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13: The Plebiscite of 1864

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Every great revolution among Anglo-Saxon people—perhaps among all people—has produced strange types of dreamers. In America, however, neither section could claim a monopoly of such types, and even the latter-day visionaries who can see everything in heaven and earth, excepting fact, had their Northern and Southern originals in the time of the great American war. Among these is a strange congregation which assembled in the spring of 1864 and which has come to be known, from its place of meeting, as the Cleveland Convention. Its coming together was the result of a loose cooperation among several minor political groups, all of which were for the Union and the war, and violently opposed to Lincoln. So far as they had a common purpose, it was to supplant Lincoln by Fremont in the next election.

The Convention was notable for the large proportion of agnostics among its members. A motion was made to amend a resolution that "the Rebellion must be put down" by adding the words "with God's assistance." This touch of piety was stormily rejected. Another group represented at Cleveland was made up of extreme abolitionists under the leadership of that brilliant but disordered genius, Wendell Phillips. He sent a letter denouncing Lincoln and pledging his support of Fremont because of the latter's "clearsighted statesmanship and rare military ability." The convention declared itself a political party, under the style of the Radical Democracy, and nominated Fremont for President.

There was another body of dreamers, still more singular, who were also bitter opponents of Lincoln. They were, however, not in favor of war. Their political machinery consisted of secret societies. As early as 1860, the Knights of the Golden Circle were active in Indiana, where they did yeoman service for Breckinridge. Later this society acquired some underground influence in other States, especially in Ohio, and did its share in bringing about the victories at the polls in the autumn of 1862, when the Democrats captured the Indiana legislature.

The most serious charge against the Golden Circle was complicity in an attempt to assassinate Oliver P. Morton, Governor of Indiana, who was fired at, one night, as he was leaving the state house. When Morton demanded an investigation of the Golden Circle, the legislature refused to sanction it. On his own authority and with Federal aid he made investigations and published a report which, if it did not actually prove treason, came dangerously near to proof. Thereafter, this society drops out of sight, and its members appear to have formed the new Order of the American Knights, which in its turn was eclipsed by the Sons of Liberty. There were several other such societies all organized on a military plan and with a great pretense of arming their members. This, however, had to be done surreptitiously. Boxes of rifles purchased in the East were shipped West labeled "Sunday-school books," and negotiations were even undertaken with the Confederacy to bring in arms by way of Canada. At a meeting of the supreme council of the Sons of Liberty, in New York, February 22, 1864, it was claimed that the order had nearly a million members, though the Government secret service considered half a million a more exact estimate.

As events subsequently proved, the societies were not as formidable as these figures would imply. Most of the men who joined them seem to have been fanciful creatures who loved secrecy for its own sake. While real men, North and South, were laying down their lives for their principles, these make-believe men were holding bombastic initiations and taking oaths such as this from the ritual of the American Knights: "I do further solemnly promise and swear, that I will ever cherish the sublime lessons which the sacred emblems of our order suggest, and will, so far as in me lies, impart those lessons to the people of the earth, where the mystic acorn falls from its parent bough, in whose visible firmament Orion, Arcturus, and the Pleiades ride in their cold resplendent glories, and where the Southern Cross dazzles the eye of degraded humanity with its coruscations of golden light, fit emblem of Truth, while it invites our sacred order to consecrate her temples in the four corners of the earth, where moral darkness reigns and despotism holds sway.... Divine essence, so help me that I fail not in my troth, lest I shall be summoned before the tribunal of the order, adjudged and condemned to certain and shameful death, while my name shall be recorded on the rolls of infamy. Amen."

