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Lincoln’s Fleeting Hope for an Early End to the War

By Tom Wheeler and Trevor K. Plante
6/6/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

In a newly discovered letter penned four days after Gettysburg, the commander in chief urges his generals in vain to destroy Lee’s army.

The forward-leaning cursive in the six-line note almost leaps from the page in intense anticipation that the end of the nation’s war with itself might be in sight.The date on the note is July 7,1863.The author is Abraham Lincoln.Until last May this treasure was thought to have been lost.

This is the story of Lincoln’s note and how it was found.The handwritten missive is linked to a flurry of telegrams between Washington and the Union army in Pennsylvania, as well as Lincoln’s most famous unsent letter, which together reveal how his premature hope that victory was at hand soon turned to anger and despair.

As a historic document the yellowing piece of paper was not technically lost,but it was certainly undiscovered until last May when its hiding place was exposed by Trevor Plante,one of the coauthors of this article.The note was written immediately after the president learned of General Ulysses S. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg.Coming on the heels of Maj.Gen.George Meade’s victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln’s excitement was almost palpable.Writing his general in chief,Henry Halleck,Lincoln shared his hope: “Now,if Gen.Meade can complete his work so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the litteral [sic] or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.”

What it must have meant to Abraham Lincoln to be able to pen the last five words,“the rebellion will be over.”The battles in Pennsylvania and Mississippi meant that victory was within grasp.Three days after the 87th anniversary of its founding,there was promise the nation might be restored.

Since Abraham Lincoln did not keep a diary we must rely on documents such as this for an insight into what was going on in his mind.The note to Halleck reveals the president’s hopes, emotions and optimism.

Although Vicksburg had fallen on July 4th,its western isolation meant that Lincoln did not learn of the victory until three days later.That evening, in response to a jubilant serenade by well wishers at the White House, Lincoln (who was not known for extemporaneous remarks while president) shared his joy. There was a “glorious theme,”he said,that connected the original Independence Day with “the surrender of a most powerful position…and not only so, but [victories] in a succession of battles in Pennsylvania.”

As Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer has pointed out,these remarks are the early, clumsier ruminations that would become the Gettysburg Address:“How long ago is it?—eighty odd years —since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives,assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal’…and on the 4th the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal,‘turned tail and ran.’”It must have been one of the most joyful days in a presidency notably devoid of such moments.

In the days before receiving the news of Vicksburg,Lincoln had grown increasingly frustrated at General Meade’s inability to deliver the coup de grace to the Rebel forces he had defeated at Gettysburg.The night before receiving the Vicksburg news the president wrote General Halleck from his summer cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’Home,“I left the telegraph office [at the War Department] a good deal dissatisfied.” The president feared Meade was more focused on protecting Washington and Baltimore than destroying the Confederates while they were bottled up against the swollen river.

Then came the wonderful news from the west.General Halleck forwarded the president’s July 7th note verbatim in a telegram to General Meade in the hope that it might serve as a prod to action.When Meade—a week later—finally advanced to give battle, the Union forces discovered only abandoned trenches.The river had subsided, and the Confederates had slipped back to the relative safety of Virginia.The war would continue.

The president was less than pleased with the Confederate escape.An early afternoon telegram from Halleck to Meade on the 14th ordered,“The enemy should be pursued and cut up.” That same wire offered a report on the president’s displeasure. “I need hardly say to you that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle has created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President,and it will require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has not been sufficiently active heretofore.”

Meade did not take the message well.The telegraph had changed the historical relationship between the capital and generals in the field to permit almost real time dialog.Only 90 minutes later Meade wired,“Having performed my duty conscientiously and to the best of my ability, the censure of the President conveyed in your dispatch of 1 p.m.this day,is,in my judgment, so undeserved that I feel compelled most respectfully to ask to be immediately relieved from command of this army.” General Halleck replied with equal dispatch,“My telegram,stating the disappointment of the President at the escape of Lee’s army,was not intended as censure,but as a stimulus to an active pursuit. It is not deemed a sufficient cause for your application to be relieved.”

