Authors: Steven Woodworth
he afternoon sun beat down, and the high humidity that was typical of the District of Columbia in August made the atmosphere stifling. In their blue woolen uniforms, the near one thousand men of the 164th Ohio Regiment sweated patiently and for the most part happily. It was not usually this hot in their homes in Seneca and Summit counties in northern Ohio, but they had had all summer to get used to it. Since May they had manned the defenses of forts Corcoran, Woodbury, Bennett, Strong, Hagerty, and C. F. Smith, on the Virginia side of the Potomac, part of the chain of forts that ringed the capital city.
There the men of the 164th had done their three months of soldiering. The eighteen deaths within the regiment had come not from enemy bullets or shells but from camp diseases. They were just as dead nonetheless. The men of the 164th may not have seen a single Rebel all summer long, even when a small Rebel army had approached the capital defenses on the Maryland side back in July, but their stint of duty had not been without its dangers. The deceased ranged in age from forty-one-year-old Private Daniel Frederick, who died at Fort Strong in July, all the way down to nineteen-year-old Private William Wilson, who had died at the same fort the month before.
The spring of 1864 had opened amid high hopes that the next few months of campaigning would bring Union victory and an end to the war that was then entering its fourth year and had already shed blood on a scale out of proportion to anything the young republic had seen in its almost four score and eight years of independence. In anticipation of the spring and summer’s big push for victory, Governor John Brough of Ohio had offered President Abraham Lincoln additional help from his state. Ohio had already raised scores of regiments that now formed a significant part of the strength of the nation’s armies, but the state had recently reorganized its militia, changing the organization’s name at the same time to the National Guard to emphasize its new, more serious purpose. Brough visited Lincoln in Washington that spring and asked if the summer’s big push could be strengthened by the addition of several dozen regiments of National Guard troops to cover the rear areas and supply lines and free more of the veteran troops for duty on the front lines.
Lincoln had gratefully accepted and suggested that Brough call on the governors of the other midwestern states to join in the effort. He did, and the result was eighty-five thousand troops enlisted for a hundred-day tour of duty that summer, thirty thousand of them from the Buckeye State. Among them was the 164th Ohio Regiment, which on this eighteenth day of August was standing in the tidewater heat, happy because they had finished their tour of duty and were about to ship out for home and also happy because they were stopping by the White House on their way to the train station to pay their parting respects to President Lincoln. Several of them had seen Lincoln once or twice before during their time around Washington, and a few had gotten to shake hands with the him, but seeing the president was always an exciting prospect, and the presumption was that he would have a few words to say to the regiment.
Lincoln had much less reason to be in high spirits than did the soldiers of the 164th Ohio. The high hopes of spring had withered in the heat of summer. Despite the maximum effort—enhanced by the help of the Ohio National Guardsmen—Grant had not taken Richmond, and Sherman had not taken Atlanta. The casualties on the fighting fronts had been horrendous, and the public was both appalled with the losses and disappointed in the lack of tangible progress. The nation’s most prominent newspaper publisher, Horace Greeley, had been writing defeatist editorials and had written to Lincoln urging a negotiated peace that would have abandoned the goals for which the nation was fighting the war. “Our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country . . . longs for peace,” Greeley had written.
Worse, this was a presidential election year, and though Lincoln had his party’s nomination for another term, dissidents within the party had already nominated a rival candidate on a third-party ticket. A congressman and senator from his own party had sponsored a bill that had repudiated Lincoln’s program for trying to restore loyal governments in the Rebel states, and when Lincoln had vetoed it, its sponsors had written a manifesto condemning him and, just two weeks prior, published it in Greeley’s paper. With fellow party members like that, Lincoln hardly needed Democrats, but Democrats there were, vociferously denouncing Lincoln and the war for all the opposite reasons from those of his Republican foes save that both complained that war progress was too slow. The Democratic convention was scheduled to open in Chicago eleven days after this parting visit at the White House by the 164th Ohio, and although it was not clear yet who would garner the nomination, it would plainly be someone who at least tacitly hewed to the Democratic Party’s line that the war was a failure and should be abandoned. Slavery, the Democrats believed, should continue.
Politicians in those days had no tracking polls to tell them how their ideas were playing with the public or what their chances were of winning the next election. They had to try to gauge such things from the tone of newspaper editorials and from the assessments of friends and associates. Lincoln was one of the most astute politicians of his era and had an excellent sense of which way the political wind was blowing. By mid-August 1864, all his instincts were telling him that he was in serious electoral trouble. Five days after this brief speech to the troops he would write, “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward.” He put the paper in an envelope and had his cabinet members sign the flap without knowing the contents. Lincoln wanted the Democrat who defeated him in the November election to know he had seen it coming since August.
A soldier of the 164th who had seen Lincoln at a public event in late May shortly after the regiment arrived in Washington had noted, “The countenance of the President when sitting alone was inexpressibly sad.” It could not have been any better on August 18 as he sat in the White House before going out to meet the troops to acknowledge their salute, thank them for their service, and send them on their way back to their homes in northern Ohio towns like Tiffin, Tallmadge, and Akron. Observers had noticed on many occasions that once Lincoln began to address an audience, his face always became more animated and cheerful, and so it would have been as he spoke to the 164th.
