Lincoln Defeated

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Lincoln Weeping

If the end brings me out wrong, ten thousand angels swearing I was right wouldn’t make any difference.

Abraham Lincoln



During the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the War Between the States, it is time to take stock of the War that severed forever the United States of America and led to creation of two American republics, soon to be joined by a third, the Pacific Republic, and, eventually, by a fourth, after Texas seceded from the Confederacy  during the Great Depression of 1893.  All of our American history, for good and ill, was irrevocably altered by the events that transpired a century and a half ago.  Could events have come out differently?  I think many historians would say yes, if Lincoln had not lost the election of 1864.

By the Spring of 1864 the Union war effort had clearly made progress but at a terrible cost in human lives and treasure.  The Union had succeeded in conquering almost all of Tennessee and Arkansas.  The Confederacy’s largest city, New Orleans, was under Union control and, in Lincoln’s phrase, “the Father of the Waters” went unvexed to the Sea, and the Confederacy in Texas and the unconquered portions of Arkansas and Louisiana were now cut off from the rest of the Confederacy by a newly hostile Mississippi.  The Union had established control of much of the coast line of the Confederacy and the Union blockade, a joke in 1861, had become a very grim reality for the Confederacy in 1864.  Today, most people do not appreciate how close the Confederacy came to defeat in 1864, although it was a common theme in speeches given at Confederate Victory Day celebrations throughout the South for decades after the War.  How did this all turn to ashes for the Union by November 1864 with Lincoln rejected at the polls?  Here are, I think, some of  the major factors:

1.  War Weariness-By 1864 most Americans, North and South, were heartily sick of the War, the huge casualty lists filling the newspapers giving a nightmarish quality to life.  However, there was a difference.  If the North lost the War, there would be little change in the life of most Northerners.  If the South lost the War, they would be under what most white Southerners now perceived as hated foreign domination.  Northern morale was as a result more fragile than Southern morale.  The South would resist until they could resist no longer, while the North would continue the War only if it could be brought to a victorious conclusion relatively quickly.

2.  Lee-Ulysses S. Grant was a fine General even if ultimately he failed in his goal of defeating Lee.  In his Overland Campaign he succeeded in driving Lee back to Richmond, and ultimately brought Petersburg under siege.  No mean feat up against a man now universally regarded by nearly all Americans as the finest American General.  Lee realized the caliber of General that he was up against in regard to Grant, and that Grant could not be defeated easily as he had defeated other Union drives against Richmond.  It took all of Lee’s immense skill to prevent Grant from taking Richmond, but this he succeeded in doing while inflicting casualties of 2-1 against Grant, and causing much of the North, including, privately, Mary Todd Lincoln, to denounce Grant as a butcher.  Grant had brought the Union close to victory, but only by an immense effusion of Northern blood, and the population of the North simply had no stomach for many more casualties in what appeared to be an endless War.

3.  Sherman’s Death-Sherman’s drive on Atlanta, which had been making progress, came to a sudden end on June 27, 1864 with the battle of Kennesaw Mountain.  Of all the Civil War might have beens, perhaps none are more poignant than what would have happened if Sherman had stopped the battle after the failure of the initial assaults as he was advised to do by General Thomas.  Instead, Sherman ordered two more attacks each bloodily repulsed.  As he went out to meet the retreating survivors of his last attack, Sherman was felled by a long-range shot from a Confederate sharpshooter equipped with a rifle and a telescopic sight.  Lincoln wished to place Thomas in command, but Grant, who bore animosity for Thomas, why still being something of a mystery, insisted on General James McPherson being placed in overall command.  McPherson wished to continue the offensive against Atlanta, but that simply was not possible after the fifteen thousand casualties sustained by the Union.  Resisting calls in Northern papers to fall back on Chattanooga, McPherson remained in place and awaited reinforcements.  In early September the offensive was renewed, with McPherson making slow but steady progress against a skillful and dogged defense by General Johnston.  McPherson placed Atlanta under siege, two days before the November election, too late to alter the outcome.

