With Malice Toward None

"President Abraham Lincoln," E. C. Middleton, 1864

After Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the war bogged down in a costly stalemate. During May and June 1864, the Army of the Potomac, under their new commander, General Ulysses S. Grant, lost about 64,000 men fighting Lee’s army in Virginia. That summer, northern morale hit rock bottom and by August, Lincoln felt certain he would lose the upcoming November election to his Democratic rival, former Union army General George B. McClellan. But, on September 2, Union forces under General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta, reviving northern spirits and assuring Lincoln’s victory at the polls.

In his powerful second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, Lincoln identified slavery, “a peculiar and powerful interest,” as the war’s cause, but noted that each side looked for an “easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding” — a reference, certainly, to the end of slavery, and perhaps to his own changing views on the issue. Yet, the “terrible war,” Lincoln said, seemed to be God’s will, a way to purge the great moral offence of slavery from America. Yet, what did the future hold for America? How could the war-torn country be healed, physically and psychologically? Lincoln appealed for mercy: “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” but he also called upon northern resolve “to finish the work we are in.” This would involve addressing new and challenging issues related to black freedom, including the extension of equal citizenship rights to former slaves.