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Despite McClellan’s former popularity with the soldiers, they overwhelmingly backed Lincoln in the election of 1864.

The year 1864 was a particularly troubled time for a presidential election. In fact, no election in history ever took place at a worse time. As President Abraham Lincoln began his second bid for the White House, the nation entered its fourth year of bitter civil war. Growing dissent against an unpopular conscription policy brought about draft riots and desertions that seemed to indicate a crumbling of national unity. Casualty lists grew constantly as a result of seemingly endless fighting, and many Americans wanted peace at any price. It seemed almost a miracle that the election was going to be held at all.

In the midst of this national turmoil, Lincoln knew that the outcome of the election could be determined by the men who were fighting in the field. The story of how a president earned the loyalty of the soldiers who had previously been so dedicated to his political adversary, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, is remarkable. It is a tale about the unusual bond that developed between this president and his army. In the end, it was the men on the front lines who helped reconstruct a nation— through both bloodshed and ballots.

In every aspect of his political career, Lincoln was a stern realist. He was a realist about the sweeping forces of the time, saying bluntly that he had not controlled events, but events had controlled him. He was realistic about public support, remarking wisely in the midst of one crisis, “I do not need sympathy nearly so much as I need success.” Another time he said, “Public sentiment is everything.” He understood the concept of mission and how to achieve an objective. When politicians protested against a new draft in the midst of the presidential campaign, pointing out that it might cost him the election, he demanded, “What is the presidency worth to me if I have no country?” He also understood the tremendous impact that emancipating the slaves could have on the Union war effort—politically, morally and even militarily. Millions of newly liberated black men could be a vast resource for the Army and Navy. Above all, Lincoln was a realist in understanding that in order to “preserve the institutions of this country— those institutions which have made us free,” he needed to build and maintain a formidable citizen army.

Lincoln was acutely aware that many of the nation’s soldiers were mere boys called to manhood too soon. So potent was his sense of responsibility for the lives of these young men that the president walked among them daily, talking and listening to them as a father would. In fact, many soldiers would come to call him “Father Abraham” or “Uncle Abe.” Lincoln’s fondness for these young men formed the basis of a strong bond that developed between them and their leader over the course of the war. The soldiers generally respected Lincoln and believed he had their best interests at heart, even when he was appointing inept generals to command them.

Lincoln knew it was essential that the president be a respected figure to whom the soldiers and the nation could turn for leadership and inspiration, and he was determined to provide it. In that endeavor he was aided by his boyhood reading of Parson Weems’ biography of George Washington. While not a particularly good biography from a factual perspective, Weems’ writing inspired Lincoln to view Washington literally and figuratively as the father of the country.

Lincoln’s thoughts were very much on the legacy of Washington as a war leader during his two-week inaugural journey to the capital in February 1861. The president-elect pondered whether his generation would come to the aid of the country in the same way those whom Weems called Washington’s “children” had answered their father’s call. According to Norman Dixon, in his book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence: “Gradually, as he got closer to Washington, a change, perhaps unwitting, came over Lincoln’s remarks. More and more he sought to identify himself very personally with the cause of Union, perhaps recalling the way Weems so completely made Washington and the cause of independence synonymous.”

In July 1861, after the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run, Lincoln summoned McClellan to Washington to command the Army of the Potomac, and eventually to succeed the aging Winfield Scott as commander of all the Union armies. McClellan took a proprietary interest in the Army of the Potomac and made a point of deliberately identifying with his men. McClellan never forgot the hold that General Scott had over his troops in Mexico. To him it seemed the morale of the soldiers and officers was directly related to the confidence they had in their commanding general.

McClellan had linked morale so directly to the personal popularity of the commanding general that this characteristic had come to be weighted equally with military ability in his mind. He set out to be as familiar to the men in the ranks as their company commanders. Major General John Gibbon recalled an incident in which McClellan shook an enlisted man’s hand and congratulated him on the fight his brigade had just made. In no time at all news of it had spread to the entire brigade. This was how he won the soldiers’ confidence and became affectionately known as “Little Mac.”

Though Lincoln respected that McClellan had won the loyalty of his men, he believed the general’s military leadership left much to be desired. McClellan was replaced shortly after the bloody Battle of Antietam and faded into the background until making his bid for the White House. Lincoln was open about why he removed him. The exasperated president concluded that McClellan had a case of the “slows.” “He is an admirable engineer,” Lincoln reportedly said, “but he seems to have a special talent for a stationary engine.”

