Thus on August 23, 1864, Lincoln drafted a short memorandum that he asked his cabinet to sign without reading. It read:
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 grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.
In other words Lincoln vowed to pursue the goal of victory for as long as he was president — in those days the new president was inaugurated in March — and he expected his Cabinet to support him.
Fortunately, three military events changed the electoral landscape, resulting in Lincoln’s reelection. The first, Farragut’s capture of Mobile, had occurred during the summer, but its importance was not recognized until later when the second event took place: Sherman’s seizure of Atlanta on September 2. The trifecta was completed in October when Phil Sheridan routed Jubal Early at Cedar Creek, driving the Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley for the last time.
It is clear that the Confederates were counting on Lincoln’s electoral defeat. As the Charleston Monitor editorialized, McClellan’s election on a peace platform “must lead to peace and our independence. [provided] that for the next two months we hold our own and prevent military success by our foes.” But what would have happened had Lincoln not been reelected?
The fact is that the determination that Lincoln expressed in the “blind memo” most likely would have resulted in Union victory even had he not been reelected. Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1865. Petersburg fell less than a month later on April 2nd. Lee surrendered at Appomattox a week later, followed by Joseph Johnston’s capitulation to Sherman at Durham Station, North Carolina on April 18. It seems clear that not even McClellan’s election would have changed the final outcome.
George Bush should take inspiration from Lincoln’s example during the bleak days of August, 1864. Lincoln understood that he was president until his successor was inaugurated. And he understood that his obligation was to pursue victory without regard to the likely policies of his successor. The blind memo makes it clear that Lincoln didn’t fret about “tying the hands” of McClellan. Let us hope that President Bush understands his obligations until January 20 in the same way that Lincoln understood his. The recent status of force agreement is an indication that he does. But President Bush should also keep the pressure up on other fronts. At a minimum, this means continuing the previously secret operations against al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations that were leaked to the press in an apparent attempt to make it more difficult for the president to carry out his constitutional responsibilities.
— Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He served 30 years in the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserve, including service in Vietnam as an infantry platoon commander in 1968-69. He is the editor of Orbis.