I Expect to Maintain This Contest

Back in April, the Lincoln administration had been so confident of winning the war that it closed military recruitment offices throughout the North. But since then, Federal war prospects had turned bleak, and it became clear that closing those offices had been premature. President Abraham Lincoln wanted more men to volunteer for service, but he feared that recent newspaper reports of military disaster on the Virginia Peninsula would expose their mistake. Therefore, he and Secretary of State William H. Seward came up with a political ploy that would enable Lincoln to ask for volunteers without revealing the true reason why.

During the Seven Days’ Battles, Seward had left Washington to meet with the North’s top politicians and financiers in New York City. He brought a letter written by Lincoln for the occasion. The president outlined what still needed to be done to win the war, such as conquer the Mississippi River, occupy eastern Tennessee, and raise another 100,000 men to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. Lincoln closed:

“I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsake me; and I would publicly appeal to the country for this new force, were it not that I fear a general panic and stampede would follow–so hard is it to have a thing understood as it really is. I think the new force should be all, or nearly all, infantry, principally because such can be raised most cheaply and quickly. Yours, very truly, A. Lincoln.”

Seward used this letter to persuade the northern governors to sign a petition that he had conveniently drafted ahead of time declaring hopes that “the recent successes of the Federal arms may be followed up by measures which must insure the speedy restoration of the Union.” The times demanded “prompt and vigorous measures to be adopted by the people,” and as such, the governors urged Lincoln to ask them for volunteers.

The governors of 17 northern states, as well as the president of the Unionist Kentucky Military Board, agreed to this scheme and signed a document written by Seward which read in part:

“We respectfully request, if it meets with your entire approval, that you at once call upon the several States for such number of men as may be required… to garrison and hold all of the numerous cities and military positions that have been captured by our armies, and to speedily crush the rebellion that still exists in several of the Southern States, thus practically restoring to the civilized world our great and good Government.”

The parties involved signed the appeal on June 30, but Seward backdated the document to the 28th, or before most of the reports of the Federal defeat and retreat on the Peninsula had been published.

On July 2, Lincoln formally issued the call in “accordance” with the urgings of the governors; this absolved him of appearing desperate for manpower. Recruiting offices reopened throughout the northern states, and administration supporters such as James S. Gibbons, a Quaker abolitionist, wrote poems such as “We Are Coming, Father Abraham, Three Hundred Thousand More” (with music by Stephen Foster and Luther O. Emerson).

When appeals to patriotism did not garner the results they had in 1861, Federal officials tried to entice men into enlisting by offering larger bounties. But northerners could see the war shifting in the Confederacy’s favor, and they were not so quick to volunteer this time around.


  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
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  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
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  • 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.
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  • Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.

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