If the end brings me out wrong, ten thousand angels swearing I was right wouldn’t make any difference.
During the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the War Between the States, it is time to take stock of the War that severed forever the United States of America and led to creation of two American republics, soon to be joined by a third, the Pacific Republic, and, eventually, by a fourth, after Texas seceded from the Confederacy during the Great Depression of 1893. All of our American history, for good and ill, was irrevocably altered by the events that transpired a century and a half ago. Could events have come out differently? I think many historians would say yes, if Lincoln had not lost the election of 1864.
By the Spring of 1864 the Union war effort had clearly made progress but at a terrible cost in human lives and treasure. The Union had succeeded in conquering almost all of Tennessee and Arkansas. The Confederacy’s largest city, New Orleans, was under Union control and, in Lincoln’s phrase, “the Father of the Waters” went unvexed to the Sea, and the Confederacy in Texas and the unconquered portions of Arkansas and Louisiana were now cut off from the rest of the Confederacy by a newly hostile Mississippi. The Union had established control of much of the coast line of the Confederacy and the Union blockade, a joke in 1861, had become a very grim reality for the Confederacy in 1864. Today, most people do not appreciate how close the Confederacy came to defeat in 1864, although it was a common theme in speeches given at Confederate Victory Day celebrations throughout the South for decades after the War. How did this all turn to ashes for the Union by November 1864 with Lincoln rejected at the polls? Here are, I think, some of the major factors:
1. War Weariness-By 1864 most Americans, North and South, were heartily sick of the War, the huge casualty lists filling the newspapers giving a nightmarish quality to life. However, there was a difference. If the North lost the War, there would be little change in the life of most Northerners. If the South lost the War, they would be under what most white Southerners now perceived as hated foreign domination. Northern morale was as a result more fragile than Southern morale. The South would resist until they could resist no longer, while the North would continue the War only if it could be brought to a victorious conclusion relatively quickly.
2. Lee-Ulysses S. Grant was a fine General even if ultimately he failed in his goal of defeating Lee. In his Overland Campaign he succeeded in driving Lee back to Richmond, and ultimately brought Petersburg under siege. No mean feat up against a man now universally regarded by nearly all Americans as the finest American General. Lee realized the caliber of General that he was up against in regard to Grant, and that Grant could not be defeated easily as he had defeated other Union drives against Richmond. It took all of Lee’s immense skill to prevent Grant from taking Richmond, but this he succeeded in doing while inflicting casualties of 2-1 against Grant, and causing much of the North, including, privately, Mary Todd Lincoln, to denounce Grant as a butcher. Grant had brought the Union close to victory, but only by an immense effusion of Northern blood, and the population of the North simply had no stomach for many more casualties in what appeared to be an endless War.
3. Sherman’s Death-Sherman’s drive on Atlanta, which had been making progress, came to a sudden end on June 27, 1864 with the battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Of all the Civil War might have beens, perhaps none are more poignant than what would have happened if Sherman had stopped the battle after the failure of the initial assaults as he was advised to do by General Thomas. Instead, Sherman ordered two more attacks each bloodily repulsed. As he went out to meet the retreating survivors of his last attack, Sherman was felled by a long-range shot from a Confederate sharpshooter equipped with a rifle and a telescopic sight. Lincoln wished to place Thomas in command, but Grant, who bore animosity for Thomas, why still being something of a mystery, insisted on General James McPherson being placed in overall command. McPherson wished to continue the offensive against Atlanta, but that simply was not possible after the fifteen thousand casualties sustained by the Union. Resisting calls in Northern papers to fall back on Chattanooga, McPherson remained in place and awaited reinforcements. In early September the offensive was renewed, with McPherson making slow but steady progress against a skillful and dogged defense by General Johnston. McPherson placed Atlanta under siege, two days before the November election, too late to alter the outcome.
4. Blind Memorandum- With the War stalled both East and West Union morale was faltering. Lincoln’s morale was also faltering as graphically demonstrated by what has become known as The Blind Memorandum. Lincoln sealed this document and asked his cabinet officers to sign it unread. They complied. In the chaos that followed Lincoln’s defeat the document lay forgotten for some twenty years until Lincoln mentioned it in his autobiography, Of the People, (1884). Here is the text:
This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.
