During his Gettysburg Address in November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln reminded his listeners that in 1776, people had come together to form a new nation, one 'conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.' Eighty-five years later, their descendants fought a great civil war to ensure 'that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.' The American Civil War was, in fact, a struggle over the final draft of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, to define freedom and to settle the longstanding dispute over the compatibility of slavery and the purpose of the nation.
By the time of Lincoln's speech, the war had assumed an entirely new dimension, initially, men on both sides had rushed to arms, fearful of missing out on the great event of their lives. In time, the savagery and the bloodshed, the hunger and the cold, the disease and the death, had altered all that. Banished were naive notions of a short war, a single, decisive battle to prove who was superior. Gone, too, were foolish assumptions about the individual's ability to transform the battlefield. The reality of 1860s warfare, with massive armies using rifled weapons and sustained by the fruits of 1860s industrialization and mechanization, had stripped away much of the glory. Only the starkness and brutality remained. Yet, somehow, those lofty goals that Lincoln had proclaimed still lived in the hearts and minds of the people. Despite hardships, suffering, and losses, soldiers and civilians clung tightly to their cause.
Although the Rebels never had someone whose words so elegantly encapsulated their cause as Lincoln's did, Southern whites also clung to their cause with deep passion. They had seceded to protect the institution of slavery, bequeathed to them by their ancestors. Secessionists may have voiced their cause in words of freedom and rights, but the rights they believed that the Lincoln administration would threaten were their right to own slaves, their right to take those slaves as property into the territories, and their right to live with those slaves in the security that fellow countrymen would not incite those slaves to insurrection. In comparing his new nation to the United States, Vice President of the Confederate States of America Alexander Stephens explained its purpose best when he declared, 'Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery ... is his natural and normal condition.'
Northerners, by contrast, rallied around the flag for the lofty goal of preserving the Union. They believed that the Union was inviolate, and that the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln had won the presidential election fairly. If they accepted the right to secession. Northerners argued, then how could any people ever preserve a democratic republic? Implicit in the Constitution, and understood by every one of the Pounding Fathers, was the concept that all Americans must respect the outcome of a fair election. If a minority feared the results of the election, Northerners justified, then its supporters could rely on the system of checks and balances in the Constitution to secure and protect their rights.
By 1863, Lincoln had helped to provide something more tangible to the Union war aims than the sanctity of the Union. He
signed the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day, which granted freedom to all slaves in Confederate-held territory. Back in 1858, Lincoln had proclaimed his belief that 'this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.' While he did not divine civil war, he did predict:
Either the opponents of slaver)', will arrest the further spread of it, ami place it where the public miiul shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new. North as well as South.
Slavery was incompatible with Northern versions of freedom. Based on his constitutional powers as commander in chief, Lincoln decreed that if the Union won. its people could rest assured that they had sowed the seeds for slavery's destruction.
The Emancipation Proclamation also converged with a new approach to warfare that had begun to surface, particularly in the west. Two Federal generals, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, had exchanged ideas on the problems and the conduct of the war. From these communications emerged the rudiments of a new approach to the war, a raiding strategy that would target Confederate civilians and property, in addition to their soldiers, as the enemy. Federal armies would seize slaves, confiscate food and animals, destroy railroads, factories, mills, and anything else of military value, and demonstrate to Confederate soldiers in the ranks just how vulnerable their loved ones were. 'They cannot be made to love us,' Sherman justified to Grant, 'but may be made to fear us, and dread the passage of troops through their country.'
Ulysses S. Grant rose from relative obscurity to be the commanding general of the Union armies and directed ultimate Federal victory. HisVicksburg campaign may have been the most brilliant of the war, This photograph, from 1864, was taken during the Overland campaign, when he served as commanding general. (Library of Congress)
Hardened veterans, too, had replaced raw recruits as the dominant force in these armies. Those who had survived the first two years had formed a different perspective on the war. Like Grant and Sherman, Northern veterans discarded outmoded notions about respect for private property and about treating delicately Southern civilians who supported the men in Rebel uniform. They wanted secessionists to feel the hard hand of war. Confederates, too, had toughened physically, mentally, and emotionally. Unfortunately for them, they had to exhibit that change on battlefields alone. Rarely did they have an opportunity to give Northern civilians a taste of the real war.
Representative of this new attitude was an event that occurred in the last weeks of the fighting, when a Union corps commander arrived at an assigned location a dozen hours behind schedule. Major-General Philip Sheridan promptly ordered his arrest and relieved him from command. Earlier in the war. the Union high command would have celebrated the arrival of a corps in the Eastern Army of the Potomac just 12 hours late. But Sheridan had spent his first three years out west, where a harder breed had emerged as military commanders. They tolerated errors of aggressiveness, not those of caution or tardiness. That spirit in the Federal western armies had begun to infuse soldiers in the east as well.
This, the fourth volume on the American Civil War in the Osprev Essential Histories series, highlights this vital transformation. The book embraces the Western Theater, where Ulysses S. Grant rose to prominence and where Union armies developed an unstoppable momentum. The volume opens with the conclusion of the Vicksburg campaign, perhaps the most masterly of the entire war. It focuses on the burgeoning partnership between Grant and Sherman and their rise to power and influence over the Union war effort. Ultimately, the war in the west came under Sherman's direction, and he left his distinct mark on the way Federal armies would conduct their campaigns. At the same time, these soldiers from the west had their own vision of the way the Union needed to fight this war, and by their conduct they forced their views oh officers and men. With the Federal stalemate in the east, this successful collaboration in the west assured Lincoln's re-election and guaranteed four more years of war, if necessary.
For the Federals, too, this volume witnesses the decline of a slow yet capable commander, Major-General William Rosecrans, who committed a blunder based on faulty information, and the rise of a talented replacement. Major-General George H. Thomas, whose stellar service saved the army that day. Thomas continued to earn accolades for his generalship throughout the war, culminating in his decisive victory at Nashville.
On the Confederate side in the Western Theater, no Robert E. Lee emerged. Neither Braxton Bragg, Joseph E.Johnston, nor John Bell Hood proved themselves even pale imitations. Disastrous infighting at the highest levels of the army undermined fine Confederate soldiery, and by the end of the war, Federals had marched right through the heart of the Confederacy and accepted surrender in central North Carolina, not far from Raleigh.
While Abraham Lincoln accomplished his principal goals - the restoration of the Union and the destruction of slavery - he never fully witnessed those achievements. An assassin's bullet struck him down just days after Lee's surrender and almost two weeks before Johnston capitulated in North Carolina. Without Lincoln at the helm, his dream of a new freedom was only partially realized. The United States largely embraced the direction that Northerners had staked out, but it would be another century before African-Americans began to share fully in the rights and benefits of the Republic.
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