Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamations (Article 60)

On October 23, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation declaring the final Thursday in November as a “Day of Thanksgiving” and our nation has ever since celebrated this special day.

The country had heard calls for a day of Thanksgiving before. In 1777, while the Revolutionary War was still being waged, the members of the Continental Congress were grateful that their rebellion still held promise for independence and they issued a proclamation designating Thursday, December 18, as a Day of Solemn Thanksgiving. And, in 1789, President George Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day for Thursday, November 26.  Thereafter, a few Presidents and the Governors of several states periodically issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, however none designated a recurring November holiday.

Then Sarah Josepha Buell Hale stepped in!

A well-known editor and novelist, she was a strong proponent of women’s education and was a co-founder of Vassar College.  But few Americans are aware that, beginning in 1838 and for the next twenty-five years, she used her public visibility to lobby for a national Thanksgiving Day in November. As editor of the “Godey’s Lady Book” and “The Ladies Magazine,” which combined had the largest paid circulation of any women’s periodicals, she and her readers began an annual letter-writing campaign to “encourage” (her word) and “pester” (one recipient’s word) Governors to issue a resolution in their respective states; and they petitioned every sitting President to declare a National Thanksgiving Day. By 1858, while no President had created the special day she requested, every state except Virginia had declared a Day of Thanksgiving.

But, in 1859, two years prior to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln and the start of the Civil War, her progress not only stalled, but began to recede. Politicians in some southern states refused to issue their annual Thanksgiving proclamations, with one referring to the holiday as a “Yankee Abolitionist holiday” and another stating that it was a “National Claptrap” started by northerners to hinder the South’s institutions (meaning slavery). But many families in the South continued to observe a day of thanksgiving, keeping the religious aspects, but eliminating the bountiful table, which was seen as a New England custom. While Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued several proclamations for a day of prayer and thanksgiving; his were not in November and were directed as a celebration of military successes over the Union armies.

Despite the setbacks in the southern states, Mrs. Hale did not give up and three times in consecutive years she petitioned President Abraham Lincoln to declare a national Thanksgiving Day. She asked that he set aside a designated day “for all Americans to put aside sectional feelings and local incidents” and “to be thankful for the blessings of life, not of war.”

She would have to wait.

Abraham Lincoln had issued two proclamations calling for a day of thanksgiving and reflection, the first in August, 1861 and another in April, 1863. Each proclamation asked the public to set aside time to reflect upon the challenges the country faced and to follow their own religious creed to express hope for peace and gratitude for the blessings bestowed on the nation.

But, neither was in response to Mrs. Hale’s letters.

In August, 1861, after four months of fighting, the awful realities of the Civil War were coming home to roost. Lincoln felt that the people might be comforted by a special day on which the nation as a whole would turn to their religious faith, in whatever forms that may take, to ask for guidance in restoring the forefathers’ vision for the United States. That Presidential proclamation was officially titled The Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day, and read (in part):

“..And, whereas our own beloved country, once by the blessing of God, united, prosperous, and happy, is now afflicted with faction and Civil War, it is particularly fit for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our faults as a nation, and as individuals, to humble ourselves and pray for His mercy, and that the inestimable boon of civil and religious liberty earned by His blessing and the labors and sufferings of our forefathers, may be restored in all its original excellence.” The Proclamation went on to declare a day of humiliation, prayer, and fasting and urged “all ministers and teachers of religion of all denominations and the heads of all families to observe and keep that day according to their creeds and modes of worship.”

A good start, but not quite an official Thanksgiving Day. So, Mrs. Hale sent another letter!

The Emancipation Proclamation had become effective on January 1, 1863, changing forever the context of the Civil War. By April, Lincoln believed that the North would eventually prevail and the Union would be restored; but he held little hope that the War would end soon. He decided to issue another “Thanksgiving” proclamation in April, 1863; however, this one was officially titled “Proclamation for a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer” and read (in part):

“It is the duty of nations as well as men, to owe their dependence upon the ruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow. We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity. But we have forgotten God. We have vainly imagined that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. I do, by this proclamation, set April 30, 1863 as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer. And I do request that all the people abstain that day from their ordinary secular pursuits and to unite at their several places of public worship and in their respective homes, in keeping that day Holy. Let us rest humbly in the hope that the united cry of the nation will be heard on High, and (provide) the restoration of our now divided and suffering country.” 

