The Civil War, 1861-1865

Author: John B. Gordon  | Date: 1861

Lincoln and Reconstruction

The Confederates who clung to those pieces of battered bunting knew they would never again wave as martial ensigns above embattled hosts; but they wanted to keep them, just as they wanted to keep the old canteen with a bullet-hole through it, or the rusty gray jackets that had been torn by canister. They loved those flags, and will love them forever, as mementoes of the unparalleled struggle. They cherish them because they represent the consecration and courage not only of Lee’s army, but of all the Southern armies, because they symbolize the bloodshed and the glory of nearly a thousand battles….

During these last scenes at Appomattox some of the Confederates were so deprest in spirit, so filled with apprehensions as to the policy to be adopted by the civil authorities at Washington, that the future seemed to them shrouded in gloom. They knew that burnt homes and fenceless farms, poverty and ashes, would greet them on their return from the war. Even if the administration at Washington should be friendly, they did not believe that the Southern States could recover in half a century from the chaotic condition in which the war had left them. The situation was enough to daunt the most hopeful and appal the stoutest hearts….

The arms were stacked and the battle-flags were folded. Those sad and suffering men, many of them weeping as they saw the old banners laid upon the stacked guns like trappings on the coffin of their dead hopes, at once gathered in compact mass around me. Sitting on my horse in the midst of them, I spoke to them for the last time as their commander. In all my past life I had never undertaken to speak where my own emotions were so literally overwhelming. I counselled such course of action as I believed most conducive to the welfare of the South and of the whole country. I told them of my own grief, which almost stifled utterance, and that I realized most keenly the sorrow that was breaking their hearts, and appreciated fully the countless and stupendous barriers across the paths they were to tread.

Reminding them of the benign Southern climate, of the fertility of their lands, of the vastly increased demand for the South’s great staple and the high prices paid for it, I offered these facts as legitimate bases of hope and encouragement. I said to them that through the rifts in the clouds then above us I could see the hand of Almighty God stretched out to help us in the impending battle with adversity; that He would guide us in the gloom, and bless every manly effort to bringback to desolated homes the sunshine and comforts of former years….

As I began to speak from my horse, large numbers of Union soldiers came near to hear what I had to say, giving me a rather queerly mixed audience. The Hon. Elihu Washburne, afterward United States Minister to France, the close friend of both president Lincoln and General Grant, was present at the surrender, as the guest of the Union commander. He either heard this parting speech or else its substance was reported to him. As soon as the formalities were ended, he made himself known to me, and in a most gracious manner exprest his pleasure at the general trend of my remarks. He assured me that the South would receive generous treatment at the hands of the general Government. My special object in referring to Mr. Washburne in this connection is to leave on record an emphatic statement made by him which greatly encouraged me. I can never forget his laconic answer to my inquiry: "Why do you think, Mr. Washburne, that the South will be generously dealt with by the Government?" "Because Abraham Lincoln is at its head," was his reply.

I knew something of Mr. Lincoln’s past history, of his lifelong hostility to slavery, of his Emancipation Proclamation and vigorous prosecution of the war; but I had no knowledge whatever of any kindly sentiment entertained by him toward the Southern people. The emphatic words of Mr. Washburne, his intimate friend and counselor, greatly interested me. I was with Mr. Washburne for several succeeding days—we rode on horseback together from Appomattox backtoward Petersburg; and his description of Mr. Lincoln’s character, of his genial and philanthropic nature, accompanied with illustrative anecdotes, was not only extremely entertaining, but was to me a revelation. He supported his declaration as to Mr. Lincoln’s kindly sentiments by giving an elaborate and detailed account of his meeting with the fixt purpose of ending the war by granting the most liberal terms, provided the Southern commissioners acquiesced in the sine qua non—the restoration of the Union.

We parted at Petersburg, and among the last things he enjoined was faith in the kindly purposes of Abraham Lincoln in reference to the Southern people. Mr. Washburne said that the President would recommend to Congress such legislation as in his opinion would promote the prosperity of the South. He was emphatic in his declaration that Mr. Lincoln desired only the restoration of the Union—that even the abolition of slavery was secondary to this prime object. He stated that the President had declared that if he could restore the Union without abolition, he would gladly do it; if he could save the Union by partial abolition of slavery, he would do it that way; but that if it became necessary to abolish slavery entirely in order to save the Union, then slavery would be abolished; that as his great object had been achieved by the surrender of Lee’s army, it would speedily be known to the Southern people that the President was deeply concerned for their welfare, that there would be no prosecutions and no discrimination, but that the States’ governmentswould be promptly recognized, and every effort made to help the Southern people. These impressive assurances were adding strength to my hopes when the whole country was shocked by the assassination of the President….

The magnanimity exhibited at Appomattox justifies me in recording here my conviction that, had it been possible for General Grant and his soldiers to foresee the bloody sweat which through ten successive years was to be wrung from Southern brows, the whole Union army would then and there have resolved to combat all unfriendly legislation. Or, later, if Booth’s bullet had not terminated the life filled with "charity to all and malice toward none," President Lincoln’s benign purposes, seconded by the great-hearted among our Northern countrymen, would have saved the South from those caricatures of government which cursed and crushed her.

In looking back now over that valley of death—the period of reconstruction—its waste and its woe, it is hard to realize that the worn and impoverished Confederates were able to go through it. The risen South of to-day is a memorial of the same patience, endurance, and valor which immortalized the four years’ struggle for Southern independence.


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Chicago: John B. Gordon, "Lincoln and Reconstruction," The Civil War, 1861-1865 in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.9, Pp.3-7 Original Sources, accessed December 1, 2022,

MLA: Gordon, John B. "Lincoln and Reconstruction." The Civil War, 1861-1865, in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.9, Pp.3-7, Original Sources. 1 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Gordon, JB, 'Lincoln and Reconstruction' in The Civil War, 1861-1865. cited in , Great Epochs in American History, Vol.9, Pp.3-7. Original Sources, retrieved 1 December 2022, from