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Union Leaders: Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

Lincoln was born in Kentucky and raised on the edge of the frontier, growing up with scant formal education. His family then settled in Ill., where Lincoln held various clerking jobs, and was partner in a grocery store that failed and left him heavily in debt. He studied law and his forceful character and honesty made him a favorite in the community and elected him to the state legislature as a Whig. Licensed as a lawyer in 1836, he settled in Springfield where he married Mary Todd in 1842. After one term in Congress (1847-49) he was not returned by his constituents and retired from public life.

While a lawyer for the Illinois Central Railroad he became acquainted with George McClellan (vice-president) and Ambrose Burnside (treasurer). It was also during this time he became acquainted with Edwin Stanton, having been temporarily hired by Stanton’s law firm. In opposition to Stephen A. Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln entered into the growing debate of sectionalism, joining the Republican party in 1856.

Lincoln with Union troops

When Lincoln was elected on 6 Nov ’60 the South saw the end of their political power in the Union, and southern states began seceding. After the attack on Fort Sumter, S.C., in Apr ’61, he called upon the various states to furnish 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. Frequently advised by governors and congressmen, Lincoln selected many generals from among leading politicians in order to give himself a broader base of political support. Some political generals, such as John A. Logan and Francis P. Blair, distinguished themselves, whereas others proved military hindrances. Other commissions were given to Regulars on active duty, former West Pointers like McClellan and Burnside, who had resigned to pursue business careers, or those who had held volunteer commissions in the Mexican War.

During the war Lincoln appointed and discarded a secession of commanding generals as he was subjected to repeated humiliation in the defeat of Union arms. After McDowell’s defeat at First Manassas in Jul ’61, he made McClellan commander-in-chief of all armies, and acquiesced in that commander’s oblique movement with the Army of the Potomac against Richmond via the Peninsula. After this unsuccessful campaign, however, Lincoln relieved McClellan of supreme command, allowing him to retain command of the Army of the Potomac, and put John Pope in command of a separate Army of Virginia.

After Pope’s defeat at Second Manassas (29-30 Aug ’62) Lincoln reconsolidated both armies under McClellan, who led the hastily assembled force to block Lee’s invasion of Maryland.

Earlier, Lincoln had drafted a proclamation freeing slaves in the rebellious states but withheld it because, after Union reverses, it might appear an act of desperation. When McClellan’s army successfully halted Lee at Antietam (17 Sep ’62), the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, changing the war’s focus (heretofore fought to preserve the Union
and not to disrupt the South’s social fabric) to include ending slavery.

When McClellan failed to pursue Lee after Antietam Lincoln relieved him. The failure of McClellan’s successors – Burnside at Fredericksburg (13 Dec ’62) and Hooker at Chancellorsville (1-4 May ’63) – added to Lincoln’s perplexity and tended to discredit his ability in military matters. Meade’s success at Gettysburg (1-3 Jul ’63) was marred by the
failure to pursue and crush Lee’s army. Even under Grant, whom Lincoln brought East in the spring of 1864, there were months of sanguinary fighting with hope deferred.

Lincoln’s political enemies mustered strength before the ’64 election, and it looked as though he would be displaced in the White House by Democratic challenger George McClellan. But the military successes of Grant’s overland campaign and Sherman’s capture of Atlanta swung sentiment to him, and Lincoln was re-elected. He was assassinated by John
Wilkes Booth on 14 Apr ’65 at Ford’s Theater, Washington, five weeks after his second inauguration and five days after Lee’s surrender.

Note: Biography information comes from the U.S. Army Center for Military History Gettysburg Staff Ride. 

Posted in Civil War.

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