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The war’s bloody end game tested Lincoln’s faith in God, democracy and himself.

Joshua Speed thought he knew Abraham Lincoln as well as anyone did. The two became friends when Lincoln set out to make his fortune as a lawyer in Spring – field, Ill., in 1836 and rented a room above Speed’s general store. Speed counseled the shy and awkward young Lincoln when he was courting Mary Todd and remained his close confidant in the decades that followed. But he was mystified by his old friend’s demeanor when they spent an evening together at Lincoln’s Soldiers’ Home cottage outside Washington in the summer of 1864.

“As I entered the room, near night, he was sitting near a window intently reading his Bible,” Speed recalled. Even though Lincoln often mined the scriptures for literary references in his speeches and writing, he never officially joined a church and Speed had never known him to be particularly devout. “He was a skeptic,” Speed wrote. “He had tried hard to be a believer, but his reason could not grasp and solve the great problem of redemption as taught.” On this occasion, however, Lincoln turned the pages of the Bible slowly, as if to wring the last drop of wisdom and solace out of each passage.

Speed was uncertain what to make of Lincoln’s reverie, and so he said half-flippantly: “I am glad to see you so profitably engaged.” There was nothing at all flippant in Lincoln’s reply. “Yes,” he told his old friend. “I am profitably engaged.”

“Well,” said Speed, “if you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not.” Lincoln’s response was resolute. “Looking me earnestly in the face, and placing his hand on my shoulder, he said, ‘You are wrong, Speed. Take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.”

Speed remembered this moment for decades, and he remembered the profound change the war wrought in Lincoln. The summer of 1864 was the darkest hour for the Union, with its armies making little progress and that at great cost. Many in the North despaired of victory and were calling for peace on terms that suited the South. It was Lincoln’s darkest hour, as well. The mounting carnage tested his faith in the Union, in American democracy and in himself. Could democracy defend itself? Was he to be the agent of its defense, or had political vanity made him a hindrance?

Speed saw part of Lincoln’s response to his greatest trial: his turn to Providence. The American people saw the other part: Lincoln’s decision to throw his personal fate, and that of the Union, upon the very democratic principles that lay at the heart of the deadly struggle.

The war shouldn’t have been going so poorly. The president had found the general he was searching for in Ulysses S. Grant, who was carrying the war aggressively to the South. “I can’t spare this man; he fights,” Lincoln said. The president also appreciated that Grant didn’t require constant tending. “The particulars of your plans I neither know, or seek to know,” Lincoln wrote the general. “You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you.”

Grant proposed to send William T. Sherman’s army from Tennessee toward Atlanta, other Union armies against additional Confederate strong points, and his own army after Robert E. Lee in Virginia. This strategy would employ the advantages of the North in manpower and materiel and drive the South to its knees.

Lincoln was pleased with the strategy, which commenced in May 1864 when Sherman headed for Atlanta and Grant chased Lee into the Wilderness, a tangle of terrain and vegetation in central Virginia. Grant’s army outnumbered Lee’s by a substantial margin and Grant sought to press his advantage, but a bloody battle served only to cost the Union some 14,000 killed and wounded. He tried again, near Spotsylvania, and lost another 18,000, to no greater positive effect.

Grant refused to be discouraged by his lack of progress. “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer,” he declared. And Lincoln appreciated his commander’s determination. “The great thing about Grant is his perfect coolness and persistency of purpose,” the president remarked. “He is not easily excited…and he has the grit of a bull-dog. Once let him get his teeth in, and nothing can shake him off.”

Yet Lincoln couldn’t ignore the human toll of Grant’s approach. The artist Francis Carpenter took up residence at the White House for six months in 1864 to paint Lincoln and thought the president’s visage “the saddest face I ever knew.” Carpenter recounted Lincoln’s reaction to the grim news from Virginia. “During the first week of the battles of the Wilderness he hardly slept at all.…On one of these days I met him, clad in a long morning wrapper, pacing back and forth a narrow passage leading to one of the windows, his hands behind him, great black rings under his eyes, his head bent forward upon his breast—altogether such a picture of the effects of sorrow, care, and anxiety as would have melted the hearts of the worst of his adversaries.”

