Arago: Union


The morning after the November 1860 presidential election, newspapers across the nation announced what most informed citizens had expected for some time: Abraham Lincoln of Illinois had prevailed. Between election day and Lincoln’s inauguration four months later, South Carolina and six other Deep South states met in separate conventions and voted to withdraw from the Union. The seven then met in provisional Congress in Montgomery, Alabama, commandeered federal property in the seceding states, drafted a provisional Constitution, and mobilized for war. Four additional states subsequently joined them.

Lincoln remained firm in his resolve to preserve a single American Union of thirty-three states. He sought to placate the seceding states in his inaugural address by pledging to protect slavery where it then existed even as he declared the Union to be perpetual and secession unlawful. Following the assault on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, he called for volunteers to suppress an “illegal combination too powerful to be suppressed by the course of ordinary judicial proceedings.” George Washington had made a similar declaration in 1794 when confronted with the Whiskey Insurrection.

Lincoln’s views on slavery evolved over time. In his inaugural and during the first year of the war, he sought to check 'radicals' in Congress, chiefly to mollify slaveholding border states such as Kentucky and Missouri that might join the Confederacy. He also countermanded orders by his generals in the field in favor of emancipation, insisting that the issue was a political one to be decided by the president and Congress. Lincoln moved to embrace a program of compensated emancipation by early 1862, and in September of that year issued a statement that declared if those states in rebellion did not return to the Union within one hundred days, he would declare emancipation on January 1, 1863. Southern intransigence led to the Emancipation Proclamation that day. The abolition of slavery had become an explicit war aim endorsed by Lincoln’s party in the 1864 presidential campaign and achieved on the field of battle by the end of the war.

Following his inaugural address and accepting the reality of an impending war, Lincoln acted to solidify the command structure of the United States Army. He first offered leadership to Robert E. Lee of Virginia. Failing that, he turned to General Winfield Scott, a hero of the Mexican American War and current commander of United States forces.

General Scott served only briefly. He resigned in July, in part because of his age (he turned 70 in 1861) and also because of his sanguine assessment of the enormous costs of impending war. Lincoln then replaced Scott with General George B. McClellan of Pennsylvania, the second of a series of generals who failed to earn Lincoln’s confidence and trust. Not until 1864 did Lincoln find the general he sought. Ulysses S. Grant of Illinois ultimately proved to be the general Lincoln desired. He—and a much larger Union army than Lincoln envisioned at the outset—ultimately prevailed over the rebels. The war culminated with Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox courthouse.

Following Lee’s surrender, Lincoln turned to the question of reconstruction. His plans for a rapid and pacific reintegration of the southern states into the Union, however, died with his assassination at Ford’s theatre in Washington D.C. Having preserved the Union, the burden of securing the peace fell on the shoulders of his successor, Andrew Johnson.