Lincoln Reflects on the Civil War - an imaginary interview years after the war
Lincoln Talks About the Civil War
Interviewing President Lincoln in the year 2016 – An imaginary Q & A session
by Michael M. Nakade
Teacher: Thank you, Mr. Lincoln for being here today. My students are eager to ask you lots of questions regarding several battles fought during the Civil War and your presidency. We are really excited to learn about your Civil War experience.
Student 1: Mr. Lincoln, are you aware that historians set up a website and ranked all American presidents? According this website, you are the greatest American president of all time. How do you feel about that?
Lincoln: I’m certainly humbled. I think the reason for my being ranked at the top has to do with the fact that I kept the union together. Some presidents were rated highly because they made tough decisions during the time of intense national crisis. I served the country when the country was split and in a state of war.
Student 2: What was going through your mind when you heard that the Fort Sumter in South Carolina was attacked in April 1861?
Lincoln: It wasn’t totally unexpected. There were signs pointing to the armed conflict between the seceded states and the northern states. Seven states had left the Union to start the Confederate States of America in February, 1861. They wanted to take over federal government’s military forts and other military installations in their land.
Student 3: When the war began, four more southern states joined the Confederate States of America. I imagine that you were sad to see an important state such as Virginia leaving the Union. What was going through your mind at the time?
Lincoln: Yes, it’s true. Losing Virginia was a difficult one to accept. Originally, I had asked Gen. Robert E. Lee to take the command of the Union Army to quell the rebellion in the South. He declined my appointment because he was originally from Virginia. He said he could not possibly raise his sword against his home state. Then, my focus immediately shifted to the task of making sure that Border States such as Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri would remain in the Union. I even declared the martial law in Maryland to achieve this goal. Well, I got criticized for it, but Maryland remained in the Union.
Student 4: Mr. Lincoln, how long did you think that the rebellion in the South would last when the war broke out?
Lincoln: Like everyone else, most of us imagined that the war would last for four years. When I first asked for volunteers in the North, I thought that the soldiers would be home by Christmas 1861. The North had more resources, more money, more people, and more everything. I was hoping that these numerical advantages would immediately translate into victories in the battlefields. But, as you probably know, that wasn’t the case after the war began. The only person who predicted that the war would last several years was Gen. Winfield Scott. It turned out that he was right.
Student 5: Mr. Lincoln, it is well known that you went through many different commanders for the Union Army. I bet you were frustrated. Tell us about that experience.
Lincoln: There were lots of confusions and chaos during the initial stage of war. The Army of the Potomac lost several battles. Like you said, I had to go through several different generals. Many people know that I appointed Gen. McClellan twice and removed him twice. I tolerated him as long as he won some battles. But, his unwillingness to fight got to me by the fall of 1862. I promoted Grant to the top in 1864 because Grant was willing to fight.
Student 6: In a strange twist, Gen. McClellan was a Democratic Party nominee for the President in the election of 1864. I find that to be very interesting. What kind of a person was McClellan?
Lincoln: There is a very fine line between being cautious and timid. My problem with Gen. McClellan was that he wouldn’t fight. He had a huge army at his disposal in 1862, but he always had an excuse or two as to why he wasn’t ready to move his army. For some reasons, he always believed that his enemy had a larger army and was much better trained than the one he had. Furthermore, he was never decisive while engaging his enemy in battles. I think Grant said it best when asked about McClellan. Grant said: “McClellan to me is one of the mysteries of the war.”
Student 7: Since you mentioned Grant, I want to ask you about Grant. How was Grant as a general?
Lincoln: Like any generals in history, he won some battles and lost some battles. At the onset of conflict, he was leading the way in the West and won many battles for the Union. He achieved a critical victory at Shiloh in Tennessee in 1862. His crowning achievement was the victory at Vicksburg in Mississippi in July 1863. With this victory, the Union Army took a control of the entire length of the Mississippi River, and it was a huge blow to the Rebels. He was a true war hero for the North.