So, Mrs. Hale wrote still another letter, a few months later, but this one finally gave the President pause.

By the fall of 1863, the Civil War was still being fought, but the Union was beginning to see significant victories. Sarah Hale again implored President Abraham Lincoln to designate one day, in November, throughout the entire country, which would be “set aside in perpetuity for prayerful Thanksgiving for the blessings bestowed by the Creator.” Lincoln was persuaded and issued his third “Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.” It read (in part):

“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies, bounties which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come. In the midst of Civil War of unequaled magnitude and severity, laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has been preserved except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.” Lincoln went on to describe the wealth that was building in the north and advances in bringing in new states from western territories; while still keeping up an aggressive war effort against the Confederacy. But then Lincoln returned to the basic theme of gratitude and Thanksgiving. “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the most gracious gifts of the most High God, who while dealing with us for our sins hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It seems fit and proper that they should solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledge as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens to observe the last Thursday in November as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”

With this Presidential proclamation, Sarah Hale saw her vision become a treasured day, which she said, “Would be observed across all lines that, on other matters, may divide us; such as politics, geography, ethnicity, and religion.”

A year later, on October 20, 1864, and without another letter from Mrs. Hale, President Lincoln issued his fourth Thanksgiving Day Proclamation; again, declaring the last Thursday of November as the special day; which read (in part):

“It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year, defending us with His guardian care against unfriendly designs (and providing) to us in his mercy many and signal victories over the enemy who is of our own household. He has augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration, while he has opened new sources of wealth and has crowned the labor of our workingmen in every department of industry with abundant rewards. He has been pleased to inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of Civil War into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity. Therefore I set apart the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise (to) offer up penitence and prayers for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land.” 

Because of an assassin’s bullet a few months later, this became President Lincoln’s last Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.

After the Civil War ended, the northern bureaucrats, politicians and military leaders, who were in charge of “reconstruction” of the occupied former Confederate states, imposed Thanksgiving Day as a November federal holiday. However, it would take another generation (or two or three in some cases) before the holiday was embraced by families throughout south; and so, Mrs. Hale’s hope for national unity, symbolized in part by a Thanksgiving Day celebrated by all Americans, was deferred. But, time can heal the worst of wounds and, in 1905, a Southern minister, referring to a New England staple, said, “I knew Thanksgiving Day was again ours as well, when, after my prayer, I noticed cranberries on the table.”

Mrs. Hale would have been pleased.

The four Lincoln proclamations were all collaborative efforts with Secretary of State William Seward, who was a devout Episcopalian. Seward’s intonements tended to be more ecclesiastical and flourishing, while Lincoln, who was no less spiritual, tended to use simpler wording. But, the two men trusted each other’s ability to communicate, and their combined prose flows seamlessly as if it was the effort of only one person.  Historians still debate which phrases each man may have contributed to the proclamations. In any case, the co-authors left us with elegant, meaningful, and still pertinent, proclamations. Certainly, their calls for humility, unity, and peace seem appropriate today.

Have a wonderful, and reflective, Thanksgiving Day; courtesy of Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, and of course, Sarah Hale.

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Can We Defend Washington City (Article 59)

The new President, Abraham Lincoln, was worried. For good reason.

There had been wide-spread debates, and intense arguments, for and against secession by the nation’s slave-holding states. The opposing sides raised their voices in the halls of Congress, in many state legislatures, in pulpits, and in newspapers. And, many feared civil war would be the outcome if any or all of the fifteen states where slavery was legal chose to separate from the United States. For months, General Winfield Scott, commanding General of the U. S. Army, knew that war would surely result if the Federal government intervened to prevent secession.

