On the night of March 5th, 2014, a crowd of Gettysburgians and devoted fans filtered into a small auditorium to hear Dr. Allen C. Guelzo who was giving his final lecture in his Abraham Lincoln lecture series, a four-part analysis about the president’s rise to power to his death. The fourth and final lecture focused on President Lincoln’s triumphs in his presidency and many of the challenges he overcame in the last two years of his life. Dr. Guelzo began with talking about the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and its reception in the Union and in the Confederacy. Lincoln received angry and confused questions about why the war should be fought for slave freedom rather than just the country’s reunion. Also, the Proclamation’s wider acceptance was hindered by the string of Union military failures that seemed to plague the eastern Army of the Potomac: George McClellan’s failure to pursue Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia after the tactical draw at Antietam in September 1862, Ambrose Burnside’s major blunder at Fredericksburg in December 1862, and Joseph Hooker’s large failure at the hands of Lee at Chancellorsville in May 1863.
While all this was happening, Lincoln was still coping with the death of his favorite son, William, who had passed away on February 20, 1862, from typhoid fever. Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, grieved openly about his death, and Lincoln hardly received sympathy from his critics. Thaddeus Stevens and other followers called Lincoln incompetent and not motivated enough to punish the South for its crimes. Furthermore, Chauncey Depew called Lincoln’s own cabinet “wild and untamed,” partially because Salmon Chase was spreading rumors about Secretary of State William Seward to get him fired. As a response, Lincoln convened with his cabinet on December 19, 1862, without telling either man the other would be there. Lincoln said he would accept no one’s resignation but made it very clear that this type of gossip would not happen again.
The main point that Dr. Guelzo really drove home to the audience was how Abraham Lincoln rose to success through his way with words. Lincoln’s inaugural addresses were two of his greatest speeches, with the exception of the infamous Gettysburg Address. At Gettysburg and in a little over two minutes, Lincoln summed up why the war was really being fought and made equality and freedom and peace a goal for the nation. Lincoln advanced this point in a public letter to the political parties in Springfield, Illinois, in August 1863. The letter said that the war should be fought to free the slaves because the negro was fighting to help end the war sooner through his military service. At home in the South, slaves were also escaping from plantations which hurt the southern economy. Dr. Guelzo said 1863 was a hopeful year for Lincoln, for Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg and Grant’s victory at Vicksburg in July 1863 made the end of the war see imminent. After Grant’s follow up victory at Chattanooga in November 1863, Lincoln decided to bring Grant east to confront Lee’s army in the spring of 1864 while Sherman marched on Atlanta at the same time.
Even though military progress was slow for the Union in the summer of 1864 and turned into a bleak and bloody mess for both Grant and Sherman, the pressure was starting to constrict the Confederacy and Lincoln and his Republicans needed a miracle in the form of military victory to clinch the 1864 presidential elections. The Democratic nominee George McClellan was overconfident that his presidency was secured until the war finally started to turn in favor of the Union, this time for good. Sherman finally defeated John Bell Hood and burned Atlanta, the Confederate ironclad Virginia finally sunk, Mobile Bay was captured, and Lee’s army was slowly wilting away in the siege of Petersburg. When the war ended in Union victory in April 1865, Lincoln had overcome a series of mountainous obstacles that no other president had before. However, his success was cut short by his assassination at Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth. Dr. Guelzo then ended his lecture by leaving the audience with reminders of Lincoln’s legacy. He emphasized that Lincoln’s powerful word should never be forgotten and that he had truly changed the fabric of what freedom meant in the United States. It was a truly moving lecture that commemorated the triumphs of one of America’s greatest leaders.
“Abraham Lincoln, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing right; hair parted on Lincoln’s right side.” Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Online. Digital ID: ppmsca 19305. Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-19305.