Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest president the United States has seen, was born on February 12, 1809, in Hodgenville, Kentucky. He later moved to Illinois with his family and is most identified with that state. Both his parents, Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln (his mother died when Abraham was just 9 years old), were illiterate, but, as a child, Lincoln read as much as possible when not at work on the family farm. His choices of books were slim on the American frontier, but what he did read he learned through and through. In 1828 and again in 1831, Lincoln made two trips down the great Mississippi River on flatboats, exposing the future President to the vastness of the American territory and the importance of the Mississippi River to both commerce and transportation for a large part of the nation. He served in the Illinois militia during the brief Black Hawk War but never saw action. However, he was elected to the rank of Captain. The same year, 1832, Lincoln ran for the Illinois Legislature but lost. He then concentrated on his career as a lawyer.
In 1842, Abraham Lincoln married Mary Todd, with whom he would have four children, only of whom would survive to adulthood. He continued to practice law, but, in 1847, politics again called. He ran for a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives, and unlike his first attempt at public office, he won. He served only the one term in the 30th Congress where he opposed and spoke out on the Mexican War, but otherwise had an uneventful and unimpressive term. He returned to Illinois and again concentrated on his legal career, a profession at which he excelled. He ran for the U. S. Senate in 1855 and lost, but ran again in 1858 against Stephen A. Douglas. It was the campaign against Douglas (which he lost) and the debates between the two men that thrust Lincoln onto the national political stage.
In 1860, the still young Republic party nominated Lincoln for the presidency of the United States. He was the second presidential contender in the history of the Republican Party (John C. Frémont ran on the Republican ticket in 1856.) The Democrats, who split along sectional lines, nominated two men: John C. Breckinridge for the Southern Democrats and Stephan A. Douglas for the Northern Democrats. A fourth candidate, John Bell, ran under the banner of the Constitutional Union Party. Lincoln won all the northern states except New Jersey, plus California and Oregon, pulling in180 Electoral College votes and almost 40% of the popular vote. It wasn’t bad for a candidate who didn’t even appear on the ballot in Southern states. John C. Breckinridge took the South except for Maryland (which went for Bell) with 72 electoral votes and 18% of the popular vote. Stephen Douglas won Missouri and New Jersey, 12 electoral votes, and 29.5% of the popular vote. John Bell won Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, carrying 39 Electoral College votes and 12.6% of the popular vote.
The election of Lincoln caused great concern in the South, for it was believed that Lincoln, more than any of the other candidates running in 1860, posed a threat to the institution of slavery. No matter what Lincoln said to try and persuade Southerners that he did not want to abolish slavery, they didn’t listen. On December 20, just six weeks after Lincoln was elected and three months before he even took office, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Soon thereafter, the other cotton states in the lower South followed suit and left the Union. Between Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861, the situation in the South deteriorated. Union troops were holed up in Forts Sumter and Pickens and state troops throughout the Lower South were seizing federal arsenals and their caches of weapons.
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States. Appointed to his cabinet were many Radical Republicans, including Edwin M. Stanton, Salmon P. Chase, and Charles F. Adams as Minister to Great Britain. Six weeks after the inaugural, Confederate forces under the Command of P. G. T. Beauregard commenced a two-day bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor—the American Civil War had begun. After the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion. This call forced the remaining Southern states, Tennessee, Virginia, Arkansas, and North Carolina, out of the Union and into the Confederacy. Lincoln immediately blockaded of the Southern ports and suspended Habeas Corpus.
The first couple of years didn’t go well for the Union in the East. Union armies suffered defeats at Manassas, the Shenandoah Valley, 2nd Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville and managed a draw at Antietam. The turning point in the East came at the battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863. At Gettysburg, the Union Army beat back an invasion of Pennsylvania by Robert E. Lee and forced him and the Army of Northern Virginia back from whence they came. From then on, the Union Army would be on the offensive. Because of the constant defeats at the hands of Lee and his army, Lincoln had a difficult time finding a general who could go head-to-head with the seemingly invincible Southern General.
In the West, the case was reversed. Union Armies and Navies won victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, New Orleans, Memphis, a draw at Shiloh, and forced the surrender of Vicksburg and Port Hudson after long sieges, bringing the entire Mississippi under Union control. General Ulysses S. Grant proved that he could fight, and, in late 1863, Lincoln appointed Grant a Lieutenant General and gave him the command of the Army of the Potomac. He had finally found a general who was not afraid to fight Lee.
President Lincoln moved slowly on the emancipation of the slaves. In 1861, when John C. Frémont issued an order that all the slaves in Missouri were free, Lincoln ordered Frémont to rescind the order, and when he refused Lincoln fired him. He believed slavery should be abolished, but waited until January 1, 1863, to issue the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in Confederate-controlled territory. He also advocated the uses of freed slaves in the army for both manpower purposes and economic purposes (denying the south its labor force).
Lincoln did not support the radical reconstruction ideas of the South proposed by his fellow Republicans in Congress, but instead favored a more lenient approach. Under what would become know as the “10% Plan,” Lincoln proposed that when the voting population of a state (as it stood in 1860) swore an oath of allegiance to the United States Government, then the state would be started on the road to reconstruction. Excluded from this process were political office holders, Confederate officers holding a rank higher than Colonel, and anyone who had resigned their post in the United States government, whether civilian or military, to serve the Confederacy.
Lincoln stood for reelection in 1864 with Andrew Johnson from Tennessee as his running mate. Salmon P. Chase, his former Treasuary Secretary, challenged him in his own party, as did John C. Frémont, former Union General and the Republican candidate for president in 1856. The Democrats nominated former general George B. McClellan who ran on a peace platform. The election centered as much on battlefield results as anything else, and Lincoln knew this. He needed victories and he got them. In Georgia, Sherman marched on and captured the important railroad hub of Atlanta and then marched to the sea, effectively cutting the Confederacy in two. On the Gulf Coast, Admiral Farragut “damned the torpedoes” and sailed into Mobile Bay, capturing Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines. In Virginia, Philip Sheridan cleared the Shenandoah of Confederates. Lincoln was overwhelmingly reelected.
Lincoln’s second term would only last five weeks. On April 14, while attending a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor with strong Southern sympathies, sneaked into Lincoln’s room and shot him in the head. The President was taken across the street to a boarding house where he died the next morning. He is buried in Springfield, Illinois. His Vice President, Andrew Johnson, succeeded him as Chief Executive.