He was forced to ponder a critical question; if war comes, can we defend Washington City from an attack by rebel forces? General Scott was not so sure, especially if the attack would come early in the conflict.

One Washington politician noted in November 1860 that, “The odor of war is in the air, and I fear it is intoxicating.” No one knew then if five, seven, eleven or even all fifteen of the slave-holding states might secede from the Union, but almost all expected that, if there was to be war, and when it came, the nation’s Capital was certain to be a target. If for no other reason, Union officials thought the rebels would want to disrupt the Federal government just when central leadership would be most needed. It could be a quick and easy capture; after all, the city was surrounded by Maryland and Virginia, both slave-holding states, and a vast majority of the city’s citizens were of southern heritage.

Washington was vulnerable.

For the months leading up to the outbreak of war, very little was actually done to prepare a defense, primarily because the responsible parties, including Congress, the preceding President, James Buchanan, General Scott, and new President, Abraham Lincoln, did not want to appear as if all hope was lost for a peaceful solution. Some thought that if Virginia and Maryland remained in the Union, in the event there was war, any rebel forces would be less likely to attack Washington. Others, like President Lincoln, thought (or hoped?) some compromise to avoid war might still be reached which protected slavery from Federal interference in those fifteen states where it remained legal. Still others, many in the South, could not fathom that the northern states would be willing to rally an army to invade any southern state which had seceded; especially because there was valuable commerce between the states as well as many personal relationships among their citizens. So, while tensions rose, only minimal defensive measures to protect Washington were being taken.

At the start of the new year, 1861, the United States Army had about 16,000 enlisted men and 1,100 officers but over the next few months, over 4,000 of the soldiers and over 300 of the officers defected to either southern state militias or to the new Confederate army. In March, General Scott reported to in-coming President Lincoln, that the force of 20,000 southern militia and Confederate troops gathered around Charleston in South Carolina was larger than his entire army. He would be forced to re-assign troops from areas further from Washington to supplement the relatively small Federal garrison in the city; however, that process would take time.  So, the issue was addressed, but not yet solved; because, before any of these troops could defend the city, they had to get there.

The primary rail lines into Washington from the north passed through Baltimore, a place already proven to be hostile. In fact, some of the first casualties of the war occurred in Baltimore as Union troops marched through the town. When a group of secessionist militia challenged troops from the 6th Massachusetts regiment, shots rang out, and before the skirmish was over, three Union soldiers and twelve civilians lay dead in the streets. President Lincoln and General Scott were surprised by the violent incident and there were some calls for retribution against the secessionists in Baltimore by the additional Union forces which were in route. But Lincoln hoped to avoid another confrontation in the city by using a route around the city, and told the mayor and police chief of Baltimore; “I must have troops for the defense of the Capital. Our men are not moles and can’t dig under the earth; they are not birds and can’t fly through the air. There is no way but to march them across, and that they must do. Keep your rowdies in Baltimore and there will be no bloodshed.”

Using secondary routes, over the next few weeks more troops filed into the Capital and defensive preparations began in earnest. But even with those added Union forces, Washington City was still in panic mode! A woman resident of the Capital, who was a Confederate sympathizer, wrote to a friend in Virginia, “We could march right in and take control of the city. Where are our men?”

In late March, General Scott directed his staff to recruit local militias to add to the few Union troops in the city, and to fortify the perimeter, especially the bridges across the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Scott’s officers formed some units from residents of Washington, however, they hardly resembled regular troops. One regiment was composed of older veterans, some in their sixties, and was appropriately called the Silver Brigade. Another regiment was formed by Kentucky native, and ardent abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay, who had come to Washington to prepare for his new appointment as the Ambassador to Russia. However, he delayed his departure for two months to form a unit of irregulars, which became known as the Clay Battalion.

