Kenneth T. Walsh: The Most Consequential Elections in History ... Abraham Lincoln's Victory in 1864 Led to the End of the Civil War

Roundup: Talking About History

[Kenneth T. Walsh is the chief White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.]

On April 12, 1861, about five weeks after Abraham Lincoln's inauguration for his first term, Southern forces began bombarding Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, starting the Civil War. On April 13, the Union forces surrendered, prompting jubilation in the new Confederacy and anger and disappointment in the North.

The election of Lincoln, an antislavery moderate, had been the last straw for pro-slavery leaders. His victory ended any hope they had of compromise because they were convinced that, with Lincoln in command, the North would trample the rights of the Southern states and move to end slavery. They began to secede from the Union and form a Confederacy of their own.

Many in the North thought the war would end quickly, but they didn't properly assess the military strength and the will of their adversaries, the quality of the Confederate forces' leadership, and the difficulty of invading and pacifying the Southern states. As a result, the war went very badly for the Union at first, and Lincoln's popularity in the North plummeted. He was derided as a despot, a dictator, an incompetent, and worse. At the same time, he was blamed for the many failures on the battlefield and for the horrendous casualties, posted day after day in town after town across the land. He changed generals when they lost big battles or when they didn't follow up on their limited successes, but for the early years the conflict seemed hopeless.

Meanwhile, Lincoln worked tirelessly to keep the Republican Party behind him and to minimize antiwar sentiment in the North. Many historians say he handled a very bad situation as well as anyone could have. "If there is a common denominator in presidential assessments, it is a bias toward activism, unless the activism is viewed as misplaced, as in the instances of Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, and Nixon and Watergate," says Princeton's Fred Greenstein. Lincoln made his share of mistakes, such as choosing a succession of inept commanders, but he acted decisively and wisely when it counted most...

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