THE SUMMER OF 1863 marked a crucial transformation in the Union war effort—the organization and deployment of black regiments that would eventually amount to 180,000 soldiers, a substantial proportion of eligible black males. The struggle to open the door for black recruits had finally ended when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation flatly declared that blacks would “be received into the armed service of the United States.” Three weeks later, Stanton authorized Massachusetts governor John Andrew to raise two regiments of black troops. Since Massachusetts had only a small black population, Andrew called on Major George L. Stearns to head a recruitment effort that would reach into New York and other Northern states. Stearns approached Frederick Douglass for help.
Douglass was overjoyed. He had long believed that the war would not be won so long as the North refused “to employ the black man’s arm in suppressing the rebels.” He wrote stirring appeals in his Monthly magazine and traveled throughout the North, speaking at large meetings in Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and many other cities, offering a dozen answers to the question: “Why should a colored man enlist?” Nothing, he assured them, would more clearly legitimize their call for equal citizenship: “You will stand more erect, walk more assured, feel more at ease, and be less liable to insult than you ever were before. He who fights the battles of America may claim America as his country—and have that claim respected.”
The black soldiers who initially answered Douglass’s call became part of the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Captained by Robert Gould Shaw, the son of wealthy Boston abolitionists, this first black regiment from the North included two of Frederick Douglass’s own sons, Charles and Lewis. On May 28, thousands of Bostonians poured into the streets cheering the men as they marched past the State House and the Common. At the parade ground, they were reviewed by the governor and various high-ranking military officials. “No single regiment has attracted larger crowds,” the Boston Daily Evening Transcript reported. “Ladies lined the balconies and windows of the houses,” waving their handkerchiefs as the brass band led the proud regiment to the parade ground.
Frederick Douglass attended the ceremonies, proudly extolling the “manly bearing” and “admirable marching” of the men he had worked hard to recruit. After bidding his sons farewell, he returned to the task of recruiting with renewed zeal.
Lincoln was in full accord with this drive to build black regiments. Though he had initially resisted proposals to arm blacks, he was now totally dedicated. He urged Banks, Hunter, and Grant to speed the enlisting process and implored Governor Andrew Johnson of Tennessee to raise black troops. “The colored population is the great available and yet unavailed of, force for restoring the Union,” Lincoln wrote. “The bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once.” Chase, who had argued more strongly than any other cabinet member for black soldiers, took great satisfaction in Lincoln’s newfound commitment. “The President is now thoroughly in earnest in this business,” he wrote a friend, “& sees it much as I saw it nearly two years ago.”
In his efforts to recruit black soldiers, Douglass encountered a series of obstacles forged by white prejudice: black soldiers received less pay than white soldiers, they were denied the enlistment bounty, and they were not allowed to be commissioned as officers. Still, Douglass insisted, “this is no time for hesitation…. Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket,” he told a mass audience in Philadelphia, “and there is no power on the earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States. I say again, this is our chance, and woe betide us if we fail to embrace it.”
When the newly organized black troops went into battle—at Port Hudson, Milliken’s Bend, and Fort Wagner—they earned great respect from white soldiers and civilians alike for their “bravery and steadiness.” If captured, however, they ran the risk of losing their freedom or their lives, for the Confederate Congress had passed an ordinance “dooming to death or slavery every negro taken in arms, and every white officer who commands negro troops.”
As word of the unique dangers they faced spread through the black community, Douglass found that the size and enthusiasm of his audiences were swiftly diminishing, as was the number of black enlistments. He blamed Lincoln for not speaking out against the Confederate ordinance. “What has Mr. Lincoln to say about this slavery and murder? What has he said?—Not one word. In the hearing of the nation he is as silent as an oyster on the whole subject.” The time for patience with the president had come and gone, he argued. Until he “shall interpose his power to prevent these atrocious assassinations of negro soldiers, the civilized world will hold him equally with Jefferson Davis responsible for them.”
Lincoln’s failure to speak out and protect the Union’s black soldiers convinced Douglass that he could no longer persuade men to enlist in good conscience. “When I plead for recruits, I want to do it with my heart, without qualification,” he explained to Major Stearns. “I cannot do that now. The impression settles upon me that colored men have much overrated the enlightenment, justice and generosity of our rulers at Washington.”
In fact, Lincoln was already formulating a response. During the last week of July 1863, he asked Halleck to prepare an Order of Retaliation, which was issued on July 30. The order made clear that “the law of nations and the usages and customs of war as carried on by civilized powers, permit no distinction as to color in the treatment of prisoners of war.” The Confederate ordinance represented “a relapse into barbarism” that required action on the part of the Union. “It is therefore ordered that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor.”
The order was “well-written,” the antagonistic Count Gurowski conceded, “but like all Mr. Lincoln’s acts it is done almost too late, only when the poor President was so cornered by events, that shifting and escape became impossible.” Douglass agreed but acknowledged that the president, “being a man of action,” might have been waiting “for a case in which he should be required to act.”
Although the retaliatory order alleviated one major concern, Douglass feared that the lack of “fair play” in the handling of black enrollees would continue to hamper recruiting. Major Stearns suggested that Douglass should go to Washington and explain the situation to the president. Having never visited the nation’s capital, Douglass experienced an inexpressible “tumult of feeling” when he entered the White House. “I could not know what kind of a reception would be accorded me. I might be told to go home and mind my business…. Or I might be refused an interview altogether.”
Finding a large crowd in the hallway, Douglass expected to wait hours before gaining an audience with the president. Minutes after presenting his card, however, he was called into the office. “I was never more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man than in that of Abraham Lincoln,” he later recalled. The president was seated in a chair when Douglass entered the room, “surrounded by a multitude of books and papers, his feet and legs were extended in front of his chair. On my approach he slowly drew his feet in from the different parts of the room into which they had strayed, and he began to rise.” As Lincoln extended his hand in greeting, Douglass hesitantly began to introduce himself. “I know who you are, Mr. Douglass,” Lincoln said. “Mr. Seward has told me all about you. Sit down. I am glad to see you.” Lincoln’s warmth put Douglass instantly at ease. Douglass later maintained that he had “never seen a more transparent countenance.” He could tell “at a glance the justice of the popular estimate of the President[’s] qualities expressed in the prefix ‘honest’ to the name of Abraham Lincoln.”
