Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth President of the United States and is well known for his humble beginnings as he was born in a log cabin in frontier Kentucky. He received very little formal education as a child and yet rose to the highest position in the land largely thanks to his own initiative in teaching himself everything he needed to know. He is perhaps most known as the President who successfully kept the nation together when the north and the south went to war over slavery.
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One of the more important events during this war was the battle at Gettysburg. This battle represented a turning point in the war in favor of the Union army as well as a turning point in the thinking of the President as revealed through his documents.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was delivered at the site in Pennsylvania where four months previous, more than 50,000 soldiers from both sides of the Civil War were killed or wounded. This battle at Gettysburg took the lives of more Americans than any other in history. At Gettysburg, many thousands of decomposing bodies littered the battlefield, many of which were buried in very shallow graves. According to a witness, “body parts stuck up here and there.
Hogs rooted out the bodies and devoured them” (Wills, 1992: 21). To alleviate the gruesome situation, a national cemetery was planned so that the dead could be buried properly. The dedication of the cemetery was held before all the thousands of bodies could be buried, but it was hoped that a formal and somber ceremony would serve to change the horrific scene of butchery to a place of honor and one that displayed a more peaceful ambiance. The degree to which this was hoped and achieved can be discovered by examining some of the original documents associated with Lincoln’s famous address.
Lincoln’s comments in the Gettysburg Address comprised less than 300 words although the total number varies by which document consulted. The Hay copy is strongly believed to have been one of two drafts of the speech written prior to its delivery, but this remains uncertain. Though very brief, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is still regarded as one of the country’s most revered speeches because it eloquently spoke of subjects that went far beyond the battle or the war.
The first line of Lincoln’s Address, ‘four score and seven years ago is one of, if not the most well-known line of any speech in American history. This refers to 1776, the year the country was born. The remainder of the first paragraph speaks of the equality for all men defined in the Declaration of Independence. The second paragraph speaks to the present conflict and that those who died did so to preserve a nation founded on the principle of equality.
The third paragraph speaks to the future. Those that live should carry on with the ‘unfinished work’ of those that have died as the way to honor their sacrifice. The Address is tied together with the precepts of those who founded the country to the present battle and indicates the future direction of the country should be based on the past and present (Gettysburg Address Hay Copy, 1863).
Contained in the second paragraph’s first line, the war was ‘testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated,’ could endure. Lincoln seemed to imply that the country was essentially an experiment, a method of governing that had never been attempted. This new nation was first ‘dedicated to the proposition that equality was an inherent right. This was why the reuniting of the nation was so important; so the noble experiment would not fail.
Lincoln intended to remind the country of these ideals by the words ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth, indicating that the loss of the war by the Union Army would result in the failure of uniquely American ideals for not only this country but all others as well who might try to emulate it in the future. The strong future emphasis of the speech through such lines as “It is for us, the living, rather be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on” may have been at least partially inspired, however, by Lincoln’s disappointment that Robert E. Lee had not been pursued and captured.
In a letter addressed to George Meade dated July 14, 1863, Lincoln outlined the various reasons why he was disappointed with the general’s performance and willing to accept the general’s resignation. The body of the letter details Lincoln’s understanding of the strategic situation faced by the Union armies shortly after July 3, 1863, the last day of the battle at Gettysburg.
Although Lincoln gives Meade some praise early in the letter, “I am very – very – grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg”, he quickly moves into an expression of his disappointment and his vision for what might have been. His evolving thoughts on how well Meade might have performed seem to be reflected in the Gettysburg Address as he calls for the nation to take up the ‘unfinished work’ Meade left behind, tempered by the acknowledgment of the noble efforts of the men on the field.
Essentially, Lincoln charges Meade in the letter with avoidance and withdrawal in sight of victory. Other words that might be used are cowardice and retreat. Given his removed view of the battle at the time he wrote this letter, Lincoln’s view was obviously that Meade could have easily captured Lee, destroyed the Confederate forces, and ended the war all at once if he had simply expended a little more effort. “I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape – He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war – As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely” (Abraham Lincoln to George G. Meade, 1863). A note on this document indicates that while Lincoln took the time to write it out and place it in an envelope, the letter was never sent as Lincoln reconsidered his position.
It is not surprising that Lincoln should take such a stance when documents such as the telegram from Simon Cameron, dated the same day as Lincoln’s letter to Gen. Meade (July 14, 1863) are examined. In this telegram, Cameron gives Lincoln every reason to believe that Meade is holding back his forces for no truly valid reason.
Cameron undermines Meade’s decision in two ways. First, he gives the President every reason to believe that Meade’s army is perfectly fit to continue the battle as they pursue a demoralized, disorganized, and poorly defended enemy. “His [Meade’s] army is in fine spirits and eager for battle. They will win if they get a chance” (Simon Cameron to Abraham Lincoln, 1863). In spite of this high energy, Cameron suggests that Meade has made the decision not to pursue the full knowledge that Lee will escape.
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Cameron also suggests that Meade’s forces will be successful if a simple adjustment in field position were to take place. “Genl. Couch has a fine army between Carlisle and Green Castle but will move no farther South without orders” (Simon Cameron to Abraham Lincoln, 1863).
In this statement, Cameron questions the importance of Gen. Couch’s position as well as his ability to accurately judge the position on the ground as well as Meade’s authority in being able to convince his fellow commanders to work in concert to achieve the ultimate goal of ending the war. The tone of the telegram is urgent and adamant that Lee must be captured, could be captured, and would not be captured if left to the discretion of Meade and his commanders in place unless ordered to do so by the President himself.
