On election night, November 8, 1864, as the day’s ballots were being tallied, President Abraham Lincoln anxiously stayed by a telegraph at the War Office. Believing in certain defeat the previous August, his hopes were raised a little by September military victories, but by election time, he was still quite apprehensive.
In September, in despair and expecting defeat, the President wrote a secret memo of intent, stating that between November and the new President’s inauguration in March,1865, he would work with the new President elect and continue his utmost efforts to save the Union.
By August, 1864, incumbent Abraham Lincoln was extremely unpopular nationwide. Although 1863 Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg had lifted the North’s morale, it slid backward sharply in 1864. The Vicksburg hero, Grant, was now sharply attacked for appalling casualties in his stalemated Eastern campaign against Lee. General Sherman had driven the Confederates southward out of Tennessee. But, at Atlanta, his siege and attempted occupation of the city had been repulsed time after time. Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, had rebuffed Union peace offers with “The war will continue until the last of this generation dies in its tracks—until you acknowledge our right to self -government.” With Davis’ characteristic dishonesty, this meant that the Confederacy would never give up slavery.
Democratic Party hopes were very high for a Presidential victory. They claimed that, under Lincoln, every Constitutional right of the people had been violated. This referred partly to the military draft, started in 1863, and also to Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, when he deemed that local riots and insurrections called for it.
For its convention, the Party platform called for an immediate end to hostilities against the South. Basically, this would have recognized the Confederacy as an independent nation. All slaves newly freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, many of whom had followed advancing Union troops, would be subject again to slave status.
George McClellan was chosen as the 1864 Democratic Presidential nominee. He was quite young, only 37, popular with the troops, and enjoyed some degree of nationwide popularity. Originally, when Lincoln was about to offer him total Army command, he went out of his way on several occasions to show his contempt for the President. At the bloody battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg in 1862, McClellan won a technical victory against Lee in his Maryland invasion. But McClellan did not follow up in a pursuit of Lee into Virginia. Later, the Confederate general, Longstreet, admitted that his forces were thoroughly beaten and could have been vanquished by a McClellan advance.
On August 31, with hopes sky high, McClellan was nominated. He partially repudiated the anti-war plank of the Democratic platform, but everyone believed the War would end soon after his electoral victory. Desperate Republicans toyed with the idea of dumping Lincoln himself as the candidate. But, instead, they dumped his Vice Presidential partner, Hannibal Hamlin, and nominated a pro-Union Southerner, Democrat and slave owner, Andrew Johnson. They even changed the party name from Republican to Union.
But on August 31, almost coincident with McClellan’s nomination, events started to go against his candidacy and for the Union cause. Three events played a crucial role:
- Under the command of Admiral Farragut, the Union navy fought its way into Mobile Bay and seized the major port of Mobile. His cry of “Damn the torpedoes” became a Northern rallying point.
- In relentless fashion, Sherman tried to pierce the defenses of besieged Atlanta, first on one side, then another. Finally, on September 3, his piercing attack was successful and Atlanta was captured. No doubt, this capture, well publicized in Northern newspapers, was the most prominent of the three.
- Soon after, Union cavalry general Sheridan recaptured the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Besides its strategic and moral value, this area deprived Lee’s army of a prime source of food and supplies.
In those days, polling was still in its infancy. Lincoln could not yet appreciate how these three victories had convinced many Northerners that victory was indeed possible. As it turned out, they resulted in a significant victory for Lincoln and the Republicans. Only three states, New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky voted for McClellan. This meant that the Republicans had even carried slave states Maryland and Missouri. Despite McClellan’s supposed popularity among Union troops, they overwhelmingly supported Lincoln by 78%.
Some historians have said that Lincoln would have been justified in postponing the 1864 Presidential election. But he said later that this would have effectively given a victory to forces seeking to end the Union. There seems some parallel to Winston Churchill’s decision to hold an election in early 1945, even though World War II was not yet over. Churchill’s arguments were probably similar to Lincoln’s. The difference was, in Lincoln’s case, the incumbent won.
Historical revisionists always ask, “What if?”—what if different courses of action had been followed? Could the Republicans have won by keeping Hamlin on the ticket? Both Lincoln (and, arguably, Secretary of State Seward) wanted to try to placate the Confederates. This meant keeping some power in the hands of former slave owners, who had ruthlessly ruled Confederate states before the War. But, after Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson as President created a firestorm with Congress. He restored virtually complete political power to former slave owners and seemingly encouraged campaigns of terror to keep newly freed Blacks from voting.
As an aside, Johnson, at Lincoln’s second inauguration, had taken strong medicine for a cold. Its high alcoholic content left him intoxicated when he tried to stumble through his speech. This painful episode probably made it emotionally easier when Congress eventually tried to impeach him and remove him from Presidential office. The motion failed by only one vote.
Later, when Grant became President, he took some action against former slave owners in their campaigns of terror against Blacks. But he did not take a complete campaign, such that, by 1877, despite Constitutional amendments, most Blacks had been disenfranchised in the former Confederate states. This was followed by Jim Crow segregation laws, almost institutionalized lynching, and general racial discrimination that continued into the 1960s.
In a more extreme argument, the Union won the critical election of 1864, while the Confederates won the War—at least for a century. But without Lincoln’s victory in this election, there would have been no ensuing war for anyone to win.
Several times in U.S. history, a Presidential election has been termed the “most crucial” in the nation’s history. This label had been applied to elections in 1972, 1980, and 2008. Their respective primary themes were the Vietnam War, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the sinking economy. But an excellent article by Fergus Bordewich in the August 29, 2014 Wall Street Journal makes a convincing claim the 1864 election’s prominence.
Even though long delayed, this Presidential election made it possible for eventual application of individual and civil rights under the U.S. Constitution to the entire nation.