, Salem, MA


July 4, 2013

Column: Lincoln's insights extend beyond Gettysburg Address

This year, Independence Day on the Fourth of July immediately followed the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. That enormous death struggle at a small Pennsylvania town occurred in July 1863.

Afterward, the Confederacy was never again to mount major offensive operations. Gettysburg was the turning point of our long, bloody Civil War. At the end of the battle, Union commander Gen. George Gordon Meade permitted the Confederate forces of Gen. Robert E. Lee to retreat to Virginia and safety, much to the consternation of President Abraham Lincoln, who constantly pressed his commanders.

In fairness, however, both armies were devastated. Even a gifted leader, in the relative physical safety of Washington, could underestimate the complete emotional, as well as physical, exhaustion resulting from such combat.

Lincoln’s brief Gettysburg Address, commemorating the battlefield cemetery, emphasized essential human equality as well as strong national unity. The vision of the speech was made actual through Union victory in the war, which in turn reflected Lincoln’s astonishing genius for leadership.

First, the gifted politician was able both to gauge and guide public opinion, simultaneously building an ultimately successful Northern coalition to preserve the Union while also building the much more tenuous coalition of sentiment against slavery.

At the start of the war, Lincoln patiently resisted pressures of pro-Union hotheads and skillfully maneuvered the South into firing the first shots, against a ship with provisions for the island outpost of Fort Sumter, S.C. Pro-Union sentiment was strengthened.

In January 1863, he raised the stakes of the conflict from simply preserving the Union to ending slavery. The limited Union victory at Antietam in September 1862, after continuing defeats and reversals, provided credibility essential to effectiveness of his Emancipation Proclamation.

However, the dramatic declaration ended slavery only in the Confederate states, which Washington did not control. Slavery was not touched in Northern states, including the vital border states, where pro-slavery Southern sentiments were strong.

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