4.  Blind Memorandum- With the War stalled both East and West Union morale was faltering.  Lincoln’s morale was also faltering as graphically demonstrated by what has become known as The Blind Memorandum.  Lincoln sealed this document and asked his cabinet officers to sign it unread.  They complied.  In the chaos that followed Lincoln’s defeat the document lay forgotten for some twenty years until Lincoln mentioned it in his autobiography, Of the People, (1884).  Here is the text:

This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. 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.

A. Lincoln

5.  Cedar Creek- Lincoln’s prospects appeared brighter in September and October of 1864 with Union victories in the Shenandoah.  This came to a halt with the Confederate victory at Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. In the aftermath Union commander General Phil Sheridan was sacked by Secretary of War Stanton, over the strenuous objections of General Grant, who had always considered him to be too young at 33 for such an important command.  Grant placed Meade in overall command of the Shenandoah theater.  The cautious Meade avoided any further Union defeats prior to election day, but did not succeed in winning any Union victories.  Democrats made considerable hay at rallies in late October with the fact that Sheridan had been fifty miles from Cedar Creek at the time of the battle and mocked his strenuous, albeit futile, ride to get to the battlefield in time to rescue the situation.

6.  Drunk Andy-Although it was unprecedented, Andrew Johnson, war-time military Governor of Tennessee, and perhaps the dominant political figure in Tennessee prior to the war, after his nomination as Vice-President, made a series of speeches in support of the re-election of Lincoln in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.  All went well, until he caught the flu and drank a fair amount of liquor in an effort at self-medication.  This led to a drunken speech in Ohio, and cries from Democrats that he was a drunkard.  Lincoln, although embarrassed, kept Johnson on the ticket, saying, “I have known Andy Johnson for many years; he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared; Andy ain’t a drunkard.” Lincoln’s loyalty was commendable, but it did him no good politically.

7.  John C. Fremont- Well, he didn’t get many votes as the candidate of the Radical Democracy Party, but Fremont gained enough votes to cost Lincoln the states of California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin, a total of 102 electoral votes, and the election.  Efforts were made by the Republicans to get Fremont to withdraw in September and he might have if the military situation had not been looking so dismal and Lincoln so vulnerable.

8.  Little MacDoubtless the most controversial President in American history, other than Abraham Lincoln, George B. McClellan ran a skillful campaign for the Presidency.  Although tempted to repudiate the peace plank of the Democrat convention that nominated him, McClellan was ultimately convinced by the stalled offensives in the East and the West that what the country needed above all was peace, even if that meant dissolution of the Union.  Running on the slogan of Peace with Honor, McClellan emphasized that the Union soldiers were all heroes in his eyes and that he wanted to bring them home, and to strive for ultimate re-unification through peaceful means.  McClellan actually received slightly fewer votes than Lincoln received on election day, but aided by the votes Fremont deprived Lincoln of in swing states, he won enough states to eke out an electoral college victory.

Aftermath- After the election of McClellan, Lincoln attempted to carry on the War to no avail.  Many of the Union soldiers were relatively green troops, replacing three-year men who had gone home, the effort to convince these veterans to reenlist failing with the stalled military campaigns of 1864.  Desertions became rampant throughout the Union armies after the election as whole units, convinced that the War was lost, deserted and commandeered transport to get home.  Draft riots spread throughout the North, with the worst, unsurprisingly, in New York City.    Mobs roamed the streets of Washington, aided by Confederate agents, and Lincoln found himself in a state of semi-siege in Washington, similar to what he experienced at the beginning of the War in 1861.  McClellan called for calm, for troops to obey their officers and made it clear that Lincoln was to be obeyed and respected as President.  However, he also made it clear that he would undertake peace negotiations with the Confederate government as soon as he was inaugurated.  On December 24, 1864, Grant, in a secret meeting with Lincoln, advised him that he could not count on more than 25% of his troops to obey if he ordered them to attack Confederate entrenchments and that he recommended that disloyal troops be sent home before mutinies destroyed the Union armies.  Lincoln refused to agree, and the remainder of his term in office featured him giving commands to his generals for offensives that they simply could not convince their men to undertake.   Grant asked to be relieved of command on January 31, 1865, an event which effectively ended the military phase of the War Between the States.

