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As President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln played a major role not only during the Civil War but also in the events preceding the war and his presidency. Lincoln was running for President in a country united by law but separated by political, social, and economic differences. After winning office, Lincoln had to deal with the issue of the Southern states seceding and also the outbreak of the civil war. In conducting the Civil War, Lincoln had to address an array of specific and inter-related issues successfully if Union victory was to be attained. These included marshalling the American economy to meet the tremendous war needs of several million soldiers, raising a citizen’s army of volunteers willing to be trained and to die for the Union, adopting war strategies for the Union Army, handling foreign affairs, and dealing with the problem of slavery without destroying the democratic freedoms upon which the nation was founded.
Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, contended for the role of president in a nation engulfed by sectional division. As the southern states were threatening to seclude themselves from the Union, the dynamic force at work in the crisis was the southern perception of the Republican Party, not merely as a political opposition, but as a hostile, revolutionary organization bent on the total destruction of the slave-holding system. The beliefs of the Republican Party, according to an Alabama senator, were as strong as an incitement and invocation to servile insurrection, murder, arson, and other crimes, as any to be found in abolition literature. “Republicans must be dealt with as enemies,” said a North Carolina newspaper. Their policies would put a torch to their dwellings and a knife to their throat.
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As soon as the election results were known, southern leaders moved to carry out a threat many northerners had refused to take seriously: to secede from the Union. Many southerners believed that their section would be discriminated against by an administration composed of opponents. His first inauguration speech, delivered on March 4, 1861, was firm but amiable. He reaffirmed his promise not “to interfere with slavery” where it existed, and he assured the Confederate states that he would not “assail” them for their actions of secession. On the other hand, Lincoln made it clear that he would “hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government…” He pleaded with the Southerners, “We must not be enemies.” He reminded them that no state could leave the Union “upon its own mere motion” and pledged to enforce the laws. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”
As the southern states seceded, they seized most of the federal forts within their boundaries. Lincoln had to decide whether the remaining forts should be strengthened. He also had to decide whether to try and retake the forts already in Southern hands. Fort Sumter became a symbol of an indivisible Union. If Lincoln withdrew the troops garrisoned there, a storm of protest would arise in the North. If he reinforced Fort Sumter, the South would consider it an act of war. As a compromise, Lincoln decided to send only provisions to the troops, whose supplies were running low. He informed South Carolina of his intention, but its leader considered it a hostile act and demanded that the fort be surrendered to the South. On the morning of April 12, 1861, Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter. After a thirty-three-hour attack and exchange of fire, Major Anderson, commander of the federal arsenal at Fort Sumter, surrendered the fort, and the Civil War had begun.
The American Civil War that followed Fort Sumter’s surrender involved fundamental strategies on both sides that altered little over time. For the Union, Lincoln adopted the so-called “Anaconda strategy”, which required the encirclement of the Confederacy by securing the border states. This was also supplemented by massive naval blockades in the South by the Union Navy. Within a year, Lincoln modified the plan to include invasion of the South. Lincoln appointed and replaced his generals at a pace that most observers considered unwise. In his mind, however, he wanted commanders who could win battles, pursue defeated armies, and engage the enemy no matter the cost in lives or materials.
In raising the Union armies, Lincoln called for 42,000 volunteers for national service for three years and authorized an increase of 23,000 in the regular army. These numbers were higher than the limit set by law, but Lincoln saw it as imperative to the saving of the Union. The volunteering system raised the Union armies numbers quite substantially, but soon enthusiasm wore off, and Congress had to introduce the first national draft in American history. Lincoln accepted conscription as a necessary measure, which he hoped would spur more volunteers who could avoid the draft by serving for shorter terms.
Lincoln had the good fortune of appointing several efficient cabinet members responsible for leading and preparing the American economy for war. Under the direction of Abraham Lincoln, these cabinet members financed the war from three principal sources: taxation, loans, and paper money issues. Not until 1862, when mounting war expenses forced the country to face realities, did Congress pass an adequate war tax bill. Then it enacted the Internal Revenue Act, which placed sales taxes on practically all goods and introduced the nation’s first income tax.
Opposition to Lincoln’s program and policies by Peace Democrats escalated into full-fledged counter-war measures by 1862. Most of these opponents were old-line Democrats who resented the centralizing laws and measures supported by the Republicans, who now had a majority in Congress due to the loss of many Democrats to the Confederation. When the war began, Lincoln decreed by executive order that all people who discouraged enlistment in the army or otherwise engaged in disloyal practices would be subject to martial law. President Lincoln’s action suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which prevents the government from holding citizens without trial. This was done outside of the Constitution, but again, Lincoln saw it as necessary to the saving of the Union.
While meeting his other challenges, Lincoln managed to keep a check on foreign policy. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln dismissed a proposal to go to war against several European nations. In November 1861, Lincoln also avoided a war against the British by freeing two Confederate commissioners who were being held captive in the North. War against Europe would have been disastrous to the United States.
There can be no question but that Lincoln hated slavery. He believed that it mocked and contradicted the Declaration of Independence, and that it was the one issue that threatened the survival of the Union. In a letter response to Horace Greeley, Lincoln stated that he did not agree with those who would not save the Union unless they could save slavery at the same time. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
Even though his main priority was to save the Union, he had to put forth something to calm the northern anti-slavery forces. Lincoln used his constitutional powers to issue the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves in the rebellious states. He did not issue it in the border states, which were still part of the Union but had slaves. He did this to keep the border states from seceding from the Union. The border states were very important assets to the success of winning the war due to their location and population.
As you can see, Abraham Lincoln played quite a significant role not just in one aspect of the Civil War, but in a wide variety of areas. I believe that Lincoln’s actions before and during the War not only altered the course of the United States but also saved it.
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