Lincoln’s actions when he loses reelection in 1864, due to unpopularity for the Union war morale

Jabe Thomas

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Jun 15, 2020
In a scenario where Sherman’s March doesn’t go well and Northern morale for the war is low, Lincoln loses reelection to George McClellan or any Peace Democrat that was willing to negotiate with the CSA. Lincoln has five months before the opposing candidate is inaugurated. So does Lincoln take this opportunity to continue the war and bring the CSA to surrender before the new president is inaugurated or would he save face and immediately negotiate terms with the CSA when he knows morale for the war is low.
 
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rbasin

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I imagine he would meet with the president elect and discuss this. I suspect that if the Democratic party had a better candidate, Lincoln had put himself into a position to lose.
 

jackt62

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In August 1864, Lincoln prepared a private memorandum concerning his probable failure to be re-elected in November 1864 and his fear that the Union would not be preserved under a President George McClellan. The memorandum was placed in a sealed envelope; Lincoln asked each of his cabinet members to sign the back of the envelope without reading the contents.

"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."

Of course, that scenario never had to play out.
 

CanadianCanuck

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The Blind Memorandum mentioned above is, IMO, pretty definitive on what Lincoln would carry out with his remaining months in office. I imagine he would meet with the President Elect (let's just say McClellan) and offer advice, but I do think that with a bloody stalemate taking place Lincoln would decide that he would allow officers to accept truces as they saw fit, depending on how his conversations with the President Elect go.

On the assumption it is McClellan, I can't actually see a meeting taking place as McClellan was both very paranoid of the men in Washington, and the trust between him and the Lincoln government was essentially zero. I can actually imagine McClellan requesting Lincoln come see him in New York. Quite honestly, Lincoln may end up operating in a blind spot and become beset by contradictory information.
 

Carronade

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In August 1864, Lincoln prepared a private memorandum concerning his probable failure to be re-elected in November 1864 and his fear that the Union would not be preserved under a President George McClellan. The memorandum was placed in a sealed envelope; Lincoln asked each of his cabinet members to sign the back of the envelope without reading the contents.

"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."

Of course, that scenario never had to play out.

I have always found this puzzling. Lincoln's intention was "to save the Union" but what exactly was he proposing to do? He seems to say that he and the President-elect working together could save the Union before March 4, 1865. The P-elect has no actual authority prior to inauguration, so what is there that he and a lame-duck Lincoln could do? If Lincoln had a plan to resolve the war by March 4, couldn't he also put it into effect if he won re-election? Or was he expecting that the P-elect, who is still a private citizen at that point, would bring some new ideas to the table which Lincoln could support?

If it was that clear that the Union could not be saved once the P-elect took office, wouldn't the Confederates simply wait until then?
 

CanadianCanuck

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I have always found this puzzling. Lincoln's intention was "to save the Union" but what exactly was he proposing to do? He seems to say that he and the President-elect working together could save the Union before March 4, 1865. The P-elect has no actual authority prior to inauguration, so what is there that he and a lame-duck Lincoln could do? If Lincoln had a plan to resolve the war by March 4, couldn't he also put it into effect if he won re-election? Or was he expecting that the P-elect, who is still a private citizen at that point, would bring some new ideas to the table which Lincoln could support?

If it was that clear that the Union could not be saved once the P-elect took office, wouldn't the Confederates simply wait until then?

I think that with a stalemate in the field looking likely with Atlanta and Richmond/Petersburg still in Confederate hands, he was worried the bloody events of May-June might play themselves out again across the fall and so a Copperhead candidate (well, McClellan) would be elected on a conditional peace platform which would mean negotiations. Lincoln was, quite rightly IMO, afraid that any negotiations would lead to war weariness which in turn lead to an agreement of peace being reached in which case the Confederacy would gain its independence.

I think Lincoln was worried that a McClellan presidency would be inheriting a stalemate which would be exploited by the Copperheads, and so he would have to try and convince the President-Elect to continue the war up to March as by the time a new president has been sworn in there will be little chance of a successful continuation of the war effort in his mind.
 

Joshism

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There are several military operations Lincoln could implement if the election was lost. Essentially a hail mary pass.

For example, operations that would normal wait until April could be rushed earlier when success wasn't as likely, but still possible. Grant's left hook at Five Forks for example. Or Sherman making an all-out assault on Atlanta (presumably in such a scenario Sherman is stuck outside Atlanta).

Also, rear area garrisons might be stripped of troops in such a situation to provide a surge of reinforcements.
 

jackt62

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I have always found this puzzling. Lincoln's intention was "to save the Union" but what exactly was he proposing to do? He seems to say that he and the President-elect working together could save the Union before March 4, 1865. The P-elect has no actual authority prior to inauguration, so what is there that he and a lame-duck Lincoln could do? If Lincoln had a plan to resolve the war by March 4, couldn't he also put it into effect if he won re-election? Or was he expecting that the P-elect, who is still a private citizen at that point, would bring some new ideas to the table which Lincoln could support?

