Abraham Lincoln, 150 Years Later

150 years later, Abraham Lincoln continues to inspire us.


I have not written as much about the sesquicentennial of the Civil War over the past four years as I thought I would, but given the fact that today marks the 150th anniversary of the day that Abraham Lincoln died after having been shot at Ford’s Theater the night before, I figured it was appropriate to make at least some commemoration of the date. When I saw that the anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox was approaching, I started thinking about writing something profound about our nation’s greatest conflict and how it continues to reverberate today at both a political and cultural level even today, and perhaps I will get around to putting those thoughts into words at some point. At the same time, though, there has been so much written about the Civil War that I’m not sure that anything I could say that would add anything insightful.

That’s the point at which my thoughts turned to our 16th President. For those of us who are troubled by the idea of an activist and President who ignores Congress and, at times, the Courts, his legacy isn’t a perfect one. After all, there never was a formal declaration of war against the Confederacy, Lincoln himself assumed powers that clearly aren’t granted to the President under the Constitution, and he ignored the Courts when they contradicted him on issues such as habeus corpus. At the same time, one cannot deny that Lincoln faced a crisis that no other President before or since has even had to contemplate and, while he may have overreacted in some cases, and while he certainly made mistakes in others, he nonetheless skillfully guided the United States through a horrible period. Additionally, while it’s true that, at the beginning of his Presidency Lincoln was not necessarily dedicated to the abolition of slavery in the South, he did eventually come to see that it was the only viable option. Moreover, even though he once suggested that freed slaves should be repatriated to Africa, in the final public speech of his life he openly advocated voting rights for African-Americans. One of the people who was present for that speech was John Wilkes Booth, and when he heard that statement he vowed that Lincoln would not live. Sadly, he was able to succeed in that mission.

Those are just some thoughts I had, but as I thought about it, I couldn’t think of anything better to say about Lincoln than the poem that Walt Whitman wrote in the aftermath of his death.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

There’s really not much more to say.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Uncategorized, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. ernieyeball says:

    In Feb of 1956 I was 8 years old.
    I know I watched “I’ve Got a Secret” on TV. Don’t recall seeing this guy…

    Lincoln Assassination Eyewitness (Feb 9, 1956)

  2. @ernieyeball:

    I’ve seen that clip online before. It’s kind of amazing that we have that kind of connection between the Civil War Era and the beginning of the technology era we live in today.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    Doug, I don’t think anyone wants to get into a word-slinging match with Walt Whitman. And I believe he expressed how we still feel to this day about this great man. I’m both sorry we don’t seem to have any more Lincolns standing around, and relieved that we don’t need one.

  4. @michael reynolds:

    I’m hoping we never need one

  5. ernieyeball says:

    He looks like Deepthroat’s grandfather.
    I’m certain it’s just a coincidence.

  6. Paul Hooson says:

    Abraham Lincoln, a righteous and long-suffering saintly man, rivals the story of Job in the Old Testament, only adding to his mythical status as a nearly Biblical figure and our greatest president.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    there never was a formal declaration of war against the Confederacy

    For Lincoln it It was not legally a war. I‘m sure that as a lawyer you can understand Lincoln’s constant concern to do nothing that would grant legitimacy to the insurrection’s claim of status as a nation.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    Oddly, driving in to work this morning I was contemplating W. Bush’s rating as a president and that he is sometimes ranked with James Buchanan. Buchanan, who as President did nothing as the nation slid toward secession, leaving a huge crisis for Lincoln to deal with. Quite similar to Bush.

    (I expect Jenos along shortly to inform me Buchanan was a Democrat.)

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    there never was a formal declaration of war against the Confederacy,

    Of course there wasn’t Doug. How does a country declare war on itself? Leagally, in the political context of the Union and its Congress, there was no such thing as a “Confederacy”. The Union Flag contained 34 stars, one for each state of the United States of America, including those who claimed to have seceded, but obviously enough were unsuccessful in said attempt.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @gVOR08: Beat me to it. I was making my breakfast. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

  11. PD Shaw says:

    The SCOTUS ruled that a declaration of war is not mandatory:

    By the Constitution, Congress alone has the power to declare a national or foreign war. It cannot declare war against a State, or any number of States, by virtue of any clause in the Constitution. The Constitution confers on the President the whole Executive power. He is bound to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. He is Commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several States when called into the actual service of the United States. He has no power to initiate or declare a war either against a foreign nation or a domestic State. But, by the Acts of Congress of February 28th, 1795, and 3d of March, 1807, he is authorized to called out the militia and use the military and naval forces of the United States in case of invasion by foreign nations and to suppress insurrection against the government of a State or of the United States.

    Prize Cases (1862)

  12. gVOR08 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: That’s OK. I like your 38 stars line better.

