This was Lincoln’s great worry now: that the American people still were not braced to the scope and scale of the war. Not even Antietam and emancipation had brought the reality home. In early November, as he watched McClellan’s inadequate movements and studied the discouraging election returns that had continued to roll in over the past few weeks, the president became convinced that these were two symptoms of the same disease. Both the army and the voters labored under the delusion that there was an easy way to restore the Union. In the ranks, this false hope showed itself in the multitude of soldiers on furlough from the front. Even while standing face-to-face with the enemy, troops by the tens of thousands blithely asked to go home, and their elected officers lacked the backbone to say no. The number of troops away on leave had grown so large that Lincoln could not find precise figures. “At this very moment,” he wrote in an undated November memo, “there are between seventy [thousand] and one hundred thousand men absent on furlough from the Army of the Potomac.”
Wishful thinking about the war also prevailed among many in the general public, and wherever it did it produced support for Democratic candidates who promised a quick peace and the restoration of the Union “as it was”— the Union with all the old compromises over slavery intact. In a note to himself, the president lamented: “The army, like the nation, has become demoralized by the idea that the war is to be ended, the nation united, and peace restored, by strategy, and not by hard desperate fighting.”
Lincoln used some of the same words when a delegation of women from the U.S. Sanitary Commission paid him a visit one evening in early November. No civilian organization was more important to the war
effort than the Sanitary Commission, which organized volunteers and raised money to meet the medical and morale needs of the troops. The delegation called on the president in hopes of hearing a few words of
good news to take home with them, but Lincoln had none to offer. “A deeper gloom rested on his face than on that of any person I had ever seen,” the writer and activist Mary Livermore recalled— though, she
reported, he did cheer up slightly when he heard that she was from Chicago. Chicago’s mud, he joked, was even worse than Washington’s.
Then he sagged again. “The military situation is far from bright; and the country knows it as well as I do,” he said. The room was silent. “The fact is,” Lincoln continued, “the people haven’t yet made up their minds that we are at war with the South. They haven’t buckled down to the determination to fight this war through; for they have got the idea into their heads that we are going to get out of this fix, somehow, by strategy.”
One visitor protested: Surely Mr. Lincoln was not forgetting the fierce fighting at places like Fort Donelson and Shiloh. Yes, he allowed, there had been huge battles— yet the voters were now electing Democrats out of a belief that “there is a royal road to peace, and that General McClellan is to find it.” And voters were not the only ones mistaken, he pointed out: “The army has not settled down into the conviction that we are in a terrible war that has got to be fought out— no; and the officers haven’t either.”
Lincoln challenged his visitors to consider their own experiences. “When you came to Washington, ladies . . . very few soldiers came on the trains with you,” he ventured. But they should watch carefully on the northbound return: “You will find the trains and every conveyance crowded with them. You won’t find a city on the route, a town, or a village, where soldiers and officers on furlough are not plenty as blackberries.”
Pressing his point, Lincoln demanded: “Don’t you see? We are engaged in one of the greatest wars the world has ever seen.”
Getting this off his chest may have done the president some good, because when Livermore returned on other business the next morning, he was not quite so grim. He still looked “haggard” and “ravage[d],” she
noted, but when he heard that his words the previous evening had left his guests feeling “hopeless,” he protested earnestly: “Oh, no! Our affairs are by no means hopeless, for we have the right on our side.” Hope was exactly what the Union did have, the president insisted— a hope that “the cause of freedom” would prove to be “the cause of God,” for “then we may be sure it must ultimately triumph. But between that time and now,” he warned, “there is an amount of agony and suffering and trial for the people that they . . . are not prepared for.”
* * *
Tuesday, November 4, was the last of the autumn election days, and the result did nothing to brighten Lincoln’s mood. New Jersey ousted its Republican governor. In Wisconsin, which had seemed so promising to Iowa’s Senator Grimes a few weeks earlier, Democrats picked up ground.
Lincoln’s friend Orville Browning lost his campaign for the Senate, and even the president’s home district elected a Democrat to fill the congressional seat he once occupied. Many in his party blamed Lincoln for the defeats, citing his failure to replace slow-moving Democratic generals with hard-fighting Republicans. One congressman from Pittsburgh, J. K. Moorhead, told the president that some Pennsylvania Republicans “would be glad to hear some morning that you had been found hanging from the post of a lamp at the door of the White House.” Lincoln glumly answered that “such an event would not surprise me.”
By now, however, Lincoln was so accustomed to the depths of gloom that he seemed almost to draw strength from dark hours. He had long since learned that the most effective antidote to a bleak mood is action; by applying this lesson again and again he developed what one writer called an “ability to see clearly and persist sanely in conditions that could have rattled even the strongest minds.” Battered by discouraging election results and relentless critics, he responded in ways that were becoming familiar Lincoln signatures.
