Table of Contents
The War Here to Stay
Lincoln was a man of great sagacity. Few statesmen have had keener insight, or more true and sane foresight. While cordially recognizing this, it is not necessary to claim for him infallibility. He had his disappointments.
The morning after the evacuation of Fort Sumter he issued his call for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months. We have seen that one reason why the number was so small was that this was the largest number that could possibly be clothed, armed, and officered at short notice. Subsequent experience showed that the brief enlistment of three months was an utterly inadequate period for so serious an insurrection. Did Lincoln really think the rebellion could be put down in three months? Why did he not save infinite trouble by calling for five-year enlistments at the beginning?
For one thing, he had at that time no legal power to call for a longer period of enlistment. Then he desired to continue the conciliatory policy as long as possible, so as to avoid alienating the undecided in both the North and the South. Had the first call been for 500,000 for three years, it would have looked as if he intended and desired a long and bloody war, and this would have antagonized large numbers of persons. But it is probable that neither he nor the community at large suspected the seriousness of the war. The wars in which the men then living had had experience were very slight. In comparison with what followed, they were mere skirmishes. How should they foresee that they were standing on the brink of one of the longest, the costliest, the bloodiest, and the most eventful wars of all history?
Virginia was dragooned into secession. She declined to participate in the Charleston Convention. Though a slave state, the public feeling was by a decided majority in favor of remaining in the Union. But after the fall of Sumter she was manipulated by skilful politicians, appealed to and cajoled on the side of prejudice and sectional feeling, and on April 17th passed the ordinance of secession. It was a blunder and a more costly blunder she could not have made. For four years her soil was the theater of a bitterly contested war, and her beautiful valleys were drenched with human blood.
Back and forth, over and over again, fought the two armies, literally sweeping the face of the country with the besom of destruction. The oldest of her soldiers of legal age were fifty-five years of age when the war closed. The youngest were twelve years of age when the war opened. Older men and younger boys were in the war, ay, and were killed on the field of battle. As the scourge of war passed over that state from south to north, from north to south, for four years, many an ancient and proud family was simply exterminated, root and branch. Of some of the noblest and best families, there is to-day not a trace and scarcely a memory.
All this could not have been foreseen by these Virginians, nor by the people of the North, nor by the clear-eyed President himself. Even the most cautious and conservative thought the war would be of brief duration. They were soon to receive a rude shock and learn that “war is hell,” and that this war was here to stay. This revelation came with the first great battle of the war, which was fought July 21, 1861, at Bull Run, a location not more than twenty-five or thirty miles from Washington.
Certain disabilities of our soldiers should be borne in mind. Most of them were fresh from farm, factory, or store, and had no military training even in the militia. A large number were just reaching the expiration of their term of enlistment and were homesick and eager to get out of the service. The generals were not accustomed to handling large bodies of men. To add to the difficulty, the officers and men were entirely unacquainted with one another. Nevertheless most of them were ambitious to see a little of real war before they went back to the industries of peace. They saw far more than they desired.
It was supposed by the administration and its friends that one crushing blow would destroy the insurrection, and that this blow was to be dealt in this coming battle. The troops went to the front as to a picnic. The people who thronged Washington, politicians, merchants, students, professional men, and ladies as well, had the same eagerness to see a battle that in later days they have to witness a regatta or a game of football. The civilians, men and women, followed the army in large numbers. They saw all they looked for and more.
The battle was carefully planned, and except for delay in getting started, it was fought out very much as planned. It is not the scope of this book to enter into the details of this or any battle. But thus much may be said in a general way. The Confederates were all the day receiving a steady stream of fresh reinforcements. The Federals, on the other hand, had been on their feet since two o’clock in the morning. By three o’clock in the afternoon, after eleven hours of activity and five hours of fighting in the heat of a July day in Virginia, these men were tired, thirsty, hungry,–worn out. Then came the disastrous panic and the demoralization. A large portion of the army started in a race for Washington, the civilians in the lead.
The disaster was terrible, but there is nothing to gain by magnifying it. Some of the oldest and best armies in the world have been broken into confusion quite as badly as this army of raw recruits. They did not so far lose heart that they were not able to make a gallant stand at Centerville and successfully check the pursuit of the enemy. It was said that Washington was at the mercy of the Confederates, but it is more likely that they had so felt the valor of the foe that they were unfit to pursue the retreating army. It was a hard battle on both sides. No one ever accused the Confederates of cowardice, and they surely wanted to capture Washington City. That they did not do so is ample proof that the battle was not a picnic to them. It had been boasted that one southern man could whip five northern men. This catchy phrase fell into disuse.
