Lincoln Forum 2013 Day 3

The first presentation of the morning session was Walter Stahr speaking on Seward and Lincoln.  Seward and Lincoln had met before.  They met in Boston in 1848 when both were campaigning for Zachary Taylor.  There is a myth that they shared a hotel room the following night in Worcester, Massachusetts, but Stahr definitively shows Seward was nowhere near Massachusetts the following night.  The two men don’t meet again for twelve years, though they do have some indirect communication through William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner.  In 1854, Herndon writes to Seward regarding a speech Seward had made, and includes, “Your friend Lincoln thinks it an excellent speech.”  After Seward’s “Irrepressible Conflict” speech, Herndon again writes him and expresses that Lincoln admired the speech and compares it with Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech.  Seward writes back, saying he regretted that Lincoln didn’t win the Senate seat in 1858.

Seward wasn’t the nominee of the Republicans in 1860 for several reasons, and among these was a feeling of anti-Catholicism, because Seward had worked to help Catholic children and had mocked the Know-Nothings.  Another reason was corruption.  Seward himself was viewed as clean, but his best friend, Thurlow Weed, was viewed as the most corrupt man in New York State.  Seward’s antislavery position was viewed as too extreme to win, and while there were other reasons, including other prominent candidates, suffice to say that while Seward was the first choice of many, Lincoln was the second choice of many more, and when it became clear that the “first choicers” wouldn’t win, everyone’s favorite second choice was well placed for the nomination.

Early in the administration, during the Fort Sumter crisis, Seward urged Lincoln to change the question to Union or Disunion and to give up Sumter.  He later suggested that Lincoln should devolve onto someone else [such as Seward] the responsibility for carrying this out.  Lincoln’s response is contained in the Abraham Lincoln Papers, not in the William Seward Papers, which indicates the response was never given to Seward.  These two documents get attention because there are not very many similar documents.

There are over 200 items from Seward to Lincoln.  They tend to be routine items.  There are over 200 items from third parties to Seward that were passed on to Lincoln.  Very few items are like these two items.  The relationship between the two men was face-to-face.  The best picture of this theme comes out in the diaries and letters of others observing them.  Gideon Welles, for example, recorded several instances of Lincoln and Seward together, with Seward even telling jokes at Lincoln’s expense and both men laughing over the jokes.

Lincoln relied on Seward especially in foreign policy, which Lincoln had had no experience in prior to his election.  Seward also spent a lot of time on military affairs.  This comes across in a situation where Lincoln felt he needed to call up more troops, but didn’t think the country would react well.  Seward meets with a number of Northern governors and drafts a letter purportedly from them, asking the President to allow them to provide more troops.  The response from Lincoln, also drafted by Seward, thanks them and accepts their offer.

Seward favored a piecemeal approach to emancipation.  He said that proclamations are mere paper without the support of armies.

Stahr said the July 13, 1862 “carriage ride conversation” among Lincoln, Seward, and Gideon Welles regarding the Emancipation Proclamation was largely a myth.

In Stanton’s notes on the cabinet meeting discussing the EP, Seward argues that foreign nations would intervene for the sake of cotton in response to the proclamation.

Conciliation with the south is a constant theme with Seward.

When Lincoln came to Gettysburg to dedicate the National Cemetery, Seward gave a speech on November 17 in which he said the war was being fought to uphold the fact that elections must be respected.  The next day, November 18, Lincoln and Seward toured the Gettysburg battlefield.  Then it was back to conciliation for Seward.

Part of the assassination plot was to kill Seward as well.  He had earlier fallen and had broken several bones and thus had a metal brace on, which deflected the knife blows Lewis Payne tried to inflict on him, saving his life.

Stahr gave an excellent, well-informed presentation.  It was great to sit and hear it.

Next, John Fabian Witt gave his talk on “Lincoln’s Code and the Law of War.”


He started by telling us a body of law [the Law of War gave structure to a story normally told with minie balls, muskets, and Napoleons.  He told us about Just War Thinking, which Lincoln intuitively understood.  Lincoln famously said that “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.”  [Collected Works, Vol 5, pp. 403-404]  Lincoln was essentially saying, “We cannot be sure we fight on the side of the angels.”  The law of war comes from that moral modesty.  That’s why prisoners aren’t treated as criminals–because we don’t know for sure if we’re on the side of justice.  We believe we are, we hope we are, but we aren’t certain.

