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THE DEFEAT ON THE Peninsula devastated Northern morale. “We are in the depths just now,” George Templeton Strong admitted on July 14, 1862, “permeated by disgust, saturated with gloomy thinking.” In Washington, columnist Cara Kasson observed the frustration written on every face, manifesting an anxiety greater than the aftermath of Bull Run, “for the present repulse is more momentous.” Count Gurowski agreed, calling the Fourth of July holiday “the gloomiest since the birth of this republic. Never was the country so low.” Even the normally stoical John Nicolay confided to his fiancée, Therena, that “the past has been a very blue week…. I don’t think I have ever heard more croaking since the war began.”

For the irrepressibly optimistic Seward, who had fervently hoped the capture of Richmond might signal an end to the war, the turn of events was shattering. “It is a startling sight to see the mind of a great people, saddened, angered, soured, all at once,” he confided to Fanny, who was in Auburn with her mother for the summer. “If I should let a shade of this popular despondency fall upon a dispatch, or even rest upon my own countenance,” he realized, “there would be black despair throughout the whole country.” He begged her for letters detailing daily life at home—the flowers in bloom and the hatching of eggs—anything but war and defeat. “They bring no alarm, no remonstrances, no complaints, and no reproaches,” he explained. “They are the only letters which come to me, free from excitement…. Write to me then cheerfully, as you are wont to do, of boys and girls and dogs and horses, and birds that sing, and stars that shine and never weep, and be blessed for all your days, for thus helping to sustain a spirit.”

Chase was equally shaken and despondent. “Since the rebellion broke out I have never been so sad,” he told a friend. “We ought [to have] won a victory and taken Richmond.” Furthermore, Kate, who had gone to Ohio to visit her grandmother, was not in Washington to console him. “The house seemed very dull after you were gone,” he told her in one of many long letters cataloguing the events of that summer. He described his sojourn to see General McDowell, who had been knocked unconscious by a bad fall from his horse; told her of an unusual cabinet meeting, a pleasant dinner party at Seward’s with the Stantons and the Welles, a meeting with Jay Cooke, and a visit from Bishop McIlvaine. He queried her about her summer clothes, her lace veil, and a diamond she had ordered. In addition to commonplace matters, he provided her with confidential military intelligence about the Peninsula Campaign, delineating the flow of the Chickahominy and the position of the various divisions so she could visualize the course of the battle.

Kate was thrilled by her father’s lengthy epistles, which she interpreted as “a mark of love and confidence.” Her appreciation, he replied, was “more than ample reward for the time & trouble of writing.” She must trust that she would always have his love and that he would continue to “confide greatly in [her] on many points.” He was pleased, as well, with the quality of her letters, which finally seemed to meet his exacting standards. “All your letters have come and all have been good—some very good.”

However, Kate’s letters that summer concealed her unhappiness over the troubled course of her romance with William Sprague. The young couple had been close to an engagement before Sprague received some nasty letters retelling and likely embellishing the story of Kate’s dalliance with the young married man in Columbus who had become obsessed with her when she was sixteen. Though Sprague was guilty of far greater indiscretions himself, having fathered a child during his twenties, it seems he was so taken aback by the rumors of Kate’s behavior that he broke off the relationship. “Then came the blank,” he later recalled. “Wherever there is day there must be night. In some countries the day is almost constant, but the night cometh. So with us it came.”

Kate, unaccustomed to defeat and ignorant of Sprague’s reasons for ending the courtship, was plunged into dejection. Sensing that something was wrong, Chase told Kate that if anything disappointed him, it was her failure to disclose her deepest personal concerns, to confide in him as he confided in her. “My confidence will be entire when you entirely give me yours and when I…am made by your acts & words to feel that nothing is held back from me which a father should know of the thoughts, sentiments & acts of a daughter. Cannot this entire confidence be given me? You will, I am sure be happier and so will I.”

Hoping to raise her spirits, Chase arranged for Kate and Nettie to visit the McDowells’ country home, Buttermilk Farm, in upstate New York. The quiet routine of country life did not suit Kate, who craved distraction from her sorrows. Mrs. McDowell, observing that Kate’s “health and spirit” were suffering, kindly agreed to let her accompany friends to Saratoga in search of a more active social life. “Trust nothing I have said will alarm you,” she assured Chase upon Kate’s departure; but he, of course, could not help fretting over his beloved daughter.

Even more than Chase or Seward, Edwin Stanton was afflicted with troubles in the summer of ’62. “The first necessity of every community after a disaster, is a scapegoat,” the New York Times noted. “It is an immense relief to find some one upon whom can be fastened all the sins of a whole people, and who can then be sent into the wilderness, to be heard of no more.” In the secretary of war, disgruntled Northerners found their scapegoat. “Journals of all sorts,” the Times reported, “demand his instant removal.”

The drumbeat began with McClellan, who told anyone who would listen that Stanton was to blame for the Peninsula defeat. “So you want to know how I feel about Stanton, & what I think of him now?” he wrote Mary Ellen in July. “I think that he is the most unmitigated scoundrel I ever knew, heard or read of; I think that…had he lived in the time of the Saviour, Judas Iscariot would have remained a respected member of the fraternity of the Apostles & that the magnificent treachery & rascality of E. M. Stanton would have caused Judas to have raised his arms in holy horror & unaffected wonder.” A week later, McClellan wrote that he had “the proof that the Secy reads all my private telegrams.” In fact, he took pleasure in the thought that “if he has read my private letters to you also his ears must have tingled somewhat.” Nor did his suspicions stop him from reiterating his loathing for the former friend whom he now considered “the most depraved hypocrite & villain.”

Democrats, unwilling to fault McClellan, were the loudest in their denunciations of Stanton. Spearheaded by the Blairs, conservatives charged that Stanton had abandoned both his Democratic heritage and his old friendship with McClellan. Two navy officers, speaking with Samuel Phillips Lee, Elizabeth Blair’s husband, claimed “there had been treachery at the bottom of our Richmond reverse,” spurred by “Stanton’s political opposition to McClellan.” Democrat John Astor could not refrain from cursing at the mere mention of Stanton’s name. “He for one believes,” Strong reported, “that Stanton willfully withheld reinforcements from McClellan lest he should make himself too important, politically, by a signal victory.” Sanitary Commission member Frederick Law Olmsted expressed similar emotions. “If we could help to hang Stanton by resigning and posting him as a liar, hypocrite and knave,” he wrote, “I think we should render the country a far greater service that we can in any other way.”

The New York Times promised not to engage in the “very fierce crusade” against Stanton, but begged the president, “if we are to have a new Secretary of War, to give us a Soldier—one who knows what war is and how it is to be carried on…. If Mr. Stanton is to be removed, the country will be reassured, and the public interest greatly promoted, by making Gen. McClellan his successor. Even those who cavil at his leadership in the field, do not question his mastery of the art of war.” As the weeks went by, and the pressure to replace him mounted, Stanton must have wondered how long Lincoln would continue to support him.

Beyond the distracting personal attacks, Stanton was tormented by the long lines of ambulances that rolled into the city each morning carrying the injured and the dead from the peninsula. All his life, Stanton had been unnerved in the presence of death. Now he was surrounded by it at every turn. Sometimes he took it upon himself to deliver the news to stricken families. Mary Ellet Cabell, whose father, Colonel Charles Ellet, was fatally wounded in Memphis, long recalled the moment when Stanton appeared at her family’s home in Georgetown to tell of Ellet’s heroism during the battle. “I have heard that this powerful War Minister was harsh and unfeeling; but I can never forget the tenderness of his manner” as he delivered the news with “tears to his eyes.”

