Building the Army

Two days after Fort Sumter fell, Lincoln called for 75,000 men for the army. The North offered for more volunteers than the government could equip. By July 1861, an army had been assembled near Washington. An equal force of Confederates had taken position across the Potomac River in Virginia. Many Northerners clamored for action. They believed the Union forces could end the war by defeating the Confederates in the battle. Newspaper headlines blazed with the cry “On to Richmond”! The Administration yielded to these pressures. Lincoln ordered the Northern Army forward under General Irwin McDowell. The result was the first Battle of Bull Run on July 21, in which Confederate forces defeated the Union troops. People in the North now realized the war would be a long one. As commander in chief of the army. Lincoln had to select an officer capable of organizing untrained volunteers into armies and leading them to victory. General tears in to armies and leading them to victory. General George B McClellan turned out to be a fine organizer. But his Peninsular Campaign of 1862 ended in failure.

This Campaign had been aimed at capturing Richmond, VA, the Confederate Capital. Lincoln relieved McClellan of much of his command. General John Pope was made commander of troops in Virginia. He was defeated in the Second Battle of Bull Run (also called Manassas) on August 29-30 1862, and Lincoln called on McClellan to defend Washington. On September 17, “Little Mac” turned back the army of General Robert E. Lee in the Battle of Antietam. Then McClellan refused to move. In early November, Lincoln removed McClellan for the second time, and put General Ambrose E. Burnside in command. Burnside met defeat in the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13. His successor, General Joseph Hooter, lost the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 1-4 1863.


George B. McClellan (1826-1885), as an American soldier, civil engineer, railroad executive, and politician.

A graduate of West Point, McClellan served with distinction during the Mexican–American War (1846-1848), and later left the Army to work in railroads until the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Early in the war, McClellan was appointed to the rank of major general and played an important role in raising a well-trained and organized army, which would become the Army of the Potomac in the Eastern Theater; he served a brief period (November 1861 to March 1862) as general-in-chief of the United States Army / Union Army. Although McClellan was meticulous in his planning and preparations, these very characteristics hampered his ability to challenge aggressive opponents in a fast-moving battlefield environment. He chronically overestimated the strength of enemy units and was reluctant to apply principles of mass, frequently leaving large portions of his army unengaged at decisive points.

McClellan organized and led the Union army in the Peninsula Campaign in southeastern Virginia from March through July 1862. It was the first large-scale offensive in the Eastern Theater. Making an amphibious clockwise turning movement around the Confederate States Army in northern Virginia, McClellan’s forces turned west to move up the Virginia Peninsula, between the James and York Rivers landing from the Chesapeake Bay, with the Confederate capital, Richmond, as their objective. Initially, McClellan was somewhat successful against the equally cautious General Joseph E. Johnston, but the military emergence of General Robert E. Lee to command the Army of Northern Virginia turned the subsequent Seven Days Battles into a partial Union defeat.

General McClellan failed to maintain the trust of 16th President Abraham Lincoln. He did not trust his commander-in-chief and was privately derisive of him. He was removed from command in November after failing to decisively pursue Lee’s Army following the tactically inconclusive but strategic Union victory at the Battle of Antietam outside Sharpsburg, Maryland and never received another field command. McClellan went on to become the unsuccessful Democratic Party nominee in the 1864 presidential election against Lincoln’s reelection. The effectiveness of his campaign was damaged when he repudiated his party’s platform, which promised an end to the war and negotiations with the southern Confederacy. He served as the 24th Governor of New Jersey from 1878 to 1881. He eventually became a writer, and vigorously defended his Civil War conduct.

Most modern authorities have assessed McClellan as a poor battlefield general. Some historians view him as a highly capable commander whose reputation suffered unfairly at the hands of pro-Lincoln partisans who made him a scapegoat for the Union’s military setbacks. After the war, subsequent commanding general and 18th President Ulysses S. Grant was asked for his opinion of McClellan as a general; he replied, “McClellan is to me one of the mysteries of the war.”

The Union forces made some progress only in the valley of the Mississippi River. There, General Ulysses S. Grant in 1862 took Fort Henry on February 6 and Fort Donelson on February 16. In early April, Grant’s troops forced a Confederate army to retreat in the Battle of Shiloh, but only after the Union army had suffered enormous losses.

Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), was a prominent United States Army general during the American Civil War and Commanding General at the conclusion of that war.

He was elected as the 18th President of the United States in 1868, serving from 1869 to 1877. As Commanding General, Grant worked closely with President Abraham Lincoln to lead the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Grant’s assignment in implementing Reconstruction often put him at odds with President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor. Twice elected president, Grant led the Republicans in their effort to remove the vestiges of Confederate nationalism and slavery, protect African-American citizenship and civil rights, implement reconstruction and support economic prosperity. Grant’s presidency has often been criticized for its scandals and for his failure to alleviate the economic depression following the Panic of 1873, but modern scholarship regards him as a president who performed a difficult job during the early post Civil War era.

Strengthening the Home front

Organization for military success was only one of Lincoln’s tasks. He also had to arouse popular support for the Union armies. Different opinions among the people became plain after their first enthusiasm wore off. Many Northerners were willing to fight to pressure the Union, but not to destroy slavery. Other Northerners demanded that the destruction of slavery should be the main goal. Lincoln realized that the border states would secede if the antislavery extremists had their way. This would mean the loss of Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, and Maryland. The task of defeating the South would probably be impossible without the support of these states. Besides, the Constitution protected slavery in the States where it existed. Impulsive generals sometimes issued proclamations freeing slaves, but Lincoln overruled them. Lincoln’s moderate position helped keep the border states in the Union. Lincoln also managed to keep the support of the majority of Northerners, who favored fighting to preserve the Union over fighting to free the slaves.

Foreign Relations

While meeting his other challenges, Lincoln managed to keep a check on foreign policy. In 1861, Secretary of State William H. Seward suggested that the United States could be unified by provoking several European nations to war. The President quietly ignored this proposal.

William H. Seward (1801-1972)

was United States Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869, and earlier served as Governor of New York and United States Senator. A determined opponent of the spread of slavery in the years leading up to the American Civil War, he was a dominant figure in the Republican Party in its formative years, and was praised for his work on behalf of the Union as Secretary of State during the American Civil War.

Seward was born in southeastern New York, where his father was a farmer and owned slaves. He was educated as a lawyer and moved to the Central New York town of Auburn.

Seward was elected to the New York State Senate in 1830 as an Anti-Mason. Four years later, he became the gubernatorial nominee of the Whig Party. Though he was not successful in that race, Seward was elected governor in 1838 and won a second two-year term in 1840. During this period, he signed several laws that advanced the rights and opportunities for black residents, as well as guaranteeing fugitive slaves jury trials in the state. The legislation protected abolitionists, and he used his position to intervene in cases of freed black people who were enslaved in the South.

After many years of practicing law in Auburn, he was finally elected by the state legislature to the U.S. Senate in 1849. Seward’s strong stances and provocative words against slavery brought him hatred in the South. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1855, and soon joined the nascent Republican Party, becoming one of its leading figures. As the 1860 presidential election approached, he was regarded as the leading candidate for the Republican nomination. Several factors, including attitudes to his vocal opposition to slavery, his support for immigrants and Catholics, and his association with editor and political boss Thurlow Weed, worked against him and Abraham Lincoln secured the presidential nomination. Although devastated by his loss, he campaigned for Lincoln, who was elected and appointed him Secretary of State.

Seward did his best to stop the southern states from seceding; once that failed, he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the Union cause. His firm stance against foreign intervention in the Civil War helped deter the United Kingdom and France from entering the conflict and possibly gaining the independence of the Confederate States. He was one of the targets of the 1865 assassination plot that killed Lincoln, and was seriously wounded by conspirator Lewis Powell. Seward remained loyally at his post through the presidency of Andrew Johnson, during which he negotiated the Alaska purchase in 1867 and supported Johnson during his impeachment. His contemporary Carl Schurz described Seward as “one of those spirits who sometimes will go ahead of public opinion instead of tamely following its footprints”

In November 1861, Captain Charles Wilkes of the US Navy stopped the British Ship Trent and removed two Confederate Commissioners, James M. Mason and John Slidell. The British angrily demanded the release of the two men, and prepared for war to support their demand. However, the US later freed Mason and Slidell. Thus, Lincoln avoided a war that would have been disastrous to the United States. (Trent Affair)

Life in the White House

To Lincoln, the presidency meant fulfillment of the highest ambition that an American citizen could have. The Civil War destroyed any hope he may have had for happiness in the White House. Aside for directing military affairs and stiffening the will of the North, he carried an enormous burden of administrative routine. His office staff was small. He wrote most of his own letters and all his speeches. He made decisions on thousands of political and military appointments. For several hours each week, he saw everyone who chose to call. During all his years in office, Lincoln was away from the capital less than a month.

