When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, he instantly became a saintly figure to most Northerners. It is the image of Saint Lincoln that was passed down for generations after his death. We should remember though that in 1862 Lincoln was still a politician, and in the fall of that year his party had suffered a serious political defeat in the elections.
Years later, Lincoln’s secretaries would recall that after the election “Mr. Lincoln was exposed to the bitterest assaults and criticisms” from the left wing of his own party. Even though the president had just issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the “radicals” believed that his policies had been too moderate. They argued that slavery should have been abolished immediately and that Democratic generals like George McClellan should have never been given important commands.
Lincoln became exasperated with his critics. According to Lincoln’s secretaries; “To one friend who assailed him with peculiar candor, he made a reply which may answer as a sufficient defense to all the radical attacks…”
In his autobiography, German leader Carl Schurz admitted “That ‘friend’ was I.”
Schurz was the radical who had attacked America’s secular saint at the very time Lincoln was creating the legal framework to end slavery.
Schurz was then serving as a Union general in the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln was his commander in chief. Under the circumstances, a letter from a general criticizing a president for his political defects was unusual. But Schurz was a “political general” with an emphasis on “political.” He wrote to the president as a self-appointed spokesman for the left wing of his party. Schurz said later that “I wrote…to Mr. Lincoln, giving voice to the widespread anxiety as I understood and felt it.”
The upshot of Schurz’s opinion is contained early in his first letter to Lincoln when he charged that “The defeat of the Administration is the Administration’s own fault.”
Lincoln and Schurz exchanged four letters on the elections. Lincoln’s exasperation with his ally Schurz comes through in phrases like this “I just received and read your letter…The purport of it is that we lost the late elections…because the war is unsuccessful, and that I must not flatter myself that I am not justly to blame for it. ..You think I could do better; therefore you blame me already. I think I could not do better; therefore I blame you for blaming me…”
Lincoln got particularly nasty at Schurz’s implication that the president was politically incompetent. Reminding Schurz that not everyone thought the immigrant himself was a great general, Lincoln wrote; “Be assured, my dear sir, there are men who…think you are performing your part as poorly as you think I am performing mine.”
Lincoln rejected Schurz’s call to purge Democrats from the army’s high command. Lincoln told Schurz that he needed competent generals more than he needed political loyalists. When it came to leading the army, Lincoln wrote, “I must say I need success more than I need sympathy, and that I have not seen the so much greater evidence of getting success from my sympathizers, than from those who are denounced as the contrary.” In short, Republican generals had disappointed as often as Democrats.
In his autobiography, Schurz said that Lincoln later forgave his criticism as that of a dedicated “anti-slavery man.” Schurz wrote that he met with the president and that Lincoln slapped the immigrant general on the knee and laughed “Didn’t I give it to you hard in my letter?”
Or perhaps after the assassination at Ford’s Theater Carl Schurz needed to show that he had “gotten right” with America’s secular saint.
Lincoln being escorted by angels into heaven after his assassination.
This interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin on her book Team of Rivals gives a hint of the problem for any of Lincoln’s contemporaries who disagreed with him.
“Behind the Lines” Interview with Jim Downs
Jim Downs, Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Connecticut College and author of “Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction”
Due to Hurricane Sandy, we were unable to insert our normal footnotes. This will be corrected when we have power back.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites