What Lincoln Knew

What Lincoln Knew

In his second inaugural address, the 16th president had a message for a war-weary nation.

When Abraham Lincoln stood on the Capitol steps in March 1865, to swear the oath of office for a second term and to deliver his second inaugural address, the crowd below the bunting—soldiers of both races, men and women who had come through the rain and now stood in the breaking sunlight—might have expected that he would celebrate the triumph of Union arms. They were, after all, within weeks of final victory, and everyone could feel the weight of the war lifting from their shoulders. But he would only say, “The progress of our arms … is well known to the public as to myself and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.” If the mood of the crowd was for triumphant celebration, he was not going to encourage it. If the crowd wanted a call for vengeance on the beleaguered Confederate armies now fighting their last stand around Richmond, he would not indulge them. If they wanted a long speech, he would not give that to them, either. His would be short, barely seven minutes, so anticlimactic that it left those who heard it puzzled and bemused.

He sought instead to explain why the war had happened at all, why such a catastrophe had befallen North and South alike. His question was directed to history and to Providence. He had long brooded on this question himself, and now he judged that it was time to say out loud what he had been thinking for years.

Four years previously, at his first inauguration, with the Union at a breaking point and armies massed for the beginning of a war, he had closed his address to the crowd assembled at the Capitol with an emotion-laden plea: