During the last days of August 1864, leading Republican Party figures in New York City attended a meeting where they discussed whether they might encourage Abraham Lincoln to resign as their party's presidential candidate in the approaching election. Most of them had supported the Republican in 1860, and some, such as David Dudley Field, had promoted his nomination at the tumultuous Chicago convention of that year.
Several days earlier many of these men, as members of the national committee of the Republican Party, had visited the president in Washington. Their “darkness doubt and discouragement” produced John George Nicolay's complaint that “they have got a stampede on that is about to swamp everything.” Writing to his fiancée, he described their retreat. Referring to the rout of Union troops in the first major battle of the war, he saw his party experiencing “almost the condition of a disastrous panic– a sort of political Bull Run.” Military and political events from March through July 1864 had squashed the party leaders’ faith. They now doubted that the president and his generals had the ability to lead the country in wartime and to end slavery throughout the United States.
Costly military advances had helped bring on the Republicans’ despair. During the spring and summer, Lieutenant General Grant had sent the Union armies into a series of battles that had ended in stalemate near Petersburg, Virginia, where the Confederate Army had entrenched itself. Prior to that siege, the ocean of blood spilled during the Battle of the Wilderness in May, that of Spotsylvania Court House, and finally in June during the slaughter at Cold Harbor spread dismay among residents of the White House. The distressing outcomes of these engagements so afflicted Mary Lincoln, the president's staunchest supporter, that she adopted the disparaging term with which Confederate newspapers had labeled General Grant during the Virginia battles of earlier that spring. She complained that the Union commander was causing his soldiers to be butchered.
In July, the Union army experienced another military embarrassment. To draw soldiers from Grant's siege of Petersburg, General Lee had ordered Lieutenant General Jubal Early to march his troops northward through the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland.