Slate: Part Four: The Dearest of All Things
Narrator: On March 17, 1862, Abraham Lincoln at last got some good news: General George McClellan's mighty Army of the Potomac was finally on the move. One hundred and twenty-one thousand men, 14,000 horses and mules, 1,100 wagons were heading South. It would take three weeks to get it all to their jumping-off point -- Fort Monroe, Virginia. McClellan promised "great, heroic exertions, rapid and long marches, desperate combats..." all leading to the capture of the Confederate Capital at Richmond -- just 70 miles away.
Donald L. Miller, Historian: His strategy for victory was fairly simple. Take a huge army down the Potomac, march up the Yorktown Peninsula, encircle Richmond, try to draw out the Confederate Army. If they came out, fight them with overwhelming odds, and this would be the end of the Civil War. Richmond would surrender. He'd be a national hero, and he'd be President in 1864. And he had presidential ambitions from the very beginning.
Narrator: But McClellan soon stalled. He had persuaded himself that his enormous army was somehow outnumbered by the small rebel force that stood in his way at Yorktown. Instead of attacking it, he settled in for a siege and began calling for reinforcements.
While McClellan dug in, the President impatiently studied maps of the Peninsula and called for action.
Voice of Lincoln, (David Morse): To Major General McClellan... You now have over one hundred thousand troops with you... I think you better break the enemy's line from Yorktown to Warwick River at once. They will probably use time as advantageously as you can. A. Lincoln
Narrator: "The President," the General wrote his wife, "very coolly telegraphed me that he thought I had better break the enemy's lines at once. I was much tempted to reply that he had better come here and do it himself."
Voice of Lincoln, (David Morse): "To Major General McClellan, Once more let me tell you it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow. I am powerless to help this.... I have never written you in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you, but you must act."
Narrator: Six weeks after Willy Lincoln's death, the little family in the Executive Mansion was still grieving. Mary refused to see most visitors, but on April 5, draped in mourning black, she met in the Red Room with an old friend, a clergyman from Springfield.
The clergyman was astonished by the ferocity of her loyalty to the Union and to her husband. One of her brothers, three half-brothers, and three brothers-in-law were now fighting for the Confederacy. Mary said she hoped they would all be killed or captured.
Voice of Mary Lincoln, (Holly Hunter): "They would kill my husband if they could and destroy our Government, the dearest of all things to us."
Narrator: The next day, in a wood filled with spring blossoms near a little whitewashed Mississippi church called Shiloh, Union forces under Carlos Buell and a general from Illinois named Ulysses S. Grant won what seemed like a great victory.
The whole North celebrated. Lincoln rejoiced at the news. But when the lists of casualties began appearing in the newspapers, the celebration abruptly ended. More than 20,000 men had been killed or wounded. Among the dead was Mary's half-brother Sam, shot through the head as he led a Confederate charge.
That May, Union armies seemed poised for a series of victories. Union vessels had blasted their way up the Mississippi to take the Confederacy's most important port, New Orleans, and McClellan's Army of the Potomac was once more driving toward Richmond -- now just six miles away. Then, McClellan halted -- and again demanded reinforcements.
Donald L. Miller, Historian: Lincoln was in a very tough position with McClellan. Lincoln thought that a well-led army marching into the South would be able to carry the day. But it just didn't happen because the army was not as well led as Lincoln expected it would have been.
James M. McPherson, Historian: The trouble with McClellan was that he was psychologically unable to commit this mechanism that he had created to battle. He was afraid that having created this wonderful machine, if he started it up, he might destroy it.
Narrator: Meanwhile, Richmond's Confederate defenders got a new Commander, a soldier from Virginia thought so brilliant that the Lincoln administration had once offered him command of the Union armies -- Robert E. Lee. Every day, Lincoln walked to the War Department next door to the White House and sat alongside the telegraph, desperate for news of the fighting.
Lee struck first at Mechanicsville, on June 26. In a series of battles that followed over the next seven days -- Gaines' Mill, Savage's Station, Frayser's Farm -- Lee forced McClellan to retreat. After 14 weeks, McClellan had accomplished nothing whatsoever, but he stubbornly insisted he had not been defeated; he had merely "failed to win, he said, because he had been overpowered by superior numbers."
As news of McClellan's retreat came in, Lincoln got much of the blame. Even members of Lincoln's own party faulted the President's leadership. "Lincoln may be honest," wrote one prominent abolitionist" -- but nobody cares whether the tortoise is honest or not. As long as you keep the present turtle at the head of the government, you dig a pit with one hand and fill it with the other."
