The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz/Volume Three/03 The Political Campaign of 1864
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THE leisure hours of camp life during the winter and spring of 1864 had permitted me to plod through several volumes of Herbert Spencer, and to carry on a somewhat active correspondence with friends in Washington and various parts of the Northern States. The political intelligence brought by letters and newspapers was by no means cheering. To the army mind — that is, to those in the field looking at political happenings from afar, and having nothing in view but to bring the struggle against the rebellion and for the restoration of the Union under the new conditions to a successful issue — the requirements of the situation appeared to be simple and clear. The one thing needed first of all seemed to be that the administration be supported in its efforts to rally the whole force of the Union sentiment of the country against the common enemy. No doubt, there might be differences of opinion as to how this should be done in detail. No doubt, some things had been done by, or under, the auspices of the administration that were open to criticism. No doubt, our government had not been as successful in the field as it should have been. No doubt, there were different theories as to the actual status of the rebel States in or out of the Union, and as to the methods of accomplishing their reconstruction when the rebellion should have been overcome. But in point of fact, the rebellion was not yet overcome, and it was questionable whether it would ever be overcome if the Union forces acted at cross purposes in directing their efforts. And if the rebellion was not overcome, all these disputes would appear to have been vain and idle. But the criticism of the government — legitimate in itself if it were designed only to enlighten the administration and to lead to a correction of its errors — had assumed a virulent temper, and been turned into attempts to prevent the renomination of Mr. Lincoln.
The most alarming feature of this commotion was that many men were active in it whose patriotism was above question, and whose character stood so high in public estimation that their example might exercise a wide influence. There was much impatience at the slow progress of the war for the Union, and the administration was largely held responsible for it. The most impetuous of the impatient urged that a President must be chosen who would carry on the war with more energy. Not a few serious patriots, especially in the East, were displeased with Mr. Lincoln's somewhat loose ways of conducting the public business, with his rustic manners, and with the robust character of his humor, and concluded that the Republic must have a President more mindful of the dignity of his office. In some of the States fierce factional fights were raging among the Union men, and one faction would demand the election of another President if Mr. Lincoln seemed to favor the other faction. It was publicly said, and believed by many, that Mr. Lincoln had only one steadfast friend in the lower House of Congress, and few more in the Senate, the disaffection being due partly to the fact that Mr. Lincoln had not been able to gratify the wishes of the Senators and Representatives as to appointments; and partly to differences of opinion as to the reconstruction policy to be adopted. These various elements of discontent combined, would possibly have constituted a formidable force, had they been able to unite upon an opposition candidate who would have satisfied the country that he was better fitted for the presidency in this crisis than Mr. Lincoln. But the only statesman of high standing who in any degree appeared available for such a purpose was Mr. Chase, who, with all his great qualities, seemed unable to call forth any popular enthusiasm. Neither could the candidacy of General Frémont, brought forward by the radicals of Missouri, highly respectable and patriotic men, who were embittered by the countenance given by Mr. Lincoln to the "conservative" faction in that State, command much confidence and support.
These distracting movements inside the Union party could therefore only serve to encourage and strengthen the Democrats. With great skill and energy, they worked upon the desire for peace naturally existing and growing among the people as the war dragged on without any distinct prospect of its early termination, and hoped to ride into power on the strength of the peace-cry, and on the charge that the policy of the Republican administration had resulted in utter failure.
Would not the rejection of Mr. Lincoln by the Republican National Convention be tantamount to an open confession of such failure, and thus put a terrible weapon in the hands of the opposition? Was not, quite aside from his exceptional hold upon the esteem and affection of the masses of the people, Lincoln's renomination so natural, indeed, so necessary, that it was difficult to understand how any unprejudiced Union man could oppose it? That, in spite of all this, such opposition should find the support of estimable Union men, was indeed an alarming symptom.
This aspect of the situation disquieted me profoundly. I did not, indeed, seriously apprehend that Mr. Lincoln's nomination could be prevented. But the question was, whether the efforts made to prevent it would not have a demoralizing effect upon the party, and put his success at the election in jeopardy. And in case of the government falling into the hands of the Democratic party, in whose councils such men as Vallandigham and Fernando Wood wielded much — perhaps decisive — influence, the probability was that either the dissolution of the Union would be acquiesced in, or the Union would be patched up again by means of a compromise involving the preservation of slavery.
