Reelecting Lincoln

Reelecting Lincoln

This is John C. Waugh’s book about the 1864 Election.  This book is a real pleasure to read.  Waugh has a very engaging writing style.  He’s done a lot of research, though overwhelmingly in secondary sources, into US politics in 1864.  In setting the stage, he tells us the situation as 1864 began.  “Human freedom had made big, hard-won strides.  Lincoln had emancipated the slaves in all conquered territory of the South.  Congress had abolished slavery in the capital; prohibited it in the territories; declared all Negro soldiers in the Union army, and their families, free; and repealed the fugitive slave laws and all other laws that recognized or sanctioned slavery.  Slavery now existed for the most part only behind rebel lines, in territory over which the Confederacy still held military sway.  The only small exception was in the border states of the North.  All that could be done short of a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery forever throughout the land had been done.  And such an amendment would surely be introduced when the Congress reconvened in December. … Domestically there had been striking legislative breakthroughs, which, without the overarching shadow of war, would have glowed even brighter.  The Homestead Act, opening the West to widespread settlement, had been passed in 1862.  A College Land Grant Act was now law.  A transcontinental railroad–the Union Pacific–had at last been chartered, to run from Nebraska to California.  A Department of Agriculture had been established, a National Academy of Science founded.  All of these achievements signaled a new era of advancement and prosperity for the country.” [pp. 3-4]  We see in that passage, though, one weakness of the book.  Waugh tends to look at the war itself in a simplistic manner–North vs. South instead of Union, US, or Federals vs. Confederate.  In this passage he assumes that any state not in the Confederacy is a Northern state.  The loyal slave states were all southern states, but Waugh’s outlook precludes the nuance of a southern state not being in rebellion.

Another weakness is his understanding of military events.  In the Preface he states that Washington was under siege in July 1864.  Jubal Early didn’t place Washington under siege.  He doesn’t really understand the background of George B. McClellan’s Harrison’s Landing Letter of 1862, nor does he understand the nature of a commanding general.  He says, “Much of this pressure to flush McClellan out into open partisan warfare was his own doing.  It had all begun when he wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln from Harrison’s Landing on the Peninsula in the summer of 1862.  In it, McClellan stepped over the line of military science into political science, offering advice to the president not just on war, but on policy.” [p. 28]  McClellan had received permission from Lincoln to provide his views on policy.  Waugh makes it seem as though McClellan sent the letter to Lincoln.  He handed it to Lincoln at Harrison’s Landing.  As commanding general, McClellan could offer the president his views on war policy.  The letter was respectful and did exactly what Lincoln told McClellan he could do.  On page 156, Waugh claims, “The North had cut off all prisoner exchanges, to press its numerical advantage.”  That’s absolutely wrong.  The US suspended prisoner exchanges because the confederates weren’t treating USCT and their officers as proper prisoners of war, and because the confederates had put soldiers back into the field who had not yet been properly exchanged.  Waugh is repeating some Lost Cause nonsense here.  On page 183 he repeats the myth that 7,000 Union soldiers were casualties at Cold Harbor within only twenty minutes.  Since this book was written before Gordon Rhea’s work on Cold Harbor, we can cut him a little slack on that one.

Those problems are minor, though.  The vast majority of the book deals with the political struggle, and that’s where Waugh is strong.  He gives some terrific details, such as, “The telegraph office was on the second floor of the War Department building at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventeenth Street,” and “Secretary of War Edwin Stanton rarely left.  He looked upon the telegraph service as his ‘right arm.’  It was so much his right arm that the office it occupied adjoined his own, separated only by a door, nearly always left ajar.” [p. 9]  Waugh’s descriptive language is engaging and makes the book not only easy to read, but fun to read as well.