It was natural and politic for the Confederates to magnify their victory. This was done without stint by Jeff Davis who was present as a spectator. He telegraphed the following:
“Night has closed upon a hard-fought field. Our forces were victorious. The enemy was routed and fled precipitately, abandoning a large amount of arms, ammunition, knapsacks, and baggage. The ground was strewed for miles with those killed, and the farmhouses and the ground around were filled with wounded. Our force was fifteen thousand; that of the enemy estimated at thirty-five thousand.”
That account is sufficiently accurate except as to figures. Jeff Davis never could be trusted in such circumstances to give figures with any approach to accuracy. Lossing estimates that the Federal forces were 13,000, and the Confederates about 27,000. This is certainly nearer the truth than the boast of Jeff Davis. But a fact not less important than the numbers was that the Confederate reinforcements were fresh, while the Federal forces were nearly exhausted from marching half the night before the fighting began.
Although the victorious forces were effectively checked at Centerville, those who fled in absolute rout and uncontrollable panic were enough to give the occasion a lasting place in history. The citizens who had gone to see the battle had not enjoyed their trip. The soldiers who had thought that this war was a sort of picnic had learned that the foe was formidable. The administration that had expected to crush the insurrection by one decisive blow became vaguely conscious of the fact that the war was here to stay months and years.
It is a curious trait of human nature that people are not willing to accept a defeat simply. The mind insists on explaining the particular causes of that specific defeat. Amusing instances of this are seen in all games: foot-ball, regattas, oratorical contests. Also in elections; the defeated have a dozen reasons to explain why the favorite candidate was not elected as he should have been. This trait came out somewhat clamorously after the battle of Bull Run. A large number of plausible explanations were urged on Mr. Lincoln, who finally brought the subject to a conclusion by the remark: “I see. We whipped the enemy and then ran away from him!”
The effect of the battle of Bull Run on the South was greatly to encourage them and add to their enthusiasm. The effect on the North was to deepen their determination to save the flag, to open their eyes to the fact that the southern power was strong, and with renewed zeal and determination they girded themselves for the conflict. But the great burden fell on Lincoln. He was disappointed that the insurrection was not and could not be crushed by one decisive blow. There was need of more time, more men, more money, more blood. These thoughts and the relative duties were to him, with his peculiar temperament, a severer trial than they could have been to perhaps any other man living. He would not shrink from doing his full duty, though it was so hard.
It made an old man of him. The night before he decided to send bread to Sumter he slept not a wink. That was one of very many nights when he did not sleep, and there were many mornings when he tasted no food. But weak, fasting, worn, aging as he was, he was always at his post of duty. The most casual observer could see the inroads which these mental cares made upon his giant body. It was about a year later than this that an old neighbor and friend, Noah Brooks of Chicago, went to Washington to live, and he has vividly described the change in the appearance of the President.
In Harper’s Monthly for July, 1865, he writes: “Though the intellectual man had greatly grown meantime, few persons would recognize the hearty, blithesome, genial, and wiry Abraham Lincoln of earlier days in the sixteenth President of the United States, with his stooping figure, dull eyes, careworn face, and languid frame. The old clear laugh never came back; the even temper was sometimes disturbed; and his natural charity for all was often turned into unwonted suspicion of the motives of men, whose selfishness caused him so much wear of mind.”
Again, the same writer said in Scribner’s Monthly for February, 1878: "There was [in 1862] over his face an expression of sadness, and a faraway look in the eyes, which were utterly unlike the Lincoln of other days.... I confess that I was so pained that I could almost have shed tears.... By and by, when I knew him better, his face was often full of mirth and enjoyment; and even when he was pensive or gloomy, his features were lighted up very much as a clouded alabaster vase might be softly illuminated by a light within.”
He still used his epigram and was still reminded of “a little story," when he wished to point a moral or adorn a tale. But they were superficial indeed who thought they saw in him only, or chiefly, the jester. Once when he was reproved for reading from a humorous book he said with passionate earnestness that the humor was his safety valve. If it were not for the relief he would die. It was true. But he lived on, not because he wanted to live, for he would rather have died. But it was God’s will, and his country needed him.