One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 14, Number 3
March 2006

Instead of my usual opinionated views about various characters, battles, or issues relating to the Confederacy during the War for Southern Independence, I decided to segue over to the other side of the conflict this month and try my luck with some comments on Abraham Lincoln. No, not anything majestic about his life, politics, views on slavery, reconstruction, or place in history, but about his relationship to Virginia. More than any other single person, I suggest that he was the person most responsible for maintaining the Union, and for the ultimate defeat of the nascent Confederate nation. He was especially involved in micro-managing the war in Virginia, perhaps more than in any other theater.

Until recently, I never appreciated the close connection between Abraham Lincoln and the Old Dominion. In fact, he was named after his grandfather who was a member of a respectable and well-to-do family in Rockingham County in the Shenandoah Valley. In 1780 the elder Lincoln, who lived on a large farm about eight miles north of Harrisonburg, left Virginia and moved to greener pastures in Kentucky where his grandson and future sixteenth president would be born almost 30 years later. However, several members of the Lincoln family remained rooted in Virginia, and others settled in Tennessee, and neighboring areas of Kentucky, some of whom reverted to a phonetic spelling of the surname to either “Linkhorn” or “Linkhern.”

The inducement which led Lincoln’s grandfather to leave Virginia, where his standing and his fortune were assured, is believed by some to have been his intimate friendship with the great explorer Daniel Boone—”the hero of the new country of Kentucky, the land of fabulous richness and unlimited adventure.” Ironically, the grandfather was killed by an Indian in 1786, only six years after moving to Kentucky, leaving a widow and three sons, including the youngest boy named Thomas. And so it was, that on the 12th day of February 1809, the future president Abraham Lincoln was born to Nancy Hanks Lincoln and Thomas Lincoln in a backwoods cabin three miles south of Hogdenville, Kentucky.

In 1816, Thomas Lincoln and his family moved across the Ohio River to Southwestern Indiana. Then in 1830, the family undertook a second migration, this time to Illinois. It was in the latter place, of course, that the young Abraham Lincoln grew up, overcame great adversity, became a lawyer, went into politics, and from there was eventually elected president in 1860.

There were many disagreements within families involving allegiance and divided loyalties to either the Union or the Confederacy, especially in the Border States such as Kentucky where fratricidal conflicts were common. The Lincoln family was no different from many others in the Bluegrass state in having adherents on both sides of the Civil War. But what is of interest to us is the opinion expressed by one of the new president’s relatives back in Virginia where at least one member of the Lincoln family did not hesitate to express his opinion.

Soon after the newly elected President Lincoln arrived in Washington in 1861, he received the following letter from one of his Shenandoah Valley kinsmen, apparently the only communication which ever came from them. It was written on paper adorned with a portrait of Jefferson Davis, and was enclosed in an envelope emblazoned with the Confederate flag. It read as follows:

To Abraham Lincoln, Esq., President of the Northern Confederacy:

Sir,—Having just returned from a trip through Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, permit me to inform you that you will get whipped out of your boots. Today I met a gentleman from Anna, Illinois, and although he voted for you he says that the moment your troops leave Cairo they will get the spots knocked out of them. My dear sir, these are facts which time will prove to be correct.

I am, sir, with every consideration, yours respectfully,

Minor Lincoln, of the Staunton stock of Lincolns

I haven’t researched the family enough to know what Minor Lincoln’s relationship was to the occupant of the White House, or what happened to him during and after the war, but he and Abraham were obviously poles apart in their politics.

By my count, Lincoln made at least fourteen trips to Virginia during the war while he was president. In the spring of 1862 he made several visits to Fredericksburg and Fort Monroe for various purposes such as reviewing the troops and talking to his generals, and on July 8 of that year he landed at Harrison’s Landing on the James River where General McClellan had holed up the Army of the Potomac after the defeats in the Peninsula campaign. It would be the first battlefield colloquy with his lethargic commander who constantly complained about various political and military problems.

On October 1, 1862, Lincoln traveled on the B&O Railroad to Harpers Ferry (still legally in the state of Virginia at that time) for another conference with McClellan, after the bloody battle of Sharpsburg in mid-September. Over the next five days he conferred several times with the commanding general at nearby Sharpsburg and Frederick in Maryland before returning to the White House on October 5. In addition to inspecting the army, he attempted to spur the passive McClellan to action and encourage him to attack Lee’s army ensconced on the south side of the Potomac in Northern Virginia. But, as we know, “Little Mac’s” inertia was too much for even Lincoln to overcome and the president fired his commander shortly after.