Lincoln couldn't sleep, couldn't eat. He lost so much weight, seemed so careworn, that an old friend told him he feared for his health. "I cannot take my vittles regular," he told a doctor. "I kind of just browse around." With McClellan's retreat from Richmond, Lincoln now came to realize that the war would be long and bloody.
Donald L. Miller, Historian: Lincoln had felt that one climactic battle could carry the day and end the Civil War. He didn't measure the enemy correctly. He didn't see the tenacity of the South. He didn't perceive early on the nature of the war, the deep-going feelings for secession in the South.
Narrator: That summer, the Lincolns left the executive mansion with all its sad memories and moved to the outskirts of town, to a cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers Home.
Voice of Mary Lincoln, (Holly Hunter): "Our home is very beautiful, the grounds around us are enchanting, the world still smiles and pays homage, yet everything appears a mockery.... When I can bring myself to realize that Willy has indeed passed away, my question to myself is, can life be endured?"
Narrator: Months had passed since Willy's death, but Mary was still racked by spasms of weeping, often unable to get out of bed for days at a time, paralyzed by depression. Lincoln began to fear for his wife's sanity.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Historian: She had already begun to show certain signs of imbalance, of instability. And Lincoln worried about this. Now with Willy's death, it's almost as if she and he walked down very opposite paths.
Charles B. Strozier, Historian: The continued absorption and distance of Lincoln as the war intensified and deepened, combined with her agonies, her yearnings, her confusions, her deep depression, over the loss. And she had no way of trying to comprehend it.
Voice of Mary Lincoln, (Holly Hunter): "Madame Harris.... I am in need of a mourning bonnet.... I want one made... with folds of... black crape... the finest jet black English crape.... I want it got up with great taste & gentility."
Narrator: Mary continued to try to find comfort in possessions. She bought new dresses, hats. It was said that in three months, she purchased 300 pairs of gloves. Many of her purchases were never even unpacked.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Historian: After Willy's death the shopping becomes even more obsessive. Somehow as the world seems to be spinning out of control, the only things that take her mind off the sadness is the shopping.
Charles B. Strozier, Historian: And it became a desperate effort on her part to find something she could hold onto, that most of all would not die and leave her. A chair or a desk or a dress, it doesn't go away, it doesn't die, it doesn't leave you.
Narrator: As North and South faced off, thousands of slaves fled toward the Union lines. They refused to wait for anyone else to free them. Union officers ordered them to go back. They kept coming, anyway.
Many within the President's own Republican party demanded that he declare an end to slavery, destroy once and for all the institution that had brought on the war they seemed incapable of winning. "Henceforth," said the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, "let the war cry be down with slavery, the cause of treason."
David Herbert Donald, Biographer: Under great pressure to do something about slavery, Lincoln held back for a very long period of time. The Constitution protected slavery where it existed and Lincoln's policy, the Republican policy, had always been let us confine slavery. Let us prohibit its extension to the territories. And the hope was that it will ultimately be contained and die out.
Narrator: Lincoln would not be pushed. When two impetuous Generals issued orders meant to liberate the slaves in their Districts, he demanded that the orders instantly be withdrawn. And when his Secretary of War on his own initiative called for the arming of the slaves, Lincoln sent him off to be his Minister to Moscow.
The Republicans who controlled Congress grew more and more impatient. They enacted laws that kept Union officers from returning slaves to their masters, barred slavery from the District of Columbia, finally barred it from the western territories, too. But many Republicans continued to call on Lincoln to act against the institution of slavery itself. And he continued to refuse.
David E. Long, Historian: He hated slavery. He despised slavery. He would have loved to see slavery ended.
John Hope Franklin, Historian: Lincoln, however, felt that there was something else that there was something else, more important than freedom of slaves and that was the preservation of the Union. And so therein lies a very serious contradiction.
David E. Long, Historian: Freeing the slaves or accomplishing anything else could not be done unless the Union was preserved. If you cannot win the war, you cannot accomplish any of the other goals that become part of the war effort. So, first and foremost, we must preserve the Union.
Margaret Washington, Historian: He makes it very clear that he is the President of the Nation, and he wants a Nation to be President of. The northern community is very racist. He fears what would happen if he calls for emancipation immediately. If he calls for emancipation, then the border states, which are slave states, are going to balk. And there's already a lot of contention in the border states and the northern sympathizers are having trouble hanging on as well.