Lincoln in Memory-Each year my family and I go down to Springfield to visit the grave sites of Lincoln and his wife.  Not many visitors go there, and the headstones have not been well-kept up.  In his life there often seemed to be a great melancholy about Lincoln, perhaps a foreboding as to the role he would play as the last President of the old United States.  In his retirement Lincoln manfully shouldered all the blame for the Union defeat, and although some Union veterans recalled him fondly, History is rarely kind to losers and it has not been kind to Lincoln.  Lincoln when he gave the Gettysburg Address mentioned that the world would little note nor long remember what he said there which has proven to be an accurate prediction.   Lincoln had the misfortune to be President at a great turning point in the history of the American people and sadly for him History did not turn in the direction he wished.  His tombstone reads He Tried to Save the Union and that will have to be the final word on Abraham Lincoln.

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  1. Don, I know you’re the expert on history around here, but do you really think that the US / CS could have worked as a country over the long haul? I think we were doomed from the start. They’re, essentially, the northernmost South American oligarchy, split by racial lines. We’re the shining city on the hill, the last sign of progressivism with the freedom of pre-Hitler Europe. Sure, it’d be cool if we owned Texas instead of them pretty much owning us, but history has shown us that the South was never, ever going to give up on slavery, and as Lincoln said, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

  2. And to think the Original Gorilla opposed a government founded on principles like these. Why, the temerity.

    We, the people of the Confederate States, each state acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity — invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God — do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.

  3. All of this will mean nothing when hordes of Californios overwhelm your petty little fiefdoms and drive up your housing prices. Why destroy your homes when we can buy five of them and drive you out? Union? No! Confederacy? You make us laugh. We shall turn your states into Ranchos named after the saints and build new churches out of adobe, the only truly becoming building material within which to worship.

  4. Wow, I didn’t knwo there was anotehr Jon here. What amazes me is how much debate remains regarding the reason(s) behind the war. It seems to have been fought over more than one issue if you ask me. I would say states’ rights as well as slavery, and perhaps other reasons too.

  5. It was all to defend slavery Jon, as the secession statements of most of the seceding states made clear. Here is a section of Jefferson Davis’ first message to the Confederate Congress:

    “The climate and soil of the Northern States soon proved unpropitious to the continuance of slave labor, whilst the converse was the case at the South. Under the unrestricted free intercourse between the two sections, the Northern States consulted their own interests by selling their slaves to the South and prohibiting slavery within their limits. The South were willing purchasers of a property suitable to their wants, and paid the price of acquisition without harboring a suspicion that their quiet possession was to be disturbed by those who were inhibited not only by want of constitutional authority, but by good faith as vendors, from disquieting a title emanating from themselves. As soon, however, as the Northern States that prohibited African slavery within their limits had reached a number sufficient to give their representation a controlling voice in Congress, a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States was inaugurated and gradually extended. A continuous series of measures was devised and prosecuted for the purpose of rendering insecure the tenure of property in slaves. Fanatical organizations, supplied with money by voluntary subscriptions, were assiduously engaged in exciting amongst the slaves a spirit of discontent and revolt; means were furnished for their escape from their owners, and agents secretly employed to entice them to abscond; the constitutional provisions for their rendition to their owners was first evaded, then openly denounced as a violation of conscientious obligation and religious duty; men were taught that it was a merit to elude, disobey, and violently oppose the execution of the laws enacted to secure the performance of the promise contained in the constitutional compact; owners of slaves were mobbed and even murdered in open day solely for applying to a magistrate for the arrest of a fugitive slave; the dogmas of these voluntary organizations soon obtained control of the Legislatures of many of the Northern States, and laws were passed providing for the punishment, by ruinous fines and long-continued imprisonment in jails and penitentiaries, of citizens of the Southern States who should dare to ask aid of the officers of the law for the recovery of their property. Emboldened by success, the theater of agitation and aggression against the clearly expressed constitutional rights of the Southern States was transferred to the Congress; Senators and Representatives were sent to the common councils of the nation, whose chief title to this distinction consisted in the display of a spirit of ultra fanaticism, and whose business was not “to promote the general welfare or insure domestic tranquillity,” but to awaken the bitterest hatred against the citizens of sister States by violent denunciation of their institutions; the transaction of public affairs was impeded by repeated efforts to usurp powers not delegated by the Constitution, for the purpose of impairing the security of property in slaves, and reducing those States which held slaves to a condition of inferiority. Finally a great party was organized for the purpose of obtaining the administration of the Government, with the avowed object of using its power for the total exclusion of the slave States from all participation in the benefits of the public domain acquired by all the States in common, whether by conquest or purchase; of surrounding them entirely by States in which slavery should be prohibited; of thus rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, and thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars. This party, thus organized, succeeded in the month of November last in the election of its candidate for the Presidency of the United States.

