Shelby Foote's monumental three-volume work The Civil War: a Narrative is an excellent history of the war. On Volume 2, page 436, and in many other places in The Civil War, Foote uses the term "the arithmetic" as a quotation from Lincoln, so that Lincoln is using it as a shorthand for a war of attrition. If the two sides kept fighting until one side runs out of soldiers, then the North, with its greater manpower, would win. Lincoln supported this strategy with many tactical choices that increased the North's advantage in manpower. For example, as discussed below, he supported the recruitment of black soldiers. The Emancipation Proclamation was in large part designed to rob the South of slave labor, thus vastly worsening its manpower situation. The end of the paroling of prisoners, and the acceptance of prison camps was likewise an attrition tactic. The South had fewer men, and was less able to replace them. For that reason, a captured soldier who was held in a camp, rather than exchanged, was, relative to the size of his army, a much greater loss for the Confederates than for the Federals.
Lincoln unquestionably understood the arithmetic of attrition. Unfortunately, Foote did not provide sources or citations, and without access to that material, it is impossible to track back his source for quoting Lincoln on the subject of "the arithmetic." This two-word quote might be a bit of a stretch on Foote's part. It has more or less turned into scholarly folklore. Various authors seemed to have picked it up from Foote and used it for a sort of shorthand for this whole idea of a war of attrition.
Quotations often seem more certain, definite, and exact than they really are. They can be very slippery and uncertain things.(See the essay below for more troublesome quotations.) They are too often what someone remembers a person to have said, rather than what the person actually said. But quotations are so often a convenient and concise way of summing things up that they sometimes take on a life of their own. The two little words "the arithmetic" are a case in point.
Lincoln certainly wrote and spoke the two words "the arithmetic" during his lifetime, but, while researching Mr. Lincoln's High-Tech War, we simply weren't able to find any source that quoted Lincoln as saying those words in regard to the strategy of attrition.
The only more or less primary source using the word "arithmetic" that we found is an anecdote cited in various sources (see Abraham Lincoln by Charles Carleton Coffin, page 320 -- available on books.google.com at this link) for a dialect story about "darkey arithmetic" used as a parable to suggest that first reports of casualties are usually misleading and too high. In the story, one darkey (an insulting and derogatory 19th century term for "black person") asks another if there are three birds on a fence, and you shoot one, how many are left? None, replies a second darkey, because the others, although unharmed, will fly immediately off. The dialect is racist and offensive to modern ears (and modern readers are not comfortably in reading of Lincoln telling such a joke), but the point is that, in the aftermath of a battle, frightened soldiers would have run away, others might be cut off from their regiment, badly disorganized units might not be able to report their situation, and so on. Therefore casualty reports immediately after a battle will be unreliable, and likely too high.
The only other quotation that we could find that is remotely close to the topic is as follows, quoted in several sources, including The life and public services of Abraham Lincoln, by Henry J. Raymond, pages 568-569, as quoted at an online source of The Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln and available on books.google.com at this link The basic context of the remarks were that many Democrats were in favor of "soft war" and of allowing slavery to continue, so as to avoid upsetting Southerners, and in hopes of getting them to rejoin the Union voluntarily. This, more or less, is what Lincoln meant by "Democratic strategy."
