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If you think 2024 is a high-stakes election year, think about 1864

America, experts tell us, has never been so divided. We are also told that this election year is the most important in living memory. But a look back at 1864 reveals a nation more divided than it has ever been before – or since. And this was an issue, slavery, that could no longer be resolved through further political compromise. The civil war had raged for 33 months and was on track to become the worst man-made disaster in our country’s history, with more than 600,000 dead in a country of 31 million people.

It was also a crucial year, which would decide the fate of the nation. “More than 1776, which in my opinion is its only competition, 1864 was the most pivotal year in American history,” said the late historian Charles Bracelen Flood, author of 1864: Lincoln at the gates of History, told an audience gathered at the National Archives in 2009. Flood later proved his claim.

His speech, like his book, began on the evening of January 1, 1864, with Abraham Lincoln and his wife greeting more than 6,000 well-wishers and fans in the East Wing of the White House. The good humor quickly dissipated when Lincoln learned that Confederate General Jubal Early had moved 6,000 men to an area in Virginia and West Virginia, just 60 miles northwest of Washington, DC.

“Here you have both reality and symbolism,” Flood explained. “After three years of fighting, Lincoln’s massive Union army was unable to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, 95 miles to the south, while the Confederate army still posed a threat northwest of Washington.”

Abraham Lincoln's Summer Retreat
A statue of Abraham Lincoln stands outside his summer retreat in Washington, D.C., where he lived for a quarter of his presidency, riding to the White House on horseback. In August 1864, he wrote:…


TIM SLOAN/AFP via Getty Images

Flood then described the grim military realities Lincoln faced early in the year. “By 1863, the Union army had won great victories at Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga. But in early 1864, the Confederates still had the strength and leadership that brought them great victories at Chancellorsville and Chickamauga. Lincoln had not yet promoted Ulysses S. Grant to be his general in chief, and virtually every man in General Robert E. Lee’s powerful Army of Northern Virginia volunteered to reenlist for the duration of the war and. fight, no matter how long it might take.

The Confederacy held firm. It functioned as an independent nation, slavery still existed, and it only had to do two things to prevail in the war: hold onto the ground it occupied and continue to inflict horrible losses on the Union army until Northern voters were exhausted. In short, the Confederacy hoped that the 1864 election would be a referendum on the war. And Lincoln.

Things looked bleak for Lincoln as the Republican Party convention in Baltimore approached in early July. Just weeks before the rally, Grant’s forces suffered terrible losses as they attempted to move south against Lee’s troops at the bloody Battle of the Wilderness and the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse.

At the start of the convention, Grant launched one of the largest attacks of the war, at Cold Harbor, Virginia. He gathered 108,000 men and threw them directly at Lee, whose 62,000 men were strongly entrenched and familiar with the terrain. “In the first hour, 7,000 of Grant’s men were killed or wounded, the Union attack was repulsed, and nothing was gained,” Flood said.

He continues: “The bad news lasted for many more weeks. At one point, Grant lost more than 40,000 men in 30 days. This figure rose to 60,000 men dead and wounded in 45 days, and all this while advancing only 60 miles. By August, Union losses in 1864 alone reached a staggering 90,000 men.

Meanwhile, Early led a massive Confederate raid with a force of 12,000 men to the edge of Washington’s fortifications, just five miles from the White House. And in Georgia, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman suffered a serious setback at Kennesaw Mountain early in his Atlanta campaign. Union losses numbered 3,000 to the Confederates’ 1,000.

Add to this the economic impact caused by the continuation of the war. “The national debt was at an all-time high, public credit was at an all-time low, and the Treasury was short of money to finance a war that seemed at an impasse,” Flood said. “The dollar fell to a new wartime low of 37 cents, and some prosperous Republicans who wanted Lincoln to be re-elected were dumping greenbacks and buying land, fearing the dollar would lose its value.”

The political news for Lincoln was also bleak. Republican insider Thurlow Reed told Lincoln in mid-August 1864 that his chances of re-election were almost impossible. Even Lincoln’s private secretary, John Nicolay, understood the depth of the Union army’s—and Lincoln’s—plight. “Everything is darkness, doubt and discouragement,” he wrote the same month. “Our men see giants in the airy, insubstantial shadows of the opposition and are on the verge of surrendering without a fight.”

No one understood this better than Lincoln himself, who wrote a memorandum on August 23, 1864, which he asked his cabinet members to sign, sight unseen.

This morning, as for several days, it seems extremely likely that this administration will not be re-elected. It will then be my duty to cooperate with the elected president, so as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; because he will have obtained his election on such ground that he will no longer be able to save it thereafter.

Historians call this the “Blind Memorandum” and it is proof of the folly of political predictions, even by those closest to political action.

Shortly after signing the memo, Lincoln’s fortunes changed. Democrats nominated General George B. McClellan for president on August 30, and his party’s platform declared the war a failure and called for immediate efforts to end it, something even McClellan could not fully sustain.

A few days later, on September 3, Lincoln received a telegram from Sherman consisting of only six words: “Atlanta is ours and fairly won.”

“Even the most ardent Confederates saw this as a huge strategic victory for the Union. Atlanta, the second city in the South after Richmond, the dead center of what was once Confederate territory, had fallen,” Flood said. “There were still nine weeks until the election, but everything started to go Lincoln’s way.”

Fortunately for America, and due to events almost entirely out of his control, he was re-elected in an Electoral College landslide in November 1864. Shortly afterward, on Christmas Day, Lincoln received another telegram from Sherman: “I beg to present to you as a Christmas Present the town of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton. »

Thus ended one of the most difficult and divisive years in American history, a year that forever changed the course of American history. And also sealed Lincoln’s legacy.

America has indeed been more divided than today. And there have been more important elections than the one that awaits us. A look at 1864 proves this point clearly.