Abraham Lincoln led the nation through the Civil War, preserved the union and abolished slavery. As the 16th President of the United States, he served from 1860 until his assassination in April 1865. Part of the Immortals leadership series.
Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen:
PRESIDENCY – MARCH 4, 1861 – April 14, 1865
Abraham Lincoln, Republican Candidate for President of the United States, 1860.
The Union must and shall be preserved. Free speech, free homes, free territory. Protection to American Industry. For President Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. For Vice President Hannibal Hamlin of Maine. 1860.
Newt: On this episode of Newt’s world. Abraham Lincoln is with the single exception of George Washington, the most important president in American history. Without Lincoln, the civil war would have ended with the south leaving the union, with America broken. Without Lincoln, the moral basis of freedom would never been quite as articulate. Without Lincoln, so many things that we take for granted would never become true. I’m going to try to share with you the essence of Lincoln, a man who is the most complex and probably the smartest person ever to occupied the White House. What are the lessons of Lincoln? What is it about Lincoln that made him so unusual, so effective and so important? I’ve written four novels about the civil war. I’ve spent years studying Lincoln. I think that he is at the center of defining America.
Abraham Lincoln’s rise to greatness is really the classic American story. The proof that you could really have almost nothing, and if you had ambition and determination and were willing to work really hard, amazing things could happen. In 1809 Lincoln is born in Harden County, Kentucky, and he is in a family that’s very poor. They ultimately relocate to the frontier of Indiana looking for better land, looking for greater opportunity, but they’re still very poor. And when he’s nine years old, his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln dies of sickness. A year later, his Father Thomas Lincoln remarries to the widow, Sarah Bush Johnston. That long stretch of being extremely poor, so poor that I think it’s literally true that Lincoln learned how to read by the fireplace because most of the time wouldn’t use candles which were expensive, famous historic pictures of Lincoln laying in front of the fireplace looking at books when he was very, very young. It’s probable that in that period he’d never gotten more than about three years of formal education, but it was also a period where people often didn’t get much education, often did not do a lot of reading. For his whole life, he’ll read. And in fact, stories of Lincoln when he was on the circuit had his horse trained so that the horse would pull the buggy and Lincoln would read between towns. He was immersed in the Bible and in fact, if you really want to understand the cadence of Lincoln, look at the King James version of the Bible because Lincoln writes very much in the pattern of the King James version, which of course, in 19th century America, is the most commonly read single book. And so he sounded right to people. He also worked really hard. As a result, he became physically very strong. He’s a big guy anyway.
But in addition to that, he was physically strong. He does a lot of different jobs, both farm jobs and jobs in town. And then something which I think really affected his life, when he is 19 years old, he works on a flatboat that carried cargo down to New Orleans and he saw slavery in a slave market. And I think that he never ever forgot that and he went back down again three years later on his second trip to New Orleans. And in that period I think he just realized it was just wrong and he hated it and now he didn’t run around as an abolitionist. He didn’t go make a big noise about it, but you will see very early in his career, particularly in a very famous speech that he gave in 1838, he began to lay out a framework of thinking about these things that marks him as different than most of the people around him. He clerks a general store when he is 22 years old.
Unfortunately for him, the store ultimately goes broke and he spends a number of years paying off the debt, which again is one of those things that in a small town people really respected him because they, they came to believe that he was somebody that kept his word. Here’s a guy who wants to get ahead. He’s striving constantly. He’s learning constantly and he’s very good with people. He obviously stood out. He was very tall and very visible for his time. He was physically amazingly strong, so people had enormous respect at a time when physical strength really mattered. In addition, people realized he was really smart and finally, he was a great storyteller. So Lincoln was always collecting stories to tell people. They were usually kind of long drawn out, slow stories, exactly what you’d need if you’re going to be on the circuit as a lawyer and found yourself every evening at a tavern somewhere having dinner and a drink with the boys.
