Overlooked stories of the Civil War

A panel of civil War experts were asked “What is the greatest overlooked story of the Civil War for the period between fall of 1864 and spring of 1865?”


John Stauffer

Author and professor of English and the history of American civilization at Harvard University.

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Inauguration Day, March 4, 1865, was bleak and rainy in Washington, but the mood was celebratory: for the war seemed almost over, as Lincoln noted in his majestic address.

But what has been forgotten is the presence and influence of blacks. Half or more of the 30,000 people attending the inauguration were African American. An additional 170,000 were armed and in uniform, spread out across the South.

Frederick Douglass stood in front of Lincoln as Alexander Gardner’s famous photograph of the ceremony reveals. He was introduced to Andrew Johnson, whose expression on seeing Douglass turned to “one of bitter contempt and aversion.” Douglass turned to a friend and said: “Whatever else Andrew Johnson may be, he certainly is no friend of our race.”

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The ceremony was “wonderfully quiet, earnest, and solemn,” Douglass noted. There was a “leaden stillness about the crowd” as Lincoln delivered his address. Douglass thought it sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.

After the ceremony Douglass went to the reception at the White House. He had met Lincoln on two previous occasions and they considered each other friends.

As he was about to enter, two policemen rudely yanked him away and told him that no persons of color were allowed to enter. Douglass said there must be some mistake, for no such order could have come from the president. The police refused to yield, until Douglass sent word to Lincoln that he was being detained at the door. Douglass found him in the elegant East Room, standing “like a mountain pine in his grand simplicity and homely beauty.”

“Here comes my friend,” Lincoln said, and took Douglass by the hand. “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my Inaugural Address.” He asked Douglass how he liked it, adding, “there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”

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“Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort,” Douglass recalled.

Elizabeth Peabody of Boston heard their conversation, and shared it with her friend Sarah Pugh, whose diary entry resembles Douglass’ recollection.

It is an extraordinary statement — Lincoln saying that he valued a black man’s opinion more than any white’s. But it was not the first time he acknowledged the importance of blacks.

Seven months earlier, he had summarized the potent force of black troops: “Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”

As Lincoln and most other Northerners at the time recognized, the presence of blacks at the inauguration reflected their crucial role in winning the war and ending slavery. War had given way to a social revolution that we are still reckoning with.

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Waite Rawls

Co-chief executive, the American Civil War Museum.


The first year of the Civil War may have been marked by “glory,” as bands, review parades and waving flags demonstrated the patriotic spirit of volunteers who flooded both Confederate and Union army camps. But the last six months saw the war turn to “gory” as men, especially Confederates, toiled in mud, disease and starvation.

The battlefields were nothing compared to the prisoner of war camps, both North and South. During the course of the war, 400,000 men were taken prisoner. By its end, 56,000 of them had died in the prisoner of war camps. As a percentage of the population, that would be the equivalent of 600,000 Americans today.

Many people may have heard of Andersonville, the Georgia camp where thousands of Union soldiers died. But very few know of Camp Douglas, a prisoner of war camp in Chicago where 4,500 Confederate soldiers died, 17 percent of all those who entered the gates. That is almost 2 percent of all Confederate deaths in the entire war and more than the death toll at Antietam.

During most of the war’s first two years, prisoners were exchanged. But those exchanges essentially ended in 1863. The number of men in prison camps rose precipitously in 1864, and the death toll mounted to a level that was simply intolerable in both the North and South. Exchanges began anew in 1865, but thousands of the men who were returned were so weakened by their experience that they died within weeks of release. Thousands more were too weak to even attempt the trip. At Camp Douglas almost 900 Confederate soldiers died in 1865 after the exchanges resumed.

I lived in Chicago for 15 years and was surprised that almost no one knows of this record, as they all assume that the Civil War happened hundreds of miles away. And even fewer know, as they walk their dogs or play softball in Lincoln Park, that hundreds of Confederate soldiers lie beneath their feet, in a swamp that served as a paupers’ cemetery until it was covered over with the detritus from the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

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Brag Bowling

Director, Stephen D. Lee Institute, an educational group established by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.


