Lincoln Speaks Online Exhibition: Documents

In the trenches

A dead Confederate soldier in the trenches of Fort Mahone, also known as “Fort Damnation,” Virginia, 1865

Confederate soldier

Photograph, Confederate soldier killed at Petersburg, Virginia, 1864.

Union dead

Union soldiers killed while charging a Confederate artillery battery at Antietam, Maryland, 1862.

Lincoln Upholds Execution of a Condemned Slave Trader

This document stands out in the history of a man renowned for his mercy and willingness to forgive. His refusal to grant the condemned Nathaniel Gordon clemency for his capital crime made Lincoln the only American president to execute a slave trader. Predictably, Lincoln’s decision caused a huge public stir. The execution made an example […]

Lincoln Urges Immediate Action

By September, Tennessee was under Union control, and this letter to Johnson is considerably more imperative than usual, as Lincoln told him “not a moment should be lost [in] re-inaugurating a loyal state government.” Despite the exigency, Lincoln remained reasonable in his tone, deferring to Johnson’s local knowledge and offering “a few suggestions” only. With […]

Lincoln Remembered By a Former Slave

In this 1909 tribute to Lincoln delivered to the Republican Club of New York City, Booker T. Washington remembers his mother on the dirt floor of their slave cabin praying that Lincoln would succeed in ending slavery. Now a prominent public figure, the former slave Washington sees Lincoln’s legacy as the “blending of all tongues, […]

The Commander in Chief Gives an Order

Facing a crisis that threatened the security of Washington, DC, Lincoln erupts at the bureaucratic delay and angrily orders General Charles H. Russell to move troops to Fort Monroe, 180 miles from the capital: “I want you to cut the Knots and send them right along.” In his haste he mistakenly writes “Fort Sumpter” where […]

The Abolition of Slavery as a Precondition

In this memorandum, Lincoln deftly prohibits the efforts of Louisiana planters to hold an election under a state constitution that preserved slavery. Instead Lincoln insists on a state constitutional convention that would implement antislavery measures. Thus Lincoln subtly signals that Louisiana will not be readmitted to the Union until slavery is abolished. Lincoln skillfully cloaks […]

Lincoln Curbs Burnside’s Violations of Civil Liberties

Lincoln came under fire for wartime measures that suspended the writ of habeas corpus, jailed newspaper editors, and tried civilians in military tribunals. Responding to critics who decried his violations of civil liberties, Lincoln argued that such acts were essential to the nation’s survival. This memo to Stanton, however, shows that Lincoln did not always […]

The President Demands Better for His Troops

As an active commander in chief, Lincoln personally tested the innovative Spencer repeater carbines, or “navy rifles.” Despite being pressured to approve the weapon, Lincoln demanded its flaws be corrected before it was issued to his troops. This letter shows Lincoln’s sense of responsibility—in word and deed—to the troops and his insistence on high standards. […]