Speaker 1: And back then it would be, basically an all-male company. And so he became pretty popular just because you know, he was kind of fun to be around and people thought he had good ideas and he had wisdom, but they also thought that he was quite sociable. The Black Hawk war occurs, when Blackhawk led a group of Indians from several different tribes across from what was then the Iowa Indian territories and they entered Illinois scared everybody. And at that point there was a call for volunteers and Lincoln who is 23 at the time, promptly went in and volunteered and the way militia back then pick leaders, they would line up behind the person they want to have as leaders. So Lincoln and one other candidate for captain of their unit took positions and then people lined up and a lot more people lined up behind Lincoln then behind the other guy.
So he became captain. In fact, this really touched Lincoln at a personal level. He said later quote, I was elected a captain of volunteers, a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since. And that was not because he was going to be a military leader. It was because his friends and neighbors had chosen him, they’d shown respect for him. They thought he was competent and as a result, he felt a great sense that he had gained a lot of ground. You know, for a kid from a really poor family, born in Kentucky, partially raised in Indiana, and now a young adult in Illinois, he was getting to be somebody who’s doing well enough and respected enough to become captain of his militia. As Lincoln said, at one point they never saw a single Indian while he was, uh, in charge of the militia.
They wandered around the woods, didn’t get anything done that mattered and disbanded or went home. It also was an illustration of how close to the Frontier Lincoln was that he was part of I think the last major Indian campaign in Illinois, as the sweep of people began moving further and further west and organizing more and more from territories into states. I think that you have to see in Lincoln, this very rural farm boy who is determined to someday do something that matters and who learns a whole series of tough lessons but never backs off, never stops, never slows down. Next, Lincoln’s political career begins and he works strategically to gain national attention.
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Lincoln was a very ambitious man, ambitious from the very beginning. He had a desire to get ahead and he was constantly thinking about how to get things done. One of the most amazing facts about Lincoln is that when he first ran for the legislature at 23 years of age, having lost the first time, Lincoln begins to study being a lawyer, and that same year he’s elected as the Whig candidate to the lower house of the Illinois General Assembly at 24 years of age. Most of our founding fathers and most of our most successful leaders in fact spent a lot of time learning their trade. And here is Lincoln at 24 years of age entering the legislature and beginning to learn how to be an effective legislator. In fact, he’s in the legislature for two years before he gets a license to practice law and then he moves to Springfield and begins to practice and opens up an increasingly successful law firm.
Now he’s not particularly successful in pursuing a spouse. In 1837 he writes to a woman that he really hoped would marry him. She didn’t even reply to his letter. Mary Todd Lincoln, they have an on and off relationship. Finally, Mary Todd agrees to marry him and in 1842, they get married. At the same time, he’s left the legislature, he’s tired of going to the state legislature and he is rising as a politician. People tend to forget that Lincoln is a major leader in the Whig party as it was then called in the 1830s he ultimately won a congressional seat for one term, went to Washington and immediately made a name for himself introducing what was called the spot resolution because President Polk had gotten us into a war with Mexico and Lincoln, as a Whig who was opposed to Polk was saying he couldn’t find a spot of ground in which what Polk was saying was true.
It was actually quite unpopular because during the Mexican war, the war became relatively popular and it was seen as kind of unpatriotic to be questioning it as Lincoln did. He came back home, not because he lost, but because he’d made a deal with a fellow Whig that they would alternate terms in Congress, a deal which by the way, the other guy broke and kept the seat leaving Lincoln out of public office for the better part of a decade and he kept trying to get back into office. He applied at one point to become the governor of the territory of Oregon and was turned down. He stayed active in Whig politics while the Whig party was dying and gradually began to realize that if he had a future, he had to join this new thing called the Republican Party. And so, Lincoln became one of the senior leaders bringing with him all his connectivity from the years as a Whig in Illinois and became a very prominent Republican. That led ultimately to his running for the Senate in 1858 in what is an absolutely fascinating moment in American history, Lincoln is going to run for the Senate at a time when the senators are actually picked by the state legislature.