Lincoln actually took it a step further than most.  If moral modesty is the foundation for organizing what we can and cannot do, why are you in the conflict in the first place?  Lincoln says, ” I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” [Ibid.]

Witt then referred to Lincoln’s reply to the Chicago Christians of all Denominations.  According to Witt, Lincoln believed that both sides expected god on their side, but how could the Union be sure that God was on their side and not the side of the confederates?  He told the Chicago clergy you cannot rest in this.  You must weigh and balance, and make a decision.  “Truth is somewhere.”  To be a leader, you must make a judgment of where the truth lies.

I think he is mischaracterizing what was said here.  They were talking about Emancipation:  “We observed (taking up the President’s ideas in order) that good men indeed differed in their opinions on this subject; nevertheless the truth was somewhere, and it was a matter of solemn moment for him to ascertain it; that we had not been so wanting in respect, alike to ourselves and to him, as to come a thousand miles to bring merely our opinion to be set over against the opinion of other parties; that the memorial contained facts, principles, and arguments which appealed to the intelligence of the President and to his faith in Divine Providence; that he could not deny that the Bible denounced oppression as one of the highest of crimes, and threatened Divine judgments against nations that practice it; that our country had been exceedingly guilty in this respect, both at the North and South; that our just punishment has come by a slaveholder’s rebellion; that the virus of secession is found wherever the virus of slavery extends, and no farther; so that there is the amplest reason for expecting to avert Divine judgments by putting away the sin, and for hoping to remedy the national troubles by striking at their cause.”  [Collected Works, Vol 5, pp. 421-422]  It seems to me to be a stretch to impute that to the law of war.

Witt next asked, “Why is it Lincoln who has to develop a new way of thinking about the law of war?”  Usually it’s the weaker side who innovates.  And normally we would expect to see innovations in the law of war after a conflict, not during a conflict.

Emancipation generated a new, unprecedented condition that required new rules of war.  American thought on the law of war had been that slaves couldn’t be freed by antagonists in a war.  But the plantation was an area of cold war.  Humanitarianism requires not interfering with slavery due to the fear of servile insurrection.  In the fall of 1862 arguments over emancipation were carried out in newspapers over arguments of just war.

Henry W. Halleck asked Francis Lieber to codify the laws of war.  The Lieber Code which resulted was 157 articles and a restatement of basic terms of the laws of war.  It covered POWs, unlawful combatants, interrogation, and slavery.  He got into the risk of servile insurrection and black soldiers.

The code makes clear that international law allows the freeing of slaves.  General Orders #100, the Lieber Code, was issued in April of 1863.  It was made public and was widely circulated by mid-May of 1863.

Skeptics thought these were just an effort to advance the Union war campaign.  Jefferson Davis said it was merely a cover for increased aggression.  James Seddon, the confederate Secretary of War, called it a prompt for servile insurrection, and a way for the Union to pretend it cared about humanitarian considerations.  Charles Francis Adams was deeply skeptical that the laws of war had a role to play with slavery.

The POW exchanges were halted over the issue of black soldiers.  The Union repeatedly offered to resume exchanges if all the soldiers were treated equally, but the confederates rejected this.  The law of war, ironically, led to the great humanitarian problem of POW camps.  Usually the law of war would help constrain the types of force or weapons to be used.

Next we had another panel.  This panel was about which theater was the most important, the east or the west.  Frank Williams was the moderator and the panelists were William C. Davis, John Marszalek, Craig Symonds, and Richard McMurry.  Davis started out saying the Trans-Mississippi was a separate war, Vicksburg wasn’t decisive, and the fall of Chattanooga was more decisive.  Symonds said the war in the west was different.  The area was ten times larger than the eastern theater.  He said people thought the east was more important because of what newspapers were saying–that the eastern theater mattered enormously in political terms.  John Marszalek said the capture of Vicksburg meant a great deal to Lincoln.  Vicksburg was crucial.  Grant takes an army, which was more important than taking the city of Vicksburg.  Marszalek said the west was more important because of Sherman.  Sherman in the Meridian Campaign and then linking with Grant in Chattanooga was important.  The confederates desert in the east because they were worried about what was going on back home.

