Research Exercise: The Wadsworth Letter

In the comments section Helga Ross makes reference to a debate over the authenticity of a letter purportedly written by Abraham Lincoln to James S. Wadsworth in early 1864. The letter’s text does not bear a date, but it must have been written between the beginning of 1864 and the Battle of the Wilderness, where Wadsworth was killed.

You desire to know, in the event of our complete success in the field, the same being followed by a loyal and cheerful submission on the part of the South, if universal amnesty should not be accompanied with universal suffrage.

Now, since you know my private inclinations as to what terms should be granted to the South in the contingency mentioned, I will here add, that if our success should thus be realized, followed by such desired results, I cannot see, if universal amnesty is granted, how, under the circumstances, I can avoid exacting in return universal suffrage, or, at least, suffrage on the basis of intelligence and military service.

How to better the condition of the colored race has long been a study which has attracted my serious and careful attention; hence I think I am clear and decided as to what course I shall pursue in the premises, regarding it a religious duty, as the nation’s guardian of these people, who have so heroically vindicated their manhood on the battle-field, where, in assisting to save the life of the Republic, they have demonstrated in blood their right to the ballot, which is but the humane protection of the flag they have so fearlessly defended.

The restoration of the Rebel States to the Union must rest upon the principle of civil and political equality of the both races; and it must be sealed by general amnesty [1].


New York Tribune, September 26, 1865; Scribner’s Magazine, January, 1893. This extract was widely reprinted in newspapers from the source indicated in the Tribune as follows:

“The Southern Advocate of the 18th inst. says:

“The following extract, which has just been published, is from the late President Lincoln’s letter to Gen. Wadsworth, who fell in the battle of the Wilderness. The letter, which is of a private character, is to be sent to Gen. Wadsworth’s family.

‘”It shows that Mr. Lincoln, who desired the bestowal of the elective franchise upon the blacks, was also, at an early day, in favor of granting universal amnesty, which, for some strange and unaccountable reason, is still withheld from the South, notwithstanding it is known that it was his intention to grant, without any exception, a general pardon.

“‘His wishes, in this particular, the American people cannot afford to disregard. Congress will, no doubt, exact the right of suffrage for the blacks. Why universal amnesty should be withheld until that time, we are unable to see. This, certainly, was not Mr. Lincoln’s plan, whose intentions all parties should sacredly observe.

“‘The following is the extract referred to, in which Mr. Lincoln says: [extract as given above].'”

The Southern Advocate has not been located, and no other reference has been found to the original letter to Wadsworth. The contents of the excerpt is, however, closely in keeping with views expressed by Lincoln elsewhere (see Fragment, August 26, 1863, supra), and seems to be genuine. The date assigned is based upon the fact that General Wadsworthreturned from his tour of inspection of freedmen in the Mississippi Valley on December 3, 1863, and on the supposition that Lincoln’s letter would probably have been written some time thereafter, but in any case prior to May, 1864, since Wadsworthwas killed in the Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-7, 1864.

[1]   This paragraph does not appear in the newspaper accounts, but is included in the article by Marquis de Chambrun in Scribner’s Magazine.

So runs the text and the annotation in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, volume 7, pages 101-2.

Your assignment is a simple one: is the letter authentic?

Discussion 2: Warren’s The Legacy of the Civil War

It sometimes pays to read (and reread) an entire book, rather than recall it through clips filtered through commentators.  Take Robert Penn Warren’s The Legacy of the Civil War, the subject of today’s continuing discussion.  For every point he makes that resonates, there are others where he misfires, confuses, or loses his way, as one learns by picking up the discussion at page 40.

First, what do you make of the conclusion to the study of American pragmatism as a product of a war where the extremes were “higher law” and “legalism”?  What do you make of his claim that the non-ideological nature of American political parties is rooted in a reaction to the war … that Americans embrace blurry party lines because the last time they embraced sharp ones, war resulted?  Is this more about etching a historical perspective of the development of American philosophical and political thought, or is this more about Warren, who, after all, is writing during the Cold War and the civil rights movement?

Second, Warren comments on two concepts that become somewhat muddled in his treatment of them: the cost of the war (as in the loss of life, the destruction of property, and so on) and what was lost in a larger sense because of the war.  Accepting that the war came with an enormous price tag, what else was “lost” as a result of the war?  Was the war worth the cost?  Were there other ways to grasp the gains without sustaining the losses?  All in all, was the war “a Good Thing,” despite all this? A necessary evil?

Did the Civil War do “the South” (I assume this really means white southerners) a favor by ridding the South of slavery?

It is when we come to the bottom of page 53 that Warren hits his stride in the eyes of his admirers.  It is there that he begins his construction of the Great Alibi and the Treasury of Virtue.  Again, Warren fails to see the South as anything other than white southerners who harken back to the Confederacy as a touchstone of identity.

What exactly is the Great Alibi?  Do some white southerners still employ it?  Is it uniquely southern?

What exactly is the Treasury of Virtue?  Is it uniquely northern?  As Warren employs it, does he see it so clearly because the Treasure of Virtue (as he defines it) is used by white northerners at the expense of white southerners?  Or is is a also in part a construction of a white southerner who feels that the South (and thus himself) is unfairly targeted?

Is northern racism forgotten? Is moral narcissism simply northern?

On page 76, Warren observes that both the Great Alibi and the Treasury of Virtue “serve deep needs of poor human nature; and if, without historical realism and self-criticism, we look back on the War, we are merely compounding the old inherited delusions which our weakness craves.”  What do you make of this?

I await your comments.

The Civil War: The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It (Update)

Well, much to my surprise, The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It, which I coedited along with Stephen W. Sears and Aaron Sheehan-Dean for the Library of America, and which appeared just this past February, is #11 among best sellers in U.S. History of all books published since August 2010 according to Library Journal.

It was nice of us to give some other people a head start, I guess.