This man trusted in human nature. He believed that if he could just contain slavery’s expansion it would gradually collapse under the weight of its own oppression. But others desired war and left him no choice. So to preserve an imperfect union, an imperfect leader called imperfect men to fight a particularly imperfect war with weapons that demanded hand-to-hand combat, mutilated more than it killed, and left the majority dead from sickness and disease.
Over the course of a few days at Gettysburg there were 51,000 casualties—dead, wounded, injured, sick, captured or missing in action; over the course of the war, our nation saw more than five percent of its 1860 adult male population killed in the line of duty. As a percentage of today’s population, this means that in a single battle there was the equivalent of a half-million combatant casualties, and by the end of the war every adult male in the combined cities of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago was dead. This war opened wounds, some of which haven’t healed to this day.
Abraham Lincoln thoroughly understood his inadequacies and imperfections. He most likely saw them deep in the questioning eyes of the frightened boys he called to service. Yet the Commander-in-Chief actively sought out the solders in the field, and his concern for them took its toll. One soldier who marched passed his president observed, “He was on horseback, and his severely plain, black citizen’s dress set him in bold relief against the crowd of generals in full uniform. . . we passed close to him, so that he could look into our faces and we into his. . . None of us to our dying day can forget that countenance. . . he is bearing the burdens of the nation. It is an awful load; it is killing him. . . he is not long for this world.”