The Great Conspiracy

“Nothing, however, was offered, that I had not already
fully anticipated and settled in my own mind, until Secretary Seward
spoke. He said in substance: ‘Mr. President, I approve of the
Proclamation, but I question the expediency of its issue at this
juncture. The depression of the public mind, consequent upon our
repeated reverses, is so great that I fear the effect of so important a
step. It may be viewed as the last Measure of an exhausted Government,
a cry for help, the Government stretching forth its hands to Ethiopia,
instead of Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the Government.’

“His idea,” said the President “was that it would be considered our last
shriek, on the retreat.” (This was his precise expression.) “‘ Now,’
continued Mr. Seward, ‘while I approve the Measure, I suggest, Sir, that
you postpone its issue, until you can give it to the Country supported
by Military success, instead of issuing it, as would be the case now,
upon the greatest disasters of the War!'”

Mr. Lincoln continued: “The wisdom of the view of the Secretary of
State, struck me with very great force. It was an aspect of the case
that, in all my thought upon the subject, I had entirely overlooked.
The result was that I put the draft of the Proclamation aside, as you do
your sketch for a picture, waiting for a victory.”

It may not be amiss to interrupt the President’s narration to Mr.
Carpenter, at this point, with a few words touching “the Military

After McClellan’s inexplicable retreat from before the Rebel Capital–
when, having gained a great victory at Malvern Hills, Richmond would
undoubtedly have been ours, had he but followed it up, instead of
ordering his victorious troops to retreat like “a whipped Army”–[See
General Hooker’s testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the
War.]–his recommendation, in the extraordinary letter (of July 7th) to
the President, for the creation of the office of General-in-Chief, was
adopted, and Halleck, then at Corinth, was ordered East, to fill it.

Pope had previously been called from the West, to take
command of the troops covering Washington, comprising some 40,000 men,
known as the Army of Virginia; and, finding cordial cooperation with
McClellan impossible, had made a similar suggestion.

Soon after Halleck’s arrival, that General ordered the transfer of the
Army of the Potomac, from Harrison’s Landing to Acquia creek–on the
Potomac–with a view to a new advance upon Richmond, from the
Rappahannock river.

While this was being slowly accomplished, Lee, relieved from fears for
Richmond, decided to advance upon Washington, and speedily commenced the

On the 8th of August, 1862, Stonewall Jackson, leading the Rebel
advance, had crossed the Rapidan; on the 9th the bloody Battle of Cedar
Mountain had been fought with part of Pope’s Army; and on the 11th,
Jackson had retreated across the Rapidan again.

Subsequently, Pope having retired across the Rappahannock, Lee’s Forces,
by flanking Pope’s Army, again resumed their Northern advance. August
28th and 29th witnessed the bloody Battles of Groveton and Gainesville,
Virginia; the 30th saw the defeat of Pope, by Lee, at the second great
Battle of Bull Run, and the falling back of Pope’s Army toward
Washington; and the succeeding Battle of Chantilly took place September
1, 1862.

It is not necessary at this time to even touch upon the causes and
agencies which brought such misfortune to the Union Arms, under Pope.
It is sufficient to say here, that the disaster of the second Bull Run
was a dreadful blow to the Union Cause, and correspondingly elated the

Jefferson Davis, in transmitting to the Rebel Congress at Richmond,
Lee’s victorious announcements, said, in his message: “From these
dispatches it will be seen that God has again extended His shield over
our patriotic Army, and has blessed the cause of the Confederacy with a
second signal victory, on the field already memorable by the gallant
achievement of our troops.”

Flushed with victory, but wisely avoiding the fortifications of the
National Capital, Lee’s Forces now swept past Washington; crossed the
Potomac, near Point of Rocks, at its rear; and menaced both the National
Capital and Baltimore.

Yielding to the apparent necessity of the moment, the President again
placed. McClellan in command of the Armies about Washington, to wit:
the Army of the Potomac; Burnside’s troops that had come up from North
Carolina; what remained of Pope’s Army of Virginia; and the large
reinforcements from fresh levies, constantly and rapidly pouring in.

[This was probably about the time of the occurrence of an amusing
incident, touching Lincoln, McClellan, and the fortifications
around Washington, afterward told by General J. G. Barnard, then
Chief of Engineers on the staff of General George B. McClellan.–
See New York Tribune, October 21, 1885. It seems that the
fortifications having been completed, McClellan invited Mr. Lincoln
and his Cabinet to inspect them. “On the day appointed,” said
Barnard, “the Inspection commenced at Arlington, to the Southwest
of Washington, and in front of the Enemy. We followed the line of
the works southerly, and recrossed the Potomac to the easterly side
of the river, and continued along the line easterly of Washington
and into the heaviest of all the fortifications on the northerly
side of Washington. When we reached this point the President asked
General McClellan to explain the necessity of so strong a
fortification between Washington and the North.

“General McClellan replied: ‘Why, Mr. President, according to
Military Science it is our duty to guard against every possible or
supposable contingency that may arise. For example, if under any
circumstances, however fortuitous, the Enemy, by any chance or
freak, should, in a last resort, get in behind Washington, in his
efforts to capture the city, why, there the fort is to defend it.’

“‘Yes, that’s so General,’ said the President; ‘the precaution is
doubtless a wise one, and I’m glad to get so clear an explanation,
for it reminds me of an interesting question once discussed for
several weeks in our Lyceum, or Moot Court, at Springfield, Ill.,
soon after I began reading law.’

“‘Ah!’ says General McClellan. ‘What question was that, Mr.

“‘The question,’ Mr. Lincoln replied, ‘was, “Why does man have
breasts?”‘ and he added that after many evenings’ debate, the
question was submitted to the presiding Judge, who wisely decided
‘That if under any circumstances, however fortuitous, or by any
chance or freak, no matter of what nature or by what cause, a man
should have a baby, there would be the breasts to nurse it.'”]

Yet, it was not until the 17th of September that the Battle of Antietam
was fought, and Lee defeated–and then only to be allowed to slip back,
across the Potomac, on the 18th–McClellan leisurely following him,
across that river, on the 2nd of November!

[Arnold, in his “Life of Abraham Lincoln,” says that President
Lincoln said of him: “With all his failings as a soldier, McClellan
is a pleasant and scholarly gentleman. He is an admirable
Engineer, but” he added, “he seems to have a special talent for a
stationary Engine.”]

On the 5th, McClellan was relieved,–Burnside taking the command,–and
Union men breathed more freely again.

But to return to the subject of Emancipation. President Lincoln’s own
words have already been given–in conversation with Carpenter–down to
the reading of the Proclamation to his Cabinet, and Seward’s suggestion
to “wait for a victory” before issuing it, and how, adopting that
advice, he laid the Proclamation aside, waiting for a victory.

“From time to time,” said Mr. Lincoln, continuing his narration, “I
added or changed a line, touching it up here and there, anxiously
waiting the progress of events. Well, the next news we had was of
Pope’s disaster at Bull Run. Things looked darker than ever. Finally,
came the week of the Battle of Antietam. I determined to wait no

“The news came, I think, on Wednesday, that the advantage was on our
side. I was then staying at the Soldiers’ Home (three miles out of
Washington.) Here I finished writing the second draft of the
preliminary Proclamation; came up on Saturday; called the Cabinet
together to hear it; and it was published the following Monday.”

It is not uninteresting to note, in this connection, upon the same
authority, that at the final meeting of the Cabinet prior to this issue
of the Proclamation, when the third paragraph was read, and the words of
the draft “will recognize the Freedom of such Persons,” were reached,
Mr. Seward suggested the insertion of the words “and maintain” after the
word “recognize;” and upon his insistance, the President said, “the
words finally went in.”

At last, then, had gone forth the Fiat–telegraphed and read throughout
the Land, on that memorable 22d of September, 1862–which, with the
supplemental Proclamation of January 1, 1863, was to bring joy and
Freedom to the millions of Black Bondsmen of the South.

Just one month before its issue, in answer to Horace Greeley’s Open
letter berating him for “the seeming subserviency” of his “policy to the
Slave-holding, Slave up-holding interest,” etc., President Lincoln had
written his famous “Union letter” in which he had conservatively said:
“My paramount object is to save the Union, and not either to save or
destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any Slave, I
would do it–and if I could save it by freeing all the Slaves, I would
do it–and if I could save it by freeing some, and leaving others alone,
I would also do that.”

No one outside of his Cabinet dreamed, at the time he made that answer,
that the Proclamation of Emancipation was already written, and simply
awaited a turn in the tide of battle for its issue!

Still less could it have been supposed, when, on the 13th of September–
only two days before Stonewall Jackson had invested, attacked, and
captured Harper’s Ferry with nearly 12,000 prisoners, 73 cannon, and
13,000 small arms, besides other spoils of War–Mr. Lincoln received the
deputation from the religious bodies of Chicago, bearing a Memorial for
the immediate issue of such a Proclamation.