Douglass laid before the president the discriminatory measures that were frustrating his recruiting efforts. “Mr. Lincoln listened with earnest attention and with very apparent sympathy,” he recalled. “Upon my ceasing to speak [he] proceeded with an earnestness and fluency of which I had not suspected him.” Lincoln first recognized the indisputable justice of the demand for equal pay. When Congress passed the bill for black soldiers, he explained, it “seemed a necessary concession to smooth the way to their employment at all as soldiers,” but he promised that “in the end they shall have the same pay as white soldiers.” As for the absence of black officers, Lincoln assured Douglass that “he would sign any commission to colored soldiers whom his Secretary of War should commend to him.”
Douglass was particularly impressed by Lincoln’s justification for delaying the retaliatory order until the public mind was prepared for it. Had he acted earlier, Lincoln said, before the recent battles “in which negroes had distinguished themselves for bravery and general good conduct,” he was certain that “such was the state of public popular prejudice that an outcry would have been raised against the measure. It would be said—Ah! we thought it would come to this. White men were to be killed for negroes.” In fact, he confessed to grave misgivings that, “once begun, there was no telling where it would end; that if he could get hold of the Confederate soldiers who had been guilty [of killing black prisoners] he could easily retaliate, but the thought of hanging men for a crime perpetrated by others was revolting to his feelings.” While Douglass disagreed, believing the order essential, he respected the “humane spirit” that prompted Lincoln’s concerns.
Before they parted, Lincoln told Douglass that he had read a recent speech in which the fiery orator had lambasted “the tardy, hesitating and vacillating policy of the President of the United States.” Though he conceded that he might move with frustrating deliberation on large issues, he disputed the accusation of vacillation. “I think it cannot be shown that when I have once taken a position, I have ever retreated from it.” Douglass would never forget his first meeting with Lincoln, during which he felt “as though I could…put my hand on his shoulder.”
Later that same day, Douglass met with Stanton. “The manner of no two men could be more widely different,” he observed. “His first glance was that of a man who says: ‘Well, what do you want? I have no time to waste upon you or anybody else.’” Nonetheless, once Douglass began to outline much the same issues he had addressed with the president, “contempt and suspicion and brusqueness had all disappeared from his face,” and Stanton, too, promised “that justice would ultimately be done.” Indeed, Stanton had already implored Congress to remove the discriminatory wage and bounty provisions, which it would eventually do. Impressed by Douglass, Stanton promised to make him an assistant adjutant general assigned to Lorenzo Thomas, then charged with recruiting black soldiers in the Mississippi Valley. The War Department followed up with an offer of a $100-a-month salary plus subsistence and transportation, but the commission was not included. Douglass declined: “I knew too much of camp life and the value of shoulder straps in the army to go into the service without some visible mark of my rank.”
Douglass and Lincoln had established a relationship that would prove important for both men in the weeks and months ahead. In subsequent speeches, Douglass frequently commented on his gracious reception at the White House. “Perhaps you may like to know how the President of the United States received a black man at the White House,” he would say. “I will tell you how he received me—just as you have seen one gentleman receive another.” As the crowd erupted into “great applause,” he continued, “I tell you I felt big there!”
IN THE RELATIVE QUIET that followed, Lincoln immersed himself in the task of composing another public letter. This letter was addressed to James Conkling, the old Springfield friend in whose office he had anxiously awaited news from Chicago during the Republican nominating convention. As a leading Illinois Republican, Conkling had invited Lincoln to attend a mass meeting in Springfield on September 3, organized to rally loyal Unionists in a show of strength against the Copperhead influence, which remained strong in the Northwest. Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg had created a deceptive feeling that peace was close at hand. False rumors circulated that Lincoln had received and rejected several viable peace proposals. It was essential to derail these damaging stories and halt Copperhead momentum in its tracks. While he doubtless would have been received with adoration in his hometown, Lincoln decided to remain in Washington and compose a comprehensive letter for Conkling to read at the meeting and then have printed for mass distribution.
After completing an early draft, Lincoln searched out someone to listen as he read it aloud. It was a Sunday night, and the mansion was nearly vacant. Entering the library, the president was delighted to find William Stoddard. “Ah! I’m glad you’re here,” Lincoln said. “Come over into my room.” Stoddard followed him into his office. “Sit down,” Lincoln urged. “What I want is an audience. Nothing sounds the same when there isn’t anybody to hear it and find fault with it.” Stoddard expressed doubt that he would be inclined to criticize the president’s words. “Yes, you will,” Lincoln good-humoredly replied. “Everybody else will. It’s just what I want you to do.” Then, taking the sheets of foolscap paper from the end of the cabinet table on which he had been writing, he began to read.
Warming to the task, Lincoln allowed his voice to rise and fall as if he were speaking to an audience of thousands. When he finished, he asked Stoddard’s impression. Stoddard’s sole objection was to fault Lincoln’s metaphor—“Uncle Sam’s web-feet”—for the navy gunboats that plied the rivers and bayous. “I never saw a web-footed gunboat in all my life,” Stoddard said. “They’re a queer kind of duck.” Lincoln laughed. “Some of ’em did get ashore, though. I’ll leave it in, now I know how it’s going to sound.” Then, thanking Stoddard, he bade him good night.
The address was designed to curb the “deceptive and groundless” rumors that Lincoln had secretly rejected peace proposals. If any legitimate propositions should be received, he pledged, they would not be kept a secret from the people he was elected to serve. “But, to be plain,” he went on, “you are dissatisfied with me about the negro…. You dislike the emancipation proclamation; and, perhaps, would have it retracted.” On this point there would be no compromise: “it can not be retracted, any more than the dead can be brought to life,” for “the promise being made, must be kept.” Furthermore, black soldiers had become so integral to the war effort that “some of the commanders of our armies in the field who have given us our most important successes, believe the emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion….
“Peace does not appear so distant as it did,” Lincoln concluded. “And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.”
Lincoln continued to refine his letter over the next ten days, stealing what time he could from his public duties. He finally sent it, accompanied with a personal note to Conkling: “You are one of the best public readers. I have but one suggestion. Read it very slowly.” An immense crowd was expected, drawn “from the farm and the workshop,” the local newspaper reported, “from the office and the counting-room,” to prove to the Copperheads that behind the soldiers already in the field were “hundreds of thousands more who are willing to offer their services whenever the country calls.”
