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[Detail] Lincoln Centennial Association

1864-1865: Lincoln’s Reelection, Union Victory, and the Assassination

Early in 1864, President Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as commander of all Union forces. General Grant, with agreement of the president and the support of other generals, most notably William Tecumseh Sherman, took an aggressive approach to the war, attacking the Confederate forces on numerous fronts. Casualties on both sides were extremely high. In the midst of the fierce fighting, the nation prepared for a presidential election. Although some believed he could not be reelected, President Lincoln was nominated—but this time by a new party, the National Union Party, which was made up of Republicans and so-called War Democrats. The Democrats (or Peace Democrats) nominated former Union general George B. McClellan

Given what you know about the political situation of the time, what do you think each party’s platform was? Jot down some ideas, and then check them against the following document: “The Platforms. Baltimore. Chicago.” How accurate were your predictions? Search the collection to find out about the campaign of 1864. What arguments were made by the two sides?

The states that had seceded did not participate in the election, and Lincoln was easily reelected. Following his reelection, Lincoln decided to push for passage of a constitutional amendment permanently abolishing slavery in the United States. Such an amendment had passed the Senate in 1864, but had failed in the House. On January 31, 1865, however, the president’s efforts succeeded, and the amendment passed the House. It would not become part of the constitution until after his death.

By the time Lincoln took the oath of office for his second term in March, Union victory seemed assured. His second inaugural address, another of his notable speeches, reminded listeners of the reasons the war had been fought and called on the nation not to seek revenge against the South:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Second inaugural address of the late President Lincoln.

Read Lincoln’s address and answer the questions that follow:

  • Why do you think Lincoln’s address was so brief?
  • How did he characterize the conflict between North and South? Do you agree with this characterization?
  • How is Lincoln’s call to “bind up the nation’s wounds”consistent with his character as you understand it?
  • The Veterans Administration chose a quotation from Lincoln’s speech as its mission statement. What part of the speech do you think they chose? Why?

On April 9, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate forces, surrendered, ending the Civil War. Just days later, President Lincoln was assassinated while attending the theater. The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, conspired with several others to kill the President, Vice President (the person assigned to kill Vice President Johnson did not make an attempt on his life), and Secretary of State William Seward (who was shot but survived). The aim of the Southern sympathizers who hatched the plot was to create chaos so the government could be overthrown. Booth was killed when Union soldiers tried to apprehend him. Eight other conspirators were tried and convicted; four were executed.

Detailed plans for the president’s funeral were developed. Official services were held in Washington, but many other cities had ceremonies at which citizens mourned their leader. Following the Washington services, Lincoln’s body traveled by train back to Springfield, Illinois.