xxxxxAbraham Lincoln, the man who guided the Union to victory in the American Civil War and brought about the abolition of slavery in the United States, was assassinated on the 14th April 1865, just five days after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. He was born into a poor family near Hodgenville, Kentucky, but spent much of his childhood in a wild, backwoods region of Indiana. He had little schooling, but he taught himself to read and write, and read any book he could find or borrow. In 1831, following a move to Illinois, he worked as a storekeeper and postmaster at New Salem but, in his spare time, he studied law, and in 1834 was elected to the state General Assembly.  Admitted to the bar in 1846, he set up a highly successful legal practice in Springfield, the new state capital, and was elected to represent Illinois in Congress in 1847. During this time he gained a reputation for his eloquence and his opposition to slavery. He went back to Springfield in 1849, but returned to politics in 1854 to oppose the extension of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska. He failed to be elected to Congress, but his fighting performance won him the Republican nomination, and he was elected President in 1860. In the civil war that followed his prime aim was to keep the Union intact. To ensure that the border states remained loyal he did not oppose slavery outright, but in 1862 his Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves not under Union control. Then three years later his 13th Amendment extended emancipation across the United States. By clever manoeuvring he managed to retain the support of both radicals and conservatives in Congress, and he eventually found a commander, General Ulysses Grant, who was prepared to wage total war and bring the conflict to a speedy end. His lenient proposal to bring the break-away states back into the Union - outlined in his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction of 1863 - was a genuine attempt to heal the nation’s wounds. An eloquent man of remarkable political talent, and an unswerving belief in democracy and freedom of the individual, it was largely due to the quality of his leadership that the Union was preserved, slavery was abolished, and the United States was given “a new birth of freedom”.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN  1809 - 1865  (G3c, G4, W4, Va, Vb)


Assassination: hand-coloured lithograph produced by the American printmaking company headed by Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888) and James Merritt Ives (1824-1895), based in New York – Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington. Lawyer: date and artist unknown. Lincoln: by the Scottish-born American photographer Alexander Gardner (1821-1882), 1862 – Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut, USA. Freed-Slaves: date and artist unknown. Surratt: date and artist unknown. Booth: date and artist unknown. Memorial: marble statue of Washington by the American sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), dedicated in May 1922. Whitman: detail, by the American photographer George Collins Cox (1851-1903), 1887 – Museum of the City of New York, USA.

xxxxxPresident Abraham Lincoln, the man who successfully guided the Union to victory in the American Civil War, and brought about the abolition of slavery in the United States, was assassinated on the 14th April 1865, just five days after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. While attending a performance of the comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, an actor named John Wilkes Booth, a known Confederate sympathizer, entered his state box and shot him in the back of the head. He died the following morning.

xxxxxLincoln was born into a poor, illiterate family, near Hodgenville, Kentucky. When he was seven his family moved to Perry County in south-west Indiana, and it was in this wild, backwoods region that he grew up, helping his father to clear the land and grow crops. He attended school for scarcely more than a year, but he acquired a great love of reading and studying, and quickly taught himself to read and write. His reading included the Bible, Shakespeare and any history book he could lay his hands on - including his favourite work The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington.

xxxxxIn 1830 the family left Indiana to settle in Illinois, and a year later Lincoln left home to find work at New Salem, a small settlement on the Sangamon River. The next seven years were the making of him. He took on various jobs, including the running of a small store, work as a surveyor, and the village postmaster, but at the same time he began to build a promising career for himself. His interest in local politics gained him election to the Illinois General Assembly in 1834, and by studying law in his spare time he was admitted to the bar in 1836. A striking young man - well over six feet tall and strongly built - he impressed the village folk by his earnest interest in local affairs, whilst his uprightness earned him the nickname “honest Abe”. Abraham Lincoln, born in a log cabin on Nolin Creek, Kentucky, was now set to go places. “His ambition”, commented a colleague around this time, “was a little engine that knew no rest”.  

