The most absurd myth about Abraham Lincoln to emerge from the Claremont Institute, where such myth-making has apparently become a cottage industry, is the notion that Lincoln showed us all how to oppose the "culture of death," as Pope John Paul calls the abortion culture. That’s how Seth Leibsohn of Empower America (Jack Kemp’s outfit) put it in a recent Institute publication. Pro-life champion Joseph Sobran "breaks my heart," wrote Leibsohn, when he criticizes Lincoln, as he has done in numerous columns in LewRockwell.com.
This, and so many other statements made by Claremont Institute scholars about Lincoln, is a sheer absurdity. Lincoln wanted a bloody war and the reason he wanted it had little or nothing to do with slavery. As he stated over and over again, his overriding objective was to destroy once and for all the system of federalism and states’ rights that the founding fathers had created as a check on the centralizing tendencies of the state. He didn’t put it this way, of course, but instead used the deceptive language of "saving the Union." But holding any union together at gunpoint destroys it by destroying its voluntary and consensual nature. Lincoln only "saved" the Union in a geographical sense.
Before Fort Sumter the Confederate government had commissioners in Washington, DC, who were prepared to offer to pay for all federal property in the Southern states and to assume the South’s share of the public debt. Lincoln rebuffed them.
Napoleon III of France offered to mediate the dispute and he, too, was ignored. Lincoln wanted a war. He cleverly maneuvered the South into firing the first shot at Fort Sumter, where no one was hurt or killed. Even though he had sent warships to the fort, they did not return fire because their mission — to draw an attack — had already been accomplished. After Fort Sumter Lincoln thanked Naval Commander Gustavus Fox for helping him orchestrate the attack and to generate Northern support for a war.
In what has to be the biggest political miscalculation in all of American history, Lincoln believed that his war would last only a few months, after which he and the Republican Party could implement their 1860 platform of protectionist tariffs, nationalized banking, and corporate welfare for the railroad industry without opposition. Being unfamiliar with military matters and personnel, he failed to anticipate the likes of generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, and Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Lincoln’s war ended up costing 620,000 battlefield deaths along with the death of some 50,000 Southern civilians, including thousands of slaves who perished in the federal army’s bombardment of Southern cities and because of its devastation of the Southern economy. By 1865 the Lincoln government had killed one out of every four Southern white males between the ages of 20 and 40.
To put these numbers in perspective, standardizing for today’s population of 280 million, that would be roughly the equivalent of 5 million deaths — about 100 times the number of Americans who died in the ten-year Vietnam War.
Lincoln famously micromanaged the war effort. Historian James McPherson writes of how he spent more time in the War Department’s telegraph office than anywhere else, and spent 41 days in the field with the Army of the Potomac. He was fully in charge as the commander in chief, and orchestrated the mass killing for four years. His favorite general, Ulysses S. Grant, was made top commander of the army because of his willingness to send tens of thousands of men into a slaughter pen, as he did in the Battle of the Wilderness and elsewhere.
From the very beginning, Lincoln’s war strategy involved waging war on Southern civilians despite the fact that such tactics were denounced by the Geneva Convention of 1863 and even by Lincoln’s own military code (the "Lieber Code," named after its author, Columbia University law professor Francis Lieber). Federal soldiers plundered and pillaged their way through the South for four years. In 1861 federal commanders began taking civilians hostage and sometimes shooting them in retaliation for Confederate guerrilla attacks. As Colonel John Beatty warned the residents of Paint Rock, Alabama: "Every time the telegraph wire is cut we would burn a house; every time a train was fired upon we would hang a man; and we would continue to do this until every house was burned and every man hanged between Decatur and Bridgeport." The town of Paint Rock was burned to the ground.
In 1862 General John Pope declared that all Southern men who remained within the federal army’s lines (mostly elderly men) and who wished to remain in their homes must take a loyalty oath to the federal government (i.e., to the Lincoln administration). Anyone taking such an oath who was later suspected of being "disloyal" would be shot. In New Orleans, General Benjamin Butler hanged a man for taking down a US flag. Butler was also one of Lincoln’s favorite generals.