The secret orders fought hard to prevent the Lincoln victory in the elections of 1863. Even before that time their leaders had talked mysteriously of another disruption of the Union and the formation of a Northwestern Confederacy in alliance with the South. The scheme was known to the Confederates, allusions to it are to be found in Southern newspapers, and even the Confederate military authorities considered it. Early in 1863, General Beauregard thought the Confederates might "get into Ohio and call upon the friends of Vallandigham to rise for his defense and support; upon the whole Northwest to join in the movement, form a confederacy of their own, and join us by a treaty of alliance, offensive and defensive." Reliance on the support of the societies was the will-o'-the-wisp that deceived General John Morgan in his desperate attempt to carry out Beauregard's programme. Though brushed aside as a mere detail by military historians, Morgan's raid, with his force of irregular cavalry, in July, 1863, through Indiana and Ohio, was one of the most romantic episodes of the war. But it ended in his defeat and capture. While his gallant troopers rode to their destruction, the men who loved to swear by Arcturus and to gabble about the Pleiades showed the fiber to be expected of such people, and stayed snug in their beds.

But neither their own lack of hardihood nor the disasters of their Southern friends could dampen their peculiar ardor. Their hero was Vallandigham. That redoubtable person had fixed his headquarters in Canada, whence he directed his partisans in their vain attempt to elect him Governor of Ohio. Their next move was to honor him with the office of Supreme Commander of the Sons of Liberty, and now Vallandigham resolved to win the martyr's crown in very fact. In June, 1864, he prepared for the dramatic effect by carefully advertising his intention and came home. But to his great disappointment Lincoln ignored him, and the dramatic martyrdom which he had planned did not come off.

There still existed the possibility of a great uprising, and to that end arrangements were made with Southern agents in Canada. Confederate soldiers, picked men, made their way in disguise to Chicago. There the worshipers of Arcturus were to join them in a mighty multitude; the Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas in Chicago were to be liberated; around that core of veterans, the hosts of the Pleiades were to rally. All this was to coincide with the assembling at Chicago of the Democratic national convention, in which Vallandigham was to appear. The organizers of the conspiracy dreamed that the two events might coalesce; that the convention might be stampeded by their uprising; that a great part, if not the whole, of the convention would endorse the establishment of a Northwestern Confederacy.

Alas for him who builds on the frame of mind that delights in cheap rhetoric while Rome is afire! At the moment of hazard, the Sons of Liberty showed the white feather, were full of specious words, would not act. The Confederate soldiers, indignant at this second betrayal, had to make their escape from the country.

It must not be supposed that this Democratic national convention was made up altogether of Secessionists. The peace party was still, as in the previous year, a strange complex, a mixture of all sorts and conditions. Its cohesion was not so much due to its love of peace as to its dislike of Lincoln and its hatred of his party. Vallandigham was a member of the committee on resolutions. The permanent chairman was Governor Seymour of New York. The Convention was called to order by August Belmont, a foreigner by birth, the American representative of the Rothschilds. He was the head and front of that body of Northern capital which had so long financed the South and which had always opposed the war. In opening the Convention he said: "Four years of misrule by a sectional, fanatical, and corrupt party have brought our country to the verge of ruin." In the platform Lincoln was accused of a list of crimes which it had become the habit of the peace party to charge against him. His administration was described as "four years of failure," and McClellan was nominated for President.

The Republican managers called a convention at Baltimore in June, 1864, with a view to organizing a composite Union Party in which the War Democrats were to participate. Their plan was successful. The second place on the Union ticket was accepted by a War Democrat, Andrew Johnson, of Tennessee. Lincoln was renominated, though not without opposition, and he was so keenly aware that he was not the unanimous choice of the Union Party that he permitted the fact to appear in a public utterance soon afterward. "I do not allow myself," he said, in addressing a delegation of the National Union League, "to suppose that either the Convention or the League have concluded to decide that I am either the greatest or the best man in America, but rather they have concluded it is not best to swap horses while crossing the river, and have further concluded that I am not so poor a horse that they might not make a botch of it in trying to swap."