5. Cedar Creek- Lincoln’s prospects appeared brighter in September and October of 1864 with Union victories in the Shenandoah. This came to a halt with the Confederate victory at Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. In the aftermath Union commander General Phil Sheridan was sacked by Secretary of War Stanton, over the strenuous objections of General Grant, who had always considered him to be too young at 33 for such an important command. Grant placed Meade in overall command of the Shenandoah theater. The cautious Meade avoided any further Union defeats prior to election day, but did not succeed in winning any Union victories. Democrats made considerable hay at rallies in late October with the fact that Sheridan had been fifty miles from Cedar Creek at the time of the battle and mocked his strenuous, albeit futile, ride to get to the battlefield in time to rescue the situation.
6. Drunk Andy-Although it was unprecedented, Andrew Johnson, war-time military Governor of Tennessee, and perhaps the dominant political figure in Tennessee prior to the war, after his nomination as Vice-President, made a series of speeches in support of the re-election of Lincoln in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. All went well, until he caught the flu and drank a fair amount of liquor in an effort at self-medication. This led to a drunken speech in Ohio, and cries from Democrats that he was a drunkard. Lincoln, although embarrassed, kept Johnson on the ticket, saying, “I have known Andy Johnson for many years; he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared; Andy ain’t a drunkard.” Lincoln’s loyalty was commendable, but it did him no good politically.
7. John C. Fremont- Well, he didn’t get many votes as the candidate of the Radical Democracy Party, but Fremont gained enough votes to cost Lincoln the states of California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin, a total of 102 electoral votes, and the election. Efforts were made by the Republicans to get Fremont to withdraw in September and he might have if the military situation had not been looking so dismal and Lincoln so vulnerable.
8. Little Mac–Doubtless the most controversial President in American history, other than Abraham Lincoln, George B. McClellan ran a skillful campaign for the Presidency. Although tempted to repudiate the peace plank of the Democrat convention that nominated him, McClellan was ultimately convinced by the stalled offensives in the East and the West that what the country needed above all was peace, even if that meant dissolution of the Union. Running on the slogan of Peace with Honor, McClellan emphasized that the Union soldiers were all heroes in his eyes and that he wanted to bring them home, and to strive for ultimate re-unification through peaceful means. McClellan actually received slightly fewer votes than Lincoln received on election day, but aided by the votes Fremont deprived Lincoln of in swing states, he won enough states to eke out an electoral college victory.
Aftermath- After the election of McClellan, Lincoln attempted to carry on the War to no avail. Many of the Union soldiers were relatively green troops, replacing three-year men who had gone home, the effort to convince these veterans to reenlist failing with the stalled military campaigns of 1864. Desertions became rampant throughout the Union armies after the election as whole units, convinced that the War was lost, deserted and commandeered transport to get home. Draft riots spread throughout the North, with the worst, unsurprisingly, in New York City. Mobs roamed the streets of Washington, aided by Confederate agents, and Lincoln found himself in a state of semi-siege in Washington, similar to what he experienced at the beginning of the War in 1861. McClellan called for calm, for troops to obey their officers and made it clear that Lincoln was to be obeyed and respected as President. However, he also made it clear that he would undertake peace negotiations with the Confederate government as soon as he was inaugurated. On December 24, 1864, Grant, in a secret meeting with Lincoln, advised him that he could not count on more than 25% of his troops to obey if he ordered them to attack Confederate entrenchments and that he recommended that disloyal troops be sent home before mutinies destroyed the Union armies. Lincoln refused to agree, and the remainder of his term in office featured him giving commands to his generals for offensives that they simply could not convince their men to undertake. Grant asked to be relieved of command on January 31, 1865, an event which effectively ended the military phase of the War Between the States.
Lincoln in Memory-Each year my family and I go down to Springfield to visit the grave sites of Lincoln and his wife. Not many visitors go there, and the headstones have not been well-kept up. In his life there often seemed to be a great melancholy about Lincoln, perhaps a foreboding as to the role he would play as the last President of the old United States. In his retirement Lincoln manfully shouldered all the blame for the Union defeat, and although some Union veterans recalled him fondly, History is rarely kind to losers and it has not been kind to Lincoln. Lincoln when he gave the Gettysburg Address mentioned that the world would little note nor long remember what he said there which has proven to be an accurate prediction. Lincoln had the misfortune to be President at a great turning point in the history of the American people and sadly for him History did not turn in the direction he wished. His tombstone reads He Tried to Save the Union and that will have to be the final word on Abraham Lincoln.