Lincoln Predicts His Own Defeat

August 23, 1864 – President Abraham Lincoln asked his cabinet members to endorse a confidential memo acknowledging that he would probably not win the upcoming presidential election.

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Morale sagged in the North in August 1864. The Federal military’s slow progress and heavy casualties, along with recent failed peace negotiations, emboldened President Lincoln’s political enemies. Anti-war Democrats (i.e., “Copperheads”) dreaded the prospect of Lincoln winning reelection. Prominent Copperhead Marcus M. “Brick” Pomeroy, editor of the La Crosse (Wisconsin) Democrat, published an editorial stating that if Lincoln “is elected… for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good.”[1]

Lincoln also faced strong opposition from within his own party, primarily from the Radical Republicans who asserted that he had not prosecuted the war with enough vigor. On August 19, over two dozen prominent Radicals met at New York Mayor George Opdyke’s home to discuss holding a new party convention that would replace Lincoln as their nominee.[2]

Some Radicals, such as former Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, did not take part in the meeting, preferring instead to wait and see what the Democrats did at their convention at the end of August. Nevertheless, the attendees agreed to call for a new convention in Cincinnati on September 28 to “concentrate the union strength on some one candidate who commands the confidence of the country, even by a new nomination if necessary.”[3]

Even the conservative Republicans who had consistently supported Lincoln worried that he would lose. Party boss Thurlow Weed warned Lincoln in early August that his defeat was possible. In an interview, Lincoln acknowledged, “I cannot but feel that the weal or woe of this great nation will be decided in the approaching canvas.” Then Lincoln received a somber letter from political ally Henry J. Raymond on the morning of August 23.[4]

Raymond, editor of the New York Times and chairman of the Republican Executive Committee, wrote: “I feel compelled to drop you a line concerning the political condition of the country as it strikes me. I am in active correspondence with your staunchest friends in every state, and from them all I hear but one report. The tide is setting strongly against us.”[5]

Political sources reported that Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania would go Democratic, and Raymond predicted that New York “would go 50,000 against us tomorrow… Nothing but the most resolute action on the part of the government and its friends can save the country from falling into hostile hands…” He urged Lincoln to form another peace commission, and its certain rejection by the Confederacy would “unite the North as nothing since the firing on Fort Sumter has hitherto done.”[6]

Sensing the futility of another peace overture, Lincoln instead wrote a memorandum that read: “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 co-operate 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.”[7]

The growing opposition, combined with the fact that no president had been reelected since Andrew Jackson 32 years before, prompted Lincoln’s doubt. Lincoln also worried that a new president, which would most likely be a Democrat, would cancel many of his war policies. He could even seek a compromise with the South, which could include granting Confederate independence or withdrawing the Emancipation Proclamation.[8]

Lincoln sealed the memo shut and brought it to his weekly cabinet meeting on the 23rd. He asked for the members’ endorsement by signing the back of the paper without reading it. Lincoln feared this document would spread alarm throughout the North if made public. They all signed, even though none knew that they approved Lincoln’s secret prediction of his own defeat.[9]

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[1] Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11696-707; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 647-48

[2] Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11178-90; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 647-48

[3] Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11178-90

[4] Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11268; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11511-42; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 554-55

[5] Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11268; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11511-42

[6] Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11268; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11511-42

[7] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 182; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 647-48; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 559

[8] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 182; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 647-48; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 559; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Loc 55465-68

[9] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 182; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11268; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11511-42; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 647-48; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 559

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