IT WAS A MONDAY IN WASHINGTON, January 21; Jefferson Davis rose from his seat in the Senate. South Carolina had left the Union a month before, followed by Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama, which seceded at the rate of one a day during the second week of the new year. Georgia went out eight days later; Louisiana and Texas were poised to go; few doubted that they would, along with others. For more than a decade there had been intensive discussion as to the legality of secession, but now the argument was no longer academic. A convention had been called for the first week in February, at Montgomery, Alabama, for the purpose of forming a confederacy of the departed states, however many there should be in addition to the five already gone. As a protest against the election of Abraham Lincoln, who had received not a single southern electoral vote, secession was a fact—to be reinforced, if necessary, by the sword. The senator from Mississippi rose. It was high noon. The occasion was momentous and expected; the galleries were crowded, hoop-skirted ladies and men in broadcloth come to hear him say farewell. He was going home.
By now he was one of the acknowledged spokesmen of secession, though it had not always been so. By nature he was a moderate, with a deep devotion to the Union. He had been for compromise so long as he believed compromise was possible; he reserved secession as a last resort. Yet now they were at that stage. In a paper which he had helped to draft and which he had signed and sent as advice to his state in early December, his position had been explicit. “The argument is exhausted,” it declared. “All hope of relief in the Union … is extinguished.” At last he was for disunion, with a southern confederacy to follow.
During the twelve days since the secession of Mississippi he had remained in Washington, sick in mind and body, waiting for the news to reach him officially. He hoped he might be arrested as a traitor, thereby gaining a chance to test the right of secession in the federal courts. Now the news had been given him officially the day before, a Sunday, and he stayed to say goodbye. He had never doubted the right of secession. What he doubted was its wisdom. Yet now it was no longer a question even of wisdom; it was a question of necessity—meaning Honor. On the day before Lincoln’s election, Davis had struck an organ tone that brought a storm of applause in his home state. “I glory in Mississippi’s star!” he cried. “But before I would see it dishonored I would tear it from its place, to be set on the perilous ridge of battle as a sign around which her bravest and best shall meet the harvest home of death.”
Thus he had spoken in November, but now in January, rising to say farewell, his manner held more of sadness than defiance. For a long moment after he rose he struck the accustomed preliminary stance of the orators of his day: high-stomached, almost sway-backed, the knuckles of one hand braced against the desk top, the other hand raised behind him with the wrist at the small of his back. He was dressed in neat black broadcloth, cuffless trouser-legs crumpling over his boots, the coat full-skirted with wide lapels, a satin waistcoat framing the stiff white bosom of his shirt, a black silk handkerchief wound stockwise twice around the upturned collar and knotted loosely at the throat. Close-shaven except for the tuft of beard at the jut of the chin, the face was built economically close to the skull, and more than anything it expressed an iron control by the brain within that skull. He had been sick for the past month and he looked it. He looked in fact like a man who had emerged from a long bout with a fever; which was what he was, except that the fever had been a generation back, when he was twenty-seven, and now he was fifty-two. Beneath the high square forehead, etched with the fine crisscross lines of pain and overwork, the eyes were deep-set, gray and stern, large and lustrous, though one was partly covered by a film, a result of the neuralgia which had racked him all those years. The nose was aquiline, finely shaped, the nostrils broad and delicately chiseled. The cheeks were deeply hollowed beneath the too-high cheekbones and above the wide, determined jaw. His voice was low, with the warmth of the Deep South in it.
“I rise, Mr President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that I have satisfactory evidence that the State of Mississippi, by a solemn ordinance of her people in convention assembled, has declared her separation from the United States. Under these circumstances, of course, my functions terminate here. It has seemed to me proper, however, that I should appear in the Senate to announce that fact to my associates, and I will say but very little more.”
His voice faltered at the outset, but soon it gathered volume and rang clear—“like a silver trumpet,” according to his wife, who sat in the gallery. “Unshed tears were in it,” she added, “and a plea for peace permeated every tone.” Davis continued:
“It is known to senators who have served with me here, that I have for many years advocated, as an essential attribute of State sovereignty, the right of a State to secede from the Union.… If I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation … I should still, under my theory of government, because of my allegiance to the State of which I am a citizen, have been bound by her action.”
He foresaw the founding of a nation, inheritor of the traditions of the American Revolution. “We but tread in the paths of our fathers when we proclaim our independence and take the hazard … not in hostility to others, not to injure any section of the country, not even for our own pecuniary benefit, but from the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited, and which it is our duty to transmit unshorn to our children.” England had been a lion; the Union might turn out to be a bear; in which case, “we will invoke the God of our fathers, who delivered them from the power of the lion, to protect us from the ravages of the bear; and thus, putting our trust in God and in our own firm hearts and strong arms, we will vindicate the right as best we may.”
Davis glanced around the chamber, then continued. “I see now around me some with whom I have served long. There have been points of collision; but whatever of offense there has been to me, I leave here. I carry with me no hostile remembrance.… I go hence unencumbered by the remembrance of any injury received, and having discharged the duty of making the only reparation in my power for any injury received.” He then spoke the final sentence to which all the rest had served as prologue. “Mr President and Senators, having made the announcement which the occasion seemed to me to require, it remains only for me to bid you a final adieu.”
For a moment there was silence. Then came the ovation, the sustained thunder of applause, the flutter of handkerchiefs and hum of comment. Davis shrank from this, however, or at any rate ignored it. As he resumed his seat he lowered his head and covered his face with his hands. Some in the gallery claimed his shoulders shook; he was weeping, they said. It may have been so, though he was not given to public tears. If so, it could have been from more than present tension. His life was crowded with glory, as a soldier, as a suitor, as a statesman; yet the glory was more than balanced by personal sorrow as a man. He had known tears in his time.
He was born in Christian County, Kentucky, within a year and a hundred miles of the man whose election had brought on the present furor. Like that man, he was a log-cabin boy, the youngest of ten children whose grandfather had been born in Philadelphia in 1702, the son of an immigrant Welshman who signed his name with an X. This grandfather moved to Georgia, where he married a widow who bore him one son, Samuel. Samuel raised and led an irregular militia company in the Revolution. After the war he married and moved northwest to south-central Kentucky, where he put up his own log house, farmed six hundred acres of land by the hard agronomy of the time, and supplied himself with children, naming the sons out of the Bible—Joseph, Samuel, Benjamin, and Isaac—until the tenth child, born in early June of 1808, whom he named for the red-headed President then in office, and gave him the middle name Finis in the belief, or perhaps the hope, that he was the last; which he was.
By the time the baby Jefferson was weaned the family was on the move again, south one thousand miles to Bayou Teche, Louisiana, only to find the climate unhealthy and to move again, three hundred miles northeast to Wilkinson County, Mississippi Territory, southeast of Natchez and forty miles from the Mississippi River. Here the patriarch stopped, for he prospered; he did not move again, and here Jefferson spent his early childhood.
The crop now was cotton, and though Samuel Davis had slaves, he was his own overseer, working alongside them in the field. It was a farm, not a plantation; he was a farmer, not a planter. In a region where the leading men were Episcopalians and Federalists, he was a Baptist and a Democrat. Now his older children were coming of age, and at their marriages he gave them what he could, one Negro slave, and that was all. The youngest, called Little Jeff, began his education when he was six. For the next fifteen years he attended one school after another, first a log schoolhouse within walking distance of home, then a Dominican institution in Kentucky, Saint Thomas Aquinas, where he was still called Little Jeff because he was the smallest pupil there. He asked to become a Roman Catholic but the priest told him to wait and learn, which he did, and either forgot or changed his mind. Then, his mother having grown lonesome for her last-born, he came home to the Mississippi schoolhouse where he had started.
He did not like it. One hot fall day he rebelled; he would not go. Very well, his father said, but he could not be idle, and sent him to the field with the work gang. Two days later Jeff was back at his desk. “The heat of the sun and the physical labor, in conjunction with the implied equality with the other cotton pickers, convinced me that school was the lesser evil.” Thus he later explained his early decision to work with his head, not his hands. In continuation of this decision, just before his fourteenth birthday he left once more for Kentucky, entering Transylvania University, an excellent school, one of the few in the country to live up to a high-sounding name. Under competent professors he continued his studies in Latin and Greek and mathematics, including trigonometry, and explored the mysteries of sacred and profane history and natural philosophy—meaning chemistry and physics—with surveying and oratory thrown in for good measure. While he was there his father died and his oldest brother, Joseph, twenty-four years his senior, assumed the role of guardian.
Not long before his death, the father had secured for his youngest son an appointment to West Point, signed by the Secretary of War, and thus for the first time the names were linked: Jefferson Davis, John C. Calhoun. Joseph Davis by now had become what his father had never been—a planter, with a planter’s views, a planter’s way of life. Jefferson inclined toward the University of Virginia, but Joseph persuaded him to give the Academy a try. It was in the tradition for the younger sons of prominent southern families to go there; if at the end of a year he found he did not like it he could transfer. So Davis attended West Point, and found he liked it.
Up to now he had shown no special inclination to study. Alert and affectionate, he was of a mischievous disposition, enjoyed a practical joke, and sought the admiration of his fellows rather more than the esteem of his professors. Now at the Academy he continued along this course, learning something of tavern life in the process. “O Benny Haven’s, O!” he sang, linking arms and clinking tankards. He found he liked the military comradeship, the thought of unrequited death on lonely, far-off battlefields:
“To our comrades who have fallen, one cup before we go;
They poured their life-blood freely out pro bono publico.
No marble points the stranger to where they rest below;
They lie neglected—far away from Benny Haven’s, O!”
Brought before a court martial for out-of-bounds drinking of “spirituous liquors,” he made the defense of a strict constructionist: 1) visiting Benny Haven’s was not officially prohibited in the regulations, and 2) malt liquors were not “spirituous” in the first place. The defense was successful; he was not dismissed, and he emerged from the scrape a stricter constructionist than ever. He also got to know his fellow cadets. Leonidas Polk was his roommate; Joseph E. Johnston was said to have been his opponent in a fist fight over a girl; along with others, he admired the open manliness of Albert Sidney Johnston, the high-born rectitude of Robert E. Lee.
Davis himself was admired, even liked. Witnesses spoke of his well-shaped head, his self-esteem, his determination and personal mastery. A “florid young fellow,” he had “beautiful blue eyes, a graceful figure.” In his studies he did less well, receiving his lowest marks in mathematics and deportment, his highest in rhetoric and moral philosophy, including constitutional law. But the highs could not pull up the lows. He stood well below the middle of his class, still a private at the close of his senior year, and graduated in 1828, twenty-third in a class of thirty-four.
As a second lieutenant, U.S. Army, he now began a seven-year adventure, serving in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, where he learned to fight Indians, build forts, scout, and lead a simple social existence. He had liked West Point; he found he liked this even better. Soon he proved himself a superior junior officer, quick-witted and resourceful—as when once with a few men he was chased by a band of Indians after scalps; both parties being in canoes, he improvised a sail and drew away. In a winter of deep snow he came down with pneumonia, and though he won that fight as well, his susceptibility to colds and neuralgia dated from then. He was promoted to first lieutenant within four years, and when Black Hawk was captured in 1832, Davis was appointed by his colonel, Zachary Taylor, to escort the prisoner to Jefferson Barracks.
Thus Colonel Taylor, called “Old Rough and Ready,” showed his approval of Davis as a soldier. But as a son-in-law, it developed, he wanted no part of him. The lieutenant had met the colonel’s daughter, sixteen-year-old Knox Taylor, brown-haired and blue-eyed like himself, though later the color of his own eyes would deepen to gray. Love came quickly, and his letters to her show a man unseen before or after. “By my dreams I have been lately almost crazed, for they were of you,” he wrote to her, and also thus: “Kind, dear letter; I have kissed it often and often, and it has driven away mad notions from my brain.” The girl accepted his suit, but the father did not; Taylor wanted no soldier son-in-law, apparently especially not this one. Therefore Davis, who had spent the past seven years as a man of action, proposed to challenge the colonel to a duel. Dissuaded from this, he remained a man of action still. He resigned his commission, went straight to Louisville, and married the girl. The wedding was held at the home of an aunt she was visiting. “After the service everybody cried but Davis,” a witness remarked, adding that they “thought this most peculiar.”
As it turned out, he was reserving his tears. The young couple did not wait to attempt a reconciliation with her father; perhaps they depended on time to accomplish this. Instead they took a steamboat south to Davis Bend, Mississippi, below Vicksburg, where Joseph Davis, the guardian elder brother, had prospered on a plantation called The Hurricane. He presented them with an adjoining 800-acre place and fourteen slaves on credit. Davis put in a cotton crop, but before the harvest time came round they were both down with fever. They were confined to separate rooms, each too sick to be told of the other’s condition, though Davis managed to make it to the door of his bride’s room in time to see her die. She had been a wife not quite three months, and as she died she sang snatches of “Fairy Bells,” a favorite air; she had had it from her mother. Now those tears which he had not shed at the wedding came to scald his eyes. He was too sick to attend the funeral; the doctor believed he would not be long behind her.
The doctor was wrong, though Davis never lost the drawn, gaunt look of a fever convalescent. He returned to the plantation; then, finding it too crowded with recent memories, left for Cuba, thought to be a fine climate and landscape for restoring broken hearts. The sea bathing at least did his health much good, and he returned by way of New York and Washington, renewing acquaintances with old friends now on the rise and gaining some notion of how much he had missed on the frontier. Then he came home to Mississippi. He would be a planter and, at last, a student.
He found a ready tutor awaiting him. Joseph Davis had got a law degree in Kentucky, had set up practice in Natchez, and, prospering, had bought the land which in that section practically amounted to a patent of nobility. By now, in his middle fifties, he was the wealthiest planter in the state, the “leading philosopher”—whatever that meant—and the possessor of the finest library, which he gladly made available to his idolized younger brother. Davis soon had the Constitution by heart and went deeply into Elliot’s Debates, theories of government as argued by the framers. He read John Locke and Adam Smith, The Federalist and the works of Thomas Jefferson. Shakespeare and Swift lent him what an orator might need of cadenced beauty and invective; Byron and Scott were there at hand, along with the best English magazines and the leading American newspapers. He read them all, and discussed them with his brother.
Also there was the plantation; Brierfield, he called it. Here too he worked and learned, making certain innovations in the labor system. The overseer was a Negro, James Pemberton. No slave was ever punished except after a formal trial by an all-Negro jury, Davis only reserving the right to temper the severity of the judgment. James was always James, never Jim; “It is disrespect to give a nickname,” Davis said, and the overseer repaid him with frankness, loyalty, and efficiency. Once when something went amiss and the master asked him why, James replied: “I rather think, sir, through my neglect.”
Davis gained all this from his decade of seclusion and study; but he gained something else as well. Up to now, his four years at West Point, brief and interrupted as they were, had been the longest period he had spent at any one place in his life. His school years had been various indeed, with instructors ranging from log-cabin teachers to Catholic priests and New England scholars. When a Virginian or a Carolinian spoke of his “country,” he meant Virginia or Carolina. It was not so with Davis. Tennessee and Kentucky were as familiar to him as Mississippi; the whole South, as a region, formed his background; he was thirty before he knew a real home in any real sense of the word. Now at last he had this, too, though still with a feeling of being somewhat apart. Like his brother Joseph and his father before him, he was a Democrat, and while this was true of the majority of the people in his state, it was by no means true of the majority in his class, who were Federalists or Whigs.
Then history intervened for him and solved this problem too. Previously the cotton capitalists had thought their interests coincided with the interests of capitalists in general. Now anti-slavery and pro-tariff agitation was beginning to teach them otherwise. In 1844, the year when Davis emerged from seclusion, the upheaval was accomplished. Repudiating Jefferson and Jackson, the Democrats went over to the Whigs, who came to meet them, creating what Calhoun had been after from the start: a solid South. Davis caught the movement at its outset.
Before that, however, in the previous December, his brother produced one more item from the horn of plenty. He had a lawyer friend, W. B. Howell of Natchez, son of an eight-term governor of New Jersey. Howell had married a Kempe of Virginia and moved south to cotton country. Joseph Davis was an intimate of their house; their first son was named for him, and their seventeen-year-old daughter Varina called him Uncle Joe. Now he wrote to the girl’s parents, inviting her to visit The Hurricane. She arrived by steamboat during the Christmas season, having just completed an education in the classics. She did not stay at The Hurricane; she stayed at his sister’s plantation, fourteen miles away. Presently a horseman arrived with a message. He dismounted to give it to her, lingered briefly, then excused himself and rode off to a political meeting in Vicksburg. That night Varina wrote to her mother, giving her first impression of the horseman.
Today Uncle Joe sent, by his younger brother (did you know he had one?), an urgent invitation to me to go at once to The Hurricane. I do not know whether this Mr Jefferson Davis is young or old. He looks both at times; but I believe he is old, for from what I hear he is only two years younger than you are. He impresses me as a remarkable kind of man, but of uncertain temper, and has a way of taking for granted that everybody agrees with him when he expresses an opinion, which offends me; yet he is most agreeable and has a peculiarly sweet voice and a winning manner of asserting himself. The fact is, he is the kind of person I should expect to rescue one from a mad dog at any risk, but to insist upon a stoical indifference to the fright afterward. I do not think I shall ever like him as I do his brother Joe. Would you believe it, he is refined and cultivated, and yet he is a Democrat!
This last was the principal difficulty between them. Varina was a Natchez girl, which meant not only that her background was Federalist, but also that she had led a life of gaiety quite unlike the daily round in the malarial bottoms of Davis Bend. The Christmas season was a merry one, however, and Joseph proved an excellent matchmaker, although a rather heavy-handed one. “By Jove, she is as beautiful as Venus!” he told his brother, adding: “As well as good looks, she has a mind that will fit her for any sphere that the man to whom she is married will feel proud to reach.” Jefferson agreed, admiring the milk-pale skin, the raven hair, the generous mouth, the slender waist. “She is beautiful and she has a fine mind,” he admitted, with some caution at the outset.
In the evenings there were readings from historians and orators, and the brothers marveled at the ease with which the girl pronounced and translated the Latin phrases and quotations that studded the texts. The conquest was nearly complete; there remained only the political difference. In the course of these discussions Varina wore a cameo brooch with a Whig device carved into the stone, a watchdog crouched by a strongbox. Then one day she appeared without it, and Davis knew he had won.
He left The Hurricane in late January, engaged. In February of the following year, 1845, they were married. Davis was thirty-six, Varina half that. They went to New Orleans on the wedding tour, enjoyed a fashionable Creole interlude, and returned after a few weeks to Brierfield.
