Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Road to Antietam, August 22, 1862: Abraham Lincoln's Response to Horace Greeley

Quite often, when someone is trying to make the case that Lincoln really didn't care about slavery, he or she will invariably rely upon one letter more than any other: the letter which Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune on August 22, 1862, 150 years ago today.

Just a few days prior to this, newspaper editor Horace Greeley published an open letter to the president, titled, "The Prayer of Twenty Millions," telling Lincoln that his policies were failing.Greeley believed that the war needed to be elevated to a fight against slavery itself. In essence, Horace Greeley was calling out the President of the United States for what he believed was a failure to use the powers of his office to strike a blow against slavery, the root cause of the war. In Greeley's eyes, this was tantamount to the war being fought in vain:

"On the face of this wide earth, Mr. President, there is not one disinterested, determined, intelligent champion of the Union cause who does not feel that all attempts to put down the rebellion and at the same time uphold its inciting cause are preposterous and futile--that the rebellion, if rushed out tomorrow, would be renewed within a year if Slavery were left in full vigor..."

On August 22, Lincoln responded to Greeley:

Hon. Horace Greeley:
Dear Sir.
I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New--York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable [sic] in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

As to the policy I "seem to be pursuing" as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft--expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.

A. Lincoln.

For many, this letter serves as a definitive statement concerning Lincoln's views on slavery. According to this, Lincoln apparently cared nothing for abolition or the plight of slaves; he was only interested in preserving the Union. But, if one looks deeper, Lincoln is actually saying something entirely different. Let us not forget that Abraham Lincoln was the President of the United States, a political office with an oath to uphold the Constitution. Lincoln's sworn oath was to preserve the Union, not to act against slavery; accordingly, in this letter, he states that his goal is to pursue his official goal of preserving the country. Lincoln never took an oath to destroy slavery; he did, however, take an oath to preserve the constitution, which meant that keeping the country together was his primary goal.

However, when Lincoln wrote that he would free slaves or let slavery be to save the Union, he was writing having announced to his cabinet exactly one month prior that he would indeed issue an Emancipation Proclamation. At the time this letter was written, Lincoln was waiting for the right moment to issue the document. Essentially, he had already decided that freeing the slaves was the best way to save the Union and preserve freedom, he was just not yet ready to declare it. 

One must simply put this letter into its historical context to dismiss the argument that Lincoln was declaring his indifference toward slavery. Lincoln was writing as a politician. He could not respond to Greeley by telling of his intentions to issue an Emancipation Proclamation because he was still waiting for the requisite victory to issue the document. Thus, as a politician and statesman, Lincoln was making a balanced statement on the war and slavery, not wanting to prematurely declare Emancipation before he had his desired victory, a victory that would come along the banks of Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862.

One more thing is worth noting: for those who still insist on using this letter to argue Lincoln cared nothing for slaves or slavery, one must look at the closing line. Once again, Lincoln's official oath was not to get rid of slavery, but to preserve the Union. However, his personal desire to see slavery come to an end was still unchanged, as he declared to Greeley. Thus, when it was possible for Lincoln to use his leadership to pursue both his official goal of preserving the Union and his personal goal of striking at slavery, he would do so, forever changing the war and the country.

It was the Union victory at Antietam that gave Lincoln the strength necessary to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, removing the dichotomy between personal wishes and official duties. Following Antietam, Lincoln would lead the country forward toward a "new birth of freedom." His letter to Horace Greeley, written 150 years ago today, was but one more step on the road toward Antietam and the road to freedom for millions.

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