Washington began to look like a city preparing for war. Bridges across the Potomac and Anacostia rivers were blocked with guard gates and sufficient soldiers to check every individual going and coming, and thousands of Union soldiers were encamped nearby. Then, finally, both General Scott and President Lincoln felt that Washington could now be defended from, what they assumed would be, an assault by the Confederate Army.

So, they waited!

But the attack about which they worried, and planned to defend against, and for which they tied up so many Union troops and spent so much money, never came.  Why?

In one of those ironies of war, and unknown to Lincoln and his military advisors, the Confederate military leadership had never seriously contemplated an early (and all-out) assault on the Union Capital.  There were a variety of both military and personal reasons for the Confederate’s hesitancy to attack the city; (1) the effort would tie up thousands of their troops, (2) many of the southern generals thought attacks on cities and their citizens were not ‘honorable” war tactics, (3) some did not believe that the city had a strategic importance, and (4) they did not want to alienate those in the North who supported a compromise peace plan.  The Confederate leaders thought there were better uses for their relatively small army, including protecting their lines of supply throughout the south and keeping control of the major ports in the south-eastern seaboard, in the Gulf of Mexico, and along the Mississippi River.

However, to keep the Washington politicians and the citizens concerned and off-balance, the Confederates would occasionally penetrate the city’s outskirts, which had the desired effect; wide-spread panic!  Union military leaders, President Lincoln, and the public were alarmed at each of the nearby small raids, but remained unaware that Washington would not be one of the Confederate primary strategic targets.

The Union Army had swelled to over two hundred thousand men by early 1862; however, Lincoln’s concerns for Washington’s safety were further complicated because he was unsure if the new General of Union Armies, George McClellan, would appropriately defend the Capital City. Lincoln feared that the General might take too many of the Washington based troops for other engagements, which would again leave the city vulnerable. Therefore, in a surprise move, the President ordered a contingent of 40,000 troops to remain in Washington under the command of General Irvin McDowell, who would report directly to the War Department. This order infuriated General McClellan (not the first or last time he and Lincoln would disagree), and that same day, McClellan wrote to his wife, “rascality and traitors are in Washington.”

But, now Lincoln felt that Washington was reasonably secure from any Confederate siege.

However, in hindsight, we know now what President Lincoln did not know then. Throughout the Civil War, while his defensive steps to protect Washington from invasion seemed prudent, he had acted under an erroneous assumption. In fact, the Union’s capital was never in danger of an all-out attack!

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They Called Her Moses (Article 58)

She was born a slave in about 1820 but the date is not certain. Her birth name was recorded by her owner as Araminta Ross, but she was known as Minty. As a young woman, she was only about five feet tall, probably never weighed more than one hundred pounds, and suffered seizures due to a childhood injury. She was illiterate until adulthood. She escaped her slave master’s plantation 1848, when she was about twenty-seven; however, legally, she was considered a fugitive slave until 1865.  For nearly twenty years, she risked capture, returning numerous times to the area around her former home in southern Maryland to guide other escaping slaves to freedom in Pennsylvania, New York and Canadian provinces. For her exploits, she was dubbed “Moses,” but at the time most slave-owners thought their nemesis was a man. During the Civil War, she was an armed scout for the Union Army and once participated in a raid to free a group of slaves from several large plantations. After the war and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, she became active in the suffrage movement; but she was never allowed to vote. She remained devoted to her life’s work, which was to improve the lives of former slaves by helping them find work and try to build a life on their own. Then, as she grew older, she formed a retirement home for those with no family to help with their care.

This is the remarkable legacy of Harriett Tubman.

