Four years ago the President was elected by a plurality in an election that has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many voters and a country sharply divided by the results. Almost his entire first term has been overshadowed by war and serious threats to the security of the nation. Casualties among the armed forces have been higher than expected with no end in sight, but the military remains behind the President and both officers and enlisted men are expected to back him at the polls. He has been castigated by the popular Press and his political enemies as a buffoon and an intellectual light weight dominated and controlled by other powerful figures in his administration. The President’s national security measures to protect the nation are sharply condemned by civil libertarians and Democrats as gross violations of Constitutional liberties. Indeed thousands have been arrested and held without being charged with a crime or given an opportunity to post bail. The military successes, some of them quite spectacular, have been matched by failures to win a decisive victory over the insurgents. There is a widspread feeling that this is a war without end and that the hapless President has failed in his objectives. The national debt has nearly doubled and the budget deficit has never been higher. Relations with the European powers are at a low ebb with strong anti-American feeling in Britain, France, Belgium and at the Vatican. The French head of state has gone so far as to express his sympathy for the enemy with whom France once had a lucrative economic relationship. The President’s Democratic opponent in the fall election will be a certified war hero and an outspoken opponent of the war. The newpaper polls show that if the election were held in February, the Democratic candidate would become the next President of the United States. Most pundits believe that it will require a dramatic success in the war or some indication that real progress is being made for a change to occur in the President’s fortunes. The President does not believe this will happen and expects to lose the election in November. The name of the President is not George W. Bush, but Abraham Lincoln and it is the national election of 1864.
It is not my intention to compare the Great Emancipator to President Bush. Indeed, the two men share very little commonality in their backgrounds, except perhaps a tendency to be underestimated by their enemies and a certain moral courage that defines all great men. It is their circumstances in facing reelections 140 years apart that are so astonishingly similar. Through most of 1864 it is not expected that Lincoln will win reelection. His Democratic opponent is the popular George Brinton McClellen, a handsome 38-year-old former Union general and victor of Malvern Hill and Antietam. He is an aristocrat with the common touch and has far more personal charisma than John Kerry will ever have. McClellan believes that the war has been mismanaged by an adminstration full of ideologues led by the worst President in the country’s history. John Kerry, an aristocrat who pretends to have the common touch, has expressed similar convictions. Lincoln has suspended the right of habeas corpus since March 1862 and has jailed thousands of peace advocates and Confederate sympathizers throughout the North, including a Senator from Ohio who will be McClellan’s running mate in 1864. Newspapers have been shut down and their editors sent to prison for sedition, and a national security bureau headed by the sinister Lafayette Baker cracks down hard on organized dissent in Washington, New York and in the Midwest. The rulings of the Supreme Court and its Chief Justice Roger Taney are ignored by the administration. The Patriot Act of 2001 is pretty mild stuff by comparison, and Lafayette Baker makes John Ashcroft seem like a card-carrying member of the ACLU.
The battlefield losses in Virginia and Georgia that spring and summer are nothing short of horrendous with little to show for them. Robert E. Lee inflicts 55,000 casualties on Union forces in Virginia in a one month period between May 4 and June 3, 1864, an astonishing effort by the commander of an vastly outnumbered army that is largely barefoot, outfitted in rags and living on green corn. The South is living on hope as it has since the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861. At first, the hope was of military victory, a decisive success over northern forces that would demonstrate that the Confederacy was unconquerable. That hope was dashed at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, New Orleans and Antietam. Then the hope was for military intervention by Britain and France, which relied on Southern cotton to keep their economies afloat. The Emperor Napoleon III of France constantly urged British Prime Minister Palmerston to join with him in recognizing Confederate independence, since the pompous pipsqueak was too much of a moral coward to do it alone and risk American wrath. Britain, however, was determined to wait until the Confederacy had proved that it could sustain its independence. That hope of foreign recognition and aid was dashed forever on the slopes of Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. There is one hope left for the exhausted and starving Confederacy.
Much of the South has already been overrun by Union armies. The Mississippi and Tennessee River valleys as well as the cities and transportation centers of Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, Norfolk, Vicksburg and Chattanooga are in Union hands. There is one final hope for success and it rests in the defeat at the polls of Abraham Lincoln in the November election. To that end the Confederate army commanders, Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston, intend to kill and maim so many of the enemy that the Northern public will become utterly sickened by the war. They must also hold on to the Confederate manufacturing and political centers of Richmond and Atlanta, the heart of what is left of the Confederacy. The strategy almost succeeds, until it is thwarted by Jefferson Davis who replaces the plodding professional Joe Johnston with the reckless John Bell Hood. Hood spends the strength of his army in futile attacks on Sherman’s army before Atlanta and so weakens his command that Sherman is able to capture the city on the second day of September. Plummeting morale in the North is reversed as ultimate victory seems not just possible, but inevitable. Lincoln of course wins a second term in November with the votes of men in uniform proving to be the decisive factor in many of the key states.
Seven score years later another president faces a tough fight for reelection under similar conditions. On the surface there is little in common between the Confederate States of America and the terrorist fanatics of al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency except perhaps that both embody reactionary ideas. One came into existence to preserve the institution of human chattel slavery in the Western World, while the other emerged to expand the anti-modernist vision of fundamentalist Islam in the 21st century. Both found themselves at war with the government and people of the United States. The bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon generated remarkably similar reactions of national distress and patriotic fervor. Three years later the patriotic fervor had died down and the national distress remained. The insurgents in the Sunni triangle and the al Qaeda remnants are left with the same hope as that of a dying Confederacy. It is that a U.S. President dedicated to their destruction will be cast out of office and replaced by someone who appears to value peace more than victory. They may be wrong about Kerry as the South may have been wrong about McClellan, but the defeat of Bush is the one event that all of America’s enemies pray for every day. It remains to be seen if Allah will answer their prayers, but they will help Allah along by trying to kill and wound as many U.S. and allied troops and pro-American police and civilians as they are capable in the months ahead. Whether Bush will be pesented with his equivalent of the fall of Atlanta is problematical, but as with his rail-splitting Republican predecessor, he will have long, hard summer and fall campaign ahead.