The President's views on this matter were expressed in the following conversational remarks, to some prominent Western gentlemen: "The slightest knowledge of arithmetic" (said he) "will prove to any man that the rebel armies cannot be destroyed by Democratic strategy. It would sacrifice all the white men of the North to do it. There are now in the service of the United States nearly two hundred thousand able-bodied colored men, most of them under arms, defending and acquiring Union territory. The Democratic strategy demands that these forces be disbanded, and that the masters be conciliated by restoring them to slavery. The black men who now assist Union prisoners to escape are to be converted into our enemies, in the vain hope of gaining the good-will of their masters. We shall have to fight two nations instead of one. You cannot conciliate the South if you guarantee to them ultimate success, and the experience of the present war proves their success is inevitable if you fling the compulsory labor of four millions of black men into their side of the scale. Will you give our enemies such military advantages as insure success, and then depend upon coaxing, flattery, and concession to get them back into the Union? Abandon all the forts now garrisoned by black men, take two hundred thousand men from our side, and put them in the battle-field, or cornfield, against us, and we would be compelled to abandon the war in three weeks. We have to hold territory in inclement and sickly places. Where are the Democrats to do this? It was a free fight, and the field was open to the War Democrats to put down this rebellion by fighting against both master and slave long before the present policy was inaugurated. There have been men base enough to propose to me to return to slavery our black warriors of Port Hudson and Olustee, and thus win the respect of the masters they fought. Should I do so, I should deserve to be damned in time and eternity. Come what will, I will keep my faith with friend and foe. My enemies pretend I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition. So long as I am President it shall be carried on for the sole purpose of restoring the Union."
Stirring words, but not quite on the subject of attrition.
It may well be that Lincoln did, at some time, describe a strategy of attrition as "the arithmetic," and he unquestionably understood the concept in grim detail. But we have not been able to find a source for the quote in that context.
"MY MARYLAND MARYLAND!!!"
CONFEDERATE LIBERATOR. "We come to free you all, my friend, from the Iron heel of LINCOLN and his hordes! We take nothing without paying for it! Your hour of freedom has come. Be Happy! be Happy!"
DEVOTED SECESH. Yes! oh, yes! Our feelings, and all that sort of thing, are with you. But, good gracious! haven't you got a Green Back or two? How the d l am I going to fill up again with this trash!!!"
This cartoon was published in Harpers Weekly on November 1, 1862 -- about six weeks after the southern incursion into Maryland that climaxed in the battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg). A Northern civilian has just been "paid" in Confederate money by a southern soldier in exchanges for goods the soldier has taken. The civilian shopkeeper admits to being a secessionist sympathizer (a "Secesh") but isn't pleased with the means of payment.
As with the 1862 incursion, one of the purposes of the 1863 Confederate movement into Maryland and Pennsylvania was for the Confederate army could re-provision itself. They would collect food from the fat farmland of those two states -- especially Pennsylvania -- and collect other equipment as well. However, they needed to do it without angering the locals, as Lee wanted the Northerners to turn against their own government. Lee's gave strict orders "to abstain with most scrupulous care from unnecessary or wanton injury to private property." The soldiers were not to loot the farms or seize food. They were to make official requisitions, or else "pay" for whatever they took in more-or-less worthless Confederate money that would be nearly impossible to spend in Pennsylvania. This at least held out the hope of eventual repayment, if anyone would accept Confederate paper money, and if the Confederate survived long enough for the requisitions to be paid off. For all intents and purposes, it was seizing and stealing property -- in an orderly and polite manner. Lee was, in effect, hoping that politeness would count.
Colonel Arthur Fremantle, a British soldier traveling with the Confederates as an observer, described the resulting reactions of the Northern farmers. "During supper, women came rushing in at intervals, saying'Oh, good heavens, now they're killing our fat hogs. Which is the General? which is the Great Officer? Our milch cows are now going.' To all which expressions Longstreet replied, shaking his head, 'Madam, it's very sadvery sad; and this sort of thing has been going on in Virginia more than two yearsvery sad.'"
In other words, the Confederates were polite -- but that didn't stop them from relishing the chance to give back as good as they got.
Running the Machine
Click on the image at left to see a much larger version of the image. Click or right-click (depending in your browser) to view it full size. You can scroll around the big image The text below is the Library of Congress description of this sharp-edged cartoon.
