Two Minutes to Change the World

Presidents during their presidencies make hundreds of speeches.  Most are utterly forgotten soon after they are delivered.  Even most of the speeches by a president who is also a skilled orator, as Lincoln was, are recalled only by historians and trivia buffs.  Yet the Gettysburg address has achieved immortality.

 

 

 

 

Lincoln was invited to say a few words at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863.  The featured speaker was Edward Everett, one of the most accomplished men in American public life, who gave a two hour oration.  It is a fine example of nineteenth century oratory, full of learning, argument and passion.  It may seem very odd to contemplate in our sound bite age, but audiences in America in Lincoln’s time expected these type of lengthy excursions into eloquence and felt cheated when a speaker skimped on either length or ornateness in his efforts.

Lincoln then got up and spoke for two minutes.

We are not really sure what Lincoln said.  There are two drafts of the speech in Lincoln’s hand, and they differ from each other.  It is quite likely that neither reflects precisely the words that Lincoln used in the Gettysburg Address.  For the sake of simplicity, and because it is the version people usually think of when reference is made to the Gettysburg address, the text used here is the version carved on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial.

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle- field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate…we cannot consecrate…we cannot hallow…this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 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 gave the last full measure of devotion; that 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 that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Here was the masterpiece of Lincoln’s passion for concise, almost terse, argument.  No doubt many in the audience were amazed when Lincoln sat down, probably assuming that this was a preamble to his main speech.

“Fourscore and seven years ago”

Lincoln starts out with an attention grabber.  Rather than the prosaic eighty-seven years, he treats his listeners to a poetic line that causes them to think and follow Lincoln back in time to the founding. (more…)

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Published in: on February 16, 2018 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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February 15, 1861: Lincoln Downplays the Crisis

On his way to Washington in 1861 to be sworn in as President, Abraham Lincoln made a number of speeches in the cities and towns his train passed through.  Most of them were short and rather forgettable.  However the speech in Cleveland on February 15, 1861 is interesting.  It is part of Lincoln’s efforts to reassure the nation that the crisis wasn’t as bad as it seemed and that all will be well.  Lincoln throughout most of his life had lived in a nation that seemed to be on the point of dividing North and South:  The compromise of 1820;  the Nullification Crisis of 1828-33;  the conflict over the admission of Texas into the Union as a slave state;  the Compromise of 1850.  In each of these prior political conflicts cooler heads had prevailed and the Union had been preserved.  Lincoln, and much of the North, at this point thought that the South was bluffing and that after yet another compromise was patched together, the Union would go on as it had until the next round of crisis and compromise.  After he became President, Lincoln would swiftly learn that this time things were very different, and the time of talk and compromise was now a thing of the past.  Lincoln’s speech in Cleveland: (more…)

Published in: on February 15, 2018 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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February 11, 1865: Robert Todd Lincoln Goes To War

 

Robert Todd Lincoln

 

A  biography of Robert Todd Lincoln a few years ago is entitled Giant in the Shadows, and that is an accurate description of him.  One of the foremost attorneys of his day, a noted philanthropist, Secretary of War and Ambassador to the Court of Saint James, he lived a life of hard work and accomplishment, and from the election of his father as President, he knew that nothing that he did in his life would likely matter to History and it was his fate to be remembered solely for being the son of Abraham Lincoln.  It is hard being the son of a great man, and it is to his credit that Robert did not allow his accident of birth to overwhelm him.  Throughout his life he never ran away from his father and his memory, a man and a memory that he loved.  However, he was intent on being his own man, and his first major action demonstrating this was his desire to enlist in the Union Army.  His father was sympathetic to his desire to fight for his country but was fearful that his wife would lose what often seemed to be a tenuous grasp on sanity if harm should come to Robert and he be added to the ranks of the two Lincoln sons who had already died.  Nevertheless, he sided with Robert and told Mary on several occasions that many families had lost all their sons in the War and that Robert had to obey his conscience and join the Army.  Mary Todd Lincoln knew that it was a “noble and manly” impulse, as she called it, that led her oldest son to want to join the Army, but allowed her fears to long cause her to battle against his desire to serve.  It didn’t help that many of her relatives had already died serving in both the Confederate and Union Armies.

