December 6, 1864 – The Thirty-eighth U.S. Congress received President Abraham Lincoln’s annual message. With the Confederacy on the verge of defeat, the message focused mainly on winning the war and restoring the southern states to the Union.
This was the most optimistic message of Lincoln’s presidency. After summarizing foreign relations, Lincoln reported that captured southern ports such as Norfolk, Fernandina, and Pensacola had been opened for Federal commerce. He hoped that foreign merchants would use these ports to trade with the U.S. and stop blockade-running. Lincoln also indirectly referred to the recent Confederate plots against the U.S. originating from Canada, warning that if such attacks continued, the U.S. would have to consider building up naval force on the Great Lakes.
Referring to recent laws encouraging immigration, Lincoln wrote, “I regard our immigrants as one of the principal replenishing streams which are appointed by Providence to repair the ravages of internal war and its wastes of national strength and health.” He stressed that the government “neither needs nor designs to impose involuntary military service upon those who come from other lands to cast their lot in our country.”
Lincoln announced that the national debt stood at $1.74 billion as of July 1, and higher taxes were needed to pay for this. The president happily stated that the new national banking system was taking hold, “and it is hoped that very soon there will be… no banks… not authorized by Congress and no bank-note circulation not secured by the Government.”
The Navy Department report showed that there were 671 vessels with 4,610 guns either operating or under construction, with 51,000 officers and men in the U.S. navy. These men had captured 324 vessels in 1864, or 1,379 since the war began. Lincoln asked Congress to consider appropriating funds to establish a new navy yard to better accommodate the immense construction and repair of all the naval craft.
The message included summaries of each executive department, as well as Lincoln’s satisfaction with construction on the transcontinental railroad and telegraph lines. He noted Nevada’s recent statehood, “and thus our excellent system is firmly established in the mountains, which once seemed a barren and uninhabitable waste between the Atlantic States and those which have grown up on the coast of the Pacific Ocean.”
Recent discoveries of gold and silver in the west had sparked a wave of settlers heading that way to strike it rich. Such precious metals went a long way in helping fund the war effort. Since such westward expansion would necessarily encroach upon Native American land, Lincoln asked Congress to review the system governing U.S.-Native relations.
Lincoln reported on the administration of pensions to “invalid soldiers and sailors of the Republic and to the widows, orphans, and dependent mothers of those who have fallen in battle or died of disease contracted or of wounds received in the service.”
The president then turned to the war. He wrote, “Since the last annual message all the important lines and positions then occupied by our forces have been maintained and our arms have steadily advanced, thus liberating the regions left in rear, so that Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts of other States have again produced reasonably fair crops.”
Lincoln stated, “The most remarkable feature in the military operations of the year is General Sherman’s attempted march of 300 miles directly through the insurgent region. It tends to show a great increase of our relative strength that our General in Chief should feel able to confront and hold in check every active force of the enemy, and yet to detach a well-appointed large army to move on such an expedition.”
The message included a satisfactory assessment of the new, Unionist state governments in Arkansas and Louisiana. Lincoln noted that Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee would soon have Unionist governments as well, but “Maryland presents the example of complete success” for having recently adopted a new state constitution abolishing slavery.
Lincoln requested that Congress reconsider passing the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery; earlier in the year the amendment passed in the Senate but failed in the House of Representatives. He acknowledged that he was asking the same members of Congress to vote on the same issue again, but last month’s elections showed “almost certainly that the next Congress will pass the measure if this does not.” If slavery was to be abolished, “may we not agree that the sooner the better?” Such a bipartisan move might further demoralize the Confederacy.
Lincoln stated, “The most reliable indication of public purpose in this country is derived through our popular elections.” He claimed that his reelection and the election of predominantly Unionist candidates throughout the North showed that “the purpose of the people within the loyal States to maintain the integrity of the Union was never more firm nor more nearly unanimous than now… In affording the people the fair opportunity of showing one to another and to the world this firmness and unanimity of purpose, the election has been of vast value to the national cause.”
That being said, the message indicated that the North was now stronger than ever, not only in unity against the Confederacy, but also in men and material:
“The important fact remains demonstrated that we have more men now than we had when the war began; that we are not exhausted nor in process of exhaustion; that we are gaining strength and may if need be maintain the contest indefinitely. This as to men. Material resources are now more complete and abundant than ever.”
Referring to peace efforts earlier this year that fell through, Lincoln concluded “that no attempt at negotiation with the insurgent leader could result in any good. He would accept nothing short of severance of the Union, precisely what we will not and can not give… He does not attempt to deceive us… He can not voluntarily reaccept the Union; we can not voluntarily yield it.”
Lincoln stated that some southerners had accepted his policy of amnesty in the year since he had unveiled it, but he warned that “the time may come, probably will come, when public duty shall demand that it be closed and that in lieu more rigorous measures than heretofore shall be adopted.” Regardless of whether this happened, “I retract nothing heretofore said as to slavery,” and Lincoln reiterated his pledge to do nothing to amend his Emancipation Proclamation or return to slavery “any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation or by any of the acts of Congress.”
The message concluded, “In stating a single condition of peace I mean simply to say that the war will cease on the part of the Government whenever it shall have ceased on the part of those who began it.” Thus, Lincoln reiterated his demand for the Confederacy’s unconditional surrender, or else the war would continue.
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 208; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 498-99; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 529; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 686-87; Lincoln 1864 Annual Message (http://stateoftheunion.onetwothree.net/texts/18641206.html); Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 606-07; 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. 816, 838, 843; 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), Q464