Voice of Lincoln, (David Moris): "I would do it," Lincoln told a friend, "if I were not afraid that half the officers would fling down their arms and three more states would rise."
Narrator: While Lincoln hesitated, thousands of slaves continued to make their way through Confederate lines. Union officers called them "contrabands." They lived crowded together in hastily built refugee camps, some within a few miles of the White House. And in spite of the dangers, more and more kept coming.
While her husband continued to resist demands to end slavery, Mary Lincoln turned for comfort to a former slave, a skilled seamstress, who had become her constant companion -- Elizabeth Keckley. Elizabeth Keckley had once worked for the woman who was to become the First Lady of the Confederate States of America, Mrs. Jefferson Davis. Now Elizabeth was one of the few people Mary felt she could trust.
Margaret Washington, Historian: Keckley dressed her, made her clothes, fixed her hair. And Keckley listened, empathized. And Mary felt she could talk to Elizabeth in a way that she could not talk to the gossiping jealous women of Washington. So they became confidantes.
Narrator: As their friendship deepened, Elizabeth found a way to help Mary. Elizabeth too had lost a son during the war. But she had learned not to let her grief overwhelm her.
Margaret Washington, Historian: Keckley could say, I know what you're going through, I lost my son too. And one way of dealing with it for me is to involve myself in ways of alleviating other people's pain.
Narrator: To assist the thousands of ex-slaves now crowded into camps behind the Union lines, Keckley had helped form the Contraband Relief Association, dedicated to providing food and clothes and finding them jobs.
"I know what liberty is," she told Mary "because I know what slavery was."
Margaret Washington, Historian: Mary was kind of impulsive and she reacted from the heart and became very interested in the plight of African Americans. And gradually Mary began to help the contrabands with Elizabeth Keckley. It opened up a different world for Mary. And in one way it was an extension of her grief, but in another way it was a way of dealing with it. But her husband did not have a real strong relationship with any African Americans. African Americans were pretty much of a mystery to Abraham Lincoln.
Narrator: That summer, he called a delegation of black leaders to the White House. It was the first time such a delegation had ever been asked to the Executive Mansion.
He wanted their reaction to a plan he was considering.
Voice of Lincoln, (David Morse): "Your race is suffering the greatest wrong inflicted on any people.... On this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours. It is a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it."
"It is better for us both to be separated. There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us."
Lincoln proposed voluntary colonization. African-Americans would be encouraged to settle elsewhere: in Liberia, Haiti, Central America. It was a variation of an old scheme for solving the problem between the races.
Margaret Washington, Historian: He told them that, I would like to have you colonized where you can be free and achieve on your own because my race will not allow you to prosper in this country. And it would be to your advantage to leave.
Narrator: When Frederick Douglass heard of the President's proposal, he charged Lincoln with "canting hypocrisy" and contempt for Negroes. His words, Douglas said, would encourage "ignorant and base" white men "to commit all kinds of violence and outrage upon colored people."
Margaret Washington, Historian: The idea of colonizing them as a way of solving the problem of race was insulting to them. And they said so; they wanted none of it. Lincoln's colonization scheme revealed his desire that the problem go away. That if African Americans would just leave then the issue would leave with them.
Narrator: By the summer of 1862, the war was going from bad to worse for the Union. On the peninsula McClellan's forces had gotten nowhere. On the Mississippi, Union armies were bogged down in front of Vicksburg. In Kentucky and Tennessee, northern troops seemed unable to stop raids by Confederate Cavalry. There was now new pressure on Lincoln to free the slaves.
James M. McPherson, Historian: The military situation had collapsed. That had the effect of convincing Lincoln that the Union had been waging this war with kid gloves. They had not struck against the heart of the rebellion. What was the heart of the rebellion? It was the slave power. It was slavery that sustained the Confederate economy. It was to defend slavery that the South had seceded in the first place. And Lincoln began to see that the Union could never win a war waged against a slave power without striking at slavery itself. The military argument was the one that would carry the most weight with Northerners who would not favor a war against slavery on moral, ideological, or political grounds but could be convinced to support emancipation as a military measure.
Mark E. Neely Jr., Historian: And he decides essentially for military reasons to attack slavery by the summer of 1862. These happily coincide with his personal, moral feelings. But now he can let his moral feelings take rein.
Narrator: On July 22, Lincoln summoned his cabinet.
Voice of Lincoln, (David Morse): "I said to the cabinet that I had resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice, but to lay the subject matter of a proclamation before them."