Abraham Lincoln, ever a born compromiser, found a solution which he set forth in a letter to Grant.

 

Lieut. General Grant:

Please read and answer this letter as though I was not President, but only a friend.  My son, now in his twenty second year, having graduated at Harvard, wishes to see something of the war before it ends.  I do not wish to put him in the ranks, nor yet to give him a commission, to which those who have already served long, are better entitled, and better qualified to hold.  Could he, without embarrassment to you, or detriment to the service, go into your Military family with some nominal rank, I, and not the public, furnishing his necessary means?  If no, say so without the least hesitation, because I am as anxious, and as deeply interested, that you shall not be encumbered as you can be yourself.

Yours truly

A. LINCOLN

Grant assured Lincoln that his son would be welcome as an officer on his staff.  On February 11, 1865, Robert joined the Army as an adjutant on Grant’s staff with the rank of Captain.  By all accounts he was a hardworking officer, and well-liked by his fellow staff officers.  He would have preferred a combat assignment, but by that time of the War he was probably more useful where he was.  The Union army had no shortage by the end of the War of seasoned combat officers, and with his Harvard education Robert was probably more useful as a staff officer than as a green officer in a combat command. (more…)

Published in: on February 11, 2018 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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January 28, 1861: Sam Houston Stands Alone

 

 

But if, through division in the ranks of those opposed to Mr. Lincoln, he should be elected, we have no excuse for dissolving the Union. The Union is worth more than Mr. Lincoln, and if the battle is to be fought for the Constitution, let us fight it in the Union and for the sake of the Union. With a majority of the people in favor of the Constitution, shall we desert the Government and leave it in the hands of the minority? A new obligation will be imposed upon us, to guard the Constitution and to see that no infraction of it is attempted or permitted. If Mr. Lincoln administers the Government in accordance with the Constitution, our rights must be respected. If he does not, the Constitution has provided a remedy.

Sam Houston, September 22, 1860

It took a fair amount of courage to stand against the tide of secession in the South in 1860-1861, but not even his most determined enemy, and he had many enemies, could say that Sam Houston ever had a shortage of that virtue.   As an ardent Unionist he  fought secession every step of the way.  As I outlined in an earlier post, which may be read here,  he realized that secession was a disaster for the South, and with eerie accuracy predicted a great war and military defeat for the South.

Houston, as governor of Texas, refused to bring the state legislature back into session to consider secession.  The Secession Convention, which held its opening session on January 28, 1861, voted to abrogate the treaty of annexation with the US on February 1.  Secession was put to a popular vote and won at the ballot.  Texas was admitted to the Confederacy on March 1, 1861.  Houston never recognized the legality of any of this, and refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy.

“Fellow-Citizens, in the name of your rights and liberties, which I believe have been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the nationality of Texas, which has been betrayed by the Convention, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the Constitution of Texas, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of my own conscience and manhood, which this Convention would degrade by dragging me before it, to pander to the malice of my enemies, I refuse to take this oath. I deny the power of this Convention to speak for Texas….I protest….against all the acts and doings of this convention and I declare them null and void.

Houston was removed from office on March 16, 1861.  On September 22, 1860 he had made a pro-Union speech.  It is a fascinating document.  If this gallant old man had been heeded, the nation would have avoided a fratricidal war that claimed 620,000 American lives.  Here is the text of the speech: (more…)

Published in: on January 28, 2018 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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January 16, 1865: Special Field Order No. 15

 

Sherman

In an attempt to deal with the tens of thousands of black refugees who were following his army, General Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15.  Issued to deal with an emergency situation and not as an attempt to chart Reconstruction Policy, the order looms large in the mythology of Reconstruction and is the origin of the belief that freed slaves were all promised 40 acres and a mule.  The order was rescinded by President Johnson in the fall of 1865.