Speaker 1: So in a sense, while he runs as a personality, the ultimate result will be reflected in how the Republicans do in the state legislative races. He’s going to run against Stephen Douglas, one of the leading Democrats in the entire country, a man who was very widely respected, who had risen much faster than Lincoln. And so Lincoln as the underdog, outsider taking on the great senator, the local railroad gave Douglas an entire rail car to live in for the campaign and Douglas went around the state of Illinois in great comfort. Lincoln bought a ticket in the common everyday passenger part of the train and could be found, you know, sleeping by himself on a bench, on the train going from place to place. And that gave you a sense of their relative significance as they started into this campaign. Lincoln then decides that the way he’s going to go after Douglas is he’s going to challenge him to debates.
And Douglas of course being the incumbent and the front runner and the guy who should win doesn’t want a debate. So Douglas hides from Lincoln and Lincoln comes up with this theory. Very typical of what you’ll see with Lincoln again and again, thinking strategically and announces that wherever Douglas speaks, Lincoln will speak the next night. Well, of course that means that Lincoln gets to take apart Douglass’s speech. Lincoln in effect, gets the last word. And after a couple of weeks of this, Douglas says, if you’re going to trail me around everywhere, let’s just debate. And so they ultimately agree to seven debates. These were debates where people spoke for 45 minutes at a time, where they had, they outlined huge propositions, and they walked through them and it turned out that Lincoln was in fact extraordinarily good debater. Now this should not have come as a shock. He had been making a living as a trial lawyer in Illinois for years. In many ways appealing to the voter and appealing to a jury or the same business.
And so he had a very good sense of how to take complicated ideas, break them down into very simple concepts, explain them in a very down-home kind of way, and ultimately be in a position where the jury nodded yes, and that’s how Lincoln and made it very, very good living. Well here he was now applying exactly the same skill, exactly the same technique to debate and Douglas suddenly found himself in trouble. And part of the reason Douglas was in trouble was that he was trying to straddle the great issue of the 1850s ,which was slavery. Douglas knew that the country was on the verge of breaking apart and he knew that northerners we’re increasingly anti-slavery. Something which had accelerated dramatically with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was a very popular novel, which sold an enormous number of books in the north and which portrayed in deeply emotional ways the plight of African Americans who were slaves.
The effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the south was to maximize the degree to which southerners were now paranoid, convinced that the Yankees wanted to destroy their civilization, abolish agriculture based on slavery, and then in fact have the Yankees dominate the region. So the very intensity with which anti-slavery movements began to grow, particularly starting in New England where there were genuine abolitionists, that is people who are saying not only is slavery bad, but we should abolish it. And they were sort of the radical wing of the emerging Republican Party. What Douglas is trying to do is hold together the Democratic Party, which was the party of slavery. He knew that he couldn’t be pro slavery, and win in Northern Illinois he couldn’t be anti-slavery and win in southern Illinois. And furthermore, since his real goal was to run for president in 1860 he was trying to find a formula which would allow both southern Democrats and northern Democrats to be for him for president.
If he could keep the Democratic Party unified, he would probably win the presidency because they’d beaten the Republicans in 1856 and there was every reason to believe that a unified Democratic Party could beat the Republicans again an 1860. Lincoln understanding all this begins to put together a strategy that forces Douglas to answer a series of questions and forces Douglas into an untenable position where he is too pro slavery for Northern Illinois and he is too obviously hiding and straddling for southern Illinois and Lincoln is sort of chasing him intellectually and forcing him into a position that he knows is unsustainable. Douglas, I think deep down knew that if we continued on the road that we were on in 1858 we were going to end up in a civil war and he was trying to find a formula that would contain slavery but at the same time would not so threaten it that the south would secede.
