Portrait
Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

The summer of 1864 was one of dismay for President Abraham Lincoln and his administration: throughout the Union, the appetite for war had rapidly shrunk; particularly as compared to the heady days of 1860 that ushered Lincoln into the White House. While some voters in the North saw the continued prosecution of the war as nothing more than an attempt to manifest Lincoln’s wish to abolish slavery—and therefore a war not worth fighting—others had naturally, in view of the mounting casualties, developed a fatigue for war and, if they had a choice in the matter, would have opted for a negotiated peace. If Lincoln were to lose the election—so the argument ran—then families could be reunited and the violence could come to an end. For Confederates, northern voter despair was precisely the ingredient that was needed in the giant pot that was political discourse in the Union, but it was not all that was needed: the rebels had dreamt of forcing a negotiated peace, and now, with the election in sight, they had hope that Lincoln would be voted out and the war could be brought to a favorable end.

Although his detractors tried to paint Lincoln as prosecuting the war to advance his personal agenda of abolishing slavery and thus putting on the backburner the more widely held hope of maintaining the Union, those who had been listening to his rhetoric more precisely knew how Lincoln viewed the war. In late August of 1864, addressing an Ohio regiment returning to their families, he said, “I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright. . . . The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”[i] Despite his eloquence and unifying pronouncements, some continued to question whether Lincoln deserved re-election. Factions within the Republican party—from the strict abolitionists in the Northeast to the conservatives in the southern portions of the Midwest—contemplated calling for a new convention and putting a man on the ticket who hewed closer to their respective politics, but, to the disappointment of those factions (and to Democrats), a lack of coordination among the factions ensured Lincoln would be the nominee.[ii]

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George McClellan.

Opposed to Lincoln stood two formidable former generals: the Democrat George McClellan and the third party candidate John Frémont. McClellan stood on the party’s platform that called for “immediate efforts” to cease hostilities when he was going through balloting but then vacillated once he accepted the nomination; vacillation which was mostly due to the Union army taking Atlanta.[iii] The fall of Atlanta caused the scramble for a new candidate to shift from the Republicans to the Democrats, the latter of which was also plagued with factions.[iv] McClellan navigated those factions by doing what any skilled politician does: changing his positions: while he had previously advocated war to achieve reunion, with the Peace Democrats not having their preferred candidates step forward, McClellan had little choice but to embrace the party’s platform to ensure the nomination was his.[v] With Ohioan George Pendleton as his running mate, the platform condemned Lincoln’s government for its suppression of free speech and arbitrary arrests, and as a signal to the Confederates as much as to the more conservative members of the party, the platform vowed to preserve the “rights of the States unimpaired,” a thinly veiled promise to permit slavery.[vi] Although the fall of Atlanta had brought about a “remarkable transformation in the mood of Republicans” and “secured a sudden unanimity for Mr. Lincoln,” the Democrats were equally affected; their odds for winning the election had lengthened with the fall of Atlanta, and without help from somewhere or someone else, Lincoln appeared destined to remain in the White House.[vii]

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John Frémont.

John Frémont’s candidacy appeared to be the solution to McClellan’s—and the rebels’—puzzle of how to unseat Lincoln. As a war hero from the early days of fighting, and buttressed by his reputation as a cavalier explorer, Frémont was expected to siphon votes from Lincoln’s re-election bid. However, the more clever politician, Lincoln, was not to be outdone by Frémont: Lincoln had been holding a car in his pocket; the Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, a Republican finding himself in close company with the radical wing of the party, had expressed to Lincoln that whenever the President should have needed Blair’s resignation, he was free to call for and receive it.[viii] Although Lincoln had previously viewed accepting Blair’s resignation as sacrificing “a true friend to a false one or an avowed enemy,” Lincoln had learned that if Blair were to resign from the Cabinet, Frémont would withdraw his candidacy; and thus, it was so.[ix] Lincoln wrote to Blair: “You have generously said to me more than once that whenever your resignation could be a relief to me, it was at my disposal. The time has come. You very well know that this proceeds from no dissatisfaction of mine with you personally or officially. Your uniform kindness has been unsurpassed by that of any friend.”[x]

