Historian Harold Holzer said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend following the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, that President Abraham Lincoln thought twice before dispatching a letter upbraiding his general who defeated the enemy in a turning point for the Northern victory in the U.S. Civil War.
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)
AL HUNT: We’re joined now by America’s foremost Lincoln scholar and author of the recent “Civil War in 50 Objects,” Harold Holzer. Thank you so much; it’s such an honor to have you here, Mr. Holzer.
HAROLD HOLZER: It’s great to be here, thank you.
HUNT: Thursday, we celebrated America’s 237th birthday, the day before, on July 3, we celebrated 150th anniversary of Gettysburg. I guess my question is, would our July 4th have occurred if Lee’s army had prevailed at Gettysburg?
HOLZER: Well, I think Lee had it in mind to impact the traditional 4th of July celebration by occupying not only Gettysburg, but I think his goal was actually Philadelphia. Had the battle been over in a couple of days, as he expected, his intention was to march on the place where American independence was born and probably to hoist the Confederate flag over Independence Hall. That would have been quite a different Fourth.
HUNT: Certainly a Confederate victory on Union soil would have jeopardized Lincoln’s re-election prospects, wouldn’t it have?
HOLZER: Yes. The election was a year away but Lincoln was already in trouble. The congressional elections the previous fall had gone very much against him, probably in large measure because of the executive order that resulted in the Emancipation Proclamation. People forget, not very popular among white northerners, much less southerners.
So, he was always in political jeopardy and this - a successful invasion in the north would have crippled him politically. And the relief he felt, it was enough for him to write a poem about how Robert E. Lee was on his way to sack Phil-del and instead caught particular hell. So he felt it.
HUNT: I would too. On July 1, as those two great armies met on the bucolic Pennsylvania countryside, was Lincoln cognizant of the huge stakes, that this really could be the turning point?
HOLZER: Yes. He was cognizant throughout Gettysburg that this was the decisive moment of the war. What he was disappointed about - disappointment he largely kept to himself - was that he thought it could have ended the war, not just have been the so-called Confederate high-water mark.
He was really disappointed in the end, although publicly celebratory, because General Meade did not follow up his advantage by pushing Lee’s army back toward the Potomac River, which happened to be swollen from flooding and was impassable by the time Lee’s army reached it to cross back into Virginia.
Meade was content to see such a drive the enemy from our soil and when Lincoln heard that, he exploded and he said, doesn’t he understand it’s all our soil? That’s the whole point of this war. And then he wrote - this is sort of an interesting lesson in executive management - he wrote a stinging letter to Meade saying, I don’t think you appreciate my disappointment. You had the enemy within the hollow of your hand and you let them go and it’s very distressing to me.
And then he put the letter down and waited a day and ultimately wrote on the bottom, never signed, never sent. He got his anger off, he let off his steam and then he thought better of humiliating the general who had, after all, turned back Robert E. Lee.
HUNT: You mentioned soil. You were in Gettysburg last week. That really is our sacred soil, isn’t it?
HOLZER: It is sacred. There is some astonishing sense of quiet and a haunted feeling one gets. And, you know, the National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation and all of the folks who see to the sanctity of that property have done an amazing job in recent years clearing away so much of the commercialism, so much of the modern intrusions. To walk there today is to really be back in time as much as is possible.
The topography is unique in the world; it’s got every element that you could ask for in a classic training ground and - which is why not only tourists go, but West Point classes go to learn, tragically, an art that we still have to learn, which is the art of war.
HUNT: Four months later after that great battle, of course, the dedication of the National Cemetery. I think most people think it was the most memorable speech in American history. I know you’ve gone back - you’ve gone to the place where Lincoln stayed, the bedroom where he stayed. What are your thoughts as you think of that?
HOLZER: I think it’s the most astonishing expression of faith in the human experiment and the democratic experiment that was ever rendered and just made more astonishing by the fact, A. that he wasn’t the principal orator that day - Lincoln, B. that he had smallpox starting to debilitate him by the time he stood up and spoke. We know that because when he returned to Washington an hour later, he was so sick he had to lie down and apply a hot cloth to his head. He was a sick man when he spoke.
And if there is any mythology about the fact that it wasn’t well-received, I would attribute it to the fact that he was not at his best form. But in terms of mastery of the English language and writing something memorable that would define the new birth of freedom and lay out the challenge of fulfilling the unfinished work, absolutely nobody’s said it better.
And the principal orator said, ‘I wish I could have come as close to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.’ So, I think widely appreciated at the time and as you say, no one said it better.
HUNT: Sometimes overlooked is the day after Gettysburg, Ulysses Grant and the Army of Tennessee took Vicksburg. You noted earlier that Lincoln was upset with Meade for not pursuing Lee. He, of course, became a - he named Grant the chief general. Was that the beginning of the ascension of Grant? Do you think Lincoln had an idea shortly after Gettysburg and Vicksburg that Grant was his man that he had been looking for?
HOLZER: Yes, absolutely. I think, you know, Grant was so successful at Vicksburg it did require patience because it was a siege, it just wasn’t a rush to capture that Citadel City as it was called. It was a tough place to take, it was so high in elevation.
Yes, Lincoln wrote him a famous letter saying, you were right and I was wrong. An amazing concession by a commander-in-chief to a subordinate. And he had his eye on Grant. He had had his eye on Grant since Shiloh the year before. This was a man who saw the whole battlefield, endured casualties but sort of saw the goal over the horizon of whatever complications and chaos was ensuing.
And because of the twin victories - and those of us who focus mostly on Gettysburg - sometimes forget the fact that there were two huge victories around Independence Day. Nothing could be more symbolic than for the Union to win in the east and win in the west.
And so Lincoln goes out to a window in the White House to speak to a crowd that’s gathered for a victory serenade and he - something occurs in his head and he says, how long ago was it, 80-odd years since a group of people got together and declared as a governing principal that all men are created equal? That was the first thought that struck him and that’s what he massaged and edited into ‘four score and seven years ago’ months later for the actual dedication. It immediately occurred to him at Gettysburg.
HUNT: Let me ask you a trite question that you’ve been asked innumerable times, I’m sure: could the great Lincoln make it today in America’s politics?
HOLZER: Yes, sure. He would be tech savvy, he would lose the beard, he would have some cosmetic surgery, he would make an asset of his height. He was so good with the media. It’s something I’m writing about now. He was so smart about working with the press, getting the press to work in his behalf, giving out exclusives and he would have mastered any medium. He was smart enough to do that.
If he could master journalism coming from a hardscrabble background where no one was literate, practically, except for him, I think he would have been fine.
HUNT: I can’t wait to read that book, I can’t wait to read anything you write. Thank you so much for being with us this special week.
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