The American Civil War 150th Anniversary: Lincoln’s Birthday, 1863

It was easy to write the Lincoln’s Birthday post last year.  The great shifts on the battlefield and in the North’s political arena happened later.

With 1862 now over, we can see some of the changes that happened to America between Lincoln’s 53rd and 54th birthdays.

To amateur eyes, much of that tumultuous year fits between two events  – Shiloh and the Emancipation Proclamation –  that were prototypes, respectively,  of the future style of the war and the future course of American civil liberties.

We know little about the personal life of this man who oversaw the US part of two great struggles – military and political –  in 1862.  Did that change him?

Source:  Washington Post interactive online map.

War casualties, 1862. Source: The Washington Post’s interactive online map (click to enlarge).

I have no good answers yet, but it seems likely that Abraham Lincoln changed this country in 1862-63 far more than its events affected him.

In any case, here are some thoughts on President Lincoln this February, 150 years after his 54th birthday.

[Abraham Lincoln, candidate for U.S. president...

“Ain’t no thang,” A. Lincoln, probably (Library of Congress).


When you subtract Emerson’s poetry about representative men, Mr. Lincoln was basically an ambitious lawyer and a politician, a breed not unknown today.

He was very intelligent, but even more important was his extraordinary willpower.

Ambition is nice, but it takes willpower to educate yourself, succeed in politics, and not only keep your sense of humor but also to use it as a tool in getting your way.

The flip side to that is wilfulness, and Abraham Lincoln had that, too.

The "Lincoln Gun" at Fort Monroe, 1864.  Named in honor of the president, it was used in 1862 and retired later in the year, replaced by more accurate rifled cannons.  (Library of Congress)

The “Lincoln Gun” at Fort Monroe, 1864. Named in honor of the president, this smoothbore behemoth was used in 1862 and retired later in the year, replaced by more accurate rifled cannons. (Library of Congress)

In May of 1862, the US president went down to Fortress Monroe and started ordering troop movements during an attack on the nearby Confederate naval yard, according to the Lincoln Log. He even smashed his hat when an order wasn’t obeyed quickly enough.

According to Curt Anders, in Henry Halleck’s War: A Fresh Look at Lincoln’s Controversial General-In-Chief (1999), Lincoln also gave a military promotion to General McClernand for political reasons in 1862 (to appease supporters in the Butternut states of Ohio, Illinois and Indiana).

Lincoln never lost sight of his prime goal, though – to keep the Union intact.

After realizing that he could not effectively be general-in-chief as well as president, he brought in General Halleck. When Halleck later supported General Grant’s authority over General McClernand, the president got behind Halleck and told McClernand to face realities.

Adhere to your purpose and you will soon feel as well as you ever did. On the contrary, if you falter, and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution, and will regret it all your life.

– Abraham Lincoln, 1862, on “determination.

However, there is another, more dangerous negative aspect of willpower. Desire to protect the country plays right into it.

General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker, thought a dictator could make things go better in America. (Library of Congress)

General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, thought a dictator could make things go better in America. (Library of Congress)

“I will risk the dictatorship”

In 1860, Southerners reacted strongly to Lincoln’s election and fulminated viciously against him, of course. “Dictator” was one of the least offensive names they called Mr. Lincoln, but the term was being bandied about up North, too, where spirits were very low during the hard winter of 1862-63.

US General Joseph Hooker reportedly told someone that “nothing would go right until we had a dictator and the sooner the better.”

Abraham Lincoln then gave Hooker command of the Army of the Potomac, although making it clear that “it was not for this, but in spite of it . . .“.

After the war, Hooker would call this “a beautiful letter,” but Lincoln’s words are a little ambiguous to me.

What if things had not turned out as they did? How far was the president willing to push the risk of a dictatorship?

I’m not a Lincoln scholar and so can’t even speculate on that, but I wonder if Lincoln himself knew how far not he but the American people would go to settle these troubles.

What if most US voters had agreed with Hooker, and if, say, CS General Jackson had not died in the coming spring; if Gettysburg in the coming summer had turned out differently; and if military success continued to remain tantalizingly just out of reach of US forces?

I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me…

– Abraham Lincoln, 1862 (same source as above)


Here, I must speculate a bit.

Why did Lincoln push the Emancipation Proclamation during these terrible times?

Antietam wasn’t the sort of resounding victory that Gettysburg would be – in fact, it was a success for the Confederates in that Lee was able to get his army away intact.

Still the US president used that as an excuse to go ahead with the Emancipation Proclamation, and he didn’t change plans even after the debacle for US troops at Fredericksburg in December 1862.

It seemed, as I researched this series, that Lincoln’s steps toward an emancipation proclamation really got going after his 12-year-old son Willie died in February 1862.

Had he made a promise to the boy on his sick-bed, or a silent promise to God?

There’s absolutely nothing in the record I’ve explored to support this, other than Lincoln’s reported reply to his wife’s question about what he intended to do, as he waited for the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation to sign on New Year’s Day.

“I am a man under orders,” Lincoln replied, looking heavenward, “I cannot do otherwise.”

Was that a reference to Willie that Mary might have known about? Her response is unrecorded. But I like to think it was.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

Categories: American Civil War

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