Early in the war the towns of Randolph, Tennessee, and Jackson and Meridian, Mississippi, were burned to the ground by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who declared that to all secessionists, women and children included, "death is mercy." The bombardment of cities was considered beyond the bounds of international law and morality in the 1860s, but Lincoln paid no attention to such restrictions. Sherman, of course, was his second favorite general next to Grant.
During the bombardment of Atlanta Sherman’s chief engineer, Captain O.M. Poe, implored Sherman to stop the bombing of the undefended city because of the grotesque spectacle of the corpses of women and children in the streets. Sherman coldly told him that such scenes were exactly what he wanted. After destroying 90 percent of the city the federal army evicted all the remaining residents from their homes just as winter was settling in.
Sherman’s (and Lincoln’s) strategy (which McPherson calls "brilliant") was to terrorize the civilian population. For example, in 1864 Sherman wrote to a subordinate, General Louis D. Watkins: "Send over about Fairmount and Adairsville [Georgia], burn ten or twelve houses of known secessionists, kill a few at random, and let it be known that it will be repeated every time a train is fired upon …."
After Sherman completed his "March to the Sea" he met with Lincoln and Grant on the James River in Virginia. "Lincoln wanted to know about Sherman’s marches," writes Sherman biographer John F. Marzalek, "particularly enjoying stories about the bummers," as Sherman’s plundering and pillaging soldiers were called.
Lincoln’s culture of death continued after the war. Just three months after Appomattox General Sherman was put in charge of the Military District of the Missouri and instructed to kill or capture all the Plains Indians, which would be accomplished over the next twenty-five years. Sherman instructed the federal army that "During an assault [on an Indian village] the soldiers can not pause to distinguish between male and female, or even to discriminate as to age." As John Marzalek writes, "Sherman viewed the Indians as he viewed recalcitrant Southerners during the war and the newly freed people after: resisters to the legitimate forces of an orderly society."
Lincoln’s overall war strategy, known as the "Anaconda Plan," was an attack on Southern civilians as much as a war strategy. Devised by the elderly General Winfield Scott, the idea was to blockade all the Southern ports and inland waterways so as to starve out the population, among other things. Even drugs and medicines were on Lincoln’s list of goods that were to be confiscated from ships headed for Southern cities during the war.
There seems to be no limit to the extent to which historians will go to maintain the Lincoln Myth. In the book On the Road to Total War, edited by Stig Forster and Jorg Nagler, Mark Neely, the curator of the Lincoln Museum in Illinois, states that the concept of total war "breaks down the distinction between soldiers and civilians" but denies that Lincoln waged total war. Sherman and other federal generals "waged war the same way most Victorian gentlemen did," writes Neely, and "other Victorian gentlemen in the world knew it." Total war, according to Neely, was just not Sherman’s cup of tea. The editors of the book in which Neely’s essay appears couldn’t help but comment that Neely seemed to be writing about a different war than the other thirty-one authors in the volume.
Contrary to the views of Neely and the Claremont Institute, Lincoln introduced to the world a horrible culture of death by waging the bloodiest war in human history up to that point; refusing to consider any kind of negotiated settlement, even one that would have freed the slaves; and waged war against innocent civilians.
Lincoln’s war settled once and for all the question of who would interpret the Constitution. It would no longer be the people of the sovereign states, but what Jefferson called the "black-robed deities" of the Supreme Court. Pro-life supporters at the Claremont Institute are supremely disingenuous and self-contradictory when they champion the Lincoln Myth on the one hand, while complaining about Roe v. Wade and other Supreme Court fabrications on the other. Without Lincoln’s war, Roe v. Wade would never have occurred. This point is clearly understood by abortion advocates such as Columbia University law professor George P. Fletcher. In his book, Our Secret Constitution, he praises Lincoln precisely because his war, and the post-war amendments to the Constitution put into place by the Republican Party, allowed this kind of judicial tyranny to occur.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is Professor of Economics at Loyola College in Maryland and author of the forthcoming book, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an UnnecessaryWar.