For those of you who have been following my blog long enough, you’ll know that I’ve written two historical fiction books titled New Garden and Trouble at Mono Pass. For more information on my most recent book, read about it in this recent blog post. To get updates on me and my two books, please “Like” my author Facebook page: www.facebook.com/writer.jedward.gray.
All of us identify Abraham Lincoln with the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. In his PBS National Parks series, Ken Burns reminded us that Lincoln was even more than that – that in the midst of the brutal war, he signed the Yosemite Land Grant to protect the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias. That historic measure set aside land for public use and preservation and put the land under the soon-to-be questioned protection of California, not the federal government. It was a first step toward what would later become a system of national parks. (Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872. Yosemite became part of the national park system in 1890.)
But before Lincoln became a president worthy of Mount Rushmore, he had to make a living. And he made that living as a very successful lawyer – primarily a very successful railroad lawyer. Admitted to the Illinois state bar in 1836, Lincoln pretty much took whatever business he could get early in his career. That meant traveling town to town, often sharing rooms, and beds, with other struggling lawyers – that’s just the way it was.
By the early 1850’s, railroads were on the rise, offering an alternative to other forms of transportation such as riverboats and stagecoach lines. As a member of the Whig Party, Lincoln supported “internal improvements,” private transportation projects subsidized by state funds. The Whigs, and later the Republicans, saw such projects as benefiting the economy.
The railroads also provided another revenue stream for lawyers. In the 1850’s, Lincoln began handling a significant amount of railroad litigation, sometimes as a railroad company’s lawyer, sometimes representing the railroad company’s adversary. By 1860, he had established a solid reputation as an attorney with railroad litigation expertise. He counted as his most valuable client the Illinois Central, whose general superintendent was George McClellan, with whom he later locked horns when McClellan served as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
In one case, Lincoln earned $4,800 in legal fees from the Illinois Central. That amount is equivalent to almost $150,000 in 2015 currency. Lincoln represented the Illinois Central in more than fifty cases.
Because of his support for internal improvements and his representation of the railroads, it came as no surprise that Lincoln strongly supported plank 16 of the 1860 Republican Party platform:
That a railroad to the Pacific [O]cean is imperatively demanded by the interests of the whole country; that the Federal Government ought to render immediate and efficient aid in its construction ….
As President, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and its amendment in 1864. Although little progress on the country’s first transcontinental railroad would take place until the nasty business of civil war ended, Lincoln saw the railroad as critical to the country’s future. Railroading had become part of his DNA. While the war in one sense impeded the progress of the railroad, in another way it served to accelerate the project because Congress no longer included Southern politicians holding out for a southern route. Thus, war was a mixed blessing.
The Central Pacific’s construction of the western leg of the transcontinental railroad serves as the historical backdrop of my second novel, Trouble at Mono Pass. Search this blog for other articles about the Central Pacific’s interesting cast of characters.
- Abraham Lincoln Historical Society, “Abraham Lincoln, the Railroad Lawyer,” abraham-lincoln-history.org.
- Bain, David, Empire Express (Penguin Group 1999).
- Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum, org/Museum/Tunnels.html.
- Ely, James W., Jr., “Abraham Lincoln as a Railroad Attorney,” indianahistory.org.
- Shultz, Jay, Hurd v. Rock Island Railroad Company,” lib.niu.edu.
As I mentioned in my previous article, I serve as a docent at the Greensboro Historical Museum. The museum currently has among its exhibits one of the 48 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln in 1864. The copies were sold to raise money to care for wounded Union soldiers. The original proclamation, of course, was issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863.
I thought this would be a good time to correct some misunderstandings about the famous document and to discuss how Lincoln’s own thinking evolved about the subject of slavery. Every president takes an oath of office whereby he or she swears to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Thus, if Lincoln – a seasoned lawyer of at least regional if not national reputation – wished to extend freedom to those held in bondage, he was well aware that he had to do so consistent with the Constitution. (In 1863, the United States Constitution did not include the Thirteenth Amendment, which in 1865 abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.)