Memorandum Aug. 23, 1864, from Abraham Lincoln to his Cabinet in a sealed envelope to be opened only after the November election:

“This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; so he will have secured his election on such grounds that he cannot save it afterwards.”

Lincoln was simply reading the tea leaves. Four years of horrific fighting with massive casualties, high living costs, opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation, continuation of the draft and opposition to his political and unconstitutional policies (such as the denial of the writ of habeas corpus, mass arrests and closure of opposition newspapers) had left his popularity at low ebb. Tactical losses from the Wilderness to Petersburg produced 65,000 casualties. The unpopular war seemed no closer to ending than in 1861.

George McClellan was considered a formidable challenger whose party’s platform included ending the war and Confederate independence, although McClellan rejected that part in his letter accepting the nomination.

The mid-term 1862 elections proved disastrous to the Republican Party with congressional losses in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana and Lincoln’s home state of Illinois.

Lincoln had significant opposition in the Republican Party. The Radical Republicans doubted Lincoln’s fervor to end slavery and thought his Reconstruction plan was not punitive enough to the South.

Prospects brightened greatly with victories in Mobile Bay, the Shenandoah Valley and Atlanta on Sept. 6, 1864. Still, a November victory was uncertain. What could he do to guarantee a victory?

The answer lay in the novel use of absentee ballots. Letting American troops vote absentee while in the field had not been done before. Lincoln banked on the hope that the soldiers would support him and continue with the war to validate their sacrifices. Many thought this could lead to corruption. Blank absentee ballots showed up throughout the army. Whole regiments were given furloughs to return home and vote. Lincoln took it a step further. In many polling precincts, armed Union troops intimidated voters. His electoral victory in New York has been credited to the menacing presence of soldiers. Accusations of voter fraud were made in nearly every state. Lincoln was re-elected on Nov. 8, 1864. As he hoped, the army ballots proved decisive. The horrific war and subsequent Reconstruction would proceed as Lincoln planned.

Congratulatory letters poured in. Two of note came from European supporter Karl Marx writing on behalf of the International Working Men’s Association.

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William Blair

Director of the George and Ann Richards Center at Pennsylvania State University and author of “With Malice Toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era.”


In early 1865, Republicans followed their victory in the presidential election with a piece of legislation that rubbed salt in the wounds of their Democratic opponents.

The bill, adopted March 3, denied citizenship to soldiers who had deserted. Men had 60 days from the issuing of a presidential proclamation to return to the ranks or face the loss of their rights as citizens. Lincoln subsequently issued the proclamation. Undoubtedly, he intended the bill to encourage men to rejoin the army, increasing the odds of ending the war. But it had very little impact in restoring deserters to the ranks.

After the war, though, the law became a means of preventing Democrats from voting.

The deserter legislation empowered election commissioners to disenfranchise on the spot at polling precincts anyone they considered to be a wartime deserter. The federal government provided rosters to local officials upon request. The law rested on a shaky legal foundation: It didn’t allow for due process and it violated the Constitution’s provision against enacting ex post facto laws, or laws that criminalized behavior after the fact. Pennsylvania was a leader in using this law, with a handful of other states following suit. The practice lasted until court challenges ended it in the Keystone State in 1868.

But the battles over white suffrage should remind us of the hard tactics employed in the policing of disloyalty in a civil war as well as the very different political culture that existed. Elections were easier to influence because there was no secret ballot; often, voters cast their ballots into boxes labeled with the name of the party they were voting for. It wasn’t until after the war that the country moved toward voter registration laws and, finally, a secret ballot — an innovation adopted from Australia.

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Harold Holzer

Author, his new book is “Lincoln and the Power of the Press” from Simon & Schuster.


Abraham Lincoln thought he knew two things for certain in August 1864: that he would not win a second term as president (his own re-election chairman, New York Times publisher Henry J. Raymond, told him so); and that his Democratic successor, George B. McClellan, would certainly rescind the Emancipation Proclamation when he took office.

The president faced a difficult decision: postpone the proclamation to jumpstart peace negotiations or fight harder for freedom than for his own political survival.

