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Death comes too soon for Lincoln to summon his better angels.

By the spring of 1865, as Abraham Lincoln looked forward to his second term as president, exhaustion got the better of him. Just weeks past his 56th birthday, he carried himself like a man who was old and decrepit and had lost so much weight that his dry, sallow skin hung on his cheekbones and dark circles shadowed his eyes. “Poor Mr. Lincoln is looking so brokenhearted, so completely worn out, I fear he will not get through the next four years,” his wife, Mary, told an aide. Lincoln himself acknowledged he wasn’t well. “I am a tired man,” he told one visitor. “Sometimes I think I am the tiredest man on earth.”

The war had battered Lincoln, and he had battered himself. Since gaining national prominence in the late 1850s, he had stumbled several times and had to pick himself up, typically wiser for the experience but bruised nonetheless. His House Divided speech of 1858 taught him the perils of saying too much, after Southerners interpreted his words as those of a closet abolitionist and responded accordingly. His studied silence between his 1860 election and his 1861 inauguration showed the dangers of saying too little, by leaving Southern moderates nothing with which to answer the radical secessionists. His repeated failure to find a fighting general, until he hit upon Ulysses Grant in 1864, prolonged the war excessively. Even his successes exacted a moral and psychic toll. The Emancipation Proclamation required him to throw out most of what he had said and thought about the power of the federal government to restrain slavery in the states. The appalling costs of the Union’s battlefield victories drove him to blame Providence, which mysteriously let the carnage continue. ”But what kind of peace? A victor’s peace, with the South punished for its sins? Or a peace of reconciliation, which summoned the better angels he had cited in his first inaugural address? This was not only a question of policy, but also a question of character. Who, finally, was Abraham Lincoln? He had proven himself to be a man of war. Was he also a man of peace? He had wielded the sword of righteousness; could he extend the hand of mercy? The nation, and the world, wanted to know—but no more than Lincoln himself did.

Lincoln Pushes for National Anti-Slavery Laws

Lincoln had been preparing for the war’s end for months. In his annual message of December 1864, he described the progress already made in reconstructing the Union. Louisiana and Arkansas had reestablished loyal state governments in recent months, he told the Congress, with antislavery constitutions. Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee were moving in the same favorable direction. Maryland, while an adherent to the Union and therefore not requiring reconstruction per se, nonetheless earned the president’s praise for adopting a new constitution abolishing slavery. “Maryland is secure to Liberty and Union for the future,” he said.

Lincoln urged Congress to follow suit and put an end to slavery once and for all. The Emancipation Proclamation, which he had issued as commander in chief, applied to the Rebel states alone, and its authority might expire with the war. The Senate the previous spring had mustered the two thirds vote necessary for ratification of a constitutional amendment—the 13th— which would outlaw slavery nationwide. But the House had subsequently balked. “Without questioning the wisdom or patriotism of those who stood in opposition,” Lincoln said, “I venture to recommend the reconsideration and passage of the measure at the present session.”

The war’s end was coming, Lincoln observed, but it hadn’t arrived yet. And weary though Americans were of the fighting, he cautioned against any compromise of that for which the Union had sacrificed so much. Overtures from Confederate President Jefferson Davis should be shunned. “No attempt at negotiation with the insurgent leader could result in any good. He would accept nothing short of severance of the Union—precisely what we will not and cannot give.…Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory.” Yet what was true of Davis wasn’t necessarily true of all the Rebels, Lincoln added. “Some of them, we know, already desire peace and reunion. The number of such may increase. They can, at any moment, have peace simply by laying down their arms and submitting to the national authority under the Constitution.”

Three weeks later, Lincoln received a message suggesting he was approaching a moment of truth in his effort to balance the reality of war against the promise of peace. General William Tecumseh Sherman had left Atlanta in November and plunged toward the sea, cutting a swath of destruction across eastern Georgia. He outpaced the news of his progress, so that for weeks Lincoln didn’t know where he was. On Dec. 22, he finally sent a dispatch, which Lincoln received on the 25th. “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also about 25,000 bales of cotton,” Sherman wrote.

Lincoln was delighted by the news. “Many, many thanks,” he responded. He shared with Sherman some earlier misgivings: “When you were about to leave Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious, if not fearful.” But believing that the general knew his job, he had kept quiet. Now he was glad he had. “The honor is all yours,” he congratulated Sherman. Yet he had a hard time restraining his impatience. “What next?” he asked, before catching himself: “I suppose it will be safer if I leave Gen. Grant and yourself to decide.”