The house they moved into was a one-story frame twin-wing structure; Davis had planned and built it himself, with the help of James Pemberton. It had charm, but he and his young wife had little time to enjoy it. By then he had emerged from his shell in more ways than one. In 1843 he had run for the state legislature against Sergeant S. Prentiss, famous as an orator, a Whig in an overwhelmingly Whig district. Davis was defeated, though with credit and a growing reputation. The following year, taking time off from courtship, he stumped the state as an elector for James K. Polk. In the year of his marriage, Whigs and Democrats having coalesced, he was elected to Congress as representative-at-large. In Washington, his first act was to introduce a resolution that federal troops be withdrawn from federal forts, their posts to be taken by state recruits. It died in committee, and his congressional career was ended by the outbreak of the Mexican War.
Davis resigned his seat and came home to head a volunteer regiment, the Mississippi Rifles. Under the strict discipline of their West Point colonel, who saw to it that they were armed with a new model rifle, they were the crack outfit of Zachary Taylor’s army, fighting bravely at Monterey and saving the day at Buena Vista, where Davis formed them in a V that broke the back of a Mexican cavalry charge and won the battle. He was wounded in the foot, came home on crutches, and at victory banquets in New Orleans and elsewhere heard himself proclaimed a military genius and the hero of the South. Hunched upon his crutches, he responded to such toasts with dignified modesty. Basically his outlook was unchanged. When Polk sent him a commission as a brigadier general of volunteers, Davis returned it promptly, remarking that the President had no authority to make such an appointment, that power inhering in the states alone. Perhaps all these honors were somewhat anticlimactic anyhow, coming as they did after the words General Taylor was supposed to have spoken to him at Buena Vista: “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.”
Honors fell thickly upon him now. Within sixty days the governor appointed him to the U.S. Senate. At a private banquet tendered before he left, he stood and heard the toasts go round: “Colonel Jeff Davis, the Game Cock of the South!” “Jeff Davis, the President of the Southern Confederacy!” Davis stood there, allowing no change of expression, no flush of emotion on his face. He took this stiffness, this coldness up to Washington and onto the floor of the Senate.
He would not unbend; he would engage in no log-rolling. In a cloakroom exchange, when he stated his case supporting a bill for removing obstructions from the river down near Vicksburg, another senator, who had his pet project too, interrupted to ask, “Will you vote for the Lake appropriations?” Davis responded: “Sir, I make no terms. I accept no compromises. If when I ask for an appropriation, the object shall be shown to be proper and the expenditure constitutional, I defy the gentleman, for his conscience’ sake, to vote against it. If it shall appear to him otherwise, then I expect his opposition, and only ask that it shall be directly, fairly, and openly exerted. The case shall be presented on its single merit; on that I wish to stand or fall. I feel, sir, that I am incapable of sectional distinction upon such subjects. I abhor and reject all interested combinations.” He would hammer thus at what he thought was wrong, and continue to hammer, icy cold and in measured terms, long after the opposition had been demolished, without considering the thoughts of the other man or the chance that he might be useful to him someday.
He was perhaps the best informed, probably the best educated, and certainly the most intellectual man in the Senate. Yet he too had to take his knocks. Supporting an army pay-increase bill, he remarked in passing that “a common blacksmith or tailor” could not be hired as a military engineer; whereupon Andrew Johnson of Tennessee—formerly a tailor—rose from his desk shouting that “an illegitimate, swaggering, bastard, scrub aristocracy” took much credit to itself, yet in fact had “neither talents nor information.” Hot words in a Washington boarding house led to a fist fight between Davis and Henry S. Foote, his fellow senator from Mississippi. An Illinois congressman, W. H. Bissell, said in a speech that Davis’ command had been a mile and a half from the blaze of battle at Buena Vista. Davis sent an immediate challenge, and Bissell, having the choice of weapons, named muskets loaded with ball and shot at fifteen paces, then went home, wrote his will, and said he would be ready in the morning. Friends intervening, Bissell explained that he had been referring to another quarter of the field and had not meant to question Davis’ personal bravery anyhow; the duel was canceled. Davis made enemies in high places, as for example when he claimed that General Winfield Scott had overcharged $300 in mileage expenses. Scott later delivered himself of a judgment as to Davis: “He is not a cheap Judas. I do not think he would have sold the Saviour for thirty shillings. But for the successorship to Pontius Pilate he would have betrayed Christ and the Apostles and the whole Christian church.” Sam Houston of Texas, speaking more briefly, declared that Davis was “ambitious as Lucifer and cold as a lizard.”
Out of the rough-and-tumble of debate and acrimony, a more or less accepted part of political life at the time, Davis was winning a position as a leader in the Senate. Successor to Calhoun, he had become the spokesman for southern nationalism, which in those days meant not independence but domination from within the Union. This movement had been given impetus by the Mexican War. Up till then the future of the country pointed north and west, but now the needle trembled and suddenly swung south. The treaty signed at Guadalupe Hidalgo brought into the Union a new southwestern domain, seemingly ripe for slavery and the southern way of life: not only Texas down to the Rio Grande, the original strip of contention, but also the vast sun-cooked area that was to become Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, part of Colorado, and California with its new-found gold. Here was room for expansion indeed, with more to follow; for the nationalists looked forward to taking what was left of Mexico, all of Central America south to Panama, and Yucatan and Cuba by annexation. Yet the North, so recently having learned the comfort of the saddle, had no intention of yielding the reins. The South would have to fight for this; and this the South was prepared to do, using States Rights for a spear and the Constitution for a shield. Jefferson Davis, who had formed his troops in a V at Buena Vista and continued the fight with a boot full of blood, took a position, now as then, at the apex of the wedge.
He lost the fight, and lost it quickly—betrayed, as he thought, from within his ranks. The North opposed this dream of southern expansion by opposing the extension of slavery, without which the new southwestern territory would be anything but southern. Attracted by the hope of so much gain, and goaded by the fear of such a loss, Davis and his cohorts adopted more drastic actions, including threats of secession. To give substance to this threat, he called the Nashville Convention of June 1850, and in conjunction with Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi, William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama, and Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina, informed the North quite plainly that unless slavery was extended to the territories, the South would leave the Union. It was at this point that Davis was “betrayed,” meaning that he discovered that he had outrun his constituents. Henry Clay proposed his Compromise, supported by Daniel Webster, and both houses of Congress gladly accepted it. California came in as a free state and the question of slavery was left to be settled by the various other territories at the time when they should apply for admission into the Union.
What was worse from Davis’ point of view, the voters seemed to approve. All over the nation, even in Mississippi, there was rejoicing that disunion and war had been avoided. Davis could scarcely believe it; he must test it at the polls. So he resigned his seat in the Senate and went home to run for governor against Henry S. Foote, the senator with whom he had exchanged first tart remarks and finally blows. Now the issue was clearly drawn, for his opponent was a Unionist Whig of Natchez and had voted consistently against Davis, from the beginning down to the Compromise itself; the voters could make a clear-cut choice before all the world. This they did—repudiating Davis.
It was bad enough to be vanquished as the champion of secession, but to receive defeat at the hands of a man he detested as much as he detested Foote was gall and wormwood. At forty-three, in the hour of his glory and at the height of his prime, he was destroyed; or so he thought. At any rate he was through. He came home to Brierfield to plant cotton.
Then history intervened again, as history always seemed to do for him. This time the muse took the form of Franklin Pierce, who in organizing a cabinet reached down from New Hampshire, all the way to Mississippi, and chose Jefferson Davis as his Secretary of War. They had been fellow officers in Mexico, friends in Congress, and shared a dislike of abolitionists. Whatever his reasons, Pierce chose well. Davis made perhaps the best War Secretary the country ever had, and though it included such capable men as William L. Marcy of New York and Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts, he dominated the cabinet in a time of strain and doubt.
Yet the man who returned to public life in 1853 was somewhat different from the man who had left it in 1851 at the behest of the voters. Rather chastened—though he kept his southern nationalism and clung to the spear of States Rights, the shield of the Constitution—he left the fire-eaters Yancey and Rhett behind him. He was no longer the impetuous champion of secession; he believed now that whatever was to be gained might best be accomplished within the Union. He strengthened the army, renovated the Military Academy, and came out strong for un-Jeffersonian internal improvements, including a Pacific Railway along a southern route through Memphis or Vicksburg, to be financed by a hundred-million-dollar federal appropriation. The Gadsden Purchase was a Davis project, ten million paid for a strip of Mexican soil necessary for the railroad right-of-way. Nor was his old imperialism dead. He still had designs on what was left of Mexico and on Central America, and he shocked the diplomats of Europe with a proclamation of his government’s intention to annex Cuba. Above all, he was for the unlimited extension of slavery, with a revival of the slave trade if need be.
Returned to the Senate in 1857, he continued to work along these lines, once more a southern champion, not as a secessionist, but as a believer that the destiny of the nation pointed south. It was a stormy time, and much of the bitterness between the sections came to a head on the floor of the Senate, where northern invective and southern arrogance necessarily met. Here Texas senator Louis T. Wigfall, a duelist of note, would sneer at his northern colleagues as he told them, “The difficulty between you and us, gentlemen, is that you will not send the right sort of people here. Why will you not send either Christians or gentlemen?” Here, too, the anti-slavery Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner had his head broken by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who, taking exception to remarks Sumner had made on the floor of the Senate regarding a kinsman, caned him as he sat at his desk. Brooks explained that he attacked him sitting because, Sumner being the larger man, he would have had to shoot him if he had risen, and he did not want to kill him, only maim him. Sumner lay bleeding in the aisle among the gutta-percha fragments of the cane, and his enemies stood by and watched him bleed. Southern sympathizers sent Brooks walking sticks by the dozen, recommending their use on other abolitionists, and through the years of Sumner’s convalescence Massachusetts let his desk stand empty as a reproach to southern hotheads, though these were in fact more likely to see the vacant seat as a warning to men like Sumner.
During this three-year furor, which led in the end to the disintegration of the Democratic Party and the resultant election of a Republican President, Davis remained as inflexible as ever. But his arguments now did not progress toward secession. They ended instead against a hard brick wall. He did not even claim to know the answers beyond debate. In 1860, speaking in Boston’s Faneuil Hall while he and Mrs Davis were up there vacationing for his health—he was a chronic dyspeptic by now, racked by neuralgia through sleepless nights and losing the sight of one eye—he stated his position as to slavery and southern nationalism, but announced that he remained opposed to secession; he still would not take the logical next step. He was much admired by the people of Massachusetts, many of whom despised the abolitionists as much as he did; but the people of Mississippi hardly knew what to make of him. “Davis is at sea,” they said.
Then he looked back, and saw that instead of outrunning his constituents, this time he had let them outrun him. He hurried South, made his harvest-home-of-death speech on the eve of Lincoln’s election, and returned to Washington, at last reconverted to secession. South Carolina left the Union, then Mississippi and the others, and opinion no longer mattered. As he said in his farewell, even if he had opposed his state’s action, he still would have considered himself “bound.”
Having spoken his adieu, he left the crowded chamber and, head lowered, went out into the street. That night Mrs Davis heard him pacing the floor. “May God have us in His holy keeping,” she heard him say over and over as he paced, “and grant that before it is too late, peaceful councils may prevail.”
Such was Davis’ way of saying farewell to his colleagues, speaking out of sadness and regret. It was not the way of others: Robert Toombs of Georgia, for example, whose state had seceded two days before Davis spoke. Two days later Toombs delivered his farewell. “The Union, sir, is dissolved,” he told the Senate. A large, slack-mouthed man, he tossed his head in shaggy defiance as he spoke. “You see the glittering bayonet, and you hear the tramp of armed men from yon Capitol to the Rio Grande. It is a sight that gladdens the eye and cheers the hearts of other men ready to second them.” In case there were those of the North who would maintain the Union by force: “Come and do it!” Toombs cried. “Georgia is on the war path! We are as ready to fight now as we ever shall be. Treason? Bah!” And with that he stalked out of the chamber, walked up to the Treasury, and demanded his salary due to date, plus mileage back to Georgia.
Thus Toombs. But Davis, having sent his wife home with their three children—Margaret aged six, Jeff three, and the year-old baby named for the guardian elder brother Joseph at Davis Bend—lingered in Washington another week, ill and confined to his bed for most of the time, still hoping he might be arrested as a traitor so as to test his claims in the federal courts, then took the train for Jackson, where Governor J. J. Pettus met him with a commission as major general of volunteers. It was the job Davis wanted. He believed there would be war, and he advised the governor to push the procurement of arms.
“The limit of our purchases should be our power to pay,” he said. “We shall need all and many more than we can get.”
“General,” the governor protested, “you overrate the risk.”
“I only wish I did,” Davis said.
Awaiting the raising of his army, he went to Brierfield. In Alabama, now in early February, a convention was founding a Southern Confederacy, electing political leaders and formulating a new government. He was content, however, to leave such matters to those who were there. He considered his highest talents to be military and he had the position he wanted, commander of the Mississippi army, with advancement to come along with glory when the issue swung to war.
Then history beckoned again, assuming another of her guises. February 10; he and Mrs Davis were out in the garden, cutting a rose bush in the early blue spring weather, when a messenger approached with a telegram in his hand. Davis read it. In that moment of painful silence he seemed stricken; his face took on a look of calamity. Then he read the message to his wife. It was headed “Montgomery, Alabama,” and dated the day before.
We are directed to inform you that you are this day unanimously elected President of the Provisional Government of the Confederate States of America, and to request you to come to Montgomery immediately. We send also a special messenger. Do not wait for him.
R. Barnwell Rhett…
He spoke of it, Mrs Davis said, “as a man might speak of a sentence of death.” Yet he wasted no time. He packed and left next day.
The train made many stops along the line and the people were out to meet him, in sunlight and by the glare of torches. They wanted a look at his face, the thin lips and determined jaw, the hollow cheeks with their jutting bones, the long skull behind the aquiline nose; “a wizard physiognomy,” one called it. He brought forth cheers with confident words, but he had something else to say as well—something no one had told them before. He advised them to prepare for the long war that lay ahead. They did not believe him, apparently. Or if they did, they went on cheering anyhow.
He reached Montgomery Sunday night, February 17, and was driven from the station in a carriage, down the long torch-lit avenue to the old Exchange Hotel. The crowd followed through streets that had been decked as for a fair; they flowed until they were packed in a mass about the gallery of the hotel in time to see Davis dismount from the carriage and climb the steps; they cheered as he turned and looked at them. Then suddenly they fell silent. William Lowndes Yancey, short and rather seedy-looking alongside the erect and well-groomed Davis, had raised one hand. They cheered again when he brought it down, gesturing toward the tall man beside him, and said in a voice that rang above the expectant, torch-paled faces of the crowd: “The man and the hour have met.”
The day that Davis received the summons in the rose garden was Abraham Lincoln’s last full day in Springfield, Illinois. He would be leaving tomorrow for Washington and his inauguration, the same day that Davis left for Montgomery and his. During the three months since the election, Springfield had changed from a sleepy, fairly typical western county seat and capital into a bustling, cadging hive of politicians, office seekers, reporters, committees representing “folks back home,” and the plain downright curious with time on their hands, many of whom had come for no other reason than to breathe the same air with a man who had his name in all the papers. Some were lodged in railway cars on sidings; boarding houses were feeding double shifts.
All of these people wanted a look at Lincoln, and most of them wanted interviews, which they got. “I can’t sleep nights,” he was saying. His fingers throbbed from shaking hands and his face ached from smiling. He had leased the two-story family residence, sold the cow and the horse and buggy, and left the dog to be cared for by a neighbor; he and his wife and children were staying now at the Chenery House, where the President-elect himself had roped their trunks and addressed them to “A. Lincoln, The White House, Washington D.C.” He was by nature a friendly man but his smile was becoming a grimace. “I am sick of office-holding already,” he said on this final day in Illinois.
Change was predominant not only in Springfield; the Union appeared to be coming apart at the seams. Louisiana and Texas had brought the total of seceded states to seven. Banks and business firms were folding; the stock market declined and declined. James Buchanan, badly confused, was doing nothing in these last weeks of office. Having stated in his December message to Congress that while a state had no lawful right to secede, neither had the federal government any right to prevent it, privately he was saying that he was the last President of the United States.
North and South, Union men looked to Lincoln, whose election had been the signal for all this trouble. They wanted words of reassurance, words of threat, anything to slow the present trend, the drift toward chaos. Yet he said nothing. When a Missouri editor asked him for a statement, something he could print to make men listen, Lincoln wrote back: “I could say nothing which I have not already said, and which is in print and accessible to the public.… I am not at liberty to shift my ground; that is out of the question. If I thought a repetition would do any good I would make it. But my judgment is it would do positive harm. The secessionists, per se believing they had alarmed me, would clamor all the louder.”
People hardly knew what to make of this tall, thin-chested, raw-boned man who spoke with the frontier in his voice, wore a stove-pipe hat as if to emphasize his six-foot four-inch height, and walked with a shambling western slouch, the big feet planted flat at every step, the big hands dangling from wrists that hung down out of the sleeves of his rusty tailcoat. Mr Lincoln, they called him, or Lincoln, never “Abe” as in the campaign literature. The seamed, leathery face was becoming familiar: the mole on the right cheek, the high narrow forehead with the unruly, coarse black shock of hair above it, barely grizzled: the pale gray eyes set deep in bruised sockets, the broad mouth somewhat quizzical with a protruding lower lip, the pointed chin behind its recent growth of scraggly beard, the wry neck—a clown face; a sad face, some observed on closer inspection, perhaps the saddest they had ever seen. It was hard to imagine a man like this in the White House, where Madison and Van Buren had kept court. He had more or less blundered into the Republican nomination, much as his Democratic opponents had blundered into defeat in the election which had followed. It had all come about as a result of linking accidents and crises, and the people, with their accustomed championing of the underdog, the dark horse, had enjoyed it at the time. Yet now that the nation was in truth a house divided, now that war loomed, they were not so sure. Down South, men were hearing speeches that fired their blood. Here it was not so; for there was only silence from Abraham Lincoln. Congressman Horace Maynard, a Tennessee Unionist, believed he knew why. “I imagine that he keeps silence,” Maynard said, “for the good and sufficient reason that he has nothing to say.”