In the east, rivers are barriers.  In the west, rivers are invasion routes.  Rivers in the east run generally east to west while rivers in the west run generally north to south.  The confederacy has a poor infrastructure, and it’s eroding throughout the war.  The Union, though, always had a well established supply line.  In the eastern theater, the political and senior military command of both sides kept close control of the armies.  In the west, commanders had much more independence.

When asked why Grant was sent to the east, we were told that Grant came east to get his commission and his original intent was to come east, get his commission, and then return to the west.  Lincoln knows he needs help in the east and respects both Grant and Sherman.  He knows Sherman can handle the west.  Grant’s job was to coordinated the whole thing, both east and west.  Sherman, though, doesn’t have the killer instinct.  He doesn’t want to kill people.  He just wants to end the war.

The Navy’s role in the east was primarily in the form of the blockade, and the Peninsula Campaign.  In the west, it was the river campaigns to move and supply the troops.  The army and the navy fought as allies.  The river campaign compels them to coordinate.

A question I asked was that they had been talking about the results of battles and campaigns to say the west was more important, but I wanted to turn that paradigm on its head.  Why not consider what didn’t happen as a result of a battle or a campaign.  For example, Lee was stopped in the Gettysburg Campaign.  While if we only looked at the actual results of the battle, we could say Gettysburg really didn’t matter that much.  But as a result of Lee’s being stopped by the Union victory, Lee couldn’t take Harrisburg, and he couldn’t threaten Philadelphia.  Had he been able to do that, Lincoln would have been hurt politically.  So if we stand the paradigm on its head, can we then reevaluate the importance of battles, campaigns, and ultimately theaters?

Craig Symonds considered my question to be an alternate history question and said he doesn’t engage in it.

Richard McMurry said that if we consider Gettysburg important because Lee didn’t take Harrisburg, Lee also didn’t take Harrisburg as a result of the Battle of Glorieta, so we could say that was as important as Gettysburg.  McMurry used a reductio ad absurdum fallacy to simply ignore the question because it’s uncomfortable for his position.  I thought it was disingenuous of him.  I didn’t bother to point out to him that taking Harrisburg was a realistic result of Lee’s not being stopped at Gettysburg, whereas it wasn’t a realistic result of Glorieta.  I lost some respect for McMurry as a result of this.

The afternoon session was a breakout session.  We were divided into groups to have a session with one of the authors of the Concise Lincoln Library series, edited by Richard W. Etulain and Sylvia Frank Rodrigue and put out by the SIU Press.  My session was with Michael Green, professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and author of Lincoln and the Election of 1860.  We talked about Lincoln’s getting the nomination and a little about the general election in 1860.  Some of the questions veered off the subject, but overall it was a good conversation.  I asked whether securing the nomination was more difficult for Lincoln than winning the general election, and he agreed with me that it probably was.  He said there was a general feeling that once he had the nomination the election was his to lose, barring a stumble of some sort.

That evening, Jim Getty gave a presentation as Lincoln and then Tony Kushner and Harold Holzer held a conversation about “Making Spielberg’s Lincoln.”  Kushner, I found out, grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana and his schooling was steeped in the lost cause, though his father, with some very progressive views, tended to teach him differently from what he was learning in school.  Kushner most certainly has no love for the confederacy.  He was talking at one point about being in the Virginia Statehouse for the filming and seeing busts of various confederate heroes, and he mentioned it was strange to him to see a bunch of “criminals” and “horrible people” honored.  His view of Lee and Jackson, for example, is quite a lot more extreme than mine.  Someone asked about the scene in the movie Lincoln where Lincoln slaps Robert and asked where that came from.  Obviously, this is art, and some artistic license was taken, but Kushner and Holzer claimed there was some evidence that Lincoln at one point had cuffed Robert, however gently.  The questioner brought up that Lincoln and Mary rarely disciplined their children, and Kushner made the point that this wasn’t discipline but rather something else, a moment of anger and frustration.  Matt Pinsker took on this question earlier this year in his blog.

So ended this year’s Lincoln Forum Symposium.  I had a terrific time, learned quite a few things, and also acquired a few more books along the way.


  1. I read this last night. Awesome! Nancy

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Doug Murray · · Reply

    [edit] burn that army of straw-men (censor this!). Hats off, chief.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I just wish I knew what you were talking about.

  3. Doug Murray · · Reply

    Lincoln understands me.

    1. Lincoln’s been dead for 148 years, so it’s very doubtful he understands you, and it’s becoming apparent that you don’t wish to make a substantive contribution.

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