Lincolns troubles on the home front

The Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 came just in time for President Lincoln. In the first half of 1863, political and popular opposition to Lincoln's wartime policies had mounted all across the North. Democrats accounted for a good deal of this criticism. They opposed the Republican president on the war, emancipation, and a wide range of other issues. But many other people had emerged as critics of Lincoln as well.

The reasons for this unhappi-ness with the president varied. Many Northerners believed that the Lincoln administration's determination to win the war had led it to take illegal measures to silence its opponents. These measures included putting people in jail without trial and closing newspapers that were critical of the administration. Other opponents argued that wartime inflation (increases in the cost of food, clothing, and other goods) was destroying the Northern economy. Another reason for Lincoln's unpopularity in some regions was his decision to institute the Conscription Act in March 1863. This law required all male citizens between the ages of twenty and forty-five to enlist in the Union Army.

Lincoln's conscription law infuriated many people. Large numbers of people opposed a military draft because it forced thousands of young men to join a fight that had already claimed the lives of tens of thousands of other young men. Democrats, meanwhile, charged that one of the law's provisions—which enabled enlistees to avoid serving by hiring a substitute or paying a $300 fee—meant that the ranks of the Federal Army would be filled mostly by poor people. These critics complained that the draft would force white laborers to fight for the freedom of blacks, who would then come to the North and take their jobs.

Democratic anger about Lincoln's policies became so great that many of the party's leaders and organizations threatened to defy the president. Members of one Democratic convention even pledged that "we will not render support to the present Administration in its wicked Abolition crusade [and] we will resist to the death all attempts to draft any of our citizens into the army." These tensions over the draft ultimately sparked an ugly riot in New York City that left 105 people dead in July 1863. Many of the rioters targeted black people in the violence. Black homes and an orphanage for black children were burned to the ground, and several blacks were hung from street lampposts. The unrest ended only after the mob clashed with a detachment of Federal troops from the Army of the Potomac.

The single greatest problem that confronted Lincoln during the first half of 1863, however, was the lack of progress in the war. Many Northerners had come to the gloomy conclusion that the North could not beat the South. Others believed that the Union would eventually win, but only after enduring many years of war and sacrificing thousands and thousands of young men. The president himself confessed similar fears from time to time.

Nevertheless, Lincoln managed to maintain a steady guiding hand over the troubled nation throughout this period. He kept various political factions working together to advance the Federal war effort. He also used all his skills as a leader and communicator to keep the majority of the Northern people united behind his vision of a restored United States. But sooner or later, he knew that domestic support for the war effort would die if the Union Army could not produce victories in the field.

The nearly simultaneous Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg thus came at an ideal time for Lincoln. As he had anticipated, Union victories in the field triggered renewed support for the war effort among the North's civilian population. In fact, news of the Federal triumphs instantly transformed the atmosphere across much of the North from one of discouragement to one of confident determination.

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