David Herbert Donald, Biographer: He began writing his emancipation proclamation quite privately a little bit at a time and was ready then to present it to the cabinet.
Voice of Lincoln, (David Morse): "I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, and Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, thereof, do hereby proclaim to and worn all persons..."
David Herbert Donald, Biographer: At that point, Seward, his Secretary of State, said to him, "You can't issue it now because after a series of major defeats, it would look like a last shriek on our retreat." You had to wait for a victory.
Narrator: Lincoln put his Emancipation Proclamation back in his desk and waited.
Mary Lincoln was desperate to communicate somehow with her dead sons. In the darkness of the medium's parlor, drums tapped, horns blew, bells rang, mysterious voices were heard -- all said to be messages from the dead. With thousands of men dying on the battlefields, Mary was one of many who turned to spiritualists for comfort.
Voice of Mary Lincoln, (Holly Hunter): "Only a very slight veil separates us from the loved and lost. Though unseen by us, they are very near."
Narrator: At the Soldiers Home, at a clairvoyant's house in Georgetown, even in the White House, Mary attended seances. Lincoln himself sat in on at least one. Seances, he said, reminded him of cabinet meetings. The spirits, like members of his cabinet, gave contradictory advice. But he felt that charlatans were exploiting his wife's grief.
Mary's behavior continued to alarm him. One evening at the White House, Elizabeth Keckley remembered, Lincoln steered Mary to a window and pointed to a distant building, an asylum.
Voice of Lincoln, (David Morse): "Mother, do you see that large white building on that hill yonder? Try and control your grief or it will drive you mad, and we may have to send you there."
Narrator: Mary struggled to regain her equilibrium, for Lincoln's sake if not her own.
The Lincolns began visiting army hospitals together. They brought bunches of flowers and delicacies from the White House kitchen. And they tried not to show their emotions at the terrible sights they saw all around them.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Historian: Mary would sit with the soldiers; she would talk to them and give them great comfort and take great comfort herself from being with others who were experiencing the pain of the war.
Linda Levitt Turner, Biographer: She was able to stand up against the worst conditions, the smells, the sounds, the groans, and get through it somehow, when, if a door slammed or if a book fell at home, she would jump five feet.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Historian: It took a certain strength to be willing to put herself through that. It must have reminded her of those last moments with Willy.
Narrator: When the President had other duties, Mary often made her visits alone. She read aloud to the men, served as a waitress, donated $300 worth of lemons and oranges to combat scurvy. Sometimes wounded soldiers asked her to write letters home.
Voice of Mary Lincoln, (Holly Hunter): "I am sitting by the side of your soldier boy. He has been quite sick, but is getting well. He tells me to say that he is all right. With respect for the mother of the young soldier, Mrs. A. Lincoln"
Narrator: Grateful patients named a hospital for her, but Mary kept her visits to the wounded out of the press.
"If she were worldly-wise," one of her husband's aides wrote, "she would carry newspaper correspondents every time she went.... Then she would bring the writers back to the White House, and give them some cake...and coffee."
That August, Lincoln haunted the War Department. He paced the floor and bent anxiously over the coded messages coming in from the front. The reports were all bad. On August 30, another Federal advance toward Richmond ended in defeat on the same Bull Run battlefield where the Union had been beaten a year earlier. The great victory Lincoln needed still seemed far away.
Then, on September 5, Robert E. Lee with a rebel army of 55,000 men crossed the Potomac into Maryland and seemed bent on attacking Baltimore or Washington itself. To stop him, Lincoln turned again to George McClellan, who despite his performance in battle, still had an enormous following. Members of the cabinet protested that McClellan was sure to fail. Lincoln answered only, "We must use the tools we have." The President implored McClellan: "Please do not let Lee get off without being hurt."
At first, the news from Maryland was good. McClellan caught up with Lee near the little town of Sharpsburg on Antietam Creek, had even captured copies of his battle plans. But instead of attacking right away, McClellan hesitated once again, giving Lee's army time to get into position.
The battle that finally began the next morning, September 17, would mark the bloodiest day in American history. The two great armies slammed at each other around the Dunkard Church, through the Corn Field, along a sunken country road that came to be called Bloody Lane. Union forces twice seemed on the brink of destroying the rebel army. Each time, McClellan refused to order a final assault, persuaded that Lee had reserves hidden somewhere out of sight.
By nightfall, although the Union army had lost more men, it had destroyed nearly one-third of Lee's forces. "The battle," McClellan wrote his wife, "had been sublime. Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly and that it was a masterpiece of art."