    In the meantime, under the mild and genial climate of the Southern States and the increasing care and attention for the well-being and comfort of the laboring class, dictated alike by interest and humanity, the African slaves had augmented in number from about 600,000, at the date of the adoption of the constitutional compact, to upward of 4,000,000. In moral and social condition they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction. Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition, but to convert hundreds of thousands of square miles of wilderness into cultivated lands covered with a prosperous people; towns and cities had sprung into existence, and had rapidly increased in wealth and population under the social system of the South; the white population of the Southern slaveholding States had augmented form about 1,250,000 at the date of the adoption of the Constitution to more than 8,500,000 in 1860; and the productions of the South in cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, for the full development and continuance of which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable, had swollen to an amount which formed nearly three-fourths of the exports of the whole United States and had become absolutely necessary to the wants of civilized man. With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled, the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced. With this view the Legislatures of the several States invited the people to select delegates to conventions to be held for the purpose of determining for themselves what measures were best adapted to meet so alarming a crisis in their history. Here it may be proper to observe that from a period as early as 1798 there had existed in all of the States of the Union a party almost uniterruptedly in the majority based upon the creed that each State was, in the last resort, the sole judge as well of its wrongs as of the mode and measure of redress. Indeed, it is obvious that under the law of nations this principle is an axiom as applied to the relations of independent sovereign States, such as those which had united themselves under the constitutional compact. The Democratic party of the United States repeated, in its successful canvass in 1856, the declaration made in numerous previous political contests, that it would “faithfully abide by and uphold the principles laid down in the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions of 1798, and in the report of Mr. Madison to the Virginia Legislature in 1799; and that it adopts those principles as constituting one of the main foundations of its political creed.” The principles thus emphatically announced embrace that to which I have already averted– the right of each State to judge of and redress the wrongs of which it complains. These principles were maintained by overwhelming majorities of the people in all the States of the Union at different elections, especially in the elections of Mr. Jefferson in 1805, Mr. Madison in 1809, and Mr. Pierce in 1852. In the exercise of a right so ancient, so well-established, and so necessary for self-preservation, the people of the Confederate States, in their conventions, determined that the wrongs which they had suffered and the evils with which they were menaced required that they should revoke the delegation of powers to the Federal Government which they had ratified in their several conventions. They consequently passed ordinances resuming all their rights as sovereign and independent States and dissolved their connection with the other States of the Union.”

  6. Well then, perhaps states’ rights by default. I mean, to defend slavery it then becomes about states’ rights.

    I suppose you’re right, though. It was the belief of my Civil War professor that it was fundamentally fought over slavery.