Confident in his final composition, Lincoln anticipated a positive reception on September 3 when it would be read to the crowd and then given to newspapers for publication the following day. When he awoke on the morning of the mass meeting, however, he was furious to see a truncated version of his letter printed in the Washington Daily Chronicle. Lincoln immediately complained to the editor, John Forney. Don’t blame us, Forney explained to Lincoln, we got it from the Associated Press, and it’s in daily newspapers around the country. Provoked, Lincoln telegraphed Conkling in Springfield. “I am mortified this morning to find the letter to you, botched up, in the Eastern papers, telegraphed from Chicago. How did this happen?”
Hearing nothing that day from Conkling, Lincoln remained testy. When a petitioner tried to solicit his help in securing property for a Memphis woman whose husband was in the Confederate Army, the president uncharacteristically replied that he had “neither the means nor time” to consider the request and that “the impropriety of bringing such cases to me, is obvious to any one.”
The following morning, a message arrived from Conkling. Apparently, he had telegraphed the letter in advance, with “strict injunctions not to permit it to be published before the meeting or make any improper use of it.” He was “mortified” that someone had broken faith, but trusted that “no prejudicial results have been experienced as the whole Letter was published the next day.”
In fact, the publication of the entire letter received excellent reviews. “Disclaiming the arts of the diplomatist, the cunning of the politician, and the graces of rhetoric, he comes straight to the points he wants to discuss,” praised the New York Daily Tribune. “The most consummate rhetorician never used language more pat to the purpose,” the New York Times declared, “and still there is not a word in the letter not familiar to the plainest plowman.” While “felicity of speech” was usually linked to “high culture,” the Times continued, Lincoln, “in his own independent, and perhaps we might say very peculiar, way,” exhibits a “felicity of speech far surpassing” stylistic preference. He possesses a far more valuable “felicity of thought,” which “invariably gets at the needed truth of the time,” hitting “the very nail of all others which needs driving.” The Philadelphia Inquirer had regarded Lincoln’s unconventional habit of writing public letters with skepticism, but granted that his recent letters, including this one, “have dispelled the doubt. If he is as felicitous in the future, we hope he will continue to write.”
“His last letter is a great thing,” Hay told Nicolay a few days later. “Some hideously bad rhetoric—some indecorums that are infamous—yet the whole letter takes its solid place in history, as a great utterance of a great man. The whole Cabinet could not have tinkered up a letter which could have been compared with it. He can snake a sophism out of its hole, better than all the trained logicians of all schools.”
In its fulsome praise of the letter to Conkling, the New York Times also commended a long line of Lincoln’s writings, including his inaugural, the letters to McClellan made public by the congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, and his published letters to Greeley and Corning, which revealed “the same fitness to the occasion, and the same effectiveness in its own direction.” Taken together, these remarkable documents had made Lincoln “the most popular man in the Republic. All the denunciations and all the arts of demagogues are perfectly powerless to wean the people from their faith in him.”
“I know the people want him,” Hay wrote to Nicolay, looking forward to the next election. “There is no mistaking that fact. But politicians are strong yet & he is not their ‘kind of a cat.’ I hope God wont see fit to scourge us for our sins by any one of the two or three most prominent candidates on the ground.”
BY THE MIDDLE of September 1863, all the members of Lincoln’s cabinet had returned from their summer sojourns. Seward came back invigorated by his trip through the lake region with the diplomatic corps. Bates was back from Missouri in time to celebrate his seventieth birthday, grateful that his long life had “been crowned with many blessings, and, comparatively few crosses.” He noted with pride that, as a public figure, he had achieved a reputation “for knowledge and probity, quite as good as I deserve.” Stanton, too, had enjoyed a much-needed vacation with his family in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Chase, in characteristic fashion, had allowed himself scant respite from work, leaving his daughters at the seashore and then peevishly awaiting their return. Welles was gratified to return from his ten-day visit to the Navy Yards, noting in his diary that all his colleagues seemed “glad to see me,—none more so than the President, who cordially and earnestly greeted me. I have been less absent than any other member and was therefore perhaps more missed.” Lincoln himself still enjoyed leisurely nights at the Soldiers’ Home and looked forward to Mary’s homecoming from the Green Mountains.
Grim news from Tennessee deflated the genial, relaxed mood of the president and his cabinet. After the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Lincoln and Stanton had hoped that General Rosecrans, with the Army of the Cumberland, could deliver the “finishing blow to the rebellion.” He was positioned to push the enemy from Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee, with an eye to advancing on Georgia. However, after Rosecrans delivered “a great and bloodless victory at Chattanooga” as the enemy fled from the city before advancing troops, the Confederates regrouped and “unexpectedly appeared in force, on the south bank of [the] Chicamauga.” A furious battle commenced on Saturday, September 19. Within thirty-six hours, the telegrams from the field indicated a stunning Confederate victory. “Chicamauga is as fatal a name in our history as Bull Run,” Dana wired Stanton. Union casualties totaled sixteen thousand men. “We have met with a serious disaster,” Rosecrans acknowledged. “Enemy overwhelmed us, drove our right, pierced our center and scattered troops there.”
Lincoln told Welles that the dispatches reached him “at the Soldiers’ Home shortly after he got asleep, and so disturbed him that he had no more rest, but arose and came to the city and passed the remainder of the night awake and watchful.” At daybreak, the president wandered into Hay’s room, where, seated on the bed, he broke the news to his young aide. “Well, Rosecrans has been whipped, as I feared. I have feared it for several days. I believe I feel trouble in the air before it comes.”
Later that same day, perhaps hoping that the presence of his family might lift his spirits, Lincoln telegraphed Mary. “The air is so clear and cool, and apparently healthy, that I would be glad for you to come. Nothing very particular, but I would be glad [to] see you and Tad.” Mary responded immediately, saying she was “anxious to return home” and had already made plans to do so.
As further reports filtered in, the fallout of the battle proved “less unfavorable than was feared,” a relieved Chase noted. General George Thomas’s corps had held its ground, and the rebels had lost even more troops than the Federals. Chattanooga “still remains in our hands,” Charles Dana wired to Stanton and, with reinforcements of twenty to thirty thousand troops “can be held by this army for from fifteen to twenty days.” Without the additional troops, however, the outnumbered Federals would have to abandon Chattanooga or face another potentially disastrous battle. Everything hinged on whether this massive movement of troops would reach Tennessee in time. Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, Stanton came up with a bold idea that required the president’s approval.
