Wartime commander in chief

Lincoln faced an extremely difficult job as president during the war years. He had limited military experience, yet he was immediately expected to organize an army and devise a winning military strategy. He knew that every one of his actions could send thousands of young men to their deaths. As a result, conducting the war was difficult on him both emotionally and physically. But Lincoln possessed many traits that made him a great commander in chief. For example, he was able to analyze situations quickly and make good decisions. He was also good at dealing with difficult people. "His political experience had taught him how to win a political fight without making personal enemies out of the men he defeated, and he had as well the ability to use the talents of self-assured men who considered themselves his betters," Bruce Catton explained in The Civil War. Still, Lincoln did experience problems with incompetent and insubordinate (disobedient) generals in the early years of the war. He also faced constant criticism from opponents who disagreed with his policies. He even struggled to maintain order within his own cabinet (a group of advisors who head various government departments). But he overcame these difficulties with tact, diplomacy, and an unbending dedication to doing whatever was necessary to secure victory.

As soon as the war began, Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers to come to Washington, D.C., and defend the nation's capital against a possible Confederate attack. He also did everything in his power to keep the "border" states—which allowed slavery but remained loyal to the Union—from joining the Confederacy. For example, he suspended the legal provision known as habeas corpus in Maryland, a border state adjacent to Washington. Habeas corpus prevented government officials from imprisoning people without charging them with a crime. Lincoln knew that some people in the border states did not support the war effort, and he wanted the power to put these people in prison to stop them from helping the South. On several other occasions, he invoked the broad war powers granted to the president in the U.S. Constitution in order to keep control of the government and wage the war effectively. As a result, his political opponents called him a dictator and a tyrant.

The war forced Lincoln to remain flexible and periodically rethink his positions on various issues. For example, in the early part of the war he argued that his main purpose in fighting was to save the Union, not to end slavery. He said this in part because he wanted to avoid losing the loyalty of the border states. But black leaders and abolitionists in the North criticized him for moving too slowly toward emancipation (granting freedom to the slaves). In mid-1862, Lincoln decided that he could not forge (form) a lasting peace without putting an end to slavery. He also wanted to increase support for the war in the North and make it easier to recruit new soldiers. He began drafting his Emancipation Proclamation at this time. This war measure would declare all the slaves in the secessionist states to be free and allow black men to serve as soldiers in the Union Army. It would not affect the status of slaves in the border states or in areas of the South that were already under the control of Union troops. Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862, following a narrow Union victory in the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. It warned the South that the final proclamation would take effect on January 1, 1863, unless they voluntarily rejoined the Union before that time. Of course, Lincoln could not force people in Confederate states to free their slaves. In fact, he had no power to enforce the proclamation until Union troops captured enemy territory. But the revolutionary document transformed the purpose of the war and ensured that there would be no further compromises on slavery.

In 1863, Union forces won a series of major battles, including a bloody one at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That November, Lincoln visited Gettysburg to dedicate a new military cemetery. There, he gave a brief speech that became one of the most famous addresses in the English language. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address laid out the principles of democracy for which the North was willing to fight. It introduced the idea of nationalism (a sense of loyalty and devotion to the country as a whole) into Northern debate about the Civil War. Instead of fighting to preserve the Union of fairly independent states with different interests and motivations, he explained, the North was fighting for the higher purpose of preserving the United States as a democratic nation. Lincoln believed deeply in democracy, which he described as "government of the people, by the people, for the people." He felt that if the South won the war and permanently separated from the United States, democracy would have failed.

As the war dragged on into 1864, many people in the North grew weary of fighting. Lincoln faced reelection that year and legitimately worried that he might lose to Democratic candidate George B. McClellan (1826-1885; see entry). To some Americans it seemed strange to proceed with a presidential election during the middle of a war. In fact, such an event had never occurred before in any other country. But Lincoln knew that holding the election was vital to continuing democracy in the United States. "We cannot have free government without elections," he stated, "and if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us." Lincoln ran on a platform that backed his war measures and called for a constitutional amendment banning slavery. Shortly before the election took place, the Union Army claimed a string of stirring victories that changed public opinion toward the war and the president. Lincoln ended up winning reelection by a comfortable margin.

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