(This was a list of mini-bios for the cast of Kentucky Repertory Theater’s “Abraham Lincoln.”)
The primary cause of the Civil War was whether slavery, once restricted to the South, could be extended into the territories as westward expansion occurred. The Compromise of 1820, the Wilmot Proviso, and the Compromise of 1850 all attempted to settle the issue of the South’s “peculiar institution,” to no effect. Lincoln’s lifelong political opponent, Stephen Douglas, advocated “popular sovereignty” – allowing each state or territory to decide whether it would be free or slave, in an attempt to stave off insurrection and appease the South. Lincoln argued that such was not the case; that the Founding Fathers had deliberately limited slavery to the South to “place it on the road to extinction,” as noted by Lincoln biographer Stephen B. Oates. After the southern states seceded, Lincoln originally hoped to preserve the Union with all institutions intact – including slavery. Though he thought slavery a particular evil, preservation of the Union had to take precedence over everything. What follows is a brief presentation of the characters, events, and historical “compressions” mentioned in Abraham Lincoln. At the end is a bibliography of works consulted in compiling this list. Following that is a summation of the most relevant legislation in the fight against the expansion of slavery.
I. People & Events
Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-82) – Abraham Lincoln’s wife; she was the daughter of an aristocratic Kentucky family who initially would not consent for her to marry Lincoln. During the Civil War, she had a full, three half, and three brothers-in-law serving in the Confederate Army, which led to whispers in Washington that she was a Confederate sympathizer. She was disliked by William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner in Illinois, as well as by Lincoln’s personal secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. The loss of their son, Willie, and of her husband crushed her. As she was being led away from Lincoln’s body after the assassination, she said “Oh my God, and have I given my husband to die?”
John Brown (1800-59) – Northern Abolitionist who armed and supported anti-slavery forces. In Kansas, when the state’s status as a slave or free was under debate, he and his group dragged five pro-slavery men out of their cabins and butchered them. He later led the charge on Harper’s Ferry armory in Virginia, but was captured by troops under the command of Robert E. Lee. He was sentenced to death and hanged. The song “John Brown’s Body Lies A’Mouldering in its Grave,” as well as its counterpart “We’re Gonna Hang Jeff Davis from a Sour Apple Tree” is sung to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (1824-63) – Confederate general; headed a detachment of Virginia Military Institute cadets at the hanging of John Brown. His career as a West Point cadet was characterized by a slow start with exponential improvement. He distinguished himself in battle first at Bull Run in 1861 when he helped route Union troops, earning him the nickname “Stonewall.” As the war progressed, he was indispensable to the Confederate Army, earning victories at Shenandoah, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. He was mortally wounded in a friendly fire incident; his loss was so great that General Robert E. Lee remarked “I do not know how to replace him.” Jackson was said to “live by the New Testament and fight by the Old.”
Play Quote: “They wanted to make him governor of Oregon…” – The Taylor administration’s political patronage offer to Lincoln; it first wanted to make him secretary to the Oregon Territory, then offered him the governorship of Oregon. Neither Lincoln nor his wife thought it a desirable post.
William Henry Seward (1801-72) – Lincoln’s rival for the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1860, and later, his Secretary of State. Seward was a jovial man who was well aware of his domestic and foreign policy expertise; he was fond of throwing dinner parties that had as many as eleven courses. He was attacked by Lewis Paine, an accomplice of John Wilkes Booth, the same evening that Lincoln was assassinated, and survived despite several stab wounds in the face and neck. Seward would also serve Andrew Johnson as Secretary of State, where he purchased Alaska from Russia, a move initially termed “Seward’s folly” and “Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden.”
Pierre Gustave Beauregard (1818-93) – Confederate general who led the siege on Ft. Sumter in South Carolina, one of the major offensive actions that led to the Civil War. He was referred to as “The Little Napoleon.” Upon his arrival in Virginia, he was hailed as a hero. He commanded forces at the first Battle of Bull Run, Shiloh and prevented the Union army from taking Petersburg, VA., which would have exposed the Confederate capitol of Charleston.