    I’ll take the opportunity to make a movie recommendation. I always had trouble reconciling the Lincoln who could order armies into terrible battles and the Lincoln who couldn’t bear to shoot a kid for sleeping on guard duty. In Lincoln Daniel Day Lewis really helped me to understand the man.

  13. stonetools says:

    I’m not sure, but I believe the US Army at the time always referred to the conflict as the “War of the Rebellion”. Indeed, the common parlance of the time in the North was to refer to Confederate troops as “rebs” ( “Johnny Reb”).
    Lincoln, I believe, first used the term “Civil War” to refer to that conflict.

    As to whether we will need another Lincoln, while the Republican Party seems well on its way to becoming a sectional party, there is no great divisive issue out there(slavery) largely confined to one region of the country. Then again, neither the English Civil War of the 1640s or the American Revolutionary War ( arguably the first American civil war) was fought on regional issues, so..

  14. Ron Beasley says:

    I grew up and have spent most of my life in the Pacific Northwest. We didn’t think much about the Civil War. We didn’t even have a significant number of blacks in Oregon until Henry Kaiser bused them up from the South during WWII to work in his shipyards in Portland and Portland remains the whitest major city in the country.
    I realized a few months ago that I knew very little about the Civil War and the events leading up to it so I did some reading. The change in Lincoln’s thoughts on slavery was discussed. The thing that was most surprising was the number of really incompetent generals and commissioned officers. The North should have been able to put down the insurrection in 2 years instead of 4 if not for the poor military decisions by incompetent generals.

  15. Tyrell says:

    @Ron Beasley: It seems the south had a custom of what life paths the sons of land owners would follow. One, the oldest, would take over running the farm or plantation (law of primogeniture and entail), and one son would go into the military and attend a military academy such as West Point or VMI. So there were a lot of southern men who were trained and educated as military officers. The north had some also, but not as many. Most of these officers ended up getting experience in the Mexican War. So that whole arrangement ended up helping the south in terms of capable leadership. One of my favorite generals was Burnside. He had some bad luck, but was fearless. Phil Sheridan fought in more battles than any other general, a man who got things done. Custer was also a very good general.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    @Ron Beasley:
    Well, in defense of the generals – most of whom actually did suck — warfare was undergoing a paradigm shift, especially when it came to logistics and intensity. These guys had no experience in moving men and materiel by rail. No one on either side had experience in directing large forces aside from the rapidly-declining Winfield Scott. The South had some excellent generals, but they were essentially raiders, cavalry generals. Tacticians.

    It wasn’t until Ulysses Grant came along that means and methods united to create a more modern, more destructive type of war. Grant realized that modern war with its more efficient supply lines and huge numbers of men meant warfare no longer had to follow a pattern of fight and refit. The army could fight on Monday and fight again on Tuesday and just go on fighting without withdrawing to refit and retrain. This was the start of a new way of war that reached its brutal peak 50 years later in Flanders.

    At the start of the war Robert E. Lee was a genius; by the end he was a relic of a bygone age. Grant was the future of warfare: relentless, pitiless, driven by numbers not dash.

  17. Ron Beasley says:

    @michael reynolds: You are correct. War strategies were still based on the one shot and reload weapons – the multishot repeater rifles made it a whole new ballgame.

  18. dmichael says:

    One of the problems with being a lawyer (I know, I was one) is that we tend to see events through the lens of the legal system. Evaluating Lincoln must be done in the political, economic and moral contexts of that time. He faced an unprecedented crisis and found practical solutions to that crisis. While doing so, he moved this country toward what it is today: a strong federal government that has the capability to address national problems (although it doesn’t always do so). The “Lost Cause” adherents and neo-confederates (today’s Republican party) want to focus on legal concepts such as nullification, secession and “states’ rights” all designed to curtail federal authority and leave us to the mercy of oligarchs.

  19. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I would add that Grant wasn’t quite the “butcher” and merciless proponent of attrition warfare he has been made to be(mostly by southern apologists). He did often try to fight a war of maneuver and did so brilliantly many times. His great quality was determination (“I purpose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer”). He just kept coming at Lee no matter what, whereas the previous generals stopped after getting the first bloody nose. He was about winning, and he couldn’t do it by maneuver he would do it by siege.
    Lincoln meanwhile had to stand by Grant even after those horrible 1864 casualties kept coming. He might have lost the election over those too-had not Sherman taken Atlanta just in time. The Civil War was a closer run thing than many realize. Had Johnson stopped Sherman; had Lincoln lost to McClellan in 1864…
    Love those alternate histories of the Civil War…

  20. gVOR08 says:

    @Tyrell: There’s more to generalship than courage, as Custer demonstrated in his last battle. Burnside was a disaster at Fredricksburg. IIRC his plan depended on pontoon bridges and when the pontoons failed to arrive, he proceeded anyway. Appointing Burnside to command the Army of the Potomac was one of Lincoln’s mistakes, although I don’t recall whether anyone better was readily available. Lincoln didn’t get that right ’til Meade, who ended up overshadowed by Grant. And later the lost opportunity at The Crater was Burnside’s fault.