“You are about to return to your homes and your friends,” Lincoln began, “after having, as I learn, performed in camp a comparatively short term of duty in this great contest. I am greatly obliged to you, and to all who have come forward at the call of their country.”
Four days later Lincoln would tell another of the departing Ohio National Guard regiments, “I almost always feel inclined, when I happen to say anything to soldiers, to impress upon them in a few brief remarks the importance of success in this contest.” That was true, and his brief talk to the men of the 164th was no exception.
“I wish it might be more generally and universally understood,” Lincoln continued, “what the country is now engaged in. We have, as all will agree, a free Government, where every man has a right to be equal with every other man. In this great struggle, this form of Government and every form of human right is endangered if our enemies succeed. There is more involved in this contest than is realized by every one. There is involved in this struggle the question whether your children and my children shall enjoy the privileges we have enjoyed.”
Of course, as Lincoln well knew, the reason the nation was now involved in this civil war was the fact that all did not agree that “every man has a right to be equal with every other man.” Almost all white southerners and, as Lincoln was painfully aware, all too many northern voters emphatically rejected that proposition if the term “every man” included a black man. Yet Lincoln was right in saying they all agreed that they had “a free Government,” and he seemed to imply that since that was the case they ought also to recognize that in such a government “every man has a right to be equal with every other man.” If it were not so, if freedom was only for those whom society or the government chose to favor, then it was not a free government at all, and no one’s freedom was safe. If one man’s freedom necessarily meant his right to deprive another man of freedom or if one region’s freedom meant the right to break up the nation and create anarchy, then the American people might as well admit that “a free Government” was impossible. That was why Lincoln went on to emphasize that there was “more involved in this contest than is realized by every one.” If they did realize it, the president might well have thought to himself, they would not presently be flirting with the prospect of voting for a Democratic candidate who would be pledged to give up emancipation and practically obligated to give up the Union as well. Lincoln could not speak face-to-face with the more than four million northern voters, but he could speak to these soldiers. He wanted them to understand that it was
freedom and their children’s that was at stake in the war.
Lincoln went on to admit, “There may be mistakes made sometimes,” but he urged his listeners not to let that divert them from their devotion to the cause for which the nation was striving. “I beg of you, as citizens of this great Republic,” Lincoln said, “not to let your minds be carried off from the great work we have before us. This struggle is too large for you to be diverted from it by any small matter.”
Then Lincoln gave them a parting commission: “When you return to your homes rise up to the height of a generation of men worthy of a free Government, and we will carry out the great work we have commenced.”
As Lincoln strove to make clear to those citizen-soldiers, the Civil War was worth fighting. One hundred and fifty years later, it is still eminently worth studying—worth studying because of what was at stake in the war, because of how the war changed America, and because of what “this great struggle” showed of the height to which that generation of Americans rose and its challenge to future generations to be worthy of a free government.
AMERICA’S LONG ROAD TO CIVIL WAR
SLAVERY IN AMERICA DURING THE COLONIAL ERA AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
ong before the April night when a Confederate artillerist in Charleston, South Carolina, jerked the lanyard of a heavy cannon and fired the opening shot of the Civil War, the seeds of the dispute that would send millions of Americans into battle against each other in what still stands as the republic’s deadliest war had already taken deep root in American culture. That dispute was about slavery. Slavery’s beginnings in America lay far back in colonial times long before the four score and some odd years the United States had been in existence on that April night in 1861 when the shooting finally started in earnest.
When the first Englishmen had come to the New World almost three centuries before, they had prided themselves that their laws, unlike those of already established colonial power Spain, knew no such thing as a slave. Over the next century, however, that was to change. Englishmen in their country’s first permanent settlement in what was to become the United States, Jamestown, found their economic fortune in the cultivation of the tobacco plant. Tobacco was a labor-intensive crop. With land abundant in colonial Virginia, the only practical limit on how much a man could grow and, therefore, how much money he could earn, was how much labor he could command. Hired labor was out of the question. Any potential hired man could readily obtain his own land and enjoy all the fruits of his own labor rather than only part of them as an employee. So the only way a large landowner could work his acres was with nonfree labor.
At first the solution Englishmen chose was that of indentured servitude. An indentured servant was a poor Englishman who could not afford passage to America but still wanted to take his shot at making his fortune in the New World. In order to do so, he would sign a contract, called an indenture, binding him to service for a certain specified period of years, usually seven, in exchange for the cost of his transportation to the colony. Indentured servants were the most common form of nonfree labor in Virginia during the colony’s first half century. They could be male or, relatively rarely, female; could be bought and sold; and were sometimes mistreated, and their terms of service could be legally extended for various infractions, such as, in the case of a female servant, giving birth to a child. However, the child in that case was free, not the property of the master, who, under English law, owned the indentured servant’s labor but not his or her person. As long as mortality remained extremely high in early colonial Virginia, reliance on indentured servants, rather than actual slaves, was not only familiar but also economically sensible since both the indentured servant and the more expensive lifetime slave were statistically likely to be dead before seven years were up.