One of the reasons for the enduring popularity of American Civil War History is the cast of characters that were involved. While the generals get much of the ink, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis are also notable for their key roles. Lincoln inherited the presidency in March of 1861, just a month before the nation was plunged into the Civil War. In his inaugural address the new president extended an olive branch to the Southern States, hoping to diffuse some their hostility. The South’s concern was that Lincoln was going to interfere with the institution of slavery. He said, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” These words from the president did little to calm the South and, in just a little over a month, the first shots would be fired in South Carolina.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated a month before President Lincoln. As a politician, Davis was much more experienced than Lincoln. Davis had been a Congressman, a United States Senator and the Secretary of War. Jefferson realized his task was daunting. He was the president over a brand new nation. This new nation lacked many of the resources the Union had and Davis knew that the Union would not likely let the Southern states just leave the Union. He said, “As a consequence of our new constitution, and with a view to meet our anticipated wants, it will be necessary to provide a speedy and efficient organization of the several branches of the executive departments having special charge of our foreign intercourse, financial and military affairs, and postal service. For purposes of defense, the Confederate States may, under ordinary circumstances rely mainly upon their militia; but it is deemed advisable, in the present condition of affairs, that there should be a well instructed, disciplined army, more numerous than would be usually required for a peace establishment.” As the president of a new nation, Davis was going to have to oversee the creation of its institutions during a time of war.
Neither Lincoln, nor Davis, was prepared for the conflict that they were about to endure. They would both be tried to the core of their beings. This war would turn out to be longer, bloodier and costlier than either man could imagine. For Lincoln, the Civil War would forge his character and his legacy as one of the United States’ greatest presidents. He preserved the Union at a tremendous cost and lost his own life in the process. Jefferson Davis was arrested after the war and charged with treason. He was held in custody for two years and finally released on bond. The charges against him were nolle prosequi in 1869 so Davis never stood trial, even though he had demanded one. Jefferson Davis passed away in 1889.
The two most notable generals of the war were the Confederate’s Robert E. Lee and the Union’s U.S. Grant. General Lee had had a long and distinguished military career. At the outbreak of the hostilities, Lee, a lieutenant colonel at the time, was offered command of the Union forces. Lee turned the offer down, refusing to raise his hand against his home state of Virginia and threw his lot in with the Confederates. Lee eventually commanded all the Southern armies.
Lee is often regarded as one of the greatest military minds that America has ever produced. He was able to keep the Union forces at bay and force them into a protracted and costly contest. The Southern government believed that if they could keep the war going that the North would eventually tire of it and recognize the Confederacy. This was a reasonable strategy that almost worked. There were many in the Lincoln administration that proposed this very thing. General Lee was able to win enough battles with his undersized army that many Northerners were crying out for peace.
In early 1864, however, General Ulysses Grant was elevated to the top general spot for the Union armies. Grant was determined, deliberate, and dogged in his pursuit of General Lee. Lee and his army fought well against Grant, at least initially. Lee was the master at maneuvering his army around the battlefield. Unlike his predecessors, however, Grant refused to retreat and refused to give up. While Grant’s army sustained many casualties, so did Lee’s. Lee’s casualties, though, could not be replaced because of the South’s limited resources.
Grant understood that his superior numbers would eventually prevail. They did and General Lee was forced to surrender his forces in April of 1865. Within just a few weeks, the war would be over. Presidents Lincoln and Davis were both patriotic and dedicated to their cause. Generals Lee and Grant were both brilliant military leaders. These four men are just four of key figures of the American Civil War.
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