CHAPTER NINE: “The Point of No Return: Turning Points within the 1864 Presidential Election and the Doom of the Confederacy”
by Rea Andrew Redd
Commentary · Images · Additional Resources · Suggested Reading · About the Author
By Brian Matthew Jordan, co-editor, “Engaging the Civil War” Series
In November of 1864, Abraham Lincoln posted a ten-percentage point victory over his Democrat rival George B. McClellan. That popular margin yielded a mammoth Electoral College landslide: Lincoln collected 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s 21, pocketing every loyal state with the exception of New Jersey (as well as slaveholding Delaware and Kentucky). As late as the blood-soaked summer of 1864, no one—not even the president himself, who famously drafted a “blind memorandum” pledging to work with the president-elect to spare the Union before his inauguration in March—could have anticipated this dramatic result.
Until very recently, historians have marveled at the returns. In his prize-winning 1997 study For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, for example, historian James M. McPherson wields the election results as evidence of his larger claim that Union soldiers “remained powerfully convinced of the ideas for which they fought.” While conceding that, “peer pressure…no doubt coerced some” soldiers to vote for Lincoln, McPherson reports that, “a striking majority of all Union soldiers—78 percent, compared with 53 percent of the civilian vote—went for Lincoln. This was all the more remarkable because some 40 to 45 percent of soldiers had been Democrats (or came from Democratic families) in 1860, and McClellan retained some residual popularity among old soldiers in the Army of the Potomac.” In short, the election of 1864 “shaped up as a decisive test” of soldier’s “convictions.”
Historian Jonathan W. White, however, offers a compelling retort to the traditional interpretation in his 2014 book Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Re-Election of Abraham Lincoln. Citing officers who muffled dissent and expressions of support for Democrat policies—as well as the significant number of soldiers who refused to (or could not) cast their ballots—White instructs that the 1864 election returns are not “an altogether reliable index of the army’s ideological motivation or political sentiment.”
Setting aside even White’s significant challenge to the argument that Union soldiers became “abolitionized” by their experiences, his book invites us to ponder just how easily election returns can mislead historians. Let me be absolutely clear: elections do have consequences, and the re-election of Abraham Lincoln ensured that the war would end the way that it did. But absent either exit polls or that stray manuscript source, election returns reveal precious little about an individual voter’s decisions and motivations. The “decisiveness” of the election of 1864 often telegraphs to us the tale of a people who decided not to “change horses in the middle of the stream.” But reach beneath the aggregated numbers and get on to the ground, and a very different story—one that is decidedly less “affirming” or “inspiring”—takes shape.
In my Civil War lecture course, I make this point by displaying two maps of the 1864 election. First, I exhibit a map of the Electoral College results. Students marvel at the sea of states colored red for Republican Abraham Lincoln. But then I display a map of the election results at the county-level. Each county is shaded either red or blue in proportion to the percentage of ballots it cast for either Lincoln or McClellan. Instead of a sea of red, the map is now shaded pink and blue, revealing both deep wells of Democrat support (including in some unlikely places) and the many places where the president eked out a win. Here is the northern homefront as divided by the war, its conduct, and meaning.
Elections, like battles, are fraught with contingency; they are produced by thousands of individual decisions on the ground. Elections, like battles, can exert influence on the direction of the war. But when historians deem either “decisive,” they run the risk of effacing critical realities. Just as Lee’s cunning at Chancellorsville worked in popular memory to conceal the staggering losses his army suffered there, the re-election of Abraham Lincoln has too often prevented us from considering that in November 1864, northerners—like the once United States—remained divided.
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By Christopher Kolakowski, Chief Historian, Emerging Civil War
The United States is the first nation in the history of the world to hold a free election for its highest office while engaged in an active civil war. One other nation—the Republic of Korea in 1952—has duplicated the feat. The Syrian Arab Republic in 2014 also held a presidential election in the midst of its own civil war, but its conduct and results are disputed. In all three cases, the incumbents won re-election.