So, Lincoln relied on his Constitutional war powers as authority to declare free all persons held as slaves in states, or designated parts of states, “then in rebellion.” The proclamation did not release the bonds of slaves then living in Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and parts of Louisiana and Virginia (including the counties that had seceded from Virginia to form West Virginia, and other counties under Union control). Lincoln wished to retain his tenuous hold on the border states and was prepared to allow slavery to continue there to preserve as much of the Union as possible. Critics complained that the proclamation granted freedom to slaves where he lacked the military capacity to enforce it and kept them in bondage where he had the military might to guarantee their freedom.
Whatever Lincoln’s personal views about slavery, his first priority was to hold the Union together. Various anecdotes indicate that Lincoln’s views evolved during the course of the war. He campaigned on a Republican platform that slavery would not be allowed in any new states carved out of United States territories. Slavery would remain legal where it already existed. He likely hoped it would wither on the vine. But Southern politicians saw execution of such a platform as the first step in a major shift in the existing balance of power between the free states and the slave states. Thus, before Lincoln took the oath of office, seven states made the fateful decision to attempt to extricate themselves from their existing governmental relationship with their northern brethren, thereby accelerating the end of the peculiar institution they hoped to preserve.
The idea certainly began earlier, but in July 1862, Lincoln raised the prospect of an emancipation proclamation with his cabinet officers. At the time, Union armies were faring poorly in the field and some officers argued that under then-existing conditions, it would look like a last gasp effort by a government headed to defeat. Lincoln agreed that any such proclamation should await a significant Union victory.
That victory came on September 17, 1862, at Antietam. There, General McClellan’s forces won a bloody, hard-fought battle against General Lee. Although in what would become an all-too-common theme, McClellan failed to pursue and destroy Lee’s army after the victory, it was nonetheless a victory on whose peg Lincoln could hang the proclamation. He issued a preliminary proclamation on September 22. The proclamation allowed slavery in any rebel state that chose to return to the Union before January 1. All of the rebel states remained in rebellion.
In meetings with African-American leaders, Lincoln suggested that once freed, blacks should leave the United States because he could not see the white and black races living side by side in harmony. Black leaders rebuked such a suggestion, noting that generations of slaves had lived in the United States for over 200 years. They had earned the right to share the bounties of democracy on an equal footing with the white race. In time, he accepted the argument, but not without reservation. Generations of free blacks would find that freedom did not mean equality.
Back to the constitutional authority for the Emancipation Proclamation. Rebels depended upon slave labor to prop up the war effort. They built trenches and military fortifications. They sowed and harvested fruits and vegetables. They raised and slaughtered the livestock. They produced the cotton that provided the rebel government the financial means to prosecute the war. They were a significant component of the Confederate war effort. Depriving the South of that component, in turn, would greatly enhance the Union’s chances of suppressing the rebellion.
Lincoln certainly harbored doubts about his constitutional authority to suppress slavery once hostilities drew to a close. There would no longer be a war to justify freedom for the slaves. Thus, his campaign for the Thirteenth Amendment, to guarantee the end of slavery in the United States. But for the moment, and indeed for the generations that have followed, the Emancipation Proclamation served as a historically powerful first step – recognition by our nation’s chief executive that slavery is an evil incongruous with democracy.
I wrote this article based on dozens of books and articles on the subject. Three excellent sources are:
- Catton, Bruce. Terrible Swift Sword. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1961 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, New York, in 2009).
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
- Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York, New York: Random House, 1974.
I count among my many privileges the opportunity to serve as a docent at the Greensboro Historical Museum, located in Greensboro, North Carolina. It is a beautiful museum filled with wonderful artifacts and operated by a lean but talented and dedicated staff. My service includes occasionally serving at several stations for tours.
One of my stations is “Debating Liberty,” which contains several exhibits related to the causes of the Civil War. Several of the exhibits within the station tell the story of young Levi Coffin’s advocacy on behalf of a runaway slave, Ede.