The very language of his reply,–where he said to them: “It is my
earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I
can learn what it is, I will do it! These are not, however, the days of
miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a
direct revelation. I must study the plain physical aspects of the case,
ascertain what is possible, and learn what appears to be wise and
right”–when taken in connection with the very strong argument with
which he followed it up, against the policy of Emancipation advocated in
the Memorial, and his intimation that a Proclamation of Emancipation
issued by him “must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope’s Bull
against the Comet!”–would almost seem to have been adopted with the
very object of veiling his real purpose from the public eye, and leaving
the public mind in doubt. At all events, it had that effect.

Arnold, in his “Life of Lincoln,” says of this time, when General Lee
was marching Northward toward Pennsylvania, that “now, the President,
with that tinge of superstition which ran through his character, ‘made,’
as he said, ‘a solemn vow to God, that, if Lee was driven back, he would
issue the Proclamation;'” and, in the light of that statement, the
concluding words of Mr. Lincoln’s reply to the deputation aforesaid:–“I
can assure you that the subject is on my mind, by day and night, more
than any other. Whatever shall appear to be God’s will, I will do,”–
have a new meaning.

The Emancipation Proclamation, when issued, was a great surprise, but
was none the less generally well-received by the Union Armies, and
throughout the Loyal States of the Union, while, in some of them, its
reception was most enthusiastic.

It happened, too, as we have seen, that the Convention of the Governors
of the Loyal States met at Altoona, Penn., on the very day of its
promulgation, and in an address to the President adopted by these loyal
Governors, they publicly hailed it “with heartfelt gratitude and
encouraged hope,” and declared that “the decision of the President to
strike at the root of the Rebellion will lend new vigor to efforts, and
new life and hope to the hearts, of the People.”

On the other hand, the loyal Border-States men were dreadfully exercised
on the subject; and those of them in the House of Representatives
emphasized their disapproval by their votes, when, on the 11th and 15th
of the following December, Resolutions, respectively denouncing, and
endorsing, “the policy of Emancipation, as indicated in that
Proclamation,” of September 22, 1862, were offered and voted on.

In spite of the loyal Border-States men’s bitter opposition, however,
the Resolution endorsing that policy as a War Measure, and declaring the
Proclamation to be “an exercise of power with proper regard for the
rights of the States and the perpetuity of Free Government,” as we have
seen, passed the House.

Of course the Rebels themselves, against whom it was aimed, gnashed
their teeth in impotent rage over the Proclamation. But they lost no
time in declaring that it was only a proof of what they had always
announced: that the War was not for the preservation of the American
Union, but for the destruction of African Slavery, and the spoilation of
the Southern States.

Through their friends and emissaries, in the Border and other Loyal
States of the Union,–the “Knights of the Golden Circle,”–

[The “Knights of the Golden Circle” was the most extensive of these
Rebel organizations. It was “an auxiliary force to the Rebel
Army.” Its members took an obligation of the most binding
character, the violation of which was punishable by death, which
obligation, in the language of another, “pledged them to use every
possible means in their power to aid the Rebels to gain their
Independence; to aid and assist Rebel prisoners to escape; to vote
for no one for Office who was not opposed to the further
prosecution of the War; to encourage desertions from the Union
Army; to protect the Rebels in all things necessary to carry out
their designs, even to the burning and destroying of towns and
cities, if necessary to produce the desired result; to give such
information as they had, at all times, of the movements of our
Armies, and of the return of soldiers to their homes; and to try
and prevent their going back to their regiments at the front.”

In other words the duty of the Organization and of its members, was
to hamper, oppose, and prevent all things possible that were being
done at any time for the Union Cause, and to encourage, forward,
and help all things possible in behalf of the Rebel Cause.

It was to be a flanking force of the Enemy–a reverse fire–a fire
in the rear of the Union Army, by Northern men; a powerful
cooperating force–all the more powerful because secret–operating
safely because secretly and in silence–and breeding discontent,
envy, hatred, and other ill feelings wherever possible, in and out
of Army circles, from the highest to the lowest, at all possible
times, and on all possible occasions.]

–the “Order of American Knights” or “Sons of Liberty,” and other
Copperhead organizations, tainted with more or less of Treason–they
stirred up all the old dregs of Pro-Slavery feeling that could possibly
he reached; but while the venomous acts and utterances of such
organizations, and the increased and vindictive energy of the armed
Rebels themselves, had a tendency to disquiet the public mind with
apprehensions as to the result of the Proclamation, and whether, indeed,
Mr. Lincoln himself would be able to resist the pressure, and stand up
to his promise of that Supplemental Proclamation which would give
definiteness and practical effect to the preliminary one, the masses of
the people of the Loyal States had faith in him.

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