Speaker 1:Lincoln had a different approach. Lincoln wanted to communicate unequivocally that slavery was unacceptable. Each of them have this balancing act. Lincoln is anti-slavery, he’s not quite yet for abolition because he knows that he can’t win as a straight out abolitionist in Illinois. Douglas doesn’t want to defend slavery, but he wants to block it from being abolished and the problem for Douglas is that southerners have concluded any effort to limit slavery is in fact an effort to kill slavery. And so, Douglas is gradually losing ground throughout the south the longer this campaign goes on and losing the opportunity to someday be president. Lincoln, on the other hand, is gradually consolidating the notion that he’s a good enough debater he could stand up against somebody who everybody believed up until that year was probably the best orator in the country, and Lincoln kept growing in stature.
Douglas kept declining and stature, and by election day, Lincoln actually carried the popular vote by about 4,000 but because what mattered was the state legislature, the Democrats were able, because of the way the districts were designed, and because of some holdovers who weren’t up for election that year, the Democrats kept a majority in the legislature. So Douglas got elected, but ironically Lincoln won the moral fight. Lincoln also, and this gives you an example of both how smart he was and how ambitious he was. Lincoln had arranged for the newspapers to cover the Lincoln Douglas debates. Lincoln then arranged for the Lincoln Douglas Debates to be pulled together into a book. He then arranged for the book to be published in a very inexpensive form and thousands and thousands of copies of the Lincoln Douglas debates suddenly showed up all over the country. And here is this lawyer from Illinois who has only been a congressman for two years, suddenly beginning to emerge in 1859 as a very serious person who, although he had not won the Senate seat, had won the popular vote for the Senate seat.
He had proven that he was capable of taking on Douglas and all of a sudden lots of people in the Republican Party who begin to wonder about this guy Lincoln and where he was coming from. Now Lincoln at that point starts campaigning and he goes into a number of states in the Midwest and as far east as Ohio campaigning, because back then they used to have a lot of off year elections and in 1859 a number of states held elections and Lincoln is all over the place campaigning for people in effect, picking up IOUs. Everywhere Douglas goes, Lincoln goes, and on election day 1859 the Republicans have won virtually everywhere. So now Lincoln is riding a wave as the guy who actually is helpful to the party, who’s helped grow the party. He’s beginning to pick up strength across the Midwest. Two things come into play at this point.
The first is if you look at the United States and you assume for a minute that the south is never going to vote Republican, then the question becomes how do you put together a majority in the electoral college? Even though you probably can’t put together a majority of the popular vote, there’s a certain advantage to having a Midwesterner. They’re seen as more moderate in that period. No New Englander was going to get elected president because they’re seen as hard line abolitionists who are very, very likely to lead the country into a war. The leading candidate is actually from New York, Senator Seward, who had been the dominant leader in the Republican Party and people sort of thought Seward would get to be the nominee except in the Midwest, Lincoln was clearly more effective than Seward and if you think that the real battle ground against Douglas will be in the Midwest, there’s sort of an underlying bias in favor of Lincoln to take on Douglas and then something really weird happens.
There are pieces of Lincoln’s career that are almost divine intervention. Seward decides that he’s so obviously going to be nominated that he goes to Europe. So, he’s out of the country, taking for granted that the delegates are going to be for him. Had Seward, stayed home and had Seward worked the delegates, he probably could have won the nomination, but he leaves. Now Lincoln, who’s not a fool, suddenly realize there’s a big vacuum here and for weeks, Lincoln is writing people all across the country while Seward’s off seeing Europe. By the time Seward gets back, Lincoln has begun to really be a factor. The other example of almost divine intervention is, where is the Republican National Convention going to be in 1860? It’s going to be in Chicago, Illinois. Well, who can dominate Chicago? Well, Lincoln can. So what happens is his key advisors go to Chicago.