To Major General McClellan:
Voice of Lincoln, (David Morse): "God bless you and all with you. Destroy the rebel army, if possible."
Narrator: The next morning, Lee, braced for McClellan to attack him again. Lee's battered force was outnumbered three-to-one. The attack never came. Instead, McClellan ordered his men to hold their positions. Lee and his army were allowed to melt back into Virginia. Lincoln was furious. The North had lost its greatest opportunity of the war.
The losses that day were staggering: almost 6,000 dead, another 17,000 wounded. Antietam was a terrible victory. Still it was a victory -- enough for Lincoln to tell the nation of his plan for an Emancipation Proclamation. The fact that the rebels had been driven from Northern soil, he said to an aide, was a sure sign that "God has decided the question in favor of the slaves."
On September 22, Lincoln announced that all slaves in any rebel state that was not back in the Union by New Years Day, 1863 would be officially declared free.
Nine days later, Lincoln visited the Antietam battlefield. He was still fuming. He had come to believe that the war could never be won unless the rebel armies were destroyed, and he wanted to talk to McClellan in person. Their meeting was polite but tense. The President insisted there was still time to pursue the rebels and destroy the army of Robert E. Lee. If McClellan did not do so, the President hinted, he would be forced to look to someone else to lead his army.
David Herbert Donald, Biographer: When Lincoln visited McClellan, Lincoln, of course, talked with him about pursuing Lee. Why hadn't he done so earlier? When was he going to do so? When could he, in effect, bag the Confederate army? He got evasive answers on all of these points, and McClellan was simply basking in his victory, and he wasn't willing to undertake any new campaign.
Narrator: Once the President was back in Washington, the General came up with even more excuses for staying put. He needed more of everything, he said: men, arms, supplies, horses.
Voice of Lincoln, (David Morse): To Major General McClellan: "I have just read your dispatch about sore-tongued and fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the Battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?"
David Herbert Donald, Biographer: And Lincoln realized McClellan had had it. He had to wait for a time to remove McClellan. This was not an appropriate moment, but he realized that McClellan really had to go.
Voice of Mary Lincoln, (Holly Hunter): New York. November 2, 1862 "My dear husband: I have waited in vain to hear from you, yet as you are not given to letter writing, will be charitable enough to impute your silence to the right cause... Dear little Taddie is well and enjoying himself very much... I must send you his tooth...."
Narrator: Late that fall, Mary Lincoln had traveled once again to New York, where she indulged in still more of the frenzied shopping that always seemed to calm her agitated mind. At the same time, she and Elizabeth Keckley collected funds to help former slaves, huddled together in camps, desperately in need of food and supplies.
Voice of Mary Lincoln, (Holly Hunter): "Lizzie Keckley says the immense number of contrabands... are suffering intensely, many without bed covering and having to use bits of carpeting to cover themselves. Many dying of want.... I have given her the privilege of investing $200 here in bed covering. This sum I am sure you will not object to being used in this way. The cause of humanity requires it...."
Margaret Washington, Historian: This is mid-19th Century America. America is a racist society. America is a society in which in most cities African Americans cannot even ride the streetcars. So imagine Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady of the United States and Elizabeth Keckley, an African American woman seeing after freed people together. I mean imagine the First Lady involved in this kind of activity.
Narrator: For nearly a month, Mary remained away from home, writing her husband chatty letters, and reporting the political gossip she was hearing.
Voice of Mary Lincoln, (Holly Hunter): "My dear husband, Many here say they would almost worship you if you would put a fighting general in the place of McClellan. This would be splendid weather for an engagement.... I've had two suits of clothes made for Taddie, which will come to 26 dollars. Have to get some fur outside wrappings for the coachman's carriage trappings...."
Narrator: But Lincoln couldn't replace McClellan yet. The dashing General was still popular, and with Congressional Elections coming up on November 4th, the President couldn't risk alienating voters. The war was going badly, and Lincoln was already taking much of the blame.
Even some Republicans agreed with the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who wrote of Lincoln that fall: "I am much afraid that a domestic cat will not answer when one wants a Bengal tiger." Lincoln seemed exhausted, as one visitor put it, "literally bending under the weight of his burdens."
When the results of the election were in, the Republicans had lost five states that had gone for the President in 1860, including even Lincoln's own Illinois. The very next day, with nothing more to lose, Lincoln removed McClellan from command. Just five weeks later, fighting under a new General, Ambrose Burnside, the Army of the Potomac was beaten once again, this time at Fredericksburg, Virginia. More than twelve thousand Union men were cut down before Burnside, in tears, finally called a halt.