Historical “compression:” Drinkwater compressed many of the events of Lincoln’s life to maintain dramatic momentum. He mentions doing so in the “Introduction” the play. This is a compilation of speeches that Lincoln made immediately before and after the presidential election in 1860, culminating in his inaugural address, in which he vowed that Ft. Sumter in South Carolina would remain in Union hands.
Compression: though Seward was Lincoln’s first choice for the Secretary of State, Seward also had a tendency to underestimate and, at times, undermine Lincoln’s leadership. On one occasion, he had promised the Confederates that Ft. Sumter would be evacuated without trouble. It was not. On another occasion, Seward was upset at the Queen of England’s wording in which she implied that the Confederacy was a legitimate government, and he wrote an angry and belligerent manifesto with a thinly-veiled war threat. Lincoln brought in Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an authority on Britain, to help soften the letter’s language. Though Lincoln kept Seward, he did, when necessary, use Sumner as a counterbalance against Seward’s ego getting the best of him.
John Hay (1838-1905) – Personal secretary to Lincoln who followed him from Illinois. Hay, along with Lincoln’s other secretary, John G. Nicolay, would collaborate on an encyclopedic volume of the Lincoln administration entitled Abraham Lincoln: A History.
Winfield Scott (1786-1866) – A veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, as well as the General-in-Chief of the Army after 1841. Initially served as General in Chief of the Army of the Potomac, he was almost seventy-five when the Civil War started. In 1861, he was so worried about the threats on the newly-elected president that he expressed visible relief when Lincoln took the oath of office and said “Thank God, we now have a government.” Despite Lincoln’s promise in his inaugural address that Fort Sumter would remain in Union hands, Scott thought (correctly, it turned out) that there was no way possible for it to be held.
Play Quote: “There is a tide in the affairs of men…” – from Julius Caesar; Act IV, Scene 3
Montgomery Blair (1813-83) – Lincoln’s Postmaster General and legal counsel to Dred Scott during the Dred Scott v. Sanford case.
Salmon P. Chase (1808-73) – Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary and one of his rivals during the 1860 Republican presidential nomination contest. He was governor of Ohio and a dedicated abolitionist. He later succeeded Roger B. Taney as Chief Justice of the United States.
Simon Cameron (1799-1889) – Lincoln’s first Secretary of War, he endorsed Lincoln for president only after he was promised a cabinet position. Once in, he was a source of scandal for the administration. Lincoln, embarrassed by his behavior, made him the ambassador to Russia to get him out of the way, but not before Cameron earned an official congressional censure. His reputation for corruption was such that a congressman, upon learning that Cameron was leaving for Russia, remarked “Send word to the Czar to bring in his things at night.”
Gideon Welles (1802-78) – Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy; he was completely loyal to both Lincoln and Johnson. Upon learning that General Meade had lost the chance to pursue and destroy Lee’s army, he once quipped that Meade had dug in and “was watching the enemy as fast as he can.” After Welles reported the surrender of Vicksburg, Lincoln (not known for irrational exuberance) is said to have remarked: “What can we do for the Secretary of the Navy for this glorious intelligence? He is always giving us good news.”
Compression: Lincoln was constantly being besieged by congressional Republicans and others to make the South suffer for instigating the war. He once replied that “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.”
Compression: dramatization of a real meeting between Lincoln and former slave Frederick Douglass. Douglass did want retaliatory execution of Confederate POWs for Confederate executions of African-American Union soldiers. Lincoln’s response was: “How can I kill men in cold blood for what has been done by others?” Douglass later wrote that Lincoln was “the first great man that I talked to in the United States freely who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color.”