They organize the crowds. They guarantee that they’re going to dominate the energy level with Lincoln supporters. So gradually he’s began to build all this momentum and Seward suddenly finds himself out of sync. He hasn’t kept touch with the delegates the way Lincoln has. Seward was overconfident and all of a sudden here is the Republican nominee. Now, poor Douglas, who has spent his whole life trying to get to be president, who’s maneuvered brilliantly, who’s organized things. He’s been a great senator. He’s really made a lot of impact on the country, a much more important person than Abraham Lincoln prior to 1860. Douglas is watching his party die because what’s happened is the southerners have basically said, if you aren’t totally in favor of the expansion of slavery everywhere in the country, we’re not going to support you. Well, Douglas knows he can’t be for that, he won’t get any votes in the north if he’s for the expansion of slavery everywhere in the country. And so Douglas is caught in a moment where his party is disintegrating. The south votes decisively against Lincoln. In the north, Lincoln wins all only with a plurality of the votes, and Lincoln gets about 40% of the vote. He carries the electoral college decisively because the other guys are splitting the rest of it and outside the south, Lincoln is dominant and the Republicans are dominant. Coming up, Lincoln struggles to keep the union together during the civil war.
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Newt: Lincoln decides that he is simply not going to get involved in decision making until he becomes president, which will not happen until March. The Union is falling apart. The South is gradually starting to succeed and armories are being taken over by southerners. Federal forts are being taken over by southerners. President Buchanan is refusing to do anything to defend the union and is sitting there passively waiting for Lincoln to show up. Lincoln is sitting there in Illinois thinking to himself, we may end up in a really big fight. If we’re going to be in a really big fight, I’d better really mobilize popular opinion and so Lincoln decides that he will go by train. Lincoln went from Springfield to Washington, zigzagging across the Midwest and the northern upstate New York, and everywhere he goes, he’s giving brief speeches and what he’s doing is he’s letting people for the first time in history, see the president, it’s the biggest event in the town’s history.
The train pulls up, Abraham Lincoln gets on the back of the train, talks with the crowd for a little while. His popularity keeps growing. He then gets to Washington and he gives an inaugural address. He appeals to the south and he says, look, we don’t have to get into a war. We don’t have to fight. We’re not your natural enemies. The tragic fact is that the south has made the decision, at least the hard line elements of the south have made the decision that if Lincoln is president, they’re gone, period. And I think it’s really important to understand this. Lincoln had become the symbol of abolition no matter what he said as far as southerners were concerned, Lincoln was the enemy. And if he was going to be president in states, that meant that their enemy was in the White House. And that meant that they had no choice in their minds except to secede.
Lincoln, again, as a strategist, is faced with three or four very, very big strategic choices. He hadn’t thought about what a civil war would be like. It’s certainly not the presidency that he thought he was running for, but he understood almost instantly a couple of big facts. The first was he wanted to be very, very patient and maneuver so that the south fired the first shot and Lincoln understood that if it was a war of northern aggression, which of course is exactly what southerners called it, that he couldn’t hold the union together because people weren’t going to sign up for a war of aggression. But he also understood that if it was a war against somebody who was attacking the union, he’d have a much bigger base of support in the north and a much greater willingness to sign up volunteers. In Charleston, the most active members of secession get frustrated and tired and they fire on Fort Sumpter. Now when they fired on Fort Sumpter that suddenly said to the entire north, they are attacking us now. It was a defensive war, a war to defend the union. Lincoln was now able to portray it as I am responding to southern aggression. I need your help to defend the union and Governors began calling for volunteers and people began to show up and join the union army in substantial numbers. The second thing was Lincoln knew that he could not afford to have Washington isolated, and yet if you look at a map, you have Virginia on the south, you have Delaware, which at that time was a pro slavery state and you have Maryland, which frankly was essentially pro slavery in 1861 and there was a real danger that the railroad would be cut off. There was a real danger that the legislature in Maryland would vote for succession and Lincoln began taking very dramatic steps.
He locked up about half of the Maryland state legislature because he knew that if they were allowed to vote, they would vote for secession. And Lincoln’s attitude was, you can’t ask me to follow rules which guarantee that we will destroy the very constitution that you claim you want to defend. And therefore I’m going to do what I have to do in order to defend the constitution. So Lincoln is arguing that he can use the power that’s written in the constitution because the founding fathers understood. You could have insurrection, you could have riots, and there are times when you had to be able to set aside the normal procedures of a peacetime society and make sure that you could protect the society. And he applies this in Maryland with substantial force and substantial willingness to lock people up and do whatever is necessary because he knows if Maryland is able to leave the union, Washington will be cut off.