It was true that he had nothing to say at the time. He was waiting; he was drawing on one of his greatest virtues, patience. Though the Cotton South had gone out solid, the eight northernmost slave states remained loyal. Delaware and Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas were banked between the hotheads, north and south, a double buffer, and though Lincoln had not received a single electoral vote from this whole area, he counted on the sound common sense of the people there. What was more—provided he did nothing to alienate the loyalty of the border states—he counted on Union sentiment in the departed states to bring them back into the family.
He had had much practice in just this kind of waiting. One of these days, while he was sitting in his office with a visitor, his son Willie came clattering in to demand a quarter. “I can’t let you have a quarter,” Lincoln said; “I can only spare five cents.” He took five pennies from his pocket and stacked them on a corner of the desk. Willie had not asked for a nickel; he wanted a quarter. He sulked and went away, leaving the pennies on the desk. “He will be back after that in a few minutes,” Lincoln told the visitor. “As soon as he finds I will give him no more, he will come and get it.” They went on talking. Presently the boy returned, took the pennies from the desk, and quietly left. Patience had worked, where attempts at persuasion might have resulted in a flare-up. So with the departed states; self-interest and family ties might bring them back in time. Meanwhile Lincoln walked as softly as he could.
In this manner he had gotten through three of the four anxious months that lay between the election and inauguration, and on this final afternoon in Springfield he went down to his law office to pick up some books and papers and to say goodbye to his partner, William L. Herndon. Nine years his junior, Herndon was excitable, apt to fling off at a tangent, and Lincoln would calm him, saying, “Billy, you’re too rampant.” There had been times, too, when the older man had gone about collecting fees to pay the fine when his partner was about to be jailed for disorderly conduct on a spree. Now the two sat in the office, discussing business matters. Then came an awkward silence, which Lincoln broke by asking: “Billy, there’s one thing I have for some time wanted you to tell me.… I want you to tell me how many times you have been drunk.” Flustered, Herndon stammered, and Lincoln let it pass. This was the closest he ever came to delivering a temperance lecture.
They rose, walked downstairs, and paused on the boardwalk. Lincoln glanced up at the weathered law shingle: LINCOLN & HERNDON. “Let it hang there undisturbed,” he said. “Give our clients to understand that the election of a President makes no change in the firm of Lincoln and Herndon. If I live I’m coming back some time, and then we’ll go right on practicing law as if nothing ever happened.” Again there was an awkward pause. Lincoln put his hand out. “Goodbye,” he said, and went off down the street.
Herndon stood and watched him go, the tall, loose-jointed figure with the napless stove-pipe hat, the high-water pantaloons, the ill-fitting tailcoat bulging at the elbows from long wear. This junior partner was one of those who saw the sadness in Lincoln’s face. “Melancholy dripped from him as he walked,” he was to write. Herndon knew something else as well, something that had not been included in the campaign literature: “That man who thinks that Lincoln sat calmly down and gathered his robes about him, waiting for the people to call him, has a very erroneous knowledge of Lincoln. He was always calculating, and always planning ahead. His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.”
That day, as the sun went down and he returned to the Chenery House for his last sleep in Illinois, there were few who knew this side of him. There were gaps in the story that even Herndon could not fill, and other gaps that no one could fill, ever, though writers were to make him the subject of more biographies and memoirs, more brochures and poems than any other American. On the face of it the facts were simple enough, as he told a journalist who came seeking information about his boyhood years for a campaign biography: “Why, Scripps, it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy: ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’ ”
He was born in the Kentucky wilderness of Daniel Boone, mid-February of 1809, in a one-room dirt-floor cabin put up that same winter by his father, Thomas Lincoln, a thick-chested man of average height, who passed on to Abraham only his coarse black hair and dark complexion. Originally from Virginia, Thomas was a wanderer like the Lincolns before him, who had come down out of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and though in early manhood he could sign his name when necessary, later he either forgot or else he stopped taking the trouble; he made his X-mark like his wife, born Nancy Hanks.
In after years when Lincoln tried to trace his ancestry he could go no further back than his father’s father, also named Abraham, who had been killed from ambush by an Indian. That was on his father’s side. On his mother’s he discovered only that she had been born out of wedlock to Lucy Hanks who later married a man named Sparrow. Nancy died of the milksick when Abraham was nine, and her body lay in another of those one-room cabins while her husband knocked together a coffin in the yard.
They were in Indiana by then, having come to the big woods after a previous move to Knob Creek, south of Louisville and beside the Cumberland Trail, along which pioneers with many children and few livestock marched northwestward. Thomas Lincoln joined them for the move across the Ohio, and when his wife died took another the following year: Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three children. She was called Sally Bush Lincoln now, tall and hard-working, a welcome addition to any frontier family, especially this one, which had been without a woman for almost a year. She brought to Abraham all the love and affection she had given her own. The boy returned it, and in later years, when his memory of Nancy Hanks Lincoln had paled, referred to the one who took her place as “my angel mother,” saying: “All that I am I owe to my angel mother.”
For one thing, she saw to it that the boy went to school. Previously he had not gone much deeper into learning than his ABC’s, and only then at such times as his father felt he could spare him from his chores. Now at intervals he was able to fit in brief weeks of schooling, amounting in all to something under a year. They were “blab” schools, which meant that the pupils studied aloud at their desks and the master judged the extent of their concentration by the volume of their din. Between such periods of formal education he studied at home, ciphering on boards when he had no slate, and shaving them clean with a knife for an eraser. He developed a talent for mimicry, too, mounting a stump when out with a work gang and delivering mock orations and sermons. This earned him the laughter of the men, who would break off work to watch him, but his father disapproved of such interruptions and would speak to him sharply or cuff him off the stump.
He grew tall and angular, with long muscles, so that in his early teens he could grip an ax one-handed at the end of the helve and hold it out, untrembling. Neighbors testified to his skill with this implement, one saying: “He can sink an ax deeper into wood than any man I ever saw,” and another: “If you heard him felling trees in a clearing, you would say there was three men at work by the way the trees fell.” However, though he did his chores, including work his father hired him out to do, he developed no real liking for manual labor. He would rather be reading what few books he got his hands on: Parson Weems’s Life of Washington, Pilgrim’s Progress, Æsop’s Fables, Robinson Crusoe, Grimshaw’s History of the United States, and The Kentucky Preceptor. Sometimes he managed to combine the two, for in plowing he would stop at the end of a row, reading while he gave the horse a breather.
From a flatboat trip one thousand miles downriver to New Orleans, during which he learned to trim a deck and man a sweep, he returned in time for his twenty-first birthday and another family migration, from Indiana out to central Illinois, where he and a cousin hired out to split four thousand rails for their neighbors. Thus he came to manhood, a rail-splitter, wilderness-born and frontier-raised. He was of the West, the new country out beyond the old, a product of a nation fulfilling a manifest destiny. It was in his walk, in his talk and in his character, indelibly. It would be with him wherever he went, along with the knowledge that he had survived in a region where “the Lord spared the fitten and the rest He seen fitten to let die.”
He had never had much fondness for his father, and now that he was legally independent he struck out on his own. The family moved once more, deeper into Illinois, but Lincoln did not go with them. He took instead another flatboat trip down to New Orleans, and then came back to another kind of life. This was prairie country, with a rich soil and a future. Lincoln got a job clerking in a New Salem store at fifteen dollars a month plus a bed to sleep in. He defeated the leader of the regional toughs in a wrestling match, and when the leader’s friends pitched in, Lincoln backed against a wall and dared them to come at him one by one; whereupon they acknowledged him as their new leader.
This last was rather in line with the life he had led before, but he found something new as well. He attended the New Salem Debating Society, and though at first the charter members snickered at his looks and awkwardness, presently they were admiring the logic and conciseness of his arguments. “All he lacked was culture,” one of them said. Lincoln took such encouragement from his success that in the spring of 1832 he announced as a candidate for the state legislature.
The Black Hawk War interrupting his campaign, he enlisted and was elected captain by his fellow volunteers. Discipline was not strong among them; the new commander’s first order to one of his men brought the reply, “You go to hell.” They saw no action, and Lincoln afterwards joked about his military career, saying that all the blood he lost was to mosquitoes and all his charges were against wild-onion beds. When the company’s thirty-day enlistment expired he reënlisted for another twenty days as a private, then came home and resumed his campaign for the legislature, two weeks remaining until election day. His first political speech was made at a country auction. Twenty-three years old, he stood on a box, wearing a frayed straw hat, a calico shirt, and pantaloons held up by a single-strap suspender. As he was about to speak, a fight broke out in the crowd. Lincoln stepped down, broke up the fight, then stepped back onto the box.
“Gentlemen and fellow citizens,” he said, “I presume you all know who I am: I am humble Abraham Lincoln. I have been solicited by many friends to become a candidate for the legislature. My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance. I am in favor of a national bank. I am in favor of the internal-improvements system and a high protective tariff. These are my sentiments and political principles. If elected, I shall be thankful; if not, it will be all the same.”
Election day he ran eighth in a field of thirteen, but he received 277 of the 300 votes in the New Salem precinct.
It was probably then that Lincoln determined to run for the same office next time around. Meanwhile there was a living to earn. He could always split rails and do odd jobs. These he did, and then went into partnership in a grocery store that failed, leaving him a debt beyond a thousand dollars; “the National Debt,” he called it ruefully, and worked for years to pay it off. He became village postmaster, sometimes carrying letters in his hat, which became a habit. He studied surveying and worked a while at that. He also began the study of law, reading Blackstone and Chitty, and improved his education with borrowed books. His name was becoming more widely known; he was winning popularity by his great strength and his ability at telling funny stories, but mostly by his force of character. Then in the spring of 1834, when another legislature race came round, he conducted an all-out full-time campaign and was elected.
With borrowed money he bought his first tailor-made suit, paying sixty dollars for it, and left for the first of his four terms in the state law-making body, learning the rough-and-tumble give-and-take of western politics. Two years later he was licensed as an attorney, and soon afterwards moved to Springfield as a partner in a law firm. He said goodbye to the manual labor he had been so good at, yet had never really liked; from now on he would work with his head, as a leader of men. His ambition became what Herndon later called “a little engine.”
Springfield was about to be declared the state capital, moved there from Vandalia largely through Lincoln’s efforts in the legislature, and here he began to acquire that culture which the New Salem intellectuals had said was “all he lacked.” The big, work-splayed hands were losing their horn-hard calluses. He settled down to the law, becoming in time an excellent trial lawyer and a capable stump debater at political rallies, even against such opponents as Stephen A. Douglas, the coming little Giant. Socially, however, he was slow in getting started. About a month after his arrival he wrote in a letter: “I have been spoken to by but one woman since I’ve been here, and should not have been by her, if she could have avoided it.” He was leery of the ladies, having once remarked, half-jokingly, “A woman is the only thing I am afraid of that I know will not hurt me.” Nevertheless, by the time he was elected to his fourth term in the legislature, Lincoln was courting Mary Todd, a visitor from Lexington, Kentucky, and in early November of 1842 he married her.
It was an attraction of opposites, and as such it was stormy. At one point they broke off the engagement; she left Illinois and Lincoln had to go to Kentucky for a reconciliation before she would return to Springfield and marry him in her sister’s parlor. If “culture” was what he was after, still, Lincoln again had moved in the proper direction. His wife, the great-granddaughter of a Revolutionary general, had attended a private academy in Lexington, where she learned to speak French, read music after a fashion, paint on china, and dance the sedate figures of the time. At twenty-four she was impulsive and vivacious, short and rather plump, looking especially so alongside her long lean husband, who was thirty-three. Lincoln seemed to take it calmly enough. Five days after the wedding he wrote to a lawyer friend: “Nothing new here, except my marrying, which to me is matter of profound wonder.”
Their first child, Robert Todd, called Bob, was born the following year. Three others came in the course of the next decade, all sons: Edward and William and Thomas, called Eddy, Willie, Tad. Eddy died before he was five, and Tad had a cleft palate; he spoke with a lisp. The Lincolns lived a year in rented rooms, then moved into the $1500 white frame house which remained their home. They took their place in Springfield society, and Lincoln worked hard at law, riding the Eighth Judicial Circuit in all kinds of weather, a clean shirt and a change of underwear in his saddlebag, along with books and papers and a yellow flannel nightshirt. Fees averaged about five dollars a case, sometimes paid in groceries, which he was glad to get, since the cost of the house represented something beyond one year’s total earnings.
Home life taught him patience, for his wife was high-strung as well as high-born. He called her Mother and met her fits of temper with forbearance, which must have been the last thing she wanted at the time. When her temper got too hot he would walk off to his office and stay until it cooled. Accustomed to Negro house slaves in Kentucky, Mary Lincoln could not get along with Illinois hired girls, who were inclined to answer back. Lincoln did what he could here too, slipping the girls an extra weekly dollar for compensation. Once after a particularly bitter scene between mistress and maid, when Mrs Lincoln had left the room he patted the girl on the shoulder and gave her the same advice he had given himself: “Stay with her, Maria. Stay with her.”
His law practice grew; he felt prepared to grow in other directions. Having completed his fourth term in the state legislature, he was ready to move on up the political ladder. He wrote to Whig associates in the district, “Now if you should hear anyone say that Lincoln don’t want to go to Congress, I wish you as a personal friend of mine would tell him you have reason to believe he is mistaken. The truth is, I would like to go very much.” In the backstage party scramble, however, he lost the nomination in 1842 and again in 1844. It was 1847 before he got to Congress. From a back row on the Whig side of the House he came to know the voices and faces of men he would know better, Ashmun of Massachusetts, Rhett of South Carolina, Smith of Indiana, Toombs and Stephens of Georgia, while a visit to the Senate would show him the elder statesmen Webster and Calhoun, along with newer men of note, such as Cameron of Pennsylvania and Davis of Mississippi.
The Mexican War had ended by then, and though Lincoln voted for whatever army supply bills came before the House, like most Whigs he attacked the motives behind the war, which now was being spoken of, by northern Whigs at least, as “infamous and wicked,” an imperialist attempt to extend the slavery realm. This got him into trouble back home, where the Democratic papers began calling him a latter-day Benedict Arnold and the people read and noted all he did as a slur against the volunteers of his state. When Congress convened for his second session, Lincoln was the only Whig from Illinois. It was a hectic session anyhow, with tempers flaring over the question of slavery in the territories. He came home with no chance for reëlection, and did not try. He gave up politics, refusing even a spoils offer of the governorship of Oregon Territory, and returned to the practice of law, once more riding the circuit. Disheartened, he paused now to restore his soul through work and meditation.
Though he did not believe at the outset that it would necessarily ever reach an end—indeed, he believed it would not; otherwise it could never have done for him what it did—this five-year “retreat,” coming as it did between his fortieth and his forty-fifth years, 1849 to 1854, was his interlude of greatest growth. Like many, perhaps most, men of genius, Lincoln developed late.
It was a time for study, a time for self-improvement. He went back and drilled his way through the first six books of Euclid, as an exercise to discipline his mind. Not politics but the law was his main interest now. Riding the circuit he talked less and listened more. Together with a new understanding and a deeper reading of Shakespeare and the Bible, this brought him a profounder faith in people, including those who had rejected him and repudiated what he had to offer as a leader. Here, too, he was learning. This was the period in which he was reported to have said, “You can fool some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”
Nonparticipation in public affairs did not mean a loss of interest in them. Lincoln read the papers more carefully now than he had ever done before, learning from them of the deaths of Calhoun, Clay, and Webster, whose passing marked the passing of an era. When the 1850 Compromise—as he and most men believed, including Clay who engineered it shortly before his death—settled the differences that had brought turmoil to the nation and fist fights to the floors of Congress while Lincoln himself was there, he breathed easier. But not for long. The conflict soon was heading up again. Uncle Tom’s Cabin came from the presses in a stream; southern nationalists were announcing plans for the annexation of Cuba; the case of the slave Dred Scott, suing for his freedom, moved by legal osmosis through the courts; the Whigs seemed lost and the Democrats were splitting. Then Lincoln’s old stump opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, who was four years younger than Lincoln but who had suffered no setback in political advancement, filling now his second term in the Senate, brought the crisis to a head.
Scarcely taller than Napoleon, but with all that monarch’s driving ambition and belief in a private star, Douglas moved to repeal that part of the Missouri Compromise which served to restrict the extension of slavery. This came as a result of his championing a northern route for the proposed Pacific railway. A southern route was also proposed and Douglas sought to effect a swap, reporting a bill for the organization of two new territories, Kansas and Nebraska, with the provision that the people there should determine for themselves as to the admission or exclusion of slavery, despite the fact that both areas lay well north of the 36°30′ line drawn by the Compromise, which had guaranteed that the institution would be kept forever south of there. The Southerners were glad to abandon their New Mexico route for such a gain, provided the repeal was made not only implicit but explicit in the bill. Douglas was somewhat shocked (he brought a certain naivety to even his deepest plots) but soon agreed, and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis persuaded Franklin Pierce to make the bill an Administration issue. “Popular sovereignty,” Douglas called it; “Squatter sovereignty,” his opponents considered a better name. “It will raise a hell of a storm,” Douglas predicted. It did indeed, though the Democrats managed to ram it through by late May of 1854, preparing the ground for Bleeding Kansas and the birth of the Republican Party that same year.
Another effect of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill was that it brought Lincoln out of retirement. It had raised even more of a storm than Douglas predicted, and not only in Congress. For when the senator came home to Illinois he saw through the train window his effigy being burned in courthouse squares, and when he came to explain his case before eight thousand people in Chicago, they jeered him off the rostrum He left, shaking his fist in their faces, and set out to stump the state with a speech that confounded opposition orators and won back many of the voters. Then in early October he came to Springfield, packing the hall of the House of Representatives. After the speech—which had been as successful here as elsewhere in turning the jeers to cheers—the crowd filed out through the lobby and saw Abraham Lincoln standing on the staircase, announcing that he would reply to Douglas the following day and inviting the senator to be present, to answer if he cared.
Next day they were there, close-packed as yesterday; Douglas had a front-row seat. It was hot and Lincoln spoke in shirt sleeves, wearing no collar or tie. His voice was shrill as he began, though presently it settled to lower tones, interrupted from time to time by crackles and thunders of applause. Wet with sweat, his shirt clung to his shoulders and big arms. He had written his speech out beforehand, clarifying in his own mind his position as to slavery, which he saw as the nub of the issue—much to the discomfort of Douglas, who wanted to talk about “popular sovereignty,” keeping the issue one of self-government, whereas Lincoln insisted on going beyond, making slavery the main question. Emerging from his long retirement, having restored his soul, he was asking himself and all men certain questions. And now the Lincoln music began to sound.