Minty, as she was known then to master and family alike, endured the hardships and degradations that were common for slaves in those days. Always a feisty girl, she was frequently beaten for disobedience, and occasionally rented out to other slave-holders as a form of punishment. Those periods away from her home were especially difficult for Minty because she was very close to her large family. In 1840, her initial owner died and, under provisions of his will, her father was manumitted from slavery; but, Minty, her mother, and her siblings remained slaves; and she was able to observe first-hand the difference freedom made for her father. To drive home their status as slaves, soon after her new master took control, Minty witnessed the horrific effect on her mother and father when three of her siblings were sold, breaking up their family.  As a child, she was once innocently caught in a confrontation between a slave owner and a male slave who was attempting to flee, and suffered a severe head injury when a heavy metal object thrown by the owner at the slave, struck Minty instead. Thereafter, for the rest of her life, she would occasionally have seizures and debilitating headaches. In 1844, her owner arranged for Minty to marry a Black man who had gained his freedom, probably expecting that Minty would bear children. Under Maryland law at the time, any child born to a female slave, became a slave owned by the same master. However, Minty did not have any children and, although she never explained the matter, it is reasonable to assume that she did not want to bring a child into slavery. After her marriage, Minty changed her name to Harriett and soon, unknown to her husband, began to hope for an opportunity to escape!

Late one night, she and two of her brothers took off, with no real escape plan. They were quickly missed and identified in a wanted poster as fugitive slaves, with a reward of $100 each for their return. When the three were unable to find a route to safety and freedom, or even help with food and shelter, they turned themselves in. As they probably expected, they were returned to their owner and beaten before being re-assigned to hard labor tasks.

But Harriett had tasted freedom, if only for a short while, and again thought of escape. Although, this time she did more than just hope. She gathered information from other slaves about possible routes, developed a plan for evasion, including travel only at night through waterways; and her most critical decision was to go alone! She later wrote of her feelings during her preparations to escape: “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”

Within weeks, Harriett was again on the run and this time for good. She found refuge in the homes of several Quakers as she travelled at night north along what was becoming known as the Underground Railroad, which was neither a railroad nor underground. She worked her way through Maryland and Delaware (also a slave state), then, finally into Pennsylvania.

When she realized that she was probably safe (for now) she wrote: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”

While she was now relatively “free” and had found steady work to build a new life, she missed her family. The following year she slipped back into Maryland to rescue a niece with two small children and, six months later in a return trip, guided other family members to safety. Over the next two years, she made at least ten more clandestine trips bringing over seventy slaves into her “Promised Land.” In fact, one northern newspaper editor, without naming her, or even her gender, began to refer to her as “Moses” and the name stuck. Slave-holders in Maryland who knew of “Minty” never suspected that the small, disabled, girl who had escaped earlier, could possibly be “Moses” and several thought it was really a male abolitionist conducting the group escapes while deceptively leaving the impression it was a woman.

Harriet’s true identity as a primary “conductor” in the underground railroad inexplicably remained unknown to slave-holders despite her growing recognition in the north from numerous appearances at abolitionist society meetings arranged by publisher William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, the nation’s most famous former slave. She even met with John Brown, the violent abolitionist who later led the failed raid against the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, which he had hoped would arm slaves for a rebellion. While many historians believe Harriett knew about Brown’s general plan, most know that she opposed violence, even against White slave-holders, and, therefore, probably would not have supported an attack on U.S. Army troops.

After the Civil War began, she was able to find work as a cook and nurse with various Union Army units, however, her most valuable service to the Army came as a scout. Because Harriett knew the backwoods, rivers and streams so well, she offered her services to guide Union army units on patrol in the area. Accounts written by others make it clear that she was often more than just a scout and was an adept gatherer of intelligence as she would enter Confederate held territory, dressed in the garb of a slave, pretending to be on an errand for a master. She was always armed, but later said she was grateful that she had never had to fire her weapon at another person, even an avowed enemy, because, “Killing someone would have worn on my mind as a Christian.” However, she recalled one situation in which she was prepared to use her small pistol, but the need never arose. In June, 1863, she guided a raiding party of Union troops led by Colonel James Montgomery to liberate slaves from several plantations along the Combahee River, in South Carolina. She had earlier infiltrated the nearby plantations and told the slaves to “run like wind” when they heard steam boat whistles. Then, at the first blast of the whistles, the slave-owners and the few Confederate soldiers in the area could not slow the stampede of slaves running toward the river and the waiting boats. Over 700 slaves were freed in what became known as the Combahee River Raid. Her efforts were recognized by Colonel Montgomery and he petitioned for Harriett to receive regular Army compensation.

