Lincoln's Reluctant War: How Abolitionists Leaned on the President

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For a group of passionate New Englanders, the Civil War was always a divine mission to end the scourge of slavery. It took a while for Lincoln to see things that way.  

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In her "Battle Hymn of the Republic," Julia Ward Howe (shown here in 1908) portrayed the war as a crusade against slavery. It took the president some time to come around to that view. (Library of Congress)

In his inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln made a statement that would only later become controversial: "One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute."

The fact that slavery was the crux and cause of the war did not mean, however, that Northerners were ready to fight and die to end slavery. In early 1862, Lincoln believed that most people in the North cared "comparatively little about the Negro, and [were] anxious only for military successes." As he reminded a visiting abolitionist toward the end of January: "We didn't go into the war to put down slavery. To act differently at this moment would, I have no doubt, not only weaken our cause but smack of bad faith. ... The first thing you'd see would be a mutiny in the army."

"The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was anathema to men like General McClellan, who worried that zealots would turn a war for the Union into a bloodbath over slavery.

As if in response, The Atlantic, the voice of New England's abolitionist intellectuals, devoted the first page of its February 1862 issue to a new poem of five short stanzas by a Boston writer named Julia Ward Howe. Even by the standards of Boston, hotbed of America's antislavery movement, the poet and her husband held extreme views. Samuel Gridley Howe was an educator and philanthropist whose hatred of slavery and the plantation aristocracy led him to support violent action even before the war broke out. He organized the rescue of fugitive slaves from Northern prisons, funneled guns and ammunition to the antislavery settlers in "Bleeding Kansas," and secretly financed the efforts of John Brown to stir up an armed slave revolt. His wife had a more literary temperament, but her poem demonstrated that her convictions were just as intense.

Howe's verses were an immediate sensation among the strong minority of Northern women and men for whom the Union was not worth saving unless it could be cleansed of the stain of slavery. Her words expressed with coiled power the radical belief that the Union armies must not be wasted on restoring the presecession status quo; no, those thousands of soldiers were God's mighty instrument with which to purge America of its original sin.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
     His truth is marching on.

In late 1861, Mr. and Mrs. Howe had visited Washington to inspect the camps where troops from Massachusetts were being trained. Because the peacetime U.S. Army had been so small -- only about 16,000 soldiers -- there was no organization large enough to provide medical care and sanitation for the volunteer armies now numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Private citizens therefore took over the tasks of setting up clean camps, providing healthful foods and medicine, and recruiting surgeons and nurses in ever greater numbers. Women like Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton plunged in, much as Britain's Florence Nightingale had done a few years earlier during the Crimean War. To harness the money and time of Northern citizens who wanted to serve the needs of Federal soldiers, the U.S. Sanitary Commission was created. Little by little, some order was brought to the chaos. Lessons were learned that laid the foundations of America's public health systems and gave birth to the American Red Cross.

What most impressed Julia Ward Howe about those camps of waiting soldiers, though, was not their physical needs so much as their spiritual destiny.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
     His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
     Since God is marching on."

The rhythm of the poem, capturing the relentless cadence of marching feet, was no accident. The author had in mind a popular but controversial marching tune sung by abolitionist volunteers as they paraded through the streets of Boston and New York and Washington: "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave; His soul is marching on."

That song was anathema to men like Union General-in-Chief George McClellan, who worried that zealots would turn a limited war for the Union into a bloodbath over slavery. In the eyes of such citizens, John Brown, the Harpers Ferry raider, was a terrorist who sought the murder of white men, women, and children across the South in a savage uprising of the slaves. Generations of white Americans had grown up hearing stories of the violent revolution of Haitian slaves 60 years earlier, and fear that such scenes would be replayed in the South "hovered over the antislavery debates like a bloodstained ghost," in the words of the historian David Brion Davis.

McClellan had idealists like the Howes in mind when he remarked that he despised the reformers of Massachusetts as much as he did the secessionists of South Carolina. "I will not fight for the abolitionists," the general told his wife. "I am fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union & the power of the Government -- on no other issue."

Howe's poem took the rhythm of the familiar song and gave it a religious, millennial message; though less vulgar than the song, the poem was every bit as aggressively impatient and intolerant of compromise. There was a message here for McClellan, for the Union's Western commanders, Don Carlos Buell and Henry Halleck, and for all the other Democratic generals, as well as for Lincoln: God himself was calling the army into holy battle.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
     Our God is marching on.

Not a day passed in the first nine months of 1862 without Lincoln hearing from these passionate, idealistic men and women. Abolitionists dominated the congressional joint committee on the war and held chairmanships of many of the major committees in the House and Senate. Their voices rang in pulpits and newspapers across the North. They wrote letters and sent delegations to Washington. Some of them led regiments and brigades of volunteers.

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David Von Drehle is a Time magazine editor at large and the author, most recently, of Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year.

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