“The doctrine of self-government is right, absolutely and eternally right; but it has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such just application depends upon whether a Negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the Negro is a man, is it not to that extent a total destruction of self-government to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government; that is despotism. If the Negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal,’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.”
He believed that it was a moral wrong; he had not come to believe that it was a legal wrong, though he believed that too would be clarified in time. The words of his mouth came like meditations from his heart: “Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature, opposition to it in his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism, and when brought into collision so fiercely as slavery extension brings them, shocks and throes and convulsions must ceaselessly follow. Repeal the Missouri Compromise, repeal all compromises; repeal the Declaration of Independence, repeal all past history—you still cannot repeal human nature. It still will be the abundance of man’s heart that slavery extension is wrong, and out of the abundance of his heart his mouth will continue to speak.”
This, in part, was the speech that caused his name to be recognized throughout the Northwest, though personally he was still but little known outside his state. He repeated it twelve days later in Peoria, where shorthand reporters took it down for their papers, and continued to speak in central Illinois and in Chicago. Winning reëlection to the legislature, he presently had a chance at a seat in the U.S. Senate. His hopes were high and he resigned from the legislature to be eligible, but at the last minute he had to throw his votes to an anti-Nebraska Democrat to defeat the opposition.
Again he had failed, and again he regretted failing. Yet this time he was not despondent. He kept working and waiting. His law practice boomed; he earned a five-thousand-dollar fee on a railroad case, and was retained to assist a high-powered group of big-city lawyers on a patents case in Cincinnati, but when they saw him come to town, wearing his usual rusty clothes and carrying a ball-handled blue cotton umbrella, they would scarcely speak to him. One of the attorneys, Edwin M. Stanton of Pittsburgh, was downright rude; “Where did that long-armed creature come from?” he asked within earshot. Lincoln went his way, taking no apparent umbrage.
Politically he was wary, too, writing to a friend: “Just now I fear to do anything, lest I do wrong.” He had good cause for fear, and so had all men through this time of “shocks and throes and convulsions.” Popular sovereignty was being tested in Kansas in a manner Douglas had not foreseen. Missouri border ruffians and hired abolitionist gunmen were cutting each other’s throats for votes in the coming referendum; the Mormons were resisting federal authority in the West, and while a ruinous financial panic gripped the East, the Know-Nothing Party was sweeping New England with anti-foreigner, anti-Catholic appeals. The Whigs had foundered, the Democrats had split on all those rocks. Like many men just now, Lincoln hardly knew where he stood along party lines.
“I think I am a Whig,” he wrote, “but others say there are no Whigs, and that I am an Abolitionist.… I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.”
He was waiting and looking. And then he found the answer.
It was 1856, a presidential election year. Out of the Nebraska crisis, two years before, the Republican Party had been born, a coalition of foundered Whigs and disaffected northern Democrats, largely abolitionist at the core. They made overtures to Lincoln but he dodged them at the time, not wanting a Radical tag attached to his name. Now, however, seeking to unify the anti-Nebraska elements in Illinois, he came to meet them. As a delegate to the state convention he caught fire and made what may have been the greatest speech of his career, though no one would ever really know, since the heat of his words seemed to burn them from men’s memory, and in that conglomerate mass of gaping, howling old-line Whigs and bolted Democrats, Know-Nothings, Free Soilers and Abolitionists, even the shorthand reporters sat enthralled, forgetting to use their pencils. From now on he was a Republican; he would take his chances with the Radical tag.
At the national convention in Philadelphia he received 110 votes on the first ballot for the vice-presidential nomination, yielding them on the second to a New Jersey running mate for John C. Frémont of California. Lincoln had not favored Frémont, but he worked hard for him in the campaign that saw the election of the Democratic nominee James Buchanan, an elderly bachelor whose main advantage lay in the fact that he was the least controversial candidate, having been out of the country as Minister to England during the trying past three years. The Republicans were by no means dispirited at running second. They sniffed victory down the wind, in the race four years from now—provided only that the turmoil and sectional antagonism should continue, which seemed likely.
At this point the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision which appeared to cut the ground from under all their feet. The test case of the slave Dred Scott, suing for freedom on a plea that his master had taken him into a territory where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise, had at last reached the high court. In filing the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney dismissed Scott’s lawyer’s claim. A Negro, he said, was not a citizen of the United States, and therefore had no right to sue in a federal court. This was enough to enrage the Abolitionists, who secretly had sponsored the suit. But Taney went even further. The Missouri Compromise itself was void, he declared; Congress had no power over territories except to prepare for their admission to the Union; slaves being private property, Congress had no right to exclude them anywhere. According to this decision, “popular sovereignty” went into the discard, since obviously whatever powers Congress lacked would be lacked by any territorial legislature created by Congress.
The reaction was immediate and uproarious. Secession, formerly the threat of the South, now came as a cry from the North, particularly New England, where secessionist meetings were held in many towns. Douglas, on the other hand, digested the bitter dose as best he could, then announced that the decision was in fact a vindication of his repeal of the Compromise two years before, as well as a confirmation of the principles of popular sovereignty, since slavery, whether legal or not, could never thrive where the people did not welcome it. Lincoln did not mask his disappointment. He believed the decision was erroneous and harmful, but he respected the judgment of the Court and urged his followers to work toward the time when the five-four decision would be reversed. Meanwhile, during the off-year 1857, he prepared to run for the Senate against Douglas, whose third term would expire the following year.
Just then, unexpectedly, Douglas split with the Administration over the adoption of a constitution for Kansas. Threatened with expulsion from his party, he swung over to the Republicans on the issue, bringing many Democrats along with him. The Republicans were surprised and grateful, and it began to look as if Lincoln would be passed over again when nominating time came round. However, they were too accustomed to fighting the Little Giant to break off hostilities now. They nominated Lincoln at the state convention in mid-June. Lincoln was ready, and more than ready. He had not only prepared his acceptance, but now for the first time he read a speech from manuscript, as if to emphasize his knowledge of the need for precision. It was at this point that Lincoln’s political destiny and the destiny of the nation became one. The first paragraph once more summed up his thinking and struck the keynote for all that was to follow:
“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall be at rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall have become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.”
Seizing upon this as proof of Lincoln’s radicalism, and declaring that it proved him not only a proponent of sectional discord but also a reckless prophet of war, Douglas came home and launched an all-out campaign against the Republicans and the Democrats who had not walked out with him. He spoke in Chicago to a crowd that broke into frenzies of cheers, then set out to stump the state, traveling with a retinue of secretaries, stenographers, and influential admirers in a gaily bannered private car placed at his disposal by George B. McClellan, chief engineer of the Illinois Central, who also provided a flatcar mounting a brass cannon to boom the announcement that the Little Giant was coming down the line. Traveling unaccompanied on an ordinary ticket, Lincoln moved in his wake, sometimes on the same train, addressing the crowds attracted by the Douglas panoply. At last he made the arrangement formal, challenging his opponent to a series of debates. Douglas, with nothing to gain, could not refuse. He agreed to meet Lincoln once in each of the seven congressional districts where they had not already spoken.
Thus the colorful Douglas-Lincoln debates got under way, the pudgy, well-tailored Douglas with his scowl, his luxurious mane of hair, gesturing aggressively as his voice wore to a froggy croak, and Lincoln in his claw-hammer coat and straight-leg trousers, tall and earnest, with a shrill voice that reached the outer edges of the crowd, bending his knees while he led up to a point, then straightening them with a jerk, rising to his full height as he made it. Crowds turned out, ten to fifteen thousand strong, thronging the lonesome prairie towns. At Freeport, Lincoln threw Douglas upon the horns of a dilemma, asking: “Can the people of a United States Territory, in any lawful way … exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution?” If Douglas answered No he would offend the free-soil voters of Illinois. If he answered Yes he would make himself unacceptable to the South in the 1860 presidential campaign, toward which his ambition so clearly pointed. He made his choice; Yes, he said, defying both the Supreme Court and the South, and thereby cinched the present election and stored up trouble for the future.
Approaching fifty, Lincoln again took defeat in his stride, turning once more to the practice of law to build up a flattened bank account. He was known throughout the nation now as a result of the cross-state debates. In his mail and in the newspapers there began to appear suggestions that he was presidential timber—to which he replied, sometimes forthrightly: “I must, in candor, say I do not think I am fit for the Presidency,” sometimes less forthrightly: “I shall labor faithfully in the ranks, unless, as I think not probable, the judgment of the party shall assign me a different position.” Through the long hot summer of 1859, past fifty now, he wrote letters and made speeches and did in general what he could to improve the party strategy, looking toward next year’s elections.
Then in mid-October the telegraph clacked a message that drove all such thoughts from men’s minds. John Brown, called Osawatomie Brown after a massacre staged in Kansas, had seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, as the first step in leading a slave insurrection. His army counted eighteen men, including five Negroes; “One man and God can overturn the universe,” he said. Captured by United States Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee, U.S. Army, he was tried in a Virginia court and sentenced to be hanged in early December. He had the backing of several New England Abolitionists; they spent an anxious six weeks while the old fanatic kept their secret, close-mouthed behind his long gray beard. Seated on his coffin while he rode in a wagon to the gallows, he looked out at the hazy Blue Ridge Mountains. “This is a beautiful country,” he said. “I never had the pleasure of really seeing it before.” After the hanging the jailor unfolded a slip of paper Brown had left behind, a prophecy: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land; will never be purged away; but with blood.”
This too was added to the issues men were split on; John Brown’s soul went marching, a symbol of good or evil, depending on the viewer. Douglas, back in Washington, was quick to claim that such incidents of lawlessness and bloodshed were outgrowths of the House Divided speech, and Lincoln’s name was better known than ever. In late February, just past his fifty-first birthday, Lincoln traveled to New York for a speech at Cooper Union. The city audience thought him strange as he stood there, tall and awkward in a new broadcloth suit that hung badly from having been folded in a satchel for the train ride. “Mr Cheerman,” he began. Presently, however, the awkwardness was dropped, or else they forgot it. He spoke with calm authority, denying that the Republican Party was either sectional or radical, except as its opponents had made it so. Slavery was the issue, North and South, he said, probing once more for the heart of the matter.
“All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition as being right; but thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities can we do this?” He thought not. “If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty fearlessly and effectively.… Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
That was the peroration, and the listeners surged from their seats to applaud him, waving handkerchiefs and hats as they came forward to wring his hand. Four New York newspapers printed the speech in full next morning, and Lincoln went on into New England, making a series of addresses there before returning to Springfield much enhanced. The time for presidential nominations was drawing close. When a friend asked if he would allow his name to be entered, Lincoln admitted: “The taste is in my mouth a little.”
Chicago was the scene of the Republican national convention, the result of a political maneuver toward the close of the previous year by one of Lincoln’s supporters, who, poker-faced, had suggested the western city as an ideal neutral site, since Illinois would have no candidate of her own. Now in mid-May, however, as the delegates converged upon the raw pine Wigwam put up to accommodate ten thousand in an atmosphere of victory foreseen, they found that Illinois had a candidate indeed, and something beyond the usual favorite son. Alongside such prominent men as William H. Seward of New York, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, Edward Bates of Missouri, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, Lincoln was comparatively unknown. Yet this had its advantages, since the shorter the public record a candidate presented, the smaller the target he would expose to the mud that was sure to be flung. Each of these men had disadvantages; Seward had spoken too often of the “irrepressible conflict,” Chase had been too radical, Bates was tainted by Know-Nothingism, and Cameron was said to be a crook. Besides all this, Lincoln came from the critical Northwest, where the political scale was likely to be tipped.
His managers set up headquarters and got to work behind the scenes, giving commitments, making deals. Then, on the eve of balloting, they received a wire from Springfield: “I authorize no bargains and will be bound by none.” “Lincoln aint here and don’t know what we have to meet,” the managers said, and went on dickering right and left, promising cabinet posts and patronage, printing counterfeit admission tickets to pack the Wigwam nomination morning. The Seward yell was met by the Lincoln yawp. The New Yorker led on the first ballot. On the second there were readjustments as the others jockeyed for position; Lincoln was closing fast. On the third he swept in. The Wigwam vibrated with shouts and cheers, bells and whistles swelling the uproar while the news went out to the nation.
“Just think of such a sucker as me being President,” Lincoln had said. Yet in Springfield when his friends came running, those who were not already with him in the newspaper office, they were somewhat taken aback at the new, calm, sure dignity which clothed him now like a garment.
Lincoln himself did not campaign. No presidential candidate ever had, such action being considered incommensurate with the dignity of the office. Nor did two of his three opponents. But Douglas, the only one of the four who seemed to believe that the election might bring war, set forth to stump the country. All four were running on platforms that called for the preservation of the Union. The defeat of Lincoln depended solely on Douglas, however, since neither of the others could hope to carry the free states. Knowing this, Douglas worked with all his strength. Wherever he went he was met by Lincoln men, including Seward, Chase, and Bates. The Republican campaign for “Honest Abe, the Rail Splitter” was a colorful one, with pole raisings, barbecues, and torchlight parades. Douglas kept fighting. Then in August, when Lincoln supporters carried local elections in Maine and Vermont, and in October when Pennsylvania and Ohio followed suit, Douglas saw what was coming. He told his secretary, “Mr Lincoln is the next President. We must try to save the Union. I will go South.”
He did go South in a final attempt to heal the three-way Democratic split, but there men would not listen either. On election day, November 6, though he ran closest to Lincoln in popular votes, he had the fewest electoral votes of all.
That night Lincoln sat in the Springfield telegraph office, watching the tabulations mount to a climax: Bell, 588,879; Breckinridge, 849,781; Douglas, 1,376,957; Lincoln, 1,866,452. The combined votes of his opponents outnumbered his own by almost a million; he would be a minority President, like the indecisive Buchanan now in office. He had carried none of the fifteen southern states, receiving not a single popular ballot in five of them, even from a crank, and no electoral votes at all. Yet he had carried all of the northern states except New Jersey, which he split with Douglas, so that the final electoral vote had a brighter aspect: Lincoln 180, Breckinridge 72, Bell 39, Douglas 12. Even if all the opposing popular votes had been concentrated on a single candidate, he would have received but eleven fewer electoral votes, which still would have left him more than he needed to win. Any way men figured it, North or South, barring assassination or an act of God, Abraham Lincoln would be President of the United States in March.
How many states would remain united was another question. South Carolina had warned that she would secede if Lincoln was elected. Now she did, and within three of the four months that lay between the election and the inauguration, six others followed her out. Lincoln in Springfield gave no assurance that he would seek a compromise or be willing to accept one. “Stand firm,” he wrote privately to an Illinois senator. “The tug has to come, and better now than any time hereafter.” “Hold firm, as with a chain of steel,” he wrote to a friend in the House.
He had troubles enough, right there at home. “No bargains,” he had wired his managers at the convention, but they had ignored him out of necessity. Now the claimants hedged him in, swarming into his home and office, plucking at his coat sleeve on the street.
The week before his departure for Washington he made a trip down to Coles County to say goodbye to Sally Bush Lincoln, the stepmother who had done for him all she could. When his father had died there, nine years back, Lincoln had not attended the funeral; but he took time out for this. He kissed her and held her close, then came back to Springfield, closed his office the final day, said goodbye to his partner Herndon, and went to the Chenery House for his last sleep in Illinois.
Next morning dawned cold and drizzly; 8 o’clock was leaving time. Lincoln and his party of fifteen, together with those who had come to say goodbye, assembled in the waiting room of the small brick depot. They felt unaccountably depressed; there was a gloom about the gathering, no laughter and few smiles as people came forward for handshakes and farewells. When the stub, funnel-stack locomotive blew the all-aboard they filed out of the station. The President-elect, and those who were going with him, boarded the single passenger car; those who were staying collected about the back platform, the rain making a steady murmur against the taut cotton or silk of their umbrellas. As he stood at the rail, chin down, Lincoln’s look of sadness deepened. Tomorrow he would be fifty-two, one of the youngest men ever to fill the office he had won three months ago. Then he raised his head, and the people were hushed as he looked into their faces.
“My friends,” he said quietly, above the murmur of the rain, “no one not in my situation can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of these people I owe everything. Here I have lived for a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
The train pulled out and the people stood and watched it go, some with tears on their faces. Four years and two months later, still down in Coles County, Sally Bush Lincoln was to say: “I knowed when he went away he wasn’t ever coming back alive.”
Throughout the twelve days of his roundabout trip to Washington, traversing five states along an itinerary that called for twenty speeches and an endless series of conferences with prominent men who boarded the train at every station, Lincoln’s resolution to keep silent on the vital issues was made more difficult if not impossible. Determined to withhold his plans until the inauguration had given him the authority to act as well as declare, he attempted to say nothing even as he spoke. And in this he was surprisingly successful. He met the crowds with generalities and the dignitaries with jokes—to the confusion and outrage of both. He told the Ohio legislature, “There is nothing going wrong. It is a consoling circumstance that when we look out there is nothing that really hurts anybody. We entertain different views upon political questions, but nobody is suffering anything.”
With seven states out of the Union, arsenals and mints seized along with vessels and forts, the Mississippi obstructed, the flag itself fired upon, this man could say there was nothing going wrong. His listeners shrugged and muttered at his ostrich policy. They had come prepared for cheers, and they did cheer him loudly each time he seemed ready to face the issue, as when he warned in New Jersey that if it became necessary “to put the foot down firmly” they must support him. Even so, his appearance was not reassuring to the Easterners. In New York he offended the sensibilities of many by wearing black kid gloves to the opera and letting his big hands dangle over the box rail. Taken in conjunction with the frontier accent and the shambling western gait, it made them wonder what manner of man they had entrusted with their destinies. Hostile papers called him “gorilla” and “baboon,” and as caricature the words seemed unpleasantly fitting.
In Philadelphia, raising a flag at Independence Hall, he felt his breath quicken as he drew down on the halyard and saw the bright red and rippling blue of the bunting take the breeze. Turning to the crowd he touched a theme he would return to. “I have often inquired of myself what great principle or idea it was that kept this confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land, but that something in the Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this land, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.” Men stood and listened with upturned faces, wanting fire for the tinder of their wrath, not ointment for their fears, and the music crept by them. It was not this they had come to hear.
