Northern War Aims
Although Lincoln hated slavery and consistently argued against its expansion into federal territory, he was not an abolitionist; he disagreed with those who would promote emancipation at the expense of preserving the Constitution and the rule of law. He acknowledged the legal right to own slaves under state constitutions that already permitted the "peculiar institution," which the Constitution respected through compromises that helped produce "a more perfect union." Lincoln also recognized the fragile condition of the country, and therefore did not seek the repeal of the notorious (but constitutional) Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required that escaped slaves be returned to their masters in the South.
Lincoln used his first inaugural address to declare his constitutional intentions as the incoming president, especially given the anxiety in the Southern states over the protection of their slaves, and to explain the nature of the national union. He announced that he would not interfere with slavery where it already existed, and pledged to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act-a key issue for seceding states, who complained that Northern states obstructed the enforcement of this act by passing personal liberty laws.
Lincoln then declared that "the Union of these States is perpetual" and added that "no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union." Why? First, all national governments by their nature existed in perpetuity; second, even if one assumed that the United States was "not a government proper," but an "association of States," all the States would need to agree to dissolve the association, not just those who found reason to do so unilaterally; and third, the existence of the American Union preceded the Constitution, demonstrating that the States intended to act as a union at every pivotal stage of their development. Alluding to Article II of the Constitution, Lincoln considered his "simple duty" to make sure "that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States." Specifically, he intended to occupy federal property and collect duties, but for the time being not fill federal offices with "obnoxious strangers" in areas hostile to the government.
For Abraham Lincoln the American union was not just a structure to govern the national interests of American states; it also represented a consensus about the future of freedom in America - a future where slavery would eventually be eliminated and liberty protected as the birthright of every human being. Upon assuming the presidency for the first time, he spoke at length about the nature of union, why secession was antithetical to self-government, and how the federal constitution imposed a duty upon him to defend the union of the states from rebellious citizens. Lincoln thought he had a constitutional obligation as president to preserve the Union from attempts at secession.
The departing president, James Buchanan, added to the new president's difficulties. While his December 1860 State of the Union Address argued that secession was not "an inherent constitutional right," Buchanan saw no constitutional provision that empowered the president "to coerce a state into submission." Lincoln read the federal constitution differently, stating "the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend, and maintain itself." But he also affirmed that "there needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority." To this end, he used his inaugural address to try to mend the rift between sections of the nation.
Lincoln's ultimate political loyalty was to the Union. As the Civil War raged, Lincoln wrote Horace Greeley, influential editor of the New York Tribune: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. [If] I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that." To that end, Lincoln allowed the slaveholding border states that sided with the Union to retain their slaves until the war's end. When a Union general took it upon himself to declare slavery abolished in parts of the South, the president swiftly rescinded the order, reserving to himself the authority for such an act.
President Lincoln would have been glad if the preservation of the Union could have been secured and slavery abolished by a diplomatic instead of by a military victory. His policy in respect to slavery was closely connected with this idea. In the first years of the war he hoped that a policy of emancipating the slaves with compensation to the owners might win over a sufficient number of the slave states to make it hopeless for the rest to continue the struggle. If this could be accomplished the great objects of the war would be attained; slavery would be abolished and the Union preserved - preserved in the most effective way, without the aftermath of sectional bitterness which was likely to follow a war waged to the bitter end and a peace founded upon military conquest and enforced at the point of the sword. Unhappily, this outcome was impossible. Neither the North nor the South was prepared to accept such a program; the South would not accept emancipation on any terms; the North would not concede compensation. As soon as the President was convinced of this, he was ready to proclaim emancipation as a military measure.
McClellan willfully disobeyed Lincoln's orders because McClellan disagreed with Lincoln about the desired end state: Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union; McClellan wanted to minimize the killing and end the war through accommodation with the Confederacy. McClellan was a Democrat. The Democratic Party had been split by the slavery question; insofar as they supported the war, Democrats looked only to a restoration of the Union, not the destruction of slavery; the Radical Republicans were anathema to them. McClellan had strong links with the Democratic Marcy machine of NewYork, and many Democrats looked to him to lead a conservative alignmentin the congressional elections in the autumn of 1862. Radical Republicans suspected him of wanting a compromise peace so that he could win the presidential election and Southern votes.
The dilemma for Lincoln was how to prevent tactical realities from over-running national strategic objectives and threatening national support for the only unambiguous national objective, restoration of the Union. His second challenge was how to make Northerners who wanted only to restore the Union and did not understand the military necessity or want to fight for the elimination of slavery, understand that, tactically, doing so could potentially lessen the need for their military service. It was a two-step hard sell at best, as the ensuing draft riots showed. As Lincoln became convinced of the military necessity for a comprehensive policy for emancipation, his last consideration was how to deliver such a document for best effect. Timing was crucial. It had to be issued during a period of military successes. In no way could the document's delivery be construed as a measure of desperation. It also had to be perceived as an additional war aim, supplementing the restoration the Union, not supplanting it.