That winter, an old friend from Illinois was shocked at how Lincoln looked: "His hair is grizzled," he said, "his gait more stooping, his countenance sallow, and there is a sunken, deathly look about the large cavernous eyes. It is a lesson for human ambition to look upon."
On the morning of New Year's Day, 1863, the Executive Mansion was opened to the public. So many visitors were expected that the downstairs furniture had to be piled in the Red Room. Mary Lincoln chose the moment to mark her return to formal public life after Willy's death.
Voice of Mary Lincoln, (Holly Hunter): "My position requires my presence where my heart is so far from being. Oh, how much we have passed through since we last stood here."
Narrator: The first lady could not bear it for long and at noon, she retreated upstairs. Her husband stayed for two more hours, shaking hundreds of hands. But he had an important task to perform. He excused himself and hurried to his office.
Voice of Lincoln, (David Morse): "Whereas, on the twenty-second of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty two,"
Narrator: The time had come to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. It was to go into effect at midnight.
Mark E. Neely Jr., Historian: It's the dullest thing you've ever read. It has no soaring isms and appeals to universal freedom. And this is a person who could do that. When Lincoln wanted to turn it on there...he had no equal. And in this document he decided not to turn it on. I mean it is a matter of conscious effort.
Voice of Lincoln, (David Morse): "Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief of the Arm and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:"
David E. Long, Historian: Lincoln purposely attempted to downplay the moral aspects of the Emancipation Proclamation. He wanted it to be a solid legal document.
Narrator: The proclamation was tightly drawn. It declared free only slaves living in rebellious states. Those residing in places seized by federal troops and in the border states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Tennessee were to remain in bondage.
Margaret Washington, Historian: Emancipation Proclamation is a very limited document. It really is a beginning, it's not an end. It's only freeing those African Americans who are in rebel territory, whom he can't free anyway.
John Hope Franklin, Historian: But behind that is the notion that in due course the others will be free also. He couldn't say, "These are going to be free and this'll never be free." But he'd taken the step, and it was a process by which slaves could become free, others become free, and finally all would become free. I think there's no question about that. The symbolism is there. It's very great, very powerful, and very effective.
Narrator: Secretary of State Seward and his son Fred laid the document out on the table around which the cabinet ordinarily met. Lincoln took up a steel pen and dipped it in ink.
African Americans gathered together throughout the North and waited.
John Hope Franklin, Historian: There was some doubt, some fear, I would say, that he wouldn't come through on it. That he wouldn't really issue this proclamation. And they said, "Well, this is -- this is showtime," so to speak. This is, "You know, you've got to lay it down now. You can't put it off anymore."
Narrator: That morning, whatever doubts Lincoln may have had had vanished.
Voice of Lincoln, (David Morse): "I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper."
Narrator: His hand was stiff and swollen after all the handshaking. If they find my hand trembled, he said, they will say "he had some compunctions." But any way it is going to be done! Abraham Lincoln's hand did not tremble.
Voice of Lincoln, (David Morse): "On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Sixty-Three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."
John Hope Franklin, Historian: It becomes a rallying cry. One of the great documents of all time, that this man has set forth freedom the right of people to be free, to be free.
Narrator: "Free, free, free," an elderly ex-slave told a Washington newspaperman. "Oh, how good it is to be free and to know that what I earn is mine, and that no man can ever say he owns my body or my soul."
John Hope Franklin, Historian: This war was now a great moral effort, a great battle for the hearts and souls of men and women. It now was not merely a mechanical military operation to preserve the States. You can say all you want about savin' the Union, but now it's a war for freedom. It's a war for the emancipation of human beings.
Charles B. Strozier, Historian: And that forever changed the country but also changed Lincoln himself. Having done it, he becomes a different leader, and he becomes a different man. He grows, he changes, he becomes something that he wasn't.
Margaret Washington, Historian: It was not a role that he really wanted. And it took some growth to accept that that's what Fate and Destiny and Providence and God had thrust upon him and to accept it. And to do what he could to make it a reality.
Narrator: With his signature, Lincoln had promised a new birth of freedom, but he would somehow have to win the war to make that promise good. He would need to rally a sharply divided North, and find a general who could crush the rebel armies of the South. The hardest fighting and worst hours of Lincoln's presidency still lay ahead.
My American Experience
Of America's first 25 presidents, who is your favorite? From George Washington to William McKinley, which of the new country's leaders most helped shape America in its first century of existence?