When attacked by the German- American politi cal leader Carl Schurz, for instance, Lincoln produced a response that could serve as an official statement, much as he had done in answering Horace Greeley’s
pungent criticisms in August. Schurz, a fellow Republican, framed his party’s indictment bluntly in a pair of letters to the president. “Let us indulge in no delusions as to the true causes of our defeat in the elections,” he wrote. “The principal management of the war [has] been in the hands of your opponents. . . . It is best that you should see the fact in its true light and appreciate its significance: the result of the elections was a most serious and severe reproof administered to the Administration. Do not refuse to listen to the voice of the people.”
Lincoln opened his published response with a flourish of wordplay: “I ought to be blamed, if I could do better. You think I could do better; therefore you blame me already. I think I could not do better; therefore I blame you for blaming me.” In a more serious tone, he moved on to reject the idea that the Union’s woes could be reduced to simple causes and pinned on particular scapegoats. “I fear we shall at last find out that the difficulty is in our case, rather than in particular generals.” This lawyerly phrase—“in our case”— meant that the difficulty was inherent in the facts of the Union’s predicament. Progress wasn’t slow just because of the listless generals; it was slow because the North faced a gritty and indomitable enemy, because the Union had to build a strong fighting force practically from nothing, and because the army’s front lines were spread across the enormous expanse of Southern territory. Then, in a deft gesture to the surging Democrats, Lincoln praised some of the opposition party’s fallen war heroes, emphasizing that no Republican gave more for the Union cause than they. What mattered, Lincoln declared, was victory, not party. “I need success more than sympathy,” he wrote, and “I have not seen . . . greater evidence of getting success from my sympathizers.”
Lincoln also responded privately to the election results. Among the first messages he sent after all the polls closed was a terse summons to Congressman Moses Odell, a pro war Democrat from Brooklyn. “You are reelected. I wish to see you at once. Will you come?” Odell was the token Democrat among the Republicans who constituted the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. His support had always been valuable to Lincoln, lending a bipartisan veneer to an oft en partisan project.
That support was now more important than ever, because New York was the scene of the most dramatic of all Democratic victories. Fernando Wood had been elected to Congress and, more ominously for Lincoln, Horatio Seymour was the new governor. The president could never hope to win these men over, but with the help of friendly Democrats like Odell he might soft en the impact of their opposition.
As for Seymour, this would be his second term as governor of New York— the first had been ten years earlier— and most of those who enjoyed more than one term as governor of the Empire State cherished thoughts of the presidency. Once Lincoln began taking Seymour’s mea sure, he found a man he could understand, a man of ambitions not unlike his own. Through back channels, he assured the governor’s brother that he understood Seymour’s next step would be a presidential bid. After all, Lincoln wrote, he himself “was a party man and did not believe in any man who was not.” But the new governor should understand that “there could be no next presidency if the country was broken up.”
Lincoln sent Thurlow Weed to pay a call in Albany as well, with instructions to remind the governor that the next president would surely be a man who helped to win the war, not one who tipped the balance in
favor of the South. “Governor Seymour has greater power just now for good than any other man in the country,” the president told Weed. If Seymour would remain loyal— a critic, but loyal— Lincoln would not resist his rise to the White House once his own term was over. The president read Seymour correctly: the New Yorker sought and won the Democratic nomination six years later, in 1868. And whether or not Lincoln’s messages swayed Seymour’s thinking, the president got the results he wanted. Under Governor Seymour, New York would send more than 150,000 men to the Union army (exceeding its assigned quota) while pouring many millions in tax dollars and war bonds into the Federal Treasury.
In these instances and others, the president reacted to the election returns— but he did not overreact. That made him unusual: most Republicans after the elections of 1862 believed the setback for their party was “a great historical event,” as Schurz put it. “The heavens were red as with blood, and our hearts were full of resentment and revenge,” one prominent Philadelphia Republican recalled. Charles Sumner pronounced the New York results “worse for our country than the bloodiest disaster on any field of battle.”
In reality, though, the results were far from disastrous. Democrats gained thirty- one seats in the House of Representatives, but that was to be expected: the minority party almost always wins seats in a midterm
election, and a shift of this magnitude was not uncommon in that era. In the Senate, Republicans actually gained seats. Despite the Democratic victories, then, Lincoln’s Republican Party retained a solid congressional majority, the only time in twenty years that an incumbent president had achieved this. At the state level, the same pattern prevailed. Democrats gained ground but did not win control. Despite the opposition’s success in mid- Atlantic and midwestern states, Republicans emerged from the polls with majorities in fifteen of the eighteen loyal legislatures (not counting the slaveholding border states). Only two of the eighteen states elected a Democratic governor.
Lincoln had survived a severe political test. He had weathered the carnage of battlefields from Shiloh to Antietam, the humiliating withdrawal from the peninsula, the treacherous defeat at Second Bull Run,
the Confederate invasion of the border states, and the announcement of his emancipation plans— not to mention the imposition of unprecedented taxes, the beginnings of a military draft , and the suspension of habeas corpus. His still young party did something unusual even in peacetime: it retained the power to govern. In turn, the president renewed his power to lead.
Excerpted from Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle.
Copyright © 2012 by David Von Drehle.
Reprinted with permission from Henry Holt and Co.