Unwilling to waste the remainder of the night, Stanton dispatched messengers to bring Lincoln, Halleck, Seward, and Chase to a secret meeting in his office. Chase had just retired for the night when the courier rang his bell. “The Secretary of War desires that you will come to the Department immediately & has sent a carriage for you,” he announced. Chase “hastily rose & dressed,” terrified that the enemy had captured Rosecrans and his entire army. John Hay was sent to the Soldiers’ Home to summon Lincoln, who, like Chase, was already in bed. As Lincoln rose to dress, “he was considerably disturbed,” saying that “it was the first time Stanton had ever sent for him.” Guided by the light of the moon, Lincoln and Hay then rode back to the War Department.
When the five men were assembled around the table, the austere Stanton said: “I have invited this meeting because I am thoroughly convinced that something must be done & done immediately.” He proceeded to outline an audacious proposal to remove twenty thousand men from General Meade’s Army of the Potomac to Nashville and Chattanooga under General Hooker’s command. The plan struck both Halleck and Lincoln as dangerous and impractical. Halleck protested that it would take at least forty days to reach Tennessee. The troops would arrive too late, and Meade would be left vulnerable on the Rappahannock. The president agreed. “Why,” he quipped, “you cant get one corps into Washington in the time you fix for reaching Nashville.” A humorous anecdote he employed to illustrate his point “greatly annoyed” Stanton, who remarked that “the danger was too imminent & the occasion [too] serious for jokes.” He said that “he had fully considered the question of practicability & should not have submitted his proposition had he not fully satisfied himself” as to its feasibility.
After further discussion, Chase suggested taking a break for the refreshments Stanton had prepared. “On returning,” Chase recalled, “Mr. Seward took up the subject & supported Mr. Stantons proposition with excellent arguments.” Chase believed that Seward’s support for the proposal was instrumental. Sensing his advantage, Stanton immediately sent an orderly to find Colonel D. C. McCallum, director of the Department of Military Railroads. Stanton had briefed McCallum earlier in the evening and directed him to prepare an estimate of the time necessary to transfer the troops by rail if all available trains were put at his disposal. When McCallum entered, Lincoln described the proposition and asked him to estimate how long it would take to achieve the goal. Without disclosing that he had received prior notice to consider the matter, McCallum asked for a moment to “make a few figures.” Seated at a desk with timetables spread before him, he worked for some time while the room remained silent. Finally, he stood up and said: “I can complete it in seven days.”
“Good!” Stanton exclaimed, turning contemptuously to Halleck. “I told you so! I knew it could be done! Forty days! Forty days indeed, when the life of the nation is at stake!” He then addressed McCallum: “Go ahead; begin now.” At this point, Lincoln interrupted. “I have not yet given my consent,” he reminded the secretary of war. “Colonel McCallum, are you sure about this?” Lincoln asked. “There must be no mistake.” When McCallum said he would “pledge [his] life to accomplish it inside of seven days,” Lincoln was satisfied. “Mr. Secretary, you are the captain. Give the necessary orders and I will approve them.”
Relentlessly, Stanton worked for more than forty-eight hours straight, commandeering trains for military use, telegraphing railroad managers along the route, determining the various gauges of the tracks. He acquired the provisions necessary for soldiers and horses to travel straight across the Alleghenies into East Tennessee without a stop to resupply.
The first train left Washington at 5 p.m. on September 25, with departures every hour until 23,000 men and 1,100 horses, 9 batteries, and hundreds of wagons, tents, and supplies arrived in Tennessee ready to join Rosecrans in defense of Chattanooga. Monitoring reports from every station along the way, Stanton refused to go home. When exhaustion overtook him, he would collapse on his couch for a few hours, a cologne-moistened handkerchief tied around his forehead. Only when it became clear that the movement would succeed within the promised seven days did he agree to leave his post. “It was an extraordinary feat of logistics,” James McPherson writes, “the longest and fastest movement of such a large body of troops before the twentieth century.”
The immediate peril was past, but Dana’s reports in the following weeks indicated that the rebels had cut off supply routes into Chattanooga and that the troops had lost confidence in Rosecrans. Lincoln and Stanton decided that the time had come for a change in command. Stanton telegraphed Grant to leave Cairo, Illinois, for Louisville, Kentucky, where he would “meet an officer of the War Department” and receive new instructions. When Grant reached Indianapolis, he discovered that the War Department officer was Stanton himself. This was the first meeting between the two men.
Stanton presented Grant with a choice between two orders. Both offered him command of a new “Military Division of the Mississippi” encompassing the Departments of the Cumberland, the Ohio, and the Tennessee. The first left the departmental commanders in place. Grant chose the second order, which replaced Rosecrans with Thomas. Stanton spent a day with Grant discussing the overall military situation before the general departed for Chattanooga. There, under his leadership, the Federals eventually drove the rebels from Tennessee after a stunning victory at Lookout Mountain.
In his memoirs, Grant credits Stanton for playing an important role in saving Chattanooga. The unprecedented troop movement prevented a retreat that, Grant acknowledged, “would have been a terrible disaster.” Chase, too, lauded Stanton. “The country does not know how much it owes Edwin M. Stanton for that nights work.”
It was this indomitable drive that Lincoln had sought when he put aside any resentment at the humiliation Stanton had inflicted years earlier in Cincinnati. The bluntness and single-minded intensity behind Stanton’s brusque dismissal of Lincoln at that first acquaintance were the qualities the president valued in his secretary of war—whom he would affectionately call his “Mars.”
Those who observed the improbable pair in the little room adjoining the telegraph office noted the “esteem and affection” that characterized their relationship. “It was an interesting and a pleasant sight,” clerk Charles Benjamin recalled, “that of Mr. Lincoln seated with one long leg crossed upon the other, his head a little peaked and his face lit up by the animation of talking or listening, while Mr. Stanton would stand sidewise to him, with one hand resting lightly on the high back of the chair in the brief intervals of that everlasting occupation of wiping his spectacles.” Should Lincoln rise from the writing desk that Stanton arranged for him, “the picturesqueness of the scene” would give way to laughter, for “the striking differences in height and girth at once suggested the two gendarmes in the French comic opera.”