  7. But Jon, I’m the original Jon. Ask Don. ;`)

    Anyway, Don,

    But just think how much trouble that single little phrase may have saved us had our “Entlightenment” Founders in Philadelphia included it:

    “…invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God…”

  8. We did have similar language in the Articles of Confederation Jon:

    “And Whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union. Know Ye that we the undersigned delegates, by virtue of the power and authority to us given for that purpose, do by these presents, in the name and in behalf of our respective constituents, fully and entirely ratify and confirm each and every of the said Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union, and all and singular the matters and things therein contained: And we do further solemnly plight and engage the faith of our respective constituents, that they shall abide by the determinations of the United States in Congress assembled, on all questions, which by the said Confederation are submitted to them. And that the Articles thereof shall be inviolably observed by the States we respectively represent, and that the Union shall be perpetual.”

    In regard to the Constitution the framers seem to have thought it unnecessary to repeat things from the Articles of the Confederation, for example the name of the country, that were not changed by the Constitution. A good book is waiting to be written on this subject.

  9. Yes, I think it was always intended in teh documents that the union would be a perpetual union, not a mere colleciton of states that could secede at any time.

  10. Finally got the chance to finish reading this. Superb, Don.

    Now remind me: What effects did all this have in the 20th century? It’s certainly interesting to think how events such as the Great War and the Continental Empire might have gone differently had there been a unified “United States” rather than the four republics.

  11. After the War, the Confederacy fought a brief and successful war with Spain to take over Cuba and Puerto Rico. The Pacific Republic took the opportunity to take the Philippines from Spain. The Sandwich Islands were annexed by the Pacific Republic in 1892. The Republic of Texas took advantage of the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 to seize the Mexican states adjoining Texas, while the Pacific Republic seized Baja California. Further conquest of Mexican lands was terminated by President Roosevelt of the United States threatening to go to war if further land was seized from Mexico. Confederate President Woodrow Wilson quietly supported this initiative of President Roosevelt.

    Roosevelt led the United States into World War I early in 1915. The massive casualty lists that the US incurred detered the Confederacy and Texas from joining in the conflict, although a volunteer force of Confederates, under the command of a General George S. Patton (CSA), fought for the Allies as the Lafayette Division. The Pacific Republic declared war on Germany and seized several German colonies in the Pacific, almost coming to blows with Japan as a result. No Pacific soldiers were sent to fight on the Western Front, the Pacific Republic viewing itself as a Naval power in the Pacific and not being interest in territorial squabbles in Europe.

    Largely due to the massive early intervention of the United States, the Great War came to an end early in 1917 on the terms of status quo ante. The German government having dealt harshly with a socialist revolution of its own immediately after the War, gave support to the Tsar’s regime to put down an attempted Communist insurrection. Germany attempted to rescue the Dual Monarchy from a wave of nationalist rebellions, but ultimately Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, an enlarged Hungary and the South Reich emerged as successor states. The Ottoman Empire was prosperous having sat out the War, the only fighting the Turks engaging in involving the mass murder of Armenians.

    I will reserve the rest I think for a future post.

  12. Jon/s – You have two problems in trying to define the cause of the Civil War. First off, you’ve got sympathizers for both sides, who are going to put their own emphasis on the causes. Secondly, you’ve got to deal with the fads among historians over the last 150 years. They were big on things like class struggle and economic determinism, uninterested in things like the influence of religion.

  13. Interesting alternate history.

    As you know, Bob, in our history, the Central Powers (Imperial Germany, the United States, Austria and the Turks) defeated the Allies (UK, France, CSA and Russia) by spring 1917, albeit with horrific casualties running north of 2 million in each of the major combatants. The post-war reunification of the exhausted American states and the annexed parts of Canada have proven vexing and uneven to this day, though at least the guerilla fighting didn’t last beyond a quarter century.

    In many ways, North America is still trying to recover from that conflict, which saw massive fleet actions in the Atlantic and Carribean, along with trench warfare from California to Virginia in the south, and from Winnipeg to Quebec City in the north. The tensions between North America, German-dominated Europe and Japanese East Asia are also a source of concern, though a wary equilibrium keeps things from heating up beyond trade, currency and the occasional proxy war.

