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On the 4th of March, 1861, was inaugurated as President the best friend the South ever had. He would never have deceived or misled her. In all the bloody struggle that followed, although hated, scoffed at, and maligned as the vilest monster of earth, he never by word or act manifested a vindictive spirit toward her. Firm and sagacious, Lincoln would have protected the South in her constitutional rights, though every man at the North had become an abolitionist. Slavery, however, had long been doomed, like other relics of barbarism, by the spirit of the age; and his wisdom and that of men like him, with the logic of events and the irresistible force of the world's opinion, would have found some peaceful, gradual remedy for an evil which wrought even more injury to the master than to the bondman. In his inaugural address he repeated that he had "no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the States where it existed."
An unanswerable argument against disunion, and an earnest appeal to reason and lawful remedy, he followed by a most impressive declaration of peace and good-will: "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow- countrymen, and not mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government; while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it."
These were noble words, and to all minds not confused by the turmoil, passion, and prejudices of the hour, they presented the issue squarely. If the leaders of the South desired peaceful negotiation, the way was opened, the opportunity offered; if they were resolved on the destruction of the Union, Lincoln's oath meant countless men and countless treasure to defend it.
Men almost held their breath in suspense. The air became thick with rumors of compromise and peace. Even late in March, Mr. Seward, the President's chief adviser, "believed and argued that the revolution throughout the South had spent its force and was on the wane; and that the evacuation of Sumter and the manifestation of kindness and confidence to the Rebel and Border States would undermine the conspiracy, strengthen the Union sentiment and Union majorities, and restore allegiance and healthy political action without resort to civil war."
To Graham, who, in common with millions in their homes, was studying the problem, this course seemed so rational and so advantageous to all concerned, that he accepted it as the outline of the future. The old major shook his head and growled, "You don't know the South; it's too late; their blood is up."
Hilland added exultantly, "Neither do you know the North, Graham. There will come a tidal wave soon that will carry Mr. Seward and the hesitating President to the boundaries of Mexico."
The President was not hesitating, in the weak sense of the word. Equally removed from Mr. Buchanan's timidity and Mr. Seward's optimistic confidence, he was feeling his way, gathering the reins into his hands, and seeking to comprehend an issue then too obscure and vast for mortal mind to grasp. What is plain to-day was not plain then.
It speedily became evident, however, that all talk of compromise on the part of the Southern leaders was deceptive--that they were relentlessly pursuing the course marked out from the first, hoping, undoubtedly, that the government would be paralyzed by their allies at the North, and that their purposes would be effected by negotiation and foreign intervention.
And so the skies grew darker and the political and social atmosphere so thick with doubt and discordant counsels that the horizon narrowed about even those on the mountain-top of power. All breathed heavily and felt the oppression that precedes some convulsion of nature.
At length, on the morning of the 12th of April, as the darkness which foreruns the dawn was lifting from Charleston Harbor, and Sumter lay like a shadow on the waves, a gun was fired whose echoes repeated themselves around the world. They were heard in every home North and South, and their meaning was unmistakable. The flash of that mortar gun and of the others that followed was as the lightning burning its way across the vault of heaven, revealing everything with intense vividness, and rending and consuming all noxious vapors. The clouds rolled speedily away, and from the North came the sound of "a rushing, mighty wind."
The crisis and the leader came together. The news reached Washington on Saturday. On Sunday Mr. Lincoln drafted his memorable call to arms, and on Monday it was telegraphed throughout the land. The response to that call forms one of the sublimest chapters of history.
In the St. John cottage, as in nearly all other homes, differences of opinion on minor questions melted into nothingness.
Graham read the electric words aloud, and his friend's only excited comment was:
"Graham, you will go."
"Not yet," was the quiet response "and I sincerely hope you will not."
"How can a man do otherwise?"
"Because he is a man, and not an infuriated animal. I've been very chary in giving my opinion on this subject, as you know. You also know that I have read and thought about it almost constantly since my return. I share fully in Major St. John's views that this affair is not to be settled by a mad rush southward of undisciplined Northern men. I have traced the history of Southern regiments and officers in the Revolution and in our later wars, and I assure you that we are on the eve of a gigantic conflict. In that degree that we believe the government right, we, as rational men, should seek to render it effective service. The government does not need a mob: it needs soldiers, and such are neither you nor I. I have informed myself somewhat on the militia system of the country, and there are plenty of organized regiments of somewhat disciplined men who can go at an hour's notice. If you went now, you--a millionaire--would not count for as much as an Irishman who had spent a few months in a drill-room. The time may come when you can equip a regiment if you choose. Moreover, you have a controlling voice in large business interests; and this struggle is doomed from the start if not sustained financially."
"Mr. Graham is right," said Grace, emphatically. "Even my woman's reason makes so much clear to me."
"Your woman's reason would serve most men better than their own," was his smiling reply. Then, as he looked into her lovely face, pale at the bare thought that her husband was going into danger, he placed his hand on Hilland's shoulder and continued, "Warren, there are other sacred claims besides those of patriotism. The cause should grow desperate indeed before you leave that wife."
"Mr. Graham," Grace began, with an indignant flush mantling the face that had been so pale, "I am a soldier's daughter; and if Warren believed it to be his duty--" Then she faltered, and burst into a passion of tears, as she moaned, "O God! it's--it's true. The bullet that struck him would inflict a deadlier wound on me;" and she hid her face on Hilland's breast and sobbed piteously.
"It is also true," said Graham, in tones that were as grave and solemn as they were gentle, "that your father's spirit--nay, your own--would control you. Under its influence you might not only permit but urge your husband's departure, though your heart broke a thousand times, Therefore, Hilland, I appeal to your manhood. You would be unworthy of yourself and of this true woman were you guided by passion or excitement. As a loyal man you are bound to render your country your best service. To rush to the fray now would be the poorest aid you could give."
"Graham talks sense," said the major, speaking with the authority of a veteran. "If I had to meet the enemy at once, I'd rather have a regiment of canaille, and cowards at that, who could obey orders like a machine, than one of hot-headed millionaires who might not understand the command 'Halt!' Mr. Graham is right again when he says that Grace will not prevent a man from doing his duty any more than her mother did."
"What do you propose to do?" asked Hilland, breathing heavily. It was evident that a tremendous struggle was going on in his breast, for it had been his daily and nightly dream to join the grand onset that should sweep slavery and rebellion out of existence.
"Simply what I advise--watch, wait, and act when I can be of the most service."
"I yield," said Hilland, slowly, "for I suppose you are right. You all know well, and you best of all, sweetheart"--taking his wife's face in his hands and looking down into her tearful eyes--"that here is the treasure of my life. But you also know that in all the past there have come times when a man must give up everything at the need of his country."
"And when that time comes," sobbed his wife, "I--I--will not--" But she could not finish the sentence.
Graham stole away, awed, and yet with a peace in his heart that he had not known for years. He had saved his friend from the first wild melee of the war--the war that promised rest and nothingness to him, even while he kept his promise to "live and do his best."
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