If Washington is cut off, it’s very hard to imagine how the union is going to survive. The second thing he knows is that Delaware, which is wavering and Kentucky, which is wavering need to be kept in the union. In fact, Lincoln says a one point, I hope God is on my side, but I have to have Kentucky and this is one of the reasons why pure us to realize that Lincoln’s very cautious about abolishing slavery. The reason’s pretty simple. If he was seen as an abolitionist, he would’ve lost Maryland, Delaware, and Kentucky immediately. He can’t afford to do that cause that means they will lose the war. So the requirement of survival leads him to be very careful and very cautious. And as a result, Kentucky ultimately becomes pro union and Delaware ultimately becomes pro union. Maryland as I said, which had a few extra provisions remains in the union.
So Lincoln has won that round. The Problem Lincoln has, which he doesn’t solve for a very long time is the key generals don’t agree with him. General McClellan who is a key general in the east, doesn’t particularly want to win the war. McClellan is actually in some ways sympathetic to the south and McClellan wants to protect the north but not defeat the south. And McClellan is also a very, very good organizer and people like him because he’s building this huge union army. And the result is Lincoln has tied himself to a general who blocked him from decisive action. In the summer of 1862, the union army has moved up is literally within sight of the Church steeples of Richmond. And Richmond’s the key for the south because it’s the biggest industrial city. It’s politically vital. It is the capital of the confederacy and the commanding general, General Johnson, gets wounded and the president of the confederacy, Jefferson Davis, turns to his best advisor, Robert E. Lee and says, I want you to take charge.
Well, Lee is tactically one of the greatest commanders in American history. His ability to maneuver, his ability to inspire his subordinates, his instant grasp of the battlefield, and the fact that he had been the superintendent of West Point and so he knew a lot of these people and he had a real instinct he knew, for example, the McClellan was slow and that McClellan was timid. The result is that he gets defeated and the truth is, you look at the size of the Union army. If he had just been persistent, he would have beat Lee, but he’s not persistent and so he wants to retreat back to Washington. This is the sort of thing Lincoln’s faced with again and again. Lincoln gets frustrated, he appoints a different general, General Polk, gives him a large part of the army. Polk makes derogatory comments about Lee, how he, Polk, is going to beat them.
Speaker 1: And Lee turns in a remarkable series of moves in what’s called the second battle of Manassas, Lee decisively defeats Polk, shattering the Union army. And here’s Lincoln doing everything that he’s supposed to do, picking people who are losers. And it’s partly because they’re up against one of the great tacticians in American history. It’s partly because the union army at that stage in the East still wasn’t very well formed and it was politically very divided. There was sort of a McClellan wing of the army, generals who wanted to have a very passive war, if you will, who did not want to defeat the south, but they wanted to protect the north. And then there were the Lincoln Republican generals who are very aggressive and you had a leadership in the union army in the east that was very divided. McClellan ends up in a very, very difficult battle of Antietam, Lee retreats.
And then McClellan sits there for 30 days. And finally, Lincoln Fires McClellan, and then he brings in General Burnside, who says to him, very straightforward, I can’t do this. I’m fine as a corps commander, but you put me in charge of the whole army and I’ll just fail. And Lincoln says, well, it’s a risk I will take. Well, tragically, for the 19,000 people who get killed, Burnside was right. He goes down to Fredericksburg and Lee has his army sitting on these hills and it’s a killing ground and Burnside just kind of marches straight across right into it, gets slaughtered, pulls back. Lincoln forces himself to sit on the porch of the White House for three days watching the wagons filled with the bodies of the dead come up to union station to be shipped home. Now think of the moral burden you’re now bearing. I mean, you’ve tried McClellan, he failed.
