The Civil War: John G. Nicolay: Memoranda Regarding Abraham Lincoln

November 5-6, 1860

Who won the presidential election of 1860 would shape the following weeks and months—not because the winner would immediately take power; but because the direction of the country would come into focus. Perhaps the South would avoid its worst fear of having a Black Republican in the White House. Or perhaps their worst fear would become reality: Abraham Lincoln would win the election; then, there would be no choice but to go on with seceding between the election—in November—and the inauguration—in March. And then, for the South, there would finally be a cause for conflict; and not just a conflict of words but, for some, an overdue start to warfare with the North.


Lincoln saw that his election would almost certainly set off Southerners and provoke them into taking more drastic action. He spent election day (and the day prior) of 1860 in Springfield, Illinois with his staff, including John G. Nicolay, a former journalist who had become Lincoln’s secretary.

Nicolay, who documented Lincoln’s fears and frustrations, was among the two who captured the essence of the Lincoln administration. He vividly described the scenes, including the election day, deemed as “the most important election in the country’s history.” While it caused anxiety for Lincoln’s opponents, it inspired others.

Nicolay wrote a memorandum describing the moment when Lincoln went to cast his vote:

“It is Election day—and Hon. A Lincoln has just been over to vote. The Court House steps, (in which building the polls were held,) were thronged with People, who welcomed him with immense cheering, and followed him in dense numbers along the hall and up stairs into the Court room, which was also crowded. Here the applause became absolutely deafening, and from the time he entered the room and until he cast his vote and again left it, there was wild huzzaing, waving of hats, and all sorts of demonstrations of applause,—rendering all other noises insignificant & futile.”

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