Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the election of 1864 is that is happened at all. The nation was in the middle of the worst crisis in its history, a bloody civil war. No nation had ever conducted elections in such circumstances before and it would not have been unexpected for President Lincoln to postpone the election until the end of the war. Lincoln must have been tempted. As 1864 began. he knew that he had little chance of winning reelection. Both the president and the war had become very unpopular. It is true that the twin Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg the previous July had been turning points in the war that had made Southern defeat all but inevitable, but no one knew that at the time. All they knew was that the war was dragging on month after month with seemingly nothing to show for all the death and misery. Whatever thoughts Abraham Lincoln might have had about his upcoming defeat, he doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility of cancelling or postponing the election. In his view, the whole point of the war was to preserve the free, democratic government of the people, and postponing the election would mean that the rebels had won.
It wasn’t even clear that Lincoln would win the Republican nomination. Many prominent Republicans, most notably Horace Greeley and Salmon P. Chase thought so little of Lincoln’s chances that they called for him to step aside and allow the Republicans to nominate someone who actually had a chance of winning. On May 31, 1864 several hundred of the more radical Republicans assembled in Cleveland, Ohio to form what they called the Radical Democracy Party. They believed that Lincoln was being too soft on the South and took a hardline anti-Confederate, abolitionist position. The Radical Democracy Party did not really expect to win the election. Instead, they hoped to force the Republicans to choose someone other than Lincoln. To this end, they nominated John C. Fremont, the Republican candidate for president in 1856, for president and war Democrat General John Cochrane for Vice-President. Fremont and Cochrane suspended their campaign in September to avoid becoming the possibility of dividing the vote resulting in a Democratic victory.
The remaining Republicans met in Baltimore on June 7-8, along with some War Democrats to form the National Union Party. Lincoln was nominated for a second term on the first ballot and the party platform called for the end of slavery and vigorous pursuit of the war until the succeeding states were defeated. The convention then selected the Democrat Andrew Johnson as a show of national unity.
Andrew Johnson was a little unusual in Southern politics since he did not come from the established, slave-owning,planter aristocracy like most Southern politicians. Johnson had been born in poverty among the lowest class of Southern Whites, but he was smart, ambitious and hard working. He entered Tennessee politics as a champion of the working men and became a Congressman from 1843 to 1853, Governor of Tennessee from 1853 to 1857 and finally Senator in 1857. Because of his humble origins, Andrew Johnson had little use for the secessionist sentiments held by many Planters was the only Senator from the South not to resign his seat when his state seceded. It should not be thought, however, that Johnson was opposed to slavery or at all sympathetic to the Black slaves. Johnson, like most of his class, despised the Blacks worse than the Planters, who at least saw their slaves as useful servants. Johnson’s bigotry would not serve his country well in the years after the Civil War.
The Democrats, for their part, met in Chicago from August 29 to 31. The Democrats were split between War Democrats who supported the war against the South and Peace Democrats who either favored a negotiated end to the war with the South rejoining the Union or who were outright Copperheads, or Southern sympathizers. The Peace Democrats wrote the party platform, declaring the war a failure and calling for an immediate, negotiated end to hostilities, but the convention nominated General George B. McClellan, former commanding general of the Army of the Potomac for president.
George B. McClellan had no political experience but he was an excellent officer with a distinguished record of service in the Mexican War and the Civil War. In many ways, McClellan was a great general. His experience working with railroads between the wars helped him to set up the supply lines to feed and arm the Union armies. He trained and drilled the Army of the Potomac into the military force that would ultimately defeat the Confederates. He loved the men and they loved him. McClellan had only one fault. He did not want to fight.
This is one of the great mysteries of the Civil War, McClellan’s strange reluctance to lead his men into battle. He was always delaying. He was not a coward on the battlefield, but it may be that he feared failure. Perhaps he believed the exaggerated estimates of Confederate numbers, or he believed the myth that Robert E. Lee was an unbeatable genius. Whatever the reason, McClellan’s “slows” finally exasperated Lincoln to the point that he relieved McClellan of his command twice, so there may have been an element of personal satisfaction in McClellan’s decision to run against his former Commander-in-Chief.
After selecting a War Democrat as their presidential nominee, the Democrats balanced the ticket by selecting anti-war Democrat Ohio Congressman George H. Pendleton. Pendleton had served in the Ohio Senate from 1854 to 1856 and then the US House of Representatives from 1857 to 1865. Pendleton had been a staunch supporter of state’s rights and so was against a war to bring the seceded states back into the Union.
As one might expect, the presidential campaign of 1864 was a nasty fight. The opposition press had never been kind to Lincoln, routinely calling him a tyrant and a dictator and they didn’t let up for the campaign. Lincoln was said to be an ignorant, backwoods lawyer who delighted in telling indecent jokes. He was a tyrant and a butcher whose incompetence caused the nation to fight losing war. The Republicans responded by calling the Democrats defeatists, cowards, and traitors who sympathized with the Rebels. This didn’t seem like much of an exaggeration with the Democrat’s peace platform all but calling for peace at any price. McClellan, to his credit, rejected the Democratic call for peace stating that he could not look his comrades in the army that had sacrificed so much and tell them it was all in vain. The nation was so weary of a seemingly endless and bloody war that peace at any price seemed very attractive and few people doubted that Lincoln would be defeated. Lincoln himself certainly didn’t and he began to make preparations for the inevitable transition.
The political situation changed almost over night with the capture of Atlanta by General William Sherman on September 2, followed up by Sherman’s March to the Sea This Northern victory coupled with Union advances elsewhere seemed to show that an end to the Civil War with a Northern victory was in sight, shifting public opinion decisively in favor of Lincoln.
The results of the election in November were not even close. Lincoln won 2,218,388 popular votes (55%), a decisive majority and won all but three states for 221 electoral votes. McClellan got 1,812,807 votes (45%) and won only Kentucky, New Jersey, and Delaware giving him only 21 electoral votes. Naturally the seceded states did not vote in this election, although Louisiana and Tennessee were under military occupation and did participate. Their electoral votes were not counted.
Lincoln had a clear mandate to continue the war until the Rebels were defeated. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated for his second term on March 4, 1865, Southern defeat was inevitable, although the Confederates kept fighting for another month. On April 2, Richmond, the Confederate capital was taken and on April 9, General Lee surrendered to General Grant, effectively ending the American Civil War. Lincoln didn’t get to enjoy the peace for long. On April 14, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth and Andrew Johnson became president.