Edwin M. Stanton (1814-69) – Lincoln’s replacement for Secretary of War after Cameron’s departure. Stanton had been Cameron’s subordinate in the War Department, but was untouched by the scandals that plagued his predecessor. In fact, he proved to be a capable and tireless administrator, working long into the night and holding his department to strict standards of ethics and accountability. After Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre, he was the one who ordered and oversaw the manhunt for Booth. The phrase Stanton allegedly said at Lincoln’s passing, “Now he belongs to the ages,” however, didn’t appear until roughly two decades after Lincoln’s assassination and probably was never actually said.
George Brinton McClellan (1826-85) – General of the Army of the Potomac and later Commander in Chief. McClellan irked Lincoln by constantly digging in his troops’ position and demanding reinforcements, rather than engaging Lee’s forces. The Civil War Dictionary wrote that he was “a brilliant military organizer, administrator, and trainer of men but an officer totally lacking in the essential qualities of successful command of large forces in battle.” McClellan’s eventual successor would be Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln once became so impatient at McClellan’s lack of action that he stated that if McClellan had no intention of using the Army of the Potomac, he should like to borrow it.
Robert Edward Lee (1807-70) – Commander of the Confederate Army; The Civil War Dictionary writes that, as a general, he “earned rank with history’s most distinguished generals. Lee revealed qualities of intellect and character that made him a legend in his own lifetime.” Lee graduated second in his class at West Point, and after serving with distinction during the Mexican War, he was sent to quash John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Lee was offered command of the Union army but declined, saying that he could not “raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” He then resigned his commission and went back to Virginia to fight for the Confederacy. His ability to win battles is made all the more impressive by the fact that the South largely fought with fewer men and less resources than the Union army. While surrendering to Grant he did request that his men be allowed to keep their mounts for farming.
Artemus Ward (1834-67) – Ward was a nineteenth-century humorist whose real name was Charles Farrar Browne. He employed a satirical style of writing that capitalized on intentionally bad writing, spelling, and grammar. He was much-read and loved by Lincoln.
Play Quote: “Grant drinks.” – Decidedly apocryphal story about a group of angry Congressmen. They burst into Lincoln’s office complaining of Grant’s legendary drinking habit. Due to Grant’s successes in the battlefield compared to the track record of the other Union generals, Lincoln reportedly inquired into what brand of whiskey Grant drank. He then stated that he intended to “send every general in the field a barrel of it.” When told of the story, Lincoln laughed and said that he wished that he had said it.
Play Quote: “…Papal Bull against a comet.” – Much older apocryphal story. Allegedly, in 1456 Pope Calixtus III issued a papal bull which forbade the arrival of Halley’s Comet. He thought that it would be seen as a bad omen for Christian troops fighting the Ottoman Turks in present-day Serbia. The story is completely unverifiable.
Play Quote/“The Emancipation Proclamation” – When Lee invaded Maryland, Lincoln’s only general to repel the attack was McClellan. However, McClellan was accustomed to fighting in a way that emphasized maneuvering over manpower and that resulted in very little loss of life. Lincoln promised to himself that, should the previously impotent McClellan score a victory against Lee and Jackson, it was “an indication of Divine Will” that Lincoln should press forward with the Emancipation Proclamation. Many of his secretaries questioned this, worried about the border states that wanted to keep the Union together and keep slavery intact. But Lincoln was unmoved.
“Our revels now are ended…Is rounded with a sleep:” From William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act IV, Scene One.
Ulysses Simpson Grant (1822-85) – Commander in Chief of the Union armies from March of 1864 until the end of the war; later President of the United States from 1868-76. He first came to Lincoln’s attention when “Unconditional Surrender” Grant took Fort Donelson. Rumors of Grant’s drinking habits led Lincoln to dispatch someone to keep an eye on him. However, the reports wired back to Washington were filled with glowing praise of Grant. He next split off from his supply lines and drove into Mississippi, eventually capturing Jackson and laying siege to Vicksburg. Lincoln loved Grant because he cared nothing for politics, never complained as did McClellan about supplies and reinforcements, and in Lincoln’s own words, “He fights.”
