On this day in 1865, William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops, having already made Georgia howl, took the city of Charleston, South Carolina. Given that, and also because it’s President’s Day, it might make sense to consider how close the cult of Abraham Lincoln — of which I am a member in good standing — came to never having been founded. And also, how much our collective memory of Lincoln actually owes to the field tactics, good timing, and daring of William Sherman.

I recently published an essay in the Times Literary Supplement, which doesn’t have much of an online presence, unfortunately, or I’d link to my work. Anyway, I reviewed two goods books: Adam Smith’s No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North and Jennifer Weber’s Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North. After reading those volumes, I was struck anew by how close Lincoln came to being remembered not as the nation’s greatest president — and no, I’m not trying to relitigate the bestest-president-evah dispute — but as the man who didn’t save the Union. The key was the 1864 election. And there’s an argument, albeit too simple and tenuous, to be made that the key to that contest was William Sherman.

In August 1864, Lincoln teetered at the edge of history’s dustbin. The war, which both Northerners and Southerners had believed would be short and glorious, dragged into its third year. The press likened U.S. Grant, Lincoln’s handpicked commanding general, to a butcher because of his bloody tactics in Virginia. Further south, Sherman’s siege of Atlanta made for lousy political theater. And on the home front, urban insurrections and catastrophic inflation deepened war fatigue. So, with the presidential election months away, Henry Raymond, editor of the New York Times and chair of the Republican Party, suggested removing Lincoln from the top of the ticket: “We need a change,” wrote Raymond. Although Lincoln quipped that it was “best not to swap horses when crossing streams,” he agreed that he would not win a second term. The president asked his cabinet to sign a document guaranteeing support for the presumptive incoming administration of his opponent, George McClellan.

Through August of 1864, McClellan, though as lame a candidate as he had been a general, seemed destined for victory. But then Sherman took Atlanta. At nearly the same time, the Democrats built a peace plank into their party platform, making themselves appear disloyal and foolish. Lincoln then pulled off the most presidential of moves: he made his administration synonymous with the nation. In November, he became the first president since Andy Jackson to win a second term, capturing all but 3 states for a 212-12 electoral landslide. Lincoln’s victory helped secure his legacy.

But, the Union’s prospects, though certainly brighter than they would have been under McClellan, rested in Grant’s and Sherman’s hands. Upon hearing the news of Atlanta’s fall, on September 2, 1864, Jeff Davis responded with bravado, offering portents of doom for Sherman and his men. Davis suggested, “the fate that befell the army of the French Empire in its retreat from Moscow will be re-enacted.” Grant apparently scoffed at this misplaced bluster, retorting: “Who is to furnish the snow for this Moscow retreat?” He later authorized Sherman to begin marching to the sea.

Which he did, first cutting a swath through Georgia — in the middle of December he offered Lincoln a “Christmas gift, the city of Savannah.” — and then, in February, turning his attention to South Carolina. If Georgia had been business, South Carolina, the birthplace of nullification and cradle of secession, was personal. “The truth is,” Sherman admitted at the time, “the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina.” By this date in 1865, Sherman’s men had done just that. Their work, though punitive, also served the Union’s war aims, demoralizing the South and buying time for Grant in Virginia.

Grant needed that time, because his army moved forward in fits and starts — when it moved forward at all. Lincoln, though, buoyed by Sherman’s successes and his own massive electoral victory, insisted that Congress pass the 13th Amendment in January and then, in February, categorically rejected the Confederacy’s peace overtures at Hampton Roads. Appomattox was not far off. And Ford’s Theater just a bit beyond that. So, as we remember Lincoln today, it would be just to recall also Charleston and Sherman, the man who helped secure the president’s reelection and the Union.