Student 8: When people talk about Abraham Lincoln, they almost always mention the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863. Will you explain to us why you decided to announce the freedom for slaves at that particular time?
Lincoln: The Institution of Slavery was at the heart of the conflict. Many people in the North and Europe felt that the Confederacy was based on this morally repulsive system of labor. I wanted to take advantage of this sentiment. I was ready to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in early summer of 1862, but my cabinet members talked me out of it. They wanted me to wait until the North achieved a victory in the field. They felt that the Proclamation would sound hollow without a major victory from the battlefields. SO, I waited for the right time. Luckily, Antietam in September 1862 provided that opportunity, even though it wasn’t an outright military victory. At least, it stopped Gen. Lee’s invasion of the Union territory, Maryland. The proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863.
Student 9: So, with the Proclamation, did all those slaves become free all at once on January 1863?
Lincoln: Actually, it didn’t. If you read the fine print of the Proclamation, you notice that slaves in the areas of current rebellion would be free. Since the Federal troops were still fighting against those Rebels in the eleven confederate states, we couldn’t free them, yet. Legally, they were freed when the 13th amendment was ratified in December, 1865. By then, I was dead, due to the assassin’s bullet.
Student 10: If the proclamation didn’t free any slaves within the Confederate states, why was it such a big deal?
Lincoln: It was a big deal because the proclamation raised the reason for our struggle to the next level. Until the proclamation, the North was fighting to bring back the rebel states to the Union. We were basically saying that they couldn’t leave the union just because of their dissatisfaction with the federal government. But with the proclamation, the North was now fighting to abolish the institution of slavery. The freedom of four million slaves in the southern states was now dependent on the North’s victory. It made the North the good guy and the South the bad guy in the eyes of European power. Practically speaking, it prevented the UK from recognizing the Confederacy as a legit nation. For our war effort, it was absolutely important that we prevented the UK from intervening the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy.
Student 11: How about the Gettysburg address? That, too, is something that everyone associates with Abraham Lincoln. How did that come about?
Lincoln: As you know, the Gettysburg address is very short. I jotted down in the train when I was heading down there. I never dreamed that it would be touted as one of the greatest speeches of all time. But it came from my heart, and it summarized my understanding of the purpose of the war.
Student 12: So far, we’ve mentioned northern generals Grant and McClellan. How about Sherman? He is famous for the March to the Sea. Please tell us about Sherman.
Lincoln: Gen. Sherman is another war hero for the Union Army. He and Grant were good friends and supported each other. Sherman conquered Atlanta, the transportation hub for the Confederacy in the fall of 1864. The timing was perfect. I was up for reelection against McClellan in November. With news of the fall of Atlanta, people in the North finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. We became convinced that a sweet victory was near. With that, I was easily reelected. I actually sent Sherman a thank-you note. Now, his march to the sea was controversial. Both Grant and I initially tried to talk him out of it because his plan targeted the non combatant civilian population of the South. But he assured me that his plan would end the war sooner. Sherman knew the meaning of ‘total war.’ He felt it was justified because the Southern civilians were the ones who supplied the Rebel forces. In this sense, Sherman was the father of modern warfare.
Student 13: You were assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in April, 1865. You are the first American president to be assassinated. History might have been vastly different had you served another term as the president. How do you feel?
Lincoln: I know what you mean. After I died, the Radical Republican Congress took over the government’s policy decision. My second term vice president, Andrew Johnson, became the president for my four-year term, and had to run the war ravaged country. It was an impossibly difficult task for Johnson. His Tennessee background didn’t help, either. My plan was to bring back the South quickly to the Union and to give them a chance to reconstruct their states. I was not interested in punishing the defeated South. I wanted to create a more harmonious union through reconciliation, but that’s another topic for another day. Thank you.
Teacher: Thank you, Mr. Lincoln. It was wonderful for all of us to hear you speak about the Civil War. We learn so much today.
(Ken Burns 9-part series on the Civil War produced in 1990 provided necessary information for the above work.)