Stanton’s own family was touched by death as well. In early July, his youngest son, James, entered the final stage of the smallpox precipitated by an inoculation six months earlier. The Stantons had planned to spend the Fourth of July holiday on a cruise with General Meigs and his family, but their child’s illness occupied Ellen Stanton night and day. On July 5, a messenger called on Stanton in the War Department to report that “the baby was dying.” He immediately began the three-mile drive to the country house where his family was staying for the summer. The child clung to life for several days, finally succumbing on July 10. For Stanton, who loved his children passionately, the death was devastating, particularly bitter in light of the overwhelming pressures at work that had kept him from his family for many weeks. Under the weight of public censure and private tragedy, his own health began to suffer.

WHILE HIS CABINET REELED in the aftermath of the Peninsula defeat, Lincoln was faced with the grim knowledge that the ultimate authority had been his alone. Nonetheless, as Whitman had observed following the debacle at Bull Run, Lincoln refused to surrender to the gloom of defeat: “He unflinchingly stemm’d it, and resolv’d to lift himself and the Union out of it.” While the battle was still ongoing, Lincoln had found time to write a letter to a young cadet at West Point, the son of Mary’s cousin Ann Todd Campbell. The boy was miserable at the academy and his mother was worried. “Allow me to assure you it is a perfect certainty that you will, very soon, feel better—quite happy—if you only stick to the resolution you have taken to procure a military education. I am older than you, have felt badly myself, and know, what I tell you is true. Adhere to your purpose and you will soon feel as well as you ever did. On the contrary, if you falter, and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution, and will regret it all your life.” The boy stayed at West Point, graduating in 1866.

Now, in the wake of the Peninsula battle, confronted with public discontent, diminishing loan subscriptions and renewed threats that Britain would recognize the Confederacy, Lincoln demonstrated that his own purpose remained fixed. He decided to call for a major expansion of the army. Two months earlier, Stanton, assuming that victory would soon be achieved, had made the colossal mistake of shutting down recruiting offices. To call for more troops now on the heels of defeat, Lincoln realized, might well create “a general panic.” But the troops were essential. Seward devised an excellent solution. He journeyed to New York, where a conference of Union governors was taking place. After consulting privately with the governors and securing their agreement, he drafted a circular that they would endorse asking the president to call for three hundred thousand additional troops. The president would be responding to a patriotic appeal rather than initiating a call on his own.

While Seward worked out the details from his suite at the Astor House, he was kept abreast of the military situation by telegrams from Lincoln. Fearing that their recruiting efforts might prove insufficient, Seward telegraphed Stanton for permission to promise each new recruit an advance of twenty-five dollars. The money “is of vital importance,” he wrote. “We fail without it.” Stanton hesitated at first. “The existing law does not authorize an advance,” he replied. But finally, trusting Seward’s judgment, he decided to make the allocation on his own responsibility.

That summer, Seward traveled throughout the North to help build up the Union Army. He set a precedent within his own department by entreating all those between eighteen and forty-five to volunteer, pledging that their positions would be waiting for them when they returned. A large percentage answered Seward’s call. In Auburn, the Sewards’ twenty-year-old-son, William Junior, was appointed secretary of the war committee responsible for raising a regiment in upstate New York. A half century later, William remembered “the Mass Meetings held in all the principal towns,” the fervent appeals for volunteers, the quickened response once the government announced that unfilled quotas would by met by a draft. New recruits “filled the hotels and many private houses, occupied the upper floors of the business blocks, leaned against the fences, sat upon the curb stone,” he recalled. They came on foot and in horse-drawn wagons. “The spectacle was so novel and inspiring that our citizens gave them a perfect ovation as they passed, canons were fired—bells rung and flags displayed from almost every house on the line of march.”

Young William Seward had no intention of recruiting others without volunteering himself. His decision to enlist aroused trepidation in the Seward household, for William’s new wife, Jenny, was expecting their first child in September. Jenny assured her husband that she would “be able to pass through her troubles,” but she worried that his departure might jeopardize his mother’s fragile health. In fact, although Frances had been heartbroken years before when Gus, now an army paymaster in Washington, had joined the Mexican War, her passionate feelings against slavery now outweighed her maternal anxiety. “As it is obvious all men are needed I made no objection,” Frances told Fred.

While the call was out for fresh reserves, Lincoln decided to make a personal visit to bolster the morale of the weary troops who had fought the hard battles on the Peninsula. Accompanied by Assistant Secretary of War Peter Watson and Congressman Frank Blair, he left Washington aboard the Ariel early on the morning of July 8, 1862, beginning the twelve-hour journey to McClellan’s new headquarters at Harrison’s Landing on the James River. “The day had been intensely hot,” an army correspondent noted, the temperature climbing to over 100 degrees. Even soldiers who lay in the shade of the trees found small respite from the “almost overpowering” heat. By 6 p.m., however, when General McClellan and his staff met the president at Harrison’s Landing, the setting sun had yielded to a pleasant, moonlit evening.

News of the president’s arrival spread quickly through the camp. Soldiers in the vicinity let out great cheers whenever they glimpsed him “sitting and smiling serenely on the after deck of the vessel.” Lincoln’s calm visage, however, masked his deep anxiety about McClellan and the progress of the war.

Equally troubled, the defeated McClellan had spent the hours before Lincoln’s arrival drafting what he termed a “strong frank letter” delineating changes necessary to win the war. “If he acts upon it the country will be saved,” he told his wife. McClellan handed the letter to Lincoln, who read it as the two sat together on the deck. Known to history as the “Harrison’s Landing” letter, the document imperiously outlined for the president what the policy and aims of the war should be. “The time has come when the government must determine upon a civil and military policy,” McClellan brazenly began, warning that without a clear-cut policy defining the nature of the war, “our cause will be lost.” Somewhat resembling in attitude Seward’s April 1 memo of fifteen months earlier, the presumptuous memo was even more astonishing in tone, as it came from a military officer.

“It should not be at all a war upon population,” McClellan proclaimed, and all efforts must be made to protect “private property and unarmed persons.” In effect, slave property must be respected, for if a radical approach to slavery were adopted, the “present armies” would “rapidly disintegrate.” To carry out this conservative policy, the president would need “a Commander-in-Chief of the Army—one who possesses your confidence.” While he did not specifically request that position for himself, McClellan made it clear that he was more than willing to retake the central command.

To McClellan’s disappointment and disgust, Lincoln “made no comments upon [the letter], merely saying, when he had finished it, that he was obliged to me for it.” Clearly, the president did not remain silent because he failed to grasp the political significance of the general’s propositions. In the days that followed, his actions would manifest his rejection of the general’s political advice. For the moment, however, Lincoln had come to see and support the troops, not to debate policy with his general.

