Lincoln, 1865 “My God! My God!”

Excerpt from Jay Winik’s April 1865:

On March 24, [1865] the Union president came to City Point, to meet with his highest lieutenants – General in Chief US Grant, General William Tecumseh Sherman and Admiral David Dixon Porter – to discuss exactly the core of that crisis: how the Federals would corner Lee. It was billed as a vacation. But he also wanted to be near the battle, to see with his own eyes the forces and the weapons, to read the wires, and to visualize the lines. He would stay a full two weeks …

It was, arguably, the most important meeting a president has ever had with his combat generals in the history of the country.

Grant, now preparing to launch a final assault against Petersburg, assured Lincoln that the end was at last within reach. Sherman, the loquacious, hot-tempered redhead, agreed.

Lincoln desperately wanted to be convinced, but he could not shake his own overriding fears, that somehow victory would slip through their hands, that Lee would break away from Grant and lead his forces into North Carolina … Nor did Lincoln’s fears concern lee alone. “Johnson,” he bluntly told Sherman, might slip out of his grasp and “be off south with those hardy troops of his.” He gloomily continued, warning the general, “Yes, he will get away if he can, and you will never catch him until miles of travel and many bloody battles.”

Lincoln’s lieutenants shared his foreboding. Grant would later describe this time as “the most anxious of my experience,” confessing, “I was afraid every morning, that I would wake from my sleep to hear that Lee had gone … and the war prolonged for another year.”…

“Must more blood be shed?” Lincoln asked. “Cannot this bloody battle be avoided?” No, came the answer. Both generals thought not. Lee had foiled them before when the odds were longest. And, Lee being Lee, they curtly reminded Lincoln, there was likely to be “one more desperate and bloody battle.”

“My God,” Lincoln instantly interjected, “my God! Can’t you spare more effusions of blood? We have had so much of it!”

But in truth, the answer to that heartfelt question resided with the selfsame man who was doing the asking, Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, it had always been Lincoln’s question to ask and answer. For the Union president, who had spent many months pondering this very subject, how the war would end was every bit as crucial as how it had been prosecuted. And its resolution hinged on the most delicate balancing act of the entire conflict: the potentially irreconcilable contradictions of the total war now being waged by Sherman and Grant directly clashing with his cherished notion of “Union”; the moral fervor over slave emancipation and suffrage colliding with the urgent practicality of quickly healing the nation; and the gnawing concern that these two great sets of goals could, in the final months and final weeks and final days, drift dangerously apart rather than unite in tandem.

In fact, if the United States were truly to be reunited as one nation, Lincoln believed deeply that the war must not conclude with wholesale slaughter, nor could it slowly dwindle into barbarism or inquisition or mindless retaliation. All, he felt, would bode ill. To unite the country anew, it must be marked by reconciliation, by the lubricants of civil order, by a rejuvenated sense of what Lincoln termed on the River Queen the “rights as citizens of a common country.” For this reason, as Admiral Porter would later observe, Lincoln now “wanted peace on almost any terms.”

Wringing his hands, Lincoln thus enunciated to Grant and Sherman what would become known as the River Queen Doctrine, offering the South the most generous terms: “to get the deluded men of the rebel armies disarmed and back to their homes … Let them once surrender and reach their homes, [and] they won’t take up arms again.” And, further, “Let them all go, officers and all, I want submission and no more bloodshed … I want no one punished; treat them liberally all around. We want those people to return to their allegiance to the Union and submit to the laws.”

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