DECIDED ON THE BATTLEFIELD: Grant, Sherman, Lincoln, and the Election of 1864
'I'm going to be beaten ... and unless some great change takes place, badly beaten.' In August 1864, Abraham Lincoln made this prediction about the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. He was thoroughly convinced that he had no chance of being re-elected. Lincoln realized that this election would be decided on the battlefield, and the war was not going well for the Union. The fighting had been going on for well over three years, and still there was no end in sight. It looked as though the Democrats would win the election, and that the Confederacy would have a new president, former general George B. McClellan, to deal with after November. With Lincoln out of the White House, the South hoped that the new president would be willing to grant the Confederacy its independence.
Lincoln had appointed General U.S. Grant as general-in-chief in charge of all Union forces in March 1864, confident that Grant would be able to destroy General Robert E. Lee's army in Virginia. Grant appointed his friend William T. Sherman to wage a campaign against Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston in Georgia. 'He was to go for Lee, and I was to go for Johnston,' Sherman later said. This stragegy would allow Lincoln to concentrate on his re-election campaign, while Grant and Sherman fought the enemy in the field.
But neither Grant nor Sherman was able to sin the decisive victory that both Lincoln and the public in the North were hoping for. Grant relentlessly wore down Lee's army, but he had not been able to destroy it and was being called 'Butcher Grant' because of the dead and wounded he was accumulating. In Georgia, General Sherman was outmaneuvering Joseph E. Johnston north of Atlanta, and was steadily edging closer to his objective. By mid-July, he was only six miles from Atlanta, but did not seem to be able to capture the city. Morale in the North reached its lowest point of the entire war.
The Democrats were well aware of the public's increasing dissatisfaction with the war and with Abraham Lincoln. They nominated George B. McClellan as their candidate for president at the end of August, and were confident that McClellan would be elected in November.
Lincoln agreed with the Democrats. He was convinced that he had absolutely no chance of being re-elected. But an event had already taken place that would change everything. Another general had replaced Joseph E. Johnston in Georgia: John Bell Hood. Hood was aggressive to a fault. He attacked Sherman's army and was thrown back with heavy losses. on September 2, just after the Democrats nominated McClellan, Hood was forced to evacuate Atlanta. Sherman sent Lincoln a message: 'Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.'
The capture of Atlanta gave Lincoln the victory he needed. Morale in the North suddenly soared, and public opinion now backed Lincoln. Following the Union naval victory in August, Sherman's taking of Atlanta gave everyone hope -- it began to look as though the Union might win, after all. Another Union army under General Philip Sheridan confronted and defeated a Confederate force under General Jubal Early in three major battles in virginia's Shenandoah Valley, which also helped Lincoln in his re-election campaign.
In November, Lincoln was re-elected to a second term by a majority of 400,000 votes. Even though the war would go on for another five months, Lincoln looked forward to ending the fighting and re-uniting the country -- 'With malice toward none; with charity for all,' is how he put it in his second inaugural address. He was certain that he would be able to carry out his agenda for reunification during the next four years of his presidency.