By Congressman Joe Pitts
Last week marked 150 years since the epic battle of Gettysburg. There is no single field of combat more well-known in our nation and for good reason. Had the Union armies fallen apart at Gettysburg, the agricultural and industrial heart of Pennsylvania would have been opened to Confederate forces.
I realize it’s quite a popular choice, but I am not the least bit ashamed to say that Lincoln is one of my personal heroes. In my office in Washington, I have framed four sketches I drew of the great man. They show him through the years of his presidency and you can see how he aged. The war took a physical toll on him, as the cares of the office weighed him down.
Lincoln was by no means a perfect man, but I do not see how any other political figure of his day could have borne the weight of the war and reunited the country. His qualities of intelligence, empathy, and conviction combined to form the man we needed to bring a greater freedom to the United States.
Lincoln was no general. He did not attend West Point and his only military service did not include any epic battles. However, he saw clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the Northern army. General George McClellan had a high view of his own intelligence and a low view of the President, writing of Lincoln as the “original gorilla.” But it was Lincoln who knew that the war would not be won by the North with clever maneuvers. Overwhelming force and a willingness to engage was the needed quality.
Lincoln found that in Grant, a man who doggedly went after the critical city of Vicksburg. Despite repeated failures, Grant kept at the problem of the well-defended city until he found success. He would apply this same hard-headedness to the more vexing problem of getting to Richmond.
The Civil War was the greatest loss of life our nation has ever seen. Families across the North lost their fathers, sons, and brothers. Only a leader of incredible empathy could give them the confidence to bear this burden. In his letter to a mother who lost five of her sons to the war, Lincoln showed how deeply he felt the loss of these young men: “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.”
The American people could trust that the President understood their pain and was not recklessly sending soldiers to their deaths. He felt the loss also and found deeply eloquent ways to express his pain that have stood the test of time.
Finally, Lincoln had a unique confidence that was necessary to see the war to its end. Surely, he must have been tempted time and time again to end the conflict short of reuniting the country. At the beginning of the war, he was still prepared to put aside his own opposition to slavery in order to avoid bloodshed.
But when war came, he maintained an outward confidence that outmatched most of his generals and the politicians of his era. We know that he had dark moments of the soul and personal doubts about his own quality. However, he did not let this undermine his ability to prosecute the war and to find military leaders who would share his same confidence.
We live in cynical times, where it can be popular to tear down the leaders of the past and focus on their weaknesses. Lincoln, like any other man, had weaknesses. Sometimes he trusted the wrong men to carry on the war. His marriage suffered as a result of his duties as Commander-in-Chief. He violated the Constitution because he worried that the enemy would use its freedoms to undermine the war.
We may doubt some of his individual choices, but I do not see how we could doubt his incredible leadership. As we reflect on Gettysburg, we cannot help but think of his immortal words: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” It was his own qualities that ensured this would remain true to this day.