Levi Coffin, the reputed president of the Underground Railroad, was born in the Quaker community of New Garden, near modern-day Guilford College, and he lived there until he moved to Indiana in 1826 when he was 28 years old. His family was fervently anti-slavery and their views were well-known in the local community. While Quakers opposed slavery as part of their religious principles, one must understand that very few participated in the Underground Railroad, an illegal activity.
When his family lived in New Garden, Levi assisted runaway slaves in various ways. On one occasion a young slave, Ede, showed up at the home of Levi’s parents. She had taken her infant child to a wooded area to hide from her master, Dr. David Caldwell, when she learned that he planned to give her and her infant child to Dr. Caldwell’s son, who lived more than 100 miles from Greensboro. Ede was married to another slave (owned by a different master) and had three other children who would remain behind with Dr. Caldwell.
Ede and her infant child had spent several nights in the woods when the child became ill. She sought shelter and protection at the Coffin home due to the Coffins’ reputation. Levi’s parents took Ede and her child into their home, although it was a crime to harbor runaways. Levi then went to visit the Caldwells in an effort to dissuade Dr. Caldwell from bringing charges against his father and to prevail upon Dr. Caldwell to keep Ede in his household as a servant.
Dr. Caldwell was a prominent Guilford County citizen. He served as a physician, Presbyterian minister, and school master of a boys’ school (less than a mile from my current home). The young people of the community liked Dr. Caldwell for his wit and good humor. Dr. Caldwell graciously received Levi into his home and, after talking about a host of other matters, Mrs. Caldwell entered the room. Levi informed the Caldwells that Ede and her child were being cared for by his parents. Mrs. Caldwell expressed her thanks that Levi’s mother had cared for the child and said that she had only reluctantly given her consent to Ede being separated from her family.
Levi asked whether his father had done right in taking in Ede and her child in violation of the law, thus making himself liable for a heavy criminal penalty if Dr. Caldwell was disposed to prosecute.
Dr. Caldwell told Levi that he had preached a very good sermon and he feared Levi might give up the prospect of becoming a preacher if he was not successful in his first effort. He said Levi’s father had done right and need not fear prosecution. Ede could come home and Dr. Caldwell would not send her away.
Thus, Levi Coffin could cite an early success in his struggle against slavery, a campaign he said he waged until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. I will discuss the significance and legal limitations of that famous document in my next article.
Until then, if you live near Greensboro or are coming through in your travels, make a stop to tour the best historical museum between Washington, DC, and Atlanta.
Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (Second Edition). Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1880 (available electronically from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, www.docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/coffin.html).
Greensboro Historical Museum, greensborohistory.org.
My father was the hardest working man I’ve ever known. During the first part of my childhood, he worked in the coalmines of West Virginia but was badly injured in a coal mining accident when I was eight years old, which left him out of work for a year. By the end of his recovery, he was up to his eyeballs in debt but still had to support his wife and five young children. He took a gamble and left our home in Midway, West Virginia to become a Texaco service station owner in Newport News, Virginia. For a year he lived in the gas station, working fourteen-hour days, seven days a week, and spent his nights on a cot in the cinder block stock room among the cases of oil and transmission fluid. He used the stockroom sink to bathe himself at the end of each day.
In 1963, he decided he could make a go of it and in July moved our family from the cool breezes and poverty of Appalachia to the sweltering heat and economic opportunity of Newport News. I was nine years old when we moved into a three bedroom, un-air-conditioned, one-story brick home, two blocks from the Texaco station.
In West Virginia, the Slab Fork coal mines never entered the children’s daily routine. In Virginia, Brentwood Texaco replaced the home as the center of family life. The one-story, glass and metal-paneled structure sat on a one-acre lot at the corner of two busy streets. The waiting, or concession, area was probably fifteen by twenty feet, surfaced with a green and white vinyl floor. Large glass panels and a glass entry door made up two of the walls. A third wall was lined with a soda machine and shelves of candy, chips, headache remedies, and cigars. A bread shelf, cigarette machine, pay phone, and a door to the work bays lined the fourth wall. Chrome and red vinyl padded chairs lined the glass walls. A steel frame, three-drawer desk and a single chair sat in the middle of the room.
