Section V: Healing a Nation

Lincoln was a kindly man, who by his own estimate probably had “too little” of the feeling of personal resentment —“a man has not time to spend half his life in quarrels,” he reflected. He saw the irony that, as someone who did not bear a grudge, he had found himself at the center of such a profound conflict.

Lincoln’s lifelong belief in America’s national destiny and common purpose, however, led him to sanction an intensification of the war after the summer of 1862. It could no longer be fought, he said, “with elder stalk squirts charged with rosewater.” His emancipation policy marked the end of conciliation, led to a developing assault on the South’s people and economy, and prompted deep hostility in parts of the North.

As the end of this “hard war” approached, Lincoln sought to heal the wounds. At his second inauguration, with the Confederacy speedily crumbling, he called for a magnanimous postwar reconciliation. The crowd had expected the language of triumph; instead, he chose not to blame, spoke inclusively, emphasized the shared experience of—and God’s judgment on—both sides in the conflict, and urged no vengeance toward the South. Of all Lincoln’s words, these are the most transformative.