Lincoln Explains his War Policy
Two months before the presidential election in 1864, the reelection of President Lincoln still seemed uncertain. What soldiers and commanders sensed in the field —the inevitable defeat of the South—was not so evident to civilians, and Lincoln’s advisors feared that the Democratic Party platform, which called for peace negotiations, might sway war-weary voters. Fighting in 1864 had already cost over 100,000 Union casualties, and in July Lincoln had had to impose a draft to reinforce the Union army. Also, many Northern voters were ambivalent about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
On the other end of the spectrum, Radical Republicans, who feared Lincoln would allow Southern states to reenter the Union without insuring that they respected the rights of former slaves, had not hidden their dissatisfaction with Lincoln as their candidate. They had met in late May to form a splinter party, nominating John C. Fremont to run against him. In June they had passed the Wade-Davis bill, which attempted to dictate sterner terms for reconstruction, in effect publicly rebuking the President. Lincoln had pocket-vetoed the bill, issuing a mildly worded explanation for this action.
Still, by early September, the had suffered severe defeats: the surrender of Fort Morgan on August 23rd closed the Confederate port of Mobile Bay, and Sherman captured Atlanta on September 2. Lincoln strove to impress the importance of these victories on the civilian public by calling on September 3 for a national day of thanksgiving and prayer. By September 12 Lincoln was trying to formulate a public explanation of his policy on peace negotiations, taking the occasion of a request for a letter to be read to a “union mass meeting” to be held in New York. A New York politician, Oscar Shermerhorn, had telegrammed Lincoln twice, asking the President to send the meeting an encouraging message. Lincoln began drafting such a letter, but decided not to send it. His draft reveals principled calculations about the importance of his reelection. McClellan claimed to be committed to preserving the Union, but if he won on his party’s platform, the peace he would negotiate would likely come at the cost of consenting to the permanent secession of the Southern states. Lincoln argues that his current policy of continuing the war, and doing so with the help of emancipated former slaves, is the only policy that can save the Union:
Any substantial departure from it insures the success of the rebellion. An armistice — a cessation of hostilities — is the end of the struggle, and the insurgents would be in peaceable possession of all that has been struggled for. Any different policy in regard to the colored man, deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear. We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, sea-men, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and Steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it. Nor is it possible for any Administration to retain the service of these people with the express or implied understanding that upon the first convenient occasion, they are to be re-inslaved. It can not be; and it ought not to be.
Lincoln’s decision to put the letter aside and instead send a polite explanation that he lacked time to reply suggests his political concerns lest he too explicitly explain his policy.