The first responsibility of the President was the successful prosecution of the war against the Confederate States. In this duty he was hampered by the lack of a strong military tradition in America and by the shortage of trained officers. During the early months of the conflict the
War Department was headed by Simon Cameron, and corruption and inefficiency were rife. Not until January, 1862, when Lincoln replaced Cameron with the imperious but efficient Edwin M. Stanton, was some semblance of order brought to the procurement of supplies for the federal armies. Navy secretary Gideon Welles was above suspicion, but he was inexperienced in nautical affairs and cautious in accepting innovations, such as the ironclad monitors.
Even more difficult was the task of finding capable general officers. At first the President gave supreme command of the Union forces to the elderly
Gen. Winfield Scott. After the Confederate victory at the first battle of
Bull Run (July 21, 1861), Lincoln increasingly entrusted power to George B.
McClellan, a brilliant organizer and administrator. But McClellan's caution, his secretiveness, and his willingness to strip the defenses of
Washington the better to attack Richmond led Lincoln to look elsewhere for military advice. Borrowing "a large number of strategical works" from the
Library of Congress, he attempted to direct the overall conduct of the war himself by issuing a series of presidential general war orders. Gen. Henry
W. Halleck, whom Lincoln brought to Washington as a strategic planner, served more as a glorified clerk, and the President repeatedly exercised personal supervision over the commanders in the field.
Not until the emergence of Ulysses S. GRANT, hero of Vicksburg and
Chattanooga, did Lincoln find a general to whom he could entrust overall direction of the war. Even then, the President kept a close eye on military operations, advising and even occasionally overruling the general, but mostly supporting and encouraging him.
Strongly opposed to slavery, Lincoln made a sharp distinction between his personal views and his public responsibilities. He had been elected on a platform that pledged not to interfere with the "peculiar institution" in states where it already existed and had sworn to uphold a Constitution that protected Southern rights. From the first day of the war, however, he was under pressure from the more extreme antislavery men in his own party to strike at slavery as the mainspring of the rebellion. Counterbalancing this pressure was the need to conciliate opinion in the border states, which still recognized slavery but were loyal to the Union. Any move against slavery, Lincoln feared, would cause their secession.
Wartime pressure inescapably forced the president toward emancipation.
Foreign powers could not be expected to sympathize with the North, when both the Union and the Confederate governments were pledged to uphold slavery. As the war dragged on, more and more northerners saw the absurdity of continuing to protect the "peculiar institution," which, by keeping a subservient labor force on the farms, permitted the Confederates to put proportionately more of their able-bodied white men into their armies. When
Union casualties mounted, even racist northerners began to favor enlisting blacks in the Union armies.
in his own hands. He sharply overruled premature efforts by two of his military commanders, Frйmont in Missouri and David
Hunter in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, to declare slaves in their military theaters free. At the same time, the President urged the border states to accept a program of gradual emancipation, with federal compensation.
By midsummer of 1862, however, it was evident that these efforts would not be successful. Still troubled by divided Union sentiment and still uncertain of his constitutional powers to act, Lincoln prepared to issue an emancipation proclamation. Secretary of State William H. Seward, however, persuaded him that such an order, issued at the low point of Union military fortunes, would be taken as evidence of weakness. The President postponed his move until after the Battle of Antietam. Then, on Sept. 22, 1862, he issued his preliminary proclamation, announcing that after 100 days all slaves in states still in rebellion would be forever free. This was followed, in due course, by the definitive Emancipation Proclamation of
Jan. 1, 1863.
Because the proclamation exempted slavery in the border states and in all
Confederate territory already under the control of Union armies and because
Lincoln was not certain that his action would be sustained by the Supreme
Court, he strongly urged Congress to adopt the 13th Amendment, forever abolishing slavery throughout the country. Congressional action on this measure was completed in January 1865. Lincoln considered the amendment
"the complete consummation of his own work, the emancipation proclamation."
Never having traveled abroad and having few acquaintances in the courts of Europe, Lincoln, for the most part, left the conduct of foreign policy to Seward. Yet, at critical times he made his influence felt. Early in his administration, when Seward recklessly proposed to divert attention from domestic difficulties by threatening a war against Spain and perhaps other powers, the President quietly squelched the project. Again, in 1861,
Lincoln intervened to tone down a dispatch Seward wrote to Charles Francis
Adams, the U.S. minister in London, which probably would have led to a break in diplomatic relations with Britain. In the Trent affair, that same year, when Union Capt. Charles Wilkes endangered the peace by removing two