If it was that clear that the Union could not be saved once the P-elect took office, wouldn't the Confederates simply wait until then?

Indeed, Lincoln's memorandum was somewhat cryptic. The thought that comes to mind however, is that Lincoln was hoping for some sort of "Hail Mary" pass in that while still President, he could somehow convince McClellan (who did run on a Democratic war plank), that bold military action might be implemented to end the war and restore the Union before a McClellan inauguration. We do know of course, that not long after Lincoln wrote that memo, the war effort turned positive for the Union. Perhaps Lincoln was thinking that even without his being re-elected, the northern war effort could still turn in the right direction.
 

Carronade

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Lincoln would be President and commander-in-chief until March 4; he didn't literally need the P-elect to endorse continuing the war or any particular strategy, but of course it would be helpful to have the backing of the man who had just won the nation's support. It certainly wouldn't help if McClellan or whoever expressed opposition or lack of confidence.

Assuming it was McClellan, we know how little respect he had for Lincoln and his abilities. Winning the election because Lincoln was losing the war wouldn't make Little Mac any more co-operative. On the other hand, he did believe in preserving the Union, and even the Democratic "peace platform" read that "peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal union of the States".
 

CanadianCanuck

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Indeed, Lincoln's memorandum was somewhat cryptic. The thought that comes to mind however, is that Lincoln was hoping for some sort of "Hail Mary" pass in that while still President, he could somehow convince McClellan (who did run on a Democratic war plank), that bold military action might be implemented to end the war and restore the Union before a McClellan inauguration. We do know of course, that not long after Lincoln wrote that memo, the war effort turned positive for the Union. Perhaps Lincoln was thinking that even without his being re-elected, the northern war effort could still turn in the right direction.

Possibly, but I think Lincoln had to know that if things went bad enough he lost the election, then he had to convince his successor that peace, even a brief armistice, was not an option. Even a brief armistice would be a hammer blow to Union morale. No man wants to be the last to die during a negotiated peace.
 

wausaubob

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Its hard to get to a Lincoln defeat. By the time Lincoln wrote the blind memo, Farragut and Granger were capturing the last Mobile Bay fort. Grant was sitting on the Weldon RR, and Hill could not knock Warren's force off the railroad. Sherman's operation deep in Georgia was somewhat risky, but Hood had very little fighting capacity left. The war effort looked shaky, but was actually going well. So if you change all those facts, you might as well assume that Lincoln appoints McClellan General in Chief. Grant resigns and McClellan agrees to a cease fire. But somehow, I don't think that is the end of Grant. A strong nationalist party emerges, mainly in the Midwest and Far West, and things get pretty dicey after that.
 

Generic Username

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In a scenario where Sherman’s March doesn’t go well and Northern morale for the war is low, Lincoln loses reelection to George McClellan or any Peace Democrat that was willing to negotiate with the CSA. Lincoln has five months before the opposing candidate is inaugurated. So does Lincoln take this opportunity to continue the war and bring the CSA to surrender before the new president is inaugurated or would he save face and immediately negotiate terms with the CSA when he knows morale for the war is low.

Having thought on this more, I think it bares pointing out the March to the Sea didn't start until November 15 while the 1864 election was on November 8th; so the former could not affect the latter given the timeframe. If I may suggest such, I have been discussing a scenario with Saphroneth lately on this sort of setup i.e. last second Confederate victories resulting in a Lincoln defeat. My idea is Price's Missouri Expedition being successful, and this resulting in a Confederate victory at Cedar Creek. Price's campaign began on August 28th, although the first serious engagement did not come until late September. Cedar Creek, meanwhile, was not until late October and before that The Burning had happened, as well as the sentiment that Early was beat and the Valley secured. Therefore, Lincoln could order Sheridan to the West with VI Corps and the Calvary Corps, leaving the Army of West Virginia and XIX Corps for the Valley.

So, let's say by late September it's becoming obvious a disaster is brewing in Missouri and therefore Sheridan is shipped; let's say a month, so they're in action just before election day at the start of November. Early still attacks the rump Union force in the Valley but this time, there is no Cav to form a temporary defensive line and no VI Corps to rally around, so it's a complete rout. Early can, therefore, move into Maryland in late October as he had in July, sufficiently terrorizing the Administration that Grant is forced to make detachments. Say he sends IX Corps (15,845 men) and X Corps (14,609 men), given how he responded to Early's attempt in July, for a total of 30,454 men sent to Maryland; this reduces the Army of the Potomac (Inclusive of the Army of the James) to 60,633 men, based off it's October returns of 91,117 men present.

This parity in strength makes a Fort Steadman-style attack aimed at destroying City Point that much more likely to succeed as now there is not enough manpower left to Grant to organize an effective counter-attack without opening holes in his line elsewhere for Lee's command to exploit. Not only would the Army of the Potomac be extremely battered and incapable of offensive action, it's like they would have to conduct a serious withdraw, shortening the line and allowing Lee to reclaim the Weldon Railway, improving his logistics in addition to defensive prospects.
 
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