SUMMARY: A scathing attack on the ineptness and military ineffectualness of the Lincoln administration. The cartoon derives its title from an indiscreet letter written by secretary of war Edwin McMasters Stanton to past President James Buchanan immediately following the Union army's defeat at the Battle of Bull Run. Stanton wrote, "The imbecility of this Administration, culminated in that catastrophe (Bull Run), and irretrievable misfortune and national disgrace never to be forgotten are to be added to the ruin of all peaceful pursuits and national bankruptcy, as the result of Mr. Lincoln's `running the machine' for five months." William Pitt Fessenden (far left) cranks out greenbacks from "Chase's Patent Greenback Mill." Fessenden succeeded Salmon P. Chase as Treasury secretary. He says, glaring at the figures seated around the table, "These are the greediest fellows I ever saw. With all my exertions I cant satisfy their pocket, though I keep the Mill going day and night." Seated at the table (clockwise from top left) are Stanton, Lincoln, secretary of state William H. Seward, Navy secretary Gideon Welles, and two unidentified contractors. At left a messenger hands an envelope to Stanton, announcing, "Mr. Secretary! here is a dispatch. We have captured one prisoner and one gun; a great Victory." Elated over this minuscule achievement, Stanton exclaims "Ah well! Telegraph to General Dix [Union general John A. Dix] immediately." Meanwhile, Lincoln is guffawing because he is reminded of "a capital joke." (See "The Commander-in-Chief Conciliating the Soldiers Votes," no. 1864-31, for the allusion.) Seward, with a bell in one hand, hands an envelope "Fort Lafayette" to a young officer or cadet, saying, "Officer! I am told that Snooks has called me " Humbug'--Take this warrant and put him in Fort lafayette--I'll teach him to speak against the Government." Seward was criticized for arbitrarily arresting civilians and incarcerating them in federal prison at Fort Lafayette. Beside Seward Gideon Welles ineptly works out a problem. "They say the Tallahasse sails 24 miles an hour!--Well then, we'll send 4 Gunboats after her that can sail 6 miles an hour, and that will just make enough to catch her." At center bottom, the two contractors ask for more greenbacks.
The Commander-in-Chief Conciliating the Soldiers Votes
Click on the cartoon for a larger view of a higher-quality view of the image. Lincoln is seen wearing a cloak and scotch cap, a visual reference to the false story that he wore those items while sneaking through Baltimore. The cap and cloak became a frequently-used cartoonist's shorthand for suggesting to the readers that Lincoln was cowardly. Here, he is shown as coming to the battlefield after the fighting is over, and asking his friend to sing him a funny song in the midst of a scene of horrible suffering. Lincoln, in other words, fears for his own safety but cares nothing for his troops.
From the Library of Congress description of the image:
A bitterly anti-Lincoln cartoon, based on slanderous newspaper reports of the President's callous disregard of the misery of Union troops at the front. The story that Lincoln had joked on the field at Antietam appeared in the "New York World." Holding a plaid Scotch cap ... Lincoln stands on the battlefield at Antietam, which is littered with Union dead and wounded. He instructs his friend Marshal Lamon, who stands with his back toward the viewer and his hand over his face, to "sing us Picayune Butler,' or something else that's funny."
As related in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, the background of this grim cartoon is as follows: Ward Lamont, a close friend of the President, received the following letter:
"[To] Ward H. Lamon: Philadelphia, Sept. 10, 1864.
"Dear Sir,---Enclosed is an extract from the New York `World' of Sept. 9, 1864:---
"'ONE of MR. LINCOLN'S JOKES.---The second verse of our campaign song published on this page was probably suggested by an incident which occurred on the battle-field of Antietam a few days after the fight. While the President was driving over the field in an ambulance, accompanied by Marshal Lamon, General McClellan, and another officer, heavy details of men were engaged in the task of burying the dead. The ambulance had just reached the neighborhood of the old stone bridge, where the dead were piled highest, when Mr. Lincoln, suddenly slapping Marshal Lamon on the knee, exclaimed: "Come, Lamon, give us that song about Picayune Butler; McClellan has never heard it,'' "Not now, if you please," said General McClellan, with a shudder; "I would prefer to hear it some other place and time.'"