So far Lincoln had seemed merely inadequate, inept, at worst a bumpkin; but now the trip was given a comic-opera finish, in which he was called to play the part not only of a fool but of a coward. Baltimore, the last scheduled stop before Washington, would mark his first entry into a slavery region as President-elect. The city had sent him no welcome message, as all the others had done, and apparently had made no official plans for receiving him or even observing his presence while he passed through. Unofficially, however, according to reports, there awaited him a reception quite different from any he had been given along the way. Bands of toughs, called Blood Tubs, roamed the streets, plotting his abduction or assassination. He would be stabbed or shot, or both; or he would be hustled aboard a boat and taken South, the ransom being southern independence. All this was no more than gossip until the night before the flag-raising ceremony in Philadelphia, when news came from reliable sources that much of it was fact. General Winfield Scott, head of the armed forces, wrote warnings; Senator Seward, slated for Secretary of State, sent his son with documentary evidence; and now came the railroad head with his detective, Allan Pinkerton, whose operatives had joined such Maryland bands, he said, and as members had taken deep and bloody oaths. Such threats and warnings had become familiar over the past three months, but hearing all this Lincoln was disturbed. The last thing he wanted just now was an “incident,” least of all one with himself as a corpse to be squabbled over. His friends urged him to cancel the schedule and leave for Washington immediately. Lincoln refused, but agreed that if, after he had spoken at Philadelphia the next morning and at Harrisburg in the afternoon, no Baltimore delegation came to welcome him to that city, he would by-pass it or go through unobserved.
Next afternoon, when no such group had come to meet him, he returned to his hotel, put on an overcoat, stuffed a soft wool hat into his pocket, and went to the railroad station. There he boarded a special car, accompanied only by his friend Ward Hill Lamon, known to be a good man in a fight. As the train pulled out, all telegraph wires out of Harrisburg were cut. When the travelers reached Philadelphia about 10 o’clock that night, Pinkerton was waiting. He put them aboard the Baltimore train; they had berths reserved by a female operative for her “invalid brother” and his companion. At 3.30 in the morning the sleeping-car was drawn through the quiet Baltimore streets to Camden Station. While they waited, Lincoln heard a drunk bawling “Dixie” on the quay. Lamon, with his bulging eyes and sad frontier mustache, sat clutching four pistols and two large knives. At last the car was picked up by a train from the west, and Lincoln stepped onto the Washington platform at 6 o’clock in the morning. “You can’t play that on me,” a man said, coming forward. Lamon drew back his fist. “Don’t strike him!” Lincoln cried, and caught his arm, recognizing Elihu Washburn, an Illinois congressman. They went to Willard’s Hotel for breakfast.
Such was the manner in which the new leader entered his capital to take the oath of office. Though the friendly press was embarrassed to explain it, the hostile papers had a field day, using the basic facts of the incident as notes of a theme particularly suited for variations. The overcoat became “a long military cloak,” draping the lanky form from heels to eyes, and the wool hat became a Scotch-plaid cap, a sort of tam-o’-shanter. Cartoonists drew “fugitive sketches” showing Lincoln with his hair on end, the elongated figure surrounded by squiggles to show how he quaked as he ran from the threats of the Blood Tubs. “Only an attack of ager,” they had his friends explaining. Before long, the Scotch-plaid pattern was transferred from the cap to the cloak, which at last became a garment he had borrowed from his wife, whom he left at the mercy of imaginary assassins. In the North there was shame behind the laughter and the sighs. Elation was high in the South, where people found themselves confirmed in their decision to leave a Union which soon would have such a coward for its leader. Certainly no one could picture Jefferson Davis fleeing from threats to his safety, in a plaid disguise and surrounded by squiggles of fear.
Mrs Lincoln and the children arrived that afternoon, and the family moved into Parlor 6, Willard’s finest, which between now and the inauguration became a Little White House. To Parlor 6 came the public figures, resembling their photographs except for a third-dimensional grossness of the flesh, and the office seekers, importunate or demanding, oily or brash, as they had come to Springfield. Here as there, Lincoln could say of the men who had engineered his nomination in Chicago, “They have gambled me all around, bought and sold me a hundred times. I cannot begin to fill all the pledges made in my name.”
The card-writing stand in the lobby offered a line of cockades for buttonholes or hatbands, “suitable for all shades of political sentiment,” while elsewhere in the rambling structure a Peace Convention was meeting behind closed doors, the delegates mostly old men who talked and fussed, advancing the views of their twenty-one states—six of them from the buffer region, but none from the Cotton South—until at last they gave up and dispersed, having come to nothing. Washington was a southern city, surrounded by slave states, and the military patrolled the streets, drilled and paraded and bivouacked in vacant lots, so that townspeople, waking to the crash of sunrise guns and blare of bugles, threw up their windows and leaned out in nightcaps, thinking the war had begun. Congress was into its closing days, and finally in early March adjourned, having left the incoming President no authority to assemble the militia or call for volunteers, no matter what emergency might arise.
Inauguration day broke fair, but soon a cold wind shook the early flowers and the sky was overcast. Then this too yielded to a change. The wind scoured the clouds away and dropped, so that by noon, when President Buchanan called for Lincoln at Willard’s, the sky was clear and summer-blue. Along streets lined with soldiers, including riflemen posted at upper-story windows and cannoneers braced at attention beside their guns, the silver-haired sixty-nine-year-old bachelor and his high-shouldered successor rode in sunshine to the Capitol. From the unfinished dome, disfigured by scaffolds, a derrick extended a skeleton arm. A bronze Freedom lay on the grass, the huge figure of a woman holding a sword in one hand and a wreath in the other, awaiting the dome’s completion when she would be hoisted to its summit. In the Senate chamber Buchanan and Lincoln watched the swearing-in of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, so dark-skinned that campaign rumors had had him a mulatto; then proceeded to a temporary platform on the east portico, where they gazed out upon a crowd of ten thousand.
Lincoln wore new black clothes, a tall hat, and carried a gold-headed ebony cane. As he rose to deliver the inaugural address, Stephen Douglas leaned forward from among the dignitaries and took the hat, holding it while Lincoln adjusted his spectacles and read from a manuscript he took out of his pocket. A first draft had been written at Springfield; since then, by a process of collaboration, it had been strengthened in places and watered down in others. Now, after months of silence and straddling many issues, he could speak, and his first words were spoken for southern ears.
“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” However, he denied that there could be any constitutional right to secession. “It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.… No state upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union.” Then followed sterner words. “I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the states. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part; and I shall perform it, so far as practicable, unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisite means, or in some authoritative manner direct the contrary.… The power confided in me will be used to hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts.”
Having clarified this, he returned to the question of secession, which he considered not only unlawful, but unwise. “Physically speaking, we cannot separate.… A husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them.” War, too, would be unwise. “Suppose you go to war, you cannot fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions as to terms of intercourse are again upon you.” The issue lay as in a balance, which they could tip if they chose. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ it.”
He then read the final paragraph, written in collaboration with Seward. “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Chief Justice Taney, tall and cave-chested, sepulchral in his flowing robes—“with the face of a galvanized corpse,” one witness said—stepped forward and performed the function he had performed eight times already for eight other men. Extending the Bible with trembling hands, he administered the oath of office to Abraham Lincoln as sixteenth President of the United States, and minute guns began to thud their salutes throughout the city.
Reactions to this address followed in general the preconceptions of its hearers, who detected what they sought. Extremists at opposite ends found it diabolical or too mild, while the mass of people occupying the center on both sides saw in Lincoln’s words a confirmation of all that they were willing to believe. He was conciliatory or cunning, depending on the angle he was seen from. Southerners, comparing it to the inaugural delivered by Jefferson Davis in Montgomery two weeks before, congratulated themselves on the results; for Davis had spoken with the calmness and noncontention of a man describing an established fact, seeking neither approval nor confirmation among his enemies.
Standing on the portico of the Alabama capital, in the heart of the slave country, he did not mention slavery: an omission he had scarcely committed in fifteen years of public speaking. Nor did he waste breath on the possibility of reconciliation with the old government, remarking merely that in the event of any attempt at coercion “the suffering of millions will bear testimony to the folly and wickedness” of those who tried it. He spoke, rather, of agriculture and the tariff, both in Jeffersonian terms, and closed with the calm confidence of his beginning: “It is joyous in the midst of perilous times to look around upon a people united in heart, where one purpose of high resolve animates and actuates the whole, where the sacrifices to be made are not weighed in the balance against honor and right and liberty and equality. Obstacles may retard, but they cannot long prevent the progress of a movement sanctified by its justice and sustained by a virtuous people. Reverently let us invoke the God of our fathers to guide and protect us in our efforts to perpetuate the principles which by His blessing they were able to vindicate, establish, and transmit to their posterity. With the continuance of His favor, ever gratefully acknowledged, we may hopefully look forward to success, to peace, and to prosperity.”
He had been chosen over such fire-eaters as Rhett and Yancey, Toombs and Howell Cobb, partly for reasons of compromise, but mainly on grounds that as a moderate he would be more attractive and less alarming to the people of the border states, still hanging back, conservative and easily shocked. Yet whatever their reasons for having chosen him, the people of the Deep South, watching him move among them, his lithe, rather boyish figure trim and erect in a suit of slate-gray homespun, believed they had chosen well. “Have you seen our President?” they asked, and the visitor heard pride in their tone. Charmed by the music of his oratory, the handsomeness of his clear-cut features, the dignity of his manner, they were thankful for the providence of history, which apparently gave every great movement the leader it deserved.
Such doubts as he had he kept to himself, or declared them only to his wife still back at Brierfield, writing to her two days after the inauguration: “The audience was large and brilliant. Upon my weary heart were showered smiles, plaudits, and flowers; but beyond them, I saw troubles and thorns innumerable.… We are without machinery, without means, and threatened by a powerful opposition; but I do not despond, and will not shrink from the task imposed upon me.… As soon as I can call an hour my own, I will look for a house and write you more fully.”
Somehow he found both the time and the house, a plain two-story frame dwelling, and Mrs Davis and the children came to join him. “She is as witty as he is wise,” one witness said. She was a great help at the levées and the less formal at-homes, having become in their senatorial years a more accomplished political manager than her husband, who had little time for anything but the exactions of his office. The croakers had already begun their chorus, though so far they were mostly limited to disappointed office seekers. Arriving, Mrs Davis had found him careworn, but when she expressed her concern, Davis told her plainly: “If we succeed we shall hear nothing of these malcontents. If we do not, then I shall be held accountable by friends as well as foes. I will do my best.”
Rising early, he worked at home until breakfast, then went to his office, where he often stayed past midnight. He had need for all this labor, founding like Washington a new government, a new nation, except that whereas the earlier patriot had worked in a time of peace, with his war for independence safely won, Davis worked in a flurry against time, with possibly a harder war ahead. Like Washington, too, he lived without ostentation or pomp. His office was upstairs in the ugly red brick State House on a downtown corner, “The President” handwritten across a sheet of foolscap pasted to the door. He made himself accessible to all callers, and even at his busiest he was gracious, much as Jefferson had been.
Such aping of the earlier revolutionists was considered by the Confederates not as plagiarism, but simply as a claiming of what was their own, since most of those leaders had been southern in the first place, especially the ones who set the tone, including four of the first five, seven of the first ten, and nine of the first fifteen Presidents. In adopting a national standard, the present revolutionists’ initial thought was to take the old flag with them, and the first name proposed for the new nation was The Southern United States of America. Except for certain elucidations, the lack of which had been at the root of the recent trouble, the Confederate Constitution was a replica of the one its framers had learned by heart and guarded as their most precious heritage. “We, the people of the United States,” became “We, the people of the Confederate States, each state acting in its sovereign and independent character,” and they assembled not “to form a more perfect Union,” but “to form a permanent Federal government.” There was no provision as to the right of secession. The law-makers explained privately that there was no need for this, such a right being as implicit as the right to revolution, and to have included such a provision would have been to imply its necessity.
One important oversight was corrected, however. Where the founding fathers, living in a less pious age of reason, had omitted any reference to the Deity, the modern preamble invoked “the favor and guidance of Almighty God.” Nor were more practical considerations neglected. The President and Vice President were elected to a six-year term, neither of them eligible for reëlection. Congress was forbidden to pass a protective tariff or to appropriate money for internal improvements. Cabinet officers were to be given seats on the floor of Congress. Each law must deal with only one subject, announced in its title, and the President had the right to veto separate items in appropriation bills. Instead of requiring a three-fourths majority, amendments could be ratified by two-thirds of the states. While the newer document expressly prohibited any revival of the slave trade, those chattels referred to in the old one as “persons” now became outright “slaves,” and in all territory acquired by the Confederacy, slavery was to be “recognized and protected” by both the federal and territorial governments.
Thus the paperwork foundation had been laid; the Confederacy was a going concern, one of the nations of earth. Whether it would remain so depended in a large part on the events of March and April, following the two inaugurals, particularly as these events affected the sympathies of the eight states in the two- to four-hundred-mile-deep neutral region which lay between the two countries. Davis knew this, of course, and knew as well that it would be the opposition’s strategy to maneuver him into striking the first blow. This he was willing to do, provided the provocation to strike it was great enough to gain him the approval of the buffer states and the European powers. Actually, the odds were with him, for the neutral states were slave states, bound to the South by ties of history and kinship, and it was to the interests of the nations of Europe to see a growing competitor split in two. Meanwhile what was needed was patience, which Davis knew was not his dominant virtue, and indeed was hardly a southern virtue at all. Therefore, though his people were united, as he said, by “one purpose of high resolve,” he could also speak of his “weary heart” and “troubles and thorns innumerable.”
Lincoln up in Washington had most of these troubles, including the problem of holding the border states, and a greater one as well. Having first made up his mind, he must then unite the North before he could move to divide and conquer the South. He had made up his mind; he had stated his position; “The Union is unbroken,” he had said. Yet while Europe applauded the forthright manner in which the Confederacy had set itself in motion, Lincoln was confronted with division even among the states that had stayed loyal. New Jersey was talking secession; so was California, which along with Oregon was considering the establishment of a new Pacific nation; so, even, was New York City, which beside being southern in sentiment would have much to gain from independence. While moderates were advising sadly, “Let the erring sisters depart in peace,” extremists were violently in favor of the split: “No union with slaveholders! Away with this foul thing!… The Union was not formed by force, nor can it be maintained by force.”
On the other hand, whatever there was of native Union persuasion was sustained by economic considerations. Without the rod of a strong protective tariff, eastern manufacturers would lose their southern markets to the cheaper, largely superior products of England, and this was feared by the workers as well as the owners. The people of the Northwest remained staunchly pro-Union, faced as they were with loss of access to the lower Mississippi, that outlet to the Gulf which they had had for less than fifty years. Then too, following Lincoln’s inaugural address, there was a growing belief that separation would solve no problems, but rather would add others of an international character, with the question of domination intensified. In early April the New York Times stated the proposition: “If the two sections can no longer live together, they can no longer live apart in quiet till it is determined which is master. No two civilizations ever did, or can, come into contact as the North and South threaten to do, without a trial of strength, in which the weaker goes to the wall.… We must remain master of the occasion and the dominant power on this continent.” Reading this, there were men who faced responsibility; they believed they must accept it as members of a generation on trial. “A collision is inevitable,” one said. “Why ought not we test our government instead of leaving it”—meaning the testing—“to our children?”
Walking the midnight corridors of the White House after the day-long din of office seekers and divided counsels, Lincoln knew that his first task was to unite all these discordant elements, and he knew, too, that the most effective way to do this was to await an act of aggression by the South, exerting in the interim just enough pressure to provoke such an action, without exerting enough to justify it. He had good cause to believe that he would not have long to wait. The longer the border states remained neutral, the less they were ashamed of their neutrality in the eyes of their sisters farther south; the Confederates were urged to force the issue. Roger Pryor, a smooth-shaven Virginian with long black hair that brushed his shoulders, a fire-eater irked that his state hung back, was speaking now from a Charleston balcony, advising the South Carolinians how to muster Virginia into their ranks “in less than an hour by Shrewsbury clock: Strike a blow!”
What Pryor had in mind was Fort Sumter, out in Charleston harbor, one of the four Federal forts still flying the Union flag in Confederate territory. Lincoln also had it in mind, along with the other three, all Florida forts: Pickens off Pensacola Bay, Taylor at Key West, and Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. The crowd was delighted with Pryor’s advice. So would Lincoln have been if he had heard him, for by now he saw Sumter as the answer to his need for uniting the North.
The garrison at Fort Sumter had originally occupied the more vulnerable Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, but the night after Christmas, six days after South Carolina seceded, Major Robert Anderson removed his eighty-two men to the stronger fortress three miles out in the harbor. South Carolina protested to Washington, demanding as one nation to another that the troops return to Moultrie. Instead, Buchanan sent an unarmed merchant steamer, the Star of the West, with men and supplies to reinforce the fort; but when the Charleston gunners took her under fire, union jack and all, she turned back. That was that. Though they ringed the harbor with guns trained on Sumter and no longer allowed the garrison to buy food at local markets, the Carolinians fired no shot against the fort itself, nor did the Confederate authorities when they took over in March. Buchanan, with his after-me-the-deluge policy, left the situation for his successor to handle as he saw fit, including the question of whether to swallow the insult to the flag. On the day after his inauguration Lincoln received dispatches from Anderson announcing that he had not food enough to last six weeks, which meant that Lincoln had something less than that period of time in which to make up his mind whether to send supplies to the fort or let it go.
During this period, while Lincoln was making up his mind and seemed lost in indecision, there was played in Washington a drama of cross-purposes involving backstairs diplomacy and earnest misrepresentation. Secretary of State William H. Seward, leader of the Republican Party and a man of wide experience in public life, saw the new President as well-meaning but incompetent in such matters, a prairie lawyer fumbling toward disaster, and himself as the Administration’s one hope to forestall civil war. He believed that if the pegs that held men’s nerves screwed tight could somehow be loosened, or at any rate not screwed still tighter, the crisis would pass; the neutral states would remain loyal, and in time even the seceded states would return to the fold, penitent and convinced by consideration. He did not believe that Sumter should be reinforced or resupplied, since this would be exactly the sort of incident likely to increase the tension to the snapping point.
In this he was supported by most of his fellow cabinet members, for when Lincoln polled them on the issue—“Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort Sumter, under all the circumstances is it wise to attempt it?”—they voted five-to-two to abandon the fort. The Army, too, had advised against any attempt at reinforcement, estimating that 20,000 troops would be required, a number far beyond its present means. Only the Navy seemed willing to undertake it. Lincoln himself, in spite of his inaugural statement that he would “hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government,” seemed undecided or anyhow did not announce his decision. Seward believed he would come around in time, especially in the light of the odds among his counselors. Meanwhile he, Seward, would do what he could to spare the Southerners any additional provocation.
