How Close to Lincoln?


a film directed by Steven Spielberg
DreamWorks Pictures/Twentieth Century Fox
President Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis (third from right), meeting with his cabinet to discuss the planned attack on Fort Fisher, in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward is seated to the president’s left.

Abraham Lincoln’s reelection was in doubt through much of the summer and fall of 1864, but Union victories in Mobile Bay and Atlanta restored the popular faith in his leadership, and he won 55 percent of the vote. By December the end of the Civil War seemed close. As far back as late 1863, total abolition of slavery had been part of Lincoln’s understanding of how the war must end; and he had pressed already in June 1864 for the passage of a Thirteenth Amendment to ban slavery in the United States. He was turned back then by the vote in the House of Representatives, but now, with larger Republican numbers in Congress, he was sure of the two-thirds vote required for passage. In his December message to Congress, Lincoln spoke of the amendment as a matter of great urgency. “The next Congress,” he said, “will pass the measure if this does not,” and “may we not agree that the sooner the better?”

Meanwhile, the moderate wing of Lincoln’s party found a new opportunity to satisfy their wish for an early conciliatory end to the war. Francis Preston Blair (whose son Montgomery had been dropped from the cabinet as a concession to radicals) asked and received permission from Lincoln to visit the Confederate leadership and see whether the South might now offer soundings for peace. Three Southern peace commissioners, including the vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, were dispatched to Hampton Roads in Virginia, about two hundred miles from Washington, where eventually they would confer with Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, accompanied by the president himself.

Lincoln heard out their proposals but could not accept a major element of the Confederate position: that the North and South were to be treated as separate countries. He is unlikely to have expected a better result. Yet this abortive final quest for peace arrived unhappily in the midst of the campaign to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, and Lincoln’s allies in Congress asked him personally to contradict a rumor that rebel negotiators were in the city.

He responded with a deft evasion. Hampton Roads, after all, was not the same as the city of Washington. “So far as I know,” Lincoln wrote, “there are no peace commissioners in the city, or likely to be in it.” So the amendment passed, the Confederate commissioners returned to Richmond, and history was supplied with a fresh illustration that the reality of politics may call on a politician to keep three balls in the air: in this case the pressure to end the war on certain terms, the need to maintain radical…

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