Lincoln gave an idea of his priorities when he summoned African American leader Frederick Douglass to the White House. Earlier, Lincoln had urged Douglass to lead the call for black recruitment, even promising him an officer’s commission. Douglass rallied his community into the armed forces, but Lincoln never gave him the commission. Douglass subsequently castigated Lincoln for paying “colored” troops less than white soldiers.

Now, believing voters were about to retire him, the president wanted one final favor from a man who had good reason to doubt his sincerity. Lincoln made his case with convincing sincerity. McClellan was sure to win in November. That would leave four months to spread the word of emancipation to as many enslaved people as possible before his inauguration. (Surely not even McClellan could reverse freedom for those already made “forever free” by the proclamation between 1863 and 1865).

Douglass responded just as Lincoln hoped: with a detailed plan to recruit a corps of African Americans to head south and speed freedom for as many people as possible before McClellan took office.

“The negro is the stomach of the rebellion,” Douglass wrote Lincoln on Aug. 29. “I will therefore . . . submit at once to your Excellency the ways and means by which many such persons may be wrested from the enemy and brought within our lines.” Adept as ever at managing the press, Lincoln kept his plan secret from all — except, of course, ex-newspaperman Douglass.

The plan was never put into effect. Sherman took Atlanta on Sept. 1, the electoral momentum was upended, and Lincoln went on to win a second term.

Douglass, however, believed the mere invitation to write it offered “evidence conclusive on Mr. Lincoln’s part that the proclamation, as far at least as he was concerned, was not effected merely as a ‘necessity,’ ” but out of a sincere desire to end human bondage.

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Mike Musick

Retired subject-area expert for the U.S. Civil War at the National Archives.


“This country,” announced the self-proclaimed patriot, “was formed for the white not for the black man.” In six closely spaced pages, of which this was a part, the author spelled out his motives. On or around Feb. 10, 1865, in Philadelphia, he gave this and a letter for his mother to his sister, telling her to “Lock this up for me. . . . If anything should happen to me, open the packet alone and send the letters as directed.” Though they were composed some time in the fall of 1864, at some later date the writer appended his name to them: “J. Wilkes Booth.”

History has not entirely overlooked these documents, but the primary one, which gives Booth’s thoughts at length, has not received the attention it deserves. It was apparently penned while Booth was promoting a scheme to abduct Abraham Lincoln, take him to Richmond and exchange him for Confederate POWs, and before he decided on assassination instead. It was printed in newspapers soon after the president’s murder, but the original dropped from sight until rediscovered by researcher James O. Hall in 1977 among Justice Department records in the National Archives.

It was written hurriedly, and betrays the kind of disjointed stream of consciousness one might expect from a zealot aflame with the justice of the desperate act he was about to undertake.

In sum, Booth claimed that Lincoln’s election decreed “war upon Southern rights and institutions.” The South was not fighting to continue slavery, he wrote, but even if it had been, the events of the war “have made the wrong become right.” “Heaven knows, no one would be willing to do more for the negro race than I.” He recalled his presence at John Brown’s execution in 1859 and asserted that even the abolitionist would have rejected the kind of war waged by the North. Secession was legal, and though “the South have never bestowed upon me one kind word . . . I go penniless to her side.”

Before his signature, the writer designated himself “A Confederate at present doing duty upon his own responsibility,” then crossed out “at present.”

Americans and others can benefit from reflecting on the justification given before his deed by the man who fired a Derringer bullet into the head of the chief executive. No less can they benefit from the contrast in tone between Booth’s histrionic plaint and that of the words spoken not long before the fateful night at Ford’s by his target, calling for “malice toward none . . . charity for all . . . [and] a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Posterity has rendered a resounding verdict on whose form of patriotism it prefers.

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Frank J. Williams

President of the Ulysses S. Grant Association and founding Chair of the Lincoln Forum.


One final effort to end the Civil War was made by Democrat Francis Preston Blair with Lincoln’s approval in late December 1864. Blair traveled to Richmond to visit his political colleague, Jefferson Davis.

