Abraham Lincoln’s Tactic to Stay Motivated During Bad Times

(and times were REALLY bad)

How did Abraham Lincoln stay motivated during the low point of the American Civil War when thousands of Americans were dying every day?

How did he then remain motivated when his 12 year old son died and his wife dove deeper into depression?

Why didn’t he just close the drapes, stay in bed, and binge watch Netflix? Or since Netflix didn’t exist why didn’t he just binge watch shows at the local Ford’s theater (actually, maybe he should have skipped the theater altogether)?

He could have easily thrown in the hat by single-handedly calling off the war. The American public would have supported him.

Lincoln was projected to lose reelection to the man in this photo (George McClellan) because of his refusal to seek a negotiated peace.

But instead Abraham Lincoln woke up early every morning, put on his top hat, and worked into the wee hours of the night in order to try and preserve the Union. At midnight, one would have likely caught a glimpse of a tall figure walking around the White House grounds with his head down (Lincoln was an insomniac).

“He did business at all hours, rising early in the morning, and retiring late at night, making appointments at very early and very late hours. He never had any time for rest and recuperation.”

Abraham Lincoln stayed motivated by touching the suffering of those fighting for the same cause.

He could have easily stayed in the White House and just read about the newest causality numbers. He could have purely kept to abstract conversations with his cabinet about the cost of war.

But as humans (we are not robots yet) we are largely emotional creatures. We need to understand things on an emotional level for something to truly sink in.

And the things that are more likely to elicit the strongest emotional response are usually things we personally experience with all of our senses.

When we think back over the course of our lives our most vivid memories are usually personal experiences and not something we simply read or viewed on a screen.

Abraham Lincoln wanted to truly see the cost of war. And it cost him in gray hair…

Visiting the wounded and seeing the dead gave him a profound sense of motivation because it put his own struggle into context.

If you had the misfortune of being wounded, you may have suddenly seen the corps surgeon pop his head into your tent and announce, “Attention: the President of the United States!”

One ailing solider recalled what happened when the president reached his bed…

“What, a leg gone?”
“Yes.”
He stopped at the head of my bed and looked at the card, “and a Vermonter?”
“Yes, sir, I pride myself on being a Green Mountain boy. I was born within seven miles of Mount Mansfield, the highest peak of the Green Mountain range.”
He then took my hand in both of his. I asked him: “Well, Father Abraham, have we done our work well.”
He said, “Very well, indeed, and I thank you.”
I never shall forget the pressure he gave my hand, nor can I forget that sad, careworn face. I often see that sad and worn face in memory, and I can hardly keep back the tears.”

In another tent, Lincoln…

“gave a confederate officer a hearty grasp of the hand and inquired what State he was from and where he resided before entering the Army….He then…wished him a speedy and hasty recovery from his wounds and [told him] that in a few days the war would be over and he would be able to see his dear ones at home.” After Lincoln left, the dazed Rebel asked who was that, “My God, is that so?” he exclaimed. “Is that the kind of a man that we have been fighting for four long years?”

In another bed lay a Union captain, Lincoln bent over and gently kissed him on the cheek…

“Then in voice so tender and so low that only my near proximity enabled me to hear, he began to talk to him, telling him how he had heard from Dr. McDonald all the story of his bravery in battle, his heroic fight for life and quiet cheerfulness in hospital. …Poor Houghton could only reply with faint smiles and whispers that were too low to reach my ears, but Mr. Lincoln heard, and a smile came to his grave face. Turning to the surgeon the President asked to be shown the major’s wounds, especially the amputated limb. Dr. McDonald tried to dissuade him by saying the sight…would be too shocking. But the President insisted, turned down the light coverings, and took a hasty look. Straightening up, with a deep groan of pain, and throwing up both his long arms, he cried out, ‘Oh, this awful, awful war!’ Then bending again to Houghton with the tears cutting wide furrows down his dust-stained cheeks, and with great sobs shaking him, he exclaimed, ‘Poor boy! Poor boy! You must live! You must!’ This time…Houghton whispered an answer, ‘I intend to, sir.’

Captain Houghton survived his wounds.

Sometimes there were moments of levity. When the president stopped by another bed, the patient joked how he had shaken the president’s hand back in 1861 with his good right hand, but on this occasion, he would be obliged to shake with his left hand because he had left the other one on the field.

Old Abe, as the troops affectionately called him, felt a greater obligation as Commander-in-Chief to see this war through so that these men would not have suffered and died in vain…

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” — Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

And whenever he had the inclination to complain, as we all do, I’m sure his time in the tents flashed before his eyes.

As humans we are inspired by suffering. We must not merely read about it (although that is extremely helpful too), but we must also go out into the world, with our own two eyes to see it and touch it.

Lincoln’s railcar is in the foreground (City Point, VA).

It is hard to see terrible suffering, but it is even harder to see terrible suffering and not want to do something about it.

When you see someone give the last full measure for the very thing you believe in, then it becomes far easier for you to forgo hitting the snooze button.


Thanks for reading! Anthony Galli writes about the greats so that we may become great. Watch his series @ The Great Life.