Even with these maneuvers, Lincoln, with summer coming to a close, expected defeat. He confided in an army officer, “I am going to be beaten, and unless some great change takes place badly beaten.”[xi] The expectation became so solidified that he wrote a memorandum—and asked his Cabinet to sign it sight unseen—which read: “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.”[xii] While the fall of Atlanta would occur within weeks of Lincoln’s memorandum—and despite the fact that Lincoln gained, with Blair’s resignation and Frémont’s withdrawal, “the backing of the radicals without losing the affection and support of the conservative and powerful Blairs”—there was still a lingering feeling that the country would not back its President.[xiii]

October 11 served as a leading indicator of Lincoln’s chances against McClellan as the state elections in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana were that day. With ballot counting being reported through the wires, Lincoln gathered with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and their secretaries in the telegraph office to take the news as it came: slowly and with questions about its accuracy.[xiv] With returns trickling in, Lincoln found himself with the opportunity to open the latest pamphlet from humorist Petroleum V. Nasby and read passages between updates.[xv] While some, like John Hay—a secretary to Lincoln—found the readings “immensely amusing,” Stanton had no such appetite for light-heartedness as he made clear to his assistant secretary Charles Dana.[xvi] Dana later recalled: “I shall never forget the fire of his indignation at what seemed to be mere nonsense. . . . when the safety of the Republic was thus at issue, when the control of an empire was to be determined by a few figures brought in by the telegraph, the leader, the man most deeply concerned, not merely for himself but for his country, could turn aside to read such balderdash and to laugh at such frivolous jests.”[xvii] Lincoln’s finding comfort in humor amidst intense pressure did not taint anything more than Stanton’s mood: the returns showed resounding victories in Ohio and Indiana with a more narrow win in Pennsylvania.[xviii] With four weeks to election day, and with the state election results in mind, Lincoln took a page of telegraph paper and “slowly and deliberately, stopping at times in thoughtful mood to look out of the window for a moment or two,” tallied up the votes he expected to receive and those he supposed McClellan to earn: Lincoln 117 to McClellan 114.[xix] If the election did in fact play out to this result, Lincoln felt “the moral effect of his triumph would be broken and his power to prosecute the war and make peace would be greatly impaired.”[xx]

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Political Cartoon During the Campaign.

While Democrat-leaning publishers expected McClellan to draw a sizable vote based on his platform and reputation as a favorite of the soldiers during the early war, Lincoln trusted that, in fact, he had developed a strong bond with the soldiers and that those soldiers’ absentee votes would swing the election to him.[xxi] Such votes were now permitted in nineteen states, and while it would serve as a referendum by the soldiers as to whether they should continue to fight the war, General Ulysses S. Grant saw the practice as simply American citizens voting, which “they have as much right to do as those citizens who remain at home. Nay, more, for they have sacrificed more for their country.”[xxii] With Lincoln’s riding through the lines after defeats and sitting with the wounded in hospital tents, one historian has figured that at least a quarter of a million soldiers saw with their own eyes the care and humor that emanated from Lincoln.[xxiii] With over 850,000 soldiers fighting for the Union, the election was likely to be swayed, if not controlled, by the men who were fighting or had fought the war; and those men had two options: the former general beloved by his army but ultimately unsuccessful in defeating his enemy or the man in Washington that, caring and kind as he may have been, refused to pull the men out of harm’s way until the objective of total victory was achieved.[xxiv] The New York Times viewed the re-election of Lincoln as a vote for “war, tremendous and terrible, yet ushering in at the end every national security and glory” while voting for McClellan was choosing “the mocking shadow of peace . . . sure to rob us of our birthright, and to entail upon our children a dissevered Union and ceaseless strife.”[xxv]

Unable to vote because Illinois only permitted votes from its residents that were within the borders, Lincoln spent election day in the White House for it was a rainy and dark day in Washington.[xxvi] He confessed his anxieties about the result: “about this thing I am very far from being certain. I wish I were certain.”[xxvii] While he tried to tend to his work, he found it difficult and would occasionally turn to telling a humorous story to break the tension. When evening came, he took Hay to the telegraph office to watch the returns as they came through, and he noted to Hay, “It is a little singular that I who am not a vindictive man, should have been before the people for election in canvasses marked for their bitterness.”[xxviii]