In the troubled contemplation of this appalling possibility, it occurred to me that I might perhaps render better service by entering the political campaign as a speaker, than by superintending the training of new troops in my camp near Nashville, for the uncertain contingency of their ever firing a cartridge. I received various letters suggesting the same thing, among them a very urgent one from Mr. Elihu B. Washburne, a prominent member of Congress from Illinois, and another from Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, who painted to me in strong colors the dangers of the situation, and insisted that I must "go on the stump," as I had done in the campaign of 1860. Finally I concluded that I ought to do so. I wrote to Mr. Lincoln, informing him of my purpose. In his reply he observed that if I did so, it would be at the risk of my active employment in the army. I was willing to take the risk unconditionally, and asked, through the regular military channels, to be relieved of my present duties. This relief was granted, and I promptly gave up my command of the camp and journeyed to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where my family were at that time, and asked for permission to visit Washington — military officers being at that time forbidden to visit Washington without special permission from the War Department. I wished to confer with Mr. Lincoln on the political situation, and more particularly to get his view of the exigencies of the campaign. The official permit for a visit to Washington arrived promptly.
Although Lincoln, to the astonishment of his Republican opponents, who would not recognize any popular force behind him, had been renominated with substantial unanimity by the National Convention, the hostile movements in the Republican ranks did not cease. Senator Benjamin F. Wade, from Ohio, one of the oldest, most courageous, and most highly respected of the anti-slavery champions, and Henry Winter Davis, a member of the National House of Representatives from Maryland, a man of high character and an orator of rare brilliancy, rose in open revolt against Lincoln's reconstruction ideas, and issued a formal manifesto, in which, in language of startling vehemence, they assailed the integrity of his motives as those of a usurper carried away by lust of power. And then cries arose in the most unexpected quarters that Lincoln could not possibly be elected. Such men as Horace Greeley and Thurlow Weed, usually hostile to one another in Republican factional fights, united in the gloomy prediction that Lincoln would most surely be defeated; and men of similar importance, severally and as members of committees, plied Lincoln himself with urgent entreaties that he should withdraw from the contest and make room for another more promising candidate. Neither was there much encouragement in the popular temper as it manifested itself during the first two months after Lincoln's renomination. The people seemed to be utterly spiritless. They would hardly attend a mass-meeting, much less inspire the speaker with enthusiastic declamations. This may have been partly owing to the fact that the Democrats had not yet held their National Convention, and there was, therefore, neither a candidate nor a declared policy of the opposite party to attack. But, surely, the administration party could not have been in a more lethargic and spiritless condition. Its atmosphere was thoroughly depressing.
I called upon Mr. Lincoln on a hot afternoon late in July. He greeted me cordially, and asked me to wait in the office until he should be through with the current business of the day, and then to spend the evening with him at the cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home, which he occupied during the summer. In the carriage on the way thither he made various inquiries concerning the attitude of this and that public man, and this and that group of people, and we discussed the question whether it would be good policy to attempt an active campaign before the Democrats should have "shown their hand" in their National Convention. He argued that such an attempt would be unwise unless some unforeseen change in the situation called for it. Arrived at the cottage, he asked me to sit down with him on a lounge in a sort of parlor which was rather scantily furnished, and began to speak about the attacks made upon him by party friends, and their efforts to force his withdrawal from the candidacy. The substance of what he said I can recount from a letter written at the time to an intimate friend.
He spoke as if he felt a pressing need to ease his heart by giving voice to the sorrowful thoughts distressing him. He would not complain of the fearful burden of care and responsibility put upon his shoulders. Nobody knew the weight of that burden save himself. But was it necessary, was it generous, was it right, to impeach even the rectitude of his motives? "They urge me with almost violent language," he said, "to withdraw from the contest, although I have been unanimously nominated, in order to make room for a better man. I wish I could. Perhaps some other man might do this business better than I. That is possible. I do not deny it. But I am here, and that better man is not here. And if I should step aside to make room for him, it is not at all sure — perhaps not even probable — that he would get here. It is much more likely that the factions opposed to me would fall to fighting among themselves, and that those who want me to make room for a better man would get a man whom most of them would not want in at all. My withdrawal, therefore, might, and probably would, bring on a confusion worse confounded. God knows, I have at least tried very hard to do my duty — to do right to everybody and wrong to nobody. And now to have it said by men who have been my friends and who ought to know me better, that I have been seduced by what they call the lust of power, and that I have been doing this and that unscrupulous thing hurtful to the common cause, only to keep myself in office! Have they thought of that common cause when trying to break me down? I hope they have."
