President Lincoln ‘belongs to the ages’

Date Published: 
September 15, 2017

The life of Abraham Lincoln has been one of the world’s most popular subjects for authors since his death in 1865. Estimates place the number of books written about this U.S. president at more than 15,000.

In addition to these biographies, Lincoln’s correspondence, written over a period of 41 years beginning in 1824, can be found in “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,” edited by Roy P. Basler and published in eight volumes. “Old Abe’s” presidential style and outlook during the midst of the war between the Northern and Southern states is reflected in these letters and documents.

Using Sept. 15, 1863, as an example, a review of Lincoln’s written communications provides a glimpse into the daily life of a president during wartime. His concerns included critical political issues and the outcome of ongoing military operations, as well as decisions dealing with the lives of individual citizens.

His initial thought that day was to write a thank-you note to James G. Blaine “for the good news you send, and the sending of it.” Blaine, chairman of the Maine Union Committee, had written to Lincoln about the results of the recent state elections “that sustains your administration by a majority of 15,000 [votes] … [e]lected every Senator … [and] seven-eighths of the Representatives.”

Lincoln’s tongue-in-cheek sense of humor came into play after receiving a recommendation from two Washington lawyers to have Brig. Gen. Robert Allen fill the Union army quartermaster general’s position, which the New York Times erroneously reported to be vacant. The president’s response: “What nation do you desire Gen. Allen to be made Quarter-Master-General of? This nation already has a Quarter-Master-General” in the person of Maj. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs.

President Lincoln put on his commander-in-chief’s hat in a message to Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, directing him to respond to a request from Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, for guidance in confronting the Rebel army under Gen. Robert E. Lee’s command operating in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, Va.

Although hesitant to get directly involved in military decisions, Lincoln conveyed to Halleck this sound advice, “My opinion is that he should move upon Lee … to develop Lee’s real condition and purposes… [then decide] whether [to] make it a real attack.”

Lincoln took a major leap into the area of jurisprudence when on that date he signed an Act of Congress that suspended the writ of habeas corpus, essentially allowing the government to arrest and imprison without a trial anyone who was believed to be undermining the constitution. In a lengthy defense of the Act, the president reasoned that it was far more important during wartime for him to have this power than in times of peace and tranquility.

The 15th of September had already been a busy day, yet the president issued a number of instructions to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The first had to do with a Rebel soldier who was a prisoner at Fort Delaware.

It seems the prisoner’s aunt had come to Washington to seek Lincoln’s help to allow her nephew to take the oath of allegiance to the U.S., and to be released. The soft-hearted president sent this woman to Stanton after advising him to approve her request.

The second message to Stanton had to do with two people being held in Old Capital Prison, located at the time where the Supreme Court Building now stands in Washington, D.C. Lincoln apparently was considering the possibility of treating both of them leniently or releasing them, because he told Stanton, “I would like to have a statement of each case.”

The third item for the Secretary, and the last communication from Lincoln for the day, was about the appointment of Maj. Aaron Seeley of the New York National Guard to a position in the U.S. army. The president endorsed this essentially political act by telling Stanton, “I am quite satisfied to have it done.”

Through a review of this correspondence, we are able to observe how Abraham Lincoln demonstrated his political acumen, military judgment and innate humanity, all in a single day’s work. He continued in the same vein for the next 19 months, before his assassination on April 14, 1865, when Stanton reportedly commented, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.