Lincoln found some relaxation in taking carriage drives and he enjoyed the theater. He regarded White House receptions and dinners more as duties than as pleasures. Lincoln’s frequent visits to army hospitals tore his gentle heart. Late at night, he sometimes found solace by reading works of Shakespeare or the Bible. But his official duties left little time for diversion.

To Mary Todd Lincoln, life in the White House was a tragic disappointment. Her youngest brother, three half-brothers, and the husbands of two half sisters were serving in the Confederate Army, and she faced constant suspicion of disloyalty.

The pressures of everyday life weighed heavily on her high-strong nature. Jealousy and out bursts of temper cost her many friendships.

Two of Lincoln’s sons, William Wallace and Thomas lived in the White House. For nearly a year, “Willie” and “Tad” enlivened the mansion with their laughter and pranks.

Willie’s death on February 20, 1862, grieved Lincoln deeply. Mrs. Lincoln couldn’t be consoled. Robert Todd Lincoln had been a student at Harvard when his father was elected.

He remained there until February 1865, when he was appointed to General Grant’s staff as a captain.

 Emancipation Proclamation

By later in the summer of 1862, Lincoln was convinced that the time had come for a change in policy toward slavery. Several foreign governments sympathized with the South. But they condemned slavery as evil, and thus didn’t dare support the Confederacy. Freed slaves could serve as Union soldiers. Besides, many Northerners who had been indifferent to slavery now believed that it had to be stamped out. Lincoln decided to issue a proclamation freeing the slaves.

He didn’t ask the advice of his Cabinet, but he did tell the members what he intended to do. On Seward’s advice, he withheld the proclamation until the Northern victory created favorable circumstances. The Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862, served Lincolns purpose. He issued a preliminary proclamation five days later. Lincoln declared that all slaves in states or parts of states, that were in rebellion on January 1, 1863, would be free. He issued the final proclamation on January 1. Lincoln named the states and parts of States in rebellion, and declared that the slaves held there are, and hence-forward shall be, free.

Actually, the proclamation freed no slaves. It applied only to the Confederate territory, where federal officers couldn’t enforce it. It didn’t affect slavery in the loyal border states. Lincoln urged these states to free their slaves, and to pay the owners for their loss. He promised financial help from the federal government for this purpose. The failure of the states to follow his advice was one of his great disappointments. The Emancipation Proclamation did have a great long-range effect. In the eyes of other nations, it gave a new character to the war. In the North, it gave a high moral purpose to the Constitution. This amendment, adopted in December 1865, ended slavery in all part of the US.

Gettysburg Address

The Union armies won two great victories in 1863. General George G. Meade’s Union forces defeated the Confederates under General Lee at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the first three days of July.

On July 4th, Vicksburg, Mississippi, fell to Grant’s troops. This city had been the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River.

On November 19, 1863, ceremonies were held to dedicate a cemetery on the Gettysburg battlefield.

The principal speaker was Edward Everett, one of the greatest orators of his day. He spoke for two hours. Lincoln was asked to say a few words, and spoke for about two minutes.

Many writers have said that Lincoln scribbled his speech while traveling on the train to Gettysburg. This wasn’t true. He prepared the address, well in advance of the ceremonies, although he completed the text in Gettysburg. Everett and many others knew at once that Lincoln’s ringing declaration that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” would live as long as democracy itself.

The victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg seemed to promise an early peace. But the war went on. In March 1864, Lincoln put Grant in command of all the Union armies. The Army of the Potomac started to march toward Richmond two months later. At the same time, General William T. Sherman began his famous march from Tennessee to Atlanta, and then to the sea.