“The Momentous Day
he day has come–the day of fate. Before this morning’s sun sets, the destinies of this republic, so far as depends on human agency, are to be settled for weal or for woe. An inevitable choice is this day to be made by the American people, between a policy carrying salvation or a policy carrying ruin to the nation. On the one hand is war, tremendous and terrible, yet ushering in at the end every national security and glory. On the other is the mocking shadow of a peace, tempting us to quit these sacrifices, and sink again into indulgence, and yet sure to rob us of our birthright, and to entail upon our children a dissevered Union and ceaseless strife. “
So wrote the New York Times on today’s date, November 8, 1864 – One hundred fifty years ago – about the stark choices facing the voters that day. It was not only the personal choice facing the voters about which the Times spoke. That was between President Abraham Lincoln for the Republicans and George McClellan for the Democrats. It was between continued vigorous prosecution of the war against the Confederate States of America, including the ultimate goal of an end to slavery on the one hand, and on the other hand, a quick pursuit of peace negotiations to end that war as proposed by the Democratic platform written for and endorsed by McClellan. It was quite literally between one or two countries.
Lincoln’s Chances Looked Bleak
As late as the Summer of 1864, things did not look good at all for Lincoln. 1863 had the twin triumphs of Gettysburg, and Vicksburg. But with U.S. Grant now in charge of the Army of the Potomac and bogged down in a seemingly endless siege of Petersburg, he looked like a
butcher. And William T. Sherman had attacked boldly, but was now also bogged down in protracted fighting near Atlanta, unable to break through. During the first week in August, Thurlow Weed (above), a leading Republican politician, traveled to Washington and told Lincoln “that his re-election was an impossibility.” There were reports of peace feelers being sent by Jefferson Davis, and of these being rebuffed by Lincoln, because he insisted on abolition of slavery. “It seems entirely probable that this Administration will not be re-elected..” he admitted in a private memo. Nevertheless he insisted that the election be held, and not cancelled because of the war, as many counseled him to do.
Then the News From the Battle Front Improves…
But in late August, the picture on the battle field began to improve. First, there was the victory of Admiral Farragut in shutting down Mobile Bay, Alabama news of which hit northern newspapers on August 15. Then, on August 31 the armies of General William Tecumseh Sherman (below)
attacked the Confederate army under General John Bell Hood south of Atlanta, and finally were able to break through. “Atlanta is our’s and fairly won!” Sherman crowed in a telegram to Secretary of War Stanton. On that very day of August 31, the Democratic Party, meeting in Chicago nominated the strutting boob George McClellan as its candidate for President. The party’s platform said that “After four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment off war… (it was time to) demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities.”
Lincoln Goes on to WIIIIIIN!!
After Farragut’s victory in Mobile Bay, and Sherman’s taking of Atlanta, northern defeatism which had been so prevalent up to that time was wiped out. But the news from the battle front only got better. General Philip Sheridan, who had been assigned the task of bringing General Jubal Early’s army to heel, and to shut down the Confederate “bread basket” that had been the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia was attacked by Early on the morning of October 18 at Cedar Creek.
Sheridan had been some miles from the battlefield, Upon hearing the gunfire, Sheridan mounted his horse and arrived at the battle in time to rally his troops and win the battle. He then began burning every farm, and slaughtering every farm animal they could lay their hands on, thus shutting down this source of supply to the South for good. After that the Union and its victory at the polls seemed assured. And sure enough, on November 8, the voters gave Lincoln a resounding vote of confidence. 55% to 45% of the popular vote, with Lincoln carrying all but three states, Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey for an electoral landslide of 212 to 21. Most gratifying of all to Lincoln was the fact that the soldiers voting absentee wnt for him, and against their old commander by a margin of 80% to 20%.
“I give thanks to the almighty for this evidence off the people’s resolution. This contest has demonstrated to the world that a people’s government can sustain a national election in the midst of a great Civil War.” – Abraham Lincoln.
“A Team of Rivals – The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2005.
“The Civil War”. Episode 7, “Most Hallowed Ground”, Dir. by Ken Burns, PBS, 1990