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How We Elected Lincoln

A.J. Dittenhoefer

 

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VII

FOUR YEARS OF STRESS AND STRAIN

BUCHANAN belonged to the school of American pro-slavery Presidents. During the last year of his administration he was as completely dominated by the Southern members of his Cabinet as were the Merovingian kings by their mayors of the palace. By blackest treachery, John B. Floyd, Secretary of War, and Isaac Toucey, Secretary of the Navy, gorged the armories and navy - yards located in the slave States with arms, ordnance, and all manner of munitions of war, thus anticipating months ahead what the Southern politicians regarded as the "inevitable conflict." The Federal Government, with the spineless Buchanan at its head, was utterly unprepared for the crisis.

Such was the situation when President Lincoln took the oath of office; such the already divided nation when the irresolute, truckling Buchanan handed over the destinies of the Republic to his successor.


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No heavier burden ever was imposed upon a ruler of any people.

Mr. Lincoln was only partially fortunate in choosing his Cabinet. Seward was inevitable. Chase was a lucky guess, because he was without a record as a financier. Cameron was a mistake, and the error was not rectified as promptly as it should have been. The other members, with the possible exception of Gideon Welles, who received the Navy portfolio, were negligible.

The administration found itself without an army, many of its ablest offers having left the service to take up arms against the Federal Government. The rank and file of the army was fairly loyal, but the troops had been so scattered by Buchanan's secretary of war that they could not be mobilized promptly when the hour of danger came. Despite the plottings of Secretary Toucey, however, the vessels of the Navy were so dispersed that the Confederacy was unable to seize many of them. This was most fortunate, since it made possible the prompt establishment of a Federal blockade over important Atlantic and Gulf ports.

Legal business took me to Washington about four months after Lincoln 's first inauguration and I called at the White House, in company with Mr. Fenton. Although a score of men were present in the different parts of the large room overlooking


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the South lot, Mr. Lincoln was walking the floor in a preoccupied manner, evidently deeply distressed.

The Federal troops had just been defeated at Big Bethel by a much smaller force under Magruder, a crushing blow for the Union arms.

I suggested to Mr. Fenton that we should retire, as the visit seemed inopportune, but the President's grave face showed signs of recognition when he saw Mr. Fenton. He stopped, and as we approached him, he said:

"The storm is upon us; it will be much worse before it is better. I suppose there was a divine purpose in thrusting this terrible responsibility upon me, and I can only hope for more than human guidance. I am only a mortal in the hands of destiny. I am ready for the trial and shall do my best, because I know I am acting for the right."

He did not mention the defeat that had occurred only two days before, but it was evident that he comprehended fully the desperate situation that confronted the Federal Government.

Big Bethel was within ten miles of Fortress Monroe, and I subsequently learned from a member of the Cabinet that the utmost anxiety existed regarding the safety of that post. If treachery existed among its offers, the secret has been kept until this day, but one can under-


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stand the agonizing suspense of that hour. Had the great fortress at Old Point Comfort fallen into the hands of the Confederacy, the early part of the war would necessarily have been fought upon entirely different lines.

Mr. Lincoln possessed no knowledge of the art of war, but he had sufficient intuitive foresight to comprehend what the loss of control of the entrance to Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the James River would mean. Although he said so little, this meeting and the few words he used were most impressive, and are stamped deep upon my memory.

As I have just remarked, military and naval technicalities did not matter much to Lincoln , and he was accustomed to brush them aside in his familiar, humorous way. When Mr. Bushnell brought to Washington the plans for the Monitor, the recent invention of Mr. Ericsson, which became famous in the sea-fight with the rebel Merrimac, most of the naval officers expressed doubts as to the efficiency of the Monitor in a naval fight. Mr. Lincoln's opinion was asked. He said he knew little about ships, but he "did understand a flatboat, and this invention was flat enough."

