On this day (Feb. 11) in 1861, two presidents-elect departed on trips to assume the duties, which awaited both of them, in their new jobs.
Abraham Lincoln, elected Nov. 6, 1860, as the 16th U.S. president, left Springfield, Ill., by train for Washington, D.C. After his March 4, 1861, inauguration, he would be confronted with the problem of maintaining the American Union.
Seven Southern slave states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas) had, by Feb. 1, all passed ordinances of secession. On Feb. 4, delegates from these seven states had established the Confederate States of America. Lincoln firmly believed secession was unconstitutional and it would be his solemn duty to restore the errand Southern states to their proper relationship in the American Union.
Also immediately, he would have to deal specifically with the problem of keeping the eight border slave states (Missouri, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina and Virginia) still in the Union from leaving and joining the Confederacy.
Furthermore, he had to mount a diplomatic effort to prevent foreign countries (particularly Great Britain and France) from recognizing (and therefore possibly aiding militarily and financially) the newly created Southern nation.
Finally, Lincoln was faced with the awesome task of rapidly building up U.S. military and naval forces to conduct a possible military conflict between the U.S. and the CSA; a conflict that did tragically materialize on April 12, 1861, in Charleston Harbor.
Lincoln’s Southern counterpart, Jefferson Davis, who had been elected Feb. 9, 1861, as the provisional president of the newly created Confederate States of America, departed from his home, Brierfield Plantation in Mississippi, on the same day Lincoln left Springfield, on what turned out to be an arduous, roundabout boat and train trip to Montgomery (the initial CSA capital city) to assume office as the first and, as it turned out, the only Confederate president.
The tasks confronting Davis appeared to be even more daunting than those Lincoln faced. He had to preside over the establishment of an entire new government and nation. This would entail immediately, of course, the creation of a military force to defend the CSA against the possibility of Northern aggressive military action. Also Davis worked to secure foreign diplomatic recognition of the CSA.
Finally, he had to keep Southern ports open in the face of an increasingly effective Northern blockade of Southern ports. The South needed to export its cotton crops to survive since it was not as self-sufficient (especially financially and industrially) as was the North.
In 1861, when two presidents-elect left their respective homes to assume their new positions, it appeared that Davis, the West Point graduate, former U.S. senator, and former U.S. secretary of war, would be the more effective president.
Lincoln, on the other hand, was viewed by some as just a prairie lawyer from Illinois who, although well-experienced in local and state politics, was relatively unknown nationally and who appeared to lack the necessary political experience and knowhow to lead the country during a period of crisis.
However, by the conclusion of the bloody Civil War in 1865, it was readily apparent that Lincoln had been the more effective leader of the two presidents. Not only was Lincoln the “winner” of the war, but he was credited with “restoring” the Union and freeing the slaves.
Davis, on the other hand, was the “loser” in the war who proved to have been a contentious, bumptious, ineffective, although well-intentioned, administrator and war leader.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University.