By December 1862, Lincoln had discovered a new strategy that he called “doing the arithmetic.” The Union suffered a bloody defeat at Fredericksburg, in December 1862, but one of Lincoln’s secretaries noted his reaction: “We lost 50 percent more men than did the enemy [the actual differential was 140 percent], and yet there is a sense in the awful arithmetic propounded by Mr. Lincoln. He says that if the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under [Gen. Robert E.] Lee would be wiped out to its last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host, the war would be over, the Confederacy gone.”
Lincoln looked for, and eventually found, generals like Ulysses Grant who would do the arithmetic. In May 1864, Grant ordered Union assaults at the Wilderness that cost 18,000 Union casualties to 10,800 for the Confederates, and at Spotsylvania Court House, with a cost of 18,000 Northern soldiers in comparison to 9,000 Southerners. Cold Harbor in June 1864 was even worse: The Confederates had 1,500 casualties that day, the Union 7,000. Northerners prior to the assault wrote their names and addresses on slips of paper and pinned them on the backs of their coats, so their bodies could be recognized. One of the dead Northerners left a bloodstained diary with a final entry: “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.”
Doing the arithmetic also meant waging war on civilians who supported the soldiers. That became common with saturation bombing in World War II, but at the beginning of the Civil War, the code found Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field (General Orders No. 100) was different: “The unarmed citizen is to be spared in person, property, and honor. … [A]ll robbery, all pillage or sacking, even after taking a place by main force, all rape, wounding, maiming, or killing of such inhabitants, are prohibited under the penalty of death.”
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman pioneered in applying that penalty to the South. During 1863 his forces in Mississippi sacked, pillaged, and burned down towns and plantation homes. Afterward, Sherman bragged to Grant, “The inhabitants are subjugated. They cry aloud for mercy. … They have sowed the wind and must reap the whirlwind.” He bombarded Atlanta, and its conquest in September 1864 allowed Lincoln to win reelection and led many Northern Baptists and Methodists to praise “the hand of God in the success of our arms.” Journalist James Gilmore, interviewing Lincoln after the Atlanta victory, came away thinking that the president saw himself as God’s agent “led infallibly in the right direction.”
Sherman’s forces marched from Atlanta to the Atlantic, then turned north and ravaged South Carolina. Sherman explained, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.” The Philadelphia Inquirer observed that the destruction of South Carolina “is but justice, and Heaven will surely mete it out … the world will approve her punishment, and to the sentence of righteous retribution will say, Amen!” Lincoln read military dispatches and accounts in the New York Herald that described devastation and noted that soldiers “throw in an occasional murder ‘just to bring an old hard-fisted cuss to his senses.’”
The ends justified the means to many in the North. Professor Roswell Hitchcock of Presbyterian Union Theological Seminary wrote, “The hand of God is so conspicuous to me in this struggle, that I should almost as soon expect the Almighty to turn slaveholder, as to see this war end without the extinction of its guilty cause.” But was there only one guilty cause? Lincoln had been troubled about this earlier, but two weeks after the destruction of Columbia, S.C., Lincoln in his second inaugural address showed that his mind was made up.
Curiously, that speech, with its call to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” is often cited as evidence of Lincoln’s emphasis on reconciliation. But the address also showed Lincoln’s theological changes during the war. “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away,” he said. “Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid with another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”
Was that God’s will? How many drops of blood were there? Lincoln’s understanding of God had changed his public policy emphases. At first, he had ignored God except when it was politically useful to take His name in vain, and repeatedly sought to control the dogs of war. Then, Lincoln had speculated repeatedly about God’s will, as the war dragged on with no resolution in sight. Finally, Lincoln came to believe that a war of attrition and attacks on civilians was militarily necessary and morally defensible, both because such conduct would end the war sooner, and because civilians who had benefited from the bondsman’s toil were culpable.
These days we tend to assume that a growing reliance on Christ will make a leader more peaceful. In Lincoln’s case, it made him more willing to follow a brutal path, and to see it as God’s will. Given Lincoln’s tenderhearted tendency to identify with the wounded, he psychologically needed a plaque on his desk that stated, “The buck does not stop here.” He wrote to one newspaper editor in 1864 that he was not responsible for devastation: “God alone can claim it.”
By then, God alone could claim Lincoln. George McClellan, the general who followed military etiquette, was the Democrats’ presidential candidate in 1864. He was ready to broker a compromise peace and probably represented the American consensus until the conquest of Atlanta just before the 1864 election showed Northern victory was at hand. But Lincoln’s newfound faith pushed him to persevere.