For three hours, the president reviewed one division after another, riding slowly along the long lines of cheering soldiers. He was relieved to find the army in such high spirits after the bloody weeklong battle, which had decimated their ranks, leaving 1,734 dead and 8,066 wounded. “Mr. Lincoln rode at the right of Gen. McClellan,” an army correspondent reported, “holding with one hand the reins which checked a spirited horse, and with the other a large-sized stove-pipe hat” that he repeatedly tipped to acknowledge the cheers of the troops. His attempts to coordinate the reins and doff his tall hat were not entirely successful. His legs almost became “entangled with those of the horse he rode…while his arms were apparently liable to similar mishap.” One soldier admitted in a letter home that he had to lower his cap over his face “to cover a smile that overmastered” him at the “ludicrous sight.” Still, he added, the troops loved Lincoln. “His benignant smile as he passed on was a real reflection of his honest, kindly heart; but deeper, under the surface of that marked and not all uncomely face, were the unmistakable signs of care and anxiety…. In fact, his popularity in the army is and has been universal.”

As Lincoln approached each division, the “successive booming of salutes made known his progress,” until finally, “his tall figure, like Saul of old,” came into view, provoking wild applause. The tonic of the president’s unexpected visit to the enervated regiments was instantaneous. As Lincoln reviewed the “thinned ranks of some of the divisions” and came upon regimental colors “torn almost to shreds by the balls of the enemy,” the Times noted, he “more than once exhibited much emotion,” affording the fatigued soldiers “the assurance of the nation’s hearty sympathy with their struggle.”

Returning to the steamer, Lincoln conferred again with McClellan. Making no mention of McClellan’s letter, which remained in his pocket, he set sail for Washington the next morning. “On the way up the Potomac,” the New York Herald reported, “the boat was aground for several hours on the Kettle Shoals, and the whole party, including the President, availed themselves of the opportunity to take a bath and swim in the river.”

The visit invigorated the spirits of all who accompanied Lincoln. Frank Blair’s sister Elizabeth noted that “Frank was as heart sick as man could be when he went off to the Army but he & the President came back greatly cheered.” Despite Lincoln’s enthusiasm for the mettle of the soldiers, however, his opinion of General McClellan had not improved. Less than forty-eight hours after his return, he summoned General Henry Halleck to Washington to assume the post of general in chief that McClellan had hoped would be his. Halleck’s victories in the West, largely due to Grant, had made him a logical choice for the post. Known as “Old Brains,” he had written several books on military strategy that were widely respected.

Even before McClellan heard the news, he suspected an unwelcome turn of events. “I do not know what paltry trick the administration will play next,” he wrote his wife on the day after Lincoln’s visit. “I did not like the Presdt’s manner—it seemed that of a man about to do something of which he was much ashamed. A few days will however show, & I do not much care what the result will be. I feel that I have already done enough to prove in history that I am a General.”

Although Halleck’s appointment met with widespread approval, the clamor for further changes was undiminished. Radicals called for McClellan’s dismissal, while conservatives continued their assault on Stanton. The arguments on both sides were heated. In a hotel lobby, Senator Chandler of Michigan called McClellan a “liar and coward,” provoking a friend of McClellan’s to angrily counter: “It is you who are the liar and the coward.” The charges against Stanton were equally caustic, portraying him as brusque, domineering, and unbearably unpleasant to work with. Nonetheless, Lincoln was determined, as Browning advised, to “make up his mind calmly [and] deliberately,” to “adhere firmly to his own opinions, and neither to be bullied or cajoled out of them.”

In fact, not once during the vicious public onslaught against the secretary of war did Lincoln’s support for Stanton waver. During the hours he had spent each day awaiting battlefront news in the telegraph office, Lincoln had taken his own measure of his high-strung, passionate secretary of war. He concluded that Stanton’s vigorous, hard-driving style was precisely what was needed at this critical juncture. As one War Department employee said of Stanton, “much of his seeming harshness to and neglect of individuals” could be explained by the “concentration and intensity of his mind on the single object of crushing the rebellion.”

And, as always, the president refused to let a subordinate take the blame for his own decisions. He insisted to Browning “that all that Stanton had done in regard to the army had been authorized by him the President.” Three weeks later, Lincoln publicly defended the beleaguered Stanton before an immense Union meeting on the Capitol steps. All the government departments had closed down at one o’clock so that everyone could attend. Commissioner French believed he had “never seen more persons assembled in front of the Capitol except at an inauguration, which it very much resembled.” Lincoln sat on the flag-draped platform with the members of his cabinet, including Chase, Blair, and Bates, as “the ringing of bells, the firing of cannon, and music from the Marine Band” heralded the speakers. After a speech by Treasury Registrar Lucius Chittenden, Lincoln turned to Chase, who sat beside him. “‘Well! Hadn’t I better say a few words and get rid of myself?’ Hardly waiting for an answer, he advanced at once to the stand.”

“I believe there is no precedent for my appearing before you on this occasion,” he affably began, “but it is also true that there is no precedent for your being here yourselves.” Reminding his audience that he was reluctant to speak unless he might “produce some good by it,” Lincoln declared that something needed to be said, and it was “not likely to be better said by some one else,” for it was “a matter in which we have heard some other persons blamed for what I did myself.” Addressing the charge that Stanton had withheld troops from McClellan, he explained that every possible soldier available had been sent to the general. “The Secretary of War is not to blame for not giving when he had none to give.” As the applause began to mount, he continued, “I believe he is a brave and able man, and I stand here, as justice requires me to do, to take upon myself what has been charged on the Secretary of War.”

French was profoundly moved by Lincoln’s speech. “He is one of the best men God ever created,” he asserted. Chase, too, was impressed by the “originality and sagacity” of the address. “His frank, genial, generous face and direct simplicity of bearing, took all hearts.” The great rally concluded to the strains of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and a salute of sixty-eight guns, two for each state in the Union. Reported fully in every newspaper, Lincoln’s defense of his beleaguered secretary brought the campaign against Stanton to an end.

AS THE SUMMER PROGRESSED, Lincoln and his family found some respite from the pressure and grief that had seemed so relentless throughout the cruel spring. At last, Mary’s intense depression began to lift. Reporters noted that she had begun riding with her husband once more in the late afternoons. On Sundays, she returned to Dr. Gurley’s church, though a parishioner seated behind her observed that “she was so hid behind her immense black veil—and very deep black flounces—that one could scarcely tell she was there.”

Commissioner French reported that “she seemed to be in excellent spirits” as she prepared to take up residence for the summer at the Soldiers’ Home, situated on almost 300 acres in the hills three miles north of the city. Created in the 1850s as a retirement community for disabled veterans, the Soldiers’ Home consisted of a main building that could accommodate 150 boarders, an infirmary, a dining hall, and administrative offices. The property also encompassed a number of spacious cottages, including the two-story brick house where the Lincoln family would stay. Known as the Anderson Cottage, it had served as a country residence for George Riggs, founder of the Riggs Bank, before the federal government purchased the property.

Buchanan had been the first president to summer at the Soldiers’ Home, where the cooling breeze brought relief from the oppressive heat of the city. Surrounded by abundant flowers, shrubs, and trees, it seemed almost “an earthly paradise,” one visitor recalled. The beautiful gravel walks and winding carriage ways, all of which were open to the public, had become a choice destination for Washingtonians out for weekend rides in their carriages. Another visitor in the summer of 1862 claimed he had seen nothing in the capital more charming than “this quiet and beautiful retreat,” from which “we look down upon the city and see the whole at a glance”—the Capitol dome, “huge, grand, gloomy, ragged and unfinished, like the war now waging for its preservation,” the Potomac River, “stretching away plainly visible for twelve miles, Alexandria, Arlington, Georgetown, and the long line of forts that bristle along the hills.”

