In mid-1864 Lincoln’s prospects for defeating the South’s bid for independence were bleak, and cracks appeared in his shaky coalition dominated by Radicals. It was at this time that Southern commissioners were in Canada planning a northern front with freed prisoners at Johnson’s Island and burning New York City in retaliation for Atlanta. Had this found success, and Generals Joe Johnston and Nathan Bedford Forrest been left to harass and defeat Sherman’s army before Atlanta, a negotiated peace and thousands of lives saved might have resulted.
But, as Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana wrote, “All the power and influence of the War Department . . . was employed to secure the re-election of Mr. Lincoln.” In his study of Lincoln as politician, author Don C. Seitz writes that “something like two hundred thousand soldiers were furloughed to go home and vote.”
Lincoln’s Reelection in 1864
“Apathy and disheartenment reached even into the upper circles of the [Republican] party and penetrated the White House. Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New York Times, heard only discouraging reports and learned only of a general conviction that a change was needed. The consensus seemed to be that the war languished and Lincoln would not or could not bring peace. War-weariness and a desire for peace was everywhere.
Something had to be done, Raymond told [Secretary of War Simon] Cameron, to attract public attention. “Great victories might do it – but we are not likely to get them.” Raymond asked Cameron’s advice on another step: let Lincoln propose to Jeff Davis that both sides disband their armies and stop the war “on the best basis of recognizing the supremacy of the constitution” and refer all disputed questions to a convention of the States!
Raymond went to Washington to lay the proposal before the President, but Lincoln did not accept it. Instead he wrote a memorandum sealed it, had the members of the cabinet witness the envelope, and put it in his desk. The memorandum read: “This morning as for some days past, it seems exceedingly possible that this administration will not be elected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration as he will have secured his election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.”
If Lincoln had in mind following Raymond’s plan, he was merely adopting [Horatio] Seymour’s proposals for a negotiated peace. The prospect frightened [Massachusetts Governor] John Andrew and he dashed about furiously writing letters . . . asking help [in saving] Lincoln from evil influences.
Sherman’s victory before Atlanta reinvigorated the Republican campaign. The President wrote to [General W.T.] Sherman to let Indiana’s soldiers, “or any part of them, go home at vote at the State election.” This was, Lincoln explained, in no sense an order. Sherman understood that it was a command. He sent soldiers home, and on election day in October the soldiers gathered at the Indiana polls. The Nineteenth Regiment of Vermont Volunteers voted in Indiana that day, but many a Democrat found his vote challenged. When the votes were counted, [Governor Oliver P.] Morton had been elected by a majority of 22,000.
On that same day the need for Lincoln’s aid was illustrated in Pennsylvania. Under the law the Democratic minority had no rights, But Republican [Governor Andrew] Curtin, disgusted with the situation generally, determined to appoint some Democratic commissioners to collect the soldiers’ vote. As the commissioners passed through Washington, however, the Democrats among them disappeared, under [Secretary of War Edwin] Stanton’s orders, into the Old Capitol Prison.”
(Lincoln and the War Governors, William B. Hesseltine, Albert A. Knopf, 1955, pp. 377-379)