So he went on, as if speaking to himself, now pausing for a second, then uttering a sentence or two with vehement emphasis. Meanwhile the dusk of evening had set in, and when the room was lighted I thought I saw his sad eyes moist and his rugged features working strangely, as if under a very strong and painful emotion. At last he stopped, as if waiting for me to say something, and, deeply touched as I was, I only expressed as well as I could, my confident assurance that the people, undisturbed by the bickerings of his critics, believed in him and would faithfully stand by him. The conversation, then turning upon things to be done, became more cheerful, and in the course of the evening he explained to me various acts of the administration which in the campaign might be questioned and call for defense. As to his differences with members of Congress concerning reconstruction, he laid particular stress upon the fact that, looked at from a constitutional standpoint, the Executive could do many things by virtue of the war power, which Congress could not do in the way of ordinary legislation. When I took my leave that night he was in a calm mood, indulged himself in a few humorous remarks, shook my hand heartily, and said: "Well, things might look better, and they might look worse. Go in, and let us all do the best we can."
The campaign did not become spirited until after the Democratic National Convention. But then it started in good earnest, and the prospects brightened at once. The Democrats, made overconfident by the apparent lethargy of the popular mind and the acrimonious wrangling inside of the Union party, had recklessly overshot the mark. They declared in their platform that the war against the rebellion was a failure, and that immediate efforts must be made for a cessation of hostilities, with a view to an ultimate convention of all the States for a peaceable settlement on the basis of reunion. Considering the fact that the leaders of the rebellion vociferously, defiantly insisted upon the independence of the Southern Confederacy as a condition sine qua non of any settlement, this proposition looked like a complete surrender. It was too much, not only for the malcontents within the Union party, but also for many Democrats. Even the candidate of their own party, General McClellan, who had been nominated for the purpose of conciliating the patriotic war-spirit still alive in the Democratic ranks, found it necessary to repudiate that part of the platform — first, in justice to his own feelings, and secondly, to save the last chance of success in the election. Then came the inspiring tidings of Sherman's victorious march into the heart of Georgia and the capture of Atlanta, kindling all over the North a blaze of jubilant enthusiasm, and covering the declaration that the war was a failure, with contemptuous derision. And, finally, more potent perhaps than all else, the tender affection of the popular heart for Abraham Lincoln burst forth with all its warmth. This tender affection, cherished among the plain people of the land, among the soldiers in the field, and their "folks at home," was a sentimental element of strength which Lincoln's critical opponents in the Union party had wholly ignored. Now they became aware of it, not without surprise. I believe that, had the Democratic Convention been more prudent, and had no victories happened to cheer the masses, even then "Father Abraham's" personal popularity alone would have been sufficient to give him the victory in the election of 1864. I made many speeches in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Western States as far as Wisconsin, three of which were printed in the collection which was published in 1865. While writing these reminiscences I read them over — let me confess it — with much satisfaction. But that they contributed much to Lincoln's success, I candidly do not believe. They were well meant, but, although they had a wide circulation and much praise at the time, they were really superfluous. In fact, during its last two months, the presidential campaign of 1864 seemed to run itself. With a thoroughly reunited Union party, it became more and more a popular jubilee as the election approached. However, the size of his majority did not come up to the expectation of Lincoln's friends.
A few days after the election I read in the papers the report of a speech delivered by Lincoln in response to a serenade, in which he offered the hand of friendship to those who had opposed him in these words: "Now that the election is over, may not all, having a common interest, reunite in a common effort to save our common community? For my own part, I have striven, and will strive, to place no obstacle in the way. So long as I have been here, I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man's bosom. While I am deeply sensible of the high compliment of a re-election, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man may be pained or disappointed by the result. May I ask those who were with me to join with me in the same spirit towards those who were against me?" When I read those noble words, which so touchingly revealed the whole tender generosity of Lincoln's great soul, the haggard face I had seen that evening in the cottage at the Soldiers' Home rose up vividly in my memory.