Friday, November 07, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XLI: Decision '64, Part 2


As late in the year as July, President Lincoln's re-election chances were looking sketchy, at best. The Republican Party was undergoing a split, similar to the one the Democrats suffered in 1860. The war had dragged on far longer than anyone had ever thought possible. One group of voters just wanted the war over, at any cost. The other wanted it won, by any means necessary. Neither group was happy with Mr. Lincoln.

But events conspired to deliver Lincoln a reprieve. One, we've already talked about: Sherman's capture of Atlanta. The other wasn't nearly as dramatic, but still important. A Union army under General Philip Sheridan had routed the Confederate army defending the Shenandoah Valley, and Sheridan had rendered the once-productive farmlands to a state such that it was said that a bird flying overhead would have to bring along its own rations. As is so often true, victory covers a multitude of sins. The Radical Republicans were somewhat mollified by the improved fortunes -- and the vindication of Lincoln's overall war plans those improved fortunes indicated. Fremont did get something for his trouble, though; as his price to drop his candidacy, he did manage to get the Postmaster General replaced.

History does not record what beef Fremont had with the existing Postmaster General, who was presumably doing an acceptable job.

Incidentally, there was no Confederate Presidential election. The Confederate Presidency was limited to a single six-year term, with the first actual election scheduled for 1866. Provided, of course, that the Confederacy would last so long.

The November election, when it came, was something of an anticlimax. The popular vote was much closer than the Electoral vote. Although the popular vote counts weren't what you'd call close -- Lincoln won 55% of the vote to McClellan's 45%. In the Electoral College the totals were much more lopsided, 212 to 21. McClellan won his home state of New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky. That was about it. Many Northern voters were tired of the war -- McClellan did quite well, winning a sprinkling of counties across the country -- but not enough of them were ready to throw in the towel just yet. With the events of the last year, particularly the last few months, they could smell a sea change.

And ... so could Southerners.

I think they knew they were doomed. Depending on who you ask they'll draw the line here or there, the point at which they knew the jig was up. Some will say Gettysburg, others Vicksburg. General D.H. Hill said Chickamauga was the breaking point ... ironically, a Confederate victory, but one they were unable to exploit. "It seems to me the élan of the Southern soldier was never seen after Chickamauga," Hill would later write. "He would fight stoutly to the last, but after Chickamauga, with the sullenness of despair and without the enthusiasm of hope." But I think it was the re-election of Lincoln that well and truly drew a line under it. They first pinned their hopes on a foreign intervention that never came, and then upon a Northern war-weariness and exhaustion that would not come in time. Undergirding it all was a reliance upon the daring and dash of their soldiers, and now that was gone, too.

But fight they would, with as much as they had, and with all the time they had left.

And so the war rolled on. The Southern armies still in the field had to be subdued. General Sherman in Atlanta had advanced a ... somewhat unconventional proposal to Grant and Lincoln. And, for all its risk and all his worries about it, Lincoln finally decided to let Sherman off the chain.

It was time to end this.