Lincoln’s Reply to Greeley Published: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it….”

August 23, 1862 (Saturday)

President Abraham Lincoln’s reply to Horace Greeley’s “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” first appeared in print for the public to read in Washington’s Daily National Intelligencer on this date.

Greeley’s “Prayer,” was an open letter to the President, appearing in his New York Tribune on the 20th. In it, he explains just why many who voted for him were now “sorely disappointed and deeply pained by the policy you seem to be pursuing with regard to the slaves of the Rebels.”

Greeley believed that Lincoln was too influenced by the border slaves states, and found in his heart a soft spot for these supporters of slavery. He wanted Lincoln “to consider that Slavery is everywhere the inciting cause and sustaining base of treason: the most slaveholding sections of Maryland and Delaware being this day, though under the Union flag, in full sympathy with the Rebellion.”

He strongly criticized the enforcement of the Confiscation Act, accusing Lincoln of allowing his Generals to ignore it. Those who did not, like Generals Fremont and Hunter, were censured. Greeley wanted Lincoln to emancipate the slaves – all of them. Slavery was the cause of the war and if the slaves were free, the South would crumble and the Union would be saved.1

Typically, a public figure, such as Lincoln, would simply ignore such public letters. Many had crossed his desk since the war began, and many others filled the editorial columns of the various newspapers of the North. This letter, however, caused quite a stir, as it hit the President in the heart. Outwardly, Lincoln had no reaction. No mention is made by any of the Cabinet members in their diaries or memoirs of the President breathing a word about “The Prayer of the Twenty Millions.” Even Lincoln’s own biographers, John Hay and John Nicolay, record any reaction. Yet, on this date, there it was in black and white, in the pages of Daily National Intelligencer.2

The President’s response was short, concise, and seemed very much like the final words on the matter (though Greeley would add a lengthy response when he republished it on the 25th). Lincoln started off as if he were surprised that Greeley and his readers had failed to see the policy the President was pursuing.

“I would save the Union,” wrote Lincoln succinctly. “I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be ‘the Union as it was.'”

In his original draft, Lincoln crossed out his oft-used, old-timey phrase,”Broken eggs can never be mended, and the longer the breaking proceeds the more will be broken.” Instead, he got down to business.

Lincoln Crushing the Dragon of Rebellion by David Gilmour Blythe

“If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”3


Jackson the Grouch and Sigel the Snail Almost Battle; Pope About to Get a Slew of Reinforcements

Stonewall Jackson was in a bind. Or rather, it was General Jubal Early, commanding the Confederate brigade trapped on the north side of the flooded Rappahannock River, who was bound. Jackson had wanted to push more troops across the river the previous day, establishing a foothold on the Union side, but a flash flood caused by an unbelievably intense rainstorm, stopped him. Now all the gruff commander could do was wait and hope that the Federals on the other side were slow to react.

Jubal Early

Luckily for Jackson, it was General Franz Sigel’s corps across the overflowing, muddy water. Even Sigel’s commander, General John Pope, called him “slow and stupid.” Pope planned to cross the river with his entire army and hit General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on its right flank and rear. But here was General Sigel telling him that somehow Stonewall Jackson had in effect done the same thing – crossing the river and hitting him in the right flank.

Rather than a gigantic flank attack, Pope decided to meet Lee head on. He believed that Jackson’s foothold across the river (the single brigade under General Early) was the vanguard to Lee’s entire army. At dawn, he ordered Sigel to “stand firm and let the enemy develop towards Warrenton.” Pope wanted as much of Lee’s army to cross as possible. The Federals were soon to receive a stream of reinforcements, and if he could get the Rappahannock in Lee’s rear, he could crush him.

By 7:15am, however, Pope changed his mind. He saw how swollen the river was and understood that there was no chance Lee could cross any more troops. “The enemy, therefore, on this side is cut off from those on the other,” wrote Pope, “and there is no fear of this position.” Sigel was given Banks and Reno’s Corps for support and told to attack, and to “leave nothing behind you.”4

Sigel: "Slowdown, my dear bearded friend!"

Sigel moved, but slowly, and wouldn’t have his men in position for many hours. Meanwhile, across the river, Jackson was in a noticeably foul mood. He watched the waters and spoke little to anyone. There was nothing he could do to fix this. When an officer, such as General Taliaferro or General A.P. Hill came to speak with him, he was rude and angry.

But as the morning ground away to the afternoon, the waters began to recede. Soon, it was shallow enough to begin construction on a bridge. Jackson personally oversaw the ordeal. It didn’t take long before the General was covered in mud. But within a handful of hours, a span of driftwood and various bits of debris crossed the river.

Probably surprised that the Federals had allowed all of this to happen, Jackson sent word to Early to begin the withdrawal. Jackson’s mood brightened when he saw his brigadier, praising his “skill & presence of mind.”5

Today's map is extra approximate.

On General Lee’s right, Longstreet’s wing was engaged throughout the day in a vicious artillery duel as the Rebels tried to dislodge the Federals under General Irvin McDowell from Beverly Ford and the railroad bridge across the Rappahannock. McDowell had been ordered by Pope to leave the river and move to Warrenton. To obey Lee’s command, all Longstreet really had to do was let them go. Of course, he couldn’t have known that.

General Phil Kearny is arrived!

As Sigel, Banks and Reno left their positions along the river to chase down Jubal Early’s trapped brigade, and as McDowell was finally able to extract his men towards Warrenton, Union reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac streamed towards Pope. Men from General Fitz John Porter’s Corps had already arrived, taking Reno’s place at Kelly’s Ford, while some of General Philip Kearny’s men were at Catlett’s. Waiting for trains at Alexandria were troops under Heinzelman, Hooker and General Cox from Western Virginia. Still more were coming into Aquia Landing.6 Very soon, all 90,000 men of General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac would be with General Pope’s 50,000. When combined, this monster of an army, this leviathan of men would have only one objective: to destroy a pittling force roughly one-third of their number.

First, however, they would have to figure out how to make General Pope and McClellan fight the Rebels instead of each other.

  1. “The Prayer of the Twenty Millions,” by Horace Greeley, written on August 19, 1862. As appearing in the New York Tribune, August 20, 1862. []
  2. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation; The End of Slavery in America by Allen C. Guelzo, Simon & Shuster, 2004. []
  3. Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, written on August 22, 1862. First appeared in print on August 23, 1862. As printed in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 2, p60-61. []
  5. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
  6. Return to Bull Run by John J. Hennessy, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. []
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Lincoln’s Reply to Greeley Published: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it….” by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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2 thoughts on “Lincoln’s Reply to Greeley Published: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it….”

  1. Eric: I look forwards to reading your post every day and I especially like the maps that go with them. Keep plugging!

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