When news first came over the wires, it was good: there were larger Republican majorities than those in the state elections a month prior—and with that news, Lincoln asked Mary to be informed of it as “she is more anxious than I.”[xxix] By midnight, Lincoln could dine on fried oysters and breathe more easily than he had in the campaign. Although the extent of the win was not yet known and would not be clear for several days, the returns from Pennsylvania and New York were positive and foreshadowed victory; in the final analysis, he would win all but three states—New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky—which would bring his electoral count to 212 as against McClellan’s 21.[xxx] The soldiers had voted for their commander-in-chief, whom some called Father Abraham, and sent him back to the White House for another term. At around two o’clock in the morning, Lincoln made his way out of the telegraph office and into the streets where he was met with an impromptu crowd of serenaders belting out “Battle Cry of Freedom” on Pennsylvania Avenue.[xxxi] Back in the comfort of the White House, Lincoln could begin to digest the people’s verdict which was so “full, clear, and unmistakable” that there was little doubt he could carry out the war effort how he and his administration wished.[xxxii]

In the newspapers, the result was reported in some corners with surprise. An American correspondent for the London Daily News wrote of his astonishment at the “extent and depth” of the “determination . . . to fight to the last.” The people of the Union states “are in earnest in a way the like of which the world never saw before, silently, calmly, but desperately in earnest.”[xxxiii]

Indeed, Lincoln could find himself in bed at the White House pleased with the election results and forget the story he had told in the telegraph office earlier in the evening about the night of the 1860 election. That night, he had rested on a horsehair sofa and saw his reflection in a mirror across the room but also saw a second face superimposed on it. When he got up to inspect the mirror, the illusion vanished, and when he lay down again, it reappeared. He rose once more only for the image to disappear as he approached. When he told Mary of his experience that night, she took it as a sign that he would win re-election in 1864 but would not survive the second term.[xxxiv]

But the meaning of the moment was poignant, and it would overpower ill omens for the night. Speaking briefly to the well-wishers that had gathered at the White House earlier in the evening, he noted, “The strife of the election is but human nature practically applied to the facts of the case. What has occurred in this case must ever recur in similar cases. Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.”[xxxv]

And so Lincoln had his mandate, and the pressures of the office would not be relenting but perhaps even intensifying. One guard in the White House would later recall, “I could hear his deep breathing. Sometimes, after a day of unusual anxiety, I have heard him moan in his sleep. It gave me a curious sensation. While the expression of Mr. Lincoln’s face was always sad when he was quiet, it gave one the assurance of calm. He never seemed to doubt the wisdom of an action when he had once decided on it. And so when he was in a way defenseless in his sleep, it made me feel the pity that would almost have been an impertinence when he was awake. I would stand there and listen until a sort of panic stole over me. If he felt the weight of things so heavily how much worse the situation of the country must be than any of us realized! At last I would walk softly away, feeling as if I had been listening at a keyhole.”[xxxvi]


[i] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, 653.

[ii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 770.

[iii] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, 653-56.

[iv] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 776.

[v] Id. at 771.

[vi] Id. at 772.

[vii] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, 656.

[viii] Id. at 658.

[ix] Id. at 658-59.

[x] Id. at 659.

[xi] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 771.

[xii] Id. (quoting Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1952-55), Vol. VII, 514).

[xiii] See Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, 661.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Id. at 661-62.

[xviii] Id. at 662.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] See id. at 663.

[xxii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 804 (quoting War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, 1880-1901), Ser. I, Vol. 42, pt. 2, 1045-46).

[xxiii] See Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, 663.

[xxiv] See id. at 664.

[xxv] Id.

[xxvi] Id.

[xxvii] Id.

[xxviii] Id. at 665.

[xxix] Id.

[xxx] Id. at 664.

[xxxi] Id. at 666.

[xxxii] Id.

[xxxiii] London Daily News, Sept. 27, 1864 (quoted in Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, 4 vols. (New York, 1971), Vol. IV: The Organized War to Victory, 1864-1865, 141).

[xxxiv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 625.

[xxxv] Id. at 626.

[xxxvi] Id.

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