Sherman commented on the Order in his Memoirs:

During Mr. Stanton’s stay in Savannah we discussed this negro question very fully; he asked me to draft an order on the subject, in accordance with my own views, that would meet the pressing necessities of the case, and I did so. We went over this order, No. 15, of January 16, 1865, very carefully. The secretary made some verbal modifications, when it was approved by him in all its details, I published it, and it went into operation at once. It provided fully for the enlistment of colored troops, and gave the freedmen certain possessory rights to land, which afterward became matters of judicial inquiry and decision. Of course, the military authorities at that day, when war prevailed, had a perfect right to grant the possession of any vacant land to which they could extend military protection, but we did not undertake to give a fee-simple title; and all that was designed by these special field orders was to make temporary provisions for the freedmen and their families during the rest of the war, or until Congress should take action in the premises. All that I now propose to assert is, that Mr. Stanton, Secretary of War, saw these orders in the rough, and approved every paragraph thereof, before they were made public.

Here is the text of the Order:

IN THE FIELD, SAVANNAH, GA., January 16th, 1865.

SPECIAL FIELD ORDERS, No. 15.

I. The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.

II. At Beaufort, Hilton Head, Savannah, Fernandina, St. Augustine and Jacksonville, the blacks may remain in their chosen or accustomed vocations–but on the islands, and in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the United States military authority and the acts of Congress.  By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the negro is free and must be dealt with as such.  He cannot be subjected to conscription or forced military service, save by the written orders of the highest military authority of the Department, under such regulations as the President or Congress may prescribe.  Domestic servants, blacksmiths, carpenters and other mechanics, will be free to select their own work and residence, but the young and able-bodied negroes must be encouraged to enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States, to contribute their share towards maintaining their own freedom, and securing their rights as citizens of the United States.

Negroes so enlisted will be organized into companies, battalions and regiments, under the orders of the United States military authorities, and will be paid, fed and clothed according to law.  The bounties paid on enlistment may, with the consent of the recruit, go to assist his family and settlement in procuring agricultural implements, seed, tools, boots, clothing, and other articles necessary for their livelihood. (more…)

Published in: on January 16, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on January 16, 1865: Special Field Order No. 15  
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Glory Music

We bide our chance,
Unhappy, and make terms with Fate
A little more to let us wait;
He leads for aye the advance,
Hope’s forlorn-hopes that plant the desperate good
For nobler Earths and days of manlier mood;

James Russell Lowell, Memoriae Positum

 

 

Something for the weekend.  Closing song from the movie Glory (1989), the story of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first Union black regiments, forever remembered for their valiant assault against Fort Wagner on July 18,  1863.  A prime example of how historical movies should be made, Glory performs the epic feat of bringing to life again the days of the Civil War when the fate of the nation was decided.

Published in: on January 13, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Glory Music  
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January 11, 1865: Mission to Richmond

 

Francis P. Blair

 

Francis P. Blair, patriarch of the politically powerful Blair family of Missouri, had spent virtually all of his life politically well-connected.  In the 1820’s he had been an ardent supporter of Andrew Jackson.  He had taken over the failing paper The Washington Globe, and transformed it into a political powerhouse, the chief organ of the Democrat Party.  From the wealth he amassed as a result, he built his Blair House in Washington, and made it a site for the powerful to dance attendance upon him, in search of advice and the use of Blair’s immense influence.  In spite of owning slaves himself, in the 1840s he became convinced that the expansion of slavery into new territories had to cease.  In the 1850’s he was instrumental in the foundation of the Republican Party and he became a supporter of Lincoln.  With his son Montgomery Blair as Postmaster General, and his son Frank as Congressman and Union general, along with the immense influence he had not only in Missouri but also in Maryland, when Blair spoke Lincoln listened. (more…)

Published in: on January 11, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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Make the Sign of the Cross and Go In!

General William S. Rosecrans

My avatar when I blog and when I comment on blogs is Major General William Rosecrans.

Outside of his family, General William S. Rosecrans had three great passions in his life:  His religion, Roman Catholicism, to which he had converted as a cadet at West Point, the Army and the Union.  In the Civil War all three passions coincided.  Rising to the rank of Major General and achieving command of the Army of the Cumberland, until he was removed in the aftermath of the Union defeat at Chickamauga, Rosecrans conducted himself in the field as if he were a Crusader knight of old.

Raised a Methodist, Rosecrans’ conversion was a life long turning point for him.  He wrote to his family with such zeal for his new-found faith that his brother Sylvester began to take instruction in the Faith.  Sylvester would convert, become a priest, and eventually be the first bishop of Columbus, Ohio.

