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[Detail] Lincoln Centennial Association

1861-1862: Secession, Inauguration, and War

Lincoln would not take office until March 1861, but reaction to his election was almost immediate. On December 20, South Carolina announced that it was seceding from the Union. By February, six other states—Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas—had seceded. The seven states declared themselves a new nation—the Confederate States of America. Neither President Buchanan nor President-elect Lincoln recognized the Confederacy.

Unknown advocates of the Confederacy wrote an “Epitaph” for the Union:


From “Epitaph. Here lie the mutilated and disjoined remains of the noblest form of government.”

Read the entire “epitaph,” keeping in mind that it was a persuasive document put forth by one side in a dispute. Then consider the following questions:

  • Why do you think the authors of the epitaph made such a point of praising the government established under the Constitution? Do you think this was an effective strategy in making their case?
  • What or whom did the authors of the epitaph blame for the demise of the Union? What evidence did they use to make their case?
  • Can you find any direct references to Abraham Lincoln? Any indirect references? What are the authors’ views of Lincoln?
  • Whom do the authors quote in making their case? Why do you think they chose these individuals to quote? Do you think this was an effective strategy in making their case?
  • If you were a supporter of Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, how would you have responded to the epitaph?

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. During the inaugural events, bodyguards and federal troops protected Lincoln. In his inaugural address, he stressed that the Union was perpetual—that is, secession was not a constitutional solution to sectional strife. He ended his address with the following:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic cords of memory, stretching from every battle field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the angels of our better nature.

From “The Inaugural,” in “The Corrector, Sag Harbor, new York, V. 39, no. 40.”

Hoping to avoid war, Lincoln decided not to act against the Southern states unless and until they attacked the Union. Instead, he put his cabinet in place. Cabinet members included most of the men who had wanted the Republican nomination for President in 1860. Working with a Cabinet composed of his rivals required skilled management on Lincoln’s part.

Salmon P. Chase had served as a Senator and as Governor of Ohio and had been instrumental in creating the Republican Party. Appointed Secretary of the Treasury, Chase clashed with Lincoln regularly. In 1864, Lincoln accepted his resignation (tendered for the fourth time), but then nominated him to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The collection contains two letters from Chase, one to President Lincoln, and one to General Irwin McDowell. Read the two letters and answer the following questions:

  • What was the focus of the 1862 letter to President Lincoln? What differences between the two men does it reflect?
  • What was the focus of the 1862 letter to General McDowell? How does the letter deepen your understanding of the conflict between Chase and Lincoln?
  • Based on these two letters, how would you characterize the relationship between Chase and Lincoln?
  • Given that Lincoln was approaching what he knew would be a very trying time for the nation, why do you think he put together a Cabinet made up of people who not only disagreed with but may have personally disliked him?

Just five weeks after the inauguration, Confederate troops fired on the Union fort at Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor. Lincoln called on the state governors to send troops to fight on behalf of the Union. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas joined the Confederate states. War was on.

A number of documents in the collection provide news of and perspectives on the first year and a half of the war. Examine several of the following documents and browse the collection for other documents on the war through 1862:

How many different kinds of documents were you able to find on the first year and a half of the war? What different perspectives did these documents provide on the war? Based on the information you were able to gather, what was the status of the Union effort by fall 1862?