The news from the front grew only worse. At Cold Harbor Grant attacked again; again he suffered fearful casualties— 13,000 killed and wounded—and again accomplished little of note. Now even Grant began to waver. “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made,” he recounted in his memoir. “No advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”

Lincoln lamented the human costs all the more. “During these long days of terrible slaughter the face of the President was grave and anxious,” Isaac Arnold, a friend, related. “He looked like one who had lost the dearest member of his family.” Arnold met Lincoln returning from visiting the wounded. “Look yonder at those poor fellows,” Lincoln said. “I cannot bear it. This suffering, this loss of life, is dreadful.” Isaac reminded Lincoln of some advice the latter had once given a grieving acquaintance, that his sorrow would pass and victory would come. “Yes,” the president responded, “victory will come. But it comes slowly.”

Its slowness drove Lincoln to seek solace from a higher power. Joshua Speed observed the president resort to the Bible for wisdom and comfort; Eliza Gurney, a Quaker leader, saw the same side of Lincoln in a letter in which he revealed his deepening conviction that the country was in the hands of Providence. “The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance,” Lincoln wrote. “We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise.…Surely he intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.” Joseph Mills, a circuit judge from Wisconsin, left a session at the White House in August 1864 with the perception that the mark of heaven was upon Lincoln: “His transparent honesty, his republican simplicity, his gushing sympathy for those who offered their lives for their country, his utter forgetfulness of self in his concern for his country, could not but inspire me with confidence that he was Heaven’s instrument to conduct his people through this red sea of blood to a Canaan of peace and freedom.”

Of course Lincoln had no greater power than any other mortal to divine what heaven had in mind. At the time of his meeting with Mills, Lincoln sensed his chances for re-election were slim. Influential Democrats were promising peace, and voters appeared to be responding. Lincoln felt obliged to state that he wanted peace too and would consider any Southern peace proposal that encompassed “the integrity of the whole Union, and the abandonment of slavery.” This simply encouraged the Democrats, who asserted that the president’s insistence on an end to slavery killed any realistic hope of a negotiated peace, and whose rank and file evinced little desire to risk their lives or dollars for the freedom of black people.

The Democrats made their preferences clear by nominating George B. McClellan, Lincoln’s former commanding general and an opponent of emancipation, to run on a platform that declared, “After four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war…justice, humanity, liberty, and the public welfare demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities…on the basis of the Federal Union of the States.”

Lincoln accounted the Democratic platform a death certificate for the Union. “There is no program intended by the Democratic party but that will result in the dismemberment of the Union,” he told Mills. Lincoln predicted that the Confederates would consent to a ceasefire, which would enable them to rest and reprovision, and which meanwhile would sap the will of the North to resume the fight. The cause of the Union would be lost, and with it all the blood and treasure expended to date.

But he couldn’t deny that the Democratic formula was seductive—if only because his Republican colleagues told him so. “The people are wild for peace,” Thurlow Weed, the New York Republican boss asserted. On a visit to Washington, Weed told Lincoln that the president’s reelection was “an impossibility.” After returning to New York and consulting other Republican leaders, Weed wrote William Seward that defeat was the uniform prognosis. “Nobody here doubts it,” Weed said. “Nor do I see anybody from other States who authorizes the slightest hope of success.” Weed related the sentiment common among the Republican leaders that overtures should be made to the Confederates, offering peace on the basis of Union alone. Slavery—or rather, emancipation—should be taken off the table. “That something should be done, and promptly done, to give the Administration a chance for its life, is certain,” Weed concluded.

Lincoln accepted the prognosis. “You think I don’t know I am going to be beaten,” he told a visitor. “But I do, and unless some great change takes place, badly beaten.”

He pondered what changes he himself could make. He drafted a letter softening his insistence on an end to slavery. “If Jefferson Davis wishes, for himself or for the benefit of his friends at the North, to know what I would do if he were to offer peace and re-union, saying nothing about slavery, let him try me,” Lincoln declared.

This statement embodied a huge concession: the effective repeal of the Emancipation Proclamation. That Lincoln could even consider such a move signaled the depth of his despair over the impending election and with it the future of the Union. Perhaps he or someone in the administration tipped his hand to the press, for the New York Times observed that although the president had stated that he would entertain peace proposals from the South that included reunion and emancipation, “he did not say that he would not receive them even if they embraced neither.”

Lincoln tested his concessionary proposal on Frederick Douglass, the former slave and current abolitionist. Douglass was polite but vehement. To Lincoln’s query whether he should publish the draft letter, Douglass replied, “Certainly not. It would be given a broader meaning than you intend to convey. It would be taken as a complete surrender of your antislavery policy, and do you much harm.”

