Abraham Lincoln, remembered 150 years after a “decisive” battle of the U.S. Civil War, could have excelled in modern-day Washington politics, one of the pre-eminent scholars on the American president says.
“He would be tech savvy, he would lose the beard, he would have some cosmetic surgery, he would make an asset of his height,” historian Harold Holzer said in an interview for Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” airing this weekend. “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.”
As one measure of Lincoln’s political prowess, Holzer recited an often-told tale of Lincoln thinking twice before dispatching a letter upbraiding his general who defeated the enemy at the Battle of Gettysburg, a turning point for the Northern victory in the Civil War. It was a precursor to the dilemma of hitting the send button on a regrettable e-mail.
Lincoln was disappointed that his Union Army’s Major General George Gordon Meade hadn’t conquered General Robert E. Lee and his Southern forces following a three-day battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He wrote “a stinging letter to Meade saying, ‘I don’t think you appreciate my disappointment,’” Holzer explained. “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.”
“This is sort of an interesting lesson in executive management,” Holzer said in this interview conducted at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
The confrontation of Union and Southern armies on July 1-3, 1863, claimed more than 7,000 lives, left more than 33,000 wounded and almost 11,000 missing or captured.
It was one of the final pivotal points of a war in which Lincoln’s army defeated the Confederacy, which had seceded from the union, and preserved the U.S. as one nation. The battle was waged near the July 4 anniversary of the birth of the U.S.
Lincoln “was cognizant throughout Gettysburg that this was the decisive moment of the war,” Holzer said. “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.”
For Lincoln, it also was a necessary political moment.
His re-election “was a year away, but Lincoln was already in trouble,” Holzer said.
“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” that Lincoln issued Jan. 1, 1863, prohibiting slavery in the states in rebellion, according to Holzer. “He was always in political jeopardy and this -– a successful invasion in the North -- would have crippled him politically.”
Four months after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln traveled there to dedicate a national soldiers’ cemetery and deliver what has become known as the Gettysburg Address.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure,” Lincoln said. “That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”
“It’s the most astonishing expression of faith in the human experiment and the democratic experiment that was ever rendered,” Holzer said. It was made “more astonishing” in that Lincoln was ill with smallpox and returned to Washington that day “so sick he had to lie down and apply a hot cloth to his head. He was a sick man when he spoke.”
“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,” he said. “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.”