Thursday, February 13, 2014

Happy Birthday Mr. Lincoln

Abe Lincoln's birthday was yesterday. Many celebrated the 16th President of the United States with quotes and accolades. Interestingly enough, his legacy still stirs controversy for some. No doubt, he was probably the most complex figure our Civil War produced. I saw social network comments and posts filled with praises. I have also seen many filled with disdain. I read one Facebook post in particular which referred to him as a dirt bag and traitor. Another posted things I won't repeat. I find it fascinating and yet disturbing that after 150 years and several generations later, our nation is still somewhat divided in opinion over the man.

It's perhaps more troubling that our nation is once again divided politically, though for mostly different reasons. However, the "States Rights" issue is still very present and a rather prominent part of political dialogue even today. While I think virtually all would agree that the South was dead wrong on slavery, ironically many across the nation would quickly state they did have some fair points on the States Rights vs. a strong central government issue. A greater irony is that the party who nominated Lincoln, the Republicans, on the surface had no problem with a more powerful Federal government if it helped abolish slavery. On the other hand, most Democrats were skeptical of a bigger more centralized government. Now, those sentiments have reversed with modern Republicans mostly wanting a more limited Federal government and the Dems wanting it more expansive.

As a student of the American Civil War, I find that in many ways it was a war of ironies. Lincoln initially was for limiting the expansion of slavery, but not its immediate abolition though he privately detested it. He also held that blacks were inferior to whites and there was no way they could live together in harmony. Conversely, Robert E. Lee, for example, wanted to free the slaves he inherited from his father-in-law, but suspecting Lee would do just that, he made Lee swear to keep them on as slaves after his death. Robert E. Lee also said that he “…could foresee no greater calamity for our nation than the dissolution of the Union." Nevertheless, and perhaps reluctantly, he went on to defend both secession and the continuance of slavery. Towards the end of the war, General Lee even encouraged the Confederate Congress to draft blacks into the Confederate Army insisting they were as good of soldiers as whites. He told the Congress in Richmond that "You must decide if they will fight for you or against you." In fact, early in the war after the battle of Antietam, in 1862, General Lee personally presented commendation to a Louisiana regiment, largely made up of Creoles and freed blacks, for saving his army during its retreat!

Many Northern officers and soldiers owned slaves especially in states like Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware. In reality, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, only applied to the states in rebellion, not the states still loyal to the Union which the fore mentioned were. Many Southerners decried that act by Lincoln. Yet, in Feb. of 1864, the Confederate state of Arkansas outlawed slavery on its own! There were Confederate Soldiers who deserted by the droves who complained, "Rich man's war, poor man's fight." as they felt they were simply pawns being used by Southern aristocrats to shield their property. They also resented that slave owners were largely exempt from the Confederate military draft. Likewise, after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, several Union Regiments of the Army of the Potomac, nearly to a man, walked out of the camp at Falmouth, Virginia, never to return. One Union Regiment, the 128th Illinois, had 700 men desert who declared, "We'd rather lay down in the woods til’ moss grows on our backs than lift a finger fighting to free one single ni**er."

For a time during his presidency, Lincoln struggled with issues of equality and freedom for blacks. After meeting and talking extensively with freed men like Frederick Douglas, Lincoln's rather racist views towards Blacks began to soften. So, it's clear that the times in which Abraham Lincoln was President were themselves full of turmoil and confusion. I'm sure that the hand of divine providence picked the right man for the hour in that lanky rail splitter from Kentucky. Civil War Historian, Bruce Catton said, "...something that went beyond words had been at work in the land. The Almighty had His own purposes." It was certainly a more horrible time than the most tragic, ancient Greek playwright could ever have dreamed up. Yet, somehow we survived it.

However, before you smother Ol’ Abe in stories of his ‘aw shucks’ kindness and honesty, or before you label him the neurotic "Great Divider," I would encourage all to do their own research and candidly look at the life and times of the man. You may just discover some things you never knew.

When we fail to learn accurately form history, we are destined to repeat it. Happy Birthday Mr. Lincoln.

"Now he belongs to the ages." –Edwin M, Stanton

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