xxxxxIn 1837 he settled in Springfield, the new state capital, and began a highly successful career as a lawyer. His tall, lanky figure - made even taller by the wearing of a stove-pipe hat - soon became a familiar figure in circuit courts across nine counties in Illinois, and, over the years he gained widespread recognition as a shrewd, effective but fair-minded attorney. Quite apart from petty offences, he took part in criminal trials, and earned a great deal of money representing the likes of banks, railroads, insurance companies and manufacturers. Meanwhile he continued to serve as a representative in the state General Assembly, and by his retirement in 1841 had become a leading member of the Whig party. It was there that he first voiced his strong opposition to slavery, and in 1837 he openly voted against resolutions in favour of the South’s “peculiar institution”. At this stage, however, he was not an abolitionist in the true sense of the word, but merely sought to prevent the spread of slavery to other territories. Then In 1846 came higher office. In August he was elected to represent Illinois in Congress. Now a married man, he moved to Washington with his wife and young son and served for a term (1847-1849). During that period he became an outspoken critic of the Mexican War - arguing that it was unconstitutional - and gave strong support to the Wilmot Proviso, a measure that sought to bar slavery from any territory gained from that war.

xxxxxIn March 1849, however, Lincoln returned to Springfield a disappointed man. His opposition to the Mexican War had lost him support amongst his own voters, and he felt frustrated at his failure to gain federal office. He put politics aside and resumed his work as a lawyer, extending his circuit to fourteen counties. And there he might well have remained had it not been for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed in Congress in 1854, a piece of legislation which opened up large areas of land to the spread of slavery, and went contrary to the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Lincoln viewed this Act as highly immoral and was determined to do something about it. He returned to politics, joined the Republican Party, and ran for the Senate against the man who had sponsored this Act, the Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas. He lost the election, but the series of debates he had with Douglas - seven in all - brought him national fame. His powerful denunciation of what he saw as an alarming development, and his staunch support of the right of Congress to keep new territories free from slavery, greatly impressed the Republicans. Come 1860, his eloquent, forthright performance (and his pioneer background) won him the nomination for presidency, and there followed a somewhat unexpected success at the polls, due in large measure to divisions within the Democratic party.

xxxxxHowever, even before he took office in March 1861, seven cotton-growing states of the Deep South, opposing the election of this “Black Republican”, had succeeded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. He was alarmed at this development, but from the beginning he made it abundantly clear that his overriding aim was to keep the Union intact. Indeed, in the hope of stopping any of the border states from joining this Confederation, he actually came out in support of slavery in those states in which it existed. And when, at the height of the war, he introduced his Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863, freeing slaves in territory not under Union control, it was simply done as a necessary war measure, he explained, to weaken the fighting ability of the Confederate forces. Even so, in order to keep the Union together, he excluded Tennessee, the loyal border slave states, and certain parts of Louisiana and Virginia. It was by such artful manoeuvring in this and other state matters, together with his balanced appointment of government officials, that he managed to retain the support of both the radicals and conservatives throughout the greater part of his presidency.  

xxxxxBut Lincoln regarded slavery as a “monstrous injustice” and was determined, when he saw fit, to extend the abolition of slavery to all parts of the United States. The opportunity came in 1864 when he recommended the 13th Amendment to Congress. This was passed by the Senate in the April and, following his re-election, eventually pushed through the House of Representatives in February 1865. He did not live to see the full implementation of this Amendment - achieved in December - but the ground work had been done and a start had been made.

xxxxxIn the day-to-day running of the war Lincoln kept a close eye on all aspects of the conflict. He did not hesitate to use his arbitrary powers where needed, put forward his views on the Union’s  military strategy, and intervene where necessary in the firing and appointment of his military leaders. He eventually found a highly capable commander in General Ulysses Grant. He gave him overall command in 1864 and, despite his abhorrence of war, he supported Grant’s strategy of total warfare in order to bring the struggle to a swift and successful conclusion. At the same time, in December 1863, a year and some months before the end of the war, he issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, a lenient settlement “to bind up the nation’s wounds”. This aimed to bring the break-away states back into the Union as quickly as possible, but as the war came to an end the idea met with strong opposition from the conservatives, as did his support for a limited suffrage for black people in Louisiana. With his death in April 1865 any hope of a generous and speedy resolve of the peace settlement died with him.    