But he couldn’t help wishing for more. A week later Sherman wrote to Henry W. Halleck, the chief of staff, explaining his intentions. “I do not think I can employ better strategy than I have hitherto done, namely make a good ready and then move rapidly to my objective,” Sherman said. Lincoln read this message and responded to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton: “While Gen. Sherman’s ‘get a good ready’ is appreciated, and is not to be overlooked, time, now that the enemy is wavering, is more important than ever before. Being on the down-hill, and somewhat confused, keep him going. Please say so much to Genl. Sherman.”

Stanton conveyed Lincoln’s impatience to Sherman, who marched northward through the Carolinas. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives took up the 13th Amendment again. General Sherman’s progress and apparent relentlessness won the amendment some new votes, as did lobbying by Lincoln. “The passage of this amendment will clinch the whole subject; it will bring the war, I have no doubt, rapidly to a close,” the president promised Rep. James Rollins of Missouri. Indeed, Lincoln was so pleased that he signed the approved measure, despite knowing that neither his signature nor his approval was constitutionally required. The Senate slapped the president’s wrist a week later, passing a resolution asserting that “such approval was unnecessary.”

Lincoln ignored the sanction. He happily told a crowd gathered beneath his White House window that the 13th Amendment was “a very fitting if not an indispensable adjunct to the winding up of the great difficulty” of the war. Once ratified by the states, he said, it would obviate concerns about the enduring validity of the Emancipation Proclamation, and would “remove all causes of disturbance” between the sections. He congratulated the Congress, the country and himself for “this great moral victory.”

Morality could imply either righteousness or mercy—the sword or the olive branch—and Lincoln still hadn’t chosen between the competing principles when he delivered his second inaugural address in early March 1865. As if reflecting the profound weariness he felt, and perhaps reflecting too Mary Lincoln’s fears that his days were dwindling, he confined himself to fewer words than any president since George Washington in 1793, when the Father of His Country had simply said thanks for reelection and let’s get on with the job. Lincoln explained his terseness on the grounds that the war remained the overriding issue of public affairs, and that he had already explained his war policies at length.

Yet he felt obliged to summarize what the momentous struggle meant. In language of superficial neutrality— “All dreaded it; all sought to avert it,” he said of the war—he nonetheless levied judgment against the rebellious South. “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.” In other words, the South attempted to murder the republic, the North simply to defend it.

Lincoln declined to dignify Southern arguments about states’ rights with any mention. Slavery—the Southern property interest in human flesh—was the essence of the conflict. “To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war.”

Lincoln again employed disingenuous neutrality in declaring that each side had claimed—and still claimed— the sanction of heaven for its actions. “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” Yet Lincoln knew that God understood the difference. “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” he said. But he immediately reverted to the language of moral relativism: “Let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

The War Comes to a Close

Lincoln had long since convinced himself that the war was God’s will, and he now sought to convince his listeners, in language of fierce righteousness that might have made an Old Testament prophet blanch. “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Yet Lincoln ended on a note of mercy: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

The president’s words sent shivers through many who heard and read them, although no one could say for certain what they meant. Was Lincoln endorsing more war, or peace? Northern Unionists nonetheless applauded. An editorialist said Lincoln’s inaugural message should be “printed in gold”; Frederick Douglass, the African American leader, called it “a sacred effort.”

Lincoln valued the praise. “Everyone likes a compliment,” he admitted in a letter to the New York political boss Thurlow Weed. He told Weed he expected his inaugural message “to wear as well as—perhaps better than—anything I have produced.” As for those who didn’t like what he had said, he could only reflect that a prophet was rarely honored in his own time or his own country. “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world.”

God continued to govern, in the Union’s favor, during the following month. With Sherman sweeping up through the Carolinas and Phil Sheridan closing in from western Virginia, Grant drove Robert E. Lee from Richmond on April 2 and captured the abandoned Con federate capital. Lincoln couldn’t resist visiting the city, which starkly evinced the cost of the conflict. “The entire business portion of the city is a heap of smoldering ruins,” a newsman accompanying the president recorded. “And nothing but the absence of wind saved the entire city from destruction.” Richmond’s African-American population rejoiced at the coming of their liberator. “Bless the Lord, there is the great Messiah!” one elderly black man proclaimed. Others echoed the sentiment: “Bless the Lord! Father Abraham’s come!”

With victory apparently within reach, Lincoln urged his commanders to finish the job. Secretary of War Stanton passed along a telegram from Sheridan, which Lincoln quoted to Grant: “Gen. Sheridan says, ‘If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.” Grant did so, and on April 9 forced Lee’s surrender in Virginia at Appomattox Court House.

When the news reached Washington, the city erupted in celebration. Thousands tramped through a spring rain up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, where they surrounded the building and beat the lawn to a muddy mess. They shouted for Lincoln, who, uncomfortable as ever speaking off the cuff, told the throng he would have something more formal to say later.