Little Mac was simply not a fighting man. Hard, tough combat would ultimately win the war, not strategy. Lincoln believed that the Army must be officered by fighting men, and he decided the country could no longer afford a general like McClellan.

By the time McClellan was relieved, the president was not alone in his frustration. Although Lincoln did not know about it, the general had begun losing important support among the common soldiers. A soldier out West wrote, “There is McClellan at the Potomac with a force sufficient if ever he will have and still nothing done.”

When McClellan left the Army of the Potomac on November 10, 1862, there was a general difference of opinion between the officers and the rank and file. The farther up the chain of command one went in the army, the more critical the officers were of the president rather than their commanding general. The loyalty of the officers toward McClellan was understandable—he was responsible for placing many of them in command. But the support for Lincoln among the enlisted men was increasing. “Mr. Lincoln seemed to tower as a giant,” wrote one Wisconsin man after observing the president. A Massachusetts sergeant recalled: “I could easily perceive why and how he was called ‘Honest Abe’….He looked careworn and troubled, and I thought I could detect a look of pity as he scanned our line. I think his coming down to see us done us all good.”

The year of McClellan was over, and Lincoln had won the first of two great battles for the loyalty of his soldiers. The other—support for the president’s reelection as he ran against McClellan—was already underway, but its outcome was still two years away.

As that critical juncture approached, the Republican convention met in Baltimore in June 1864. Despite all the high-level intrigue in the party aimed at eliminating Lincoln, delegates were strongly influenced by a general grass-roots preference for him, and by widespread Federal patronage that had expanded greatly during Lincoln’s wartime administration.

The preelection months were the saddest and most difficult of Lincoln’s troubled administration. He had expected that he would be attacked by the Democrats, but the leaders of his own party and the Republican newspapers continued to hint that there might be a better candidate. In August Lincoln despaired so much over the unlikelihood of his success that he secretly wrote out a statement saying it was extremely probable that he would not be reelected, and that he would consider it his duty to cooperate with the president-elect at once, so as to save the Union. He asked his cabinet members to initial the envelope.

McClellan was nominated for president at the Democratic convention in late August. Yet the Democrats who supported the war remained unhappy with the party’s platform. The convention tried an all-inclusive approach by simultaneously pledging continuation of the war and making overtures for peace. The peace plank was so strongly presented that even McClellan immediately repudiated it. On the other hand, the Republican Party’s platform included a commitment to a constitutional amendment ending slavery everywhere and a determination to prosecute the war to total victory without compromise. The campaign began to look like a battle between a president who was losing the war and a general who might be prepared to sue for peace.

Both parties realized the importance of the soldier vote, and they began to directly campaign for it. This was an innovation in 1864, as soldiers in the field had not been permitted to vote prior to the Civil War.

Both the president and the first lady had shown continual support and concern for soldiers by regularly visiting the military hospitals around the capital. Lincoln vigorously campaigned among the troops by making trips to the front and by greeting them in Washington. More important were Lincoln’s widely reprinted public statements directed at soldiers. He used these to emphasize the crucial importance of the struggle, telling the 166th Ohio on the same day he wrote his famous blind memorandum, “It is not merely for today, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children’s children this great and free government.” He told the soldiers he was a living testament that any man, however humble, could rise to the highest office in the land and that the soldiers were fighting for their constitutional freedoms so “that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life.” This was campaigning at a time when candidates generally did little direct campaigning with the electorate.

The popular press, especially the illustrated weeklies like Frank Leslie’s and Harper’s Weekly, often ran woodcuts showing Lincoln circulating among the troops. Framed lithographs of these scenes were placed in many Northern homes.

McClellan remained in virtual seclusion during the campaign, handling most business through a secretary. He stood on his record and issued no statements of policy after writing his acceptance letter. He made only two public appearances: at a party rally in Newark in September and, shortly before election day, at a massive torchlight parade in New York. The former commander refused repeated urgings to appear in his home state of Pennsylvania, which was pivotal in the election.

The soldiers sensed a basic difference between Lincoln and McClellan. Lincoln was the straight shooter who told it the way it was. By contrast, McClellan prevaricated and tried to reconcile the conflict between his own position and that of the party’s peace platform.

Several influential factors would ultimately affect the soldier vote, including Lincoln’s momentous Emancipation Proclamation. As did the support for its author, support for emancipation in the Army tended to vary with rank. Officers of McClellan’s army openly ridiculed the proclamation, while many common soldiers received it with greater understanding. “I am glad, more than ever, that I enlisted since I have read the President’s Proclamation because I think the fight is freedom or slavery,” a private in a Massachusetts outfit wrote.

