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.

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 New York, 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.

Preserve the Union

By the 1860s, the United States had become a much-debated exemplar of the perils and possibilities of political democracy -- "the last best hope" of Lincoln and so many others. 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.

Secession would destroy the world's only existing democracy, and prove for all time, to future Americans and to the world, that a government of the people cannot survive. Lincoln may have thought this point was the most important. If you traveled the earth in 1860, and visited every continent and every nation, you would have found many examples of monarchies, dictatorships, and other examples of authoritarian rule. But in the all the world, you would have found only one major democracy: The United States of America. Democracy had been attempted in one other nation in the eighteenth century - France. Unfortunately, that experiment in self-government deteriorated rapidly, as the citizens resorted more to the guillotine than to the ballot box. From the ashes of that experiment in self-government, rose a dictator who, after seizing control in France, attempted to conquer the continent of Europe.

Those who supported monarchies felt vindicated by the French disaster, but the United States experiment in self-government remained a thorn in their side. Those wishing for democracy could always point across the ocean and say, "It works there. Why can't we try it here"? In 1860 however, it appeared that the thorn had been removed. The monarchists were thrilled with the dissolution of the United States, and many even held parties celebrating the end of democracy.

Lincoln understood this well, and when he described his nation as "the world's last best hope," these were not idle words. Lincoln truly believed that if the war were lost, it would not only have been the end of his political career, or that of his party, or even the end of his nation. He believed that if the war were lost, it would have forever ended the hope of people everywhere for a democratic form of government.

In his Message to Congress in Special Session July 4, 1861, Lincoln wrote that the War presented " .... to the whole family of man the question of whether a constitutional republic or democracy -- a government of the people, by the same people -- can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes. ... It presents the question whether the discontented individuals ... [can] ... practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask: "Is there, in all republics, this inherent and fatal weakness? Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?""

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.


Slavery was said by some to be the cause of the rebellion only in the same sense in which it may be affirmed that cotton and sugar are the cause of it, or that Southern character, habits, climate, and social life were the sources out of which it has sprung. The agitations of the slave question were only ostensibly the motives to rebellion. They were the means made use of to give pretext and consistency to the scheme. With the unthinking or excitable masses of the South, these agitations were the principal incentives to revolt. They furnished them a ready argument, and made the threat of breaking up the Union familiar to the Southern mind, and, to a Certain extent, popular.

Secessionists and abolitionists, in the ultra phases of their respective demands, were in full accord as to the ultimate remedy of the grievances they imagined themselves to suffer. It was curious to see how, in ascending the gamut of their opposite extravagances, the two parties kept pace with each other on the scale of which the highest note on each side was disunion. Both North and South were, at the beginning, in harmony in admitting slavery to be a social evil which was to be considerately dealt with, and abandoned when that could be done without injury to existing interests.

From this point Southern enthusiasts diverged in one direction, Northern in another. With one, slavery rose to be asserted successively as a harmless utility, as a blessing, a divine institution, and, finally, as "the cornerstone rejected by the builders," upon which a new dynasty was to be constructed, and our old cherished Union to be dashed into fragments. With the other, always comparatively few and insignificant in point of numbers and influence it is true, slavery, passing through equal grades, was declared to be a disgrace; a great national sin; a special curse of Heaven, and, at last, a stigma that made the Union "a covenant of hell:" which, therefore, should be shattered to atoms to give place to another order of polity.

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.

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.

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 Lincoln 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.

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."

Defend Democracy

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war... "

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

Upon reflection, it will be seen that these words are not mere soaring rhetoric, but the core expression of why Lincoln fought. At the time of the Civil War, the Union was surrounding by hostile aristocratic states, a democratic island in a sea of aristocracies. The slave power in the Confederacy was predicated on a fixed social hierarchy. In Mexico, the emperors Napoleon III and the Habsburg Maximillian were busy re-imposing aristocratic rule. And the British Empire, with which America had already fought two wars, at least one in living memory, loomed in Canada and the high seas. In London, Prime Minister Palmerston made no secret of his sympathies for the aristocrats in the Confederacy. Under these aristocratic regimes, the rail-splitter would have still been splitting rails, while his betters ruled the land.

