Politics & Policy

A Lincolnian Christmas

1863, 2006.

A while back, I wrote a short column asserting that no matter whether you agree with President Bush or not, or admire him in other respects or not, it is incontestable that he is one of the bravest presidents ever to occupy the White House. All around him, pundits say that his presidency is “a failure,” that he is “the worst president ever,” and that his “war to emancipate the Middle East is a fiasco” or a “total disaster.” I have seen some write, or say on television, that Bush is too much of a simpleton and country boy even to understand how bad things have gotten in Iraq; that he is lost in a fog of religious unreality; and that his visible good humor and love of little jokes are further signs of how essentially unserious he is.

Another way to look at the same evidence, of course, is to note that the president consciously and willfully gambled his entire presidency on the war in Iraq, and on the very daring (foolhardy?) strategy of getting democratic currents started in the Middle East. To the point of boredom, and despite relentless criticism, he has been unswerving. It is not reasonable to believe that he is insensitive to the insults constantly hurled at him, nor oblivious to the course his “betters” insist that he should take.

So let us for a moment suspend judgment on whether Bush is truly brave, visionary, and far ahead of his time. Those encomiums are what we usually heap on Abraham Lincoln. . . . but only after the fact of victory in 1865. Such praise was not sent Lincoln’s way during the long, dark year from autumn 1863 until September 1864. Quite the opposite.

Many in that dark time wrote, spoke, and thought of Lincoln in much the same way people nowadays speak of George W. Bush.

“Well!” I can hear you remonstrate haughtily, “Bush deserves it. Lincoln did not.”

That is easy to say now; it was not so easy late in 1863, and under the gathering clouds of 1864, when it seemed certain that a bumbling Lincoln could not possibly win a second term, and that all he had fought for would come to naught.

Thus, even if we suspend judgment on Bush’s bravery this year, his predicament this December should remind us of Lincoln’s at Christmas in 1863. Looking ahead to an election year in 1864, Lincoln early shared the cold fear that he could not possibly win. The great Union victory at Gettysburg in July had petered out in the failure of General Meade to pursue Lee’s battered and discouraged forces retreating in some disorder southward.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was received by many as a sign of Puritan moral arrogance and clumsy overreach — bound to make the South fight harder, while not really inspiring the Union forces. On all sides, journalists regarded Lincoln as a failure, a country bumpkin, an unsophisticated jokester, a homespun weaver of fantasies, outside his depth. What had his experience been, after all? A four-term member of the Illinois Assembly, then a one-term congressman from Illinois, a man of no education, save what little he gleaned by firelight sitting on a log (all this said in derision). The handsome, blue-eyed General McClellan with his reddish-brown hair, a rousing favorite to his troops, seemed to Lincoln ready to vault into the race from the outside, to steal away the spot of front-runner, and to stampede Lincoln ingloriously out of town. Not often in human history had any army taken as many dead and wounded, suffered so many bitter defeats, failed so notably to capitalize on the few victories its hapless generals had managed to win. During some 48 months of war, both sides together lost 620,000 dead — some 13,000 every month. To grasp the scale, compare that to an average of about 85 dead per month in Iraq.

Lincoln’s native pessimism was weighted down even lower by new evidence of political rebellion in state after state (even Indiana), disappointments on battlefield after battlefield — First and Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, the Peninsula Campaign — and the immense stream of blood from the wounded and the dead, at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and countless battles and skirmishes in between.

No end to the bloodshed flickered in sight. There seemed to be no plan for winning the war, and no general capable even of conceiving how to lead an army to victory. Many Union generals lived in fear of losing a face-to-face battle, and again and again employed tactics that guaranteed humiliating losses, wasting the lives of innumerable brave men. Lincoln’s War Cabinet mocked him, his generals sometimes disobeyed him, but more often failed to share his serious purpose and determination to win.

Many great newspapers mocked Lincoln, and hoped soon to be rid of him. Even publishers who supported the Union had come to believe that Lincoln was a simpleton who could not win the war. Key political leaders were talking withdrawal from the fight, and urging negotiations with the South, in the hope that the unrealistic dream of Union might be traded away for peace. Compared to Lincoln, they thought themselves realists.

Meanwhile, at Christmas 1863, and in the months thereafter, Lincoln was silently deciding — there was almost no one he could talk to about such things — to take more and more direct control of his army. He began to fire failing generals, and to cast around for real fighters. He prayed for even one or two generals who shared his fire, and his determination to secure nothing less than victory. Lincoln wanted the total surrender of the South, the abolition of slavery, but most of all the preservation of the Union. His dream was shared by few and derided by very many, dismissed as outside reasonable possibility. God, it is said, takes care of children, drunkards, and the United States of America. And there were, in fact, a couple of Union Generals quite capable of getting themselves so drunk they could go two or three days unable to function. Grant was one. General William T. Sherman, although not a heavy drinker, had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1861. And somehow in the late summer of 1864, somehow pulling himself together, and racing his army through the South to Atlanta, cutting Lee’s army off from its “breadbasket,” and dramatically exposing Lee’s Southern flank, General Sherman brought total victory in sight. That suddenly, that quickly. In a way almost totally unpredicted.

Lincoln faced a dark nine months from Christmas 1863, until the next September. Was it not thus, also, for George Washington from Christmas 1776 and through much of 1777? Was it not thus during Christmas of 1941 just after Pearl Harbor, and even during the awful Battle of the Bulge just before Christmas of 1944? My father’s best friend Mickie Yuhas took a bullet in the head at that battle, and I remember how sorrowful it was in our household that bitter, cold Christmas day.

Lincoln is regularly, these days, rated as the greatest of all U.S. presidents. Historians may well know how swiftly everything turned around for Lincoln, how narrow the thread by which he hung on, how improbable the final victory. But most Americans, less detailed in their knowledge of history, have merely taken Lincoln’s late-arriving reputation for granted. At the same time, historians have often forgotten how suddenly reputations change, as when they early and wrongly predicted much lower reputations for Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan than later evaluations warranted.

Wars are often darkest just before the light. In our day, we must pray for military leadership committed to making Baghdad secure, and Iran and Syria quite afraid. Even conceived of in these limited terms, we need top generals committed, as in 1864, to victory. Many Americans will not believe it can be done. That’s the way it was in 1777, when historians estimate that as many as two-thirds of all Americans in New York and New Jersey had come to support the British. During the meandering carnage of 1863 and 1864, many Americans also gave up hope. Americans ought never to forget Abraham Lincoln’s dark year, just before the sun of victory surprisingly broke through. Contemplating the sacrifices that so many hundreds of thousands had made to keep the Union whole, Lincoln did not believe that the God who gave us liberty when he gave us life, could in the end disregard the sacrifices of so many. That is how Lincoln held on in 1864. As did Washington (and even Tom Paine) before him in the darkest days of winter 1777. Those prayers of Washington and Lincoln would not be bad for Christmas 2006, either.


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