Later, at a meeting of the Army board, when asked by Admiral Smith what he thought of the Monitor, he remarked, with his most quizzical look, "Well, I feel a good deal about it as a fat


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girl did when she put her foot in her stocking; she thought there was something in it."

All present laughed at this drollery, but it was the way Lincoln sometimes took of conveying a really serious thought.

At that period of the war and until the battle of Gettysburg, two years later, Southern leaders acted upon the theory that the people of the North were greatly divided in their sympathies, and that the "Copperheads" would either develop sufficient strength to stop the war; or, in the event of invasion of the Northern States, they would take up arms in support of the Confederacy. John Morgan's raid into Ohio encouraged that belief, although he was captured and imprisoned; but the utter indifference shown by the Pennsylvania "Copperheads," who had talked loudest in favor of the Southern cause, completely disillusioned the Confederate chiefs. Vallandigham and Voorhees were shown to be without great influence. I had a direct statement from a member of the Lincoln Cabinet that the President did not approve of Vallandigham's arrest by General Burnside, or his trial by court-martial and banishment to the Southern lines. Lincoln declared the proceedings to be those of an over-zealous general.

Defeat after defeat of the Northern forces followed that of Big Bethel. The raw volunteers


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from the Northern States could not successfully oppose the better-trained Southern troops, led by West Point graduates.

Mr. Lincoln never lost heart; his courage never abated during those terrible months, while many men close to him were in a mental condition of dismay and panic.

The day of Burnside's defeat at Fredericksburg Lincoln spent hours in the office of the War Department in dressing-gown and slippers, forgetting even to eat. When he heard of the great disaster he bowed his head in despair, and murmured, "If there is any man out of perdition who suffers more than I do, I pity him."

Sufficient credit was never given to Thurlow Weed for his successful efforts in England to prevent recognition of the Confederacy. Mr. Lincoln described Weed as "a master of masters in politics," and sent him on that difficult mission late in 1861 when the situation looked very dark. Our able minister at the court of St. James's, Charles Francis Adams, possessed Mr. Lincoln's entire confidence, but the President deemed it advisable to have a special commissioner to present his protest against the apprehended British recognition of the Southern Confederacy.

The day before Mr. Weed's departure I met him in the rotunda of the old Astor House, and found him imbued with more hope than I felt, regarding


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the conflict with the South. Of course, he made no mention of his intended mission to England, thinking that he could get away without the fact becoming known. He was disappointed, however, as the day following his departure all the newspapers published the news of his special embassy. There were no Atlantic cables in those days, and by prompt action on his arrival he managed to hold his first interview with Lord Russell before official information reached the British Cabinet from Washington regarding the purpose of his presence in London.

Henry Ward Beecher also visited England at Mr. Lincoln's request, possibly at the suggestion of John Bright, who was almost the only prominent Briton who remained friendly to the Federal cause. Gladstone, Palmerston, and Disraeli were at that time in open sympathy with the Confederacy.

Mr. Beecher's mission was wholly unofficial, and his efforts were devoted to delivering addresses, such as only he could make, throughout England. These speeches and Mr. Weed's efforts created such a wave of popular sentiment in behalf of the Federal cause that the British Cabinet, if ever it had the purpose, was deterred from recognizing the States in rebellion. It was the same kind of moral suasion employed by Gladstone prior to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, and


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which prevented England from going to the defense of Turkey, then her ally.

The relief experienced through General Lee's defeat at Gettysburg and his retreat across Maryland into Virginia was followed, ten days later (July, 1863), by the draft riots in New York.

The horrors of those three days have never been fully described.

Led and encouraged by Southern sympathizers, who had retained the feelings they held before the war, the rabble of the city surged through the streets, destroying property, burning a negro orphan-asylum, and killing black men. Nominally a protest against enforced enlistment, the riots were really an uprising of the dangerous element that existed in the city at the time.

I lived in Thirty-fourth Street , near Eighth Avenue, and had been a persistent speaker against the extension of slavery and in favor of the Federal cause. The day before the riots began, an anonymous note was received by my family, stating that our home would be attacked and that we had best leave the city. We did not heed the warning.