It was denied.

In fact, numerous U.S. Army officers supported some form of compensation for Harriett, during and after the War, some even requesting that she receive a pension. All were denied, until 1899, thirty-five years after her Army service ended. However, even then, the Army still refused to recognize her service as a scout; instead, she was given $20.00 per month for her service as a nurse. She was eighty years old.

Along with almost all former slaves, on April 15, 1865, Harriett Tubman mourned the death of Abraham Lincoln and spoke of the grief she felt at his loss. She appreciated his personal beliefs that slavery must be abolished and his efforts to drive the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress; however, she was a stern critic of the President’s earlier policies toward slavery. When Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was first published in September 1862 to become effective on January 1, 1863, it did not include slaves held in the four border states of Maryland (her original home), Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri, and Harriett was dismayed. She said: “God won’t let Master Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing. Master Lincoln, he’s a great man, and I am a poor Negro; but the Negro can tell Master Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the Negro free.”  Harriett offered to help recruit former slaves into the Army, understanding that the units would consist of only Black enlisted men, commanded by White officers; but, she considered it a start. After several months, Lincoln and Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, approved the new regiments and the first real test for Black soldiers in the regular U.S. Army, was about to occur.

In July, 1863, Harriett was providing nursing support as well as guide services to Army units in South Carolina, near Charleston, as the Union Army was mobilizing to assault Fort Wagner, the largest of the nearby installations still held by the Confederates. The unit chosen to lead the initial assault was a regiment of Black enlisted men, led by Colonel Robert G. Shaw, a White officer and avowed abolitionist. The assault was certainly a suicide mission and almost all of Shaw’s men were killed, as was the Colonel. Harriett helped care for the few survivors as some White doctors and nurses refused to aid the Black soldiers. While their assault failed to breech the walls of the fort, the 54th Massachusetts efforts, despite enormous losses, impressed other commanders and there was little hesitation afterward to forming Black units and employing them against Confederate forces.

Harriett wrote poetically of the experience, comparing the fighting to a storm; “We saw the lightening, that was the guns. Then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns. Then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood. And when we went to get the crops, it was only dead men that we reaped.”

Throughout the rest of the war, Harriett would stay close to Army units, helping the growing number of escaping slaves pass through the lines toward safety. Most found themselves, not in northern states building a new home, but in large encampments, with meager rations and tattered tents for shelter. However, they were free and those who worked for the Army received the first wages of their lives.

Except for occasional seizures and headaches from her childhood injury, Harriett remained generally healthy and was active in causes she believed in until well into her eighties. In 1912, at age ninety, Harriett’s health began to fail and she spent the rest of her life at the Harriett Tubman Home for the Aged, the home which she had built for elderly former slaves.

She died on March 10, 1913.

But Harriett Tubman’s legacy lives on. In towns throughout Pennsylvania, New York, and in the Canadian province of Ontario, there are enclaves of families whose forefathers were saved by her many rescue missions into slave territory. Moses was an apt title for this woman who led so many to the promised land and, for over sixty years, from the most humble beginnings, she was a force to be reckoned with, as this country awakened from the era of slavery.


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The Descriptive Art of Civil War Letters (Article 57)

The language, especially in written form, used in America during the Civil War era and the rest of the mid-nineteenth century, was more expansive than today, with broad descriptions and less jargon. While some refer to the language of that day as quaint and/or antiquated, others view the use of the lilting phrases from earlier times as more expressive than the “soundbite” linguistics of today. Of course, the newer abbreviated text symbols which dominate social media today, and pass for language, will only exacerbate the distinctive differences.  Reading letters written one hundred and fifty years ago, can help transport a modern reader back to those times. The earlier writers seem more articulate, even those with little or no formal education. Political speech, whether verbal or written, has always been, and continues to be, more flowery and long winded than everyday communications so, with one exception for Abraham Lincoln, no excerpts from speeches are quoted. Instead, these examples are from letters or notes, written between 1861 and 1865, and exchanged between friends; but, in one case, between enemies.