“No two men were ever more utterly and irreconcilably unlike,” Stanton’s private secretary, A. E. Johnson, observed. “The secretiveness which Lincoln wholly lacked, Stanton had in marked degree; the charity which Stanton could not feel, coursed from every pore in Lincoln. Lincoln was for giving a wayward subordinate seventy times seven chances to repair his errors; Stanton was for either forcing him to obey or cutting off his head without more ado. Lincoln was as calm and unruffled as the summer sea in moments of the gravest peril; Stanton would lash himself into a fury over the same condition of things. Stanton would take hardships with a groan; Lincoln would find a funny story to fit them. Stanton was all dignity and sternness, Lincoln all simplicity and good nature…yet no two men ever did or could work better in harness. They supplemented each other’s nature, and they fully recognized the fact that they were a necessity to each other.”
Johnson believed that “in dealing with the public, Lincoln’s heart was greater than his head, while Stanton’s head was greater than his heart.” The antithetical styles are typified in the story of a congressman who had received Lincoln’s authorization for the War Department’s aid in a project. When Stanton refused to honor the order, the disappointed petitioner returned to Lincoln, telling him that Stanton had not only countermanded the order but had called the president a damned fool for issuing it. “Did Stanton say I was a d——d fool?” Lincoln asked. “He did, sir,” the congressman replied, “and repeated it.” Smiling, the president remarked: “If Stanton said I was a d——d fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means. I will step over and see him.”
As Stanton came to know and understand Lincoln, his initial disdain turned to admiration. When George Harding, his old partner in the Reaper trial, assumed that Stanton was the author of the “remarkable passages” in one of Lincoln’s messages, Stanton set him straight. “Lincoln wrote it—every word of it; and he is capable of more than that, Harding, no men were ever so deceived as we at Cincinnati.”
“Few war ministers have had such real personal affection and respect for their king or president as Mr. Stanton had for Mr. Lincoln,” a contemporary observed. Both had suffered great personal losses, and both were haunted all their days by thoughts of mortality and death. When Stanton was eighteen, a cholera epidemic had spread through the Midwest. Victims were buried as quickly as possible in an effort to contain the plague. Learning that a young friend had been buried within hours of falling ill, Stanton panicked, fearing that “she had been buried alive while in a faint.” He raced to the grave, where, with the help of a medical student friend, he exhumed her body to determine if she was truly dead. Contact with the body led to his own infection and near death from cholera. When his beloved wife, Mary, died ten years later, he insisted on including her wedding ring, valuable pieces of her jewelry, and some of his correspondence in her casket. He spent hours at her gravesite, and when he could not be there, he sent an employee to stand guard.
That Lincoln was also preoccupied with death is clear from the themes of many of his favorite poems that addressed the ephemeral nature of life and reflected his own painful acquaintance with death. He particularly cherished “Mortality,” by William Knox, and transcribed a copy for the Stantons.
Oh! Why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of lightning, a break of the wave,
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.
He could recite from memory “The Last Leaf,” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and once claimed to the painter Francis Carpenter that “for pure pathos” there was “nothing finer…in the English language” than the six-line stanza:
The mossy marbles rest
On lips that he has prest
In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb.
Yet, beyond sharing a romantic and philosophical preoccupation with death, the commander in chief and the secretary of war shared the harrowing knowledge that their choices resulted in sending hundreds of thousands of young men to their graves. Stanton’s Quaker background made the strain particularly unbearable. As a young man, he had written a passionate essay decrying society’s exaltation of war. “Why is it,” he asked, that military generals “are praised and honored instead of being punished as malefactors?” After all, the work of war is “the making of widows and orphans—the plundering of towns and villages—the exterminating & spoiling of all, making the earth a slaughterhouse.” Though governments might argue war’s necessity to achieve certain objectives, “how much better might they accomplish their ends by some other means? But if generals are useful so are butchers, and who will say that because a butcher is useful he should be honored?”
Three decades after writing this, Stanton found himself responsible for an army of more than 2 million men. “There could be no greater madness,” he reasoned, “than for a man to encounter what I do for anything less than motives that overleap time and look forward to eternity.” Lincoln, too, found the horrific scope of the burden hard to fathom. “Doesn’t it strike you as queer that I, who couldn’t cut the head off of a chicken, and who was sick at the sight of blood, should be cast into the middle of a great war, with blood flowing all about me?”
Like Stanton, the president tried to console himself that the Civil War, however terrible, represented a divine will at work in human affairs. The previous year, he had granted an audience to a group of Quakers, including Eliza Gurney. “If I had had my way,” he reportedly said during the meeting, “this war would never have been commenced; if I had been allowed my way this war would have been ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that He who made the world still governs it.”
He understood the terrible conflict suffered by the Friends, he wrote Mrs. Gurney later. “On principle, and faith, opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war.” Their support and their prayers, even as they endured their own “very great trial,” would never be forgotten. “Meanwhile,” he continued, “we must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains. Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.”
AS THE FRIENDSHIP between Stanton and Lincoln deepened, Chase, who had been Stanton’s most intimate companion, was increasingly marginalized. Chase maintained a warm relationship with the secretary of war, however. Stanton still wrote affectionate notes to him. “I return your knife which by some means found its way into my pocket,” Stanton had written Chase the previous winter. “Let me add that, ‘if you love me like I love you no knife can cut our love in two.’” A year later, Stanton would ask Chase to stand as godfather to his newborn child. Nevertheless, the balance of power between the two men had shifted. Stanton was now a happily married man with four children. The overworked secretary of war no longer begrudged the lack of time Chase was able to spend with him. On the contrary, it was Chase who now had to pay court to Stanton. Deprived of access to vital military decisions, Chase was forced to rely on the war secretary for the latest intelligence. Stanton had once yearned to spend entire evenings in Chase’s study; now Chase was lucky to obtain a private conversation with his old friend when he joined the crowd that gathered in the telegraph office at the end of the working day.
“It is painful for one to be so near the springs of action and yet unable to touch them,” Chase admitted to an acquaintance. “It is almost like the nightmare in oppressiveness, and worse because there is no illusion. I can only counsel; and that without any certainty of being understood, or, if understood, of being able to obtain concurrence, or, even after concurrence, action.”
Chase’s frustration with his position was alleviated only by his dreams of future glory, by his dogged hope that he, rather than Lincoln, would be the Republican nominee in 1864. In an era when single-term presidencies were the rule, he believed that if he could outflank Lincoln on Reconstruction—an issue most dear to radical Republicans—he could capture the nomination. The recent victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg had created an illusion in the North that the end of the war was at hand. Questions of how the rebel states should be brought back into the Union began to dominate discussions in the halls of Congress, at dinner parties, in newspaper editorials, and in the smoke-filled bar of the Willard Hotel.