The 1864 presidential election was perhaps the gravest test to the U.S. Constitution in the entire Civil War era. Around the world, many observers watched with interest to see whether the American system of representative democracy would survive the strain of war; for them, this election was a key data point in answer to that question. The fact that no serious thought was given to postponing the polling, with all that dangerous precedent would have meant, is a strong statement for the rule of law. The election also set important precedents about soldiers voting in the field, a tradition maintained to this day. The supremacy of the Constitution and its standards was thus affirmed and reinvigorated – a lesser-appreciated impact of the Civil War.
Campaign buttons from the election of 1864: Lincoln vs. McClellan (credit: Library of Congress)
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Before Lincoln could even look ahead to the general election, he had to stave off a threat from within his own Republican party. Radical Republicans floated the idea of John C. Fremont—”The Pathfinder”—as the party standard-bearer, with John Cochrane on the ticket as vice-president. (credit: Library of Congress)
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McClellan was such a well-known public figure that history has largely forgotten his running mate, Ohio Congressman George H. Pendleton, a leading Copperhead and the son-in-law of Francis Scott Key. While their campaign stressed Union (below), serious difference existed between the two men about what that meant and how to achieve it while also achieving peace. (credit: Library of Congress)
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“McClellan is the Man” by Henry Cromwell, a campaign song for 1864. From the Library of Congress: “Sheet music cover illustrated with half-length portrait of George B. McClellan by [Dominique C.] Fabronius after a photograph by Boston photographers Black & Case.” circa 1864. (credit: Library of Congress)
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A variety of political cartoons from the election of 1864 (credit: Library of Congress)
Meg Groeling wrote about the effects of soldier voting in the 1864 election in her four-part series “Long Abraham Lincoln a Little Longer.” She also spoke on the topic at our First Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge—a talk that is available on C-SPAN.
Steve Davis considered the question of McClellan as the “peace candidate” in a pair of posts:
- 1860’s Politics: After All These Years, Why Do We Think President McClellan Would Have Given the Rebels an Armistice?
- 1860’s Politics: Why Do We think McClellan Was the “Peace Candidate”? Because the Rebels Thought So
How much of an impact did Phil Sheridan’s 1864 Valley Campaign have on the election? Dan Davis says it was Sherman’s capture of Atlanta that made the difference, and Sheridan was just icing on the cake: “The ’64 Valley Campaign: Solidifying Lincoln’s Election but Not a Turning Point.”
For the election of ’64, Lincoln dropped his first vice-president, Hannibal Hamlin (right), from the ticket in favor of “War Democrat” Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. Chris Mackowski paid a visit to “The Civil War’s Forgotten Vice-President” in Hamlin’s hometown of Bangor, Maine.
The Civil War Trust’s “In4” video segment features an episode on the Election of 1864, hosted by Garry Gallagher, that you can watch here. They also ran an article in the Fall 2014 issue of Hallowed Ground magazine that features images of some cool election mementos, which you can see here.
You can read more ECW posts about George B. McClellan here.
You can read more ECW posts about politics in the 1860s here.
· Burlingame, Michael. Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume 2 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)
· Holzer, Harold. Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion (Simon & Schuster, 2014)
· Long, David E. The Jewel of Liberty (Stackpole, 1994)
· Nelson, Larry. Bullets, Ballots, and Rhetoric: Confederate Policy for the United States Presidential Contest of 1864 (University of Alabama Press, 1980)
· Waugh, John C. Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle of the 1864 Election (Crown, 1997)
About the Author
Rea Andrew Redd is the director of Eberly Library and an adjunct instructor in history at Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Gettysburg Campaign Study Guide, volumes 1 and 2, and of a blog, Civil War Librarian. He frequently speaks to groups about Abraham Lincoln, Civil War–era medicine, Pennsylvania’s Civil War history, and Gettysburg, the aftermath and the address. He teaches U.S. history survey courses, the Civil War and Reconstruction, U.S. environmental history, Pennsylvania history, and American wars. He also teaches a service and learning course on the battle of Gettysburg, which includes leading student volunteers on service projects for Gettysburg National Military Park and the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association.
During 2017, he guided the acquisition and installation of a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania which is the birthplace of Major Jonathan Letterman, director of the Army of the Potomac’s medical service during 1862-1864.