The fact that Lincoln persisted in issuing the final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, also had an impact on the men. One Missouri soldier confessed, “I am awaiting with great anxiety to here whether Old Abe sticks up to his Sept. proclamation. if he shrinks back in the least from that the thing is done and my hopes are gone.”

By the time of the election on November 8, 1864, emancipation was less an issue with the soldiers than it was with Northern civilians. Those who had to fight were the first to recognize that with emancipation the war meant subjugation of the South. Some believed that this was their strongest weapon to date.

The fact that the soldiers were being given the chance to vote at all had a powerful effect on them and the election. In September 1862, Wisconsin enacted the first law that made it possible for soldiers to cast their ballots in the field. Fourteen Northern states followed Wisconsin’s precedent. On the other hand, seven states made no special provision for voting by the men in the field in time for the election.

States with Democratic legislatures (Illinois, Indiana and New Jersey) ensured that there would be no voting in camp by absentee ballot, as they feared Lincoln would prevail. Republican Governor Oliver Morton of Indiana suggested that all soldiers unfit for service— many of whom languished in hospitals outside of the state—be sent home for the election. President Lincoln agreed.

The soldier-vote legislation in the states that permitted it followed the same pattern first adopted by Wisconsin. The laws permitted all qualified electors (there were no provisions for black soldiers) who were currently serving to vote at any of the posts, camps or other locations where regiments were stationed. Ranking officers or commissioners sent to the unit by the states would act as inspectors, and clerks were appointed. Other sections prescribed the voting hours, the right of inspectors or commissioners to challenge electors, the maintenance of poll lists and that votes be counted and transmitted to the respective secretaries of state, who would then forward the votes to county boards for the final tallies.

Some states, like Minnesota, mandated secret ballots, with the cards sealed in an envelope and forwarded to the election districts for mingling with the votes cast in the home district. In these states, it is impossible to determine the preferences of the servicemen. Other states required soldiers to return home to vote. Ten thousand troops were reportedly granted leave from General William T. Sherman’s army to vote in their own states.

Of the total vote cast in the field in the election of 1864, Lincoln received 121,152 to McClellan’s 34,922. In the states where soldiers had to return home to vote, definitive results are more difficult to obtain. In Connecticut, where absentee ballots were counted separately, Lincoln won by a scant 2,405 votes. The soldiers cast 2,898 for him, thus assuring victory in that state. Out of half a million votes in Pennsylvania, Lincoln won by a majority of only about 20,000, with 26,712 ballots cast by soldiers. The soldier vote won the day in New York as well, as Lincoln carried the state by only 7,740 votes. In California the total vote for Lincoln was 62,134 and 43,841 for McClellan. The soldiers voted 2,600 for the president and 237 for Little Mac. The ratios for Lincoln were 4-to-3 in the general vote but 12- to-1 for the troops in the field.

Soldiers were useful in other ways during the election. On election day General Lew Wallace deployed his troops in Baltimore ostensibly to oversee the voting. So efficient was their work that Lincoln carried the city with five times as many votes as McClellan, thus assuring victory in Maryland.

Stories from the front about election fraud flooded partisan newspapers. False election ballots were distributed throughout the camps so that they would later be rejected by election officials. On November 1, the New York Tribune accused Democrats of digging up unmarked soldiers’ graves to secure additional names to place on the ballot list. Officers were accused of opening the envelopes containing soldier ballots and destroying Lincoln votes. Boxes full of soldiers’ envelopes turned up in home states from regiments that had long been out of existence. The Tribune published a list of more than 50 regiments that had been disbanded and warned poll watchers to be on their guard. One soldier wrote that McClellan pamphlets had been distributed in his camp, and since paper was scarce, some men wrapped up their pork ration in them.

But at least one member of the 10th Vermont remained loyal to Little Mac and complained about pressure by his officers to vote Republican. Edwin R. Buxton wrote to E. Ross Esq. on September 7, 1864:


I was the only noncommissioned officer that voted the Democratic ticket…All of our officers were Lincoln men. They would not let Company E vote unless they voted the republican ticket. So there was only 4 votes cast in that Company. if I have an opportunity I will vote for little Mac if I have to go to the Rif-Rafs for it. I expect to be redused to ranks for being a McClellan man. But never the less I am going in for the little Mac. I will talk for Him as mutch as I have a mind to….Three of our Boys have been killed since I was here…. Please send me some Postage Stamps.