Lincoln wondered what else he could do. He couldn’t postpone the elections—or could he? The war had driven him to other measures he hadn’t dreamed of before, most notably suspension of habeas corpus, the common-law tradition enshrined in the Constitution that insures citizens cannot be detained indefinitely without trial. Of what use were democratic elections that would doom the country that held them? He could declare a state of emergency and promise to restore elections once the war ended.

Lincoln resisted the temptation. To sacrifice elections would be to surrender the fundamental principle of democracy, the essence of what he was fighting for.

Yet even as he placed his and the Union’s future in the hands of voters, he took a step that was hardly less extraordinary than a delay of the election would have been. On Aug. 23 he drafted a memorandum unlike any other in American history. “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected,” Lincoln wrote. “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 cannot possibly save it afterwards.”

Lincoln carried this memo, folded and sealed, to a meeting of the Cabinet. Without telling them what it said, he had the members sign the back of the document. “I resolved, in case of the election of General McClellan,” he explained later, “that I would see him and talk matters over with him. I would say, ‘General, the election has demonstrated that you are stronger, have more influence with the American people than I. Now let us together, you with your influence and I with all the executive power of the Government, try to save the country. You raise as many troops as you possibly can for this final trial, and I will devote all my energies to assisting and finishing the war.”

Lincoln acknowledged that his plan would hardly guarantee victory or the preservation of the Union. To begin with, McClellan would likely reject it. But it was the best he could offer. “I should have done my duty and have stood clear before my own conscience.”

Then providence—or maybe just damn luck and the infernal willpower of William T. Sherman—intervened. Sherman’s thrust into Georgia had gone swiftly for the first two weeks, then slowly for the next eight. Casualties mounted, as did the frustration of Lincoln and other Union leaders at Sherman’s inability to reach Atlanta. In the latter part of August Sherman disappeared from sight. His Confederate counterpart, John Bell Hood, thought he had given up and fallen back. Hood discovered only too late that Sherman had circled to the south of Atlanta and cut the last rail line into the city. Hood had to hurry to avoid being trapped; he evacuated Atlanta on Sept. 1.

Reports of the victory electrified the North. “Glorious news this morning—Atlanta taken at last!!!” diarist George Templeton Strong recorded. Lincoln was somewhat more subdued but no less grateful. “The national thanks are herewith tendered by the President to Major General William T. Sherman and the gallant officers and soldiers of his command,” the White House declared. Almost simultaneous with the news from Georgia came word that David Farragut had captured Mobile, the sole remaining Confederate stronghold on the Gulf Coast; Lincoln declared a national day of prayer to mark “the signal success that Divine Providence has recently vouchsafed to the operations of the United States fleet and army” and to thank God “for His mercy in preserving our national existence against the insurgent rebels who so long have been waging a cruel war against the Government.”

The stunning news broke the back of the McClellan candidacy. The principal complaint against Lincoln had been that he wasn’t winning; now that he was winning, the complaints lost their force. Many Democrats stuck with McClellan out of devotion to the party, but the groundswell of Republican defections his managers hoped for never materialized. Lincoln sensed the shift and breathed freely for the first time in months. “It does look as if the people wanted me to stay here a little longer,” he told a visitor. “And I suppose I shall have to, if they do.”

They did indeed. McClellan garnered 45 percent of the popular vote, but Lincoln swamped him in the electoral college, rolling up 212 electors to the general’s 21.

As the voters’ decision became clear Lincoln reflected on the meaning of the election. “It has long been a grave question,” he told a group of supporters who gathered below his White House window, “whether any government not too strong for the liberties of its people can be strong enough to maintain its own existence in great emergencies.” The current rebellion had posed the question to Americans in acute form. “If the loyal people united were put to the utmost of their strength by the rebellion, must they not fail when divided and partially paralyzed by a political war among themselves?”

Failure had indeed been a possibility. But the election was a necessity nonetheless. If anything, it was more of a necessity than ever. “We can not have free government without elections, and if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.” The rebellion hadn’t triumphed, and the election was held.

The outcome vindicated Lincoln’s longstanding faith in democracy, and his more recent faith in Providence. Even as he thanked voters, he also thanked God. “All who have labored today in behalf of the Union organization,” he said as the victory was being tallied, “have wrought for the best interests of their country and the world, not only for the present but for all future ages.…I give thanks to the Almighty for this evidence of the people’s resolution to stand by free government and the rights of humanity.”


H.W. Brands is a history professor at the University of Texas and author of Traitor to His Class, a biography of Franklin Roosevelt.

Originally published in the October 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.