Winchester’s merchants were wise in a way that the Democratic Party was not in 1864. When the circumstances of the war changed, the merchants changed with them. The politicians, on the other hand, refused to change, even refused to acknowledge that there had even been a change. The Democrats nominated George McClellan, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac, as their presidential candidate that year, and although McClellan himself repudiated the central plank in the Democratic Party’s platform, that of ending the war with a negotiated peace between the North and the South, Abraham Lincoln knew better. In a memorandum dated 23 August 1864, Lincoln noted that his re-election was unlikely and that he would have to do his utmost to save the Union between Election Day and the presidential inauguration in March, because McClellan would have “…secured his election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.”
Lincoln was right; McClellan would have to make peace, whether he wanted to or not. The summer of 1864 was the nadir of American political and military history. The people of the North wanted an end to the never-ending violence that seemed to accomplish nothing and the Democrats were willing to give the electorate that peace if it gave them the White House. In the field, Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland campaign, which saw some the most prolonged and ferocious fighting in the history of warfare up to that time, had come to a bloody halt in the trenches outside of Petersburg, Virginia. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Atlanta campaign was stuck outside the campaign’s eponymous objective. In the West, the Red River campaign, possibly the least explainable military campaign in American military history, ended ingloriously with the engineers having to dam up the Red River so that there would be enough water to float the rest of the army back down the river to its starting point. Politically, Lincoln faced a growing sense of panic in the ranks of his own party; many Republican leaders wanted to hold another convention and nominate someone, anyone, else for President. The conventional wisdom of the day was that Lincoln not only would not win, he could not possibly win.
And then everything changed. On 5 August 1864 Rear Admiral David Farragut ordered his fleet to “…damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead…” and charge through the minefields that protected Mobile Bay to smash the Rebel fleet inside, thereby closing the South’s last major port on the Gulf of Mexico. Less than a month later, Sherman finally forced John Bell Hood’s army out of Atlanta. Atlanta was the rail hub of the South and a major industrial center; the loss of the city meant that food, munitions, and other supplies from the Deep South could no longer reach Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s army would now have to make do with what their commissary corps could find in Virginia and the Carolinas.
Disaster then, as it is wont to do, followed on disaster. Philip Sheridan, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, received orders from Grant to destroy Lee’s supply base in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley once and for all. Sheridan, a five foot five Irishman with a six foot seven chip on his shoulder when it came to Southern aristocrats—he had been suspended from West Point for a year following a fight with the scion of such a family—went about his incendiary duties with an pyromaniac’s glee, turning the once verdant Shenandoah Valley into a Dixieland version of Mordor. When a Confederate army surprised and defeated his army early one morning at Cedar Creek, Sheridan single-handedly turned his routed army around and sent them smashing back into the Confederate lines. The Rebel army cracked under the unexpected onslaught, retreating out of the Shenandoah Valley for the last time. Winchester would not change hands again.
What was clearly obvious to the soldiers soon became obvious to the war-weary citizens of the North; the never-ending war was, in fact, coming to an end, and coming to an end without having to tear the nation in half. The national mood lightened, as did the determination to see the thing through, and support for Lincoln began to grow.
And through it all, the Democrats’ message did not change: the war was a disaster, the country wanted peace, emancipation was a mistake, and Lincoln was an illiterate dictatorial buffoon unworthy of the high office he held. They repeated the party line over and over again, perhaps to reassure themselves, perhaps believing that if they said it often enough the voters would ignore what they read in the newspapers and vote to end a war the North was now clearly winning. But whatever the reason, the party leadership and the Democratic press insisted that nothing had changed, that their party’s platform was still relevant, that it was still July 1864, even though the calendar and the war and the electorate had moved on.
The Democrats lost the 1864 election; in fact, they wouldn’t win another presidential election until 1884, and the two noncontiguous terms of Grover Cleveland were the only two Democratic administrations between 1868 and 1912; and a generation of Republican politicians rose to power and prominence by reminding Union veterans that they ought to vote as they shot, and that the Democratic Party, the party that wanted to end emancipation and divide the Union, was now the favored political party of their erstwhile enemies. There isn’t much anyone can learn from this, I suppose, except that denial, whether we’re talking the state or the river, can be a dangerous place for people with a blind spot.