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Lincoln and His Generals

Abraham Lincoln was Commander-in-Chief of the Union forces during the Civil War.  His prior military experience was as captain of volunteers during the Black Hawk War.  He served less than three months during the spring and summer of 1832 and was an officer for only 36 days.  He saw no action.

Andrew Johnson had no military experience when the Civil War began, but he had been the elected governor of Tennessee from 1853 through 1857.  Lincoln appointed him military governor of Tennessee in 1862 with the rank of brigadier general.

Ulysses Grant graduated 21st in his West Point class, one spot below the median.  He had accumulated a long list of demerits, and later said, “A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the Army even if I should be graduated, which I did not expect.”  More than 20 years after graduating from West Point, Grant became the first soldier in history to command an army of more than a million men.

Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, and Benjamin Harrison were politicians who entered the war as officers, acquitted themselves well, and mustered out as generals.  Chester Arthur served as quartermaster general during the war.  Lincoln had many other generals with whom he worked closely, but all these men mentioned above – Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, and Arthur – eventually became Presidents of the United States.

By the way, two other of Lincoln’s generals ran for President and lost.  George McClellan ran against Lincoln in 1864.  Winfield Scott Hancock ran against Garfield in 1880.  And one more thing:  Hancock’s namesake, Winfield Scott, was Lincoln’s first general.  He retired from service shortly after the war began at the age of 75.  He had already run for President in 1852 and lost.  He and Lincoln belonged to the same political party back then, so Lincoln had probably voted for him.






Lincoln’s Foils

John Breckinridge was from Kentucky, but the people of Kentucky did not vote for him in the 1860 Presidential election.  They voted for John Bell who was from Tennessee.  Kentucky did not secede from the Union, but Breckinridge joined the Confederacy anyway.

John Bell tried to stop Tennessee from seceding, but he was unsuccessful.  Bell was the oldest of the 1860 candidates.  When Tennessee seceded, he was in his mid-60’s.  After that he took no part in the Civil War.  Bell’s Vice-Presidential running mate was even older.  Edward Everett became the featured speaker at the dedication of a military cemetery in 1863.  Despite his age he had the energy to speak for more than two hours.  His speech was followed by Lincoln’s two-minute Gettysburg Address.

Tennessee was the last state to secede and the first to be readmitted to the Union.  Andrew Johnson had been its elected governor from 1853 through 1857.  Because Johnson had remained loyal to the Union, Lincoln appointed him military governor in 1862.  In 1864 Johnson was elected Vice President, and in 1865 he succeeded to the Presidency when Lincoln was assassinated.  There had been a plot to murder Johnson as well, but his would-be assassin lacked resolve.

Stephen Douglas was from Illinois, but the people of Illinois did not vote for him in 1860.  Despite receiving the second-most popular votes in that election, he won the Electoral votes of only one state.  He was at Lincoln’s inauguration and held Lincoln’s hat while the new President delivered his first inaugural address.





John C. Breckinridge was Vice President of the United States from March 4, 1857 through March 4, 1861.  As President of the Senate his name appears on the March 2, 1861 resolution to amend the Constitution with the following language: “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which shall authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

On April 1, 1861 the Kentucky state senate unanimously approved this amendment, but Southern Rights Democrats in the lower chamber tried to adjourn their legislative session before a vote could be taken.  Their stalling tactics were encouraged by native son Breckinridge.  The former Vice President had just been appointed to the U.S. Senate, but his heart was with the states which had voted for him in the last Presidential election.

In 1860 Breckinridge had won the Electoral votes of Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas.  By April 4, 1861, the date when Kentucky ratified the above amendment, seven of these states had seceded from the Union.  Although the Kentucky state legislature had just made him a U.S. Senator, the people of Kentucky had not voted to make him President in 1860.  They had not voted for Lincoln either, but it was no consolation for Breckinridge to have placed second to John Bell, the candidate of the Constitutional Union Party.

When the Civil War came, Kentucky remained in the Union but Breckinridge did not.  He was commissioned a brigadier general in the Confederate Army, rising to the rank of major general in 1862.  He survived the war and was eventually able to return to Kentucky following the Christmas amnesty of 1868.



The “Other” 13th Amendment

The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution reads as follows:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

This Amendment was passed by the Senate in 1864 and by the House in early 1865.  It was finally ratified by the states in December 1865.  However, there was a proposed Amendment in 1861 that could have become the 13th Amendment.  It reads as follows:

“No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

This “other” 13th Amendment was staring Lincoln in the face when he took office on March 4, 1861.  By that date seven states had already seceded from the Union.  Lincoln probably believed this was his last chance to bring them back peacefully.  On March 16 he wrote the following letter to the governor of North Carolina.


I transmit an authenticated copy of a Joint Resolution

to amend the Constitution of the United States, adopted by

Congress and approved on the 2d of March 1861, by

James Buchanan, President.

I have the honor to be,

Your Excellency’s obedient servant,

Abraham Lincoln

Similar letters were sent to the governors of each state, including all the seceded states.  Each letter was countersigned by Secretary of State William Seward.  Even though this proposed Amendment was intended to appease the slaveholders who controlled the South, none of the seceding states ever ratified it.


“Events Have Controlled Me”

In late 1862 and early 1863 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  He was reelected in November 1864.  In December 1864 he appointed as Chief Justice the man who had coined the slogan of the old Free Soil Party.  In January 1865 he worked tirelessly to get the 13th Amendment passed by the House, and in February he signed the Congressional Resolution which sent the Amendment to the states for ratification.  Lincoln’s first term was a solid record of antislavery accomplishment.

But Lincoln had not planned it that way from the start.  In his 2nd Inaugural Address he explained the previous four years by stating: “The Almighty has His own purposes.”  This sentiment was not mere rhetoric.  Lincoln knew that the Civil War had forced him to face the slavery issue in ways he had not previously imagined.  In an 1864 letter Lincoln had written: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

He was always antislavery.  He always believed slavery to be wrong and had said so in the 1860 campaign.  But he also believed he could not do much about it.  He had even promised to uphold it in the South so long as it did not expand into the territories.  To be antislavery was not to be an abolitionist, but to be opposed to its extension into new locations.  In order to accomplish that goal, the Union had to be preserved, and in order to preserve the Union, Lincoln was willing to accept what has come to be known as the “Other” 13th Amendment.


Henry Clay and the 13th Amendment

Henry Clay died in June 1852.  In a eulogy Lincoln said: “[Clay] ever was on principle and in feeling, opposed to slavery.”  Unfortunately, neither Clay nor Lincoln lived to see the 13th Amendment ratified.  Lincoln died in April 1865 and the amendment was not ratified by the states until December of that year.  However, both Clay and Lincoln had a part in getting the 13th Amendment passed by Congress.

First, let’s review the text of the 13th Amendment.

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

This went far beyond the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed only those slaves in the seceding states.  Lincoln demonstrated his skill as a politician when he persuaded the House to pass the Amendment in January 1865.  The Senate had already passed it in early 1864.  In the meantime Lincoln had won re-election.  He already had the support of many Congressmen, but he still needed to speak with some key individuals.

Congressman James S. Rollins of Missouri had been elected in 1860 running on the Constitutional Union ticket.  Although he strongly supported Lincoln’s anti-secessionist measures, he was slow to embrace emancipation.  Lincoln reminded him that back in the 1840’s they had both been Whigs and followers of the antislavery Henry Clay.  Rollins became convinced, and Lincoln encouraged him to use his influence so others would support the Amendment.

When Henry Clay died, Lincoln eulogized him.  When Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas, he found it advantageous to quote Clay.  Finally, in 1865 Lincoln invoked the memory of this great statesman in order to get the 13th Amendment passed.

Lincoln’s Eulogy of Henry Clay

Henry Clay died on June 29, 1852 having reached the age of 75 in April of that year.  On July 6 Abraham Lincoln, age 43, gave a eulogy in the Illinois statehouse.  Lincoln mentioned how Clay had run for President three times and lost.  “With other men, to be defeated, was to be forgotten; but to him, defeat was but a trifling incident, neither changing him, or the world’s estimate of him.”

A couple paragraphs later Lincoln said:  “Mr. Clay’s predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep devotion to the cause of human liberty — a strong sympathy with the oppressed everywhere, and an ardent wish for their elevation. With him, this was a primary and all controlling passion.”  Although Clay had been a slaveholder, Lincoln did not believe that to be incompatible with “a strong sympathy with the oppressed everywhere.”

“He ever was on principle and in feeling, opposed to slavery. The very earliest, and one of the latest public efforts of his life, separated by a period of more than fifty years, were both made in favor of gradual emancipation of the slaves in Kentucky. He did not perceive, that on a question of human right, the negroes were to be excepted from the human race. And yet Mr. Clay was the owner of slaves. Cast into life where slavery was already widely spread and deeply seated, he did not perceive, as I think no wise man has perceived, how it could be at once eradicated, without producing a greater evil, even to the cause of human liberty itself. His feeling and his judgment, therefore, ever led him to oppose both extremes of opinion on the subject.”