He tells a full story, from the challenges Lincoln faced from other Republicans for the nomination to the Democrats’ infighting and all the political moves made on both sides.  He even talks about confederate attempts to disrupt the election.  He does a great job in laying out the political landscape.  For example, he tells how the elections of 1862 were disastrous for the Republicans: “Five of the key states he had carried in 1860–New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, heavy hitters all–only two years later had sent Democratic majorities to Congress.  The Republicans had held onto a bare eighteen-vote edge in the House of Representatives only because of large, steadfast Republican majorities in New England and the border states.  A solid swath of Northern states from the Mississippi to the Atlantic that had gone for Lincoln in 1860 had defected to the Democrats in the midterm elections of 1862.  The same outcome in 1860 would have beaten Lincoln 127 electoral votes to 86.  He would not now have been president.  The most important race in 1862 had been in New York, the biggest state in the Union, where a Democrat for governor, Horatio Seymour, had beaten a Republican, James S. Wadsworth, by nearly eleven thousand votes.  The New York Democrats had also elected a majority delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives.  The Democrats had won only two of the six governorships up for grabs, Seymour in New York and Joel Parker in New Jersey.  But the strong anti-administration tide had coursed relentlessly through congressional races nearly everywhere.” [pp. 11-12]  Then he talks about 1863:  The popular writer-lawyer Richard Henry Dana put what it had all come down to by March 1863 in a letter to Charles Francis Adams, Lincoln’s ambassador to Britain.  ‘As to the politics of Washington, the most striking thing is the absence of personal loyalty to the President,’ Dana had written.  ‘It does not exist.  He has no admirers, no enthusiastic supporters, none to bet on his head.  If a Republican convention were toe be held to-morrow, he would not get the vote of a State.’  But since then the clouds had started to lift.  There had been Gettysburg and Vicksburg.  And at the ballot box earlier in the year there had also been better news.  New Hampshire, in an election in the spring, had given the Republicans a victory.  But even that was a victory laced with lingering bad portents.  The ongoing bitter hostility of the Democrats to the prosecution of the war was sharply evident in the results. … Two other springtime elections, in Rhode Island and Connecticut, also went to the Republicans, signaling a hopeful backlash against the peace-at-any-price Democrats, and a move back toward the Union Party side.  More recently, elections in California and Maine had gone the same way.  This augured well.  Lincoln’s political fortunes, like the war, might be turning around.  Now, in the autumn of 1863, Lincoln was waiting in the telegraph office again for election news–this time from two ‘October states,’ Ohio and Pennsylvania.” [pp 13-14]  Both those governorship races, Republican John Brough against Democrat Clement Vallandigham in Ohio and incumbent Republican Andrew Curtin against Democrat George W. Woodward, went to the Republicans.  These were good indications, but Lincoln still faced a nomination challenge from Chase and from Fremont.  Waugh details how Lincoln overcame all these obstacles.

Along the way, he passes on some nice anecdotes to add some color. For example: “Congressman Owen Lovejoy was one of those radicals whose sternness was tempered with affection.  He and Lincoln were both from Illinois and had been friends for years.  Lovejoy liked the president personally, while chafing, as every other radical did, under his plodding policies.  Lovejoy appreciated Lincoln’s sense of the ridiculous.  The Illinois congressman had once gone to Secretary of War Stanton with a presidential order, which Stanton read and refused to carry out.  ‘But we have the President’s order, sir,’ Lovejoy protested.  ‘Did Lincoln give you an order of that kind?’ Stanton demanded.  ‘He did, sir.’ “Then he is a d—-d fool.’  Lovejoy was aghast.  ‘Do you mean to say the President is a d—-d fool?’ he asked.  ‘Yes, sir,’ said the secretary, ‘if he gave you such an order as that.’  The scandalized Lovejoy took this conversation back to Lincoln.  Lincoln listened, then asked, ‘Did Stanton say I was a d—-d fool?’  ‘He did, sir, and repeated it.’  After a moment’s consideration, the president looked up and said goodnaturedly, ‘If Stanton said I was a d—-d fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means.’  It sounded like Stanton, all right.  Lincoln had an understanding with his irascible secretary of war that if he sent over an order that could not be consistently granted, Stanton was to refuse it, which he sometimes did, often with an embellishment such as this one.  When another petitioner at another time likewise returned to Lincoln empty-handed to complain of Stanton’s intransigence, Lincoln had explained, ‘I [haven’t] much influence with this administration, but [expect] to have more with the next.’ ” [pp. 98-99]

This is a very well done book telling the story of how Lincoln was reelected.  I can recommend it, with the caveat that there are some problems with his descriptions of military events, but his descriptions of the political events is wonderful.


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