The political aristocrats of the South, although pretending to the world that they only wished to be "let alone," were really aiming at the subjugation of the North. Nearly ever since the birth of the republic, they had almost complete control of it, and were now stung to the quick by the consciousness that the Northern States have at last shown a disposition to take a hand in its management.

The politicians of the South had always believed that the people of the Free States were "too ignorant, cowardly, and selfish" to have a controlling voice in the halls of legislation. They had so long fostered this idea that they had, finally, come to the conclusion that all that was grovelling and degrading in human nature belonged to the North. Whereas, on the other hand, all that was ennobling and great is indigenous to the South. They "have all the talent, bravery, and generosity;" the Yankees had all the ignorance, cowardice, and selfishness. To use a Hoosier phrase, a sound thrashing was really the only thing that could ever induce the fire-eaters to correct these views.

The "South" was " neither a territory closely sealed off from the North geographically, nor a moral unity. It is not a country at all, but a battle cry ....

"The advice of an amicable separation presupposes that the Southern Confederacy, although it assumed the offensive in the Civil War, at least wages it for defensive purposes. It is believed that the issue for the slaveholders' party is merely one of uniting the territories it has hitherto dominated into an autonomous group of states and withdrawing them from the supreme authority of the Union. Nothing could be more false: "The South needs its entire territory. It will and must have it." With this battle-cry the secessionists fell upon Kentucky.

"By their "entire territory" they understand in the first place all the so-called border states-Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas. Besides, they lay claim to the entire territory south of the line that runs from the north-west corner of Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. What the slaveholders, therefore, call the South, embraces more than three-quarters of the territory hitherto comprised by the Union. A large part of the territory thus claimed is still in the possession of the Union and would first have to be conquered from it. None of the so-called border states, however, not even those in the possession of the Confederacy, were ever actual slave states. Rather, they constitute the area of the United States in which the system of slavery and the system of free labour exist side by side and contend for mastery, the actual field of battle between South and North, between slavery and freedom. The war of the Southern Confederacy is, therefore, not a war of defence, but a war of conquest, a war of conquest for the spread and perpetuation of slavery....

" ... were it to cede the contested territory peacefully to the Southern Confederacy, the North would surrender to the slave republic more than three-quarters of the entire territory of the United States. The North would lose the whole of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, except the narrow strip from Penobscot Bay to Delaware Bay, and would even cut itself off from the Pacific Ocean. Missouri, Kansas, New Mexico, Arkansas and Texas would draw California after them. Incapable of wresting the mouth of the Mississippi from the hands of the strong, hostile slave republic in the South, the great agricultural states in the basin between the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghenies, in the valleys of the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Ohio, would be compelled by their economic interests to secede from the North and enter the Southern Confederacy. These north-western states, in their turn, would draw after them into the same whirlpool of secession all the Northern states lying further east, with perhaps the exception of the states of New England.

What would in fact take place would be not a dissolution of the Union, but a reorganisation of it, a reorganisation on the basis of slavery, under the recognised control of the slaveholding oligarchy."

John Bright, Member for Birmingham, was the leading opponent of slavery in Britain during the American Civil War. Of the two portraits hanging in Lincoln’s own office, one was of Bright. Bright was greatly esteemed by Abraham Lincoln for his advocacy in the months prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Lincoln on 22 September 1862 as an executive order in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief on the grounds of military necessity and consistency.

In June 1863, Bright defeated a resolution in the House of Commons for an alliance between Britain, the Emperor Napoleon II of France, and the southern Confederate states against the North, as well as ditching the £16 million support raised in England to support the South.

On 26 March 1863 Bright stated, in words that the laborers of England could understand, the significance for them of the Civil War. In his speech "America and England" at St. James's Hall, he said: "Privilege thinks it has a great interest in the American contest, and every morning, with blatant voice, it comes into our streets and curses the American Republic. Privilege has beheld an afflicting spectacle for many years past. It has beheld thirty millions of men happy and prosperous, without emperors-without kings [cheers]-without the surroundings of a court [renewed cheers}-without nobles, except such as are made by eminence in intellect and virtue - without State bishops and State priests, those venders of the love that works salvation [cheers] - without great armies and great navies - without a great debt and great taxes and Privilege has shuddered at what might happen to old Europe if this great experiment should succeed."

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