The station had two work bays separated by a cinder block wall. One bay had a single-post hydraulic lift to elevate cars for oil changes and repairs. The other bay had no lift, but was used for other repairs and car washes. Fifty feet from the building stood two “islands” of gas pumps, one parallel to Beech Drive and the other parallel to Willow Drive. We pumped regular gas from the red Fire Chief pump and high test from the silver Sky Chief pump.
All the floors were concrete and the rest of the property was surfaced with asphalt – a combination hard on sore feet. The odors of cigarette smoke, gas, oil, and grease fumes hung thick in the air as car traffic hummed by and military jets roared in the background.
A Sinclair station stood across the street. Another competitor operated an Esso station two blocks away. Three men competed for the neighborhood’s auto repair business. Demand exceeded supply by two gas stations. The competition ultimately fell by the wayside.
But not yet.
We got an early lesson about family business. My two sisters kept the books and counted the money at the end of each day. My older brother Bob pumped gas, washed cars, and changed tires. An exceptional student and basketball player, he had to drop the sport to work at the gas station after school. I was old enough to push a broom, so I swept the floors and learned how to clean the rest rooms. My younger brother Ralph enjoyed a two-year grace period before joining the labor force. One year after our move, I graduated to pumping gas and manning the cash register.
While my father expected all of us to contribute our sweat to the family business, my parents stressed the importance of education and expected us to make good grades and stay out of trouble.
When I started making friends in my all-white neighborhood, I learned that they spoke differently from my childhood friends in West Virginia. Most significantly, they made frequent use of the “n” word. My father had always forbidden use of that word in our household. I never knew much about racial tension in West Virginia, as there were very few blacks in my county and those few blacks lived six miles away in Beckley. Newport News had very different demographics, with blacks making up forty percent of the population. Some of my newfound friends said blacks should not be allowed to sit in the same restaurants as whites. I just listened and honestly found it bizarre that anyone would think that way. I did wonder if perhaps I was not as smart as they were.
One evening when I was ten years old, my father summoned me to the gas station to pump gas and manage the cash register while he repaired cars and changed tires. Repair business was particularly good that evening. Several men sat in the concession area while my father worked on their cars and trucks. A black landscaper, Willie, left his pick up truck for Dad to fix a flat tire and to make an engine repair. Willie did not sit in the concession area. Instead, he left to get some dinner. Another three customers brought in their cars for service just as Willie left.
Dad completed the repairs of the vehicles customers had left at the station before Willie arrived. He then drove Willie’s truck into one of the bays and began work. He had popped the hood and begun work when a white customer came out to the bay and asked him why he had started working on that “n$%&*@’s” truck before working on the white customers’ cars.
My father, nicknamed by some of the customers as “Big Bad John” because of his prior occupation as a coal miner and his bull-of-a-man physique, put down his wrench and grabbed a service rag to wipe his hands. In later years, I wondered what was going through my father’s head—he was up to his eyeballs in debt, only had an eighth-grade education, and struggled to support a large family in a neighborhood business where he relied primarily on the patronage of white customers.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” he calmly replied. “If you can’t wait, you are welcome to take your business somewhere else. I’ll understand.”
The white customer was stunned. He did not know what to say. He muttered some words under his breath and returned to the concession area. He would wait. Willie was next in line. And whatever the man might have said to the other waiting customers did not persuade them to leave.
Dad dove back under the hood to complete the engine repair. He then removed the flat tire and took it outside the building to “Big Red,” his 1950’s fire-engine-red tire-changing machine. As this bull of a man did his work, I thought about what my father’s response might mean to the family business. So, I asked, “Dad, why are you working on Willie’s truck instead of that white man’s?”
My father did not mince words. “Willie’s money is the same color as everybody else’s,” he said. “He needs his truck so he can work tomorrow.”
Enough said. My father was no living room liberal. To him, everyone who worked hard deserved to be treated with the same respect. He had little use for people who did not work hard. In more protracted discussions over the years, he reiterated the same belief about people of different faiths. Black or white, Catholic or Jew, rich or poor, it just did not matter. Profit or loss never entered the equation. Everyone had to wait his turn. No one sent another person to the back of the line because of the color of his skin, the house in which he chose to worship, or the size of his bank account.
