Loyal Union Citizens and the Summer of 1864

ECW welcomes guest author M. Keith Harris

The funny thing about turning points in the popular memory of the Civil War is that folks tend to think of them in relation to certain Union victory. I suppose that makes some sense on the surface. We all know how things turned out, and so we look to the events that get us closer to that historical fact while perhaps overlooking things that served to impede Union success. Antietam, for example, pushes the narrative along to Union victory with emancipation. Looming even larger in many Americans’ collective memory of the war, Union triumph at Gettysburg puts an end to the Confederate story of ascendency and invasion of United States territory, more or less, and seals the fate of the Confederacy by setting up a trajectory culminating at Appomattox and the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia (the symbolic end of the war). The problem with looking at the war this way is twofold. First, folks at the time were hardly certain how things were going to transpire (they could not accurately predict the future) and second, such an analysis necessarily obscures events after Gettysburg where things looked kinda bright for the Confederate cause, at least from the Rebels’ perspective.

Crossing the North Anna. Library of Congress.

It helps to think carefully about the summer of 1864. Rebels had many reasons to hold on to optimism, as their letters suggest.[1] Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s war of attrition against General Robert E. Lee had inflicted a lot of casualties, but the Confederates mounted a formidable defense and, in the process, tore the Army of the Potomac to shreds before the campaign settled into a prolonged siege outside of Petersburg. Sherman’s campaign against Atlanta had slowed and Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley were maneuvering to within cannon range of Washington City. With all this happening simultaneously, and with the bodies piling higher each day, morale in the United States faced a significant challenge. In the summer of 1864, a full year after Gettysburg, though the concept of Union still encouraged both Union soldiers and civilians to support the cause, many people became disheartened with the “progress” of the war. Even Lincoln had his doubts about reelection that November.

Peace Democrats, known derisively as Copperheads, made good use of the growing concern with the state of the Union war effort, suggesting the incompetence of the Lincoln administration and especially of General Grant’s generalship. But while this sentiment grew, it never seized the spirit of the majority of loyal Americans who, despite their dip in morale, remained hopeful – just impatient.

A portrayal of the battle of the Wilderness. Library of Congress.

Newspapers captured the mood of a great many United States citizens. Victory, it seemed, would take more time. “The rebels are reinforced by every available man,” reported the New York Herald early in June, “and may number as high as eighty-five thousand troops. To destroy such well constructed works, defended by a powerful foe, will consume more time than the public at large may expect, and is by far, the most gigantic undertaking of the war.”[2] By the end of the same month, the Herald lamented that the fall of Richmond “must again be deferred, and hope so many times deferred may sicken a nation as bitterly as it will the heart of any single person in it.”[3] Union citizens were growing increasingly restless for decisive action…so much so that the New York Times admonished, “Let the country…be patient while these great works are in progress, and not exhibit that censoriousness or captious criticism, which is at once short-sighted and unjust.”[4]

Loyal citizens, steeped in American exceptionalist tradition, believed the concept of Union was something worth fighting for, even if it was taking much, much longer than expected to realize that goal. This makes one think about simplistic turning points and how people understood the war at the time. I think it is too much to say that a significant number of people simply gave up on the war or the Union cause. But they did face considerable setbacks which weighed heavily on the loyal Union citizenry, so it’s really best to rethink the idea that the war was essentially a done deal after Gettysburg. We might think of that 1863 fight in Pennsylvania as a turning point of sorts, but there were plenty who might have thought otherwise. Even optimistic loyal Americans would have agreed that there was a lot of war left to fight in the summer of 1864.

M. Keith Harris teaches at a private high school in Los Angeles. He received his Ph.D in history from the University of Virginia and is the author of Across the Bloody Chasm: The Culture of Commemoration among Civil War Veterans. You can find his other musings at keithharrishistory.com


[1] I wrote about this in detail. See, M. Keith Harris “We Will Finish the War Here: Confederate Morale in the Petersburg Trenches, June and July 1864” in Gary W. Gallagher and Caroline E. Janney, eds., Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 210-227).  

[2] New York Herald, June 8, 1864.

[3] New York Herald, June 28, 1864. Quoted in, Gary W. Gallagher The Union War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 185.

[4] New York Times, August 12, 1864.

3 Responses to Loyal Union Citizens and the Summer of 1864

  1. Good food for thought, particularly the concept of exceptionalism in the American subconscious and even the idea of perfectionism rooted in post millennialism. Being made perfect through patience and endurance, along with the Exodus motif of Wilderness before Promise Land factored in the mindset.

  2. I agree: “Hindsight is 20/20.” And no better period piece encapsulates the pessimism and woebegone outlook of the Summer of 1864 than President Lincoln’s Blind Memorandum (see “A Postscript to Lincoln’s Blind Memorandum” by Chris Mackowski at ECW 9 FEB 2016.
    “Did Frederick Douglass Influence the Blind Memorandum?” by Sarah Kay Bierle at ECW 23 AUG 2019.
    “It seems Exceedingly Probable that This Administration will NOT be Re-elected” by Chris Mackowski at ECW 4 SEP 2022.)
    In addition, Peace Democrats and Copperheads had made a pact with the Devil: an active-measures organization, fully supporting the Confederacy, and calling itself Sons of Liberty and Knights of the Golden Circle and other names. During the early months of 1864 these “disrupter” organizations made plans to storm the POW Camp at Chicago and release the thousands of Rebels confined there; and burn down New York City; and rob banks in the North… a regular reign of terror to illustrate how weak was the Lincoln Administration.
    Then, in September 1864, newspapers across the Northern States announced “Sherman has Taken Atlanta” and the too-long delayed “disrupter” plans, many of which were eventually attempted, failed to have the desired effect of “swinging the November Presidential Election in favor of McClellan.”
    Timing is everything…

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