September 10, 1864 – President Abraham Lincoln worked to reunite the conservatives and Radicals within his Republican Party as the presidential race began heating up.
Lincoln spent time this month gauging the national attitude toward his possible reelection in November. His chances for victory seemed bleak in August, but since then the Federals had captured Mobile Bay and Atlanta, which emboldened northerners to support the candidate who pledged to continue the war until it was won.
Lincoln also hoped to bring the conservatives and the Radicals together on a united front. The Radicals had joined with War Democrats at a small convention and nominated former General John C. Fremont to oppose Lincoln. The “Pathfinder” had resigned from army command in 1862, and Lincoln would not reinstate him.
By August, most Radicals withdrew their support for Fremont because they felt he had no chance to win. Still unwilling to back Lincoln, they met to decide upon an alternate candidate, but they finally agreed that there was none, and so most reluctantly backed Lincoln. Thurlow Weed, a party boss supported by conservatives, informed Secretary of State William H. Seward on September 10, “The conspiracy against Mr. Lincoln collapsed on Monday last.”
To placate the conservatives, Lincoln replaced Hiram Barney as New York customs collector with Simeon Draper, a prominent New York businessman and close friend of Weed and Seward. To placate the Radicals, Lincoln made it known that he would be willing to remove their hated rival, Montgomery Blair, as postmaster general in the cabinet.
Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan became the intermediary between Lincoln and the congressional Radicals. He presented Lincoln’s offer to them and added a condition: that Fremont drop out of the race. Fremont had no chance to win the election, but he could prevent Lincoln from winning by drawing enough votes from abolitionists and German immigrants to give the Democratic nominee, George B. McClellan, the majority.
Chandler met with Fremont at New York’s Astor House and presented him with a deal: if he stepped down, he would get a new army command and Blair would be removed from the cabinet. Fremont consulted with his advisors, with Gustave Paul Cluseret of the New Nation writing that Fremont would listen to “any man who causes imaginary popular enthusiasm to glitter before his eyes, spends his money, profits by his natural indolence to cradle him in an illusion from which he will only awaken ruined in pocket and in reputation.”
Fremont agreed to drop out the same day this editorial appeared. He told Chandler, “I will make no conditions–my letter is written and will appear tomorrow.” On the 18th, Fremont announced his “intention to stand aside from the Presidential canvas.” He declared that he would continue supporting the “radical Democracy” (i.e., the group of Radicals and War Democrats who nominated him), but he wrote:
“The union of the Republican Party has become a paramount necessity. In respect to Mr. Lincoln I continue to hold exactly the sentiments contained in my letter of acceptance. I consider that his administration has been politically, militarily, and financially a failure, and that its necessary continuance is a cause of regret for the country.”
Fremont recognized that he could divide the Republican vote if he stayed in the race, and allowing McClellan to win would mean either “separation or re-establishment with slavery.”
Even though Fremont would not exchange his withdrawal for Blair’s removal, Chandler reminded Lincoln that Fremont had done him a service by dropping out. Lincoln therefore went ahead and requested Blair’s resignation anyway: “My dear Sir, You have generously said to me more than once that whenever your resignation could be a relief to me it was at my disposal. The time has come.”
Blair agreed to resign, and Lincoln replaced him with William Dennison, the former Ohio governor and president of the Republican National Committee. David Davis, who had helped secure Lincoln’s election in 1860, called Dennison “honorable, highminded, pure, and dignified.” Blair’s resignation prompted Radicals such as Benjamin Wade and Henry W. Davis to begin campaigning for Lincoln, despite having recently excoriated him in their Wade-Davis manifesto.
Covering all his bets, Lincoln began arranging for soldiers to come home on furloughs and vote in states that did not allow absentee voting. Some questioned this practice, fearing that soldiers might be more inclined to support their beloved McClellan, but Lincoln felt that the troops would back him because he, unlike McClellan, had pledged to finish the job of winning the war before negotiating a peace.
Absentee ballots were allowed in 17 states, but others, including crucial Indiana, did not. Lincoln therefore asked Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, to furlough all his Indiana regiments for the state elections in October. Lincoln wrote, “They need not remain for the Presidential election, but may return to you at once.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton also worked to furlough as many troops as possible.
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