    @michael reynolds:
    One of the British military historians, I want to say Max Hastings, observed that it seemed every century gets one true military genius. In the twentieth century it was unfortunately Võ Nguyên Giáp. But the 19th century had two, Lee and Grant, and of the two Grant was superior because he had a plan to win the war, which Lee did not. Grant’s Vicksburg campaign was a great example of both dogged tenacity in trying to get across the river and daring maneuver once across.

    My generally high opinion of Lee is tarnished by his continuing to get people killed when he knew there was no way out but surrender.

    The Prussians learned how to use railroads from the U.S. Army. Weaponry was also driving the paradigm shift. Rifled muskets had multiplied the range of muskets but they were still using Napoleonic tactics that relied on having to endure only one or two volleys before closing with the enemy.

  21. Dave Schuler says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    My experience of the impact of the Civil War is almost diametrically opposed to yours. I grew up in St. Louis within walking distance of at least two Civil War battlefields. You could still see the bullet holes in some buildings.

    The Dred Scott decision was rendered within walking distance of where I grew up and just a couple of blocks from my dad’s office. Slaves had been sold on the steps of that courthouse which was built with slave labor.

    Several of my great-great-grandfathers fought for the Union during the Civil War and I had classmates who had great-great-grandfathers on both sides who quite literally shot at each other during some battles. I still have the rifle that one of my great-great-grandfathers carried. In addition I have vivid memories of the Civil War centennial which was a big deal.

    We frequently visited the Lincoln sites in New Salem and Springfield. They were an easy daytrip away even in the days before the interstates.

    The Civil War was all around us, always with us.

  22. gVOR08 says:

    @stonetools: On the other hand, had McClellan won the Peninsula Campaign, as he certainly should have…

  23. Dave Schuler says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The story of the Civil War is mostly portrayed as the North against the South but it was actually the East against the West. At the beginning of the war, most of the Union’s generals were Easterners. By the end its most important generals were Westerners like Grant and Sherman.

  24. michael reynolds says:

    Just to clarify: I’m not in any way dissing Ulysses Grant. I took my pen name from the general. Great general, lousy president, and he died writing to support his family. I admire his ability to grasp change, and I admire his principled opposition to the Mexican-American war as an act of imperialist aggression. He was a great man who fought for the right, unlike Mr. Lee who slaughtered farm boys and factory workers in defense of slavery.

  25. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    I know. I went through a phase where I was going to write a book series set during the Civil War – may still do so some day. The house was neck-deep in Civil War histories, most of which I had to give up when I moved to Italy.

    Now my house is full of books on WW2, especially Sicily and Italy which take up the second book of Front Lines.

    Hmmm. I’ve been wondering about the next thing, thinking I may do a trilogy or four book series on the 60’s. But the CW could still work, too. Depends whether Front Lines sells worth a damn.

  26. Rafer Janders says:


    Leagally, in the political context of the Union and its Congress, there was no such thing as a “Confederacy”. The Union Flag contained 34 stars, one for each state of the United States of America, including those who claimed to have seceded, but obviously enough were unsuccessful in said attempt.

    It’s a point I often make to Confederate apologists, that their ancestors weren’t fighting the “Union Army” or “Union Navy” — they were fighting the United States Army and United States Navy, and firing on the Stars and Stripes.

  27. gVOR08 says:

    @Rafer Janders: And the good guys won.

  28. PD Shaw says:

    @dmichael: “While doing so, he moved this country toward what it is today: a strong federal government that has the capability to address national problems (although it doesn’t always do so). The “Lost Cause” adherents and neo-confederates (today’s Republican party) want to focus on legal concepts such as nullification, secession and “states’ rights” all designed to curtail federal authority and leave us to the mercy of oligarchs.”

    Ironically, the Confederate government centralized power more than the Union did. It did much more in terms of confiscating property and controlling the economy. Its use of conscription and impressment were more extensive. These might have been “war socialism” that would have dissipated if they had won, or maybe not. (Bensel, Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877)

  29. gVOR08 says:

    @PD Shaw:

    designed to curtail federal authority and leave us to the mercy of oligarchs

    Years ago J. K. Galbraith wrote of countervailing power that the only powers that could stand up to corporations were unions and the government. The oligarchs have pretty well killed unions and they’re working on the government.

  30. grumpy realist says:

    Random thoughts:

    Supposedly we see a change in language from before the Civil War to afterwards: “The United States of America ARE….” to “The United States of America IS….”