But the Union Party was so far from being a unit that during the summer factional quarrels developed within its ranks. All the elements that were unfriendly to Lincoln took heart from a dispute betweenthe President and Congress with regard to reconstruction in Louisiana, over a large part of which Federal troops had established a civil government on the President's authority. As an incident in the history of reconstruction, this whole matter has its place in another volume.1 But it also has a place in the history of the presidential campaign of 1864. Lincoln's plan of reconstruction was obnoxious to the Radicals in Congress inasmuch as it did not definitely abolish slavery in Louisiana, although it required the new Government to give its adherence to the Emancipation Proclamation. Congress passed a bill taking reconstruction out of the President's hands and definitely requiring the reconstructed States to abolish slavery. Lincoln took the position that Congress had no power over slavery in the States. When his Proclamation was thrown in his teeth, he replied, "I conceive that I may in an emergency do things on military grounds which cannot be done constitutionally by Congress." Incidentally there was a further disagreement between the President and the Radicals over negro suffrage. Though neither scheme provided for it, Lincoln would extend it, if at all, only to the exceptional negroes, while the Radicals were ready for a sweeping extension. But Lincoln refused to sign their bill and it lapsed. Thereupon Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Henry Winter Davis of Maryland issued a savage denunciation of Lincoln which has been known ever since as the "Wade-Davis Manifesto".

There was a faction in the Union Party which we may justly name the Vindictives. The "Manifesto" gave them a rallying cry. At a conference in New York they decided to compel the retirement of Lincoln and the nomination of some other candidate. For this purpose a new convention was to be called at Cincinnati in September. In the ranks of the Vindictives at this time was the impetuous editor of the "New York Tribune", Horace Greeley. His presence there calls for some explanation. Perhaps the most singular figure of the time, he was one of the most irresponsible and yet, through his paper, one of the most influential. He had a trick of phrase which, somehow, made him appear oracular to the plain people, especially in the rural districts—the very people on whom Lincoln relied for a large part of his support. Greeley knew his power, and his mind was not large enough to carry the knowledge well. Furthermore, his was the sort of nature that relates itself to life above all through the sensibilities. Kipling speaks scornfully of people who if their "own front door is shut will swear the world is warm." They are relations in the full blood of Horace Greeley.

In July, when the breach between the President and the Vindictives was just beginning to be evident, Greeley was pursuing an adventure of his own. Among the least sensible minor incidents of the war were a number of fantastic attempts of private persons to negotiate peace. With one exception they had no historic importance. The exception is a negotiation carried on by Greeley, which seems to have been the ultimate cause of his alliance with the Vindictives.

In the middle of July, 1864, gold was selling in New York at 285. There was distress and discontent throughout the country. The horrible slaughter of the Wilderness, still fresh in everybody's mind, had put the whole Union Party into mourning. The impressionable Greeley became frantic for peace peace at any price. At the psychological moment word was conveyed to him that two persons in Canada held authority from the Confederacy to enter into negotiations for peace. Greeley wrote to Lincoln demanding negotiations because "our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country longs for peace, shudders at the prospect of fresh conscriptions, of further wholesale devastations, and of new rivers of human blood."

Lincoln consented to a negotiation but stipulated that Greeley himself should become responsible for its conduct. Though this was not what Greeley wanted for his type always prefers to tell others what to do—he sullenly accepted. He proceeded to Niagara to meet the reputed commissioners of the Confederacy. The details of the futile conference do not concern us. The Confederate agents were not empowered to treat for peace—at least not on any terms that would be considered at Washington. Their real purpose was far subtler. Appreciating the delicate balance in Northern politics, they aimed at making it appear that Lincoln was begging for terms. Lincoln, who foresaw this possible turn of events, had expressly limited Greeley to negotiations for "the integrity of the whole Union and the abandonment of slavery." Greeley chose to believe that these instructions, and not the subtlety of the Confederate agents and his own impulsiveness, were the cause of the false position in which the agents now placed him. They published an account of the episode, thus effecting an exposure which led to sharp attacks upon Greeley by the Northern press. In the bitterness of his mortification Greeley then went from one extreme to the other and joined the Vindictives.

Less than three weeks after the conference at Niagara, the "Wade-Davis Manifesto" appeared. It was communicated to the country through the columns of Greeley's paper on the 5th of August. Greeley, who so short a time before was for peace at any price, went the whole length of reaction by proclaiming that "Mr. Lincoln is already beaten.... We must have another ticket to save us from utter overthrow. If we had such a ticket as could be made by naming Grant, Butler, or Sherman for President and Farragut for Vice, we could make a fight yet."

