A New Birth of Freedom

Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C., Alexander Gardner, November 8, 1863

Despite changing course on slavery, Lincoln still faced an uphill battle to save the Union. The North’s army continued to struggle with inept generals and catastrophic military defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. In May and June of 1863, controversy erupted on the home front when General Ambrose Burnside arrested Democrat Clement L. Vallandigham and suspended the Chicago Times for opposing Lincoln and the war. The tide finally began to turn in early July with Union triumphs at the Battle of Gettysburg and the Siege of Vicksburg. Together, these crucial victories sounded the death knell of the Confederacy.

On November 19, 1863, Lincoln conveyed his thoughts on the war and the nation’s future at Gettysburg National Cemetery where thousands of Union army soldiers lay at rest. In brief but eloquent words for the ages, Lincoln reaffirmed America’s founding principle “that all men are created equal,” and challenged his fellow citizens to complete the war, which would give the nation, finally rid of slavery, “a new birth of freedom,” thus ensuring that government of, by, and for the people would “not perish from the earth.”

A few weeks later, Lincoln announced a preliminary plan to reconstruct the war-torn country. He offered to pardon all Confederate rebels except high-ranking officials and called for states to be readmitted to the Union when 10 percent of their voters swore allegiance to the Constitution and accepted emancipation. They also had to adopt new state constitutions that abolished slavery but Lincoln did not make any provisions to give blacks equal citizenship rights or any role in the new governments.