With the fall midterm state elections upon us once again, I thought perhaps we should look back at some of the things that made the elections of 1864 so important a part of the eventual Union victory in 1865. ECW will present a series of posts concerning Lincoln’s election, the earlier October state contests, and the importance of the votes of the Union soldier.
For the first months of 1864, there was no guarantee that President Abraham Lincoln would be reelected for a second term. There had been no grand military victories since July 1863, when Union armies won the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was not universally popular, and had created a disturbing Copperhead backlash in many areas.
Congressional Democrats were looking for any chance to discredit the Lincoln administration. They had successfully raised the specter of racial equality in 1862, and had gained many votes. They hoped to use the same issue again, and add to it the fear that Lincoln would never consider an end to the war unless slavery was completely abolished. The combination of Peace Democrat and Copperhead seemed powerful. Additionally, the nation was in the middle of a civil war, with over a million men of voting age under arms. In 1862, only Wisconsin allowed a soldier to vote outside his own state district. By 1864, nineteen other northern states had created and passed legislation allowing their soldiers in the field to vote.
America had never faced the dilemma of absentee voting. Much was uncertain: how to manage soldier voting, what effect the military vote might have on Lincoln’s reelection, and the affect that the Constitutional right to vote would have on the individual soldier serving in the Union army. This has not been a large part of the historiography surrounding the election of 1864.
In the opinion of Lincoln and the Republican Party, Lincoln’s reelection to the Presidency in 1864 was not a certainty. Enthusiasm for the war was beginning to wane in late 1863. Peace Democrats and Copperheads, especially Clement Vallandigham, were campaigning vigorously in a manner described by historian David Alan Johnson as “anti-Lincoln,” that another four years of Lincoln in the White House would result in “anarchy, tyranny, and Negro equality.”
This approach was less than effective, as may be seen in the results of October state elections in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana: in Ohio, Vallandigham’s home state, the Republicans won by 50,000 votes. When Congress reconvened in early 1864, Ohio Democrats only held two seats. The state sent seventeen Republicans to Washington, a net gain of twelve seats. Indiana added four Republicans to their Congressional total, while Pennsylvania gained four. James Gordon Bennett, from the New York Herald wrote, “As the state elections go in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, so will the presidential election go.”
Lincoln was not nearly as confident as these results would indicate he should have been. After running the voting numbers, he predicted that he would win the election, but only by six electoral votes–120-114. This would not provide the public mandate Lincoln felt was necessary to carry the war through to its end. Lincoln felt that his “power to prosecute the war and to make peace would be greatly impaired.”
During this time, Lincoln became very much concerned with the “army vote.” He sent a telegram to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia, asking him to report on the results of state elections, and expressing his anxiety over the coming presidential election. “Send what you may know of your army vote.” The soldier vote had tilted the October voting toward the Republicans, and President Lincoln was not about to abandon what might prove to be his base.
This was the first time American soldiers were serving in the field during a general election. Historian James McPherson points out, “Here was a bold experiment in democracy…The American experiment of holding an election during a civil war whose election would determine the nation’s future is unique in history… No other society had tried the experiment of letting its fighting men vote in an election that might decide whether they were to continue fighting.”
However, there was no plan in place to collect the votes of the men in the field. Prior to the 1860s, if a soldier was to be home for some reason, he could vote. Otherwise, his field status effectually disenfranchised him. With over one million men serving in the Union forces in the fall of 1864, the situation appeared to be a serious matter in the eyes of many, especially the men who were in danger of being denied their right, as citizens and soldiers, to cast a ballot in the presidential election.
President Lincoln was determined that the election should take place. Perhaps Lincoln could have cancelled the 1864 contest, using wartime emergency as a reason, but his belief in the Constitution would not allow him to do so. He had already been accused of violating the Constitution by suspending constitutional provisions such as habeas corpus. To prosecute a war to preserve the rule of law and the will of the majority, and then suspend the right of that majority to choose its leaders was an unthinkable action for Lincoln. This action would simply justify the accusations of the Copperheads and Confederates that Lincoln was a dictator.