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1864: It Was the Worst of Times and Then the Best of Times

By Edward Epstein

Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Exactly 160 years ago, in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln endured a year of trouble and turmoil that eventually turned into triumph. Even in his historic presidency, 1864 stands out.

As the year dawned, this is what Lincoln faced after almost three years of a bloody, grinding civil war that had already claimed hundreds of thousands of casualties. "If in the coming year he lost his bid for re-election, if the objectives for which the Union entered the war were bargained away, if Robert E. Lee and his remarkable soldiers could pull off some victory that fatally weakened faltering northern support for the war, Lincoln's place in history would be that of a huge failure in a vast pointless tragedy," author Charles Bracelen Flood wrote in 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History.

The military situation in the first months of the year was grim for U.S. forces, deadlocked with the Confederates on all fronts. An increasingly frustrated Lincoln, unable to find a general who could win his confidence by aggressively pursuing the war everywhere, seemed especially care-worn. Even within his Republican Party, critics were looking to replace him as the party's presidential standard bearer in that November's election. His own secretary of the treasury, Salmon P. Chase, was none too shy about promoting his own prospects as a replacement nominee.

But out west, an unprepossessing figure, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, had managed to win a series of victories before 1864 -- at Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga -- that raised his national profile and led to a clamor for him to become Union commander in chief. With Lincoln's support, Congress voted to resurrect the rank of lieutenant general, last held by George Washington, and Grant became commander in chief of the entire U.S. Army. On March 8 he arrived in Washington and went almost immediately to the White House, where Lincoln was holding an evening reception.

Lincoln took to Grant as soon as they met, and realized that his search for a tenacious commander had finally ended. Early in his presidency, realizing that he needed to learn about military strategy, Lincoln had borrowed several volumes on strategy from the Library of Congress. Within weeks of Grant's arrival in the capital city, Lincoln returned those books, according to Lincoln Group member Michelle Krowl, the Civil War specialist at the Library of Congress who is the keeper of Lincoln's book borrowing records.

But Grant was slow off the mark in going after Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and once he engaged in early May at the Battle of the Wilderness, the result was more of the gory, inconclusive combat that had come before. But there was a key difference, as historian James McPherson wrote in Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief.

"Although the toll of casualties -- almost 18,000 Union and at least 11,000 Confederate -- suggested a Confederate victory, Grant refused to recognize it as such. He did not think of victory or defeat in single set-piece battles, which had been the previous pattern in this theater, but rather in terms of a particular stage in a long campaign," McPherson wrote.

More bloody standoffs -- at Petersburg, the Battle of the Crater and Cold Harbor -- soon followed. But Lincoln stood by Grant. "Grant has the grit of a bulldog. Once let him get his teeth in and nothing can shake him off," the president wrote.

In the western theater Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman began his campaign to take Atlanta and conquer Georgia. But it was slow going.

Lincoln was renominated in early June by the National Union Party, a name adopted by Republicans and War Democrats. But the new party, and Lincoln, feared he couldn't win. Democrats, meanwhile, turned to Lincoln's old foil, Gen. George B. McClellan, as their nominee. He wanted to negotiate a peace with the South, which probably would mean the continued existence of slavery.

Lincoln so feared he would lose that on August 23 he penned the "Blind Memorandum" in which he he pledged that he and his Cabinet would cooperate with McClellan if he lost the election. Without showing it to anyone, Lincoln sealed the memo in an envelope but had all his Cabinet sign the memo as witnesses.

Within days of that, Lincoln's fortunes took a sudden upswing. In early September, Sherman took Atlanta and Adm. David Farragut seized Mobile, Ala., the last major port in Confederate hands.

After all this anguish for Lincoln, the November election was an anti-climax. He got 55 percent of the popular vote and routed McClellan in the electoral vote, 212-21.

One aspect of the election that has been controversial is the solder vote of 1864, which swung solidly behind Lincoln, despite all the casualties the Army had suffered and the discontent that resulted from drafting hundreds of thousands of men into the military.

Historians such as Zachery A. Fry, in his book A Republic in the Ranks, contend that soldiers became politically mobilized during the war, with many of them becoming pro-emancipation. But others, such as Jonathan White in his Emancipation, the Union Army and the Re-election of Abraham Lincoln, say that the soldier vote came to favor Lincoln as Democrats were driven from the ranks. Voter intimidation and fraud were not uncommon, they say.

McPherson says that 1864 shows that Lincoln's grim determination, which seemed to build as the war dragged on, carried the day. "In the summer of 1864, Union prospects seemed to sink almost out of sight. Lincoln resisted enormous pressure to seek a compromise peace and to back away from emancipation. He stayed the course despite universal expectations that it would cost him re-election."

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.


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