Lincoln War Crimes Trial: A History Lesson
In the previous chapter we discussed the
early stages of the North American War of Secession of 1861-63 as
the minority Lincoln government attempted to suppress the legal
secession of the Southern United States by military invasion. In
this chapter we will discuss the conclusion of the war and some
of its consequences.
In the spring of 1863 General R.E.
Leeís Confederate army crossed the Potomac for the second time in
the hope of relieving devastated areas of the Confederacy and bringing
the war to a successful conclusion.
For several weeks he maneuvered freely
in Pennsylvania without encountering United States forces, which
were under strict orders to protect the Lincoln government in Washington.
The Confederates observed the rules of civilized warfare, despite
the systematic atrocities that had already been visited upon civilians
in the South by the Lincoln forces. Pennsylvanians worked peacefully
in their fields as the ragged but confident Confederates marched
About the first of July, Lee found
the US forces entrenched at Gettysburg, a town in Southern Pennsylvania.
Though having superior numbers, "Honest Abeís" armies
were unable to initiate any forward movement. ("Honest Abe"
was a name given to Lincoln by his early associates and later political
enemies, for the same reason that the biggest boy in a class is
called "Tiny.") Union morale was low. While there were
many good men in the ranks who had volunteered to fight for the
preservation of the American Union, there were also many unwilling
conscripts and large numbers of foreigners who had been lured into
the army by bounties and who were ignorant of the issues of the
war and of American principles of liberty and self-government.
Among the better US soldiers there
was much discontent over the recent illegal "Emancipation Proclamation,"
which in their view had changed the nature of the war, and over
the dismissal of the popular General McClellan. Historians have
often noted that, generally speaking, the best generals and soldiers
in the "Union" armies were not supporters of the Republican
Party or the Lincoln administration. Republicans and especially
abolitionists tended to avoid military service in the war they had
After several days of probing attacks
by Lee, the decisive breakthrough came on July 3, the eve of a day
revered by lovers of liberty and self-government throughout the
world. Pickettís fresh division and Pettigrewís seasoned veterans
broke through the center of the Union line, its weakest point in
terms of terrain. Military historians have noted the striking similarity
between this attack and the French breaking of the Austrian center
at the Battle of Solferino just four years before.
There were heavy casualties on both
sides, but the ever-vigilant General Longstreet exploited the breakthrough
and rolled up one wing of the union army. The other wing began retreating
toward Washington to defend the government there. The noted Confederate
cavalryman Stuart arrived at last and began to dog the retreat,
which was made miserable by torrential rains and blistering heat.
Some US troops fought bravely, especially
General Hancock, a Pennsylvanian, later President of the US, and
Col. Joshua Chamberlain of Maine, later US ambassador to
the Confederate States. But when the Democratic governors of New
York and Illinois ordered their regiments to suspend fighting and
return home, the remaining "Union" forces retreated to
the inner defenses of the capital, ironically named for a great
Virginian who was a relative of General Lee.
On Independence Day following the battle,
former President Franklin Pierce addressed a cheering crowd at the
capitol in Concord, New Hampshire. Pierce had never wavered in his
support for the Constitution despite threats from the Lincoln government.
The tide has turned, Pierce told the audience, and the Constitution
and liberty of the Fathers would soon be restored in peace. (It
should be pointed out that relatively new telegraph lines made communication
almost instantaneous by 1863.)
Lincoln had always been careful to stay
away from fighting, visiting his forces only in quiet periods, in
contrast to President Davis who was often on the battlefield. Immediately
upon receiving the news of Gettysburg, Lincoln wired General Grant,
an undistinguished officer who had been trying unsuccessfully for
months, with a large force, to capture the small Confederate garrison
at Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. Grant was ordered to retreat
at once into Tennessee and bring his army by rail to the defense
of Washington. For reasons that have long been disputed by historians,
Grant refused to carry out his order.
