August 17, 1864 – Plummeting northern morale put President Abraham Lincoln under intense pressure to save his reelection hopes by renewing peace negotiations with the Confederacy.
The Federal military’s slow progress and high casualties, along with recent failed peace talks, made this the most demoralizing month of the war for the North. While the Radical Republicans condemned Lincoln for not waging harsher war on the South, conservative Republicans and pro-war Democrats urged Lincoln to try negotiating peace once more.
War Democrats argued that the Confederates would be willing to discuss restoring the Union if Lincoln would only drop his insistence on slave emancipation, but they ignored Jefferson Davis’s insistence on Confederate independence. An editorial in a Democratic newspaper declared, “Tens of thousands of white men must yet bite the dust to allay the negro mania of the President.” A Connecticut soldier voiced the sentiment of many comrades by writing, “Is there any man that wants to be shot down for a niger? That is what we are fighting for now and nothing else.”
Even fellow Republicans called making emancipation “a fundamental article” for peace a “blunder” because it “has given the disaffected and discontented a weapon that doubles their power of mischief.” Knowing that he needed conservatives and War Democrats for reelection, Lincoln wrote a letter stating, “If Jefferson Davis… wishes to know what I would do if he were to offer peace and re-union, saying nothing about slavery, let him try me.” However, Lincoln ultimately decided not to publish this letter.
The National Union Executive Committee, which had nominated Lincoln for reelection, met in New York City and issued a statement to Lincoln through Chairman Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New York Times. Raymond 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…”
Raymond told Lincoln that Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, Oliver Morton of Indiana, and Elihu Washburne of Illinois all reported that their states would vote against him, and Raymond’s home state of New York “would go 50,000 against us tomorrow… Two special causes are assigned to this great reaction in public sentiment, –the want of military success, and… fear and suspicion… that we are not, to have peace in any event under this Administration until Slavery is abandoned.”
“Nothing but the most resolute and decided action on the part of the Government and its friends can save the country from falling into hostile hands,” wrote Raymond. As such, he urged Lincoln to send a commissioner “to make distinct proffers of peace of Davis…on the sole condition of acknowledging the supremacy of the constitution,–all the other questions to be settled in a convention of the people of all the States.”
Raymond argued that this offer would not mean abandoning emancipation because “if it should be rejected, (as it would be,) it would plant seeds of disaffection in the south, dispel all the delusions about peace that prevail in the North… reconcile public sentiment to the War, the draft, & the tax as inevitable necessities.”
Lincoln read the letter and then authorized Raymond himself to go to Richmond and “propose, on behalf (of) this government, that upon the restoration of the Union and the national authority, the war shall cease at once, all remaining questions to be left for adjustment by peaceful modes.”
Raymond read Lincoln’s message and finally realized that such an effort would be futile. He told Lincoln that “to follow his plan of sending a commission to Richmond would be worse than losing the Presidential contest–it would be ignominiously surrendering it in advance.” Consequently, Lincoln withdrew both the letter and his authorization for Raymond to go to Richmond. From this point forward, Lincoln would insist on both reunion and emancipation as conditions of peace, even if they cost him the election.
Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11268, 11334-46; 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. 560; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 768-70