George Gordon Meade (1815-72) – Commander of the Army of the Potomac beginning with the Gettysburg campaign. He began by commanding a corps of volunteers at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and later commanded troops at Antietam and Chancellorsville. Meade was subject to fits of a very black temper, and in the unenviable position of making decisions with his superior (in every way) Grant always watching him.
Our American Cousin (April 14, 1865) – A play by Tom Taylor; it was running at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was assassinated. According to a New York Times description of the play’s revival at the Lyric Theatre in 1908, Taylor wrote it to satirize the “uncouth American” – genuinely good at heart, genuinely bad at manners and composure in polite society.
John Wilkes Booth (1838-65) – son of the famous actor Junius Brutus Booth and brother to actor Edwin Booth. Booth harbored Southern sympathies, and had actually plotted to kidnap Lincoln. The original plot was that Lincoln, Secretary of State Seward, and Vice President Andrew Johnson were all to be killed at the same time. According to one theory, Seward was to be killed because only the Secretary of State could call a new election. The president pro tempore of the Senate, Lafayette Foster of Connecticut, would become president of a decapitated government. According to this theory, if the South could not have victory, it would have vengeance.
“With malice toward none…” – compression; Lincoln actually made this speech during his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865.
II. WORKS CONSULTED:
Boatner III, Mark M. The Civil War Dictionary. New York: David McKay, 1966.
Donald, David. Lincoln’s Herndon: A Biography. New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1948.
Drinkwater, John. Abraham Lincoln: A Play. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919.
Hall, Wade. One Man’s Lincoln. Kentucky Historical Society, 1998.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford, 1988.
Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years, vol. I – III. New York: Dell, 1954.
III. Relevant Legislation in the Fight against the Expansion of Slavery:
Compromise of 1820/Missouri Compromise – This admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free simultaneously to preserve the numeric balance between free and slave states. It also prohibited slavery anywhere north of the 36”-30’ latitude. It was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
Wilmot Proviso – During the height of the Mexican War in 1846, Representative David Wilmot attached an amendment to a rudimentary appropriations bill which forbade slavery in any territory acquired in the war. It was defeated twice in the Senate, but became a model for legislative maneuvers to halt the spread of slavery.
Compromise of 1850 – Introduced during the Taylor administration and signed into law after his death in 1850, when he was succeeded by Millard Fillmore. The compromise admitted California as a free state, allowed the New Mexico and Utah Territories to settle their free/slave status via “popular sovereignty, abolished the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and passed a draconian Fugitive Slave Act. This new act recognized no statute of limitations, compelled cooperation of citizens in capturing fugitive slaves, and forbade a trial by jury to runaways. The Fugitive Slave Act enraged so many in the North that any future compromise on slavery was inconceivable. It did, however, stave off any further regional hostilities until the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act – Lincoln’s opponent, Stephen A. Douglas (chairman of the Committee on Territories) introduced a bill in early 1854, which proposed development of the Nebraska Territory and the Great Plains, a series of unorganized lands west of Missouri and Iowa. This was done partly so that he might personally profit from an expansion of the railroad, and partly because he thought it was the sort of legislation that could help his presidential aspirations. He offered the South two key points: 1.) the Nebraska Territory was to be divided into two units – Kansas and Nebraska; and 2.) the question of slavery, which had seemingly been answered, was to be decided by “popular sovereignty” – allowing the territorial legislatures to decide. This, in effect, repealed the Missouri Compromise, but the Southern legislators still insisted on an amendment spelling out its nullification. In Kansas, hostilities flared almost immediately and violently between abolitionists and slave owners. Passage of the act also finished off the Whig Party, allowed the nascent abolitionist Republican Party to grow, and largely confined the Democratic Party to the South.