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“Let ’em up easy” attitude died with Lincoln

"The Peacemakers," George P. A. Healy's 1868 painting, depicted William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, and David Porter during their March 1865 meeting on the River Queen. After seeing the completed painting Sherman said. "It matters little what Healy meant by his historic group, but it is certain that we four sat pretty much as represented, and were engaged in an important conversation during the forenoon of March 28, 1865, and that we parted never to meet again."

Mississippi writer Shelby Foote told of visiting Mary Forrest Bradley in her Memphis home sometime during the 20 years he worked on his three-volume history of the Civil War. Mrs. Bradley was the granddaughter of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the fabled Confederate general who grew up near here in what is now Benton County. Foote said he told Mrs. Bradley he believed the Civil War had produced two authentic geniuses, her grandfather and Abraham Lincoln. Foote said the old lady glared at him and declared with some heat, “You know we never thought much of Mr. Lincoln in my family.”

Mary Forrest Bradley died in 1965 at age 96, and her  opinion of Lincoln was shared by a great many Southerners of her generation. Fifty years after Mrs. Bradley’s death the 16th president is still held in low esteem by a dwindling few unreconstructed Southerners

Abraham Lincoln died 150 years ago today on Saturday, April 15, 1865, at 7:22 a.m., after being shot by John Wilkes Booth the night before at Ford’s Theater. With the perspective of a century and a half, most Southerners now realize that his death was one of the most brutal blows ever suffered by the states of the former Confederacy.

The way Lincoln intended it to have been

A little more than two weeks before he was killed Lincoln met at City Point, Virginia, with Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman and Admiral David Porter.  It was clear that the South was exhausted, depleted of men, material and will to fight after four years of war during which more than a quarter million Southern warriors died. In meetings aboard the 181-foot steamboat River Queen on Monday and Tuesday, March 27 and 28, the three top Union commanders discussed with their Commander-In-Chief how the war was winding up and how the defeated South should be treated.

Lincoln met with his top commanders on the steamboat River Queen 18 days before his death.

Lincoln met with his top commanders on the steamboat River Queen 18 days before his death.

Lincoln advised that the defeated Southerners should be allowed to return to their homes as soon as they laid down their arms. No prisoners, no hangings, just let them go.

Both Sherman and Porter wrote versions of what was said in the City Point meetings. Their recollections differ on some details, but there is agreement that Lincoln uttered words such as these: “Let them surrender and go home…let them have their horses to plow with and, if you like, their guns to shoot crows with..give them the most liberal and honorable terms.”

Some popular histories claim Lincoln told his top officers, “If I were in your place I’d let ’em up easy, let ’em up easy.” Neither Sherman nor Porter specifically record Lincoln making such a statement on the River Queen.

Some sources say he uttered those words several days after Grant had captured Richmond. Lincoln arrived in Richmond on April 4th aboard Admiral Porter’s flagship, the Malvern. He toured the city on foot including the house where Jefferson Davis had been living, and he sat in the chair at the Confederate President’s desk. When or whether Lincoln used the exact words “let ’em up easy” there is no doubt that the phrase reflected Lincoln’s broad view of how the defeated South should be treated.

Grant gave such terms when Lee surrendered the Army of  Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 9th, 12 days after the City Point meeting. In addition to allowing Confederate officers to keep their sidearms, Grant allowed officers and enlisted men to leave with whatever horses and mules they had. He also issued sufficient rations to feed Lee’s disbanded army.

After the City Point meeting Sherman returned to North Carolina where Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson still commanded three Confederate field armies totaling nearly 90,000 rebel troops. Johnson held out 17 days longer than Lee, surrendering his army to Sherman on April 26, 1865. Sherman gave Johnston terms even more liberal than those Lee received including issuing rations to thousands of civilians throughout the South.

The way it was

However, Lincolns death ended any intention of reconciliation and  generosity on the part of the surviving United States government. The Yankee government, while nominally headed by President Andrew Johnson, was completely dominated by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and other radical abolitionists, who were intent on taking revenge and punishing the South.

Stanton went so far as rejecting the generous terms Sherman gave to Joe Johnston’s armies. However, most of Johnston’s Southern troops had already dispersed and headed home with their firearms and equine stock. When the “Grand Review of the Armies” was held in Washington on May 24th, Sherman made a point of snubbing Stanton and refused to shake his hand on the reviewing stand.

Sherman as a major general in May 1865. The black ribbon of mourning on his left arm is for U.S. President Lincoln. Portrait by Mathew Brady.

Sherman as a major general in May 1865. The black ribbon of mourning on his left arm is for U.S. President Lincoln. Portrait by Mathew Brady.

Joseph Eggleston Johnston was a career U.S. Army officer, serving with distinction in the Mexican-American War and Seminole Wars, and was also one of the most senior general officers in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.

Joseph Eggleston Johnston was a career U.S. Army officer, serving with distinction in the Mexican-American War and Seminole Wars, and was also one of the most senior general officers in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.

 (Contrary to belief still prevalent among many Southerners, Sherman was not a hater of the South. He had been the founding president of what is now Louisiana State University before the war. He did not burn Atlanta or Columbia, South Carolina, which retreating Confederate generals wisely burned to prevent valuable war property from falling into the hands of Union troops. Sherman did burn Meridian, then an important railroad center, destroying 115 miles of railroad tracks around the area, blowing up 61 bridges, over 6,000 feet of railroad trestle and destroying 20 locomotives. He also became close friends with Joe Johnston, who was a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral in 1891. Right or wrong, Tecumseh Sherman even defended Bedford Forrest’s conduct at the Fort Pillow massacre.)

This article is already overly long so we’ll not try to describe the vile way the Radical Abolitionists and their carpetbagger trash abused the South under the guise of “Reconstruction.”

Speculating about what might have been different in history if this, that or the other had been done differently is always a risky endeavor. However, there can be no doubt that Lincoln’s death unleashed on the South an era and attitude of vengeance whose impact continues in subtle and not-so-subtle ways on this April 15, 2015.

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