Pennsylvania Avenue was mired in mud.
It was March 4, 1865. Around 25,000 to 30,000 endured the miserable conditions caused by prolonged wet weather and high winds to listen to Abraham Lincoln deliver his second inaugural address.
Unlike the atmosphere of his first inauguration, the sense of trepidation among the general public regarding Lincoln’s safety was diminished.
Although John Wilkes Booth was a short distance from where the Lincoln delivered his speech, his designs against the president were not known to anyone. At that point in time, he had contemplated kidnapping Lincoln and smuggling him to Richmond where he would be exchanged for many thousands of Confederate prisoners. Such a fanciful plot could only have been conjured by a deranged sociopath.
Over 10,000 threats had been made against the president in the course of his first term, none taken seriously by him. He even kept some threatening letters pigeon-holed in his desk as if they represented routine business. He once said, “I cannot bring myself to believe that any human being lives who would do me any harm.” But those responsible for his safety were compelled to take precautions, so sharpshooters manned the rooftops that day.
The war’s end was in sight. General Sherman had just crossed into North Carolina on his way to form an inescapable vise with General Grant’s forces in Virginia to crush General’s Lee’s weakened but resilient army.
Some in his position would have used the opportunity for self promotion – think “mission accomplished.” However, in his speech, Lincoln downplayed the seemingly inevitable victory: “The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.”
Lincoln did not think his speech was well-received. The fact that there were only four breaks for applause seemed to support his view.
I do not believe he was surprised by the less than rousing response. Lincoln knew what the public wanted to hear – an unequivocal victory speech – but he chose to be conciliatory instead: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Why did he deliver a message of reconciliation when lives were still being lost?
Lincoln was a patient man. He endured insubordinate generals, ruthless political enemies and hostile attacks by the press. Yet he never lost his focus and conviction. That by itself does not explain why he would extend an olive branch to an enemy that launched the nation into a war costing over 600,000 lives and maiming many more; that still seemed hellbent to fight on despite a steady deterioration of fortune.
But Lincoln was also a pragmatic man – he limited the scope of the Emancipation Proclamation to the slaves held in states under the control of the Confederacy, lest he lose political support in the border states. He continued to support Grant despite the loss of 60,000 men in the latter’s Overland Campaign that led to the siege of Richmond, but failed to destroy Lee’s army. Nothing was to deter him from his primary objective of winning the war and restoring the union.
He wasn’t just concerned with winning the war; he understood the importance of how it should end. An angry defeated enemy could be dangerous. Plus, they were still Americans who would have to be reunited with the rest of the nation if there were to be a United States.
Over March 27 and 28, Lincoln, Grant and Sherman discussed the possibility of the conflict degenerating into guerrilla warfare. There was a fear that the remaining southern armies would scatter and continue the fight as irregular units, mixed in with the civilian population or from hideouts in the hills and forests.
It was a real fear based on experience. Missouri was the perverse model for the tragedy guerrilla warfare could unleash – women and children were slaughtered by rival bands of partisans
Both Grant and Sherman felt the sting of a more civil version of guerrilla operations led by the likes of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and Colonel John Singleton Mosby (ironically, the latter served in the Grant administration during Reconstruction). There were many others with the proven capability to create havoc when least expected.
What Lincoln most feared was if General Lee would disband his army and authorize his men to carry on the fight from their home states. If that were to occur, there would not be enough troops in the Union to contain, much less vanquish, the violence. The United States would cease to be a functioning nation. As it was, there were still 175,000 men under arms in various parts of the Confederate States.
It was critical, then, to deliver a message of reconciliation. It was even more important to make that clear to the most respected southern leaders, especially Robert E. Lee.
Lee was the key. In the absence of a credible government, southerners looked to him as their leader. If he surrendered, other field commanders would likely follow suit. Some of Lee’s staff encouraged him to issue an order to his men to disperse and carry on the fight.
While cornered at Appomattox, Lee received a letter from Grant indicating that the only condition of surrender would be that the men of the Army of Northern Virginia promised not to take up arms against the government. There was no mention of imprisonment or other acts of retribution. The message was consistent with Lincoln’s wishes. On the basis of the letter and the mutual professional respect between the two opponents, it was easy for Lee to dismiss suggestions of continuing the fight.
Grant’s final surrender terms on April 9 were generous, allowing the Confederates to keep their livestock and for officers to retain their sidearms. Grant also authorized the immediate distribution of rations to the surrendered troops. They could leave for their homes in peace. As Lee stated, “This will have a very happy effect on my army.”
The remaining Confederate field armies followed suit. General Joseph Johnston, who commanded perhaps the most important fighting force after Lee’s, started surrender negotiations on April 17 with Sherman in North Carolina. The final surrender took place on April 26 subject to the same terms as issued at Appomattox. It also covered some 90,000 southern troops from the Carolinas to Florida.
However, it was a dicey affair. One of Union generals mistrusted Johnston and had actually attempted to impair the negotiations, but his concerns were dismissed out of hand by Sherman. Then the news of Lincoln’s assassination reached Sherman on April 17. He swore the telegrapher to secrecy in order not to risk jeopardizing his initial meeting with Johnston. He did share the tragic news with the southern commander. Johnston was mortified. He described Lincoln’s death as “the greatest possible calamity to the South.”
Sherman informed his troops of the surrender negotiations and the news of the assassination that night. He also relayed the sad effect it had on Johnston. The Union soldiers maintained discipline and no reprisals of any significance were carried out.
Some radical Republicans wanted nothing less than retribution against the South and capital charges against the leaders of the Confederacy. Such an outcome may have precipitated an agonizingly long guerrilla war.
But even in death, Lincoln’s message of reconciliation prevailed and spared the nation a continuation of bloodshed that would have destroyed its future.
As it was, the legacy of the Civil War was painful….and still is.
In the end, it created a nation, however imperfect and misguided at times, that has done much to protect freedom throughout the world.
We can thank Lincoln for that.