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Lincoln in 1864

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Dr. James McPherson in Miami

Thirty years ago James McPherson launched the Golden Age of Civil War scholarship with his Pulitzer-Prize winning book Battle Cry of Freedom. An audience in Miami this month got the benefit of that scholarship when he delivered an address sponsored by the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation (and held at History Miami) about Abraham Lincoln and what transpired 150 years ago in the Civil War.

He said that "1864 was the year battlefield carnage reached new highs - or lows," depending on your point of view. Most of the year was characterised by "a dismal record of failures by Union armies."

When the Confederate commander Robert E. Lee replaced Gen. Johnston with Gen Hood on July 17 that year, he picked the right man. "Despite his crippled arm and wooden leg he was ready to fight. Three battles caused 13,000 casualties but brought General William Sherman's juggernaut to a halt." When Sherman's army was checked before Atlanta, "the stalemate became a national humiliation."

It forced Pres. Lincoln to call for another 500,000 volunteers for the Union army. "The World, a Democractic newspaper, regarded Lincoln as responsible for the failure on the battlefield," and the largest Confederate newspaper claimed the North "was sick at heart" of the fight.

Lincoln's re-election chances looked dim as 1864 marched on, McPherson said.

Horace Greeley, founder of the influential New York Tribune newspaper, "launched a bizarre failed peace initiative." He wrote to Lincoln on July 7. In light of the call for another half million troops, Greeley said that the North "shudders at new rivers of human blood."  Greeley believed that Confederate agents in Canada held the key to a negotiated settlement of the war, "but Lincoln didn't believe the agents in Canada had negotiating powers," McPherson explained.

Nonetheless, Lincoln believed it was politically wise not to close the door on a potential peace settlement, so he sent Greeley a telegram saying he would consider an offer from Confederate Pres. Jefferson Davis for peace and the abandonment of slavery.

McPherson emphasised that this was "an immensely important document."

But the other side used the document to their advantage. "The rebel agents outmanuevered Lincoln and sent a letter to the newspaper indicating the Confederacy's genuine desire for peace had not been met with equal moderation by Lincoln. They urged 'patriots and Christians' to vote Lincoln out of office. It was brilliant propaganda. Even some Republicans scolded Lincoln for being unreasonable."

It was at this "rock bottom point of morale that Democrats pointed to slavery's abolition as the real stumbling block to peace." The Democractic newspaper The World went so far as to say that Lincoln just wanted to tear another 500,000 men away from their families to fight for abolition.

"Lincoln came under enormous pressure to drop emancipation," said McPherson. "He almost succumbed to this pressure but suddenly pulled back and cancelled a mission to Richmond." He realised it "would be seen as a betrayal of the freed slaves and indicative of an Administration floundering in panic."

It was just at this time that Gen. Sherman captured Atlanta, which "turned morale around 180 degrees. It was seen as the greatest event of the war, and it saved Lincoln's presidency." His reelection as President was seen by both sides "as the point of no return," and a few months later, in 1865, the Civil War ended with a Union victory.

In his most recent book, McPherson looks at another important aspect of the 1864 campaign - the one on the water. Covering both the naval blockade on the high seas and the fighting that took place on inland rivers, War on the Waters, is a superb exploration of the role of the navy on both sides.

In addition to the first use of ironclad warships in human history, it saw other major technical developments.

"Admiral Porter and General Sherman were concerned about the reported construction of Confederate ironclads at Shreveport that might threaten Union control of the Mississippi where the Red River entered the big river." Porter took every ironclad in his fleet to the Red River, and at Blair's Landing "a full-scale battle took place between 2,000 troops and three gunboats. In the turreted ironclad USS Osage, Lieutenant Commander Thomas Selfridge made the first known use of a periscope to aim his 11-inch guns. One of his shots killed the commander of the Confederate troops, which caused them to break off and disappear inland."

This is just one of many exciting battles McPherson describes, including the major naval battle of Mobile Bay on Aug. 5, 1864. By Aug. 23 all the forts at Mobile Bay had been captured.

It was just a few days later on Sept. 2 that Gen. Sherman captured Atlanta, which "turned morale around 180 degrees. It was seen as the greatest event of the war, and it saved Lincoln's presidency," McPherson said in his Miami lecture. But in the book he offers a more nuanced interpretation, also pointing to the naval battle as an important element.

"In combination with other Union successes during the fall of 1864," he writes in the book, "Mobile Bay and Atlanta helped assure Lincoln's reelection after all."

Lincoln's second term as President was seen by both sides "as the point of no return," and a few months later, in 1865, the Civil War ended with a Union victory.


The symposium was sponsored and organised by the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. Visit their website:


War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (277 pages) is available from the University of North Carolina Press. Visit their website:


For more events at History Miami, visit their website:


Photo with this article copyright Cliff Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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