March on Atlanta sealed Lincoln’s re-election

By Ned Harrison
Special to The Roanoke Times

My previous few columns have been about Gen. Ulysses Grant and his taking command of all Union armies on March 9, 1864. He was given this mandate by his president: End the war. In a few short weeks, he and Gen. William Sherman planned the campaigns that ended the war with Union victory.

The campaigns began in the first week of May 1864 and thus played out in the shadow of the presidential election in November. President Lincoln hardly considered his re-election to be a slam-dunk; the war that seemed to never end had brought casualties and tears to almost every home in both the North and the South.

In the North, a "peace-at-any-cost" movement was alive and well. With the election coming up in November 1864, the president convened his Cabinet in late August and had them sign the back of a memo he had written and dated. Without any idea of the contents, each of them signed this memo: "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 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 ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards."

The Democratic candidate was Gen. George McClellan, a terrible combat general, and an outspoken critic of the war and how it was managed. Early in his campaign, he had vowed, "If I am elected, I will recommend an immediate armistice and call for a convention of all the states and insist upon exhausting all and every means to secure peace without further bloodshed." Thus, McClellan’s priorities were ranked: peace, restoration of the Union and an immediate time frame.

Grant decided he would get out of Washington during this period, and he set up his own headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, Gen. George Meade in command. Grant’s orders to Meade: "Where Lee goes, there you will go also." This became the "Overland Campaign." It lasted from about May 5 until the Siege of Petersburg, which began on June 15, 1864. Its costs in lives and treasure were brutal, and included four battles and tens of thousands killed.

These battles were all aimed at ending the war. The overall concept of the plan was that all Union Armies — commanded by Meade in the East, Sherman in the South, Butler heading west toward Richmond and Petersburg, and Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley — would act simultaneously, thus all Confederate Armies would be under attack at the same time, preventing any of them from coming to the aid of one in trouble. It was a team effort (and was the basis for Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s "broad front" strategy during the latter stages of the European Theater in World War II — he kept all German armies under attack all the time.)

The siege of Petersburg produced casualties that finally wore down the South. From June 15, 1864, until the siege finally ended about April 3, 1865, the Union had 47,400 casualties and the Confederacy suffered an additional 28,000 casualties it could not afford.

Certainly the South had more heart than the North, and maintained its burning desire for freedom. But, bluntly, the "wrong man" won the presidency in 1860. In Abraham Lincoln, the South faced a determined and implacable foe who had both the smarts and the skills to carry out his pledge to the nation: not on my watch. It was Lincoln’s vision and determination that kept the nation in the war for those four long years.

As for the election of 1864, it remained in doubt until Sherman and his three Union Armies drove south from Chattanooga, Tenn. By August, they were fighting for Atlanta. On Sept. 1, 1864, Confederate soldiers marched out of Atlanta and the very next day, with bands playing Union marches, Northern soldiers raised the American flag over the city. Sherman sent a telegram to the president: "Atlanta is ours, and fairly won."

The news was euphoric in a North that was thirsty for a victory. The South understood what the loss of the city meant. Southern diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut was fearful. On Sept. 1, 1864, she wrote, "Atlanta is gone — well, that agony is over. … No hope. We will try to have no fear."

With a greater political understanding, the Richmond Examiner called Atlanta a disaster because it came in the nick of time "to save the party of Lincoln from irretrievable ruin. It will obscure the prospect of peace. … It will diffuse gloom over the South."

The Examiner was right: Gloom did diffuse in the Confederacy, while the joy in the North at this victory meant not only that the war was going well, but that the re-election of Lincoln, so doubtful in August, was all but guaranteed in September.

To his credit, McClellan rejected the peace-at-any-price Democratic Party platform. He changed it subtly, but decidedly: "The vast majority of our people … would as I would hail with unbounded joy the permanent restoration of peace, on the basis of Union under the Constitution without the effusion of another drop of blood. But no peace can be permanent without Union."

"Union" had been accepted by the Democrats. And the voters decided not to change the horses midstream. On Nov. 8, 1864, the Union went to the polls. Lincoln won with 212 electoral votes; McClellan had 21.

"Not on my watch" was alive and well.

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