1860’s Politics: The Challenges of 1862

Emerging Civil War 1860's Politics HeaderObviously, there wasn’t a presidential election in 1862, but races for the seats in the U.S. Congress were very important. Who would gain control of the legislative branch? How would the outcome of the congressional elections effect the Union war effort?

In this excerpt from The Union’s Great Crisis: The Fall of 1862, the first of ECW’s Digital Series, Chris Kolakowski examines the Union’s autumn elections of 1862 and their impacts. His story picks up at the conclusion of the Maryland and Kentucky Campaigns.

At the same time the McClellan and Buell waged their battles, Lincoln’s administration fought a major political engagement in the run-up to the midterm elections of 1862. This would be the first national referendum on the Union war effort and Lincoln’s administration – a nearly unique experience for a nation during a civil war. The midterm elections mattered not just for the balance of power in Congress, but in the state houses, where governors and state legislatures were responsible for recruiting and providing volunteer troops for the United States Army. Lincoln’s Republican allies had been an important source of support since war’s start, but Democratic opponents looked to make gains and force changes in policies – especially on slavery and war aims. The Army’s desultory and controversial performances in Kentucky and Maryland did not help the Republican position, and the Democrats used the release of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to attack Lincoln for heavy-handed warmaking and executive excess.

Polling occurred on November 3. As returns came in, it was clear that the Republicans held control of the U.S. Congress despite losing some of their majority. But Democrats captured the governorships of New York and New Jersey, and majorities in the state legislatures of Indiana, Illinois, and New Jersey – all important sources of troops and arms. These reverses meant that Lincoln’s control over the Union war machine would weaken when these electees took office in January 1863.

Lincoln realized that decisive battlefield successes would mitigate many of the effects of these political defeats. Needing political capital in the wake of the election results, and with the final Emancipation Proclamation due for release on January 1, 1863, President Lincoln prodded his forces to make campaigns and engage in “hard, tough fighting that will hurt somebody.”

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1 Response to 1860’s Politics: The Challenges of 1862

  1. The 1862 election was very much on Lincoln’s mind when it took place, as well as in 1864, when he was assessing his chances for winning a second term. Thanks for reminding us.

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