Lincoln’s Blind Memorandum of August 23, 1864

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On August 23, 1864, Abraham Lincoln met with his cabinet. He circulated amongst his ministers a folded piece of paper, and asked them to sign it without looking at its contents. They did (as the LOC website is down until tomorrow, the image will appear here then).

Inside, one would have found the following words:

Executive Mansion
Washington, Aug. 23, 1864.
This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. 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 can not possibly save it afterwards.

Coming just days after Lincoln had set aside suggestions that he abandon emancipation in the Confederacy as a war aim, this memorandum suggests that the president did not think his chances for reelection were very good.

Here one can read what Matthew Pinsker says about the document, or you can watch him here.

Allen Guelzo offers his take here:

13 thoughts on “Lincoln’s Blind Memorandum of August 23, 1864

  1. Donald R. Shaffer August 23, 2014 / 3:54 pm

    I have long wondered what would have occurred if Lincoln had been forced to implement this memorandum. It is probably a good thing he didn’t since he would have had to deal with George McClellan. Obviously, by that time there were bad feelings between the men, especially on McClellan’s side. And, of course, the significant policy differences between the men especially on emancipation.

  2. James F. Epperson August 23, 2014 / 4:16 pm

    Given that the new President would not take office until March 4, I’m not sure Mac’s election would have meant much. There almost surely would have been an all-out effort to finish things before then, or at least get to the point that even Mac could not halt the end from coming. Of course, Mac’s election would have had implications for emancipation.

    • bdhamp August 23, 2014 / 8:47 pm

      I no longer believe Lincoln’s thoughts here refer simply to a military victory, which is the standard implication that seems to go with his fears about McClellan. If that is all he meant, then you’re correct that it wouldn’t mean a great deal.

      But your last sentence gets to the heart of it. It would have meant quite a bit in terms of reconstruction, particularly for a few million folks with black skin. The piece Brooks posted the other day about the meeting between Douglass and Lincoln speaks to this point. His commitment to emancipation in the face of what he believed to be likely electoral defeat does as well. He had greater concerns than a the end of a fight between armies. By this point in the war, Lincoln had gone through that change many of us point to when discussing the evolution of Lincoln’s thought on both slavery and the rights of blacks as full members of the race of free people. He seems to have been fully cognizant of what McClellan’s election would mean for that, and he set about working to make it impossible event to attempt to return to the status quo antebellum.

    • Al Mackey August 23, 2014 / 9:04 pm

      With a McClellan victory, what does that portend for the rest of the Republican ticket? Does he have the coattails to bring in a Democrat majority in Congress? If so, what if they cut off funding for the war?

  3. Rosemary August 23, 2014 / 6:36 pm

    How could he have done it after losing the election, had he indeed lost, when he couldn’t do it prior to the election? Can’t you see him at a press conference being asked if he had a Secret Plan? Poor guy.
    Maybe he wrote the memo out of sheer frustration and having to do Something, take some kind of action — a battle in writing, if you will — to keep momentum going.
    He was not one to give up, thank God.

  4. Stefan Jovanovich August 24, 2014 / 7:07 am

    How could Lincoln and his cabinet have believed Thurlow Weed and Henry Raymond’s opinions about the coming election? Lincoln knew New York was, by far, his weakest constituency; after the draft riots he could hardly have thought otherwise. Raymond had lost out to Morgan, and no one in New York State politics had listened to Weed after Fillmore became President. We can’t doubt the truth of the saga of the memorandum, but we can question whether the pessimism of what Lincoln wrote was the political reality at that time. Nicolay complains in his diary “Everything is darkness and doubt and discouragement, Our men see giants in the airy and unsubstantial shadows of the opposition, and are about to surrender without a fight.” He was, as he often did, writing about Lincoln’s own moody perception of events, not events themselves. Vallandigham’s platform had sabotaged McClellan’s chances from the beginning, and Freeman’s third-party candidacy allowed Lincoln to appear, as he had in 1860, as the “moderate” Republican. Thanks to the War Democrats and Grant’s popularity, Lincoln’s National Union Party even carried New York. The conventional story – i.e. the capture of Atlanta changed certain electoral defeat to victory – does not fit the facts. The Northern public was a great deal more steadfast; that is how Lincoln won in a popular landslide (55%-45%) and won 90% of the electoral votes..

