We all know who won. But notes from the campaign trail tell more of the story.
As the war-weary Union anticipated the upcoming presidential election, beleaguered incumbent Abraham Lincoln faced the prospect of losing his office to the man he had fired as commander of the Army of the Potomac less than two years before.
Lincoln’s reelection wasn’t the only thing at stake. The president was convinced that the Union was in even greater danger than it had been before. His own party was divided between mainline Republicans like himself and the Radical Republicans, who didn’t think Lincoln’s abolition policy went far enough.
The Democrats were split as well. “War Democrats,” including nominee and former Army of the Potomac commander George McClellan, supported the military but not necessarily abolition, and the more conservative “Peace Democrats” opposed the war and wanted an immediate settlement with the South. Republican opponents nicknamed the latter group “Copperheads” after the venomous snake known to strike without warning.
With ominous reports from the battlefront and voters tired of war, Lincoln had a long, difficult campaign ahead—and by the summer of 1864 the president had all but conceded electoral defeat come November.
First in War
The 1864 race for the White House was the United States’ first presidential election during wartime. Proposals to postpone the election until the war ended gained little serious consideration.
In 1864 Republicans policies were considered liberal; the Democratic Party meanwhile was considered conservative.
Even though they were still deprived of the franchise, women took active roles campaigning for Lincoln.
Taking the Pulse
The 1864 campaign featured unprecedented polling, particularly by Republican operatives.
Going For the Swing Vote
The Republican Party adopted a new name for the election—the Union Party— hoping to attract unionist Democrats.
A group of Radical Republicans met in Cleveland a week before the Republican Party’s convention in Baltimore, and nominated its own candidate—former California Senator John C. Frémont, who had been the new Republican Party’s first presidential candidate in 1856. Lincoln had removed Frémont from command of the Department of the West in 1862. Frémont withdrew his candidacy in September.
Reports of conspiracies between Peace Democrats and the Confederate government to manipulate the election abounded—including a plan, financed with a half-million Confederate dollars, to raise an insurrection among Copperheads in the West with an aim toward creating a western confederacy
Thanks So Much, George
Democrats called the war a failure and denounced emancipation—even though McClellan’s claim to military victory in Maryland in 1862 permitted Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
Note Quite on Message
Although McClellan supported the war— despite remaining critical of Lincoln’s handling of it—and repudiated his party’s peace platform, his running mate was an avowed Copperhead closely associated with leader Clement Vallandigham.
His Old Kentucky Home
Lincoln lost in his birth state, Kentucky, as “Little Mac” won nearly 70 percent of the vote.
McClellan’s running mate, George Pendleton, was a congressman from Ohio who opposed the war.
Lincoln’s 1864 running mate, Andrew Johnson, was a Southern War Democrat from Tennessee, where he was governor.
Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, a former senator from Maine, was dropped from the Republican ticket in favor of Democrat Andrew Johnson—but still supported the Lincoln administration. During the summer of 1864, the vice president briefly served in the Union Army when his Maine Coast Guard unit was called to active duty. He reported July 7, drilled and performed guard and kitchen duties along with the other soldiers, although as vice president he was provided more comfortable officers’ quarters. His tour of duty ended in September, and he actively campaigned for Lincoln throughout New England and in New York and Pennsylvania.
The Surge Worked
Because of the Democrats’ peace platform, the election became not only a contest for the White House, but a referendum on the war itself. The election tide turned with new Union victories during the autumn of 1864 and the masses of soldiers who cast their ballots for Lincoln.
No election year would be complete without the essential party chotsky designed to etch the candidate’s name or visage firmly on the voter’s mind. Long before bumper stickers and keychains, party faithful could collect a whole closet full of partisan political trinkets—from stationery to teapots.
Hawks vs. Doves Sound familiar?
The respective political party platforms from 1864 offer a taste of the political arguments then swirling around the Northern states. The Democrats insisted their objective was to “preserve the Federal Union and the rights of the States unimpaired.” The party platform declared the war unconstitutional, and demanded that “immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities, with a view of an ultimate convention of the States, or any other peaceable means, to the end that, at the earliest practicable moment, peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union of the States.”
Republicans, on the other hand, declared the only peaceable solution was the “unconditional surrender of [the South’s] hostility and a return to their just allegiance to the Constitution and the laws of the United States” and called on the government to “prosecute the war with the utmost possible vigor to the complete suppression of the Rebellion.”
While the Democratic platform was mainly silent on slavery, the Republicans openly declared slavery to be “the cause, and now constitutes the strength of this Rebellion.” They called for a Constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery anywhere in the United States.
The Republicans also endorsed Abraham Lincoln and his policies, including the Emancipation Proclamation, and gave their blessing to recruiting black troops for the Union Army.
Both platforms expressed gratitude toward members of the military and promised to compensate them for injuries— but the Republicans did so early on, while the Democrats finally recognized them toward the end of the party convention. This perceived afterthought was not lost on soldiers and sailors, who voted in droves for the Republicans.
And while the Democrats’ platform—a much more abbreviated document than the Republicans’—mainly railed against the war, the Republicans also: • Encouraged immigration • Supported construction of a transcontinental railroad • Called for a “vigorous and just system of taxation” • Warned European nations to butt out
The Democrats hoped to capitalize on public disillusion with the war with its “peace plank,” which was the handiwork of Clement Vallandigham, a former Ohio congressman and the leader of the Copperhead faction. He had spent a chunk of the war in Canada after his antiwar views got him into trouble with the law.
But attempts before the war to preserve both the Union and states’ rights had clearly failed. And Vallandigham’s rhetoric to “maintain the Constitution as it is, and the restored Union as it was” ignored the Confederacy’s stated war aim of independence—the Davis administration had no particular desire for a reunion with the North; it just wanted out.
It didn’t help the Democrats that their presidential candidate, Maj. Gen. George McClellan, repudiated the peace plank, widening the chasm between the Copperheads and the War Democrats.
Still, the war was going badly for the Union when the Democrats assembled for their Chicago convention, and as late as the week before they met, Lincoln was convinced the Democrats would win.