We can sit here in the comfort of this time and place and say, “Of course Mr. Gray treated a black customer just like everyone else.” But it was a different era. It was a different place. You could cut the racial tension with a knife. Fifty years later, I still wonder if the white customer who failed to send Willie to the back of the line learned as much from that moment as I did.
Copyrighted by J. Edward Gray
The seeds of rebellion were sown in South Carolina, not in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, but a full year earlier in April 1860, at the Democratic Party’s national convention in Charleston. Not getting their way on a pro-slavery convention plank, the Fire Eaters – Southern politicians hell-bent on breaking away from the Union – walked out of Charleston’s Institute Hall after two days. Unable to nominate a Presidential candidate under the arbitrary rule that the nominee must win two thirds of the votes of all the delegates (including in that number the delegates who had walked out of the convention), the Democrats adjourned until June in Baltimore. There, the convention nominated U.S. Senator Douglas of Illinois. Infuriated, the Southern delegates held a separate convention and nominated Vice President John Breckinridge as their Presidential candidate.
Former Whigs nominated another candidate, John Bell of Tennessee, as the candidate of the Constitution Union Party. The table was set for Abraham Lincoln, whose Republican Party vowed not to allow expansion of slavery beyond the states where it already existed. One by one, the states of the Deep South seceded after Lincoln’s election.
It was with this national recollection of events that Sherman prepared to march his 60,000 soldiers into South Carolina after making Georgia howl and tendering the City of Savannah to Lincoln as a Christmas gift in 1864. Initially, Grant had considered commandeering Sherman’s troops to Virginia to aid in the destruction of Lee. But Sherman prevailed on Grant to allow his troops to march through South Carolina to take the fight out of its citizens and troops.
After a month of planning, Sherman’s troops (the Army of Tennessee under General Oliver Howard and the Army of Georgia under General Henry Slocum) began the march into South Carolina on February 1. The Confederate troops in Sherman’s way numbered only 20,000, and split their forces between Charleston, SC, and Augusta, Georgia. Sherman initially feinted Howard’s troops in the direction of Charleston and Slocum’s troops toward Augusta, thereby generating the illusion of complying with the Confederates’ expectations. But while crossing swamps and rivers during one of the state’s rainiest Februaries, the Yankees cut northwest through the state in the direction of the state capital, Columbia.
Once the Confederates grasped the truth, it was too late. They could do little more than burn cotton and tobacco in Sherman’s path, presumably to keep the North from profiting from the crops. Sherman could not have been happier. He had no intention of burdening his troops with the products, and would have burned them to keep the South from selling it to support their war effort.
By the time Sherman’s troops reached Columbia, with the state burning in its rear, the mayor and other leaders surrendered the city to Sherman in hopes that Columbia would be spared. Unfortunately for the Columbians, Confederate General Wade Hampton had filled the downtown’s streets with piles of smoldering cotton before retreating. Cotton and whiskey are a dangerous combination, especially in the windy conditions that prevailed on February 17. While the commanding officers issued orders to protect private property, the night saw many more fires lit, and by the next day one third of Columbia lay in ashes.
Sherman blamed Hampton for the fire, having left behind him “lint, cotton, and tinder.” [Foote, Red River to Appomattox, p. 795] But Sherman shed no tears over the event. The burning of Columbia was consistent with his belief that the war would only end when “the hard hand of war” destroyed the spirit of Southern soldier and civilian alike. Lieutenant Ensign H. King of the 15th Iowa probably spoke for most of Sherman’s troops:
South Carolina, the nation state of John C. Calhoun, the hot-bed of treason, the first state to Rebel, the most defiant aider and abettor of the Rebellion, pays this small price for her crime. To our mind, the punishment is but commensurate with the crime.
[Woodworth, Nothing but Victory, p. 624]
- Catton, Bruce. Never Call Retreat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1965 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, NY, in 2001).
- Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Red River to Appomattox. New York, New York: Random House, 1974.
- Woodworth, Steven E. Nothing but Victory: the Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.