You’ve tried Polk, he failed. You brought McClellan back. He failed a second time. Even now tried Burnside. He failed worse than the other failures. And so, he turns then to General Hooker and Hooker ends up fighting Lee at Chancellorsville and they basically fight to a draw, except that hooker is standing next to a pillar of the huge, beautiful Antebellum Mansion that they had taken over as headquarters and a cannonball hit the pillar and the concussion basically took Hooker out of the fight. And so, at the very moment when they might have won, Hooker was just sort of out of it, and so they fight to a draw, which is in effect a union defeat. They pull back again. As general Meade, who, who had watched this and was really, really angry. He thought that Hooker shouldn’t have kept his nerve and that they could have beaten Lee and Meade is a very tough guy and had a very sharp kind of way of thinking and he pulls him together and he says, look, the union may depend on this fight and we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to do this. And so, they organize and they fight Gettysburg and in the end, Lee loses. I want you to put yourself in Lincoln’s position. For two years, you’ve been telling the country that this war is desperately important. You’ve been getting young men from all over America to volunteer. They’ve been getting killed. Virtually every town in America has lost people and here you are waiting to hear what’s going to happen and hoping that this new guy is better than the last people you picked. They fight a very tough fight. Lee Loses, but guess what? Meade doesn’t follow him. So Meade’s won a battle, but basically let’s Lee get away by this stage, Lincoln’s getting very tired and he also was faced with the election coming up in the fall of 1864. What saved Lincoln, despite all the frustrations with the army of the Potomac was the fact that in the West and at sea, the union was steadily winning. At sea, The United States Navy, had absolute dominance and was able to gradually strangle all commerce going into the confederacy. In the west, the great virtue was that one particular general began to rise and that general was Ulysses Grant. Grant had been a west point graduate. He had been in the Mexican war. Grant is far and away the best general of the civil war. He had an ability to organize. He had an understanding of warfare. Grant recounts, in his very first time to go into battle. He had trained his men. He had hopes for them. He wasn’t sure that they would fight. They got on a steamboat, they went down the river. They got to where the confederates were, they got off the boat.
Speaker 1: They climbed the hill and they suddenly realized that all of the rifle pits were empty and Grant wrote, I suddenly realized that the other guy was afraid too, and from that point, for the entire rest of the war, I always remembered that whatever my problem was, the other guy had problems too. And this became for Grant, the hallmark of his leadership, which was very steady, very calm, very sober. It was captured at a key moment. And one of the things which began to change the whole war, when in April of 1862 the confederate army surprised Grant’s forces at Pittsburgh landing and all day long the confederates drove the union forces back towards the River. Sherman, who was Grant’s subordinate recounts in his memoir that he walked over to see Grant that night, in the drizzling rain, Grant’s sitting on a little tripod stool outside his tent, which has been turned over to be a field hospital where people are having their limbs amputated.
Speaker 1: Grants whittling, which was his habit. And Sherman walks up to him and says, they beat us pretty good today. And historically the union army up to that point, got in a fight and pulled back, got in another fight and pulled back and Grant, without looking up said, yep, lick ‘em in the morning though. And Sherman said at that point he decided he wouldn’t recommend withdrawing. And they began talking and the reason this mattered is their discussion was, you know, the confederates are actually serious and they are going to become independent unless we defeat them. And they became the first two people other than Lincoln to understand that this would have to be a war of breaking the capacity of the south to fight. And from that evening’s conversation, the team that ultimately won the war, which was Grant, Lincoln and Sherman began to form. Lincoln admired one objective thing about Ulysses Grant.
He Won. And so after Meade fails to follow Lee at Gettysburg, on the very same week, Grant won at Vicksburg, a huge victory, which cut off the confederacy and made the entire Mississippi opened to the union. And at that point, Lincoln’s looking out thinking, all right, I’ve got a guy who knows how to win and I’ve got an army in the east that doesn’t seem to know how to win. And he brings Grant east. He makes him commander of all of the union armies and commander of the army of the Potomac. And from that point on, the team begins to win decisively. Sherman stays in the west, ultimately occupying Atlanta and marching to Savannah. And the north grant takes the army of the Potomac south to defeat Lee and to keep the confederate army of the east so occupied that they can’t do anything to help in the west.