A first-time visitor to the the Potomac River near Alexandria, Virginia wrote; “Game and fish abound, many objects of interest are close at hand, and the summer fugitive from the ills of city life finds here a pleasant, halting place in his journeying for recreation.”

Upon viewing a battle-field a year after the event, one soldier wrote, “Another year and peace will have hidden the scars that now so sadly mar its beauty. Nature cannot be wholly defrauded of her blossoms, or prevented from drawing her mantle over the deserts that mankind may make.”

Writing of his dismay at the Confederate victory at Bull Run, the first major land battle of the Civil war, one man wrote to a friend; “Little did I conceive the greatness of the defeat, the magnitude of the disaster which it entailed upon the United States. So short lived has been the American Union, that men who saw it rise may yet live to see it fall.”

A friend wrote about a mother whose son was stationed in Washington DC; “Washington City was no longer a name to the mother waiting and praying in a distant hamlet. Never, till that hour, did the Federal city become, to the heart of the American people, truly the Capital of the nation”

In describing a battle, photographer Alexander Gardner wrote, “The Fifth corps performed one of the most dashing exploits of that campaign. Advancing quickly upon the river, they poured down the steep banks, driving all before them, and dashed across and secured a position on the other side, before the rebels could organize for opposition. The enemy soon commenced a vigorous attack upon the isolated corps; but the Fifth was not disposed to part with its laurels.”

After watching thousands of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate soldiers march past her Maryland home, one woman, a Union Sympathizer, wrote; “This body of men moving along with no order, their guns carried in every fashion, no two dressed alike, their officers hardly distinguishable from the privates; were these the men who had driven back again and again our splendid legions?”

After finding the body of a young confederate soldier, this was written; “He had been wounded by a fragment and laid down upon his blanket to await death. The disordered clothing shows that his suffering must have been intense. Was he delirious with agony or did death come slowly to his relief, while memories of home grew dearer? What visions of loved ones far away may have hovered above his stony pillow? What familiar voices may he have heard, like whispers beneath the roar of battle, as his eyes grew heavy in their long, last sleep?”

General Ulysses S. Grant, wrote many touching, and personally revealing, letters to his wife. This is part of an early letter; “You can have little idea of the influence you have over me, Julia, even while far away. If I feel tempted to do anything that I think is not right, I am sure to think, ‘Well now, if Julia saw me, would I do so?’ And only then set my mind.”

A person who accompanied Lincoln through the streets after the fall of Richmond wrote; “There is a stillness, in the midst of Richmond, with her ruins. The pavements where we walk stretches a vista of desecration, the loneliness seems interminable. There is no sound of life, but the stillness of the catacomb, as our footsteps fall dull on the deserted sidewalk. This is Richmond, says a melancholy voice. This is Richmond.”

After he was captured by Union forces, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote to his wife; “Dear Varina, This is not the fate to which I invited you when the future was rose-colored for us both; but I know you will bear it even better than myself, and that, of us two, I alone will ever look back reproachfully on my career.”

In an 1855 letter to his good friend, Joshua Speed, who was a slaveholder in Kentucky, Lincoln wrote; “You suggest that in political action now, you and I would differ. I suppose we would, not quite as much, however, as you may think. You know I dislike slavery and you fully admit to the abstract wrong of it. So far there is no cause for difference. But, you say that sooner than yield your legal right to the slave – especially at the bidding of those who are not themselves interested, you would see the Union dissolved. It is hardly fair for you to assume that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable.”

In a follow-up letter to Speed, Lincoln wrote; “Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘All men are created equal’ (but) now read it ‘except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings (a growing anti-immigrant political party) get control, it will read, ‘except negroes, foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer immigrating to a country where they make no pretense of loving liberty.”

