Q&A with S.C. Gwynne, author of ‘Hymns of the Republic’

The historian examines how the Civil War’s outcome hinged on the uncertain prospect of Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in 1864.

Courtesy of Kenny Braun
Historian S.C. Gwynne appears with his new book “Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War.”

President Abraham Lincoln is such a beloved presence in American history that it seems as if his mythical status was inevitable. But Lincoln’s journey was not preordained. As the war ground on into its fourth year in 1864, Lincoln assumed voters would throw him out of the White House. What happened? Historian S.C. Gwynne chronicles the turnarounds in his fascinating and immensely readable “Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War.” He talked with Monitor correspondent Randy Dotinga. 

Q: What is the state of the Civil War in early 1864 as a presidential election looms? 

It’s less certain than ever what is going to happen to the country, and it’s all about whether Lincoln is going to win or lose at the ballot box. He had two requirements: The Union gets put back together again and slavery is abolished. If Lincoln wins, then everybody knows he’s going to pursue the war until it’s won. But let’s say Lincoln loses. In that case, the assumption is that there’s going to be peace. It’s not clear what kind of peace, but people are going to come together and stop the fighting. So it all comes down to one guy. 

Q: Why isn’t the war a cakewalk for the North, which has more men and resources? 

One reason is Robert E. Lee. The Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia is the closest thing in American history to an invincible force. They’d won many battles when they had been outnumbered 2:1. At some point, the idea of Lee as indomitable becomes as potent as his army in a lot of ways. But the more Lee wins – or doesn’t lose – the more the South is destroyed. And the war doesn’t end. You see the rise of guerrilla and anti-civilian warfare, the rise of these horrible prison camps. The economic destruction of the South arises from its essential failure to lose the war.

Q: What is the key to the success of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant?

Lincoln had this problem finding a general who is willing basically to go in and hammer, and just keep hammering, and fight a war of attrition. Grant was that general. The rap on Grant is that he’s a butcher who’s just going to shove these guys into battles and have them cut into pieces. I admire Grant very much and think he was a decent guy, but there was something about him that you can’t deny: He didn’t mind sacrificing men. 

Q: How bad did things get for Lincoln?

If you had polled the nation and certainly [if you had asked those in] the corridors of power in August of 1864, a few months before the November election, Lincoln would have lost by a significant margin. [Critics said] he was mismanaging this terrible war and messing with civil liberties. Hundreds of thousands of people were dying, and everything was going just horribly. Lincoln himself was convinced he was going to lose. He was trying to figure out how to plan the transition in such a way that he could end the war before the new president came in.

Q: What lessons can we learn from Lincoln?

He had this absolute steadfastness. There were so many places where he could have wavered, given in a little bit, and said, “Let’s get together at the peace table, and we’ll work it out and stop this war.” He wouldn’t do it. He wanted to treat the Southerners in a kindly way after the war. But he just simply wouldn’t budge on the question of abolition of slavery. His success came after perseverance that was almost unimaginable.

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