In the summer of 1864, with his political prospects looking very gloomy, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a note and had his Cabinet members sign along the margin, without showing them the text:
“This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President-elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.”
Lincoln was running for reelection against George B. McClellan, his former top general, who was heading the Democratic ticket on a self-contradictory peace platform. Sherman captured Atlanta in September, electrifying the country, and Lincoln was reelected by a relatively wide margin in November. He took great pleasure in then revealing his note to the Cabinet.
But what if he’d lost? The election was on November 8, 1864. Inauguration Day was March 4, 1865. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, ending major combat, just a month later.
Could Lincoln, defeated at the polls, nevertheless have pressed forward, taken advantage of the long lame-duck balance of his term and still won the war? Or would the Confederacy, heartened by his loss, have been able to hang on until McClellan moved into the White House? And even if it had, would McClellan (of whom I’m no admirer), seeing how close to defeat the rebels were, have become more aggressive once in office?
I don’t see how. Even after his re-election, the North didn’t win the war by 3/4/1865. If he had lost, it only would have made things harder; no soldier wants to be the last man killed before a peace treaty, and I imagine it would have been pretty hard to get the army to give battle.
I’ve always wondered what Lincoln intended to do if he lost. His note speaks of “saving the Union between the election and the inauguration”, but how?
By an all-out push for victory within four months? As I say above, good luck. Given that the election would have been interpreted as a mandate for peace, the army would have all but mutinied. (And maybe take out the “all but”.)
By negotiation? Again, good luck. The Confederacy would have known that McClellan would be an easier negotiating partner, and they would have stalled until March.
The depressing reality is, that if Lincoln had lost, it would have been up to McClellan to settle the terms of peace. And the most likely avenue of negotiation would have been to sell out the slaves. Depending on conditions during the negotiations, the Confederacy might have accepted reunion with slavery intact, or they might have held out for independence, with the North winning trade concessions, renunication of all claims to the territories and border states, and recognition of the secession of West Virginia.