Three of them were in Washington now, sent there from Montgomery as commissioners to accomplish “the speedy adjustment of all questions growing out of separation, as the respective interests, geographical contiguity, and future welfare of the two nations may render necessary.” They had much to offer and much to ask. The Confederate Congress having opened the navigation of the lower Mississippi to the northern states, they expected to secure in return the evacuation of Sumter and the Florida forts, along with much else. Lincoln, however, would not see them. To have done so would have been to give over the constitutional reasoning that what was taking place in Alabama was merely a “rebellion” by private persons, no more entitled to send representatives to the rightful government than any other band of outlaws. Being also an official person, Seward of course could not see them either, no matter how much good he thought would proceed from a face-to-face conciliatory talk. Yet he found a way at least to show them the extent to which he believed the government would go in proving it meant no harm in their direction.
On March 15, the day Lincoln polled his cabinet for its views on Sumter, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell of Alabama, who had not yet gone South, came into Seward’s office to urge him to receive the Southerners. The Secretary regretfully declined, then added: “If Jefferson Davis had known the state of things here, he would not have sent those commissioners. The evacuation of Sumter is as much as the Administration can bear.”
Justice Campbell was alert at once. Here was Seward, guaranteeing for the government, whose Secretary of State he was, the main concession the commissioners were seeking. To make this even more definite, Campbell remarked that he would write to Davis at once. “And what shall I say to him on the subject of Fort Sumter?”
“You may say to him that before that letter reaches him——How far is it to Montgomery?”
“You may say to him that before that letter reaches him, the telegraph will have informed him that Sumter will have been evacuated.”
Lincoln was still either making up his mind or reinforcing whatever decision he had already made. In this connection he sent three men down to Charleston to observe the situation and report on what they saw. The first two, both southern-born, were Illinois law associates. Both reported reconciliation impossible, and one—the faithful Lamon, who had come through Baltimore on the sleeping-car with Lincoln—went so far as to assure South Carolina’s Governor Pickens that Sumter would be evacuated. The third, a high-ranking naval observer who secured an interview with Anderson at the fort, returned to declare that a relief expedition was feasible. Lincoln ordered him to assemble the necessary ships and to stand by for sailing orders; he would use him or not, depending on events. At the same time, in an interview with a member of the Virginia state convention—which had voted against leaving the Union, but remained in session, prepared to vote the other way if the Administration went against the grain of its sense of justice—Lincoln proposed a swap. If the convention would adjourn sine die, he would evacuate Sumter. “A state for a fort is no bad business,” he said.
Nothing came of this, but at the end of March, when Lincoln again polled the cabinet on the question, the vote was three-to-three, one member being absent. Seward by now had begun to see that he might well have gone too far in his guarantees to the Confederate commissioners. When Justice Campbell returned on April 1 to ask why his promise of two weeks before had not been carried out, Seward replied with the straight-faced solemnity of a man delivering an April Fool pronouncement: “I am satisfied the government will not undertake to supply Fort Sumter without giving notice to Governor Pickens.”
“What does this mean?” Campbell asked, taken aback. This was something quite different from the Secretary’s former assurances. “Does the President design to supply Sumter?”
“No, I think not,” Seward said. “It is a very irksome thing to him to surrender it. His ears are open to everyone, and they fill his head with schemes for its supply. I do not think he will adopt any of them. There is no design to reinforce it.”
Campbell reported these developments to the Confederate commissioners, who saw them in a clearer light than Seward himself had done. Restating them in sterner terms, the following day they telegraphed their government in Montgomery: “The war wing presses on the President; he vibrates to that side.… Their form of notice to us may be that of a coward, who gives it when he strikes.”
This, or something like this, was what followed; for though Lincoln himself had practiced no deception (at least not toward the Confederates) Seward’s well-meant misrepresentations had led exactly to that effect. By now Lincoln was ready. On April 6 he signed an order dispatching the naval expedition to Fort Sumter. Yet Seward was still not quite through. The following day, when Justice Campbell asked him to confirm or deny rumors that such a fleet was about to sail, Seward replied by note: “Faith as to Sumter fully kept. Wait and see.” Campbell thought that this applied to the original guarantee, whereas Seward only meant to repeat that there would be no action without warning; and this, too, was taken for deception on the part of the Federal government. For on the day after that, April 8, there appeared before Governor Pickens an envoy who read him the following message: “I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only, and that if such an attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition will be made without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the fort.”
Pickens could only forward the communication to the Confederate authorities at Montgomery. Lincoln had maneuvered them into the position of having either to back down on their threats or else to fire the first shot of the war. What was worse, in the eyes of the world, that first shot would be fired for the immediate purpose of keeping food from hungry men.
Davis assembled his cabinet and laid the message before them Their reactions were varied. Robert Toombs, the fire-eater, was disturbed and said so: “The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen, and I do not feel competent to advise you.” He paced the room, head lowered, hands clasped beneath his coattails. “Mr President, at this time it is suicide, murder, and you will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornets’ nest which extends from mountains to ocean. Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal.”
Davis reasoned otherwise, and made his decision accordingly. It was not he who had forced the issue, but Lincoln, and this the world would see and know, along with the deception which had been practiced. Through his Secretary of War he sent the following message to General P. G. T. Beauregard, commanding the defenses at Charleston harbor:
If you have no doubt as to the authorized character of the agent who communicated to you the intention of the Washington government to supply Fort Sumter by force, you will at once demand its evacuation, and, if this is refused, proceed in such manner as you may determine to reduce it.
Beauregard sent two men out to Sumter in a rowboat flying a flag of truce. They tendered Major Anderson a note demanding evacuation and stipulating the terms of surrender: “All proper facilities will be afforded for the removal of yourself and command, together with company arms and property, and all private property, to any post in the United States which you may select. The flag which you have upheld so long and with so much fortitude, under the most trying circumstances, may be saluted by you on taking it down.”
Anderson received it sorrowfully. He was a Kentuckian married to a Georgian, and though he had been the military hero of the North since his exploit in the harbor the night after Christmas, he was torn between his love for the Union and his native state. If Kentucky seceded he would go to Europe, he said, desiring “to become a spectator of the contest, and not an actor.” Approaching fifty-six, formerly Beauregard’s artillery instructor at West Point, he had made the army his life; so that what he did he did from a sense of duty. The Confederates knew his thoughts, for they had intercepted his reply to Lincoln’s dispatch informing him that Sumter would be relieved. “We shall strive to do our duty,” he had written, “though I frankly say that my heart is not in the war, which I see is to be thus commenced.” Therefore he read Beauregard’s note sorrowfully, and sorrowfully replied that it was “a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor, and of my obligations to my government, prevent my compliance.” Having written this, however, he remarked as he handed the note to the two aides, “Gentlemen, if you do not batter us to pieces, we shall be starved out in a few days.”
Beauregard, hearing this last, telegraphed it immediately to Montgomery. Though he knew that it was only a question of time until the navy relief expedition would arrive to add the weight of its guns to those of the fort, and in spite of the danger that hot-headed South Carolina gunners might take matters in their own hands, Davis was glad to defer the opening shot. The Secretary of War wired back instructions for Beauregard to get Anderson to state a definite time for the surrender. Otherwise, he repeated, “reduce the fort.”
It was now past midnight, the morning of April 12; there could be no delay, for advance units of the relief expedition had been sighted off the bar. This time four men went out in the white-flagged boat, empowered by Beauregard to make the decision without further conferences, according to Anderson’s answer. He heard their demand and replied that he would evacuate the fort “by noon of the 15th instant” unless he received “controlling instructions from my government, or additional supplies.” This last of course, with the relief fleet standing just outside the harbor—though Anderson did not know it had arrived—made the guarantee short-lived at best and therefore unacceptable to the aides, who announced that Beauregard would open fire “in one hour from this time.” It was then 3.20 a.m. Anderson, about to test his former gunnery student in a manner neither had foreseen in the West Point classroom, shook the hands of the four men and told them in parting: “If we do not meet again in this world, I hope we may meet in the better one.” Without returning to Beauregard’s headquarters, they proceeded at once to Cummings Point and gave the order to fire.
One of the four was Roger Pryor, the Virginian who had spoken from a Charleston balcony just two days ago. “Strike a blow!” he had urged the Carolinians. Now when he was offered the honor of firing the first shot, he shook his head, his long hair swaying. “I could not fire the first gun of the war,” he said, his voice as husky with emotion as Anderson’s had been, back on the wharf at the fort. Another Virginian could and would—white-haired Edmund Ruffin, a farm-paper editor and old-line secessionist, sixty-seven years of age. At 4.30 he pulled a lanyard; the first shot of the war drew a red parabola against the sky and burst with a glare, outlining the dark pentagon of Fort Sumter.
Friday dawned crimson on the water as the siege got under way. Beauregard’s forty-seven howitzers and mortars began a bombardment which the citizens of Charleston, together with people who had come from miles around by train and buggy, on horseback and afoot to see the show, watched from rooftops as from grandstand seats at a fireworks display, cheering as the gunnery grew less ragged and more accurate, until at last almost every shot was jarring the fort itself. Anderson had forty guns, but in the casemates which gave his cannoneers protection from the plunging shells of the encircling batteries he could man only flat-trajectory weapons firing nonexplosive shot. Beauregard’s gunners got off more than 4000 rounds. As they struck the terreplein and rooted into the turf of the parade, their explosions shook the fort as if by earthquakes. Heated shot started fires, endangering the magazine. Presently the casemates were so filled with smoke that the cannoneers hugged the ground, breathing through wet handkerchiefs. Soon they were down to six guns. The issue was never in doubt; Anderson’s was no more than a token resistance. Yet he continued firing, if for no other purpose than to prove that the defenders were still there. The flag was shot from its staff; a sergeant nailed it up again. Once, after a lull—which at first was thought to be preparatory to surrender—when the Union gunners resumed firing, the Confederates rose from behind their parapets and cheered them. Thus it continued, all through Friday and Friday night and into Saturday. The weary defenders were down to pork and water. Then at last, the conditions of honor satisfied, Anderson agreed to yield under the terms offered two days ago.
So far there had been no casualties on either side. The casualties came later, during the arrangement of the particulars of surrender and finally during the ceremony itself. The first was Roger Pryor, who apparently had recovered from his reluctance and was sent to the fort as one of Beauregard’s emissaries. Sitting at a table in the unused hospital while the formal terms were being put to paper, he developed a thirst and poured himself a drink from a bottle which he found at his right hand. When he had tossed it off he read the label, and discovered that it was iodine of potassium. The Federal surgeon took him outside, very pale, his long hair hanging sideways, and laid him on the grass to apply the stomach pump that saved his life.
A second mishap, this time in the Unionist ranks and far more serious, occurred at 4 o’clock Sunday afternoon. While Anderson, in accordance with the capitulation terms, was firing a fifty-gun salute to his flag, an ember fell into some powder. One man was killed in the explosion and five were injured. Private Daniel Hough thus became the first fatality of the war, before a man had fallen in combat. The scorched and shot-torn flag was lowered and given to Anderson, who packed it among his effects—intending, he said, to have it wrapped about him as a winding sheet on his burying day—then marched his men, with flying colors and throbbing drums, to the wharf where they boarded a steamer from the relief expedition which had observed rather than shared their fight, but which at least could perform the service of taking them home once it was over.
As the weary artillerymen passed silently out of the harbor, Confederate soldiers lining the beaches removed their caps in salute. There was no cheering.
Lincoln soon had cause to believe he had judged correctly. Sumter did indeed unite and electrify the North. That Sunday, when the news arrived by telegraph of the surrender in Charleston harbor, the White House was besieged by callers anxious to assure the President of their loyalty and support. Among them were senators and congressmen who pledged the resources of their states; their people, they said, would stand by the Union through fire and bloodshed. Among them was Stephen Douglas, who rose from his sickbed, the pallor of death already on his face, “to preserve the Union, maintain the government, and defend the capital.” Thus he reported his pledge to the people afterwards, more than a million of whom had voted for him for President, never suspecting that he would be dead by early June. Now in mid-April Lincoln met him with outstretched hands and a smile.
Douglas was one among many throughout the nation. It was a time for oratory and easy promises. Businessmen formerly opposed to war as economically unsound now switched their line. They wanted it, now—as bloody as need be, so long as it was short and vigorous. In Pittsburgh, hangman’s nooses dangled from lampposts inscribed “Death to Traitors!” Here as in other northern cities, secession sympathizers were bayed by angry crowds until they waved Union banners from their windows. Down in Knoxville, Tennessee, the loyal newspaper editor William G. Brownlow declared that he would “fight the Secession leaders till Hell froze over, and then fight them on the ice.”
That same Sunday, in such a heady atmosphere of elation and indignation, Lincoln assembled his cabinet to frame a proclamation calling on the states for 75,000 militia to serve for ninety days against “combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.” Technically it was not a declaration of war; only Congress could declare war, and Congress was not in session—a fact for which Lincoln was duly thankful, not wanting to be hampered. Though he called a special session for July 4, he expected to have the situation in hand by then. Meanwhile he proceeded unmolested, having determined in his own mind that extraordinary events called for extraordinary measures. The militia draft was issued the following day, April 15, to all the states and territories except the rebellious seven, apportioning the number of troops to be forwarded by each.
Here too, at first, the reply was thunderous. The northern states quickly oversubscribed their quotas; governor after northern governor wired forthright encouragement, asking only to be informed of the Administration’s needs. Then Lincoln met a check. As he raised a pontifical hand, commanding “the persons composing the combinations aforesaid to disperse and retire peacefully to their respective abodes,” he was given cause to think that he had perhaps outgeneraled himself. It soon became more or less obvious that, just as Davis had united the North by firing on Sumter, so had Lincoln united the South by issuing this demand for troops to be used against her kinsmen. This was true not only in the cotton states, where whatever remained of Union sentiment now vanished, but also in the states of the all-important buffer region, where Lincoln believed the victory balance hung. Telegram after telegram arrived from governors of the previously neutral states, each one bristling with moral indignation at the enormity of the proclamation, rather as if it had been in fact an invitation to fratricide or incest.
Governor Letcher of Virginia replied that since Lincoln had “chosen to inaugurate civil war,” he would be sent no troops from Old Dominion. “The people of this Commonwealth are freemen, not slaves,” Governor Rector answered for Arkansas, “and will defend to the last extremity their honor, lives, and property, against Northern mendacity and usurpation.” Governor Ellis of North Carolina declared that his state would “be no party to this wicked violation of the laws of the country and this war upon the liberties of a free people.” “Tennessee will furnish not a single man for the purpose of coercion,” Governor Harris told Lincoln, “but fifty thousand if necessary for the defense of our rights and those of our Southern brothers.”
In such hard words did these four governors reply to the call for troops. And their people backed them up. Virginia seceded within two days, followed by the other three, Arkansas and Tennessee and finally North Carolina. East of the Mississippi the area of the Confederacy was doubled, and her flag, which now could claim eleven stars, flew along a boundary that had leapfrogged northward two to four hundred miles, across soil that had been Union.
Four slave states still dangled in the balance, Delaware and Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri. The first two were cautious; Governor Burton of Delaware reported that his state had no militia and therefore could not comply with the call for troops, while Governor Hicks of Maryland replied that he would forward soldiers only for the defense of Washington. Lincoln was somewhat reassured by their cautiousness, which at least indicated that there would be no precipitate action on their part. He could take no such consolation from the other two wires he received. “I say, emphatically,” Governor Magoffin responded, “Kentucky will furnish no troops for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister Southern states.” Governor Jackson of Missouri sent the harshest reply of all: “Your requisition is illegal, unconstitutional, revolutionary, inhuman, diabolical, and cannot be complied with.”
These were frets with which Lincoln would have to deal through the coming months, particularly the problem of holding onto his native state, Kentucky, with its critical location, its rivers and manpower, its horses and bluegrass cattle. “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game,” he said. “Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capital.”
Maryland compassed the District on three sides, while on the fourth, across the Potomac, lay hostile Virginia, whose troops were already on the march, their campfires gleaming on the southern bank. They had seized the arsenal at Harpers Ferry and the Norfolk navy yard, and now the Richmond Examiner proclaimed “one wild shout of fierce resolve to capture Washington City, at all and every human hazard. That filthy cage of unclean birds must and will be purified by fire.” It seemed possible, even probable. Many of the army’s best officers were resigning, going South along with hundreds of civil workers from the various departments.
The day of the proclamation passed, then another, and still another; not a volunteer arrived. The city was defenseless. On April 18, five hundred Pennsylvanians showed up, unarmed, untrained. They had met cold stares in Baltimore, but the troops who arrived next day, the 6th Massachusetts, met something worse. A crowd of southern sympathizers threw bricks and stones and fired into their ranks as they changed trains. They returned the fire, killing twelve citizens and wounding many more, then packed their four dead in ice for shipment north, and came on into Washington, bearing their seventeen wounded on stretchers. Three days later, when a Baltimore committee called on the President to protest the “pollution” of Maryland soil, Lincoln replied that he must have troops to defend the capital. “Our men are not moles, and cannot dig under the earth,” he told them. “They are not birds, and cannot fly through the air. There is no way but to march across, and that they must do.” So the Baltimore delegation went back and clipped the telegraph lines, tore up railroad tracks, and wrecked the bridges. Washington was cut off from the outside world.
It was now a deserted city, the public buildings barricaded with sandbags and barrels of flour, howitzers frowning from porticoes. The Willard’s thousand guests had shrunk to fifty, its corridors as empty as the avenues outside. Many among the few who remained flaunted secession badges, preparing to welcome their southern friends. Virginia’s Colonel T. J. Jackson had 8000 men at Harpers Ferry, while Beauregard, the conqueror of Sumter, was reported nearing Alexandria with 15,000 more. If they effected a junction, all Lincoln had to throw in their path was the handful from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, five companies of the former, a regiment of the latter, quartered in the House of Representatives and the Senate Chamber.
They had arrived on Thursday and Friday. Saturday and Sunday passed, then Monday, and still there was no further sign of the 75,000 Lincoln had called for. “Why don’t they come? Why don’t they come?” he muttered, pacing his office, peering out through the window. Tuesday brought a little mail, the first in days, and also a few newspapers telling of northern enthusiasm and the dispatching of troops to Washington: Rhode Islanders and New York’s 7th Regiment. Lincoln could scarcely credit these reports, and Wednesday when officers and men who had been wounded in the Baltimore fracas called at the White House he thanked them for their presence in the capital, then added: “I don’t believe there is any North! The 7th Regiment is a myth; Rhode Island is not known in our geography any longer. You are the only northern realities!”