In 1864, there was a movement to cancel the up-coming election because of the strife and uncertainty of the ongoing Civil War. Lincoln would not even consider it, although at the time, he was expected to lose his re-election bid. He wrote: “We cannot have free government without elections; and if the (Confederate) rebellion could force us to forgo or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us. No! There will be elections, and we will accept that which the people decide.”

After making that critical election decision, over the next few months, the fortunes of war changed in Lincoln’s favor and he was re-elected. In his second inaugural address, he reflected back to the beginning of the war, four years earlier. “While the (first) inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.”

Robert E. Lee agonized over the decision he felt he was forced, by honor, to make if his family’s home country for nearly 200 years, the Commonwealth of Virginia, chose to secede from his family’s newer country (of about 75 years), the United States. He wrote in his letter of resignation to his Union Commander, Winfield Scott; “I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name, and fame, will always be dear to me.” Then to his sister the same day he wrote; “I look upon secession as anarchy. And, if I owned every slave in the South I would sacrifice them all to save the Union. But, how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state. I will retire to my home in Virginia and share the miseries of my people and, save in defense of Virginia, will draw my sword on no one. With all my devotion to the Union, and the feelings of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” And by home, Lee meant the Commonwealth of Virginia!

Four years later, in April 1865 there occurred a most extraordinary exchange of brief letters, over a two-day period, this time between General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee. The letters were delivered by couriers under a white flag, in “no man’s land,” between their two armies, which were locked in brutal combat.

  • On April 7, Grant wrote to Lee (in part); “The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance in this struggle.  I regard it as my duty to shift responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of (your) army.”
  • Lee responded (in part); “I have received your note.  Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood and ask the terms you will offer.”
  • Grant then replied (in part); “I would say that peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist on – namely that the men and officers be disqualified for taking up arms against the government.  I will meet you or any officers you may designate, at any point agreeable to you for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms.”
  • Lee responded to Grant; “General, I received your note of today.  In mine of yesterday, I did not intend to propose the surrender but to ask the terms of your proposition.  To be frank I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army; but as far as your proposal may tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10am tomorrow (April 9) on the Old State Road to Richmond, between picket-lines of the two armies.”
  • Grant immediately wrote (in part); “I have not authority to treat on the subject of peace (meaning an overall settlement of the War). (Therefore) the meeting for 10am today would lead to no good. By the South laying down their arms, they would hasten that most desirous event, save thousands of lives, and hundreds of millions of property, not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life.”
  • Lee was startled that Grant would cancel the meeting, as Lee had decided in the meantime to surrender his army and now wanted to assure a meeting with Grant did occur. Lee wrote; “I now ask for an interview, in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday.”
  • Grant immediately replied (in part); “I am at Walker’s church and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting with you.”

The meeting was on! Lee’s men chose the McLean house at Appomattox and a first step in the process of ending the devastating war began.

After the surrender, Lee and Grant each wrote to his respective Commander-in chief. Lee wrote to Jefferson Davis beginning as follows: “Mr. President, It is with pain that I announce to your excellency the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.” Lee then went on, for three more hand-written pages, which included details of placement and troop strength of major units of both armies and the dismal state of supplies, including ammunition, within the Confederate forces. Lee then concluded: “I deemed this course the best under all circumstances. The enemy were more than five times our numbers. If we could have forced our way one day longer it would have been at great sacrifice of life, and at its end, I did not see how a surrender could have been avoided. The men, deprived of food and sleep for many days, were worn out and exhausted.” General Grant simply wrote to Abraham Lincoln; “General Lee has surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia this afternoon upon terms proposed by myself.”

Later, Lee wrote to a friend, “I surrendered as much to Lincoln’s goodness as to Grant’s artillery.”

And this description of a Confederate hospital ward written by Mary Chesnut, captures not only the scene but the raw emotions of the writer as well. “Who are these southern boys? Sometimes I can barely understand the language they speak, except suffering always sounds the same. The boys just want to go home but I know many will not see their mothers again, so I wash their faces and pray with them.”

Modern writers, including this one, simply do not match such descriptive eloquence.


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