"This story has been repeated in the New York 'World' almost daily for the last three months. Until now it would have been useless to demand its authority. By this article it limits the inquiry to three persons as its authority,---Marshal Lamon, another officer, and General McClellan. That it is a damaging story, if believed, cannot be disputed. That it is believed by some, or that they pretend to believe it, is evident by the accompanying verse from the doggerel, in which allusion is made to it:---
'Abe may crack his jolly jokes
"I wish to ask you, sir, in behalf of others as well as myself, whether any such occurrence took place; or if it did not take place, please to state who that 'other officer' was, if there was any such, in the ambulance in which the President `was driving over the field [of Antietam] whilst details of men were engaged in the task of burying the dead.' You will confer a great favor by an immediate reply.
"Most respectfully your obedient servant,
"A. J. PERKINS."
[Civil War ambulances were basically horse-drawn carriages. It was an accepted practure for them to be used to carry officials and high-ranking officers around forward areas.]
Lamont apparently brought this letter, or at least the news of this story, to Lincoln's attention. Lincoln took the charge seriously enough that he then drafted the following letter himself, which was to go out over Lamont's signature. To quote from the account in the Collected Works: "According to Lamon (Recollections of Lincoln, pp. 144-49), Lincoln wrote this memorandum `about the 12th of September, 1864,' to be published, if necessary, in refutation of a story widely disseminated by the Copperhead press. The memorandum was not, however, given to the newspapers." The text of the memorandum was as follows:
The President has known me intimately for nearly twenty years, and has often heard me sing little ditties. The battle of Antietam was fought on the 17th. day of September 1862. On the first day of October, just two weeks after the battle, the President, with some others including myself, started from Washington to visit the Army, reaching Harper's Ferry at noon of that day. In a short while Gen. McClellan came from his Head Quarters near the battle ground, joined the President, and with him, reviewed, the troops at Bolivar Heights that afternoon; and, at night, returned to his Head Quarters, leaving the President at Harper's Ferry. On the morning of the second, the President, with Gen. Sumner, reviewedPage 549 the troops respectively at Loudon Heights and Maryland Heights, and at about noon, started to Gen. McClellan's Head Quarters, reaching there only in time to see very little before night. On the morning of the third all started on a review of the three corps, and the Cavalry, in the vicinity of the Antietam battle ground. After getting through with Gen. Burnsides Corps, at the suggestion of Gen. McClellan, he and the President left their horses to be led, and went into an ambulance or ambulances to go to Gen. Fitz John Porter's Corps, which was two or three miles distant. I am not sure whether the President and Gen. Mc. were in the same ambulance, or in different ones; but myself and some others were in the same with the President. On the way, and on no part of the battleground, and on what suggestion I do not remember, the President asked me to sing the little sad song, that follows, which he had often heard me sing, and had always seemed to like very much. I sang them. After it was over, some one of the party, (I do not think it was the President) asked me to sing something else; and I sang two or three little comic things of which Picayune Butler was one. Porter's Corps was reached and reviewed; then the battle ground was passed over, and the most noted parts examined; then, in succession the Cavalry, and Franklin's Corps were reviewed, and the President and party returned to Gen. McClellan's Head Quarters at the end of a very hard, hot, and dusty day's work. Next day, the 4th. the President and Gen. Mc. visited such of the wounded as still remained in the vicinity, including the now lamented Gen. Richardson; then proceed[ed] to and examined the South-Mountain battle ground, at which point they parted, Gen. McClellan returning to his Camp, and the President returning to Washington, seeing, on the way, Gen Hartsuff, who lay wounded at Frederick Town. This is the whole story of the singing and it's surroundings. Neither Gen. McClellan or any one else made any objection to the singing; the place was not on the battle field, the time was sixteen days after the battle, no dead body was seen during the whole time the president was absent from Washington, nor even a grave that had not been rained on since it was made.
WARD H LAMON