September 3, 1863 – At least 50,000 people attended a rally in President Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, in support of Lincoln and his war policies.
In June, Illinois Democrats had staged an enormous protest demonstration in Springfield. Many anti-war Copperheads attended the event, and passionate orators stirred the crowd into a near frenzy as they called for an immediate cease-fire and peace negotiations with the Confederacy. Participants approved resolutions calling for “the restoration of the Union as it was” and opposed “further offensive prosecution of the war.”
“Unconditional Union Men” countered that rally with one of their own “in favor of law and order and constitutional government.” Leaders formed an organizing committee for the event, which called itself the “National Union” party and included not only Republicans, but pro-war Democrats as well. Hoping to build momentum for the upcoming elections and draw more people than the Copperheads in June, the committee invited Lincoln to attend in person.
Committee chairman James C. Conkling wrote the president assuring him “that not only would the thousands who will be here be prepared to receive you with the warmest enthusiasm but the whole country would be eager to extend to you its congratulations on the way.” Knowing that Lincoln was fully aware of his dwindling popularity in his home state, Conkling warned, “The Presidential campaign for your successor (if any) has already commenced in Illinois.”
Lincoln declined to attend, citing war demands. However, he sent a letter to Conkling and asked that it be read to the audience and published in the newspapers. Lincoln instructed, “Read it very slowly.” The letter was intended to appeal to the pro-war and pro-administration people expected to attend the event.
Lincoln thanked those “whom no partizan malice, or partizan hope, can make false to the nation’s life.” He then responded to the Copperhead calls for an immediate end to the war by stating that, in his mind, there were just “three conceivable ways” to restore peace:
- Destroying the Confederacy
- Acknowledging Confederate independence
- Negotiating some kind of compromise
Regarding the first option, Lincoln wrote, “This I am trying to do. Are you for it? If you are, so far we are agreed.” For the second, he wrote, “I am against this. Are you for it? If you are, you should say so plainly.” And for the third, he wrote, “I do not believe any compromise, embracing the maintenance of the Union, is now possible. All I learn leads to a directly opposite belief.”
Copperhead charges that Lincoln opposed “peace through compromise” were “deceptive and groundless.” Ignoring the Confederates’ unofficial attempt to discuss peace in July, Lincoln stated that he had received “no word or intimation . . . in relation to any peace compromise.”
Lincoln then wrote about emancipation, a highly sensitive issue in Illinois. He justified his Emancipation Proclamation by arguing, “I think the constitution invests its commander-in-chief, with the law of war, in time of war.” Addressing Illinoisans who refused to fight for slave liberation, Lincoln stated:
“You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but no matter. Fight you, then, exclusive to save the Union. I issued the Proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union… But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do anything for us if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive–even the promise of freedom. And the promise, being made, must be kept.”
Lincoln warned that when the war ended, “there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.”
The president optimistically concluded, “Peace does not appear so distant as it did,” as the “signs look better” for a Federal victory. Noting that the Federals now controlled the Mississippi River, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea. Thanks to the great North-West for it… Thanks to all, for the great republic–for the principle it lives by, and keeps alive—for man’s vast future, –thanks to all.”
This letter was positively received by the audience at Springfield, as well as most other northerners who supported the war effort. For the first time, Lincoln equated emancipation with preserving the Union, thus implying that those who opposed freeing slaves must therefore oppose the war. This did much to gain support for Republicans in the upcoming state elections.
Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9671-9705; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), p. 639-40; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 344; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 401; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 686-87; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q363