Lincoln at first ignored calls for emancipation, to ensure that the key Border States stayed in the Union. General Grant's first significant campaign victories in Tennessee ensured that both Kentucky and Tennessee remained in the Union from 1862 on. General JFC Fuller estimated the retention of Tennessee alone deprived the Confederates of at least 100,000 troops.
In late 1862 Lincoln's second step was the threat of emancipation to lure rebellious states back into the Union peacefully. This failed because General Lee's string of victories in summer of 1862 left the Confederate government with no reason to negotiate, especially when the Congress passed the 1st Confiscation Act and the May 1862 Emancipation Resolution. Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act on 17 July 1862, which freed the slaves held by people in rebellion against the Union. The act served as a catalyst and revealed growing public support for action.
In July 1862, President Lmcoln presented a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabmet. With their general approval he waited patiently for a Union vlctorv so he could proclaim emancipation after a momentous event. General McClellan's "victory" at Antietam in September 1862 provided the opportunity and the President used the occasion to issue the proclamation. The battle of Antietam provided Lincoln with an opportune moment to add this goal and make the crucial linkage between tactical realities and strategic objectives. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by Lincoln on September 22, 1862 as an executive order in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief on the grounds of military necessity and consistency. It was essentially a warning order to the states of the Confederacy that if they remained in a state of rebellion after January 1, 1863, the Union would declare their slaves liberated and pursue all means to accomplish that objective. The document, though, said nothing about the status of slaves in the border states or the lands of the Confederacy that already had fallen under Union control. It also did not specify what exactly was to be done with the thousands of slaves who, upon hearing the news, proceeded to flock to Union lines in even greater numbers, at times ironically hindering Union military operations.
Finally, during the nearly 100 days between the draft proclamation and its formal signing on January 1, 1863, he tried to use emancipation as a tool to bring the conflict to an end. In his December 1, 1862 Annual Address to Congress, Lincoln proposed an extended emanclpatlon which would cover thirty-seven years and be completed by the end of the century. This farled to gain a response and the final Emancipation Proclamation was signed 31 days later.
In Europe, the nobility initially sympathized with the Confederates, but thought it not prudent to help them when the working classes expressed strong support for the proclamation, eventually ending any hope of European intervention on behalf of the Confederacy. The proclamation seized the moral high ground from the Confederacy. The Confederates were merely the defenders of property rights. The Union now had a higher moral mission to free a clearly oppressed people.
Perhaps the most successful case of political and strategic adaptation came in the American Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln addressed a fluid and dynamic situation in which few of the initial assumptions proved accurate. In the largest sense the North’s political objective in the war’s first year remained entirely focused on reestablishing the Union. Only a small group of abolitionists in the northeast argued for freeing the slaves. But the events of 1861 and 1862 clearly indicated the Union assumption that secession had the support of only a small percentage of the Southern population was wrong.
In his memoirs Grant caught much of what that recognition entailed: "Up to the Battle of Shiloh, I, as well as thousands of other citizens, believed that the rebellion against the Government would collapse suddenly and soon, if a decisive victory could be gained over any of its armies. Donelson and Henry were such victories. An army of more than 21,000 men was captured and destroyed. Bowling Green, Columbus and Hickman, Kentucky, fell in consequence, and Clarkesville and Nashville, Tennessee, the last two with an immense amount of stores, also fell into our hands. The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers from their mouths to the head of navigation, were secured. But when Confederate armies were collected which not only attempted to hold a line further south, from Memphis to Chattanooga, Knoxville and on to the Atlantic but assumed the offensive and made such a gallant effort to regain what had been lost, then, indeed, I gave up all idea of saving the union except by complete conquest."
By late summer of 1862, the course of the war had convinced Lincoln that he had to extend the North’s grand strategy to include the abolition of slavery. Thus, after the Battle of Antietam, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a step aimed not only at the heart of the South’s culture but at its economic foundation as well. The Emancipation Proclamation was only the opening shot of what was to turn into a strategy of war against the South’s economy and structure.
While advancing Union troops allowed the inhabitants to exit their dwellings, Sherman’s soldiers were soon to refer to the Southern towns they passed as “Chimneyvilles.” By 1864 the Union had embarked on what its leaders termed the “hard war.” Sherman encapsulated the approach that Union armies would take in the last years of the war in a letter to the assistant adjutant general of the Department of Tennessee: "The government of the United States has in North Alabama any and all rights which they choose to enforce in war—to take their lives [those of the inhabitants], their lands, their everything—because they cannot deny that war exists there, and war is simply power unconstrained by constitution or compact. If they want eternal war, well and good; we accept the issue and will dispossess them and [put] our friends in their place…. To those who submit to the rightful law and authority all gentleness and forbearance but to the petulant and persistent secessionist, why, death is mercy and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better. [Satan] and the rebellious saints of Heaven were allowed a continuous existence in hell merely to swell their just punishment."
Grant’s orders to Sheridan, as to how the latter should treat the Shenandoah Valley, were simply to render the area “a barren waste... so that crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their provender with them.”
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