On the first day of the riots, July 13, 1863, a crowd gathered in front of my house, shouting: "Down with the abolitionists!" "Death to Dittenhoefer!" I sent a messenger for the police, and a squad arrived as the leaders of the mob were


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preparing to break in my door. Active club work dispersed the crowd, and by order of the captain of the precinct several policemen were kept on guard until the end of the riots.

It was at this time that I met Mrs. Carson, the daughter of the only Union man in South Carolina, who, with her father, was compelled, after the firing on Fort Sumter, to leave South Carolina, while his property was confiscated. I had been anxious to sell my house in Thirty-fourth Street. Noticing a "For Sale" sign on the property, Mrs. Carson called on me and expressed a willingness to buy the house at the price named, asking me to see Samuel Blatchford, who in later years became a Supreme Court Judge of the United States, and who, she said, was the head of an association raising funds for her support in New York. I saw Judge Blatchford, and a contract was signed for the sale. Later, in consequence of the serious illness of my wife, I was obliged to ask Judge Blatchford to cancel the contract, saying that, by way of making up for the disappointment, I would gladly contribute a sum of money to the fund for Mrs. Carson. The contract was accordingly canceled. I never saw Dirs. Carson afterward. About a year before the close of the rebellion, Mr. Lincoln offered to appoint me judge of the district court of South Carolina, my native State, but my increasing business in the city of New York and the


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disinclination of my wife to move to South Carolina compelled me to decline the honor.

A little while before the offer of the Carolina judgeship was made me by the President I received a letter signed by Mrs. Carson, in which the writer said that the President had asked her to recommend a man for the position, and, remembering what I had done years before, she had suggested my name to him. For a long time I could not think who Mrs. Carson could be, until my wife reminded me of the incident of the sale of the house.

Patriotic neglect of self-interest in behalf of the salvation of the Union caused thousands of Northerners to lose opportunities for accumulating wealth from the vast sums of money disbursed by the Government; but there was a class at home and in Congress that neglected no chance to enrich itself. Its leaders were more concerned about the commercial phase of the conflict than the triumph of the Federal arms.

They gambled on the destiny of the Republic, and their sources of information reached to the innermost sanctuaries of Government departments.

On advance information of a staggering defeat to the Northern arms, they bought gold for a rise. Early news of a Federal victory caused them to sell the precious metal for a decline. This transac-


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tion was described by these gamblers in the nation's life-blood as "coppering old Lincoln."

This detestable clan pushed its representatives into the very councils of state, asserting its right to dictate the policy of the country, foreign and domestic. Its members were as intolerably arrogant as if they had amassed their wealth by the strictest integrity.

During a great part of the war President Lincoln, unsuspected by him, was surrounded by a coterie of professional heroes, commercial grafters, and alleged statesmen, every one of whom was in politics for personal profit. Many "shining lights" then lauded for their patriotism have long since been exposed as selfish and corrupt egotists. Close as some of these unworthy persons contrived to get to Mr. Lincoln, they were never able to besmirch him in any way.

During one of my visits to the White House some weeks before the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation, I had the temerity to refer to the oft-reported plan of Mr. Lincoln, before the rebellion burst upon the country, to free the Southern slaves by purchase. It was a theme that had often engaged my thoughts. After the beginning of the war and a realization that the conflict was costing more than $1,000,000 per day, I had become somewhat reconciled to the idea. Mr. Lincoln was slow to answer, saying, in


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effect, that however wise the idea might have been, it was too late to revive it. He did not intimate that he had in contemplation the Emancipation Proclamation which was to take effect January 1, 1863.