At Mary’s urging, Lincoln agreed to settle in with his family for the summer, riding his horse the three miles to the White House each morning and returning at night. “We are truly delighted, with this retreat,” Mary wrote her friend Fanny Eames, “the drives & walks around here are delightful, & each day, brings its visitors. Then too, our boy Robert [home from Harvard], is with us, whom you may remember. We consider it a ‘pleasant time’ for us, when his vacations, roll around, he is very companionable, and I shall dread when he has to return to Cambridge.” For Tad, whose companionship and daily routine had been obliterated by the death of his brother and the banishment of the Taft boys, the Soldiers’ Home was a godsend. His lively, cheerful disposition earned him the affection of the soldiers assigned to guard his father. They dubbed him a “3rd Lieutenant,” allowing him to join in their drills during the day and their meals around the campfire at night.

In the evenings, the Lincolns could entertain guests on the wide porch overlooking the grounds or in a formal parlor illuminated by gas lamps. Relaxing in his slippers, Lincoln was fond of reciting poetry or reading aloud from favorite authors. Though intermittent cannonfire was audible in the distance, the idyllic retreat provided precious privacy and space for conversation among family and friends. For Lincoln, the historian Matthew Pinsker observes, the soldiers assigned to his security detail “helped him recreate some of the spirit of fraternity that he had once enjoyed as a younger politician and circuit-riding attorney in Illinois.”

It was during this restorative summer that Mary formed what one newspaper termed a “daily habit of visiting the hospitals in the District.” The hospitals became her refuge, allowing her a few hours of reprieve from her private grief. “But for these humane employments,” a friend who often accompanied her to the hospital wards recalled her saying, “her heart would have broken when she lost her child.” It is clear in the recollections of Walt Whitman, who worked as a nurse in the hospital wards, that the harrowing experience made one’s “little cares and difficulties” disappear “into nothing.” After ministering each day to the hundreds of young men who had endured ghastly wounds, submitted to amputations without anesthesia, and often died without the comfort of family or friends, Whitman wrote, “nothing of ordinary misfortune seems as it used to.”

In the days after the Peninsula Campaign, the New York Daily Tribune reported, the numbers of sick and wounded pouring into the city were enough “to form an immense army.” Every morning, steamers arrived at the Sixth Street Wharf carrying hundreds of injured soldiers, many “horribly wounded.” As crowds gathered around, the soldiers disembarked, some carried on stretchers, others stumbling along on crudely made crutches. Ambulances stood by, ready to transport them to the dozen or more hastily outfitted hospitals that had sprung up in various parts of the capital.

In the effort to meet the soaring demand for hospital space, the federal government had embarked on a massive project of converting hotels, churches, clubs, school buildings, and private residences into military hospitals. The old Union Hotel, where congressmen and senators had boarded during earlier administrations, became the Union Hotel Hospital. A visitor noted that “the rooms in which the politicians of the old school used to sit and sup their wine” were now crowded with patients lying on cots. Louisa May Alcott, who worked there as a nurse, observed that “many of the doors still bore their old names; some not so inappropriate as might be imagined, for my ward was in truth a ball-room, if gunshot wounds could christen it.” The Braddock House, where it was said that “General George Washington held his Councils of War,” was also pressed into service, with some of the same old chairs and desks.

The second floor of the Patent Office, under the guidance of Interior Secretary Caleb Smith’s wife, Elizabeth, was likewise transformed into a hospital ward accommodating hundreds of patients. It presented “a curious scene,” Whitman noted, with rows of “sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers” lying between “high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention.” In addition, “a great long double row” of cots ran “up and down through the middle of the hall,” with extra beds placed in the gallery. Especially “at night, when lit up,” the impromptu ward presented a bizarre spectacle with its “glass cases, the beds, the sick, the gallery above and the marble pavement under foot.”

In mid-June, the Methodist Episcopal Church on 20th Street offered its chapel for conversion to a hospital. Five days later, government carpenters and mechanics were hard at work covering pews with timbers to support a new floor upon which hundreds of beds would be placed. As in other church hospitals, the pulpit and assorted furnishings were safely stored under the floor, while the basement was turned into a laboratory and kitchen. Taken together, these makeshift government hospitals accommodated more than three thousand patients, still only a fraction of the beds that would be needed in the months and years ahead.

In preparation for her hospital visits, Mary filled her carriage with baskets of fruit, food, and fresh flowers. She cleaned out the strawberries in the White House garden and procured a donation from a wealthy merchant, impressed by “the quiet and unostentatious manner” of her ministrations, for $300 worth of lemons and oranges, so necessary to prevent scurvy. For hours, she would distribute the fruit and delicacies, placing fresh flowers on the pillows of wounded men to mask the pervasive stench of disinfectant and decay.

She sat by the side of lonely soldiers, talked with them about their experiences, read to them, and helped them write letters to their families at home. One wounded soldier discovered the identity of the kindly woman who had written to his mother explaining that he had been “quite sick,” but was recovering, only after Mary’s letter had reached his home with the first lady’s signature.

For the soldiers, the need to communicate with their families was tantamount to their need to survive. Alcott told the story of a valiant soldier named John, a young man of “commanding stature,” with a handsome face and “the serenest eyes” she had ever seen. A ball had pierced his left lung, making it almost impossible for him to breathe. Although the doctors deemed his condition hopeless, he clung to life for days, hoping to hear from home. “Unsubdued by pain,” he never uttered a complaint, “tranquilly [observing] what went on about him.” When he died, “many came to see him,” paying respect to the quiet courage that had impressed both the hospital staff and his fellow soldiers. While Louisa May Alcott stood by his bed, the ward master handed her a letter from John’s mother that had arrived the night before, “just an hour too late to gladden the eyes that had longed and looked for it so eagerly.”

The emotional narratives of Whitman and Alcott testify to the enormous fortitude demanded by hospital work. Whitman told his mother that while he kept “singularly cool” during the days, he would “feel sick and actually tremble” at night, recalling the “deaths, operations, sickening wounds (perhaps full of maggots),” and the “heap of feet, arms, legs” that lay beneath a tree on some hospital grounds. Alcott confessed that she found it difficult to keep from weeping at “the sight of several stretchers, each with its legless, armless, or desperately wounded occupant” coming into her ward. Workers and visitors were also exposed to contagion, as soldiers with typhoid lay side by side with patients dying of pneumonia or diphtheria. The thirty-year-old Alcott developed a severe case of typhoid after only two months and was forced to return to her home in Concord, Massachusetts.

Watching the countless young men suffer and die around her, Mary must have found it difficult to dwell solely upon the loss of her own child. “Death itself has lost all its terrors,” Whitman wrote. “I have seen so many cases in which it was so welcome and such a relief.” Yet somehow the triumphs of life, humor, and love were also evident amid the horrors of the hospitals. One soldier, whose body “was so blackened and burned by a powder explosion that some one remarked, ‘There is not much use bringing him in,’” showed such a fierce determination to live that he eventually recovered. Another youth, who had lost one leg and was soon to lose an arm, amazed onlookers when he joked about his condition, imagining the “scramble there’ll be for arms and legs, when we old boys come out of our graves, on the Judgment Day.” In ward after ward, recovering patients even organized impromptu bands to entertain their fellow bedmates with music and song.

