Approaching the 1864 Northern presidential election, students of the Atlanta Campaign tend to focus on how Sherman’s capture of the city on Sept. 2, 1864 helped President Lincoln win re-election. Conversely, we ponder Southerners’ hopes that the Democratic candidate, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, might have beaten Lincoln if the Confederate Army of Tennessee had been able to hold the city till the election of November 8. Once in office, President McClellan might have abided by his party’s platform plank calling for an armistice to end the war. And maybe, once the fighting stopped, the North might have acceded to the Southern states’ secession, in effect granting the Confederacy its independence.
The idea has been around for a long time—actually, from the very war years. The late Albert Castel gave it renewed currency in his Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 (1992). As for a possible Confederate victory in late August ’64, Castel asserts, “all that the South needed to do to achieve it is to hold fast a while longer—just six more weeks—until the Northern elections get under way” (p. 480).
A few years later Dr. Castel reinforced his argument in an essay entitled “The Atlanta Campaign and the Presidential Election of 1864: How the South Almost Won by Not Losing.” While he acknowledged “there is, of course, no way of knowing…what would have occurred had McClellan become president,” Castel wrote that if Confederates had succeeded in holding Sherman out of Atlanta, the event would have weakened the North’s war will, which perhaps could have led to its giving up on the struggle and by default, agreeing Confederate independence. As it happened, “the fall of Atlanta…turned what Republicans and Democrats alike had perceived as certain victory for McClellan in the upcoming presidential election into foregone defeat” (Winning And Losing in the Civil War , 29).
The assumption is clearly that McClellan would have ended the war before Union armies achieved total victory. Richard McMurry repeated the assumption in his Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy (2000): Atlanta’s fall in September 1864 “assured Lincoln’s reelection, and in so doing it assured the eventual failure of the Southern bid for independence” (p. 190). In other words, Atlanta 1864 was indeed “the last chance for the Confederacy.”
Writing for the ECW blog series “1860s Politics” invites one to consult the authorities, especially when dealing with long-held assumptions (here, that McClellan’s election in effect equaled Southern independence).
So I turned to James G. Randall’s venerable The Civil War and Reconstruction to double-check what I had read in the recent literature. I found no corroboration at all, but a refutation. In 1937—1937, mind you!—Professor Randall, in his now-classic history, was already reacting to a “stereotyped picture,” “the familiar tradition regarding the election of 1864.” That stereotype, Randall explained, held that while Lincoln campaigned for a continued waging of the war, McClellan’s candidacy was staked to armistice and peace. The “familiar tradition” posited that “Democratic victory would have brought defeat in the war and failure to the Union cause,” Randall asserted.
In other words, three generations ago Castel’s and McMurry’s interpretation of the 1864 election had become so commonplace that a revision was in order. Randall thus proceeded to pick apart the “stereotyped picture.” 1) Both Lincoln’s Union/Republican Party and McClellan’s Democratic Party “favored the restoration of the Union as the chief point at issue.” 2) There was, indeed, a “peace plank” in the Democratic platform of August 1864, but Republican “party propaganda” zeroed in on it in order to tarnish McClellan and impute “treasonable motives” to his supporters. 3) Besides the “war Democrats” (led by McClellan), there were Northern “peace Democrats,” led by former Ohio congressman Clement Vallandigham (derisively dubbed “Copperheads”). But even they “declared for peace on the basis of reunion,” Randall pointed out, meaning an end of the war based on restoration of the Union. As we know, this was a condition which Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government would have rejected out of hand–as it did in the Hampton Roads conference of February 1865 (J.G. Randall, The Civil War and Reconstruction , 622-24).
Has Randall’s work been updated? Notably, yes, by David H. Donald and reissued in 1961. Randall and Donald’s The Civil War and Reconstruction was hailed by Nevins, Robertson and Wiley in their Civil War Books (1967) as “one of the most fundamental sources for any study of the war.” Professor Donald updated parts of Randall’s text, “bringing it in line with centennial-era scholarship,” as David Eicher puts it (The Civil War in Books , p. 264).
For this essay I compared Randall’s treatment of the 1864 election with Donald’s updating, and found that Randall’s repudiation of the familiar stereotype still stood. Professor Donald, though, added an amplifying paragraph whose main point was that the differences between candidates Lincoln and McClellan “were more a matter of shading than of glaring contrast.” Most of McClellan’s supporters were “unquestionably loyal citizens who favored the vigorous prosecution of the war.” Yet the Democrat was also supported by a “small but noisy anti-war faction” whose outsized roar worried even Lincoln into thinking he might not win re-election. Among Republicans, Donald characterizes most as “undoubtedly moderates who desired nothing more than the restoration of peace and the Union.” Lincoln had his own loud minority, the Radical wing of his party.
Randall/Donald’s conclusion was that as stated in 1937: if the Democrats had won the presidency, McClellan would have set policy, not Vallandigham. And McClellan would have understood his triumph as a popular mandate “to prosecute the war as a conflict whose object was restoration of the Union” (Randall and Donald, 1961 ed., pp. 478-79).
So the question is, how could a scholarly interpretation of the Northern presidential election of 1864 which saw the differences between Lincoln and McClellan merely as “shading” be supplanted, a generation later (Castel) and a decade after that (McMurry), by one which viewed the two candidates as diametrically opposite on the matter of continued prosecution of the war?
Randall and Donald rightly pointed to both the noise created by the Vallandigham crowd and the indignant backlash of the Republican campaign machine as sources of McClellan’s wartime portrayal as a peacenik. Another reason for the alleged Lincoln-McClellan platform dichotomy has to do with what Confederate Southerners were writing in 1864.
That subject will await my next post for the ECW “1860’s Politics” blog series.