    • Nancy Winkler August 25, 2014 / 6:02 am

      New York City was in the hands of the Democratic-party-controlled Tammany organization, so New York State’s vote was uncertain. “Freeman,” I think you mean Fremont, he could have been a spoiler and diverted Republican votes. So Lincoln had cause to worry. I think what elected him was the soldier vote.

      • Stefan Jovanovich August 25, 2014 / 8:01 am

        Thx, Nancy; fat thumb, Fremont, not Freeman. It is hard to see how, by late August, 1864 anyone at the White House could have seen Fremont as a spoiler. He and his Radical Republicans (aka Missouri soreheads) had already worked out the deal with Lincoln to remove Montgomery Blair as Postmaster and give them control of the patronage. The election returns confirm this; Missouri went for Lincoln 70-30, a result that even William Tweed might have round embarrassing. As you note, New York was very much in doubt (Lincoln only won by 7,000 votes). My point was simply that neither Raymond nor Weed was in a position to gauge the strength of the Republicans since they had no connections with anyone upstate and were as blinkered as Manhattanites usually are about national politics.

  5. Nancy Winkler August 25, 2014 / 5:41 am

    I’m glad Lincoln didn’t sic McClellan on Grant!

    • Noma August 25, 2014 / 11:56 am

      Interestingly, it seems that Grant had a lot of sympathy for McClellan. On board a ship on the China Sea, some years after the war, Grant expressed his feelings about McClellan…

      “When I took command of the army,” said General Grant, “on one occasion, “I had a dream that I tried to realize – to reunite and recreate the whole army. I talked it over with Sherman. Sherman and I knew so many fine, brave officers. We knew them in West Point and the army. We had the sympathy of former comradeship. Neither Sherman nor I had been in any way concerned in Eastern troubles, and we knew that there were no better soldiers in the army than some of those who were under a cloud with Mr. Stanton. Then I wanted to make the war as national as possible, to bring in all parties. I was anxious especially to conciliate and recognize the Democratic element. The country belonged as well to the Democrats as to us, and I did not believe in a Republican war. I felt that we needed every musket and every sword to put down the rebellion. So when I came East I came prepared and anxious to assign McClellan, Buell, and others to command. I had confidence in their ability and loyalty, confidence which notwithstanding our differences in politics, has never faltered. But I was disappointed.

      The question was asked as to whether Lincoln’s administration prevented General Grant from carrying out this purpose. “Not at all,” said the General, “the difficulties were not with the administration. The generals were not in a humor to be conciliated. I soon saw my plan was not feasible, and gave it up. I was very sorry, as I should have liked to have had McClellan and Buell, and others I could name, in important commands.

      “In looking back at the war,” said the General, “it seems most unfortunate both for themselves and the country that these officers should not have made the place in the war which their abilities would have commanded, and that they should not have rendered their country the service which every soldier is proud to do. I have always regretted that. We had work for everybody during the war, for those especially who knew the business. What interfered with our officers more than anything else was allowing themselves a political bias. That is fatal to a soldier. War and politics are so different…”

      [John Russell Young – Around the World with General Grant, Vol. 2 – p. 445]

      • John Foskett August 25, 2014 / 1:27 pm

        I read it differently:

        ““Not at all,” said the General, “the difficulties were not with the administration…. What interfered with our officers more than anything else was allowing themselves a political bias. That is fatal to a soldier. War and politics are so different.”

        In other words, McClellan, Buell, et al. may have had skills which could have assisted in the war effort but they screwed it up by doing what Grant never did: arrogating to themselves the right to politicize how the war would be fought.

  6. Sandi Saunders September 3, 2014 / 10:20 am

    Question? Would Lincoln have been elected the first time if there had not been a 4-way split? Do you think more candidates gets us a better result or worse? Just curious.

    • Brooks D. Simpson September 3, 2014 / 12:17 pm

      Lincoln would still have carried a majority in the electoral college even if the three other candidates had become one candidate.

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