Friday, July 11, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXVIII: Decision '64, Part 1


It has long been a grave question whether any government, not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its existence in great emergencies. On this point the present rebellion brought our government to a severe test, and a presidential election occurring in regular course during the rebellion, added not a little to the strain.

-- President Abraham Lincoln, 1864

One hundred fifty years ago, a Confederate force 10,000 men strong made an assault on the Federal capital. It didn't amount to much. By this point, Washington was the most heavily fortified city on Earth. This detached force under General Jubal Early was a desperation move by General Lee, who'd been well and truly backed into a wall. Lee was in Richmond, which by this point was more or less surrounded by Grant's Federal troops. While Lee had never lost a battle during the Overland Campaign, and while Grant had never won a battle, Grant was nonetheless able to continue forcing Lee to yield ground. And so it came to pass that Grant was encamped in front of Petersburg, his siege works facing off against the Confederate fortifications.

The Battle of Fort Stevens didn't amount to much. The most interesting thing about it was that it was probably the last time that an American President came under direct enemy fire. Lee didn't actually expect Early to capture Washington. What he did expect -- and more or less got -- was that the assault would draw off some of Grant's strength, so that Grant wouldn't be able to crack the Confederate works like a walnut.

Lee had a secondary intent, though. He also wanted to remind the Northern voter that the war wasn't over yet. Yes, Grant was besieging the Confederate capital. Yes, Sherman was slogging his way towards Atlanta. But neither general had managed to close the deal yet.

Something was about to happen that had never happened before in the history of the world. A nation riven by civil war was about to hold a general election for its head of state -- an election where the head of state stood a non-trivial chance of loss.

The Democrats had split in 1860. In 1864, it was the Republicans' turn.

It must be said, though, that the rift wasn't as deep or as rancorous. A wing of the Republican party, the Radical Republicans, weren't happy with Lincoln's management of the war. They nominated John Fremont as their candidate, just as they had during their very first Presidential election in 1856, and they were preparing to run under the banner of the Radical Democracy Party.

The remainder of the Republican Party, along with the loyal elements of the Democratic Party, joined forces that year under the National Union ticket. They nominated Abraham Lincoln for re-election, and chose as his Vice-Presidential running mate Andrew Johnson, a former United States Senator from Tennessee who had stayed staunchly and vocally loyal to the Union. Johnson was the then-current Military Governor of Tennessee.

But the Democratic Party itself hadn't quite disappeared. While the Radical Republicans thought Lincoln too dilatory, the rest of the Democrats wanted peace at virtually any price. Their nominee? The one-time hero of the Union, George McClellan. Again, I think it important to remember McClellan's early contributions. He won one of the Union's most significant early victories. And, he turned the dispirited mob that had run away from Bull Run into a real army again. But his positive contributions to the war basically ended there. Now, he was running on a platform that would essentially let the Southern states go, damning the consequences.

They had a good deal of support, especially since the offensive seemed to have bogged down. Lee's bet that the Northern voter would eventually tire of the effort wasn't an especially bad one. Scott's Anaconda Plan was always going to end in a slow war of attrition, and no one loves a siege. Not the soldiers on the outside, the inside, or anyone footing the bill. They look pointless and wasteful, right up to the time they don't.

Lincoln was beginning to fear he wouldn't have that time.

His fortunes, and quite possibly the fortunes of his nation, now hung on the efforts of two men. General Ulysses Grant outside of Petersburg, and General William Tecumseh Sherman marching towards Atlanta. How well they did their jobs would probably determine whether or not Lincoln would be able to continue doing his.

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