Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency by John Waugh


Four more weeks! Four more weeks! And a couple more

It is safe to say that the 1864 Presidential Election was like no other before or after it. Despite the United States being torn apart by the Civil War, the states that remained part of the Union, still went about their regular political business, as the Constitution instructed, and held an election to choose a President.

It probably does not seem like a surprise that Abraham Lincoln won reelection fairly easily over Democratic challenger George McClellan. However, not everyone was completely sold on Lincoln as a successful president. And there was still a not insignificant amount of people opposed to the war, mostly because they did business with the South.

John Waugh’s 1997 book about this election tries to wring out a lot of drama from Lincoln’s second presidential run, but it does not always convince the reader that there is going to be much suspense to this story. The reelection of Lincoln is presented more as a drama rather than as an explanation of the politics behind the decision.

At first, Lincoln had to hold off some internal challenges in the Republican Party. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, presented as a vain and high-strung man with a scheming beautiful daughter, tries to make a case for himself as being more qualified for the job than Lincoln. Ultimately, Chase, who liked to threaten to resign his position if he did not get his way, had his bluff called by Lincoln, who finally accepted his resignation. Chase was left out of the running, although he would become Chief Justice.

Another Republican interested in the presidency was the Republicans’ nominee in 1856, John C. Fremont, who had served briefly as a general during the Civil War. Fremont received a nomination from a splinter group of Republicans, but ultimately decided to bow out when he saw little support.

Some Republicans wanted General Ulysses S. Grant to be the nominee, although at this time, Grant just wanted to finish off the Confederacy. He would not have to wait long to get his turn.

The Democrats thought they had the perfect candidate in George McClellan, who had been one of the early commanding generals for the Union with the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was considered, mostly by himself, as a master military strategist. However, he never was convinced that he had sufficient troop strength to fully engage Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Eventually, Lincoln replaced McClellan with a series of equally ineffective leaders until Grant won the job.

But the Democrats were a mixed bunch. Some supported the war (the War Democrats. Some strongly opposed it (the Peace Democrats). And some were openly friendly to the Confederacy (the Copperheads). All of these groups had an extremely uneasy coexistence within the party.

Lincoln planned for the election of 1864 to rebrand the Republican Party as “the Union Party” and wanted to replace his Radical Republican Hannibal Hamlin, with a War Democrat. The plan was to convince enough Democrats to come over to the Republican side to make the already diluted Democratic Party almost invisible.

The Republicans/Union Party convened in Baltimore and nominated Lincoln unanimously. Hamlin was replaced by a War Democrat, Andrew Johnson, who was serving as the military governor of Tennessee after refusing to give up his Senate seat to join the Confederacy. Johnson, at the time, was considered a brave Southern patriot. It would later turn out that Johnson fought with the Union mostly because he came from extreme poverty and could not stand the wealthy plantation owners of the South. He was still as much of a racist as any other Confederate.

The Democrats put off holding their convention until August. McClellan waited to declare his availability for the nomination until his official report on his actions in the war was published. The Democrats put together a platform that contained what was known as “the war failure plank.” Simply put, the Democrats, highly influenced by Copperhead Clement Vallandigham, declared that Lincoln’s conduct of the war was so poor that hostilities had to cease. McClelland received the nomination for President and another Copperhead, George Pendleton of Ohio, was nominated for Vice-President.

(Pendleton is featured in the film “Lincoln” as the grouchy leader of the Democratic opposition to the 13th Amendment. In the film, he appears to be in his 50s or 60s. He was actually just 39 on Election Day. McClellan was a year younger.)

McClellan quickly renounced the war failure plank. The Democrats were in disarray. Their presidential and vice presidential nominees believed in completely different concepts of how the Civil War was going. The Democrats only chance of winning would be for the Union war effort go horribly wrong. That did not happen.

The Republicans did well in the early local elections. And on Election Day, Lincoln easily won reelection, winning all of the states participating except for Kentucky, New Jersey, and Delaware.  New Jersey was McClellan’s home state and Kentucky and Delaware still had significant numbers of slaveholders who did not like Lincoln. For the first time, people were allowed to vote even if they were not in their home state. Thousands of soldiers were either furloughed home or special absentee voting stations were set up.

The Election of 1864 foreshadowed some of the problems that the country was going to face after the war ended. During the campaign, Republicans argued amongst themselves over how the seceded states should be allowed back in the Union. The word “Reconstruction” began to appear in political debates.

The Republicans also began to split along the lines of the Radicals, men like William Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, who were strident abolitionists; the Liberals, like newspaper publisher Horace Greeley; and the Conservatives, led by Postmaster General Montgomery Blair (soon to be former Postmaster General), who advocated compromise with the South.

And in the end, Lincoln would be killed just one month into his second term, leaving Andrew Johnson, one of the worst presidents ever, to lead the nation at a crucial time.

1864 results

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