But the president was mightily distressed.Only a week after having penned his expectant note that “the rebellion will be over,” Lincoln wrote another letter, this one addressed to Gen. Meade:

Executive Mansion

Washington, July 14, 1863

Major General Meade

I have just seen your despatch to Gen.Halleck,asking to be relieved of your command,because of a supposed censure of mine.I am very—very—grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg;and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you…I have been oppressed nearly ever since the battles of Gettysburg,by what appeared to be evidences that yourself, and Gen. Couch and Gen. Smith, were not seeking a collision with the enemy, but were trying to get him across the river without another battle…You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you,and as many more raw ones within supporting distance,all in addition to those who fought at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down,bridges be built,and the enemy move away at his leisure…Again, my dear general,I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape.He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in conjunction with our late successes, have ended the war.As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely…Your golden opportunity is gone,and I am distressed immeasurably because of it. I beg you will not consider this prossecution [sic], or persecution of yourself. As you had learned that I was dissatisfied,I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.

The Meade letter was never sent.The president placed it in an envelope upon which he wrote,“To Gen.Meade,never sent, or signed.” It is the bookend, however, to the July 7th note, illustrating how in one week Abraham Lincoln had plunged from the mountaintop of elation and expectation to the valley of disappointment and despair.That journey comes alive with the discovery of the original message in Lincoln’s own hand. Here is the trigger for the Halleck-Meade telegrams and the unsent letter. Here Lincoln’s hopes and expectations almost leap from the page.

The Lincoln note was a page in a book of similar original documents bound together in a very crude manner.The book itself was part of a collection of “Generals’ Papers and Books” containing miscellaneous documents relating to Henry Halleck located among the Adjutant General’s Records at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. The document was part of General Halleck’s papers that his widow, Mrs. Elizabeth H.Cullum (she had subsequently remarried),sent to the War Records Office.This department was responsible for publishing The War of Rebellion:A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

Many of the gaps in the War Department records were filled in this way,by collecting copies of correspondence,reports and telegrams in private hands. In this case, Mrs. Cullum sent her first husband’s papers, not copies, to Lt. Col. Robert N. Scott, the officer in charge of the War Records Office.The Halleck papers were transferred to the National Archives by the War Department in 1938.The Lincoln note was discovered May 14, 2007,while researching a Discovery Channel documentary on Gettysburg.For some reason the original Lincoln letter did not make it into the Official Records. Its existence was known only by reference in Halleck’s telegram to Meade. Roy Basler’s The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, published in 1953,reproduced the content of the note but cited the Halleck telegram as the source. Similarly, The Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by his secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay also reproduces the telegram but not the note.

There is no way of knowing where the president wrote the optimistic note since he could have picked up War Department letterhead at the War Department Building and carried it back to the Executive Mansion and written it there.Another possibility is he had extra letterhead at the Executive Mansion, which might better explain the printed year of 1862 appearing on the document.

There also is no way of knowing for certain how the Lincoln note reached Halleck, but most likely the president himself,or a clerk or courier,handed it to the general.In his subsequent telegram to Meade, Halleck calls the message a “note” and not a telegram. For more than a hundred years the note went undiscovered.Perhaps the original compilers saw the letterhead, associated it with many telegrams written on similar stationery and filed it in “Telegrams Received.”For sure it is not a telegram, yet that assumption could have led to its misfiling until it was discovered last May.

Does the discovery of this document change our understanding or interpretation of the Gettysburg campaign or the Civil War? No.But as The New York Times reported,“the letter is a primary document,the holy grail of sources for researchers….”The importance of this holy grail is the fact that we no longer must rely on what General Halleck relayed to General Meade for insight into Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts.We no longer have to wonder whether Halleck quoted the president precisely, or whether Lincoln might have expressed other thoughts that Halleck omitted. In this document, Lincoln, in his own handwriting,reaches out to us across the years to express what was on his mind.When you sit with the actual letter in hand (as we have done) you feel one degree of separation from Abraham Lincoln.

 

Tom Wheeler is the author of Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails:The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War (HarperCollins,2006).He is also the president of The Foundation for the National Archives.

Trevor K.Plante is an archivist in the Old Military Records unit at the National Archives and Records Administration who specializes in 19thand early 20th-century military records.

Originally published in the January 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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