Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Abraham Lincoln: Man In The Middle

This past Monday, Americans celebrated Presidents Day. It’s a day set aside for combined tribute to our first president, George Washington, and our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln. It's been 150 years since Lincoln took office, right after seven states had left the Union, but mention Lincoln today, and emotions still roil.

At a Civil War battle reenactment not long ago in Tunnel Hill, Ga., I interviewed two re-enactors from Tennessee. In the course of our conversation, I asked them what they thought of President Abraham Lincoln. Here’s what one re-enactor, who that day wore a Union uniform but usually reenacted as a Confederate soldier, said.

From the book-in-progress, Dear Father I’m Sorry To Tell You:

“He killed over a half million Americans and he’s a hero?” he sputtered, referring to the Civil War death toll of about 620,000. “He gets a statue! If I had my way they’d put him on trial and hang him. Southern states had the right to secede and they wanted to do that peacefully. But Lincoln decided that could not be and invaded the South.”

Picture of President Lincoln in the
Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia
of my childhood home.
My mind flashed to the time I looked up Abraham Lincoln in the “KL” volume of the Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia in my childhood library. A sepia picture of a bearded Lincoln stared at me with sadly human eyes. Across Abe’s forehead, in the measured script of my older sister, was penciled: “You make me sick !!!” She also had drawn horns on his head and a mustache on his upper lip. (Encyclopedia, 1956 edition, page pictured at right.)

My three siblings and I grew up around North Carolina battlefields and in the path of Sherman's March. Old emotions and long-held loyalties shaped our young views of the Confederacy, Yankees and Lincoln. We were Southerners, stubbornly separated from a more perfect union and proud of it. Now, as adults, we see things more like what's written in our history books - although young students now seem to know but the barest storyline of our nation.

History generally has heaped praise on the lawyer son of a Kentucky frontiersman. Here’s what Wikipedia currently has to say:

Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865) served as the 16th President of the United States from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led the country through its greatest constitutional, military and moral crisis—the American Civil War--by preserving the Union by force while ending slavery and promoting economic modernization.

Historians credit Lincoln with ending slavery in America because he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. This astute – and heartfelt I am convinced - political move galvanized the Union’s will to fight as the Civil War dragged on. (For more go to http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/.)

In 1861, seceding states feared and derided the new president from Illinois. Some Southern leaders saw him as a threat to the Southern way of life, to states' rights – and to the institution bound up in these reasons: slavery.

For proof, at least in the cradle of rebellion, read the Declaration of Causes included in the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession at http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/secession_causes.htm.

See PHOTO page for more on President Lincoln.