We've found how hard those words can be for a president. But in a critical period, under immense stress, Lincoln was up to it. Here's a simple short letter from Lincoln to General Grant, after the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi, written July 13, 1863. I'm struck by its indifference to cronyism or friendship, its candor, and its sincerity. A reader recently remarked that Lincoln was never wrong. This is untrue. But what made Lincoln great was his capacity to see his own errors - and go out of his way to acknowledge them:
My dear General,
I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did -- march the troups across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake.
I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.
Yours very truly