The New York Times


April 14, 2011, 9:00 pm

Lincoln Declares War

Disunion

Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.

Lincoln’s Proclamation of April 15 is not a literary masterpiece. Nor was it trying to be. There was more urgent business to attend to — namely, the raising of 75,000 volunteers to defend Washington from attack. And yet, like every public document that issued from his pen, it is suffused with the particular phrasings of his mind. When seen in its handwritten version, below, courtesy of the Library of Congress, it is more clearly something that came from him, and not simply the great bureaucracy he personified as president. There are deletions, and inserts, and all the signs of a writer struggling to get it just right.

The Proclamation is very much a federal document — indeed, it calls for the federal idea to be saved from disaster. As such, it begins with a certain stiffness — the date, byline (“By the President of the United States,” and a rather unnecessary explanation of what it is (“A Proclamation”). Then, to the point, with Lincoln’s commas coming in rapid succession, like the drumbeats of a muster roll, giving weight to his argument that the law of the land cannot be trampled upon and the union rent asunder:

Whereas the laws of the United States have been for some time past, and now are opposed, and the execution thereof obstructed, in the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the Marshals by law.

Note his lawyerly assumption — the problem is not with a legitimate opponent (state governments that have voted to secede), but an illegitimate one (“combinations too powerful to be suppressed”).


Then that introductory sentence finally arrives at its terminus, and raison d’être:

Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, in virtue of the power in me vested by the Constitution, and the laws, have thought fit to call forth, and hereby do call forth, the militia of the several States of the Union, to the aggregate number of seventy-five thousand, in order to suppress said combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed.

(Some of Lincoln’s advisers were calling for 50,000 troops, and some for 100,000 — 75,000 was a compromise.)

Following that news item, Lincoln interjected a thought that cut to the heart of his argument:

I appeal to all loyal citizens to favor, facilitate and aid this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government; and to redress wrongs already long enough endured.

It is a simple enough thought, asking the American people to support the coming military effort. But it takes a series of high-ground positions that Lincoln would never abandon, and that sustained him as he sought the greater rhetorical heights he would achieve at Gettysburg and beyond, two long years later. By calling on “loyal” citizens, he is of course castigating opponents as “disloyal.” He declares that the fight is not over anything as mundane as the taking of a fort, but to defend the very existence of the U.S. government, and by extension, the right of people worldwide to govern themselves. Another premonition of Gettysburg comes with those three last words, “long enough endured,” which would reconstitute themselves in the second sentence of his most famous speech, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure.”

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The Proclamation continued with a hint of what the recruits were being asked to do, and here Lincoln was on less sure ground. He wrote that they would “probably” be assigned to “re-possess the forts, places, and property which have been seized from the Union.”

“Probably” is a terrible word to use in a military plan. Then he expressed his hope that this new army, created to wage war, would “avoid any devastation.” We know what he meant — that peaceful citizens would go unmolested — but it was naïve to hope that the extraordinary force he was calling into existence would go about its lethal purpose without causing devastation of the most extreme kind. Wars are never easy to describe accurately, especially as they are beginning.

Nearly done, the Proclamation lamely asked the secessionists to disperse peacefully and go home, making war unnecessary. Then it concluded with another important piece of business, calling Congress into special session, on the not-coincidental date of July 4. They would have much to do, and more specifically, to pay for.

The details were less clear — they usually are — but Lincoln was asking for different numbers of regiments from different states, according to their size. He only expected troops to serve for 90 days, because a 1795 law required that troops serve only 30 days after Congress was called into session — meaning that they would have to disband on Aug. 4.

The result of the Proclamation was instantaneous — northerners embraced it enthusiastically, and signed up in huge numbers. Frederick Seward wrote, “The response to the Proclamation at the North was all or more than could be anticipated.” Enormous crowds surged in northern cities, cheering the new recruits and the marching bands that followed them. Extraordinary letters were written to Lincoln, offering service to the cause of Union. (A sampling can be seen here.)

Without much understanding of military matters, many northerners thought the conflict would be brief, a matter of weeks or perhaps months. Seward thought it would be over in 60 days; John Hay hoped it would be “bloody and short, in pity to the maniac South.” They would repent for their overconfidence. Indeed, Northern solidarity was achieved at a great cost. Two days afterwards, Virginia would secede as a result — adding an enormous state to the Confederacy, and bringing the rebellion to Washington’s doorstep.

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The Proclamation also brought about a change in domestic politics. By assigning the creation of the militias to the states, Lincoln had placed an enormous responsibility in the hands of each governor. They responded differently, revealing some weakness in the way the United States went to war. Some, like Rhode Island’s William Sprague, saw it as a chance to achieve personal glory — Sprague outfitted a regiment with his own ample funds, designed uniforms for his men and demanded that a command be offered to him (surprisingly, one was)). Others were more diffident — Connecticut’s governor, William Buckingham, telegraphed, “Your request will receive immediate attention.” For Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware and Maryland, the request for troops to suppress the South was extremely difficult. Each case required the most delicate diplomacy.

Some governors were undiplomatic in their response. Gov. Claiborne Jackson wrote, “Not one man will the state of Missouri furnish to carry on any such unholy crusade.” Gov. John Ellis wrote, “You can get no troops from North Carolina.” Gov. Beriah Magoffin wrote, “Kentucky will furnish no troops for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister Southern states.” Gov. William Burton of Delaware didn’t answer. Maryland was an acute problem, not only because its governor, Thomas Hicks, was unenthusiastic, but because so many northern troops would have to cross Maryland to defend Washington. Many Marylanders felt invaded by these troops — whose main purpose was to stop an expected invasion. These problems would eventually work themselves out, as the federal government, by necessity, transformed itself from a feeble collection of office-holders into a mighty instrument of national will. By the end of the war, governors were far less important.

Lincoln’s Proclamation may not be one of the timeless utterances we cherish him for, full of perfectly-crafted words of national purpose and high-mindedness. But in order to have a national purpose, you need a nation, and a capital, and a government. This single sheet of paper, saving Washington from attack, and by extension launching the federal era, marked a permanent change in the way that Americans went about their business. Once the genie had been unleashed, there was no putting him back in the bottle.

Sources: “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln” (ed. Roy P. Basler); William B. Hesseltine, “Lincoln and the War Governors”; Benjamin Knight, “History of the Sprague Families, of Rhode Island, Cotton Manufacturers and Calico Printers”;David Herbert Donald, “Lincoln;” Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Team of Rivals”; The Lincoln Log (www.lincolnlog.org).

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Ted Widmer

Ted Widmer is director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and the editor of the Library of America’s two-volume “American Speeches.”


One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Americans went to war with themselves. Disunion revisits and reconsiders America’s most perilous period — using contemporary accounts, diaries, images and historical assessments to follow the Civil War as it unfolded.

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