Then on Thursday, April 25, the piercing shriek of a locomotive broke the noonday stillness of the city. The 7th New York arrived, followed by 1200 Rhode Island militiamen and an equal number from Massachusetts, whose volunteer mechanics had repaired a crippled engine and relaid the torn-up Annapolis track. A route had been opened to the north.
By the end of the month, Washington had 10,000 troops for its defense, with more on the way. Lincoln could breathe easier. An iron hand was laid on Baltimore, securing Maryland to the Union. Major Robert Anderson, the returned hero of Sumter, was promoted to brigadier general and sent to assert the Federal claim to his native Kentucky. Major General John C. Frémont, the California Pathfinder and the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate, was sent to perform a like function in Missouri. Before long, Lincoln could even assume the offensive.
Harpers Ferry was recaptured, Arlington Heights and Alexandria occupied. Confederate campfires no longer gleamed across the Potomac; the fires there now were Federal. Fortress Monroe, at the tip of the York-James peninsula, was reinforced, and an attack was launched against western Virginia, across the Ohio. Within another month, so quickly had despair been overcome and mobilization completed, there began to be heard in the North a cry that would grow familiar: “On to Richmond!”
That city was the southern capital now, moved there from Montgomery toward the end of May at the climax of the fervor following Sumter and the northern call for troops. Vice President Alexander H. Stephens voiced the defiance of the Confederacy, crying: “Lincoln may bring his 75,000 troops against us. We fight for our homes, our fathers and mothers, our wives, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters!… We can call out a million of peoples if need be, and when they are cut down we can call another, and still another, until the last man of the South finds a bloody grave.”
Davis, with a sidelong glance at Europe and what history might say, reinforced the defensive character of these words in a message to Congress, called into extra session on April 29. Though desirous of peace “at any sacrifice, save that of honor and independence,” he said, the South would “meet”—not wage—the war now launched by Lincoln. “All we ask is to be let alone,” he added. Spoken before the assembly, the words had a defiant ring like those of Stephens. Read off the printed page, however, they sounded somewhat plaintive.
When Congress voted to accept Virginia’s invitation to transfer the national capital to Richmond, Davis at first opposed the move. In the event of all-out war, which he expected, the strategic risk would be less disconcerting in the Deep South area, where the revolution had had its birth, than on the frontier, near the jar of battle. Yet when he was overruled by the politicians, who were finding Montgomery uncomfortable and dull, he acceded gracefully, even cheerfully, and made the two-day train trip without ceremony or a special car. He took instead a seat in the rear coach of a regular train and remained unrecognized by his fellow passengers until he was called to their attention by cheers from station platforms along the way.
In Richmond the Virginians, offering something more of pomp, met him at the station with a carriage drawn by four white horses. When a tossed bouquet fell into the street during the ride to the hotel, the President ordered the vehicle stopped, dismounted to pick up the flowers, and handed them to a lady in the carriage before signaling the coachman to drive on. This was noted with approval by the Virginians, already won by the dignified simplicity of his manner, which was tested further at luncheon in the hotel dining room, when a group of ladies stood around the table and fanned him while he ate. Davis proved equal even to this, and afterwards at the Fair Grounds, having gotten through the ordeal of a handshaking ceremony more exhausting than the two-day train ride, he made a short informal speech in which he called his listeners “the last best hope of liberty.” “The country relies upon you,” he told them. “Upon you rest the hopes of our people; and I have only to say, my friends, that to the last breath of my life I am wholly your own.”
Here as in Montgomery—also a city of seven hills; Our Rome, Virginians called their capital—the people congratulated themselves on having inherited such a President. At St Paul’s, the first Sunday after secession, the words of the First Lesson had come with all the force of a prophecy: “I will remove far off from you the northern army, and will drive him into a land barren and desolate … and his stink shall come up, and his ill savour.” Now they seemed to have found the man to lead them through its accomplishment. Originally they had had doubts, wondering how a Westerner could head a people so conscious of having furnished the best leaders of the past, but now that they had seen him they were reassured. Daily he rode out to inspect the training camps, sometimes with his staff, more often with a single aide. “Mr Davis rode a beautiful gray horse,” a witness wrote of one of these excursions. “His worst enemy will allow that he is a consummate rider, graceful and easy in the saddle.”
He devoted most of his energy to organizing an army: work for which his years at West Point and in Mexico, as well as his experience as Pierce’s capable Secretary of War, had prepared him well. War was an extension of statecraft, to be resorted to when diplomacy failed its purpose; but Davis took the aphorism one step further, believing that a nation’s military policy should logically duplicate its political intentions. Lincoln had more or less maneuvered him into firing the first shot, and while Davis did not regret his action in the case of Sumter, he did not intend to give his opponent another chance to brand him an aggressor in the eyes of history and Europe. “All we ask is to be let alone,” he had announced. Therefore, while Lincoln was gathering the resources and manpower of the North in response to the shout, “On to Richmond,” Davis chose to meet the challenge by interposing troops where they blocked the more obvious paths of invasion.
All this time, men were being forwarded to Richmond by the states. By mid-July he had three small armies in the Virginia theater: Beauregard, with 23,000 northward beyond the important rail junction at Manassas, facing a Union army of 35,000; Joseph E. Johnston with 11,000 near the Potomac end of the Shenandoah Valley, facing the 14,000 who had retaken Harpers Ferry; and J. B. Magruder, with about 5000 down on the York-James peninsula, facing 15,000 at Fortress Monroe, which the North could reinforce by sea. Outnumbered at every point, with just under 40,000 opposing well over 60,000 troops, the Confederates yet held the interior lines and could thereby move reinforcements from army to army, across any arc of the circle, in much less time than the Federals beyond the long perimeter would require.
Already there had been clashes of arms. Down the Peninsula—at Big Bethel, northwest of Newport News—Major General Benjamin F. Butler attacked one of Magruder’s outposts, seven Union regiments against 1400 Confederates. The attackers became confused, firing into one another’s ranks until artillery drove them back. Casualties were 76 for the Federals, eight for the Confederates; which, the latter felt, came within a hair of proving their claim that one southern fighting man was worth ten Yankee hirelings. Yet there had been reverses, too. Johnston had abandoned Harpers Ferry in mid-June: a strategic withdrawal, he called it, under pressure from superior numbers. But when the Union commander, Major General Robert Patterson, a sixty-nine-year-old veteran of the War of 1812, crossed the river in early July there was a sharp clash at Falling Waters, casualties being about a dozen on each side, not including fifty Northerners taken prisoner. This too was felt to be a credit to southern arms, considering the odds, even though more of Virginia’s “sacred soil” had been yielded to the invader. At the far-off western end of the state the advantage was clearly with the enemy, but this was blamed on bungling and mismanagement of brave troops. All in all, the Confederates were confident and saw far more reasons for pride than despair in the odds. The victories were glorious; the reverses were explicable. Besides, it was said in discussions on the home front, all this was mere jockeying for position, West Pointism, preliminaries leading up to the one big fight that would end the war and establish southern independence for all time.
The first Confederate council of war was held July 14 in the parlor of the Spotswood Hotel, where Davis had temporary quarters. Beauregard, as became the popular conqueror of Sumter, sent an aide down from Manassas to propose a plan of Napoleonic simplicity and brilliance. Reinforced by 20,000 men from Johnston, he would fall upon and shatter the Union army to his front; this accomplished, he would send the reinforcements, plus 10,000 of his own men, back to Johnston, who then could crush the smaller army facing him in the Valley and march through Maryland against Washington from the north, while Beauregard assailed it from the south; together they would dictate peace to Lincoln in the White House. This was opposed by Robert E. Lee, the President’s military assistant since the consolidation into the national army of the Virginia forces he had commanded. The handsome Virginian, his dark mustache and hair touched with gray, opposed such an offensive, not only on the obvious grounds that Johnston, already facing long odds in the Valley, had in his whole army barely more than half the number of troops Beauregard was asking to have sent eastward, but also on grounds that the Federal army would retire within its Washington fortifications until it had built up strength enough to sally forth and turn the tables on the Confederates, using Beauregard’s own plan against him and Johnston. Davis accepted Lee’s judgment, finding that it coincided with his own, and sent the aide back to his chief with instructions to await the Federal advance.
It was not long in coming. On the 17th Beauregard telegraphed that his outposts were under attack; the northern army was on the march. Davis promptly wired Johnston, suggesting that he reinforce Beauregard at Manassas by giving Patterson the slip; which Johnston did, arriving by noon of the 20th with the leading elements of his army while the rest were still en route. The first big battle of the war was about to be fought.
Christmas Eve of the year before, William Tecumseh Sherman, superintendent of the Louisiana State Military Academy, was having supper in his quarters with the school’s professor of Latin and Greek, a Virginian named Boyd, when a servant entered with an Alexandria newspaper that told of the secession of South Carolina. Sherman was an Ohioan, a West Pointer and a former army officer, forty years old, red-bearded, tall and thin, with sunken temples and a fidgety manner. He had come South because he liked it, as well as for reasons of health, being twenty pounds underweight and possibly consumptive; the room had a smell of niter paper, which he burned for his asthma. Rapidly he read the story beneath the black headline announcing the dissolution of the Union, then tossed it into Boyd’s lap and strode up and down the room while the professor read it. Finally he stopped pacing and stood in front of his friend’s chair, shaking a bony finger in the Virginian’s face as if he had the whole fire-eating South there in the room.
“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing,” he declared. “This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!” He resumed his pacing, still talking. “You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it.… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or a pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth—right at your doors.” Then he delivered a prophecy. “You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see that in the end you will surely fail.”
In February he resigned from the academy and came north stopping off in Washington to see his brother John, a senator, who took him for a visit with the President. It was late March by then; Lincoln was at his busiest, harried by office seekers and conflicting counsels on Sumter. When the senator introduced his brother as a competent witness just arrived from the South, Lincoln said, “Ah. How are they getting along down there?”
“They think they are getting along swimmingly,” Sherman told him. “They are preparing for war.”
“Oh, well,” Lincoln said, “I guess we’ll manage to keep house.”
Sherman left in disgust. In reply to his brother’s plea that he stay and resume his military career, Sherman flung out against him and all politicians: “You have got things in a hell of a fix, and you may get them out as best you can!”
He went to St Louis and accepted a position as head of a streetcar company. However, when Sumter was fired on he returned to Washington, and after refusing a brigadier’s commission—saying, to Lincoln’s amazement, that he would rather work up to such rank—accepted command of one of the newly organized regiments of regulars. As he came down the White House steps he met a West Point friend and fellow Ohioan, Irvin McDowell, wearing stars on his shoulder straps.
“Hello, Sherman,” McDowell said. “What did you ask for?”
“What? You should have asked for a brigadier general’s rank. You’re just as fit for it as I am.”
“I know it,” Sherman snapped.
In his anguished tirade on Christmas Eve, comparing the resources of the two regions about to be at war, the waspish Ohio colonel had made a strong case, mostly within the bounds of truth. Yet he could have made a still stronger case, entirely within such bounds, by the use of statistics from the 1860 census. According to this, the southern population was nine million, the northern twenty million, and in the disparity of available manpower for the armies the odds were even longer, rising from better than two-to-one to almost four-to-one. White males between the ages of fifteen and forty numbered 1,140,000 in the South, compared to 4,070,000 in the North: a difference mainly due to the fact that more than three and one-half million out of the total southern population were Negroes. While these of course would contribute to the overall strength, by service as agricultural workers and diggers of intrenchments, their value was about offset by the fact that the North would be open to immigration—particularly from Germany and Ireland, both of which would furnish men in considerable numbers—as well as by the additional fact that the Negroes themselves would constitute a recruitable body for the invaders; 186,017, nearly all of them southern, were to enroll in the northern armies before the finish.
Sherman, however, had underrated the manufacturing capacity of the South. For the past decade the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond had been building locomotives for domestic and foreign use, as well as projectiles and cannon for the U.S. Navy, and only the previous year a steam fire engine produced for the Russian government had been exhibited in the North before being shipped abroad. All the same, the colonel was mainly right. It was in just this field that the odds were longest. The North had 110,000 manufacturing establishments, the South 18,000—1,300,000 industrial workers, compared to 110,000—Massachusetts alone producing over sixty percent more manufactured goods than the whole Confederacy, Pennsylvania nearly twice as much, and New York more than twice. Only in land area—and only then in a special sense—could the South, with its eleven states, out-statistic the twenty-two states of the North: 780,000 square miles as opposed to 670,000 in the area including Texas and the first tier of states west of the Mississippi. Yet this was a doubtful advantage at best, as might be seen by comparing the railway systems. The South had 9000 miles, the North 22,000, in both cases about a mile of track to every thousand persons. The North, with better than double the mileage in an area somewhat smaller, was obviously better able to move and feed her armies.
Statistically, therefore, Sherman had solid ground for his judgment, “You are bound to fail.” Yet wars were seldom begun or even waged according to statistics. Nor were they always won on such a basis. The South had the proud example of the American Revolution, where the odds were even longer against those in rebellion. Now as then, she could reason, the nations of Europe, hungry for produce for their mills, would welcome the establishment of a new, tariff-free market for their goods, as well as the crippling of a growing competitor. And now among the nations offering aid there would be not only France, as in the earlier war for independence, but also the former adversary England, who was most powerful in just those directions where the Confederacy was statistically most weak.
What was more, aside from the likelihood of foreign intervention, there were other advantages not listed in those tables dribbling decimals down the pages. Principal among these, in the southern mind at any rate, was the worth of the individual soldier. The Southerner, being accustomed to command under the plantation system, as well as to the rigors of outdoor living and the use of horse and gun, would obviously make the superior trooper or infantryman or cannoneer. If the North took pride in her million-odd industrial workers, the South could not see it so; “pasty-faced mechanics,” she called such, and accounted them a downright liability in any army, jumpy and apt to run from the first danger.
Such beliefs, though in fact they appeared to be borne out in the opening days of the conflict, were mostly prejudices and as such might be discounted by an opponent. There were other considerations, more likely to appeal to a professional soldier such as Sherman. Strategically, the South would fight a defensive war, and to her accordingly would proceed all the advantages of the defensive: advantages which had been increasing in ratio to the improvement of modern weapons, until now it was believed and taught that the attacking force on any given field should outnumber the defenders in a proportion of at least two-to-one; three-to-one, some authorities insisted, when the defenders had had time to prepare, which surely would be the case in the matter at hand. A study of the map would show additional difficulties for the North, particularly in the theater lying between the two capitals, where the rivers ran east and west across the line of march, presenting a series of obstacles to the invader. (In the West it would be otherwise; there the rivers ran north and south for the most part, broad highways for invasion; but few were looking westward in those days.) The northern objective, announced early in the war by the man who would be her leading general, was “unconditional surrender.” Against this stern demand, southern soldiers would fight in defense of their homes, with all the fervor and desperation accompanying such a position.
The contrast, of course, would be as true on the home front as in the armies, together with the additional knowledge on both sides that the North could stop fighting at any time, with no loss of independence or personal liberty: whereas the South would lose not only her national existence, but would have to submit, in the course of peace, to any terms the victor might exact under a government that would interpret, and even rewrite, the Constitution in whatever manner seemed most to its advantage. Under such conditions, given the American pride and the American love of liberty and self-government, it seemed certain that the South would fight with all her strength. Whether the North, driven by no such necessities, would exert herself to a similar extent in a war of conquest remained to be seen.
All this, or something like it, must have occurred to Sherman in the months after he left Louisiana for Washington, where he heard Lincoln say with a shrug, “Oh well, I guess we’ll manage to keep house.” So far had he revised his opinion since that Christmas Eve in his rooms with Professor Boyd, that before the new year was out he informed the Secretary of War that 200,000 troops would be required to put down the rebellion in the Mississippi Valley alone. And it must have gone to convince him even further of a lack of northern awareness and determination when, under suspicion of insanity, he was removed from command of troops for this remark.
On the eve of the great battle for which both North and South were now preparing, Lincoln declared in his July message to Congress: “So large an army as the government now has on foot was never before known, without a soldier in it but who has taken his place there of his own free choice. But more than this, there are many single regiments whose members, one and another, possess full practical knowledge of all the arts, sciences, professions, and whatever else, whether useful or elegant, is known to the world; and there is scarcely one from which there could not be selected a President, a Cabinet, a Congress, and perhaps a Court, abundantly competent to administer the government itself. Nor do I say this is not true also in the army of our late friends, now adversaries in this contest.”
This estimate of the American volunteer, though pleasant to contemplate before the shock of battle, was discovered to be far beyond the mark, North and South, especially by drill instructors charged with teaching him the manual of arms and parade ground evolutions of the line—in the course of which it often appeared that, far from being the paragon Lincoln discerned, he did not know his left foot from his right, nor his backside from his front. He took cold easily, filling the nighttime barracks and tent camps with the racking uproar of his coughs. He was short-winded and queasy in the stomach, littering the roadsides in the course of conditioning marches, like so many corpses scattered along the way. What was worse, he showed a surprising bewilderment in learning to handle his rifle.
Yet these were but the shortcomings of recruits throughout the world and down the ages, back to the time of the crossbow and the spear. New problems were encountered, peculiar to the two opposing armies. The soldiers of a northern outfit, sleeping for the first time in the open, had their democratic sensibilities offended when their officers rolled themselves in their blankets a few paces apart from the line of enlisted men. On the other hand, accustomed as they were to instances of caste in civilian life, Southerners had no objections to such privileges of rank. The outrage was intensified, however, when a former social relationship was upset, so that an overseer or a storekeeper, say, was placed above a planter in the army hierarchy. “God damn you, I own niggers up the country!” might be the reply to a distasteful order, while officers were sometimes called to account because of the tone in which they gave commands to certain highborn privates.
Such problems were individual, and as such would be solved by time or cease to matter. Even at the outset it was clear to the discerning eye that the two armies were more alike than different. For all the talk of States Rights and the Union, men volunteered for much the same reasons on both sides: in search of glory or excitement, or from fear of being thought afraid, but mostly because it was the thing to do. The one characteristic they shared beyond all others was a lack of preparedness and an ignorance of what they had to face. Arming themselves with bowie knives and bullet-stopping Bibles, they somehow managed at the same time to believe that the war would be bloodless. Though it was in Boston, it might have been in New Orleans or Atlanta that a mother said earnestly to the regimental commander as the volunteers entrained for the journey south: “We look to you, Colonel Gordon, to bring all of these young men back in safety to their homes.”
