(The following is a guest post by Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.)
Could George B. McClellan have become the seventeenth President of the United States? It certainly appeared to be a possibility as Abraham Lincoln assessed the military and political landscape of the United States in the summer of 1864.
President Lincoln understood that his chances of reelection in November hinged on military success in a war now in its fourth year. By the summer of 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had settled in for a prolonged siege against the Confederates near Petersburg, Va., and Gen. William T. Sherman made slow progress toward Atlanta. Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early, meanwhile, had led his troops to the very gates of Washington, D.C. in July. The war effort seemed to have stalled for the Union, and the public blamed President Lincoln.
The political news for Lincoln was no brighter. Republican insider Thurlow Weed told Lincoln in mid-August 1864 that “his re-election was an impossibility.” Republican party chairman Henry J. Raymond expressed much the same sentiment to Lincoln on Aug. 22, urging him to consider sending a commission to meet with Confederate President Jefferson Davis to offer peace terms “on the sole condition of acknowledging the supremacy of the Constitution,” leaving the question of slavery to be resolved later.
“Everything is darkness and doubt and discouragement,” wrote Lincoln’s secretary, John G. Nicolay, in August 1864. “Our men see giants in the airy and unsubstantial shadows of the opposition, and are about to surrender without a fight.”
It was in this context that Abraham Lincoln wrote the following memorandum on 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. – A. Lincoln
Lincoln folded the memorandum and pasted it closed, so that the text inside could not be read. He took it to a cabinet meeting and instructed his cabinet members to sign the outside of the memo, sight unseen, which they did. Historians now refer to this document variously as the “Blind Memo” or “Blind Memorandum” because the cabinet signed it “blind.” In so doing the Lincoln administration pledged itself to accept the verdict of the people in November and to help save the Union should Lincoln not be re-elected.
As if on cue, Lincoln’s fortunes began to change. As expected, the Democrats nominated George B. McClellan for president on August 30 but saddled him with a “Copperhead” peace Democrat, Representative George H. Pendleton, as a running mate. The Democratic platform declared the war a failure and urged that “immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities,” which even McClellan could not fully support. Then General Sherman scored a tremendous victory when Atlanta fell to the Union on Sept. 2.
The brighter military outlook, expert political maneuvering by Lincoln and his reinvigorated party (running in 1864 as the National Union Party), and the negatives associated with McClellan and the Democrats spelled victory at the polls for the Republicans. Safely re-elected, Lincoln brought the memorandum with him to the next cabinet meeting on November 11. He finally read its contents to the cabinet, reminding them it was written “when as yet we had no adversary, and seemed to have no friends.”
On its 150th anniversary, the “blind memorandum” reminds us that historical outcomes we may take for granted in hindsight (like Lincoln’s re-election in 1864) do not always appear so certain at the time.
Sources: Abraham Lincoln Papers and John G. Nicolay Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, eds., “Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay”; John C. Waugh, “Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency.”