Lincoln: The vote that saved America

When Abraham Lincoln stood for re-election in November 1864 he knew that defeat could bring the civil war to a premature end and shatter his dreams of abolishing slavery. And, as Adam IP Smith reveals, his victory was far from certain...

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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On 22 August 1864, with just two and a half months to go before election day, President Lincoln received a stark warning from the chairman of his campaign committee: “The tide is strongly against us,” reported Henry J Raymond. The country was facing the prospect of falling “into hostile hands”.

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For the president’s supporters, winning re-election was every bit as vital as securing success on the battlefield. Elections were the manifestation of the ‘government by the people’ for which the war was being fought. But at the same time, the ‘right’ side had to triumph. “For four summers the loyal North has been firing bullets at the rebellion,” ran a typical editorial. “The time has now come to fire ballots.” Support for Lincoln was made inseparable from national loyalty; to oppose him was tantamount to treason. Never in American history has there been a presidential election with such high stakes.

The American Civil War is usually told as a story that pitted northerners against southerners, but it did more than that: the North was divided against itself. Millions of ordinary white northerners who were appalled by the break up of their country were equally appalled by what they saw as the revolutionary fanaticism of the Lincoln administration. The writ of habeas corpus had been suspended and hundreds of Democrat politicians – some prominent, many just local leaders who got on the wrong side of a military commander – were arrested and imprisoned in what critics hyperbolically described as ‘Bastilles’.

In 1863 there were riots – hundreds were killed in an especially serious outbreak in New York in July – as white working-class men objected to being conscripted into the army. Above all, as Raymond told the president in August 1864, public disillusionment with the administration was fuelled by the widespread fear that there would be no peace so long as emancipation was a precondition. To those opposed to freeing the slaves (at least a third of the northern population; at times probably more than half), Lincoln was a Jacobinical fanatic, ‘King Africanus I’, who was set on ‘mongrelising’ the white race while destroying civil liberties.

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The dashing, young George B McClellan adopts a Napoleonic pose. © Bridgeman

Lincoln’s supporters responded that, far from being an obstacle to victory and peace, emancipation was not only right in itself but also an essential weapon to destroy the rebellion. After all, 200,000 African-Americans now fought in Union blue. Would they continue to do so if the promise of freedom was reneged upon?

And where, argued Lincoln, was the evidence that the Confederacy would abandon the project of independence in return for being allowed to keep their slaves? The president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, had said again and again that his goal was independence: nothing more, nothing less. It was futile to imagine that the Union could be patched up, half slave and half free. The only route to peace, Lincoln said, was to give the nation a “new birth of freedom”, cleansed of slavery, the ‘tap-root’ of the rebellion.

But so long as there was, as Raymond delicately put it, a “want of military success”, such arguments fell on deaf ears. Even some who had always been anti-slavery quailed in the face of the slaughter in the summer of 1864. “Our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country… shudders at the prospect of fresh conscriptions… and of new rivers of human blood!” wrote the New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley as he urged the president to explore options for a negotiated settlement.

No wonder that, after reading Raymond’s letter, Lincoln sombrely concluded that he would have to try to win the war before he was forced from office.

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Some 200,000 African-American soldiers – one of whom is pictured here with his wife and daughters – fought for Lincoln and the Union during the American Civil War. © Library of Congress

Rivals divided

Two factors transformed Lincoln’s fortunes. The first was the divisions and political miscalculations of his opponents. The Democratic Party was riven between those who supported an immediate abandonment of the war and those who wanted to fight on to restore the Union while abandoning emancipation. The advocates of peace declared that “after four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war, during which… the constitution… has been disregarded in every part, and public liberty and private right alike trodden down… the public welfare demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities.” But the Democrat convention, meeting at the end of August, nominated as their candidate General George B McClellan, who favoured war.

The contradiction between the party’s official policy and the position of its candidate exposed them to predictable ridicule. McClellan was nevertheless a formidable opponent. He had the support of some influential New York financiers and he had high name-recognition. He was very young – only 37 – and self-consciously dashing, with a silky moustache and a Napoleonic habit of tucking one arm into his tunic when being photographed.

As commander of US forces in the early part of the war, McClellan had earned the loyalty of his men. And though historians have been rightly critical of his caution as a military leader – as was Lincoln at the time – his reluctance to fight a hard and destructive war was as much a political choice as it was a product of military miscalculation. In a revealing letter to the president penned in the summer of 1862, McClellan advocated a hearts and minds strategy – winning the South back by fighting a war according to the “highest principles of Christian civilisation”. He wanted to protect civilians and respect their property, which to him included enslaved people. This perspective, naïve about the realities of conflict as it may have been, still had strong popular appeal two years later.

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A Republican banner from 1864. The Lincoln campaign was boosted by a dramatic military victory in Atlanta – and some dubious tactics at the polling stations. © Corbis

What most undermined McClellan’s campaign was that just two days after the Democratic convention declared the war a failure, there was a dramatic breakthrough. The city of Atlanta, in the heart of the Confederacy, fell to General Sherman, whose army then commenced their ‘March to the Sea’ to the Georgia coast and up into South Carolina, wreaking destruction in their wake.

On such events, electoral fortunes can be transformed, and so it was in 1864. Lincoln’s supporters were now armed with the case that their strategy of ‘hard war’ – destroying the South’s capacity to fight, including by freeing its slave population – was succeeding. The anti-war proclamations of the Democrats, meanwhile, now looked less like statesmanship and more like surrender.

