As an executive, Lincoln delicately balanced the qualities of compromise and decisiveness. But as commander-in-chief, Lincoln was plagued by a series of generals who were as compromising as they were indecisive. After McClellan's failure to pursue Lee south from Antietam, he was replaced six weeks later by the reluctant Ambrose Burnside. Unfit for top command, Burnside made a tentative march on the south in November of 1862, stalling for over three weeks on the banks of the Rappahannock River before crossing to Fredericksburg. This delay allowed for a Confederate entrenchment, and in the ensuing battle, Burnside was routed by Lee, losing 13,000 men to Lee's 5,000. Once again, the Union forces retreated north, and Lincoln summarily replaced Burnside with Joseph Hooker.
With a third campaign against the Confederates foiled and heavy losses to the Democrats in the midterm elections, a weaker president might have capitulated when France, under Napoleon III, proposed a six month armistice and a series of peace talks in early 1863. But Lincoln and Seward firmly rejected this proposal, and the war effort pushed on as before. Bolstered by reinforcements from the Conscription Act, Hooker marched on the Confederacy at Chancellorsville. This three-day battle, fought in early May, was another resounding defeat for the Union, who lost 17,000 troops in the fighting. Lincoln changed generals yet again, replacing Hooker with George Meade.
Although the Confederates had lost Stonewall Jackson in the fighting at Chancellorsville, they had strengthened their cause with another successful defense of northern Virginia. Encouraged by this result, Lee decided to take up a second offensive against the Union, which he launched from Fredericksburg in early June. Sending Stuart ahead to scout, Lee pushed forward into Pennsylvania, setting the stage for the most renowned battle of the Civil War.
The opening days of July 1863 were crucial to the fortunes of both sides. As they dawned, the Confederacy appeared unassailable, and quite capable of a damaging counter-attack. Less than a week later, on the strength of two Union successes, the tide had turned for the final time, and the South would begin its long and forlorn retreat to Richmond.
With no sign of Stuart, Lee nevertheless decided to attack the Union at Gettysburg on July 1, where three days of vicious fighting resulted in 40,000 casualties. Union forces under Meade held the line repeatedly, and on July 3 Lee retreated, having lost over one-third of his army. Pacified by the carnage, Meade elected not to pursue in the wake of the tattered rebels.
The next day, Grant completed his amphibious attack of Vicksburg after a long siege. With this, the Union established complete control of the Mississippi River, closing the western front conclusively. Celebrating Independence Day back in Washington, Lincoln received news of Grant's success. This critical victory later inspired Lincoln's memorable remark that "the father of the waters again goes unvexed to the sea."
Now that the Mississippi was under control, Union forces in the western theater began to move southeast. Several key battles were fought in Tennessee. At Chickamauga, in late September 1863, two days of fighting resulted in over 30,000 casualties. Against the odds, Confederate General Braxton Bragg was able to force Union forces north to Chattanooga. However, thanks to superior numbers and provisions, it was only a matter of time before the Union forces returned to beat down Bragg's back door. In late November, a combined Union force led by Generals Hooker, Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman took Chattanooga and began their push into Georgia.
On November 19, 1863, with Union fortunes firmly on the upswing, ceremonies were held to dedicate a commemorative ceremony for the soldiers fallen at Gettysburg. The principal speaker, Edward Everett of Massachusetts, was the principal speaker. After Everett's oration, which lasted for over two hours, Lincoln was called upon to say a few words. The subsequent two-minute statement, known today as the Gettysburg Address, has gone down into the annals of American history among the most memorable words ever spoken in the United States.
In his remarks, Lincoln praised the patriotism of the men who had fallen in the service of "a new birth of freedom," won so that the "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the face of the earth." These words, along with the famous opening "Four score and seven years ago..." have been tirelessly recited by schoolchildren ever since. But at the time, Lincoln was wracked with self-doubt over his address, fearing that he had not done justice to the Union dead. Many newspapers contributed to this impression, firmly declaring that Everett had outshone him.
While Everett may in fact have impressed the assembled audience at Gettysburg, the negative press that Lincoln received may also have been by way of preface to the 1864 election. As the winter dragged on, Lincoln began to mobilize both for re-election and for renewed warfare. Eager to find a general who could bring the Confederacy to its knees, Lincoln summoned Grant, the hero of Vicksburg, from the western theater. And on March 9, 1864, Lincoln named Grant the commander of all Union armies.
Prepared to meet heavy losses in the process, Grant boldly decided to spearhead a program of total warfare, with the ultimate objective of unconditional rebel surrender. To this end, orders were issued to destroy not only the Confederate army, but also all stocks and supplies that contributed to their cause. Further, Grant halted the manpower exchange that had been in effect for over eighteen months, leaving Union soldiers to languish in Confederate prisons. By this strategy, Grant hoped to simply outlast the rebel forces, but in so doing, he effectively sentenced thousands of prisoners on both sides to a slow and painful death. All told, nearly 50,000 soldiers died in prison camps during the Civil War. Most of these casualties occurred in 1864. At the notorious Andersonville, Georgia prison, 3,000 deaths occurred during each of the summer months.
This pragmatic, if uncompassionate, approach to warfare, along with his risky attack methods, earned Grant the nickname "The Butcher of Galena." During his march on Richmond in the spring of 1864, Grant persisted even in the face of appalling casualties, losing 17,000 men in two days of fighting at the Battle of the Wilderness in May. This aggressive escalation policy prompted Lee to a similar recklessness, and in the next month the Union would lose a total of 60,000 men against the Confederacy's 32,000 casualties.
But contrary to appearances, these losses were more damaging to the Confederacy, due to proportions and dwindling provisions. Grant, despite his losses, succeeded in gaining several positions around Richmond by mid-June. Still, he and Lincoln came under heavy criticism for the carnage of the campaign. In the bleakest instance, at Cold Harbor, during a single half-hour of fighting, Grant lost a staggering 7,000 men.
Further south, Sherman took a different approach. Slashing through Tennessee and Georgia, further from the home front, he marched his forces whenever he could, stopping to fight only out of necessity. Those who supported Grant's strategy criticized Sherman for what was viewed as an overly passive and ineffectual strategy. Such reservations began to fester after Sherman surrounded Atlanta but was unable to capture it, instead having to dig in for an extended siege. Like Sherman, Lincoln too would dig in his heels as the summer of 1864 dragged on, hoping desperately to win again the office that he had so narrowly secured four years before.