Decided on the Battlefield: Grant, Sherman, Lincoln and the Election of 1864
David Alan Johnson Prometheus Books 2012, $27
In author David Alan Johnson makes the case that the United States Decided on the Battlefield, likely would have ceased to exist in practical terms had Lincoln lost the 1864 election to his Democratic counterpart, General George B. McClellan. Johnson highlights a North America that might well have split into several different countries, including a yet again independent Texas Republic; a collection of smaller states that, for instance, might not have later rescued European allies in two world wars.
While Johnson’s counterhistory is certainly far-fetched, the idea of the 1864 election as a turning point is hardly new. One of the hidden surprises in the book is Johnson’s account of the 1864 Democratic and Republican national conventions. For readers somewhat familiar with how 20th- and 21st-century conventions work, there will be delightful surprises about how these democratic and raucous events functioned in the mid-19th century, without television, microphones or even lights. It is clear that some aspects of politics were still “politics,” though in other ways America was still raw and unfinished.
While far from groundbreaking, it is a book that will certainly stimulate students of “what if,” and perhaps remind once again to what extent great turning points in the war often began in the anxious mind of a worried president haunting the War Department telegraph office.
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.