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  • Writer's pictureBryan Artiles

An Honest, Ab(l)e President

Lincoln Astride a Divided Union and its Parties 

By Bryan Artiles | Circus Maximus Historical Election Series

Lincoln's 1864 Election

If you haven’t seen it yet there’s a new trailer out for a film called Civil War, which posits: What if America again descends into a civil war? The new year offers a contentious presidential election and more hyped-up talk of civil war as both ends of the political spectrum tear things asunder. I thought it would be pertinent in this series to write about the last time our nation held an election amidst a civil war - 1864.

It was an unprecedented election: 1864 was the first wartime election since 1812. It was the first successful democratic election during a civil war. For the first time active wartime soldiers voted in an election and they voted heavily in favor of Lincoln, over 70%.

Incumbent president and Republican, Abraham Lincoln, and running mate Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, banded the Republican Party together with Democrats in favor of the war to preserve the Union and formed the Union Party. Non-southern Democrats were in favor of peace so, of course, they threw in behind an army general, George McClellan with running mate George Pendleton. McClellan was a former Union Army general who used to take orders from Lincoln, albeit he followed those orders with a degree of sluggishness.

Three years of bloody civil war would cause political schisms at election time. A group of war republican dissidents and war democrats formed the National Union Party and nominated John Fremont, a Southerner who was anti-slavery and pro-union, and just when you start thinking he was a nice guy, if you care to look him up, you’ll find he led a few massacres of Native Americans.

States newly admitted to the union voting in their first presidential election were Kansas, Nevada, and West Virginia. No southern state voted. Yeah I know, no doi, but nevertheless in case you were wondering if any Confederate state tried to vote. Although military districts in Union occupied Louisiana and Tennessee voted but Congress didn’t count their electoral votes.

Lincoln's 1864 Election

In January of 1864, Lincoln thought his place in the White House was tenuous at best and his re-election was very seriously in doubt. No incumbent had won re-election since Andrew Jackson in 1832. There was a wing within his party known as Radical Republicans who were gaining momentum against Lincoln. They thought he wasn’t persecuting the war harshly enough and were skeptical of his post war aims to extend a peaceful hand to the secessionists and bring them back into the fold instead of what they wanted, which was to crush them without mercy.

Lincoln saw challengers not only from within his own party but within his own cabinet, as Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase was building momentum among the Rads. They tried passing the Wade-Davis Bill that required the majority of the electorate in each Confederate state to swear past and future loyalty to the Union before the state could officially be restored. Abe vetoed it and with that vetoed support from Radical Republicans. Later this year William Tecumseh Sherman would have something to say about perceived leniency toward the South and assuaged many a radical republican concerns. At the time, Lincoln considered resigning but as he told New York Tribune reporter Henry Wing, “Swapping horses in the middle of the stream is probably not the best for the country.”

Could Lincoln have prevented this election from taking place at all? He had already assumed many widespread powers and established a strong precedent of expanding executive authority, causing many to label him a tyrant (including John Wilkes Booth). He suspended the writ of habeas corpus in Maryland over the issue of Confederate spies lurking behind the capital. Short of suspending the election, many in the party wondered if it could be delayed. Party members recommended postponing their convention until September to give the military more time for a major victory. Other Republicans went further, wanting to postpone four more years or until the rebellion was completely subdued.

What was at stake with this election? The White House obviously, but it goes deeper towards policy and the heart of the nation. If Democrats won, a negotiated peace would ensue. There’s a possibility the southern states would be readmitted to the union and keep their slaves with stronger states’ rights, weakening the federal government, and effectively turning the whole country into a confederation. This would result in the possibility of abolitionist states completely breaking away from the republic. There was another possibility of the Confederacy successfully seceding from the union and a total Balkanization of North America.

Ultimately, it was the war and Lincoln’s solid, unwavering commitment to its aims  of preserving the republic that determined the fate of the election. After the victories of ’63 in Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Confederacy appeared to be beaten but was far from being totally defeated. Grant, Sherman and the Union armies they commanded vehemently sought that total defeat of the Confederacy without relent. It was Sherman’s taking of Atlanta in September that helped secure Lincoln’s victory.

In the end, Lincoln won by a landslide, by over 400,000 popular votes. He carried 22 states with 212 electoral votes and 2.2 million popular votes to McClellan’s 3 states, 21 electoral votes and 1.8 million popular votes.

1864 was a monumental year in military history as the Union applied total war against the Confederacy affecting all levels of society, government, and economy, not to mention the degradation of the South’s military capacity. Lincoln was at the head of this all.

The election was about the greatness of Abe Lincoln and what he meant to the people.

Its results had a devastating effect on all levels of the Confederacy. Richmond and the last remaining plantation owners all knew good and well what Lincoln’s victory meant — 4 more years of unrelenting total war pressure.

His leadership was exemplified by an eternal optimism while constantly staring down the face of defeat. Doris Kearns Goodwin inTeam of Rivalswrites, “ As he had done so many times before, Lincoln withstood the storm of defeat by replacing anguish over an unchangeable past with hope in an uncharted future.”

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