Combined with the Democrats’ divisions, the turn in the fortunes of war tipped the election Lincoln’s way. Thousands of hesitating conservatives who were suspicious of emancipation saw Lincoln as the least worst option.

But coercion also played a role. In some places the Union army manned the polling stations. In border states (such as Kentucky, which stayed in the Union even though slavery remained a legal institution) loyalty oaths were imposed as a condition of voting that conflated loyalty to the Union with support for the government. And everywhere, since there was no secret voting in those days (ballots were brightly coloured and allegiance publicly declared), there were Democrats who kept their heads down and abstained rather than being publicly vilified for aiding and abetting the rebellion.

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A poster urges voters to choose peace over ruin and “Elect McClellan”. Yet Democrats were vilified by  their opponents for aiding the rebellion. © University of Chicago Library

Traitors or shirkers

Democrats appealed to northerners’ sense of anger and despair at the cost of the war; Lincoln appealed to their determination to finish the job.

Enlisted soldiers voted heavily for Lincoln. Some because they were genuinely convinced that victory was in their grasp and that emancipation had helped to break the backbone of the rebellion. Others did so only reluctantly, their admiration for their old commander McClellan soured by the ‘peace’ men in his party who they regarded as traitors or shirkers. And some soldiers, it is clear, were effectively compelled to vote for Lincoln, as partisan officers superintended the ballot boxes.

In the end, Lincoln won with a healthy, if – given his advantages – less than overwhelming 55 per cent of the popular vote. His victory was pivotal to the outcome of the war and thus to the whole course of American – and world – history. The North had all the manpower, economic and strategic advantages; the only question was whether they had the political will to pay the price of victory. Lincoln’s defeat would have, rightly, been interpreted by southerners, by watching European powers, as well as by slaves, as a sign that the northern public was no longer prepared to do so.

Had McClellan triumphed he may still have tried to pursue a military strategy. But by abandoning emancipation, as he certainly would have done, he would have prompted a backlash in the army – especially, but not only, among black troops. Many of McClellan’s supporters would have pushed immediately for a ceasefire, and the Confederacy had in place plans to use such an opportunity to pause hostilities, regroup and reach a negotiated settlement that recognised their independence.

It is likely that, had McClellan won, slavery would have remained a legal institution in North America for many years longer than it did. Had the Confederacy survived as a slave republic, there would have been no strong United States with the economic and military clout to dominate world affairs in the 20th century. Rarely, if ever, has so much turned on the outcome of a single election.

In context: The American Civil War in 1864

In August 1864, three and a half years after the conflict’s first shots had been fired, there seemed no end in sight. The war had begun – as most wars do – in the hope that it would be over in three months with grand heroics but little bloodshed. In reality it had become a remorseless struggle. Southern slave states were fighting for their independence, while the United States was committed not just to restoring the Union but also, since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1 January 1863, to destroying slavery in the process.

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Union commander General Ulysses S Grant’s big push in May and June 1864 failed to break Confederate resistance. © Library of Congress

Although by August 1864 key parts of the South were back in Union hands, and although desertion from the army, rampant inflation and food shortages revealed a war-torn society under severe strain, the Confederacy nevertheless seemed resilient, inspired by the uncanny battlefield successes of General Robert E Lee. A new Union commander, General Ulysses S Grant, had launched a campaign in April amid high hopes: US troops outnumbered their opponents, and they were far better supplied and armed. This would be the final push.

Through May and June the Union army lost more than 50,000 men in a series of bloody assaults, but without destroying Lee’s army. By August there was stalemate once again. And what made the distress and anger on the northern home front worse was the suspicion that President Lincoln’s policies were making the war harder, not easier, to win. These were the circumstances in which Abraham Lincoln ran for re-election exactly 150 years ago.

Q&A: The 1864 election

Which states voted?

Voting took place in all 25 states that were not in rebellion (voters also went to the polls in two Union-occupied seceded states – Louisiana and Tennessee – but Congress refused to count the electoral votes from there). Three new states – West Virginia, Nevada and Kansas – voted for the first time. Slavery was still legal in three participating states (Kentucky, Delaware and Missouri) and had recently been abolished in another: Maryland. To win, a candidate needed 117 Electoral College votes from among these states.

Who was allowed to vote?

Each state determined its own franchise but everywhere all white men could vote, regardless of property ownership, literacy or anything else. In a few states in the north-east, African-American men could vote too. Special laws passed by several states allowed enlisted soldiers who were stationed away from home to vote in camp.

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Lincoln secured 55 per cent of the popular vote. © Alamy

How was the campaign conducted?

Hundreds of speakers took the stump, great public meetings were held with barbecues, bonfires and brass bands. And in this highly literate society, millions of dollars were raised to print campaign broadsides and pamphlets and to help distribute sympathetic newspapers.

What was the popular vote result?

Lincoln won 2.2 million votes and McClellan 1.8 million, giving Lincoln 55 per cent.

What happened in the Electoral College?

Here Lincoln’s victory was lopsided. He won all but three states (failing only in the slave states of Kentucky and Delaware and in McClellan’s home state of New Jersey), giving him 233 Electoral College votes to McClellan’s 21.

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Adam IP Smith is a senior lecturer at University College London, specialising in American history. He is the author of several books on the American Civil War period.