The issue divided the Republican Party. Radicals insisted that only those who had never displayed even indirect support for the Confederacy should be allowed to vote in the redeemed states. Lawyers and teachers who had not been staunch Unionists should not be allowed to resume their professions. Slavery should be immediately abolished without compensation, and newly freed blacks should be allowed to vote in some cases. Conservative Republicans preferred compensated emancipation and a lenient definition of who should gain suffrage. They argued that in every Southern state, a silent majority of non-slaveholders had been dragged into secession by the wealthy plantation owners. It would be unjust to exclude them in the new order so long as they would take an oath to uphold both the Union and emancipation.
It was assumed in political circles that Lincoln would be the “standard-bearer for the Conservatives,” while Chase would be “the champion of the Radicals.” The state elections in the fall would presumably serve as the opening round of the presidential race. It was expected that Chase would aggressively promote the candidacies of fellow radicals, who, in turn, would be indebted to him the following year. While Chase’s desire for the presidency was no less worthy a pursuit than Lincoln’s, Noah Brooks observed, Chase’s decision to pursue that ambition from within the president’s cabinet rather than resign his seat and openly proclaim his campaign struck many as disingenuous.
Chase’s strategy was to approach potential supporters without expressly acknowledging that he would run. Late at night in his study, he wrote hundreds of letters to local officials, congressional leaders, generals, and journalists, citing the failures of the Lincoln administration. “I should fear nothing,” he wrote the editor of the Cincinnati Gazette, “if we had An Administration in the first sense of the word guided by a bold, resolute, farseeing, & active mind, guided by an honest, earnest heart. But this we have not. Oh! for energy & economy in the management of the War.”
A similar style prevailed in all of his letters. After detailing the flaws in Lincoln’s leadership, Chase would suggest the differences that would characterize his own presidency. He denied that he coveted the position, but said he would accept the burden if pressed by his countrymen. “If I were myself controlled merely by personal sentiments I should prefer the reelection of Mr. Lincoln,” Chase explained, but “I think that a man of different qualities from those the President has will be needed for the next four years. I am not anxious to be regarded as that man; but I am quite willing to refer that question to the decision of those who agree in thinking that some such man should be had.”
As in 1860, Chase took great pains to cultivate the press, not recognizing that it was too early to extract binding commitments. He was thrilled by Horace Greeley’s letter in late September, telling him that he knew no one “better qualified for President than yourself, nor one whom I should more cordially support.” Chase apparently discounted Greeley’s closing caveat that in six months, events might dictate the need to concentrate on another candidate. Similarly, while Chase elicited assurance from Hiram Barney, the head of the New York Custom House, that he was his “first choice for the presidency,” Barney insisted on deciding only when the time came “whether yourself, the President, or some other person should receive it.”
Lincoln was fully aware of what Chase was doing. Governor Dennison alerted him that Chase was “working like a beaver,” and Seward cautioned that several organizations were “fixing to control delegate appointments for Mr. Chase.” Ohio congressman Samuel Cox warned the White House that Chase had tied up “nearly the whole strength of the New England States.” A Pennsylvanian politician informed the White House that Chase had so ardently campaigned for his support that he could see the “Presidency glaring out of both eyes.” John Hay learned that Chase had called on the New York journalist Theodore Tilton, working “all a summer’s day” to maneuver the influential Independent to his side.
Whereas Lincoln’s loyal young secretary was disturbed by “Chase’s mad hunt after the Presidency,” Lincoln was amused. Chase’s incessant presidential ambitions reminded him of the time when he was “plowing corn on a Kentucky farm” with a lazy horse that suddenly sped forward energetically to “the end of the furrow.” Upon reaching the horse, he discovered “an enormous chin-fly fastened upon him, and knocked him off,” not wanting “the old horse bitten in that way.” His companion said that it was a mistake to knock it off, for “that’s all that made him go.”
“Now,” Lincoln concluded, “if Mr. [Chase] has a presidential chin-fly biting him, I’m not going to knock him off, if it will only make his department go.” Lincoln agreed that his secretary’s tactics were in “very bad taste,” and “was sorry the thing had begun, for though the matter did not annoy him his friends insisted that it ought to.” Lincoln’s friends could not understand why the president continued to approve appointments for avid Chase supporters who were known to be “hostile to the President’s interests.” Lincoln merely asserted that he would rather let “Chase have his own way in these sneaking tricks than getting into a snarl with him by refusing him what he asks.” Moreover, he had no thought of dismissing Chase while he was hard at work raising the resources needed to support the immense Union Army.
Lincoln’s response to Chase was neither artless nor naive. His old friend Leonard Swett maintained that there never was a greater mistake than the impression that Lincoln was a “frank, guileless, unsophisticated man.” In fact, “he handled and moved man remotely as we do pieces upon a chessboard.” Nor did Lincoln’s posture toward Chase imply a tepid desire for a second term. Swett was correct in supposing that Lincoln “was much more eager for it, than he was for the first one.” The Union, emancipation, his reputation, his honor, and his legacy—all depended on the outcome of the ongoing war. But he recognized it was safer to keep Chase as a dubious ally within the administration rather that to cut him loose to mount a full-blown campaign. Meanwhile, so long as Chase remained in the cabinet, Lincoln insisted on treating him with respect and dignity.
That Chase was disconcerted by Lincoln’s warmth is evident in a letter he wrote to James Watson Webb, the former editor who was now the American minister to Brazil. After criticizing Lincoln’s “disjointed method of administration” and admitting that he had “been often tempted to retire,” Chase acknowledged that “the President has always treated me with such personal kindness and has always manifested such fairness and integrity of purpose, that I have not found myself free to throw up my trust…. So I still work on.”
Lincoln told a worried Hay that he had “all along clearly seen [Chase’s] plan of strengthening himself. Whenever he [sees] that an important matter is troubling me, if I am compelled to decide it in a way to give offense to a man of some influence he always ranges himself in opposition to me and persuades the victim that he has been hardly dealt by and that he (C.) would have arranged it very differently. It was so with Gen. Fremont—with Genl. Hunter when I annulled his hasty proclamation—with Gen. Butler when he was recalled from New Orleans.” Recognizing the truth of Lincoln’s words, Hay speculated that “Chase would try to make capital out of this Rosecrans business,” though Lincoln had simply relieved the general from command of the Department of the Tennessee at Grant’s request. Lincoln drolly replied: “I suppose he will, like the bluebottle fly, lay his eggs in every rotten spot he can find.”