No definitive data exists on how sailors voted because most of those who did sent their ballot to their home precincts. Given the logistics involved, it is likely that relatively few sailors cast their ballots in the election of 1864.

Likewise, there is no way of knowing precisely how the officers voted, or if they voted at all. A letter written by General George G. Meade from his headquarters on November 22, 1864, may offer a clue. He wrote: “I do not know how the fact of my not voting has reached Philadelphia….I cannot help but be flattered that so much importance is attached to my action, particularly as nearly all other general officers, including Grant, did the same—that is, not vote.”

Not to be forgotten is that the Army of the Potomac at election time in 1864 was not the same force trained and united by McClellan in 1861-62. Upheaval and hard fighting in the interim, including the bloody seven-week spring campaign in 1864, had seen to that. Many of the army’s best and bravest soldiers had been killed or wounded, and thousands of enlistments had expired. Some 65,000 Northern boys were dead, wounded or missing after the Overland campaign. This amounted to three-fifths of all combat casualties suffered by the Army of the Potomac during the previous three years. Much of the original cadre that so adored Little Mac was no longer present to offer its support.

McClellan himself displayed little interest in the actual workings of politics and was intolerant of politicians. Before the Democratic convention, he wrote to an ally: “Don’t send any politicians out here—I’ll snub them if they come—confound them!” Although he recognized the necessity of greeting the politically influential during the campaign, he did so no more often than necessary and received little joy from the encounters. In response to one delegation’s request for a meeting, he pleaded to aides, “Can’t you invent some way of getting me out of the scrape?” He dutifully corresponded with party leaders and campaign organizers, although he preferred writing them to meeting them.

Ultimately it was the issue of stopping the war short of victory that eroded Little Mac’s support and bolstered Lincoln’s among those who otherwise might have been disposed to vote against the president. One cartoon showed a soldier reacting to McClellan’s supposed readiness to end the war and give in to Jefferson Davis with a caption that read: “Goodbye ‘little Mac’—if that’s your company, Uncle Abe gets my vote.”

Despite the stormy prologue, the rainy, dismal election day passed quietly. Lincoln went to the War Department at about 7 p.m. to spend the evening following election returns with his colleagues.

When the returns were all in, Lincoln had won a popular majority in 22 out of 25 states, losing to McClellan only in Kentucky, Delaware and New Jersey. Lincoln had garnered 55 percent of the popular vote and McClellan 45 percent. The final count was 2,219,924 ballots cast for Lincoln and 1,814,220 for McClellan.

The soldiers left no doubt that they saw the outcome as something greater than just an election result. A New York sergeant called it “a grand moral victory gained over the combined forces of slavery, disunion, treason, tyranny.” A cavalryman who had been deeply attached to McClellan two years before now suggested to his father that the results provided proof “overwhelmingly conclusive of the fact that this is a peoples war—I thank God that the result is as it is—it is the heaviest blow the rebels have received in a long time.”

It was the first time people in the midst of a civil war, including its soldiers, ever experienced the choice of voting for continuing the war or making peace. Or perhaps it just looked that way: In reality, both Lincoln and McClellan favored pursuing the war to a successful victory. But McClellan would have revoked the Emancipation Proclamation and in so doing might have won the election in such a way that he would have been unable to continue the war.

Throughout the long campaign months, while the party politicians bickered and plotted, Lincoln always held to his vision of nationhood, and the soldiers seemed to recognize this. In his reelection, Lincoln was united with the troops in the field who shared his dream of a new and brighter civilization.

To the Union soldiers Lincoln became more than a statesman; he was seen as a prophet and a poet of democracy. The troops understood that their sacrifices were being made on the battlefield for the sake of justice, self-government and progress. Those were the values Lincoln upheld and that both he and the Union troops believed made the fight worthwhile.

Americans will doubtless face great crises in the future as in the past. Superhuman exertions may well again be needed. To those who bear the strain and agony, like their Civil War brethren, there will echo down the inspiring words Lincoln uttered in 1863: “Thanks to all. For the great Republic—for the principle it lives by and keeps alive—for man’s vast future, thanks to all.”


Frank J. Williams, who writes from Providence, R.I., is founding chair of The Lincoln Forum and chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. He serves on the United States Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, and is the author or editor of several books about the sixteenth president.

Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here