Grant was replaced by General Rosecrans,
who attempted to carry out Lincolnís orders. He found, unfortunately,
Confederate General Forrest had got in his rear and destroyed his
immense supply bases along the Tennessee River. His hands were further
tied by an uprising across central and western Kentucky. Rosecrans
finally came to rest near Columbus, Ohio, where he could subsist
Taking advantage of Rosecrans withdrawal,
Confederate General Dick Taylor, son of a former President of the
US, moved down the Mississippi to liberate New Orleans. The "Union"
commanders there, General "Beast" Butler and Admiral Porter,
who were unsavory characters even by the standards of the Lincoln
party, absconded from New Orleans with $2 million in cotton for
their personal profit. They were later heard of in South America,
where Butler tried unsuccessfully to make himself President of Uruguay.
President Davis was able to declare to the world that now, after
two years of obstruction, "the Mississippi flowed unvexed to
The rejoicing of the people of New
Orleans, white and black, at freedom from military occupation, was
riotous. It was truly laissez le bon temps roulez. More importantly,
ships began to make their way through the dissolving (and illegal)
naval blockage and enter New Orleans and other Southern ports, bringing
much needed munitions and medicines. Among the ships were a number
from the Northern States looking for cotton and ready to pay gold
rather than the rapidly depreciating US greenbacks. A number of
Lincolnís strongest New England supporters were involved in the
trade, which was illegal to them by Lincolnís order.
A small force left behind in Mississippi
by Rosecrans was captured by Forrest. The commander of this force
was one General Sherman. Among papers found with Sherman were plans
from the Lincoln government for a war of terrorism to be waged systematically
against women and children in the South. These included detailed
instructions, with illustrations for the soldiers. Houses were to
be pillaged and then burned, along with all farm buildings and tools
and standing crops. Livestock was to be killed or carried away and
food confiscated or destroyed.
Particular emphasis was laid on destructions
of family heirlooms pictures of dead loved ones, Bibles,
wedding dresses, and pianos. There were also directions as to how
to persuade, or coerce if persuasion failed, black servants into
divulging the whereabouts of hidden valuables.
The revelation of these papers shocked
the world and played a significant part in the later war crimes
trail of Lincoln. Sherman had issued additional orders, urging his
soldiers to "make the damned traitorous rebel women and children
howl." At his trial later, Sherman defended himself. His actions
had been called for, he said, because Americans had too much freedom
and needed to be brought under obedience to government like Europeans.
The trial of the United States vs. Sherman resulted in a famous
precedent-setting verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.
Meanwhile, Lee waited outside Washington
without attacking and the Confederate government renewed the offer
made in 1861 and never answered, to negotiate all issues with the
US in good faith, on principles of justice and equity. Many of the
remaining Union soldiers slipped quietly away, consoling themselves
with a popular song in the New York music halls, which went, "I
ainít gonna fight for Ole Abe no more, no more!"
There then occurred one of the extraordinary
unexpected historical events, which brought about a dramatic shift
in the situation. Lincoln attempted to escape Washington, as he
entered, in disguise. He was taken prisoner by Colonel Mosby, a
Confederate partisan who operated freely in northern Virginia. Very
shortly after, Mosbyís men intercepted a band of assassins intent
on killing Lincoln. It was soon revealed that Booth, a double agent,
had been hired by the "Union" Secretary of War Edwin M.
Stanton, and certain Radical Republican leaders in Congress, to
remove "Honest Abe" and make way for a military dictatorship
under a reliable Republican.
Subsequently indicted by the US for
his part in the attempted assassination, Stanton hanged himself
in his prison cell, shouting, "Now I belong to the ages!"
Vice President Hannibal Hamlin fled to Boston and then to Canada
where he issued a statement that he bore no responsibility for the
illegal acts and aggressions committed by the administration.
Relieved of military pressure, Maryland,
Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri convened conventions of the people
in free elections, seceded from the Union, and asked to join the
Confederate States. With some opposition they were admitted to the
Confederate Union. Meanwhile, California and Oregon declared their
independence and formed a new Confederacy of the Pacific. The CSA
was the first to recognize this new union.
Needless to say, the successful establishment
of independence by the seceding States had far-reaching consequences,
not only in North America, but throughout the world. The great American
principle that governments rest upon the consent of the governed
had been conspicuously vindicated.