All shared a belief that the war would be short, and some joined in haste, out of fear that it would be over before they got there. Uniforms were at first a matter of personal taste or the availability of materials, resulting in the following exchange:
“Who’s that chap?”
“Guess he’s the colonel.”
“What sort of a way is that for a colonel to rig himself?”
“Morphodite rig, I guess.”
“He aint no colonel; he’s one of those new brigadier generals that aint got his uniform yet.”
“Half general and half minister.”
“Well, I said he was a morphodite.”
They were not yet cynical; the soldiers of that war earned their cynicism. They were sentimental, and their favorite songs were sad ones that answered some deep-seated need: “The Dew is on the Blossom,” “Lorena,” “Aura Lea,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” and the tender “Home, Sweet Home.” Yet they kept a biting sense of the ridiculous, which they directed against anything pompous. Northern troops, for example, could poke fun at their favorite battle hymn:
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow,
Shouting the Battle-Cry of Freedom!
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go,
Shouting the Battle-Cry of Freedom!
Some of their other marching songs were briefer, more sardonic, pretending to a roughness which they had not yet acquired:
Saw my leg off,
Saw my leg off,
Saw my leg off
Confederates hardly needed to parody their favorite, “Dixie.” The verses were already rollicksome enough:
Old Missus marry Will de Weaver,
William was a gay deceiver—
Look away, look away, look away,
But when he put his arm around ’er
He smile as fierce as a forty pounder;
Look away, look away, look away,
Northern troops, however, had a stanza of their own for the southern tune:
I wish I was in Saint Law County,
Two years up and I had my bounty,
Away! Look away! Dixie land!
Southern soldiers objected to such onerous details as guard duty; they had joined the army to fight Yankees, not walk a post and miss their sleep. Similarly, Northerners were glad of a chance to move against the Rebels, yet on practice marches they claimed the right to break ranks for berry-picking along the roadside. At this time there was no agreement in either army as to what the war was about, though on both sides there was a general feeling that each was meeting some sort of challenge flung out by the other. They were rather in the position of two men who, having reached that stage of an argument where one has said to the other, “Step outside,” find that the subject of dispute has faded into the background while they concern themselves with the actual fight at hand.
Perhaps the best definition of the conflict was given in conversation by a civilian, James M. Mason of Virginia: “I look upon it then, sir, as a war of sentiment and opinion by one form of society against another form of society.” No soldier would have argued with this; but few would have found it satisfactory. They wanted something more immediate and less comprehensive. The formulation of some such definition and identification became the problem of opposing statesmen. Meanwhile, perhaps no soldier in either army gave a better answer—one more readily understandable to his fellow soldiers, at any rate—than a ragged Virginia private, pounced on by the Northerners in a retreat.
“What are you fighting for anyhow?” his captors asked, looking at him. They were genuinely puzzled, for he obviously owned no slaves and seemingly could have little interest in States Rights or even Independence.
“I’m fighting because you’re down here,” he said.
Chief among the statesmen seeking a more complex definition men could carry into battle were the two leaders, Davis in Richmond and Lincoln in Washington. At the outset it was the former who had the advantage in this respect, for in the southern mind the present contest was a Second American Revolution, fought for principles no less high, against a tyranny no less harsh. In the Confederate capital stood the white frame church where Patrick Henry had said, “Give me liberty or give me death,” and eighty-five years later another Virginian, Colonel T. J. Jackson, commanding at Harpers Ferry, could voice the same thought no less nobly: “What is life without honor? Degradation is worse than death. We must think of the living and of those who are to come after us, and see that by God’s blessing we transmit to them the freedom we have ourselves inherited.”
The choice, then, lay between honor and degradation. There could be no middle ground. Southerners saw themselves as the guardians of the American tradition, which included the right to revolt, and therefore they launched a Conservative revolution. Davis in his inaugural had said, “Our present condition … illustrates the American idea that government rests upon the consent of the governed.… The declared purpose of the compact of union from which we have withdrawn was ‘to establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and posterity’; and when, in the judgment of the sovereign States now composing this Confederacy, it had been perverted from the purposes for which it was established, a peaceful appeal to the ballot box declared that, so far as they were concerned, the government created by that compact should cease to exist.” For him, as for most Southerners, even those who deplored the war that was now upon them, there was no question of seeing the other side of the proposition. There was no other side. Mrs Davis had defined this outlook long ago: “If anyone disagrees with Mr Davis he resents it and ascribes the difference to the perversity of his opponent.”
Afterwards in Richmond he repeated, “All we ask is to be let alone,” a remark which the Virginia private was to translate into combat terms when he told his captors, “I’m fighting because you’re down here.” Davis knew as well as Lincoln that after the balance sheet was struck, after the advantages of the preponderance of manpower and matériel had been weighed against the advantages of the strategical defensive, what would decide the contest was the people’s will to resist, on the home front as well as on the field of battle. Time after time he declared that the outcome could not be in doubt. Yet now, as he walked the capital streets, to and from the Spotswood and his office, or rode out to the training camps that ringed the seven-hilled city, though his step was lithe on the pavement and his figure erect in the saddle, he was showing the effects of months of strain.
Men looked at him and wondered. They had been of various minds about him all along, both North and South. Back at the outset, when he first was summoned to Montgomery, while the far-north Bangor Democrat was calling him “one of the very, very few gigantic minds which adorn the pages of history,” old General Winfield Scott, commander-in-chief of all the Union armies, received the news of Davis’ election with words of an entirely different nature. Perhaps recalling their squabble over a mileage report, Scott declared: “I am amazed that any man of judgment should hope for the success of any cause in which Jefferson Davis is a leader. There is contamination in his touch.”
Lincoln, too, was careworn. A reporter who had known him during the prairie years, visiting the White House now, found “the same fund of humorous anecdote,” but not “the old, free, lingering laugh.” His face was seamed, eroded by responsibilities and disappointments, fast becoming the ambiguous tragedy mask of the Brady photographs. Loving the Union with what amounted in his own mind to a religious mysticism, he had overrated that feeling in the South; Sumter had cost him more than he had been prepared to pay for uniting the North. Through these months his main concern had been to avoid offending any faction—“My policy is to have no policy,” he told his secretary—with the result that he offended all. Yet this was behind him now; Sumter at least had gained him that, and this perhaps was the greatest gain of all. He was free to evolve and follow a policy at last.
Unlike Davis, in doing this he not only did not find a course of action already laid out for him, with his only task being one of giving it the eloquence of words and the dignity of a firm example; he could not even follow a logical development of his own beliefs as he had announced them in the past, but must in fact reverse himself on certain tenets which he had expressed in words that returned to plague him now and in the years to come. At the time of the Mexican War he had spoken plainly for all to hear: “Any people anywhere being inclined and having the power have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right—a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can may revolutionize and make their own so much of the territory as they inhabit.”
He must raze before he could build, and this he was willing to do. Presently some among those who had criticized him for doing nothing began to wail that he did too much. And with good and relevant cause; for now that the issue was unalterably one of arms, Lincoln took unto himself powers far beyond any ever claimed by a Chief Executive. In late April, for security reasons, he authorized simultaneous raids on every telegraph office in the northern states, seizing the originals and copies of all telegrams sent or received during the past year. As a result of this and other measures, sometimes on no stronger evidence than the suspicions of an informer nursing a grudge, men were taken from their homes in the dead of night, thrown into dungeons, and held without explanation or communication with the outside world. Writs of habeas corpus were denied, including those issued by the Supreme Court of the United States. By the same authority, or in the absence of it, he took millions from the treasury and handed them to private individuals, instructing them to act as purchasing agents for procuring the implements of war at home and abroad. In early May, following the call for 75,000 militiamen, still without congressional sanction, he issued a proclamation increasing the regular army by more than 20,000, the navy by 18,000, and authorizing 42,034 three-year volunteers. On Independence Day, when Congress at last convened upon his call, he explained such extraordinary steps in his message to that body: “It became necessary for me to choose whether I should let the government fall into ruin, or whether … availing myself of the broader powers conferred by the Constitution in cases of insurrection, I would make an effort to save it.”
Congress bowed its head and agreed. Though Americans grew pale in prison cells without knowing the charges under which they had been snatched from their homes or places of employment, there were guilty men among the innocent, and a dungeon was as good a place as any for a patriot to serve his country through a time of strain. Meanwhile the arsenals were being stocked and the ranks of the armed forces were being filled. By July 6, within three months of the first shot fired in anger, the Secretary of War could report that 64 volunteer regiments of 900 men each, together with 1200 regulars, were in readiness around Washington. These 60,000, composing not one-fourth of the men then under arms in the North, were prepared to march in all their might against the cockpit of the rebellion whenever the Commander in Chief saw fit to order the advance.
For Lincoln, as for “our late friends, now adversaries” to the south, this was a Second American Revolution; but by a different interpretation. The first had been fought to free the new world from the drag of Europe, and now on the verge of her greatest expansion the drag was being applied again, necessitating a second; the revolution, having been extended, must be secured once more by arms against those who would retard and roll it back. This was a war for democracy, for popular government, not only in a national but also in a universal sense. In that same Europe—though France had sold her revolutionary birthright, first for the starry glitter of one Napoleon, and again for the bourgeois security of a second—other nations were striving toward the freedom goal, and as they strove they looked across the water. Here the birthright had not been sold nor the experiment discontinued; here the struggle still went on, until now it faced the greatest test of all. Lincoln saw his country as the keeper of a trust.
On July 4 he said to Congress: “This is essentially a People’s war. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of man, to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.… Our popular government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled, the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion, that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take by war—teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.”
In early May he had said to his young secretary, “For my part I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapacity of the people to govern themselves.” Two months later, addressing Congress, he developed this theme, just as he was to continue to develop it through the coming months and years, walking the White House corridors at night, speaking from balconies and rear platforms to upturned faces, or looking out over new cemeteries created by this war: “The issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question whether … a government of the people, by the same people, can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes.”
These days the military news was mostly good; Lincoln could take pride in the fact that so much had been done so quickly, the armies being strengthened and trained and permanent gains already being made. From northwest Virginia the news was not only good, it was spectacular. Here the contest was between Ohio and Virginia, and the advantage was all with the former. The Federal army had only to cross the Ohio and penetrate the settled river valleys, while the Confederates had to make long marches across the almost trackless Allegheny ridges: 8000 loyal troops against 4000 rebels in an area where the people wanted no part of secession. It was an ideal setting for the emergence of a national hero, and such a hero soon appeared.
At thirty-four, Major General George Brinton McClellan, commanding the Ohio volunteers, had earned both a military and a business reputation in the fifteen years since his graduation near the top of his Academy class, as a distinguished Mexican War soldier, official observer of the Crimean War, designer of the McClellan saddle, superintendent of the Illinois Central, and president of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad. In late May, directing operations from Cincinnati, he sent troops to Grafton, east of Clarksburg on the B & O, who then marched southward thirty miles against Philippi, where they surprised the Confederates with a night attack, June 3; “the Philippi Races,” it was called, for the rebels were demoralized and retreated through rain and darkness to the fastness of the mountains. Then McClellan came up.
“Soldiers!” he announced, in an address struck off on the portable printing press which was part of his camp equipment, “I have heard there was danger here. I have come to place myself at your head and share it with you. I fear now but one thing—that you will not find foemen worthy of your steel.”
Seeking such foemen, he pressed the attack. When the southern commander, Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett, retreating up the Tygart Valley, divided his army to defend the passes at Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill, McClellan divided his army, too. Advancing one force to hold Garnett at the latter place, he swung widely to the right with the main body, marching by way of Buckhannon against the rebel detachment on Rich Mountain. Before that place he again divided his forces, sending Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans around by a little-used wagon trail to strike the enemy on the flank. “No prospect of a brilliant victory,” he explained, “shall induce me to depart from my intention of gaining success by maneuvering rather than by fighting. I will not throw these raw men of mine into the teeth of artillery and intrenchments if it is possible to avoid it.”
Either way, it was brilliant. The flanking column made a rear attack and forced the surrender of the detachment, which in turn rendered Garnett’s positon on Laurel Hill untenable; he retreated northward and, having got the remnant of his army across Cheat River, was killed with the rear guard at Carrick’s Ford, the first general officer to die in battle on either side. By mid-July the “brief but brilliant campaign,” as McClellan called it in his report, was over. He telegraphed Washington: “Our success is complete, and secession is killed in this country.” To his troops he issued an address beginning, “Soldiers of the Army of the West! I am more than satisfied with you.” It was indeed brilliant, just as the youthful general said, and more; it was Napoleonic. The North had found an answer to the southern Beauregard.
In Lincoln’s mind, this western Virginia campaign also served to emphasize a lack of aggressiveness nearer Washington. Patterson had taken Harpers Ferry. Down on the James peninsula Ben Butler at least had shown fight; Big Bethel was better than nothing. But McDowell, with his army of 35,000 around Washington, had demonstrated no such spirit. In late June, responding to a request, he had submitted a plan to General Scott. While Patterson held Johnston fast in the Valley, McDowell proposed “to move against Manassas with a force of thirty thousand of all arms, organized into three columns, with a reserve of ten thousand.” Though he warned that his new regiments were “exceedingly raw and the best of them, with few exceptions, not over steady in line,” he added that he believed there was every chance of success “if they are well led.”
Thus far, nothing had come of this; the old General-in-Chief did not believe in what he called “a little war by piecemeal.” Lincoln, however—aware that the time of the three-month volunteers was about to expire before any more than a fraction of them had had a chance to fire a shot at anything in gray—saw in the plan exactly what he had been seeking. At a cabinet meeting, called soon afterwards, General Scott was overruled. McDowell was told to go forward as he proposed.
At first he intended to move on Monday, July 8, but problems of supply and organization delayed him until Tuesday, eight days later, when he issued his march order to the alerted regiments. “The troops will march to the front this afternoon,” it began, and included warnings: “The three following things will not be pardonable in any commander: 1st. To come upon a battery or breastwork without a knowledge of its position. 2d. To be surprised. 3d. To fall back. Advance guards, with vedettes well in front and flankers and vigilance, will guard against the first and second.”
So they set out, fifty regiments of infantry, ten batteries of field artillery, and one battalion of cavalry, shuffling the hot dust of the Virginia roads. This marching column of approximately 1450 officers and 30,000 men, the largest and finest army on the continent, was led by experienced soldiers and superbly equipped. All five of the division commanders and eight of the eleven brigade commanders were regular army men, and over half of the 55 cannon were rifled. Light marching order was prescribed and Fairfax Courthouse was the immediate march objective, thirteen miles from Arlington, the point of departure. The start had been too late for the army to reach Fairfax that first day, but orders were that it would be cleared by 8 a.m. Wednesday, Centerville being the day’s objective, another nine miles down the road and within striking distance of Manassas Junction, where the Confederates were massing.
Perhaps because the warning in the march order had made the leaders meticulous and over-ambush-conscious, and certainly because of the inexperience of the troops, no such schedule could be kept, Accordion-action in the column caused the men to have to trot to keep up, equipment clanking, or stand in the stifling heat while the dust settled; they hooted and complained and fell out from time to time for berry-picking, just as they had done on practice marches. It was all the army could do to reach Fairfax Wednesday night, and at nightfall Thursday the column was just approaching Centerville, 22 miles from the starting point after two and one-half days on the road, stop and go but mostly stop. Then it was found that the men did not have in their haversacks the cooked rations McDowell’s order had said “they must have.” Friday was spent correcting this and other matters; Saturday was used up by reconnaissance, studying maps and locating approaches to and around the enemy assembled at Manassas. Beauregard thus had been presented with two days of grace, by which time McDowell heard a rumor that Johnston, out in the Valley, had given Patterson the slip and was at hand. He took the news with what calmness he had left, forwarded it to Washington, and set about completing his battle plan. Johnston or no Johnston, the attack was scheduled for first light, Sunday morning.
Lincoln in Washington and Davis in Richmond, one hundred miles apart, now were exposed for the first time to the ordeal of waiting for news of the outcome of a battle in progress between the two capitals. The northern President took it best. When McDowell had asked for a little more time for training, Lincoln told him, “You are green, it is true; but they are green also. You are all green alike.” Now that the armies were arrayed and the guns were speaking, Lincoln kept this calmness. The Sunday morning news was reassuring; even old General Scott saw victory in the telegrams from Virginia. Lincoln attended church, came back for lunch and more exultant telegrams, and went for a carriage drive in the late afternoon, believing the battle won.
Davis, being more in the dark, experienced more alarm. Beauregard’s wire on the 17th had told him, “The enemy has assailed my outposts in heavy force. I have fallen back on the line of Bull Run, and will make a stand at Mitchell’s Ford.” He spoke of retiring farther, possibly all the way to the Rappahannock, and closed with a plea for reinforcements for his 29 regiments and 29 guns, only nine of which were rifled. Davis sent what he could, including three regiments and a battery from Fredericksburg, and directed Johnston to move his army to Manassas “if practicable.” Johnston’s 18 regiments and 20 smooth-bore guns, even if they all arrived in time, would not bring Beauregard up to the reported strength of the Federals, for of the fifty regiments thus assembled to meet the fifty of the enemy, 1700 of the Valley soldiers—the equivalent of two regiments—were down with the measles. Presently, however, it seemed not to matter, or to be no more than a lost academic possibility. For that same Wednesday afternoon in Richmond another telegram arrived from Beauregard: “I believe this proposed movement of General Johnston is too late. Enemy will attack me in force tomorrow morning.”
Thursday came and passed, and there was no attack. Then Friday came, and still the wire brought no word of battle. Davis kept busy, forwarding every corporal’s guard he could lay hands on. At noon Saturday Johnston reached Manassas with the van of his army, the rest coming along behind as fast as the overworked railroad could transport them. Sunday came and Davis, a soldier himself, could wait no longer. He took a special northbound train.
In mid-afternoon, as it neared the Junction, there were so many signs of a defeat that the conductor would not permit the train to proceed, fearing it would be captured. But Davis was determined to go on. The engine was uncoupled and the President mounted the cab, riding toward the boom of guns and, now, the clatter of musketry. Beyond the Junction he secured a horse and continued north. Fugitives streamed around and past him, the wounded and the ones who had lost nerve. “Go back!” he told them. “Do your duty and you can save the day.” Most of the powder-grimed men did not bother to answer the tall, clean civilian riding into the smoky uproar they had just come out of. Others shouted warnings of disaster. The battle had been lost, they cried; the army had been routed. Davis rode on toward the front.