  14. The consensus among most of the other “what if the South won the Civil War” alternate histories that I have read, or read about, is that the South and North would have reunited at some point during the 20th century due to economic concerns and military concerns as new superpowers such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia came on the scene.

  15. Harry Turtledove did a good alternate history series with the Union and Confederacy being on opposite sides in World War I and World War II, with the South being on the losing side in both conflicts, and a fascist movement arising in the Confederacy after World War I. His depiction of total modern war waged on American soil makes me appreciate how lucky we have been since the Civil War.

  16. I remember MacKinlay Kantor’s alternate history where the three American successor states reunited in the face of the Soviet threat. It’s back in print again:

    The thing is, there’s a good chance the Soviet Union would have been “butterflied away” by the consequences of an America disintegrating after 1865–e.g., there would be no Nazi Germany if Imperial Germany was triumphant, nor likely a Soviet Union (the Germans would have squashed it flat).

    FWIW, Roger Ransom’s recent alternate history/historical analysis of a sundered America is very convincing. He imagines the Great War taking place on the American continent, with reunification in the wake of Confederate (and Allied) defeat.

  17. The South was ideologically on the losing side of history (if you want to put it that way). When England enacted the anti-slavery act, it was a losing battle for pro-slave people. Plus, the political movement was toward consolidation–it was an age of nationalism.

  18. “there would be no Nazi Germany if Imperial Germany was triumphant, nor likely a Soviet Union (the Germans would have squashed it flat).”

    At least temporarily. I would not have bet much money on the long term stability of Wihelmine Germany as the dominant power in Europe. Politics tended to go to extremes with a growing Socialist bloc and growing strength on the extremist right. Assuming that Germany annexed Belgium and Northern France, revanchist forces would have been strong in the West. Germany would have been kept busy also in the East attempting to prop up the Austrians and the Tsar, or whatever regime acceptable to Germany took the place of the Tsar, unless Germany decided it was time to slice up whatever of European Russia they hadn’t taken in a Worl War I victory. I doubt if World War 2 would have involved fascists and communists, but I could easily imagine a big blow up in the forties in a German dominated Europa, with the death of the Kaiser perhaps being a signal for hostilities to commence.

  19. Hard to say about Imperial Germany’s long-term prospects. Wilhelm II was something of a twit, and the German government under his regime staffed with a remarkable number of nonentities. A triumphant but still exhausted Germany could have just as easily seen a return to the prudence of the post-Kulturkampf regime. At a minimum, the Crown Prince had a reasonably moderate political head on his shoulders, and likely would have governed differently.

  20. Boy, I’ve been out of the loop a long time on Harry Turtledove, I think when I was last paying attention he was still working through the series where aliens invaded during WW2. The southern victory series sounds interesting.

  21. Darwin:

    It is. It’s also massive and borderline unwieldy. But it ends with a literal bang or two, and the humorous touches (e.g., what happened to Hitler) make it worthwhile.

  22. Yes! Turtledove has great ideas for alternate histories but the execution, especially on his multi-volume series, is often lacking. He will robotically alternate between point of view characters in a set order. The volumes are filled with padding and could be slimmed down by at least a third with no loss of content. In some of the multi-volume series the writing is so poor that I have wondered if Turtledove has assistants taught to write in a “Harry Turtledove” style. He will often describe the same thing over and over again. For example in his series on the Confederacy, he had a rib shack as one of the locations in the volumes and each time he mentioned it, dozens of times, he would write how tasty the food was, and how saliva would leap into the mouth of point of view characters as they smelled the savory barbecue. In his one volume works and short stories Turtledove is a much abler writer, so I wonder if the multivolume series are part of a cottage industry he has established with less skilled writers composing most of the content, and Turtledove supplying outlines and minimal revisions.

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