In late September, as the rift within Missouri’s Republican Party threatened to erupt into open warfare, Chase continued his divisive plotting. Lincoln sought to keep radicals and conservatives united against the rebels. Chase aligned himself with the radicals. The struggle centered on Reconstruction. Since the Emancipation Proclamation did not extend to the loyal border states, the people of Missouri were left to determine the fate of slavery independently in their state. The conservatives, led by Frank Blair and Bates’s brother-in-law Governor Hamilton Gamble, were in favor of a gradual emancipation that provided protection to slaveholders during a transitional period. Radical leaders such as B. Gratz Brown, Charles Drake, and Henry Blow favored changes in the state constitution that would immediately extinguish slavery.
So flammable had the dispute become that Governor Gamble worried the radicals intended to overthrow the elected state government. For their part, the radicals had come to believe that General John M. Schofield, the military commander of Missouri whom Lincoln had put in place as a neutral figure, had become a conservative partisan. He was accused of abusing his authority by arresting leading radicals and suppressing radical papers under the guise of military necessity.
On September 30, a delegation of radicals led by Charles Drake journeyed to Washington to demand Schofield’s removal. The night before the scheduled meeting, Lincoln talked with Hay about the tense situation. He acknowledged Hay’s argument that “the Radicals would carry the State and it would be well not to alienate them.” Moreover, he believed that “these Radical men have in them the stuff which must save the state and on which we must mainly rely.” They would never abandon the cause of emancipation, “while the Conservatives, in casting about for votes to carry through their plans, are tempted to affiliate with those whose record is not clear.” If he had to choose, Lincoln told his aide, “if one side must be crushed out & the other cherished,” he would “side with the Radicals.” On another occasion, he had expressed this affinity more strongly, stating that “they are nearer to me than the other side, in thought and sentiment, though bitterly hostile personally.” While they might be “the unhandiest devils in the world to deal with…their faces are set Zionwards.”
Nevertheless, Lincoln refused to be coerced into choosing one faction or the other, and resented the radicals’ demand that he treat Gamble, Frank Blair, and the conservatives “as copperheads and enemies to the Govt.” rather than as mere political opponents. “This is simply monstrous,” Lincoln declared, to denounce men who had courageously upheld the Union in the early days, when that affiliation threatened not only their political futures but their very lives. By contrast, the delegation’s vociferous leader, Charles Drake, was originally a Southern-leaning Democrat who had delighted in railing against Black Republicans. “Not that he objected to penitent rebels being radical: he was glad of it: but fair play: let not the pot make injurious reference to the black base of the kettle: he was in favor of short statutes of limitations.” Welles understood Lincoln’s dilemma. “So intense and fierce” were these radicals, he wrote in his diary, that they might well “inflict greater injury—on those Republicans…who do not conform to their extreme radical and fanatical views than on the Rebels in the field.” Such vindictiveness, he lamented, was “among the saddest features of the times.”
Lincoln assured Hay that if the radicals could “show that Schofield has done anything wrong & has interfered to their disadvantage with State politics,” he would consider their case. But if Schofield had “incurred their ill will by refusing to take sides with them,” then it would be an entirely different matter. Indeed: “I cannot do anything contrary to my convictions to please these men, earnest and powerful as they may be.”
No sooner had the delegates settled themselves at the Willard Hotel than they received an invitation to spend the evening at Chase’s home. When Bates learned of the invitation, he told Gamble he was “surprised and mortified” that Chase had extended his hand to those men he considered mortal enemies, and “still more surprised” when Chase invited him as well. He immediately declined. “I refuse flatly to hold social, friendly intercourse with men, who daily denounce me and all my friends, as traitors.” Gamble replied that Bates should hardly be shocked by Chase’s willingness to entertain “these dogs persons,” for “Mr. Chase is the author of our troubles here.” His “criminal ambition” for the presidency had led him to incite the struggle, and he would undoubtedly have the support of every radical paper in the state if he were to decide to run against Lincoln.
The president’s meeting with the Missourians lasted over two hours. Drake read his list of demands “as pompously as if it were full of matter instead of wind,” noted John Hay. Lincoln listened attentively, allowing his critics to enumerate their grievances. He knew well that these men would be important in the coming presidential canvass, but felt their call for Schofield’s dismissal was misguided. He explained his position clearly, calmly, and forcefully, both at the meeting that day and in a letter drafted a few days later. While he acknowledged their version of the turmoil facing Missouri, he was not convinced that Schofield was “responsible for that suffering and wrong.” On the contrary, he suggested, all the troubles they described could be explained by the fact that during a civil war, confusion abounds: “Deception breeds and thrives. Confidence dies, and universal suspicion reigns.” Until he received evidence that Schofield had used his powers arbitrarily for or against a particular faction, he could not, in good conscience, remove him from command. That evidence had not been provided.
“The President never appeared to better advantage in the world,” Hay noted proudly in his diary. “Though He knows how immense is the danger to himself from the unreasoning anger of that committee, he never cringed to them for an instant. He stood where he thought he was right and crushed them with his candid logic.” Lincoln emerged from the meeting “in a good humor,” Bates observed. “Some of them he said, were not as bad as he supposed.” Yet, while clarifying the fact that “whoever commands in Missouri, or elsewhere” was responsible to him, “and not to either radicals or conservatives,” Lincoln once again moved to defuse the situation without alienating vital constituents. On the day the radicals left town, he wrote to remind Schofield that his authority to “arrest individuals, and suppress assemblies, or newspapers” was limited only to those who were “working palpable injury to the Military.”
Indeed, several months later, when Lincoln became convinced that Schofield was actually leaning toward the conservatives instead of using “his influence to harmonize the conflicting elements,” he decided to replace him with Rosecrans, a man long favored by the radicals. But even then, he engineered the transfer in a manner that protected Schofield’s good name, while preserving his own presidential authority to determine when and where to change his commanders.
At this juncture, Frank Blair seriously aggravated matters. That October, returning to Missouri after heroic duty with Grant and Sherman at Vicksburg, the soldier-politician escalated the dissension with an explosive speech. Before an overflowing crowd at Mercantile Library Hall in St. Louis, he proclaimed his firm opposition to every one of the radicals’ Reconstruction ideas. Condemning their call for the immediate emancipation of Missouri’s slaves, he insisted that no action should be taken until the war was won. He argued that Missourians should focus solely on supporting the Union, deferring all issues regarding slavery. He warned that if the radicals gained control, the country would “degenerate into a revolution like that which afflicted France.” They would set themselves up as “judges, witnesses and executioners alike.” They would send to the guillotine “men who come back grimed all over with powder from our battle fields” but who happen to disagree with them on Reconstruction.