Davis gave Blair a letter for Lincoln offering to appoint commissioners to “enter into conference with a view to secure peace to the two countries.” Lincoln had Blair return to Richmond offering to receive any commissioner that Davis “may informally send to me with the view of securing peace to the people of our one common country.” Overlooking the discrepancy between “two countries” and “one common country,” Davis appointed a commission comprised of Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, president pro tem of the Senate Robert M.T. Hunter and Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell.

The agents were told by Major T.T. Eckert — the president’s representative — they could not proceed unless they agreed to Lincoln’s “one common country” as a basis for talks. The conference seemed aborted until Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who usually refrained from politics and had been directed by President Lincoln to stay away from policy other than military matters, intervened.

Grant demonstrated shrewd political acumen — for which he has not been credited. He telegraphed the President on Feb. 2, “I am convinced, upon conversation with Messrs. [Stephens] & Hunter that their intentions are good and their desire sincere to restore peace and reunion. . . . I am sorry, however, that Mr. Lincoln cannot have an interview with [them]. . . . I fear now their going back without any expression from any one in authority will have a bad influence.”

This is all Lincoln needed to hear. On reading Grant’s wire, he went to Virginia to join Secretary of State William Seward for a meeting with the commissioners. This extraordinary “informal” four-hour meeting of the five men took place Feb. 3, 1865, aboard the steamer River Queen at Hampton Roads.

Lincoln would not accede to an armistice while peace negotiations took place or allow official negotiations while the war continued. He did promise a pardon for Confederate leaders and went so far as to suggest that if the Confederate states abolished slavery, he would seek compensation.

Davis described Lincoln’s terms as “degrading submission” and “humiliating surrender” to rally Southerners. While the Hampton Roads conference failed to bring about an earlier peace, it could not have occurred without the deftness of U.S. Grant.

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John F. Marszalek

The Giles distinguished professor emeritus of history at Mississippi State University


If there was a figure whom Abraham Lincoln feared during the Civil War, it was the chief justice of the United States, Roger Brooke Taney. Famous for his decision in the 1857 Dred Scott case, which Lincoln and many other Americans abhorred, Taney battled the administration during the Civil War on matters such as the arrest of dissidents, the blockade and the writ of habeas corpus. The president feared Taney might destroy his constitutional argument for the Emancipation Proclamation. The chief justice represented opposition to the Union, and Lincoln worried.

Taney was not a healthy man during the Civil War, and his psyche was ravaged by thoughts of the recent deaths of his beloved wife and daughter. He considered constitutional rights to be more important than the Union, yet he did not want to see the Union lost. As one author put it, “Taney hovered around Washington like an unrespected ghost.” And Lincoln worried.

Taney died Oct. 12, 1864. The Emancipation Proclamation had been promulgated, and the Thirteenth Amendment was on its way. The Dred Scott decision constituted an even greater mark against the dead chief justice than it had before. One Republican paper spoke of his “perdurable ignominy.” When legislation was introduced in Congress to place his bust next to that of earlier chief justices, Sen. Charles Sumner protested, insisting that “the name of Taney is to be hooted down the page of history.” Sen. Ben Wade agreed and said he would rather appropriate money to hang Taney in effigy than spend any money to enshrine him.

Attending Taney’s funeral was a matter of debate in Lincoln’s Cabinet. Lincoln, Seward and William Dennison finally decided to attend the brief Washington ceremony, while only Edward Bates went to the interment in Maryland. Gideon Welles, William Pitt Fessenden, Edwin Stanton and John Palmer Usher attended neither. In “The Unjust Judge,” a 66-page pamphlet, an anonymous writer, perhaps Sumner, held nothing back in criticizing Taney. “Next to Pontius Pilate, perhaps [he was] the worst that ever occupied the seat of judgment among men.”

Taney was viewed as a threat to the Union and someone to be despised. His death sealed his negative reputation among Americans. Lincoln lost a menace to his administration, and he eliminated a threat to his re-election by appointing a major political opponent to take Taney’s place on the bench. Lincoln still worried about the future of the Union, but he did not worry so much as he had before.