Mr. Lincoln had all the figures about slave property at his finger-ends, but, much to my regret, I did not make a memorandum of the interview and, therefore, cannot recall the exact number of slaves that he estimated would have to be purchased. Field hands were valued at from six hundred to one thousand dollars each, but the old men and women and young children would reduce the average price. This would have absorbed $500,000,000, a sum that, prior to the experience of one year's war expenditure, would have appeared staggering. When, however, Mr. Lincoln called attention to the rapidly growing national debt, with no prospect of ending the conflict for years to come, he exclaimed:

"What a splendid investment it would have been!"

These words, as the mentally distressed Lincoln uttered them in that dark hour of the Civil War, were of thrilling import. He rose to his full height; my eyes instinctively traced his majestic length from his slippers to his head of iron-gray hair, and there was an expression of sadness in his face that I never shall forget.


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Referring to the severe criticisms that were launched against him respecting the views he entertained about the reconstruction of the Union, he said:

"I do the best I can, and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference."

The entrance of a delegation prevented a continuance of the conversation. Years afterward, Col. A. K. McClure told me that as late as August, prior to the November elections of 1864, President Lincoln had recurred to his plan for freeing the negroes by purchase, and settling the war on the basis of universal extinction of slavery in all States of the Union at an expense of $400,000,000, a compromise which he believed the Southern leaders, in their hopeless condition after the battle of Gettysburg, would be glad to accept. Mr. Lincoln went on to predict that the promulgation of such a scheme at that time would defeat his reelection. McClure not only confirmed him in that opinion, but added that Congress was in no mood to appropriate so large a sum of money.

Redemption of these bonds, if the Union was restored after the war, would fall in part on the Southern people; they would be paying out of


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their own pockets for the liberation of their slaves. This statement of McClure's is remarkable because it indicates that Lincoln believed that the status quo ante bellum could be restored and reconstruction formalities avoided. Unfortunately, under President Andrew Johnson, and during Grant's administration and the first year of Hayes's administration, "the carpet bag" regime with its horrors and corruptions was inflicted upon the Southern States.

Colonel McClure's judgment was keen and accurate. Congress, led by Senator Sumner and Representatives Thaddeus Stevens and Henry Winter Davis, would have repudiated such a proposition if made by Lincoln. Even after his re-election he could not have secured the money for that purpose.

Mr. Carpenter, who made the famous painting of the Cabinet when Mr. Lincoln read the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, and who was a client of mine, told me I. Lincoln had said to him that for a long time he had been considering the necessity of eventually issuing the Proclamation; but that he was held back by the intense desire that was always in his mind to restore the Union, and his fear that if he proclaimed emancipation prematurely the restoration of the Union would be prevented. During his entire administration and in all his addresses this desire to re-


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store the Union was supreme and it controlled his every action.

On the momentous occasion when Lincoln read the preliminary draft of his Emancipation Proclamation before his Cabinet, he amused himself and the othersówith the exception of Secretary Stanton, who was plainly amazed at the President's seeming levityóby first reading to them from Artemas Ward's amusing story of "The High-Handed Outrage at Utica."

Later on I remember having been present when Lincoln said, "If my name is ever remembered it will be for this act; my whole soul is in it."

It is curious, the thing we call history. An act popularly regarded as madness at one period is hailed as concrete wisdom at another. History is only a crystallization of popular beliefs.

Many people very close to Lincoln have doubted his sympathy for the slaves, and have referred to his frequent characterization of abolitionists as "a disturbing element in the nation, that ought to be subjected to some sort of control." They assert that his efforts were directed solely to restraining the ambitions of the slaveholders to extend their system of human bondage over larger areas of the United States.

Such judgment of Lincoln is at variance with my personal observations and does him a grave injustice. His nature was essentially sympathetic,


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although he never went the length of asserting that he regarded the black man as his social equal.

Subsequent observation has shown me that the immediate admission of the liberated slaves to equal rights of franchise was an error.

It revived the former bitterness with which the Southern people had regarded the Northerners, and imposed a grievous injustice upon them, an injustice naturally and forcibly resented. And so followed the formation of the "Invisible Empire" and the excesses of the "Ku-Klux Klan."


 

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