Blair then turned his ire on Chase, fully aware that the treasury secretary was hoping to ride the radicals’ support to the White House. Loyalty to Lincoln and hatred for Chase combined to produce a vitriolic rant in which Blair accused the secretary of manipulating Treasury regulations that governed the cotton trade between North and South to benefit his radical friends and prevent conservative merchants, who “were among the first men to come forward and clothe and arm the troops,” from receiving the cotton they desperately needed. As a friendly audience roared its approval, Blair accused Chase of using his cabinet post to create a political machine designed to unseat Lincoln in the next election. In sum, the treasury secretary was a traitor and blackguard indistinguishable from Jefferson Davis himself.
Blair’s speech outraged the radicals, who promptly denounced him as a Copperhead and a traitor. The Liberator criticized his vindictive language, observing that “his style of address does him no honor, and will not advance the ideas of public policy which he advocates.” Even his sister, Elizabeth, remarked that he could “not let even a great man set his small dogs on him without kicking the dog & giving his master some share of his resentment.”
Lincoln was dismayed by the whole affair, realizing that Frank, whom he liked a great deal, had seriously compromised his future. He wrote a letter to Monty, offering advice as if the tempestuous Frank “were my brother instead of yours.” He warned that by “a misunderstanding,” Frank was “in danger of being permanently separated from those with whom only he can ever have a real sympathy—the sincere opponents of slavery.” By allowing himself to be provoked into personal attacks, he could end up exiled from “the house of his own building. He is young yet. He has abundant talent—quite enough to occupy all his time, without devoting any to temper.” If Frank decided to resume his seat in the House when the new Congress assembled, he should bear this in mind. Otherwise, he would “serve both the country and himself more profitably” by returning to the military, where his recent promotion to corps commander proved that he was “rising in military skill and usefulness.”
Lincoln’s counsel to Frank was echoed in a gentle letter of reprimand to another young man whose intemperate words had made him vulnerable. Captain James Cutts, Jr., had been court-martialed for using “unbecoming language” in addressing a superior officer and for publicly derogating his superior’s accomplishments to the point where a duel almost took place. Young Cutts was the brother of Adele Cutts, Stephen Douglas’s second wife. In remitting the sentence, Lincoln wrote, “You have too much of life yet before you, and have shown too much of promise as an officer, for your future to be lightly surrendered.” He tried to impart some of the measured outlook that had served him so well: “No man resolved to make the most of himself, can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper, and the loss of self-control. Yield larger things to which you can show no more than equal right; and yield lesser ones, though clearly your own. Better give your path to a dog, than be bitten by him in contesting for the right. Even killing the dog would not cure the bite.”
Frank Blair’s battle against Chase in Missouri was carried forward by Monty Blair in Maryland, where a similar struggle over Reconstruction had arisen. Chase again intervened, lending his support to the radical Henry Winter Davis as a candidate for Congress. Davis was a proponent of immediate uncompensated emancipation and rigorous standards for defining eligibility to vote. Monty voiced his opposition at Rockville in early October, flaying the radicals’ program, and arguing that the “ultra-abolitionists” were as despotic as the old slaveocrats. If they succeeded in their draconian measures toward the rebel states, he warned, it would be “fatal to republican institutions.” He excoriated Sumner’s proposition that the rebel states had forfeited their rights to equal participation in the Union by committing suicide by secession. Although Blair’s speech met with approval from his partisan audience, it aroused deep hostility in Congress. Fifty congressmen signed a petition calling on Lincoln to remove Blair from his cabinet.
Once again, Lincoln was forced to balance the interests of contentious factions. Many assumed incorrectly that Blair was speaking for the White House. In fact, Lincoln refused to support Blair’s candidate against Winter Davis, insisting that a Union convention had nominated Davis and it “would be mean to do anything against him.” In the end, the president’s most vital objective for Maryland was realized in the election—a dramatic Republican victory over the Copperheads, ensuring that the former slave state stood firmly behind the Union’s cause. Noah Brooks attended a mass rally in Baltimore to celebrate the triumph of Winter Davis and the entire Republican ticket. As he surveyed the festive banners proclaiming: “Slavery is dead,” he marveled at the thought that not long before, the state “was almost coaxed into open rebellion against the government, in simulated defense of slavery.” The enthusiastic crowd signaled that “a great and momentous revolution” had occurred in the hearts and minds of the people. “Do we dream,” marveled Brooks, “or do we actually hear with our own ears loyal Marylanders making speeches in favor of immediate emancipation and a loyal crowd of Baltimoreans applauding to the echo the most radical utterances.”
Chase was a featured speaker at the celebration, and, according to Brooks, “his simple words of sympathy and cheer for the struggling sons of freedom in Maryland were received with wildest enthusiasm.” The complete triumph of the emancipationists was read as a sharp rebuke to Monty Blair and his “fossil theories.” Chase was elated, telling Greeley that he attached “a great deal of importance” to the occasion, for it suggested “the time is ripe” for a “great unconditional Union Party, with Emancipation as a Cardinal principle”—a party with Salmon Chase, presumably, at its head.
Worried that Lincoln’s adversaries were successfully eclipsing him by appealing to the “radical element,” Leonard Swett recommended that the president call for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. “I told him if he took that stand, it was an outside position and no one could maintain himself upon any measure more radical,” Swett recalled, “and if he failed to take the position, his rivals would.” Lincoln, too, could see the “time coming” for a constitutional amendment, and then whoever “stands in its way, will be run over by it”; but the country was not yet ready. The “discordant elements” of the great coalition still had to be held together to ensure victory in the war. Moreover, he objected, “I have never done an official act with a view to promote my own personal aggrandizement, and I don’t like to begin now.”
Herein, Swett concluded, lay the secret to Lincoln’s gifted leadership. “It was by ignoring men, and ignoring all small causes, but by closely calculating the tendencies of events and the great forces which were producing logical results.” John Forney of the Washington Daily Chronicle observed the same intuitive judgment and timing, arguing that Lincoln was “the most truly progressive man of the age, because he always moves in conjunction with propitious circumstances, not waiting to be dragged by the force of events or wasting strength in premature struggles with them.”