Jewish World Review Feb. 12, 2002 / Rosh Chodesh Adar, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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A word for Lincoln --- and perseverance

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- IT was the decisive battle of The War. That's what all the history books say: The vaunted Army of Northern Virginia, with the South's greatest captain at its head, had driven north in a move as daring as it might have been decisive. After two years of tumultuous war, the power and courage of the South had been gathered up, narrowed to a fine point and hurled into the heart of the enemy.

That whole magnificent army -- not in weaponry or supplies but magnificent in its endurance, in its cunning, in its sheer physical courage -- had done its worst, or best. And now, after three days of terrible conflict around an obscure town in Pennsylvania that would never be obscure again, it had been turned back. Gettysburg had entered history.

For the first time, a Union army had not just held Bobby Lee but made him retreat headlong, his army shattered, happy just to make it back to Virginia. After a series of failed generals, Mr. Lincoln had found a winner: George C. Meade.

You'd think the president would have been jubilant. Instead he was incensed. For in the Telegraph Office, he had read Meade's order to his troops to "drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.'' The commander-in-chief couldn't believe it. Like McClellan, Meade was going to be satisfied to stop Lee rather than defeat him. "Will our generals never get that idea out of their heads!'' he complained bitterly to his old friend and aide, John Hay. "The whole country is our soil.''

Even after Gettysburg, even after victory, Mr. Lincoln understood something that all the generals he had run through till then did not: It would not be enough to save only half the Union. It would not be enough to turn back the enemy. That would not be victory but defeat. It was all American soil.

The president was furious at the general who had brought him his greatest victory -- because George C. Meade did not seem to have the least comprehension of what victory meant in this war. Halfway measures would not do. Only when there was no longer a threat to the Union, when these disunited states were united again, all of them, without exception, would it be time to end the pursuit. Till then there must be no pause.

Furious, frustrated, but unswerving, Abraham Lincoln returned to his search for a general who would understand. He reorganized the whole command structure, handed the Army of the Potomac over to a new commander from out West with a dubious personal reputation, and placed all the armies of the United States under his control. It was an act of either desperation or genius -- or both.

The only thing Abraham Lincoln knew about this Grant was that he fought, that he never gave up, that he would try and try again, no matter how many times it took to take an objective -- as the defenders of Vicksburg had just discovered. Told that the general drank, Abe Lincoln wanted to know Sam Grant's preference -- so he could send a barrel of it to his other generals.

It is only in retrospect, with the glib hindsight of history, that Gettysburg is seen as the decisive battle of The War. What would have happened if Mr. Lincoln had stuck with the general who thought American soil ended where Pennsylvania did? Or if the president had chosen another of those glamorous military geniuses whose idea of war was to maneuver elegantly, rather than close with the enemy, again and again if necessary, and destroy him?

Those who must make history do not have the luxury we do, of looking back and proclaiming that, after this battle or that, after Antietam or Gettysburg, the die had been cast, the outcome decided. Because it wasn't. If it was over, Lee and what was left of the Army of Northern Virginia didn't know it was over. PB

That army may not have had shoes, but it never lacked heart. It would have followed its commander anywhere, through Hell and back, and did. Through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor, the endless siege of Petersburg ... . In one month alone, 12 May to 12 June, 1864, Grant's losses (60,000) equaled Lee's entire force.

No wonder, to quote one historian, "War weariness was creeping over the North like a pall. There was a rising peace sentiment.'' By August of that election year, Lincoln was writing a secret memorandum noting that he was likely to lose the presidential contest, and the war with it. Only in history, only in retrospect, are outcomes certain.

After the Battle of the Wilderness in May of 1864, fought over the same ground where Lee-and-Jackson had sent "Fighting'' Joe Hooker reeling only the year before, Grant kept coming. Instead of retreating back across the Rappahannock after being bloodied, in the grand tradition of every Union commander from McClellan to Hooker, Grant moved ... south. Despite the carnage, he was threatening Lee again. That's when Mr. Lincoln knew he had found his general.

So did Robert E. Lee. This scruffy general was not like the others. "I propose to fight it out in this line if takes all summer,'' Grant had informed his commander-in-chief. It would. It would take a whole year. And when others urged the president to relieve this butcher, Mr. Lincoln would only say: "I can't spare this man -- he fights.''

It is scarcely conceivable today what it cost to save this Union -- in lives or suffering. In this bloodiest of American wars, all those killed, on both sides, were ours -- countrymen whether they realized it or not. In four years, 600,000 dead. To quote the historian James McPherson, "That was 2 percent of the American population of 1861. If 2 percent of the Americans were today to lose their lives in a war fought by this country, the number of American war dead would be 5 million.''

Little wonder that war-weariness crept over the North like a pall -- and the South. Yet they fought on. Each death seemed etched in Abraham Lincoln's lined face. Still he persevered, until he would prove one of the last casualties.

In his Second Inaugural, as close to biblical prose as suffering has ever brought a nation, he had explained why he would not, could not, relent:

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so it still must be said, that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.''

The Americans of 1861-65, who saw a new birth of freedom, who witnessed one nation indivisible emerge out of the fiery furnace of a terrible war, were not made of sugar candy. They could not know which battle would prove decisive; each was decisive for those engaged in it. And the lone figure at the center of that fiery storm well understood that one victory, however great, does not a war make.

Today this one nation is engaged in another, different conflict, one like none other we have known, a war waged against us by a shadowy enemy. And again we are urged to proclaim the war over with one victory. Allies overseas and even some of our countrymen cannot understand why our leaders should insist on continuing this war, on rooting out the enemy rather than just holding this evil at bay. Can't we be satisfied with victory? Why must we identify other sources of danger and prepare to act against them?

Today, Abraham Lincoln's birthday, would be a good day to think on perseverance -- utter, unconditional, unending, undistractable perseverance -- and why it is so necessary . Even after a supposedly decisive victory.

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