With the capture of Lincoln, the flight
of Hamlin, and discrediting of the would-be assassins in Congress,
the North was without a head. An unprecedented agreement among governors,
later vindicated by constitutional amendment, advanced the 1864
elections to the fall of 1863. Vallandigham of Ohio and Seymour
of New York, both strong opponents of Lincolnís usurpations, were
elected President and Vice-President, with a Democratic Congress.
Outside of New England and industrial centers dominated by pro-tariff
forces, the Republican Party fell away in strength, though the pompous
Senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, and the fanatical Stevens
of Pennsylvania led a bitter minority in Congress.
Immediately upon his inauguration,
President Vallandigham accepted the Confederate offer of negotiation.
In a moving address to the country he expressed his wish that the
real Union, the one established by the Fathers for all Americans,
could be reunited. But he feared the scars of war had made this
impossible. All could take comfort in the fact that there were now
two great free confederacies favoring the world with examples of
liberty and self-government.
The Confederate States waived demands
for reparations. The resulting treaty of peace and friendship had
two main provisions. As to territory, the Confederacy was recognized
as ruler of the Indian territories and the southern portion of New
Mexico (later Arizona) and Union-seized western Virginia was returned
to the Old Dominion.
The other important provision provided
for a lasting cancellation of all tariff barriers between the two
Unions. This establishment of the principle of free trade over the
Continent (it had been preceded by the repeal of the British Corn
Laws) must be given credit for the flourishing prosperity of the
two confederacies that followed, as well as their immunity from
the imperial wars that have wracked Europe and Asia. It is noteworthy
that the Republican tariff industrialists, who fought free trade
tooth and nail, found that their profits were not lost, as they
had feared, but increased.
President Vallandigham and the Democratic
Congress of the US returned to Jeffersonian principles not only
on the tariff but across the board. The debacle of the Lincoln administration
and its corruption had provided all the evidence needed of the abuses
and danger of centralized government. War contracting had showed
up tremendous graft for political favorites. Expenditures were curtailed,
corruption prosecuted (it was said at one point that every other
Lincoln appointee was in jail or under indictment), and the national
banking fraud dismantled. The corrupt and brutal Indian policy of
Lincoln was terminated in favor of a return to the moderate Jeffersonian
policy. To this is attributed the subsequent relative freedom of
the US from Indian wars.
There remained one vexing problem.
What to do with Lincoln, in comfortable confinement in Richmond,
receiving every courtesy from his captors. Doubtless the failed
Presidentís disappointment and sorrow were deepened when his son
Robert, who had spent the war at Harvard, denounced Lincoln as a
fraud and a failure and attempted to launch his own political career,
and Mrs. Lincoln had to be confined to a mental asylum. (The indictment
of Mrs. Lincoln for unauthorized expenditures from the White House
accounts was quietly dropped.)
The fate of Lincoln became the subject
of international interest. Count Bismarck of Prussia and the Czar
of Russia called an international conference in support of Lincoln,
which justified his actions on the grounds that legitimate governments
must have the power to suppress rebellious subjects and provinces.
Britain, France, and many of the smaller states of Europe countered
with a declaration upholding the American doctrine that governments
rest on the consent of the governed.
An idea that gained attention at the
time was put forward by the Rev. Mr. Joseph Wilson, a Presbyterian
minister in Augusta, Georgia. The peace-loving nations should establish
a world government to punish aggressions such as those Lincoln had
committed. After all, such offences were against all humanity and
not just invaded peoples. The press soon reported that the idea
had really come from the Rev. Wilsonís twelve-year old son, Woodrow.
(Woodrow, who became a college president, was later noted for his
fruitless lectures in favor of world government.)
Who did have jurisdiction over the
numerous crimes? True, Lincoln had made unscrupulous war upon the
Southern people in an attempt to suppress their freedom. But he
had also, in so doing, violated the Constitution of the United States
and caused great suffering to the citizens of the US. After mature
consideration, Lincoln was turned over to the authorities of the
US to be prosecuted in their courts. Ironically, the Confederate
Vice-President Alexander Stephens, an old friend of Lincoln, volunteered
for his defense team.
The list of indictments was long:
- Violation of the Constitution and
his oath of office by invading and waging war against states that
had legally and democratically withdrawn their consent from his
government, inaugurating one of the cruelest wars in recent history.