Observing Mary as she departed for her regular round of hospital visits, William Stoddard wondered why she didn’t publicize her efforts. “If she were worldly wise she would carry newspaper correspondents, from two to five, of both sexes, every time she went, and she would have them take shorthand notes of what she says to the sick soldiers and of what the sick soldiers say to her.” This, more than anything, he surmised, would “sweeten the contents of many journals” that had frequently derided the first lady’s receptions and redecorating projects. The New York Independent had been particularly relentless in its attacks on Mary. “While her sister-women scraped lint, sewed bandages, and put on nurses’ caps,” Mary Clemmer Ames wrote, “the wife of its President spent her time in rolling to and fro between Washington and New York, intent on extravagant purchases for herself and the White House.”

Yet Mary continued her hospital trips without any publicity. Some physicians objected to further interruption in an already chaotic situation, while others thought it improper for ladies to associate with common soldiers in various states of undress. Under such circumstances, Mary decided to carry on her work discreetly.

So it happened that while newspapers regularly praised the work of other society women, referring to Mrs. Caleb Smith as “our ever-bountiful benefactress & friend,” and to Mrs. Stephen Douglas, who had converted her mansion into a hospital, as “an angel of mercy,” Mary Lincoln received scant credit for her steadfast attempts to comfort Union casualties. She found something more gratifying than public acknowledgment. For in the hours she spent with these soldiers she must have sensed their unwavering belief in her husband and in the Union for which they fought. Such a faith was not readily found elsewhere—not in the cabinet, the Congress, the press, or the social circles of the city.

WHILE WASHINGTON SWELTERED through the long, hot summer, Lincoln made the momentous decision on emancipation that would define both his presidency and the course of the Civil War.

The great question of what to do about slavery had provoked increasingly bitter debates on Capitol Hill for many months. Back in March, as foreshadowed in a message to Congress, Lincoln had asked the legislature to pass a joint resolution providing federal aid to any state willing to adopt a plan for the gradual abolition of slavery. The resolution called upon states to stipulate that all slaves within their borders would be freed upon attaining a certain age or specify a date after which slavery would no longer be allowed. Lincoln had calculated that “less than one half-day’s cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at four hundred dollars per head,” and that eighty-seven days’ expenses would buy all the slaves in all the other border states combined. He believed that nothing would bring the rebellion to an end faster than a commitment by the border slave states “to surrender on fair terms their own interest in Slavery rather than see the Union dissolved.” If the rebels were deprived of hope that these states might join the Confederacy, they would lose heart.

The proposal depended upon approval by the border-state representatives, who would have to promote the plan in their state legislatures. Except for Frank Blair, however, who had long advocated compensated emancipation coupled with colonization, they refused to endorse the proposal. Even when Lincoln personally renewed his plea to them on July 12, they argued that “emancipation in any form” would lengthen, not shorten, the war; it “would further consolidate the spirit of rebellion in the seceded states and fan the spirit of secession among loyal slaveholders in the Border States.” They insisted that the measure would unjustly punish those who remained loyal to the Union, forcing them to relinquish their slaves while the rebellious states retained theirs. They would face an uproar among their own citizens, and the proposal would cost far more than the federal government could pay.

Meanwhile, the Republican majority in Congress, freed from the domination of the Southern bloc, began to push their own agenda on slavery. In April, Congress passed a bill providing for the compensated emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia. The bill met Lincoln’s wholehearted approval, for he had “never doubted the constitutional authority of congress to abolish slavery” in areas that fell under the jurisdiction of the federal government, and, indeed, Lincoln had drafted his own proposal to free slaves in the District when he had been in Congress fourteen years earlier. Frederick Douglass was ecstatic. “I trust I am not dreaming,” he wrote Charles Sumner, “but the events taking place seem like a dream.” As slaves in the District gained their freedom, slaveholders in surrounding Maryland and northern Virginia, fearful that their own slaves would grow restive, began selling them to owners farther south.

Francis Blair, Sr., who had already assured his slaves that they could “go when they wished,” proudly affirmed that “all but one declined the privilege,” electing to stay on as servants at Silver Springs, where they lived together in their own “quarters” that resembled those on Southern plantations. One servant, Henry, declared he “was used to quality all his days” and wanted to remain with the Blairs for the rest of his life. Nanny, another servant, agreed. She was “well off,” had no thought of moving on, but was “delighted that her children are free.”

The situation became more complex when the radical bloc in Congress began to address slavery in the seceded Southern states where it already existed and was protected by the Constitution. In July, despite the vehement protests of Democrats and conservative Republicans, the radical majority passed a new confiscation bill. Broader than the bill passed the previous year, which had limited the federal government to confiscating and freeing only those fugitive slaves employed by rebels in the field, the new act emancipated all slaves of persons engaged in rebellion, regardless of involvement in military affairs. The bill was ill considered, providing no workable means of enforcement and no procedure to determine whether the owner of a slave crossing Union lines was actually engaged in insurrection. “It was,” the historian Mark Neely writes, “a dead letter from the start.” But it stirred the hearts of all those, like Charles Sumner, who believed that slavery was a “disturbing influence which, so long as it exists, will keep this land a volcano, ever ready to break anew.”

It was rumored in Washington that Lincoln would veto the controversial bill. Indeed, Browning carried a copy of it to the White House as soon as it passed, pleading with Lincoln to veto it. If approved, he warned, “our friends” in the border states “could no longer sustain themselves there.” The bill would “form the basis upon which the democratic party would again rally, and reorganize an opposition to the administration.” Lincoln’s decision, Browning insisted, would “determine whether he was to control the abolitionists and radicals, or whether they were to control him.” The key moment had arrived when “the tide in his affairs had come and he ought to take it at its flood.”

Chase presented the diametrically opposed prediction, which maintained that if Lincoln vetoed the bill, it “will be an end of him.” The Republican majority in Congress would break ranks with the administration, and Lincoln would be openly castigated on the floor. Worried that he, too, might be tainted by a presidential veto, Chase told his friends to spread word that he had not been consulted, “nor so far as he knew [had] a single member of his cabinet” been involved. While he would willingly answer for his actions as treasury secretary, Chase refused to take the blame “for other people’s blunders or errors of policy.”

Rumors that Lincoln would veto the bill proved incorrect. The next morning, Browning found the president working in his library. He “looked weary, care-worn and troubled,” Browning noted, “and there was a cadence of deep sadness in his voice.” The president had made his decision, which he knew would distress his friend. Still, before signing the bill that would become known as the Second Confiscation Act, Lincoln listed his objections in writing and obtained a revised bill that made it more likely to pass constitutional muster.

As was customary on the last day of the session, the president traveled to the Capitol, stationing himself in the vice president’s office, where he signed the spate of bills rushed through in the final days of the term. It had been an extraordinarily productive session. Relieved of Southern opposition, the Republican majority was able to pass three historic bills that had been stalled for years: the Homestead Act, which promised 160 acres of free public land largely in the West to settlers who agreed to reside on the property for five years or more; the Morrill Act, providing public lands to states for the establishment of land-grant colleges; and the Pacific Railroad Act, which made the construction of a transcontinental railroad possible. The 37th Congress also laid the economic foundation for the Union war effort with the Legal Tender bill, which created a paper money known as “greenbacks.” A comprehensive tax bill was also enacted, establishing the Internal Revenue Bureau in the Department of the Treasury and levying a federal income tax for the first time in American history.

