Election of 1864

On Tuesday, August 23, 1864, Abraham Lincoln wrote a secret memorandum that began, “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.”  He then proceeded to sketch out a plan for cooperation with the next President-Elect in the event of his own defeat.  Students in History 288 should be able to identify the leading military and political factors that led President Lincoln to cast his personal political situation in such bleak terms.  What had gone wrong since Gettysburg and Vicksburg?  Yet even with a firm grasp of context, the memo itself proves challenging to explain.  James McPherson casts the so-called “blind memorandum” as a sign that Lincoln had “fully anticipated defeat in November,” but doesn’t succeed in explaining why he had his cabinet officers endorse the document “sight unseen,” nor why Lincoln made such a strange offer but undertook no more obvious changes in his policy or personnel during this anxious time.  Why did Lincoln and the Unionist ultimately prevail in November 1864?  What happened on the battlefields and across the homefront that changed the political dynamic?

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4 Responses to Election of 1864

  1. Molly Orell says:

    In December of 1862 after the battle at Fredericksburg, the Union and Confederate armies had reached a standoff. The winter was coming and with the change of season, the Union army changed their overall strategies. Henry Halleck worked hand in hand with Abraham Lincoln to adjust the Union’s strategy from offensive to defensive. Lincoln trusted Halleck’s decisions; Halleck was different from McClellan in that he was prepared to carry out the orders that President Lincoln was giving and were working for the betterment of the Union. Now that the Union army had shifted to a defensive strategy, their goals were changed. Halleck and Lincoln clearly decided that adopting the emancipation would heighten the fear in the Confederates, which would ultimately remove the possibility of a quick end to the war. On that note, the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg resulted in the Southern loss of its positive possibilities overseas. Also, during the battle of Gettysburg, the south had suffered a detrimental loss and it seemed as if it would never be the same again.

    Lincoln and the Unionists prevailed because Lincoln had made actions to change his mindset from “defeat the enemy” to “improve our army.” Halleck played a major role in the success of Lincoln and when the South had lost the prospect of allies overseas, they lost their upper hand. Also, Lincoln and Halleck made passive moves that would actively change the movements that the Confederates would make. Also, the Union army had focused not only on the land but also with help from the navy; the Union was able to create a federal blockade that would make trading difficult or even impossible for the Confederates. All of these factors would ultimately lead to Lincoln’s and the Union’s victory

  2. Ari B says:

    Lincoln’s secret memorandum resulted from the last of three instances identified by McPherson as instances where the confederates had an identifiable path to victory. The first two of these instances correlated with chances the confederates had for considerable offensive victories on northern territory after a series of victories on their own. Union victories at Antietam and Gettysburg ended southern momentum in both of these chances. The last confederate was manifested in the presidential election of 1864. If Lincoln could be defeated by a peace candidate, Southerners believed that they could negotiate an end to the war. By summer of 1864, events on the battlefield seemed to exceedingly point towards Lincoln’s defeat in a presidential election. After the Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, the slow progress combined with the high cost of war damaged the morale of northern society. These factors applied to both the campaigns for Atlanta and Richmond. In the Virginia theatre, Grants campaign starting in the spring of 1864 led to some of the hardest fighting and highest casualties of the war. Grant didn’t win any significant victories in the campaign, but still attempted to outmaneuver Lee. This aggressive strategy put Grant 9 miles to Richmond by the summer, but northern fears about the nature of the fighting didn’t improve when the Petersburg campaign became a trench stalemate. During the Petersburg siege, Confederate General led a raid into northern territory and even exchanged fire with forts defending Washington. While eventually repulsed, the raids effect on northern feelings towards war certainly maintained a higher significance than tactical objectives. At the same time, Sherman’s campaign to take Atlanta had been slowed repeatedly by Fabian tactics led by Joe Johnston, who combined strategic retreats with attacks and raids on the union troops and supply. These efforts stalled the Union campaign on Atlanta.

    These two setbacks made it appear to Lincoln that a Democratic candidate would likely win the presidency in 1864. This caused the memorandum, proposing that the president elect would work with Lincoln to win the war during the lame duck period. Lincoln feared that a president elect that didn’t stand behind the war fully would cause northern troops to stop fighting due to lack of incentive. However, almost immediately after Lincoln wrote the letter, the tide of the war changed completely. Sherman captured Atlanta and began his march to the sea, Sheridan, crushed Early in the Shenandoah Valley, Thomas defeated Hood in Tennessee. The Confederacy’s last, and perhaps best chance to win the war was averted soon after Lincoln’s despondent Memorandum.

  3. Mike Repshas says:

    Abraham Lincoln did not truly believe that he did not have a chance of winning the election of 1864, but he wrote this particular letter anyway. What was the purpose of this letter? The answer to this question is that Lincoln wanted assurance that even if he was not re-elected, certain members of his cabinet would continue to work under the new administration during the Lame Duck time period in which Lincoln was still President. He did this because he was worried that there was a possibility that the new President would motion for a peace treaty between the North and the South, and he believed that the war needed to be seen out, or else all of the destruction and deaths from the past 3 to 4 years would be for nothing. He saw this as a possibility as the recent battles of the time had caused a great decline in Northern morale as casualties were high and the Northern economy was continuing to receive massive blows as the cost of war was continuing to rise. The overall Northern morale was low as well, as slow progress continued to occur even after the important Union victories in Vicksburg and Gettysburg. A Lincoln re-election seemed continually improbable, but very soon after he had written the letter, the overall landscape of the Civil War had taken a turn for the better for Lincoln and his administration. General Sherman and his army had successfully taken over Atlanta, like he promised he would, and the Union army was now on a very aggressive offensive, thus all but ensuring a Lincoln re-election, and the continuance of the Civil War.

  4. Aaron Hock says:

    When Lincoln wrote his “blind memorandum” on August 23, the Union was still suffering from the devastating (but inconclusive) battles in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania. And in June Grant’s army struggled against Lee’s at Cold Harbor, losing thousands of men, and the battle. Things weren’t looking good for the Union, and as a result they weren’t looking good for the Union’s Commander-in-Chief. Lincoln knew that if the losses continued he could very well lose to George McClellan, his democratic adversary who promoted peace.

    That being said, the results of the election were somewhat irrelevant to Lincoln. His letter suggests that he planned to finish the war before the election, knowing that if he was not reelected, then the Union could not be saved. He maintains hope and stays his course in order to save the Union as soon as possible, in case he doesn’t get reelected. Fortunately for him, in September General William T. Sherman succeeded in capturing Atlanta, a huge victory for the Union. After this, and after Sherman’s continued success in South Carolina, a victory for Lincoln had been secured.

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