By late August 1864, President Abraham Lincoln’s chances for reelection in the November election looked bleak. The military campaigns that looked promising in the spring had bogged down. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign in Virginia had cost tens of thousands of casualties and the Army of the Potomac was now stuck in siege operations outside of Petersburg. Major General William T. Sherman’s army had been fighting around Atlanta, Georgia for much of the summer but had been unable to capture the city. There was no end to the war in sight, and the Peace Democrats, led by former Ohio congressman Clement Vallandigham, had inserted a plank into the Democratic party platform that called for an immediate end to the fighting followed by negotiations for reunion of the country (though many War Democrats opposed that idea).
To make matters worse, the nominee of the Democratic party for president was expected to be George McClellan. Lincoln faced the very real possibility of having to endure the humiliation of turning the government over to the general that he had fired twice.
Humiliating or not, Lincoln knew that his administration would have to follow through with a transition of power if McClellan won the election. On August 23rd, he wrote what is referred to as the Blind Memorandum:
This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be reelected. 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.
Lincoln folded the memorandum and had his cabinet members sign the back of it without knowing its contents. The President knew he would have to bow to the will of the voters, but he intended to do all he could to save the Union before the next president was inaugurated in March 1865.
On August 31st, McClellan was indeed nominated for president at the Democratic convention in Chicago. The worst case scenario for Lincoln continued to play out. The President needed a big victory on the battlefield, and he needed it fast. Two days later, he got it.
On September 2nd, Sherman wired Washington: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” Sherman’s men had cut off or destroyed nearly all the roads or railroads into and out of the city, and the Confederates were forced to evacuate the city. Sherman had achieved a huge victory, and it shifted the election momentum back in Lincoln’s favor. Other victories on the battlefield followed. The almost certain loss in the presidential election reversed and turned out to be a rout for Lincoln, with the President picking up 55% of the popular vote and winning the electoral vote 212-21. Although McClellan had disavowed the Peace Plank in his party’s platform and had called for restoration of the Union as the basis for a negotiated settlement, he won only Kentucky, Delaware, and his home state of New Jersey.
Lincoln’s lopsided election win meant that the public was determined to see the war though to a victorious conclusion, and the Confederacy’s hopes for a negotiated end to the war vanished. Though the administration didn’t have to implement the terms of the Blind Memorandum, the war was indeed nearly over by the time of Lincoln’s second inauguration.
The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 3 Red River to Appomattox
by Shelby Foote