This Hallowed Ground

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Johnston would neither retreat nor fight. He and Sherman met again the next day, Secretary Breckinridge joined the meeting, and what came out of it all was more like an outright treaty of peace than a simple surrender document. Going far beyond any imaginable authority that had ever been given him, Sherman stipulated that all Confederate troops should march to their state capitals and deposit their arms there; that the Federal government would recognize Southern state governments as soon as the state officials took the oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States; that political rights and franchises of the Southern people be guaranteed, and that the Federal government would not “disturb any of the people by reason of the late war.” Pending ratification of these terms in Washington a general armistice was to prevail.

When Sherman’s terms reached Washington the government almost blew up. It seems very likely that Lincoln would have disapproved of Sherman’s treaty, if he had still been alive, but his disapproval would have been quiet and orderly. Now Lincoln was gone and the government for the moment was, to all intents and purposes, Secretary Stanton, and Stanton issued a statement, denouncing Sherman and all but openly accusing him of disloyalty, and completely repudiating the proposed treaty. The newspapers suddenly were filled with articles bitterly criticizing Sherman and accusing him of everything from insanity to the desire to make himself a proslavery dictator. Grant was sent down to Raleigh to make certain that Sherman should give Johnston terms precisely like those that had been given Lee—no more and no less—and from being one of the idols of the North Sherman almost overnight became the object of a large amount of the bitterest sort of criticism.

… In the course of time it would all wash off. The South would forget that Sherman had nearly ruined himself by his effort to befriend it, and the North would forget it also, and after a few years he would be complete villain to one section and unstained hero to the other. Meanwhile, however, the wild uproar over the way in which Sherman had tried to end the war was lengthening the odds against the kind of peace Lincoln would have wanted. By discrediting Sherman for trying to let the South off too easily, the Radical Republicans (with whom Stanton was firmly allied) were beginning to build up their case for a peace that would need to be nailed down with bayonets.

Through four desperate years, Abraham Lincoln had been groping his way toward a full understanding of the values that lay beneath the war. He had seen a profound moral issue at stake, and more than any other man he had worked to make that issue dominant. Amid the confusing uproar of battle, the struggle of the place-hunters, and the clamor of the men who were simply on the make, he had listened for the still small voice; beyond hatred and fear and the greed for profit and advantage, he had sought to appeal to the basic aspirations of the human race. Taking final victory for granted, he had worked to give the victory an undying meaning.

Over and over, throughout the war, Lincoln had tried to put his vision into words. There was a right and a wrong in the war; of that much he was certain. Yet it was beyond human wisdom to make a just appraisal of the extent to which individual men or groups of men ought to receive the praise or shoulder the blame. The loss and the victory were common property now. The blame also was perhaps a common property. The whole war was a national possession, the end result a thing fated by the clouded stars, a great moment of opportunity, of sorrow and of eternal hope, brought to a people who had touched elbows with destiny. Here was the supreme mystery; apparently an entire nation, wishing much less, had been compelled to help work out the will of Providence.

Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, Lincoln had grappled with this through the years of bloodshed and loss and grief. Out of it all he had grasped a vision. A whole nation could atone for a wrong; atonement made, it could then go on, with charity and without malice, to create a new right. It would be hard to do, of course. An intricate web of hot passions and whipped-up emotions would have to be broken, and many ties of self-interest would have to be severed. But it could be done, and the most adroit and skillful political leader in American history would be responsible for it. The spring of 1865 might be the time for it.

But there was John Wilkes Booth who longed to strike a blow of vengeance. He struck, and left his own heritage. Lincoln’s words spiraled off in the starless darkness, and it would be a long time before anyone could invoke the spirit of charity and call for a peace made without hate.

Lincoln’s casket lay beneath the echoing dome of the Capitol, and then it was taken all across the country, to be seen by hundreds of thousands of Americans; a great procession of sorrow, skillfully stage-managed by men who wanted to do precisely what Lincoln himself would not have done.