“We can’t wait!” they shouted. “We want it now!”

“I shall have nothing to say if you dribble it all out of me before,” he replied, to much laughter.

A quartermaster’s band had accompanied the rowdy group of marchers, and Lincoln made a special request. “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard,” he said. Nodding toward the Potomac River, he continued, “Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it.” More laughter. “I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize.” Still more laughter, and the band struck up the Southern favorite.

The end of the war might have meant that mercy would win out over righteousness in Lincoln’s policy, and perhaps in Lincoln’s soul. God apparently had exacted all the blood recompense for slavery required; now Lincoln and America could turn to binding up the nation’s wounds. On the other hand, the end of the war complicated matters in all sorts of ways. Lincoln lost his ability to set aside the Constitution where it conflicted with what he thought the country needed; his pleasure at the progress of the 13th Amendment demonstrated his understanding of this loss. More tellingly, the end of the war might deprive him of the confidence he had acquired that heaven guided his hand. He had needed to believe he was God’s instrument when tens of thousands of lives hung on his decisions; his need, and likely his ability, to believe this would lessen as the stakes diminished. And mercy, while easy to recognize when contrasted to the savagery of war, became much more elusive during peace. Where did mercy— or for that matter righteousness—lie between the wish of white Southerners for an end to strife and the demands of black Southerners for a social and political revolution?

The Legacy of Lincoln’s Death

How Lincoln planned to confront those contradictions became stunningly moot when John Wilkes Booth mortally shot the president in the back of his head at Ford’s Theatre on April 14. The murder froze Lincoln in the American mind. Northerners saw him as a prophet and a martyr. The shooting took place on Good Friday evening; 36 hours later, from Easter pulpits all across the North, ministers made the connection plain. “Our Moses has been taken,” A.G. Thomas declared in Philadelphia. John Blake told his Episcopal flock in Bridgeport, Conn.: “As God sent Moses to deliver the children of Israel from slavery, so, I believe, he sent Abraham Lincoln to deliver us.” A.D. Mayo of Cincinnati likened Lincoln to Jesus, quoting St. Paul: “Without the shedding of blood is no remission.” Unitarian Richard Eddy of Philadelphia contented himself calling Lincoln “the martyr to liberty.” George Boardman of Philadelphia denominated him “thou illustrious martyr for us all.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the South embraced Lincoln in death almost as quickly, if not as devoutly, as the North did. To be sure, some Southerners took pleasure in the demise of the one Northerner they saw as their principal tormentor. In Columbia, S.C., which had burned after being captured by Sherman’s army, young Emma LeConte rejoiced in her diary: “Hurrah! Old Abe Lincoln has been assassinated!” And a Richmond woman who had lost her home, two sons and a daughter, pronounced: “Thank god! It was the vengeance of the Lord.”

But others feared for the future of the South and of themselves. African Americans were especially worried. “The colored people express their sorrow and sense of loss in many cases with sobs and loud lamentations!” a schoolteacher in South Carolina wrote. Another teacher, in Union controlled Charleston, heard African Americans saying, “Secesh come back. We’re going to be slaves again.”

Many Southern whites evinced dismay too. John Jones of Virginia, a civilian staffer in the Confederate government wrote: “The occurrence might be a calamity for the South. Possibly the Federal soldiers, supposing the deed to have been done by a Southern man, might become uncontrollable and perpetrate deeds of horror on the unarmed people.” A Tennessee businessman worried similarly: “Instead of peace I now fear anarchy without law.” Eliza Andrews of Georgia called Lincoln’s assassination “a terrible blow to the South, for it places that vulgar renegade, Andy Johnson, in power.” The Richmond Whig agreed, accounting the president’s death “the heaviest blow which has ever fallen upon the people of the South.” Jefferson Davis described it as “a great misfortune to the South.” John C. Breckinridge, one of Lincoln’s opponents in the 1860 presidential election, and the last Confederate secretary of war, said simply, “The South has lost its best friend.”

As Reconstruction unfolded, first under Andrew Johnson and then under the Radical Republicans in Congress, even those Southerners initially pleased at Lincoln’s death increasingly adopted Breckinridge’s view. The result was an unexpected convergence between Northerners and Southerners on the historical and political significance of Lincoln. Yet the two sides differed on the nature of his significance. The North looked to Lincoln as the man of war he had been, the South to Lincoln as the man of peace he might have become.

H.W. Brands is a history professor at the University of Texas and the author of 22 books. His most recent is Traitor to His Class, a biography of Franklin Roosevelt.