At that time, the far-reaching impact of this epoch-making home front legislation was overshadowed by the continuing slavery controversy, which preoccupied both sides of the aisle. Referring to the endless hours the Republican stalwarts spent rehashing the issue, Seward jokingly told foreign diplomats over dinner that “he had lately begun to realize the value of a Cromwell,” and sometimes longed for “a Coup d’etat for our Congress.” As the summer progressed, his level of frustration with Congress grew. “I ask Congress to authorize a draft,” he complained to Frances. “They fall into altercation about letting slaves fight and work. Every day is a day lost, and every day lost is a hazard to the whole country. What if I should say, that I concede all they want about negroes?…One party has gained another partisan; the country has lost one advocate.”

Within the cabinet as well as on Capitol Hill, the rancor over slavery infected every discourse. The debates had grown “so bitter,” according to Seward, that personal and even official relationships among members were ruptured, leading to “a prolonged discontinuance of Cabinet meetings.” Though Tuesdays and Fridays were still designated for sessions, each secretary remained in his department unless a messenger arrived to confirm that a meeting would be held. Seward recalled that when these general discussions were still taking place, Lincoln had listened intently but had not taken “an active part in them.” For Lincoln, the problem of slavery was not an abstract issue. While he concurred with the most passionate abolitionists that slavery was “a moral, a social and a political wrong,” as president, he could not ignore the constitutional protection of the institution where it already existed.

The devastating reverses on the Peninsula, which made it clear that extraordinary means were necessary to save the Union, gave Lincoln an opening to deal more directly with slavery. Daily reports from the battle-fields illuminated the innumerable uses to which slaves were put by the Confederacy. They dug trenches and built fortifications for the army. They were brought into camps to serve as teamsters, cooks, and hospital attendants, so that soldiers were freed to fight in the fields. They labored on the home front, tilling fields, raising crops, and picking cotton, so their masters could go to war without fearing that their families would go hungry. If the rebels were divested of their slaves, who would then be free to join the Union forces, the North could gain a decided advantage. Seen in this light, emancipation could be considered a military necessity, a legitimate exercise of the president’s constitutional war powers. The border states had refused his idea of compensated emancipation as a voluntary first step, insisting that any such action should be initiated in the slave states. A historic decision was taking shape in Lincoln’s mind.

Lincoln revealed his preliminary thinking to Seward and Welles in the early hours of Sunday, July 13, as they rode together in the president’s carriage to the funeral of Stanton’s infant son. The journey to Oak Hill Cemetery, where Stanton’s child was to be buried, must have evoked painful memories of Willie, whose body remained there in the private vault awaiting final interment in Springfield. Despite such personal torment, the country’s peril demanded Lincoln’s complete concentration. During the journey, Welles recorded in his diary, the president informed them that he was considering “emancipating the slaves by proclamation in case the Rebels did not cease to persist in their war.” He said that he had “dwelt earnestly on the gravity, importance, and delicacy” of the subject and had “come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” Thus, the constitutional protection of slavery could and would be overridden by the constitutionally sanctioned war powers of the president.

This was, Welles clearly recognized, “a new departure for the President, for until this time, in all our previous interviews…he had been prompt and emphatic in denouncing any interference by the General Government with the subject.” The normally talkative Seward said merely that the “subject involved consequences so vast and momentous that he should wish to bestow on it mature reflection before giving a decisive answer,” though he was inclined to think it “justifiable.”

So the matter rested until Monday morning, July 21, when messengers were dispatched across Washington with notices of a special cabinet meeting to be held at 10 a.m. “It has been so long since any consultation has been held that it struck me as a novelty,” Chase wrote in his diary. Earlier that day, Chase had shared breakfast in his home with Count Gurowski, whose acute frustration with Lincoln’s hesitancy regarding emancipation had been evident for many months. In Gurowski’s mind, Seward was the primary obstacle to progress, while Chase represented the best hope for spurring Lincoln forward. An inveterate gossip, Gurowski related to Chase the story of Seward’s comments on Cromwell and the Congress, which, he claimed, had been received with marked disapproval by the diplomats in attendance.

When the cabinet convened, all members save the postmaster general were in attendance. Montgomery Blair was in Maryland, where he had recently built an elegant country estate, Falkland, in Silver Spring near his parents’ estate. For this special meeting, the cabinet was summoned to the second-floor library rather than the president’s official office. There, surrounded by the curved bookshelves that Mary had recently filled with splendidly bound sets of Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott’s novels, the president began with an admission that he was “profoundly concerned at the present aspect of affairs, and had determined to take some definitive steps in respect to military action and slavery.” The members listened as Lincoln read several orders he was contemplating. One would authorize Union generals in Confederate territory to appropriate any property necessary to sustain themselves in the field; another would sanction the payment of wages to blacks brought into the army’s employ. Taken together, these orders signaled a more vigorous prosecution of the war. When the discussion moved to address the possible arming of those blacks in the army’s employ, Stanton and Chase were in favor. Lincoln, Chase recorded, was “not prepared to decide the question.”

When the preliminary discussions had run long, the president scheduled another cabinet session the following day, July 22, to reveal his primary purpose in calling the meeting. This second session was likely held in Lincoln’s office, as depicted in Francis Carpenter’s famous painting, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. There, surrounded by evidence of the ever-expanding war, with battlefield maps everywhere—rolled in standing racks, placed in folios on the floor, and reclining up against the walls—the conversation from the previous day continued.

The desultory talk abruptly ended when Lincoln took the floor and announced he had called them together in order to read the preliminary draft of an emancipation proclamation. He understood the “differences in the Cabinet on the slavery question” and welcomed their suggestions after they heard what he had to say; but he wanted them to know that he “had resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice.” Then, removing two foolscap sheets from his pocket and adjusting his glasses on his nose, he began to read what amounted to a legal brief for emancipation based on the chief executive’s powers as commander in chief.

His draft proclamation set January 1, 1863, little more than five months away, as the date on which all slaves within states still in rebellion against the Union would be declared free, “thenceforward, and forever.” It required no cumbersome enforcement proceedings. Though it did not cover the roughly 425,000 slaves in the loyal border states—where, without the use of his war powers, no constitutional authority justified his action—the proclamation was shocking in scope. In a single stroke, it superseded legislation on slavery and property rights that had guided policy in eleven states for nearly three quarters of a century. Three and a half million blacks who had lived enslaved for generations were promised freedom. It was a daring move, Welles later said, “fraught with consequences, immediate and remote, such as human foresight could not penetrate.”

The cabinet listened in silence. With the exception of Seward and Welles, to whom the president had intimated his intentions the previous week, the members were startled by the boldness of Lincoln’s proclamation. Only Stanton and, surprisingly, Bates declared themselves in favor of “its immediate promulgation.” Stanton instantly grasped the military value of the proclamation. Having spent more time than any of his colleagues contemplating the logistical problems facing the army, he understood the tremendous advantage to be gained if the massive workforce of slaves could be transferred from the Confederacy to the Union. Equally important, he had developed a passionate belief in the justice of emancipation.

