It was a time when many in the shattered country believed in strong constitutional states’ rights. The federal government had no right to regulate a legal institution such as slavery and states had a right to secede from the Union. The divisive state of affairs was buttressed by a vision held dear by many in the Southern planter class, they wanted to establish a cotton empire based on slavery. With agitation by abolitionists adding to explosive political mix, the nation splintered apart upon Lincoln’s election as president in the autumn of 1860. In 1864, the country remained engulfed in the horrific civil war that had begun in the spring of 1861.
In October 1864, President Abraham Lincoln issued proclamation #118 establishing the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving. When that long ago Thanksgiving Day arrived, the embattled president was extremely thankful for a large number of recent occurrences. He had won reelection as president in the election held on November 8, 1864. He won 55% of the popular vote and 90% of the electoral vote in the 25 states participating in the election. There were a number of states that did not allow a vote, those under Confederate control.
Throughout the war, Lincoln had remained popular with the Union troops. His victory was due in part to the votes cast by soldiers and their influence on the folks back home. The biggest factor, however, was the growing list of recent military successes that had altered the course of the war. It began when Admiral Farragut captured Mobile Bay in August. The North became ecstatic when Gen. Sherman announced the capture of Atlanta in early September. This good news was followed by more, Gen. Sheridan completely smashed the Confederate forces in the vexing Shenandoah Valley in October.
Having learned the hard way that wars cannot be won in Washington, Lincoln, with Congress in agreement, had appointed Gen. U.S. Grant commander-in-chief of all Union armies the previous March. Grant, having no desire to become ensnared in the political intrigues of Washington, established his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac in Virginia. There he completed the planning and logistical arrangements for coordinated attacks by Union forces on all fronts.
It was a good plan that did not quite work out. In May, The Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River. It was promptly attacked by Confederate forces under Gen. Lee in what would become known as the battle of the Wilderness. Because Lee had a knack for being able to anticipate the opposing commander’s movements, the Wilderness fighting cost Grant’s army over 17,000 casualties. The armies then became locked in almost constant combat as the Army of the Potomac slowly pushed toward Richmond. By the end of June, Grant had done what no previous Union commander had been able to accomplish. He had pinned down Lee’s army in a massive siege line extending around Petersburg and Richmond.
Despite the Union’s horrendous number of casualties and territorial gains, the Confederacy had not been defeated. Although Lee’s army was immobilized, Grant’s other multipronged offensives had been stalemated short of their objectives. There were political repercussions to the appalling death toll and apparent military stalemate in a North rapidly tiring of war. By mid-summer, it appeared certain that Lincoln was going to be defeated in his bid for reelection. Lincoln’s dire political situation suddenly reversed itself as the good news from the battle fronts started rolling in. By Thanksgiving 1864, it was virtually certain that Lincoln’s forces would win the Civil War.