10 Things to Know about Lincoln, Soldiers’ Home and the 1864 Election

By Scott Ackerman

This is the 10th and final installment of “100 Things to Know about President Lincoln’s Cottage.”  Today’s list looks at 10 events of Lincoln’s reelection campaign of 1864 that occurred or are linked directly to the Cottage.  Previous posts in this series may be viewed under the category “100 Things to Know.” -E. Mast

1. Lincoln’s election prospects and strategy—and thus his actions—were largely contingent upon developments from the front lines. Distressing news from the battlefield compounded the numerous political problems Lincoln faced while living at the Soldiers’ Home in 1864.

2. Lincoln’s time out at Soldier’s Home in the summer of ‘64 reveals that his political fortunes were forever tied to Union fortunes on the battlefield. This is readily apparent in the aftermath of Jubal Early’s raid in early July, when the Union army’s failure to “bag” a Confederate force on Washington’s outskirts resulted in widespread criticism of Lincoln and his administration.

3. Lincoln used his time at Soldier’s Home to ready the political machine for the upcoming election. Radical Republicans were furious over Lincoln’s pocket veto of the Wade-Davis Reconstruction bill, and accused Lincoln of “holding the electoral votes of the rebel states at the dictation of his own ambition.” Lincoln then summoned Carl Schurz, Union General and Republican party leader with ties the radicals, to the Cottage in August. Lincoln used Schurz as a conduit to ask the radicals if “they thought of that common cause when trying to break me down?”

4. Lincoln aimed to reemphasize the military goals of the Union in the summer of ‘64. Knowing his chances at being reelected greatly depended on battlefield results, Lincoln set out to ensure that no Confederate army was allowed to escape without being hampered again. To this end, when Gideon Welles and his wife joined Lincoln for dinner at Soldier’s Home in mid-July, the failures after Ft. Stevens fresh in his mind, Lincoln and his Navy Secretary shared their angst about the failure of Union military leaders. It may have been after this conversation that Lincoln decided to visit General Grants headquarters to impress upon him the need for always pressing the enemy.

5. Lincoln used his time at Soldiers’ Home to clearly state his views on the continuation of Emancipation as an official Union policy. After receiving a letter from Charles Robinson, a Wisconsin Democratic editor upset about Lincoln setting Emancipation as a precondition for peace negotiations, Lincoln took the opportunity to send a message to the conservative republicans and war democrats about the necessities of Emancipation. When the former governor of Wisconsin Alexander Randall and his ally Judge Joseph T. Mills visited the cottage on August 19th to discuss Lincoln’s response to Robinson, Lincoln told them that “There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson and Olustee…to conciliate the South. I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing.”

6. The pressures of the election and the need for military victories took a visible toll on Lincoln during his last summer here; even when he was out at Soldiers’ Home. Numerous visitors during the summer of 1864 and Walt Whitman, who observed Lincoln on his daily commute, noted Lincoln’s haggard appearance.

7. In late August, Lincoln received word from Henry Raymond, New York Times editor and Union Party National Executive Committee chairman regarding their chances at reelection, “The tide is strongly against us…Two special causes are assigned for this great reaction in public sentiment, — the want of military successes, and the impression in some minds, the fear and suspicion in others, that we are not to have peace in any event under this Administration until Slavery is abandoned.”

8. The President’s family was away during the period of August when chances for Lincoln’s re-election looked bleakest; correspondingly, Lincoln had no familial distractions to take his mind off the election.

9. The ever-present threats on his life did not cease with the coming election. Sometime in August, 1864, a guard at the Soldier’s Home reported hearing a gunshot and seeing Lincoln “flying up to the gate on horseback.” The President had lost his hat, which the soldiers found the next day with a bullet hole through the crown. The incident was a reflection of growing Confederate desperation to prevent Lincoln’s re-election and achieve a negotiated peace.

10. Lincoln used Soldiers’ Home as a place where he could covertly try to gauge the mood of his opposition. On September 11th, Lincoln met secretly with notorious Copperhead Fernando Wood at Soldiers Home. Wood warned Lincoln that “although we don’t expect to elect our candidate for the President this fall,” their will come a time after the war when the desire for reconciliation will be strong, and at that time “we shall have our rightful ascendancy.”

Pictured: Republican Lincoln teamed up with Democrat Johnson for the “Union Party” ticket.

Mr. Ackerman is the Program Administrator at President Lincoln’s Cottage.
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