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 transpired 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 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 Kenesaw 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. (more…)