About seven months later Lincoln again asserted his role as commander-in-chief and paid a personal visit to counsel and shore up another of his generals in Virginia. Leaving Washington on Easter Sunday April 5, 1863, the dispatch boat Carrie Martin started south down Potomac in a snowstorm with the president and landed the next day at the Union supply base at the mouth of Aquia Creek, not far from Fredericksburg. From there the party rode a freight car on the 15-mile train trip to Falmouth on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, and then to the nearby headquarters of General Joseph Hooker, then commander of the 130,000-man Army of the Potomac.

Over the next six days he conferred with Hooker and reviewed Stoneman’s cavalry corps and all seven of the infantry corps of the Army of the Potomac. It must have been a grand spectacle. Since no field was big enough to hold all of Hooker’s army, work parties had been forced to clear away trees, stumps, and level ground in order to accommodate the troop reviews that were held on four different days.

However, Lincoln’s real purpose in visiting the front at Fredericksburg probably was not just to review the troops. It was yet another case of the president worrying about the quality and ability of the new commander of the Army of the Potomac who had been named as a replacement for Ambrose Burnside after the disasters at the Battle of Fredericksburg and the infamous “mud march” during the previous sinter. “Fighting Joe” Hooker was getting lots of advice from Washington. In an earlier letter the president had cautioned Hooker to “beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.” In a later letter, Lincoln offered more sage advice to Hooker: “Our primary object is the enemy’s army in front of us, and is not with or about Richmond.” It was to be the strategy that Grant finally began to implement the next year that would ultimately end the war.

Over a year would pass before the president made another significant trip to Virginia. On June 20, 1864, he and his son Tad took the U.S.S. Baltimore to visit General Grant and the army at City Point (now Hopewell) on the James River. He would spend two days there conferring with Grant, visiting the Union lines before Petersburg, and meeting Ben Butler on the Bermuda Hundred front before returning to Washington.

On February 3, 1865, Lincoln ventured down the Potomac again to meet three Confederate peace commissioners at the Hampton Roads peace conference. There on board a ship near Fort Monroe he and Secretary of State William H. Steward conferred with Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens, former U.S. Senator R. M. T. Hunter, and Assistant Secretary of War James A. Campbell, a former Supreme Court justice, in an abortive attempt to end the conflict peacefully. The four-hour conference failed when Lincoln refused to concede Southern independence.

The war was winding down, and seven weeks later Lincoln and his wife and son took the steamer River Queen from Washington down to City Point, Grant’s headquarters and the teeming depot on the James River that supplied Grant’s army outside Richmond and Petersburg. He arrived there late on March 24th, and on Saturday the 25th he went to Petersburg to visit the front. As luck would have it, early that morning the Confederates launched their last gasp assault on Fort Stedman, but the president did not appear until the afternoon after the assault had failed. For the next week he busied himself about City Point and Petersburg inspecting the troops, hospitals, and the James River fleet. Most importantly during this time period he held a meeting on the 28th with Generals Grant and Sherman, and Admiral Porter to discuss the strategy for the final campaign as well as postwar policy.

Federal troops entered Richmond on Monday morning April 3 while Lincoln was still at City Point. The very next day, while the army of the Potomac pursued Lee’s battered forces west from Petersburg, the president and his son Tad again boarded the River Queen for a grip upriver the see the conquered capital Richmond. Mines and other barriers prevented the side-wheeler steamer from getting past Drewy’s Bluff, seven miles below Richmond, so the president’s party transferred to an admiral’s barge (really just a big rowboat) propelled by twelve oarsmen for the rest of the journey to Rocketts landing at the east edge of town.

After a brief tour of Richmond on Tuesday April 4, including a visit to the White House of the Confederacy and sitting at Jefferson Davis’s desk, the president spent the night on the Malvern anchored in the river at Ricketts. The next day he returned to City Point where he stayed until April 8th before departing for Washington that evening on the River Queen.” On leaving Virginia for the last time, a military band gave him a final serenade including two numbers specifically requested by the president: “Marseillaise” and “Dixie.”

Seven days later he was dead.