Bates, as one of the more conservative members of the cabinet, surprised his colleagues with his enthusiastic approval of the proclamation. He had previously registered disapproval of the more limited emancipation measures attempted by the military and had expressed grave misgivings about the confiscation legislation. His sudden support of this far more radical step can be traced, in part, to the terrible division that slavery and the war had wrought upon his family.

In a scenario common to many border-state homes torn by divided loyalties, the Bates brothers had joined opposing sides in the war. Twenty-eight-year-old Fleming Bates had enlisted in the Confederate Army and was serving under Major General Sterling Price. Fleming faced the prospect of going into battle against any of four brothers. His older brother Julian, a surgeon, had been made a colonel in the Missouri militia. His younger brother Coalter was with the Army of the Potomac and would fight at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Another brother, Richard, was clerking for his father but would soon join the Union navy; while the family’s youngest son, Charles Woodson, was a cadet at West Point. For Bates, who valued his family above all else, nothing could be more heartbreaking than the possibility of his sons facing one another on the battlefield. He had long favored gradual emancipation, but if the president’s proclamation could bring the war to a speedier conclusion, he would give it his “very decided approval.”

Bates based his approval, however, on the condition that the freed slaves would be deported to someplace in Central America or Africa. Unlike Lincoln, who insisted that any emigration must be voluntary, Bates believed it should be mandatory. Bates “was fully convinced,” Welles later recalled, “that the two races could not live and thrive in social proximity.” He believed that assimilation was impossible without amalgamation, and that amalgamation would inevitably bring “degradation and demoralization to the white race.” Although he conceded that “among our colored people who have been long free, there are many who are intelligent and well advanced in arts and knowledge,” he could not imagine former slaves, “fresh from the plantations of the South, where they have been long degraded by the total abolition of the family relation, shrouded in artificial darkness, and studiously kept in ignorance,” living on an equal footing with whites. Far better for everyone, he argued, if the government established treaties granting aid to foreign governments willing to accept and settle freed slaves. He was hopeful that such treaties would “provide for the just and humane treatment of the emigrants—e.g. ensuring an honest livelihood by their own industry…and guaranteeing to them ‘their liberty, property and the religion which they profess.’”

Gideon Welles remained silent after Lincoln presented his proclamation. He later admitted that the prospect of emancipation involved such unpredictable results, “carrying with it a revolution of the social, civil, and industrial habits and condition of society in all the slave States,” that he was oppressed by the “solemnity and weight” of the decision. He feared that, far from shortening the war, emancipation would generate an “energy of desperation on the part of the slave-owners” and “intensify the struggle.” Yet, while he privately questioned the “extreme exercise of war powers” involved, Welles held his tongue and later loyally supported Lincoln.

Caleb Smith kept silent as well, though he, too, had serious reservations. John Usher, the assistant secretary of the Interior Department, later recalled Smith telling him that if Lincoln issued the proclamation, he would “resign and go home and attack the administration.”

The division of sentiment within the cabinet was manifest as Blair, Chase, and Seward spoke. Arriving late, after Lincoln’s announcement that he had already resolved to issue the proclamation, Blair spoke up vigorously in opposition and asked to file his objections. While he supported the idea of compensated, gradual emancipation linked to colonization, he feared that the president’s radical proclamation would cause such an outcry among conservatives and Democrats that Republicans would lose the fall elections. More important, it would “put in jeopardy the patriotic element in the border States, already severely tried,” and “would, as soon as it reached them, be likely to carry over those States to the secessionists.” Lincoln replied that while he had considered these dangers, he had tried for months to get the border states “to move in this matter, convinced in his own mind that it was their true interest to do so, but his labors were in vain.” The time had come to move ahead. He would, however, willingly let Blair file his written objections.

Perhaps the most astonishing response came from Salmon Chase. No cabinet member had more vehemently promoted emancipation, and none could match his lifelong commitment to the abolitionist cause. Yet when faced with a presidential initiative that, he admitted, went “beyond anything I have recommended,” he recoiled. According to Stanton’s notes, Chase argued that it was “a measure of great danger—and would lead to universal emancipation.” He feared that widespread disorder would engulf the South, leading to “depredation and massacre on the one hand, and support to the insurrection on the other.” Chase recommended a quieter, more incremental approach, “allowing Generals to organize and arm the slaves” and “directing the Commanders of Departments to proclaim emancipation within their Districts as soon as practicable.” Still, since he considered the proclamation better than no action at all, he would support it.

Although Chase’s argument that the army might better control the pace of emancipation was legitimate, it is difficult not to suspect personal considerations behind his failure to wholeheartedly endorse the president’s proclamation. Chase had seen his bright hopes for the presidency vanish in 1856 and 1860. No president since Andrew Jackson had been reelected, and the next election was only two years away. Chase’s strongest claim to beat Lincoln for the nomination in 1864 lay with the unswerving support he had earned among the growing circle of radical Republicans frustrated by Lincoln’s slowness on the slavery issue. The bold proclamation threatened to undercut Chase’s potential candidacy, for, as Welles astutely recognized, it “placed the President in advance of [Chase] on a path which was his specialty.”

Stanton feared that Chase’s arguments would deter Lincoln from issuing his proclamation, letting the “golden moment” slip away. Should this come to pass, Stanton’s brother-in-law, Christopher Wolcott, wrote, then “Chase must be held responsible for delaying or defeating the greatest act of justice, statesmanship, and civilization, of the last four thousand years.” Lincoln later maintained, however, that not a single argument had been presented that he “had not already fully anticipated and settled in [his] own mind, until Secretary Seward spoke.”

William Henry Seward’s mode of intricate analysis produced a characteristically complex reaction to the proclamation. After the others had spoken, he expressed his worry that the proclamation might provoke a racial war in the South so disruptive to cotton that the ruling classes in England and France would intervene to protect their economic interests. As secretary of state, Seward was particularly sensitive to the threat of European intervention. Curiously, despite his greater access to intelligence from abroad, Seward failed to grasp what Lincoln intuitively understood: that once the Union truly committed itself to emancipation, the masses in Europe, who regarded slavery as an evil demanding eradication, would not be easily maneuvered into supporting the South.

Beyond his worries about intervention, Seward had little faith in the efficacy of proclamations that he considered nothing more than paper without the muscle of the advancing Union Army to enforce them. “The public mind seizes quickly upon theoretical schemes for relief,” he pointedly told Frances, who had long yearned for a presidential proclamation against slavery, “but is slow in the adoption of the practical means necessary to give them effect.” Seward’s position, in fact, was nearly identical to that held by Chase. His preference, he said, “would have been to confiscate all rebel property, including slaves, as fast as the territory was conquered.” Only an immediate military presence could assure escaped slaves of protection. Yet Seward’s practical focus underestimated the proclamation’s power to unleash the moral fervor of the North and keep the Republican Party united by making freedom for the slaves an avowed objective of the war.

Despite his concerns about the effect of the proclamation, Seward had no thought of opposing it. Once Lincoln had made up his mind, Seward was steadfast in his loyalty to him. He demurred only on the issue of timing. “Mr. President,” he said, “I approve of the proclamation, but I question the expediency of its issue at this juncture. The depression of the public mind, consequent upon our repeated reverses, is so great that I fear…it may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help…our last shriek, on the retreat.” Better to wait, he grandiloquently suggested, “until the eagle of victory takes his flight,” and buoyed by military success, “hang your proclamation about his neck.” Seward’s argument was reinforced later that day by Thurlow Weed, who met with Lincoln on a visit to Washington.

“The wisdom of the view of the Secretary of State struck me with very great force,” Lincoln later told the artist Francis Carpenter. “It was an aspect of the case that, in all my thought upon the subject, I had entirely overlooked. The result was that I put the draft of the proclamation aside, as you do your sketch for a picture, waiting for a victory.”

AS JULY GAVE WAY TO AUGUST, however, Lincoln’s thoughts never strayed from his proclamation. Repeatedly, he returned to edit his draft, “touching it up here and there, anxiously watching the progress of events.” Having resolved to present it for publication upon the first military success, he set out to educate public opinion, to prepare the ground for its acceptance. Lincoln had long believed, as we have seen, that “with public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” He understood that one of the principal stumbling blocks in the way of emancipation was the pervasive fear shared by whites in both the North and the South that the two races could never coexist peacefully in a free society. He thought that a plan for the voluntary emigration of freed slaves would allay some of these fears, fostering wider acceptance of his proclamation.

On August 14, Lincoln invited a delegation of freed slaves to a conference at the White House, hoping to inspire their cooperation in educating fellow blacks on the benefits of colonization. “You and we are different races,” he began. “We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races.” Lincoln acknowledged that with slavery, the black race had endured “the greatest wrong inflicted on any people.” Still, he continued, “when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. You are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours.” Meanwhile, the evil consequences of slavery upon the white race were manifest in a calamitous civil war that found them “cutting one another’s throats.” Far “better for us both, therefore, to be separated,” Lincoln reasoned, informing the delegates that “a sum of money had been appropriated by Congress, and placed at his disposition” to aid in establishing a colony somewhere in Central America. He needed a contingent of intelligent, educated blacks, such as the men present, to promote the opportunity among their own people.

A discussion followed and the meeting came to a close. “We were entirely hostile to the movement until all the advantages were so ably brought to our views by you,” the delegation chief wrote Lincoln two days later, promising to consult with prominent blacks in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston who he hoped would “join heartily in Sustaining Such a movement.” His hope was misplaced. The black leaders responded swiftly with widespread antipathy to the proposal. As the Liberator eloquently argued, the nation’s 4 million slaves “are as much the natives of the country as any of their oppressors. Here they were born; here, by every consideration of justice and humanity, they are entitled to live; and here it is for them to die in the course of nature.” One might “as well attempt to roll back Niagara to its source, or to cast the Allegheny mountains into the sea, as to think of driving or enticing them out of the country.” How pathetic, the Liberator noted, that the president of a country “sufficiently capacious to contain the present population of the globe,” a nation that “proudly boasts of being the refuge of the oppressed of all nations,” should consider exiling “the entire colored population…to a distant shore.”

Reports of Lincoln’s dialogue with the black delegation provoked Frederick Douglass to his most caustic assault yet on the president. While acknowledging that this was the first time blacks had been invited for a hearing at the White House, he accused Lincoln of making “ridiculous” comments showing a “pride of race and blood” and a “contempt for negroes.” The president “ought to know,” Douglass argued, “that negro hatred and prejudice of color are neither original nor invincible vices, but merely the offshoots of that root of all crimes and evils—slavery. If the colored people instead of having been stolen and forcibly brought to the United States had come as free immigrants, like the German and the Irish, never thought of as suitable objects of property, they never would have become the objects of aversion and bitter persecution.”

Lincoln’s remarkable empathy had singularly failed him in this initial approach to the impending consequences of emancipation. Though he had tried to put himself in the place of blacks and suggest what he thought was best for them, his lack of contact with the black community left him unaware of their deep attachment to their country and sense of outrage at the thought of removal. In time, Lincoln’s friendship with Frederick Douglass and personal contact with hundreds of black soldiers willing to give up their lives for their freedom would create a deeper understanding of his black countrymen that would allow him to cast off forever his thoughts of colonization.

Even as he addressed the black delegation that August, Lincoln may not have been convinced that colonization was a feasible option. He recognized, however, that the mere suggestion of the plan might provide the “drop of honey” to make the prospect of emancipation more palatable. Chase would accept no such concession. “How much better would be a manly protest against prejudice against color!—and a wise effort to give freemen homes in America!” he wrote in his diary after reading Lincoln’s colonization discussion. Count Gurowski was even harsher in his condemnation, characterizing Lincoln’s talk of racial incompatibility as cheap “clap-trap,” revealing a disturbing “display of ignorance or of humbug, or perhaps of both,” unworthy of a president.

The most sensational criticism, however, came from Horace Greeley. He published an open letter to the president in the New York Tribune on August 20, which he entitled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions.” Claiming to speak for his vast readership, he decried the policy Lincoln seemed “to be pursuing with regard to the slaves,” which, “unduly influenced by the counsels…of certain fossil politicians hailing from the Border Slave States,” failed to recognize that “all attempts to put down the Rebellion and at the same time uphold its inciting cause [slavery] are preposterous and futile.”

Lincoln decided to reply to Greeley’s letter, seizing the opportunity to begin instructing the public on the vital link between emancipation and military necessity. “As to the policy I ‘seem to be pursuing’ as you say, I have not meant to leave anyone in doubt,” he began. “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 it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do morewhenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.”

Having already decided upon emancipation, Lincoln hoped that his letter would soften the public impact of what he knew would be a controversial proclamation. Abolitionists, unaware that Lincoln had already committed himself to a path that would “do more” than even they had hoped, were infuriated by his response. “I am sorry the President answered Mr. Greeley,” Frances Seward complained to her husband; “his letter hardly does him justice…he gives the impression that the mere keeping together a number of states is more important than human freedom.”

Seward had argued this very issue with his zealous wife for many months. At home in June, he had apparently suggested that the preservation of republican institutions must supersede the immediate abolition of slavery. Though he had fought slavery all his life, Seward hesitated when faced with the possibility that moving too precipitously toward abolition might destroy the republic itself and all that it stood for on the stage of world history. He had no doubt that slavery would eventually be brought to an end. Indeed, he believed the future of slavery had been “killed years ago” by the progress of civilization. “But suppose, for one moment,” he later explained, “the Republic destroyed. With it is bound up not alone the destiny of a race, but the best hopes of all mankind. With its overthrow the sun of liberty, like the Hebrew dial, would be set back indefinitely. The magnitude of such a calamity is beyond our calculation. The salvation of the nation is, then, of vastly more consequence than the destruction of slavery.”

Frances profoundly disagreed with this balancing equation, asserting there could be no “truly republican” institutions with slavery intact—“they are incompatible.” Sometime during that long, anxious summer, she recorded her exhortations in a note to her husband. “Whatever may be the principles in the determination of the President in this matter,” she wrote, “you owe it to yourself & your children & your country & to God to make your record clear.” If the president refused to act on slavery, “it would be far better for you to resign your place tomorrow than by continuing there seem to give countenance to a great moral evil.”

Frances had no intimation that Lincoln’s views on the relationship between emancipation and republican institutions had already evolved beyond those of her husband. For despite the continued criticism of his inaction on slavery, Lincoln kept his proclamation concealed until victory could offer the propitious moment. Everything depended on the success of his army.

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