xxxxxLincoln’s intrinsic honesty, his courage and determination, his consummate skill as a politician, and his passionate defence of self-government, equality and individual freedom, puts him amongst the greatest of American presidents. No leader has defended democracy with greater conviction or finer eloquence. It was largely due to the quality of his leadership that the Union was preserved, slavery was abolished, and the United States was indeed given “a new birth of freedom”.

xxxxxIncidentally, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on the 14th April 1865 might well have been prevented if the door to the presidential box had been locked, and the police guard on duty in the hallway had not left his post to have a drink across the street! ……

xxxxx…… Afterxthe murder, John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) (illustrated) managed to escape, but he was tracked down to a farm in northern Virginia two weeks later and killed by Union soldiers. Eight conspirators were put on trial for the assassination. All were found guilty and four were hanged, among whom was Mary Surratt (1823-1865) (illustrated), the first woman to be executed by the U.S. federal government. A known Southern sympathizer, it was claimed that her boarding house in Washington had been the meeting place of the conspirators (“the nest that hatched the egg”) and that she had assisted in the setting up of the plot. She pleaded her innocence throughout the trial. ……

xxxxx……  Just a few days before his death Lincoln told his wife of a dream he had in which he saw a funeral at the White House. When he asked one of the soldiers who had died he was told that the President had been assassinated. ……

xxxxx……  In the 1860 election campaign for the presidency much use was made of the nickname “Honest Abe”. He was also called the “Rail Splitter”. This referred to the fact that in his early days in Salem he earned money by splitting logs for the making of fences. ……

Xxxxx……  Lincoln married Mary Todd in November 1842. They had four sons, all born at Springfield. Only the eldest, Robert Todd, survived into adulthood.  Eddie died aged three, and Willie aged eleven. The youngest son, Thomas, but known always as “Tad” (short for Tadpole), had a partially cleft palate and spoke with a lisp. He died of tuberculosis in 1871, aged 18. ……

xxxxx……  As one would expect, Lincoln’s name and statue are found in many places across the United States. The most famous are the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois. Ford’s Theatre in Washington and Petersen House (where he died) are museums to his memory. Illinois State is known as the “Land of Lincoln”.

xxxxxIt was in the autumn of 1865 that the American journalist and poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) wrote his famous, symbolic elegy to Abraham Lincoln entitled When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. He also paid tribute to him in his poem O Captain! My Captain!, the first verse of which reads:

O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

xxxxxDuring the Civil War Whitman visited the battlefield of Fredericksburg in 1862, where his brother George had been wounded, and then spent the next three years visiting the many casualties at the front line or in military hospitals in and around Washington. The eleven articles he wrote about his wartime experiences were later published in 1875 under the title Memoranda During the War. Like his earlier work Drum Taps, it tells of the horror and terror of war, the heroism shown by men in combat, and the intense suffering of the dying and the wounded.  

xxxxxWhitman’s major work, the anthology entitled Leaves of Grass, was first published in 1855 and over the next 35 years was continually reviewed and enlarged over nine editions. Written for the most part in free verse, some of the poems were severely criticised for their indecent reference to the human body and their homosexuality. That aside, their unconventional style and their wealth of subject matter sought to champion the cause of the common man, and to portray the American vision of democracy, individual freedom, and the brotherhood of man. Many of the poems take as their theme a pantheistic concept of life, and dwell on the mystic relationship between man and nature. Life as he saw it was “immense in passion, pulse and power”. Among the best known works in this anthology are Song of Myself, I Sing the Body Electric and Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.


Walt Whitman