In the days before Appomattox, when some slacking off might have been conceivable, he wrote Grant:
General Sheridan says, “if the thing is pressed, I think that Lee will surrender.” Let the thing be pressed.
Four years of slaughter had made him implacable. Tender reverie had been wrung out of him. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies,” he had pleaded, but no more. Bloodshed and horror had made him inflexible. No more parleying. No more fruitless searches for armistice or peace. Only complete and utter victory would suffice.
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Through what he had called this “fiery trial,” which aged and hardened him, as it hardened his country, he was forced to see this savage war between brothers at its full biblical scale. The terrible grandeur of what was happening astonished him. How was it to be understood? He could see how the downward spiral had begun, in politics, and how decent men, believing that everything they valued was at stake, could forget the better angels of their nature:
Blood grows hot and blood is spilled. Thought is forced from old channels into confusion. Deception breeds and thrives. Confidence dies, and universal suspicion reigns. Each man feels an impulse to kill his neighbor, lest he be first killed by him. Revenge and retaliation follow.
If this was the downward spiral that drew even honest men into its vortex, how could there ever be an upward climb out of the pit? Others might think history had an upward course to progress and a momentum all its own. The consolations available to other men—Karl Marx or the Marquis de Condorcet, for example, who placed their faith in the idea that men could make history and bend it to their will—were not available to him, because he knew, better than they, that the tide of time depended on chance, fortune, human genius, and error, all unpredictable, all unforeseeable. This did not leave him a fatalist. He had a powerful historical imagination and could place the ordeal of his time within the frame of his country’s history, as the gravest of its crises in all its “four score and seven years.” He understood the war as a hinge of fate whose turning would determine whether “government of the people, by the people and for the people” would prevail. As the war continued, he began to understand that “in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free,” and in so doing preserve the “last best hope of earth.” This was the meaning he hoped history would reveal, but he was never certain, until the last months, that it would.
History, he believed, had given both him and his country a mission, but his experience of helplessness, waiting for telegrams, unable to know what was happening or unable to stop folly when he could clearly see it, brought home to him how little even a president could be the master of what was unfolding:
I claim not to have controlled events but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now at the end of three years’ struggle, the nation’s condition is not what either party or any man devised or expected. God alone can claim it.
So eventually, in the fastness of the night while he sat in the telegraph room with a blanket over his shoulders waiting for the messenger boys to deliver him the latest messages, ticktacking off the wire from the battlefield, he could not avoid reaching for a religious register to ponder the higher meaning of it all. For men and women of his generation, schooled every Sunday, this could only mean inquiring into the ways of Providence. The standard consolation offered in every church, in every gathering, in every solemn speech, to those who had lost their sons in battle, was that they had died in a holy cause. Julia Ward Howe’s ferocious “Battle Hymn of the Republic” had become the Union’s marching song, sung to vindicate every blow of “His terrible swift sword.”* Lincoln had wept when he had heard it first, but now he had seen the full measure of what the sword had done and the slaughter inflicted in God’s name. God must be on their side, everyone believed. But how, he began to ask, could that be true?