At about this same time the chairman of the Republican national committee, who was a Lincoln man, wrote to the President that the situation was desperate. Lincoln himself is known to have made a private memorandum containing the words, "It seems extremely probable that this Administration will not be reelected." On the 1st of September, 1864, with three presidential candidates in the field, Northern politics were bewildering, and the country was shrouded in the deepest gloom. The Wilderness campaign, after slaughter unparalleled, had not in the popular mind achieved results. Sherman, in Georgia, though his losses were not as terrible as Grant's, had not yet done anything to lighten the gloom. Not even Farragut's victory in Mobile Bay, in August, far-reaching as it proved to be, reassured the North. A bitter cry for peace went up even from lovers of the Union whose hearts had failed.

Meanwhile, the brilliant strategist in Georgia was pressing his drive for political as well as for military effect. To rouse those Unionists who had lost heart was part of his purpose when he hurled his columns against Atlanta, from which Hood was driven in one of the most disastrous of Confederate defeats. On the 3rd of September Lincoln issued a proclamation appointing a day of thanksgiving for these great victories of Sherman and Farragut.

On that day, it would seem, the tide turned in Northern politics. Some historians are content with Atlanta as the explanation of all that followed; but there are three separate events of importance that now occurred as incidents in the complicated situation. In the first place, three weeks later the radical opposition had collapsed; the plan for a new convention was abandoned; the Vindictive leaders came out in support of Lincoln. Almost simultaneously occurred the remaining two surprising events. Fremont withdrew from his candidacy in order to do his "part toward preventing the election of the Democratic candidate." And Lincoln asked for the resignation of a member of his Cabinet, Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair, who was the especial enemy of the Vindictives.

The official biographers of Lincoln2 keep these three events separate. They hold that Blair's removal was wholly Lincoln's idea, and that from chivalrous reasons he would not abandon his friend as long as he seemed to be losing the game. The historian Rhodes writes confidently of a bargain with Fremont, holding that Blair was removed to terminate a quarrel with Fremont which dated back even to his own removal in 1861. A possible third theory turns upon Chase, whose hostility to Blair was quite equal to that of the illbalanced Fremont. It had been stimulated the previous winter by a fierce arraignment of Chase made by Blair's brother in Congress, in which Chase was bluntly accused of fraud and of making money, or allowing his friends to make money, through illicit trade in cotton. And Chase was a man of might among the Vindictives. The intrigue, however, never comes to the foreground in history, but lurks in the background thick with shadows. Once or twice among those shadows we seem to catch a glimpse of the figure of Thurlow Weed, the master-politician of the time. Taking one thing with another, we may risk the guess that somehow the two radical groups which were both relentless against Blair were led to pool their issues, and that Blair's removal was the price Lincoln paid not to one faction of radicals but to the whole unmerciful crowd.

Whatever complex of purposes lay back of the triple coincidence, the latter part of September saw a general reunion of the factions within the Union Party, followed by a swift recovery of strength. When the election came, Lincoln received an electoral vote of 212 against 21, and a popular vote of 2,330,552 against 1,835,985.

The inevitable question arises as to what was the real cause of this success. It is safe to say that the political campaign contained some adroit strategy; that Sherman was without doubt an enormous factor; that the Democrats made numerous blunders; and that the secret societies had an effect other than they intended. However, the real clue seems to be found in one sentence from a letter written by Lowell to Motley when the outlook for his party was darkest: "The mercantile classes are longing for peace, but I believe that the people are more firm than ever." Of the great, silent mass of the people, the true temper seems to be struck off in a popular poem of the time, written in response to one of the calls for more troops, a poem with refrains built on the model of this couplet:

"We're coming from the hillside, we're coming from the shore, We're coming, Father Abraham, six hundred thousand more."

1Walter L. Fleming, The Sequel of Appomattox. In The Chronicles of America.

2His private secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay.

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