His most precious possession was his Rosary and he said the Rosary at least once each day. In battle the Rosary would usually be in his hand as he gave commands.  He had a personal chaplain, Father Patrick Treacy, who said Mass for him each morning and would busy himself the rest of the day saying masses for the troops and helping with the wounded.  In battle he exposed himself to enemy fire ceaselessly as he rode behind the General.   Rosecrans, after military matters were taken care of, delighted in debating theology with his staff officers late into the evening.

As a general Rosecrans was in the forefront of Union commanders until his defeat at Chickamauga.  His removal from command following the battle was controversial at the time and has remained controversial, some historians seeing in it a continuation by Grant, who was placed in charge of Chattanooga following Chickamauga, of his long-standing feud with Rosecrans.  Certainly Rosecrans had already drafted the plan followed by Grant to reopen the lines of supply to the Union forces in Chickamauga.  Go here to read a spirited defense of General Rosecrans which appeared in issue 401 of The Catholic World in 1898. (more…)

Published in: on December 31, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Make the Sign of the Cross and Go In!  
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December 15, 1865: Battle of Nashville Begins

Battle of Nashville

 

 

 

The final major battle in the West in the American Civil War, the two day battle of Nashville that commenced on December 15, 1864, was a decisive Union victory.  Delayed by bad weather, Union general Thomas endured a steady stream of telegrams from Washington and Grant demanding that he attack.  Thomas would not do so until he was ready.  Grant, who had never had a good relationship with Thomas, decided to remove him, and only the knowledge that an  attack was imminent stayed the decision:

I consequently urged Thomas in frequent dispatches sent from City Point to make the attack at once. The country was alarmed, the administration was alarmed, and I was alarmed lest the very thing would take place which I have just described that is, Hood would get north. It was all without avail further than to elicit dispatches from Thomas saying that he was getting ready to move as soon as he could, that he was making preparations, etc. At last I had to say to General Thomas that I should be obliged to remove him unless he acted promptly. He replied that he was very sorry, but he would move as soon as he could.  
  General Logan happening to visit City Point about that time, and knowing him as a prompt, gallant and efficient officer, I gave him an order to proceed to Nashville to relieve Thomas. I directed him, however, not to deliver the order or publish it until he reached there, and if Thomas had moved, then not to deliver it at all, but communicate with me by telegraph. After Logan started, in thinking over the situation, I became restless, and concluded to go myself. I went as far as Washington City, when a dispatch was received from General Thomas announcing his readiness at last to move, and designating the time of his movement. I concluded to wait until that time. He did move, and was successful from the start. This was on the 15th of December. General Logan was at Louisville at the time this movement was made, and telegraphed the fact to Washington, and proceeded no farther himself.
Heavily outnumbering the Confederates, Thomas planned to attack the exposed Confederate left while making feint attacks on the Confederate right.  Hood was not fooled by the feint attacks and throughout the day sent reinforcements to the Confederate left.  After hard fighting, Thomas took the five redoubts guarding the Confederate left.
The next day Thomas repeated his tactics, with attacks on the new Confederate left and feint attacks on the Confederate right.  As the sun was going down, the Confederate left disintegrated and Thomas had won the battle.  Thomas pursued Hood relentlessly until Hood crossed the Tennessee River on December 28.  The Confederate Army of Tennessee was finished as an effective combat force.  Confederate casualties were 6000 to 3000 Union.
Here is the report of Thomas on the battle: (more…)

Published in: on December 15, 2017 at 5:32 am  Comments Off on December 15, 1865: Battle of Nashville Begins  
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December 12, 1862: Hardluck Ironclad: USS Cairo

 

A book I purchased, Hardluck Ironclad, by Edwin C. Bearss, a distinguished Civil War historian,  was written in 1966 and detailed the history of the Union gunboat Cairo that was sunk during the Civil War, and his ultimately successful efforts to begin to raise her from the Yazoo River.

The centennial observation of the Civil War began an effort across the nation to recover our Civil War past, and the recovery of portions of the Cairo is a prime example of the successes and limitations of that effort. (more…)

Published in: on December 12, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on December 12, 1862: Hardluck Ironclad: USS Cairo  
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