President Lincoln Commits His Thoughts to Hodges in Letter

April 4, 1864

Pursuant to his meeting in late March with three top Kentucky leaders, President Lincoln writes Frankfort newspaper editor Albert G. Hodges to summarize their conversation about his conduct of the war: “You ask me to put in writing the substance of what I verbally said the other day, in your presence, to Governor [Thomas] Bramlette and Senator [Archibald] Dixon. It was about as follows:

“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to be the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgement on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. An I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand however, that my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government–that nation–of which that constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground, and now avow it. I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the constitution, if, to save slavery, or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution all together.

When, early in the war, Gen. Fremont attempted military emancipation, I forbade it, because I did not then think it an indispensable necessity. When a little later, Gen. Cameroon, then Secretary of War, suggested the arming of the blacks, I objected, because I did not yet think it an indispensable necessity. When, still later, Gen. Hunter attempted military emancipation, I again forbade it, because I did not yet think the indispensable necessity had come. When, in March, and May, and July 1862 I made earnest, and successive appeals to the border states to favor compensated emancipation, I believed the indispensable necessity for military emancipation, and arming the blacks would come, unless averted by that measure. They declined the proposition; and I was, in my best judgment, driven to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it, the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the colored element. I chose the latter. In choosing it, I hoped for grater gain than loss; but of this, I was not entirely confident. More than a year of trial now shows no loss by it in our foreign relations, none in our home popular sentiment, none in our white military force,–no loss by it any how or any where. On the contrary, it shows a gain of quite a hundred and thirty thousand soldiers, seamen and laborers. These are palpable facts, about which, as facts, there can be no caviling. We have the men; and we could not have had them without the measure.

[“] And now let any Union man who complains of the measure, test himself by writing down in one line that he is for subduing the rebellion by force of arms; and in the next, that he is for taking these hundred and thirty thousand men from the Union side, and placing them where they would be but for the measure he condemns. If he can not face his case so stated, it is only because he can not face the truth.[“]

I add a word which was not in the verbal conversation. In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected, God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God no wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.

Aide John Hay writes in his diary of the Hodges letter: “The radicals will attack him like drabs on the strength of it.” Indiana Congressman George W. Julian recalled in his Political Recollections: “The conservative policy of the Administration found a new and careful expression in Mr. Lincoln’s letter to A.G. Hodges of the 4th of April. It showed great progress as compared with previous utterances, but his declaration that “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,’ was displeasing to the more anti-slavery Republicans. They insisted that the Administration had no right to become the foot-ball of events. It had no right, they said, at such a time, to make itself a negative expression or an unknown quantity in the Algebra which was to work out the grand problem. It had no right, they insisted, to take shelter beneath a debauched and sickly public sentiment, and plead it in bar of the great duty imposed upon it by the crisis. It had no right, certainly, to lag behind that sentiment, to magnify its extent and potency, and thus to become its virtual ally, instead of endeavoring to control it, and to indoctrinate the country with ideas suited to the emergency. It was the duty of the President, like John Bright and the English Liberals, to lead, not follow public opinion. These criticisms found every variety of utterance through Congressional speeches and the press, and met with a cordial response from the people; and they undoubtedly played their part in preparing the country and the Administration for the more vigorous policy which was to follow.”

Presidential aide William O. Stoddard recalled of the Hodges letter: “As a writer he was fluent and forcible . His papers bore few marks of revision, and while his style was not Ciceronian, it was clear, pure, and easily comprehended. He composed letters amid distractions which would have appalled other men. He kept no formal letter-book. One morning in April, 1865, he came to me with a letter in his hand and said: ‘Perhaps it is well to make a copy. Do so, and send the copy or the original, as you prefer to the person to whom addressed.’

“It was his well-known letter to A.G. Hodges, of Frankfort, Kentucky, in which he gave the substance of his conversation with Governor Bramlette:

General Philip Sheridan wrote in Civil War Memoirs of Philip Sheridan of meeting President Lincoln: “Accompanied by Captain Forsyth and Lieutenant Moore, I arrived in Washington on the morning of April 4, 1864, and stopped at Willard’s Hotel, where, staying temporarily, were many officers of the Army of the Potomac en route to their commands from leave at the North. Among all these, however, I was an entire stranger, and I cannot now recall that I met a single individual whom I had ever before known.

With very little delay after reaching my hotel I made my way to General Halleck’s headquarters and reported to that officer, having learned in the meantime that General grant was absent from the city. General [Henry W.] Halleck talked to me for a few minutes, outlining briefly the nature and duties of my new command, and the general military situation in Virginia. When he had finished all he had to say about these matters, he took me to the office of the secretary of War, to present me to Mr. Stanton. During the ceremony of introduction, I could feel that Mr. Stanton was eying me closely and searchingly, endeavoring to form some estimate of one about whom he knew absolutely nothing, and whose career probably had never been called to his attention until General Grant decided to order me East, after my name had been suggested by General Halleck in an interview the two generals had with Mr. Lincoln. I was rather young in appearance — looking even under than over thirty-three years — but five feet five inches in height, and thin almost to emaciation, weighing only one hundred and fifteen pounds. If I had ever possessed any self-assertion in manner or speech, it certainly vanished in the presence of the imperious Secretary, whose name at the time was the synonym of all that was cold and formal. I never never learned what Mr. Stanton’s first impressions of me were, and his guarded and rather calculating manner gave at this time no intimation that they were either favorable or unfavorable, but his frequent commendation in after years indicated that I gained his good-will before the close of the war, if not when I first came to his notice; and a more intimate association convinced me that the cold and cruel characteristics popularly ascribed to him were more mythical than real.

“When the interview with the Secretary was over, I proceeded with General Halleck to the White House to pay my respects to the President. Mr. Lincoln received me very cordially, offering both his hands, and saying that he hoped I would fulfill the expectations of General Grant in the new command I was about to undertake, adding that thus far the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac had not done all it might have done, and wound up our short conversation by quoting that stale interrogation so prevalent during the early years of the war. ‘Who ever saw a dead cavalryman?’ His manner did not impress me, however, that in asking the question he had meant anything beyond a jest, and I parted from the President convinced that he did not believe all that the query implied.’

President Lincoln writes to General William S. Rosecrans: “This is rather more social than official, containing suggestions rather than orders. I somewhat dread the effect of your Special Order, No. 61 dated March 7. 18164. I have found that men who have not even been suspected of disloyalty, are very averse to taking an oath of any sort as a condition, to exercising an ordinary right of citizenship. The point will probably be made, that while men may without an oath, assemble in a noisy political meeting, they must take the oath, to assemble in a religious meeting.

It is said. I know not whether truly, that in some parts of Missouri, assassinations are systematically committed upon returned rebels, who wish to ground arms, and behave themselves. This should not be. Of course I have not heard that you give countenance to, or wink at such assassinations.

Again, it is complained, that the enlistment of negroes, is not conducted in as orderly a manner, and with as little collateral provocation, as it might be.

So far you have got along in the Department of the Missouri, rather better than I dared to hope; and I congratulate you and myself upon it.

John Hay writes in diary: “The President and Mrs. Lincoln attended” Der Freischutz at Grover’s.”

President Lincoln meets with Secretary of State William H Seward regarding the continuing French intervention in Mexican politics.

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