Obviously the most momentous event of Lincoln's time in office was the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 until 1865. In fact, seven Southern states seceded from the Union upon word that Lincoln had won the election of 1860. By the beginning of the war, eleven states had seceded, forming the Confederate States of America. Lincoln firmly believed in preserving the Union and reuniting North and South.
In September 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. With this proclamation, Lincoln freed the slaves in all Southern states. While not a congressional act, Lincoln used his war powers to free the slaves of seceded states.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS…
In a letter, Lincoln wrote: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
Lincoln did not believe that he had the constitutional power to free slaves in states that were still part of the Union.
Suspending Civil Liberties
A point of contention for Lincoln's opponents was his curbing of civil liberties during the Civil War. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, which provided prisoners the right to be brought before a court to determine whether they were being justly held. He also allowed for military arrest of civilian antiwar activists. Conversely, when the war ended, Confederate officers were allowed to return home with their side arms and horses — not in disgrace.
End of the Civil War
In 1864, Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant to be commander of all Union forces. General William T. Sherman marched on and captured Atlanta and then continued to Savannah to confront Robert E. Lee. This Union victory was a decisive blow to the Confederacy and helped clench Lincoln's reelection in 1864. In April 1865, Richmond fell and Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox courthouse in Virginia. In the end, Lincoln hoped to be lenient toward the South as they rejoined the Union. However, his assassination and Andrew Johnson's weak presidency resulted in the Radical Republicans enacting strict punitive measures against the South during Reconstruction.
Other Actions During His Presidency
In 1862, the Homestead Act was passed allowing squatters to take title to 160 acres of land after having lived on it for five years. This act was important for helping populate the Great Plains.
In opposition to Virginia's secession from the Union, West Virginia broke off from the state in 1863. It was admitted to the Union as a separate state.
Reelection in 1864
In 1864, the Republican party temporarily changed its name to the National Union party. There was concern that Lincoln could not win the election due to problems that were occurring in the war along with Lincoln's curbing of civil liberties. However, they went ahead and nominated him again with Andrew Johnson as his vice president. Their platform demanded unconditional surrender and the official end to slavery.
Lincoln's opponent, George McClellan, had been relieved as the head of the Union armies by Lincoln in 1862. His platform was that the war was a failure and that Lincoln had taken away too many civil liberties. Luckily for Lincoln, the war turned in the North's favor during the campaign and he won with 55 percent of the popular vote and 91 percent of the electoral vote.