    A very good (and disturbing) book on the Civil War is Lincoln’s Dreams by Connie Willis. Highly recommended.

    Thomas Beer writes about the cortege of Lincoln’s body in one of his chapters in The Mauve Decade.

    I grew up in a house that turned out to be a station on the Underground Railroad.

  31. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    During American History–10th grade or so–my history teacher brought in his great great uncle’s diary that he kept at Andersonville.

    Turns out my great great uncle (maybe one more “great”), two of my classmates great great grandfathers, and my history teacher’s relative were all captured in the same battle, all shipped to Andersonville at the same time.

    Another classmate’s distant relative was a guard there.

    We are all connected through the war still, we just don’t realize how much.

  32. PD Shaw says:

    My favorite Lincoln books:

    Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald (the classic one volume biography)

    The Young Eagle, by Kenneth Winkle (an examination of Lincoln’s early life in comparison and contrast with his contemporaries)

    Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power by Richard Carwardine (a political evaluation of Lincoln, including the power of ideas, the use of power and the power of martyrdom)

    Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, by Allen Guelzo (a study of Lincoln’s intellectual life)

    Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, by Douglas Wilson (an evaluation of Lincoln through his speeches)

    The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln, by Mark Neely (evaluation of civil liberties issues)

  33. Scott says:

    @PD Shaw: On a much smaller scale I would recommend Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills which examines the Gettysburg address.

  34. gVOR08 says:

    @Scott: Second. Excellent book, as is almost anything by Wiils.

  35. Lenoxus says:


    Buchanan, who as President did nothing as the nation slid toward secession, leaving a huge crisis for Lincoln to deal with. Quite similar to Bush.

    Although I wouldn’t say Obama faced the same level of crisis as Lincoln, there’s another interesting political parallel here (aside from the oft-noted fact that each had spent a single term representing Illinois in Congress before running for national office). Even before Abe became president, there was a kind of “Lincoln Derangement Syndrome” among his opponents, akin to today’s Obama Derangement Syndrome (or if you prefer, like Bush Derangement Syndrome). Many Southerners/Democrats believed Lincoln would somehow unilaterally abolish slavery, and had all kinds of conspiracy theories about him sending agents into the South to interfere with the institution or stir up revolt. It didn’t help that he wasn’t on the ballot in Southern states, making his election seem illegitimate to them (though you could argue that it just means he won with one hand tied behind his back). “Barry Hussein” “Lincoln Africanus” was one of several race-oriented epithets for him, and the Republican party were labeled “Black Republicans”, which is kind of amusing from today’s point of view.

    Ironically, the fear of slavery’s end lead to the South seceding, and thus ultimately became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Arguably, that’s the best argument today’s Lost-Causers can make in the Confedracy’s defense — considering various possible timelines, the slave states’ own paranoia was the most plausibly effective way for slavery to die a sudden death rather than a slow one (insofar as the South would never have abolished it that soon on its own).

  36. An Interested Party says:

    My generally high opinion of Lee is tarnished by his continuing to get people killed when he knew there was no way out but surrender.

    Not to mention supporting the odious twin causes of treason and slavery…

  37. Tyrell says:

    @stonetools: “alternate histories”: I had a history teacher who was always bringing that up for discussions: if England had won the Revolution (he believed an earlier end to slavery, no Civil War, huge western territory granted to native Amercans), if Booth had missed, if Hitler had been assassinated, if Kennedy had not gone to Dallas.

  38. ernieyeball says:

    @Tyrell:..if Booth had missed, if Hitler had been assassinated, if Kennedy had not gone to Dallas.

    Don’t stop there…

    …if Franco had not succeeded, if the Incas had skinned Pizarro alive the first time they saw him, if Jesus had not risen from the dead,..

  39. PD Shaw says:

    @Lenoxus: I don’t think the South was being paranoid. The Republicans had just picked the electoral lock, and with the assistance of anti-slavery Northern Democrats and rising immigration, were changing the assumptions that had nurtured slavery for generations. The House went Republican in 1858, the Presidency in 1860 and the Senate would have eventually split 50/50 with the tie held by the Republican Vice-President. This new anti-slave majority planned to ban slavery from expanding in the territories, end it in the District of Columbia, police the waves for slave-trade, and relax fugitive slave laws. The common assumption was that slavery was expansionary because it needed to expand to stay in existence. A cordon of freedom would slowly strangle the peculiar institution, so it was not paranoid to think that this was the moment to secede before abolitionist could start squeezing slavery out of border states.

  40. Lenoxus says:

    @PD Shaw: That’s a good point. The cordon of freedom would ultimately have doomed slavery (probably). And it may well be that the main instigators of secession were rationally motivated by that likely future, rather than the more extreme fears of a unilateral ban.