The thing to learn from all this is that Lincoln has endured failure after failure. Lincoln is doing everything he can to win. He just can’t quite figure it out. He didn’t quite have the right people, they don’t have the right understanding. As Lincoln himself said, the goal is not Richmond. The goal is Lee’s army. If you destroy Lee’s army, Richmond will fall. But if you just take Richmond and Lee still has an army, then the war is going to go on. And so finally he found two generals who understood that principle and they set out to win the war. But remember at this point in 1863, Lincoln still has an enormous challenge. Can he get reelected. And so, Lincoln undertakes one of the most amazing acts in American history and something which is almost never taught. On November 19th, 1863, a few months after the Gettysburg, Lincoln goes to Gettysburg to help inaugurate the new first national military cemetery.
Lincoln got up and gave a speech in about three and a half minutes, and it’s probably the most famous speech Lincoln has given, the Gettysburg address. First Lincoln’s using the trip to Pennsylvania to bring in governors from all over the region to talk about reelection. So in a sense, in November of 1863 he’s planning his reelection. Second, pick up the Gettysburg Address and reread it as a campaign speech because basically what he says is at the very end, having talked about the sacrifice of all the people who died, he says, it is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead, we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion. Though we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Now notice what he’s just done. He basically just set it up to say, if you reelect me, they will not have died in vain because I’m gonna win the war. But if you elect somebody who’s willing to cave in, then all of these deaths will have been in vain and it’s very telling the next year, the general who didn’t want to fight, McClellan, runs as Lincoln’s primary opponent and basically runs on the grounds that they could make peace. Well, they could only make peace by allowing the south to succeed. Interestingly, the greatest margins for Lincoln came from the Union army voting in the field. The very people whose lives were going to be put at risk if the war continued, voted to continue the war. And they did so because they were convinced that what Lincoln said was right, that this was a moral cause. It was a genuine crusade.
That’s a reason that they marched a war singing the battle hymn of the republic because they meant it. And Lincoln in that sense, came to personify the central cause of freedom. Because what he’s done is he’s moved you from a legal concept, the union, to a moral concept. In fact, it is Lincoln who brings back to life the declaration of independence. Lincoln is not basing the survival of the union on the constitution. He’s basing it under the declaration of independence and that’s why he begins the Gettysburg Address, four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth in this conduct a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now think about that again from this boy who grew up on a farm in Kentucky and Indiana who migrated Illinois who didn’t have much but now was president of United States. So he believed in freedom in part because it was about him. He never would have risen in an aristocratic society and he knew it and he knew that on the planet wide basis, if the United States collapsed, the cause of freedom was set back a thousand years. But if the United States had the courage to win and to survive, then the very concept of liberty would in fact be captured for people all around the planet. There is no richer source of lessons than the life of Abraham Lincoln.
You can read more about Abraham Lincoln and see my recommendations for further study on our show page at newtsworld.com. Newt’s World is produced by Westwood One. Our executive producer is Debbie Myers and our producer is Garnsey Sloan. Our editor is Robert Barawski and our researchers Rachel Peterson. Our guest booker is Grace Davis. The artwork for the show was created by Steve Penley. The music was composed by Joey Salvia. Special thanks to the team at Gingrich 360 and Westwood One’s John Wordock and Robert Mathers. Please email me with your comments at newt at Newt’s world.com if you’ve been enjoying news world, I hope you’ll go to apple podcast and both rate us with five stars and give us a review so others can learn what it’s all about.
On the next episode of Newt’s World. Our inside look at the spying business continues with another episode of Spies Like Us. Experience what the CIA is like for a career female agent.
Rollie Flynn: Very few people knew my actual employer. I told my father because I thought he would understand. I told a couple of my siblings. I never told my mother. My mother never knew where I worked.
Newt: I’m Newt Gingrich. This is Newt’s World.