From the beginning, the war was far more than a battle to end slavery and far more than a struggle to preserve the Union. To Lincoln, the United States was an experiment in a people's ability to govern themselves. If that experiment failed, for the rest of history, monarchs, dictators, and tyrants would use it as an argument against self-rule. To Lincoln, the entire future of democracy was at stake.
The Union quickly gathered a large army and set out for the South, its soldiers convinced they could defeat the Confederacy in one battle. But in the very first battle of the war at Bull Run, the Union was defeated. Then it lost the battle of Manassas. Very quickly, the North realized there would be no quick and easy victories in the fight to save the Union.
Through the entire first two years of the war, the North faced setback after setback, and Lincoln, deeply frustrated, replaced one general with another. When the Union army of General George McClellan drove back Robert E. Lee's forces at Antietam, McClellan then held back and refused to pursue them. Lincoln sent McClellan a simple telegram: "If you don't want to use the army, I should like to borrow it for a while. Yours respectfully, A. Lincoln." In anguish over his inability to find a general who was aggressive, Lincoln replaced McClellan with General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside lost the battle of Fredericksburg and was replaced by General Joseph Hooker. Hooker lost the battle of Chancellorsville. Nowhere, could Lincoln find a man with the willingness and skill to do what his Commander-in-Chief expected. And then, a General with a taste for liquor and cigars, and a reputation for a tough attitude and a quick mind, began to turn the war in a new direction.
General Ulysses S. Grant first made headway in the Mississippi Valley, taking Fort Henry and then Fort Donelson. Next he forced a Confederate retreat at Shiloh, sacrificing a large number of his men in the process. As time passed, the tenacity and courage of General Grant became more and more evident, until finally, Lincoln put him in charge of the Union forces, and the tide began to change.
The management of his army was only one of Lincoln's tasks. Meanwhile, he was also trying to provide moral support and inspiration to the public. The public was not all of one view - some were willing to fight to save the Union but not to end slavery. Others felt that abolition of slavery should be the primary goal. Many of the soldiers in the Union army had never even seen a "Negro," until they enlisted. Still, they were willing to fight for their emancipation. The Civil War of America is the only war in the history of the world where one group of people fought for the rights of another group.
From the beginning, Lincoln kept a moderate position on slavery, protecting it in the states where it already existed, but refusing to allow it to spread. During the war, he hoped this policy would keep the uncommitted border states -Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky - from joining the Confederacy. He once clearly stated: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."
As the war dragged on, Lincoln's responsibilities were enormous. "Work," he had earlier written to a friend, "work, work is the main thing." In spite of the huge demands on him, Lincoln kept only a small staff and wrote most of his own letters and speeches. Every week he had an open house at the White House and spent hours visiting with and listening to guests, all of whom had opinions, grievances, and favors to ask. During his entire four-year term, Lincoln was away from Washington less than a total of one month.
There were two sons living with the Lincolns in the White House - William, known as Willie, and Thomas, known as Tad. Tad, who had a cleft palate and spoke with a lisp, was Lincoln's favorite. He used to bounce the boy on his knee and tell him stories. Willie was closer to his mother. In 1862, both children became ill with fever, and Willie, only 11 years old, never recovered. Lincoln, deeply grieved, had no choice but to plunge back into his work. However, Mary Lincoln was inconsolable. The death of Willie was the beginning of a downward spiral that eventually led to her complete mental collapse.
About six months after Willie died, Lincoln became convinced that the time was right for a stronger stand on slavery. Without seeking the advice or approval of his Cabinet, but informing them ahead of time, he wrote a statement that declared the freeing of all slaves in the United States. Then he waited for a Union victory, when northerners would be more receptive to the statement. That victory came with Antietam. Five days later Lincoln issued his history-making Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that all slaves in states, or parts of states, in rebellion, "are and hence-forward shall be, free." It did not mention freedom of the slaves in the Border States, but Lincoln encouraged those states to follow the lead and promised financial help if they agreed. The fact that none of those states followed his directive, was one of his greatest disappointments as President.
The Emancipation Proclamation was one of Lincoln's most brilliant strategies and one of his greatest gifts to America. It identified a high moral purpose for the war that helped unite northerners and gained international support for the Union cause. And it paved the way for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which three years later ended slavery in the United States once and for all.
In 1863, there were two great Union victories in the Civil War - the Battle of Gettysburg and one day later, the Battle of Vicksburg. People began to hope for an end to the fighting, but that end was still many more battles away.
It was 1864 by the time Lincoln finally put Grant in charge of the Union forces, and from then on the Confederates were on the run. Grant led his men on a march towards Richmond while meanwhile, Union general William Sherman, made his famous march from Tennessee, to Atlanta, and then to the sea. There were still victories and defeats on both sides; and men were still dying by the thousands, but the North began to feel confident that it was only a matter of time until the South would have to surrender.
With the South in the grips of Grant and Sherman, Lincoln was easily re-elected to his second term of Presidency. In his second inaugural speech he suggested that both the North and South, by God's will, had together been called on to pay the price for slavery. How long it would take to pay the price, he didn't know. But he asked for his people's patience until "all the wealth piled by the bondman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword."
Lincoln himself had paid dearly, through an invisible sword that drew no less exacting an account. His health had been completely destroyed by the burden of the cares thrust upon him. He was thin as a skeleton and seldom able to stomach a complete meal. His eyes were sunken and rimmed with black circles. His face was deeply lined and it forever wore an expression of haunting sadness. He didn't sleep well; he was subject to headaches and illnesses, and there was almost no recreation or pleasure in his life, except an occasional trip to the theater. He had nightmares and disturbing dreams. In one he had seen himself walking through a silent White House towards the sound of sobbing. He entered the East Room where he saw a coffin covered in black. "Who is dead?" he asked the guard on duty, and the soldier replied "the President."
On April 9, 1865 the South finally surrendered to the North at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Now Lincoln had a new task: to heal the wounds of his nation and re-unite them in brotherhood. In his second Inaugural Address, only a month before, he had promised "malice toward none and charity for all." Now, he wasted no time in assuring the public that treatment of the states that had seceded would be generous and forgiving. In his last public speech he said: "Finding themselves safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad."
The war was over. The business of rebuilding the United States was underway. The re-election had been won. There was time now, time to relax and celebrate.