In the summer of 1864 Lincoln and the Republican stalwarts thought they might lose the November election, and with it the war. The two campaigns were inextricably linked. Without a military breakthrough by Grant in Virginia and Sherman before Atlanta, antiwar sentiment was bound to keep rising in a strong but tired North, while in the exhausted South not losing meant winning. Peace feelers were sent out. The Confederates appreciated their value as instruments of psychological warfare; indeed this was their real purpose. For on substance, the two sides were as far apart as they had been when the war began, with Lincoln defending the abolitionist position and Davis adamant on the bedrock Southern ideology, white supremacy.
In this sense as in so many others—especially, alas, in the way it inaugurated industrial warfare—the American Civil War represents the leapfrogging of the United States ahead of its Old World progenitors. The French Revolution and its war against the monarchial regimes of Europe had invented ideological conflict, as well as mass mobilizations. Waterloo and the Concert of Europe put a brake on this trend but was unable to consign it to the shelf of bad ideas best forgotten.
It may have been, and probably was, a lousy idea, but it could not be forgotten. Too many demons had been let loose. In the American case, a conservative revolution, to secure ancient English rights, was subverted by the institution of slavery and the unwillingness of the revolutionary generation to put an end to it. They outlawed the Atlantic slave trade and hoped, not unreasonably, the expanding continental economy would render the whole wicked thing impractical. Instead, as every schoolboy knows, a man named Eli Whitney invented a machine called the cotton gin and slave labor became economically profitable.
The line from there to the conundrum of the summer of 1864 and its deep and abiding ideological connotations was by no means straight. But we see it that way now. We have to. We make some sense of history, knowing that we do this not because there is any sense in history, but because it is human to do so—otherwise it can only be, as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus called it, a nightmare from which are trying to awake.
I happen to have been reading James McPherson’s magisterial work of 1988, Battle Cry of Freedom. It is a narrative history, from the Missouri Compromise (1820) to the end of the Civil War, when the American promise was fulfilled. It was fulfilled by the defeat of the Southern slavocracy, the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, and the vision of a “rebirth of freedom,” “with malice toward none.”
It was all so long ago; what meaning can it have to us today? What relevance? What importance?
With understated erudition—he knows everything—and a wonderful story-telling manner, McPherson takes the reader, late in the book, through the hair-raising summer and autumn of ’64, when it really seemed possible that Lincoln would either be repudiated by his own party or would lose to McClellan, the leader of the peace Democrats, and the whole ghastly sacrifice of the past four years would be for naught. It really could have happened. History is not foreordained.
Then Sherman took Atlanta and Lee’s army—or the part of it commanded by Jubal Early—was routed in the Shenandoah Valley by Sheridan in an absolutely extraordinary feat of snatching victory from defeat. The war, in military terms, was over, although it dragged on into the first months of 1865. Lincoln’s re-election was saved, and with it the Union, the end of slavery, and, in fine, America.
What good fortune we had. Had we a James Buchanan or a Martin Van Buren instead of Lincoln, the whole experiment would have most likely crashed and failed.
And Lincoln: “…to General Grant, his skillful officers, and brave men, all [honor] belongs.…” Far be it from him to seek political or any other advantage in a military victory that happened on his watch. In our time, we know what a president does when something good happens despite his helpless, clueless policies, pursued with neither vision nor purpose. In the same speech, Lincoln expanded upon one of the main issues of the forthcoming reconstruction, namely how to integrate the former slaves politically and otherwise. Without rancor and with the utmost common sense, he suggested that white and black find a path toward gradual political equality.
He never played the race card, nor did he ever play the celebrity card. He needed neither, and neither did the country.