realized that the sooner the war ended, the better for all concerned. It would limit the amount of devastation and loss of life, and put an end to the squabbling over the issues of slavery and states’ rights.
The turning point of the war finally came in July 1863. Lee attempted to take the war North, to show the Union how terrible an impact the war was having on civilians in the South. Lee’s Confederate forces clashed with Union troops in a small market town called Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania. It would go down in history as the bloodiest battle of the war. More than 150,000 soldiers would engage in the battle, and just over 50,000 would lose their lives.
Four months later, on Thursday, 19 November 1863, Lincoln was invited to offer a few appropriate comments at a dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The main address was given by Edward Everett, a former politician who raised money for the Union cause. His two-hour speech was listed on the programme as the Gettysburg Address. However, that title would go to the brief speech, composed on the train ride to Gettysburg, given by Lincoln and considered one of the finest examples of oratory in history. (See Appendix 2.)
The gateway to the Gettysburg Cemetery, site where Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address.
Although Gettysburg was a crucial victory, the war was still far from over. With a need for a general and under political pressure, another West Point graduate entered the scenario. General Winfield Scott had stepped down early in the war. One successor after another had tried and failed to prove himself worthy of replacing Scott. Lincoln’s search finally led him to a very unlikely candidate.
Ulysses S. Grant was anything but typical of a high-ranking officer in the United States Army. Such men prided themselves on gentlemanly conduct. Grant was known for his drinking and his reviews of troops in his shirtsleeves, neither of which were deemed acceptable behaviour for an officer. Grant’s victories in the Western theatre of war marked him out as a leader with the potential to put an end to the carnage and destruction.
Grant’s siege of Vicksburg had ended with the opening of the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico to St Louis, Missouri. With the help of several other generals, he launched campaigns that would push Lee’s Confederate forces back until they were left with no direction to turn. On 9 April 1865, Grant and the defeated Lee met at the home of Wilmer McLean near Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia to talk terms of Lee’s surrender. It had been four years since the war had begun. In less than a week the nation would be without a president.