President Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant chose to step up the war in 1864 after realizing that limited campaigns against Confederate forces were having little effect. Both knew that the war had to end quickly if the Union were to be restored. Grant therefore ordered his close friend and fellow general William Tecumseh Sherman to take a small force through the heart of the Deep South. That summer, Sherman embarked on his now-famous March to the Sea, defeated Confederate troops protecting Atlanta, Georgia, and then besieged the city. When the citizens of Atlanta failed to surrender, Sherman burned the city and then marched on to Savannah. Along the way, he destroyed railroads, burned homes, razed crops, and generally looted and pillaged the entire countryside—one witness said a tornado could not have done more damage. Sherman arrived in Savannah that December and accepted the city’s surrender, then marched northward to South Carolina.
Prior to 1864, both Union and Confederate commanders had waged a rather limited war, with the armies usually fighting only each other, without inflicting damages on innocent civilians or private property. Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman realized, however, that they would have to use a new strategy to end the war, because it was the support of these very same civilians that was keeping the war going in the South. Only when Southern civilians demanded an end to the war would the Confederacy lose its will to fight. As a result, Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman decided to open up a total war in which no one was innocent and private property was fair game.
As the fighting dragged on into late 1864, more and more pressure fell on Lincoln to end the war. He came under fire from a growing number of Peace Democrats who wanted to strike a deal with the South. Commonly referred to as “Copperheads,” after the poisonous snake, these Peace Democrats were particularly numerous in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, where there were many Confederate sympathizers. They believed that Lincoln and his generals had shown that they were incapable of restoring the Union, and many were also angry that Lincoln had made the war about slavery and emancipation. From the other side, Radical Republicans also attacked Lincoln, claiming that he was not harsh enough on the South.
Bitterness and uncertainty clouded the election of 1864 . Despite opposition from the radicals, the Republican Party lukewarmly nominated Lincoln for a second term. In a surprise move, Lincoln chose as his running mate Democrat Andrew Johnson from the reconquered state of Tennessee, hoping that Johnson would win him votes from prowar Democrats in the North. Together they campaigned on a platform for the South’s unconditional surrender. Peace Democrats nominated Lincoln’s old foe General George McClellan, who wanted peace negotiations and settlement. In the end, Lincoln managed to win 55 percent of the popular vote.
The election of 1864 was crucial because its outcome would determine the entire direction of the war: if Lincoln won, the war would be fought until the South had surrendered unconditionally, but if McClellan won, there would almost surely be a settlement. The election, therefore, was also the Confederacy’s last hope for survival. Although Lincoln believed he would lose—even though the Union was finally winning, he thought that most Northerners were against continuation of the war—his reelection ultimately provided a clear mandate to demand unconditional surrender.
The South, meanwhile, was spiraling into turmoil. The Union naval blockade, Sherman’s campaign in Georgia, lack of assistance from Britain, worsening class conflicts, and the collapse of the Southern economy were taking their toll. Thousands were deserting the army, thousands more were going hungry at home, and thousands of slaves were fleeing to Union lines. President Jefferson Davis tried desperately to hold the Confederate government together, but none of the states would cooperate. In the final month of the war, the Confederacy grew so desperate that it even began to offer slaves their freedom if they would enlist in the Confederate army.