Exactly one week after these letters were written, Lincoln had already tempered his response somewhat toward the actions of Meade as is made clear in a letter he wrote to Oliver O. Howard, who was a Union general that had previously written to Lincoln in defense of Meade. Dated July 21, 1863, Lincoln’s letter to Howard was in response to Howard’s previously mentioned correspondence and admitted to Lincoln’s harsh feelings toward the failure of Meade to capture Lee. “I was deeply mortified by the escape of Lee across the Potomac because the substantial destruction of his army would have ended the war, and because I believed such destruction was perfectly easy” (Abraham Lincoln to Oliver O. Howard, 1863).
Despite this feeling, though, Lincoln admits other factors may have played a role in his initial response. One such factor was his personal internal belief, based on the exhilaration of early reports of success in Gettysburg. “Perhaps my mortification was heightened because I had always believed – making my belief a hobby possibly – that the main rebel army going North of the Potomac, could never return, if well attended to” (Abraham Lincoln to Oliver O. Howard, 1863).
Although he never fully explains the reasons for his change of heart other than this personal admission of his own character, Lincoln makes it clear that he no longer holds Meade in disgrace, saying “I am now profoundly grateful for what was done, without criticism for what was not done – Gen. Meade has my confidence as a brave and skilled officer and a true man” (Abraham Lincoln to Oliver O. Howard, 1863). This change of heart on the part of Lincoln may have been the result of information conveyed to him by Howard in an earlier letter, but was more likely the result of multiple sources providing much more detailed information of conditions on the ground.
Accounts of Lee’s retreat highlight the difficulties and issues Meade faced when determining whether or not to pursue the vanquished forces. General John Imboden had just arrived at Gettysburg as Lee had lost the battle. Rather than pulling these freshmen into an already lost battle, Lee ordered Imboden and his men to cover the rear of the retreating Confederate column (Imboden, 1887). Meanwhile, Meade was facing carefully drawn up troops with his tired men and could only guess that Lee was indeed retreating.
The pursuit had to take place through very muddy conditions and flood stage on the Potomac, but Meade was able to severely harass the retreating column, his men managed to cut the pontoon bridge free and the Confederate army was finally ‘cornered’ at Williamsport (Woodworth, 2003).
However, by the time Meade’s army was able to gather its strength around Williamsport, Lee’s army had entrenched itself in the town and was able to hold off Union attacks while the retreat continued unsuspected over the flooded river with the aid of ‘flats’ or small boats (Imboden, 1887). These same boats made it possible for Lee’s army to receive new ammunition from Winchester Just as night was falling, Lee’s entrenched army received backup support as Fitzhugh Lee approached from one direction and Stuart engaged Meade’s forces from another direction, forcing the Union army to retreat (Imboden, 1887).
The detail Imboden provides illustrates the degree to which Meade’s army was intentionally deceived by Imboden and makes it clear that Meade was acting with aggressive prudence in attempting to both captures Lee’s army and preserve his own troops.
It is likely that as Lincoln continued to push Meade to surround and engage Lee’s army, this is exactly what Meade was attempting to do while at the same time ensuring that he preserved as many Union soldiers as possible. It is also likely that Lincoln did not get the full report of the efforts that were taking place along the lines of retreat.
This is clear in the letters written to him. Cameron openly questions the decisions and authority of Meade while Howard has obviously written to vigorously defend Meade’s decisions in the field of battle. That Lincoln obviously had a change of heart is manifested in his own letters first revealing extreme disappointment and gradually mellowing to a more complete and appreciative understanding of what occurred.
Gettysburg was an important battle during the Civil War not just because it represented a turning point in the conflict, but also because of the opportunity it provides for future generations to more completely understand the nature of the man who led the country during this time. For those who knew the inner conflicts, now available to the public through the publication of Lincoln’s personal correspondence, Lincoln is revealed to have been a man of action and thought.
He was eager to take aggressive action to end the conflict between the states as quickly as possible with the least loss of life while still keeping the nation held together. At the same time, he was able to acknowledge his own human weaknesses and admit when he was wrong.
These messages, demonstrated on a personal level through these documents, were then delivered on a national level in the Gettysburg Address as Lincoln urges the nation to quickly finish what has been started (“it is for us … to be dedicated here to the unfinished work”) and humbly acknowledge greatness in one you had previously condemned (brilliantly conveyed in the terms of the ambiguous ‘they’ as Lincoln refers to those who have died, but does not divide his comments between north and south, merely living and dead). He proposes this as the means to preserve a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
“Abraham Lincoln: Gettysburg Address, Hay Copy.” (1863). Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Trans. Lincoln Studies Center. Galesburg, IL: Knox College.
“Abraham Lincoln to George G. Meade.” (1863). Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Trans. Lincoln Studies Center. Galesburg, IL: Knox College.
“Abraham Lincoln to Oliver O. Howard.” (1863). Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Trans. Lincoln Studies Center. Galesburg, IL: Knox College.
Imboden, Brig. General John. “The Retreat from Gettysburg.” Emmitsburg Area Historical Society. (1887; 1996). Web.
“Simon Cameron to Abraham Lincoln.” (1863). Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Trans. Lincoln Studies Center. Galesburg, IL: Knox College.
Wills, Gary. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Reshaped America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Woodworth, Steven E. Beneath a Northern Sky: A Short History of the Gettysburg Campaign. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.