Lincoln, the greatest American of all?

Lincoln, the greatest American of all?

by Christopher Anderson
article from Thursday 14, March, 2013

CONGRATULATIONS to Daniel Day Lewis on winning, for a record breaking third time, the Oscar for best actor in the title role of the film "Lincoln". As yet, I haven't seen this film and in any case I have no intention of pre-empting any possible review by the talented Emma Lockett (film reviewer for ThinkScotland). Whether or not this is her type of film is open to doubt, however, starring as it does, the wrong Daniel for her (take a bow now Daniel Craig, lovely boy).

Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States of America, a Republican, is best remembered for the abolition of slavery under his presidency. Although his honourable place in world history is assured in this context, it is more interesting to note that stopping this abhorrent practise was not Lincoln's prime objective. First and foremost it was the permanent unification of the States. The southern slave-owning states, who for obvious reasons hated Lincoln with a vengeance, had seceded from the union on his election. Lincoln in his campaign had made no secret of his intention to free the black slaves of the South.

The American Civil War 1861-1865, or as they prefer to call it now, in slightly more euphemistic terms, "The War Between the States" was between the "Union", President Lincoln's embryonic United Staes in the North and the ten slave owning rebel or "Confederate" states of the South, led by their President Jefferson Davis. The respective capital cities at that time were Washington in the North and Richmond, Virginia, in the South.

It can be argued that the American Civil War was one of the most important in world history, the eventual outcome laying the foundation of a united country, which would become what we know today as the most powerful and influential nation in the world. This was Lincoln's vision and objective, rather than at best a country in the North, with a farming and industrial economy and a hostile neighbour in the South, with an economy based on plantation slave labour. At worst, he feared disputes among the various relatively newly formed States, resulting in even more fragmentation of the land.

Lincoln saw as his way ahead, to first strengthen and consolidate the existing Union and then to do everything to encourage the Southern States to join. Being a pragmatist, as all politicians perforce have to be, he was quite prepared to do deals that would allow the Southern States to keep their slaves for a limited time after joining.

Politics being the dog-fight that it is, Lincoln did not have things all his own way in Washington regarding the planned emancipation of the black slaves in the South. There was a time when he felt his own position precarious in the initial stages of the war. There was even the crazy suggestion in Washington, put forward by his opponents, that if the black slaves were to be freed, they should then be rounded up and sent back to Africa! It is important to emphasise, however, that Abraham Lincoln was a consistent and very outspoken opponent of slavery in any form.

American historians tend to draw a veil over the harsh and harrowing details of th American Civil War, but there is no doubt that it was the bloodiest and most cruel of conflicts, the first example of what we now describe as total war. There was much brutality and many atrocities committed by both sides. Over 620,000 soldiers died and in one battle alone, Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharspburg), four times as many Americans were killed as lost their lives in the D-Day landings in 1944. These figures take no account of civilian casualties, of which there were many. In spite of what Hollywood would have us believe, old fashioned chivalry died back then too.

In many ways, the outcome of the Civil War was inevitable. The Confederate army, led by the charismatic General Robert E. Lee, fought bravely and well, but was no match for the much better trained and equipped Union army of General Ulysses Grant. After the fall of his capital, Richmond, Lee capitulated to save any more needless bloodshed. In typical style and panache, Robert E. Lee bathed and donned an immaculate clean uniform before grandly and with great dignity tendering his sword to Grant, as the traditional token of surrender. Grant, tired, sweaty, dirty and battle-worn was less than impressed!

In the first week of the D-Day landings in 1944, it took the combined efforts of the Supreme Allied Commander Dwight d. Eisenhower, and King George VI to stop Winston Churchill following the troops into danger in France. When he heard that Richmond had fallen, Lincoln of similar mind to Churchill, against all advice and with complete disregard for his own safety, took himself off there post haste. He arrived in the immediate aftermath of battle and survived open hostility and abuse of the whites which luckily did not escalate into actual physical violence. A short time previously Lincoln had issued his famous "Declaration of Emancipation" and he was overwhelmed by the reception he received from the freed black slaves in Richmond. They literally threw themselves at his feet in gratitude and treated him, to his great embarrassment, as nothing short of a latter day Messiah. It was about time that Lincoln stopped referring to his country as "The Union" and started calling it again as we do today, The United States of America.

One of Abraham Lincoln's few relaxations was the theatre, which he loved and attended regularly. Despite the anxious pleas of his political colleagues and his friends, he stubbornly refused to accept anything other than minimal protection during these outings. One evening his wife urged him to take her to see one of her favourite actresses in a comedy play. Because the play had had poor reviews, Lincoln was not keen to attend, but agreed to escort his wife. General Grant's wife was hoping to go too, but Grant hated the theatre and lacking his President's gallantry, he decided to stay at home.

This of course was the fatal night of Lincoln's assassination.

The killer was a failed actor, John Wilkes Booth, a fervent supporter of the Confederacy. He was known as something of a buffoon and had a family history of mental illness. Booth was armed with a dagger and a tiny Derringer one-shot pistol, a weapon much favoured by riverboat gamblers and ladies of ill repute. Having spied on the Presidential party through a peep hole he had bored through the wall, Booth amazingly was able simply to slip into the Presidential box behind them. He then shot the President at point blank range, the bullet entering the head, passing through his brain and lodging in his scull, behind the right eye. The President lingered for a few hours but died the following morning. He was only fifty-six years of age.

Today, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the craggy features of Abraham Lincoln form part of the gigantic and awesome "Presidential quartet" sculpture on the face of Mount Rushmore. In Washington D.C. a huge, larger than life memorial statue portrays a tall, bearded rather gaunt figure of a man who is striking in appearance, but less than handsome, sitting as though deep in thought, in his armchair. These are the most famous images of Abraham "Abe" Lincoln, the man who truly made the words "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave" mean something special.

He was arguably the greatest American of them all.

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