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.

And they were fed up with the president's cautious approach to the matter of emancipation. They rejected completely what Lincoln had said in his inaugural address: that the Constitution left the issue of slavery to each state to decide for itself, and that, as president, he was obliged to uphold that Constitution. The abolitionists believed in a higher law, above the Constitution and above the Union itself. As Howe expressed it in her final stanza:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
     While God is marching on.

The North's soldiers would not die for the Union; they would die to set the slaves free. The abolitionists pressed Lincoln relentlessly to adopt this vision of the war, to make Howe's stern, terrifying verses the true Battle Hymn of the Republic. In time, he did, and the stirring anthem became a favorite in Federal camps, along parade routes, and in concert halls across the North.

But for most of 1862, the president resisted. In Lincoln's view, the end of slavery was not a matter of if; it was a question of when, and how. Long before he became a national figure, he had predicted that the time would come when all Americans would be forced to choose sides over slavery, and he knew which side he would be on. Slavery was "a great and crying injustice," he said, "an enormous national crime." To one friend he said simply: "Slavery is doomed." On another occasion he said: "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel."

Even so, he perceived a clear impediment: "And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling." Lincoln was constrained by a Constitution that countenanced slavery, by a Supreme Court that defended slavery, by the political need to hold on to the loyal slave states, and by the wide range of opinions among Northern voters.

Though the hour for choosing sides seemed to be at hand, Lincoln resisted, offering legalisms and demurrals. He brushed aside the complaints of antislavery activists -- called "ultras" by their critics, on account of their no-compromise approach -- or fended them off with frontier anecdotes. He told one delegation of abolitionists about "a party of Methodist parsons traveling in Illinois when I was a boy." The parsons learned that a river up ahead was flooding, "and they got considerin' and discussin' how they should git across it, and they talked about it for two hours," Lincoln recounted. Finally the oldest one said, "Brethren, this here talk ain't no use. I never cross a river until I come to it!"

Lincoln urged the ultras to stop pushing him and instead try to build public support for the idea of a gradual emancipation, phased in over years or even decades, with the federal government compensating slave owners for their losses. After all, he noted, the entire country--not just the South-- was complicit in creating the slave economy, and the North as well as the South had grown rich on it. Everyone should share the cost of ending slavery. Gradual, compensated emancipation would appeal to moderate public opinion, Lincoln believed.

Moreover, such a plan would cut through constitutional barriers. Chief Justice Roger Taney, the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision, would never stand for emancipation by federal order, but he would have no grounds for objecting to emancipation freely chosen by the states. Lincoln's careful approach was intended to avoid "a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle," as he put it. In fact, Confederate operatives in Europe were actively using Lincoln's caution against him, assuring French and British opinion leaders that they needn't have qualms about recognizing the Confederacy, because the alternative -- Lincoln's government --  was doing nothing to end slavery, either.

Alarmed, the abolitionists began to fear that the moment chosen by Providence for the obliteration of slavery would slip away. If Lincoln's policy was successful and the South rejoined the Union after a Federal victory or two on the battlefield, the serpent might never be crushed. Likewise, if Europe decided to tip matters in favor of the Confederates, slavery would persist in an independent Southern nation. Either way, the abolition movement would no longer be able to achieve its glorious mission.

So the delegations kept coming. The abolitionist leaders Moncure Conway and William Ellery Channing called on Lincoln a few days before Howe's poem was published, and urged him to act more boldly. Not yet, he answered. "When the hour comes for dealing with slavery, I trust I will be willing to act, though it costs my life," Lincoln assured them. Then he added ominously, "And gentlemen, lives will be lost."


This post is adapted from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and the Most Perilous Year.

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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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