- Subverting the duly constituted
governments of states that had not left the Union, thereby subverting
their constitution right to "republican form of government."
- Raising troops without the approval
of Congress and expending funds without appropriation.
- Suspending the writ of habeas corpus
and interfering with the press without due process, imprisoning
thousands of citizens without charge or trial, and closing courts
by military force where no hostilities were occurring.
- Corrupting the currency by manipulations
and paper swindles unheard of in previous UShistory.
- Fraud and corruption by appointees
and contractors with his knowledge and connivance.
- Continuing the war by raising ever-larger
bodies of troops by conscription and hiring of foreign mercenaries
and refusing to negotiate in good faith for an end to hostilities.
- Confiscation of millions of dollars
of property by his agents in the South, especially cotton, without
- Waging war against women and children
and civilian property as the matter of policy (rather than as
unavoidably incident to combat). (General Sherman and others were
called to testify as to their operations and the source of their
Two questions widely discussed at
the time could not be formulated into systematic charges against
Lincoln. One was the huge number of deaths among the black population
in the South as a result of forcible dislocation by "Union"
forces. No accurate account was ever achieved, but the numbers ran
into several hundred thousand persons who had died of disease, starvation,
and exposure on the roads or in the army camps.
The second unpursued charge had to
do with the deliberate starvation and murder of Confederate prisoners.
When Lincoln was captured, the guards fled the camps where these
prisoners had been confined. Many Northern citizens were willing
to testify to the terrible conditions in the camps exposure
and starvation where food and medicine were readily available. One
of the strongest impulses for the restoration of good feelings between
the former compatriots of the North and South was the Christian
aid and comfort given by many Northerners for the relief of these
These atrocities could not be directly
charged to Lincoln, though they were pursued against a number of
lesser officers. Lincoln was charged with contributing to numerous
deaths by being the first civilized authority to declare medicine
a contraband of war and refusing the Confederate offer to allow
Northern doctors to attend the Union prisoners in their hands.
The trial, long and complex, was held
in the new US capital, Chicago. Eminent lawyers were engaged on
both sides. A number of Radical Republican politicians, hoping to
revive political careers, were eager to take the stand against their
The impression that most observers
had of Lincoln at the trial was that of a wily corporate lawyer
and astute political animal and of a powerful but somewhat warped
personality. His employment of specious arguments and false dilemmas,
semantic maneuvers, and homely and sometimes bawdy anecdotes to
divert attention from the prosecutionís points, became increasingly
transparent as the weeks of the trial wore on.
The high point of the trial came when
Lincoln, on the stand, avowed that though he now regretted much
that had happened, everything had been according to Godís inscrutable
will and he had acted only so that government of the people, by
the people, and for the people should not perish from the earth.
The courtroom erupted in guffaws, whistles, and howls of derision
that went on for an hour.
Found guilty, the former leaderís
sentence was suspended on condition that he never enter the territory
of the United States again. His subsequent wanderings became the
subject of a famous story and play, "The Man Without a Country,"
and were most notable for his collaboration with Karl Marx, whom
he met in the British Museum Library, in the early Communist movement
that was to have so great an impact on European history.
About the time the war crimes trial
ended, General Lee was inaugurated as the second President of the
Confederate States. Speaking by the statue of Washington on the
capitol grounds at Richmond, he described the first recommendations
he would send to Congress. The Southern people had been deeply moved
by the loyalty and shared suffering of most of their black servant
population during the war. It was time to fulfill the hopes of the
Southern Founders of American liberty. He called for a plan that
would provide freedom, at the age of maturity, along with land or
training in a skilled trade, for all slaves born after a date to
be set. The plan had already been approved by the clergy of all
denominations in the Confederate States and by many other leading
citizens. (It is to Leeís farseeing wisdom that peaceful relations
between white and black in the CSA have not been disrupted by the
strife that has characterized other countries of the New World.)
In closing, Lee advised the people
of the free Confederacy to put aside all malice and resentment,
look forward to the future, and give thanks to the Almighty for
his infinite mercy in vindicating to the world the great American
principle that governments rest on the consent of the governed.
Wilson is professor of history at the University of South Carolina
and editor of The
Papers of John C. Calhoun.