When Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, secession was an accomplished fact. The lower South had withdrawn from the Union and set up a rival government. The guns roared first at Fort Sumter, turning back Lincoln’s relief expedition. Both sides called for troops, more Southern states seceded, and the Nation plunged headlong into civil war.
The fighting went badly at first for the North. Plagued by poor generalship, the Federal army in the East was roundly trounced in 1861 and through most of 1862. George B. McClellan’s repulse of Robert E. Lee at Antietam Creek in Maryland was the solitary bright spot. But at Fredericksburg in late 1862 and at Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863 the North again suffered large-scale and critical defeats.
This was Lincoln’s darkest hour. After Antietam, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring free all slaves in rebel territory, but words could not substitute for victories. Now Lee was marching northward again. In July the armies clashed at Gettysburg, and Lee retreated with bloody losses. As the North rejoiced, more good news came from the West. Ulysses S. Grant captured the strategic citadel of Vicksburg, splitting the Confederacy. When he broke the siege of Chattanooga two months later, a grateful Lincoln brought him east to command all the Union armies.
In May 1864, while another Union force set out across Georgia, Grant advanced southward, bent on destroying Lee’s army. Lee fought desperately in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania. Casualties mounted, and quick victory seemed as far away as ever.
The summer of 1864 was one of Lincoln’s most difficult. Peace negotiations were begun, but collapsed. There was discord in the Cabinet, and in August Lincoln broke with the Radicals in Congress. He soon came to believe that he had no chance of winning reelection.
The tide was slowly turning, though. Two days after the Democrats nominated McClellan for the presidency, Atlanta fell to William T. Sherman and Northern morale soared.
Lincoln won the November election easily, carrying 22 of the 25 participating States.
The war was fast drawing to a close as Lincoln began his second term. Lee was bottled up at Petersburg, Virginia; Sherman’s swath of destruction had badly crippled the South. Lincoln’s concern now was the reconciliation of the two sections.
In his Second Inaugural Address, he described the war as a visitation from God. Mellowed and deepened by the ordeal, Lincoln pleaded for peace without malice.
On April 9, General Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Two nights later a torchlight procession was called at the White House. Instead of a victory speech, though, Lincoln gave them his moderate views on reconstruction. It was the last public address of a compassionate man.
On April 14, Abraham and Mary Lincoln attended the theater. While they enjoyed the performance, John Wilkes Booth slipped into the Lincolns’ box, shot the president in the head, leaped onto the stage before a startled audience, and fled into the darkness. Soldiers carried the slumped figure across the street to a boardinghouse and laid him across a bed. Surgeons worked to save Lincoln all night, but he never regained consciousness.
At 7:22 the next morning, Abraham Lincoln died.