How the Union Pulled Off a Presidential Election During the Civil War


The United States has never delayed a presidential election. But there was one case where some wondered if the country should do it: when the nation was involved in the civil war.

The 1864 election was the second American presidential election to be held in wartime (the first was during the War of 1812). However, it was not the logistics of a wartime election that prompted some to postpone it. Rather, it was the fact that in the spring of 1864, the Union did not have a clear path to victory, and many feared that President Abraham Lincoln would not win re-election.

Three years of war and no end in sight

Soldiers read articles about the 1864 election.

Soldiers read articles about the 1864 election.

Buy Now / Getty Images

Today, conventional wisdom is that presidential candidates in office are more likely to be re-elected, especially in wartime. Franklin Delano Roosevelt won an unprecedented fourth term in World War II, and Richard Nixon delayed peace talks in Vietnam because he believed that prolonging the Vietnam War would help his chances of re-election in 1972 (and indeed, he won a second term). Yet in 1864 this was not a common assumption – the eight presidents directly preceding Lincoln had each served one term or less.

Lincoln’s main weakness as a candidate was that the Union war against Confederation was not going well. In the spring of 1864, the civil war had gone on for three years with no end in sight, and many voters (that is, white men aged 21 and over) were getting tired of the war. Lincoln agreed with his advisers that his chances of winning a re-election seemed grim, but he disagreed with those who suggested that he postpone the election.

“Lincoln has always believed that the civil war is, first of all, a question of democracy”, says Eric Foner, Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University and author of The second foundation: how the civil war and reconstruction redone the Constitution.

“[Lincoln thought] if you suspend democracy in the middle of the war, you are basically undermining the whole purpose of the war, ”he continues. “So even when he thought he was going to lose, he never really considered suspending the presidential election.” (Lincoln, however, suspended the writ of habeas corpus and disregarded a decision of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that it did not have the power to do so.)

Abraham Lincoln War Race

Lincoln and johnson, 1864 election

Lincoln and Johnson 1864 campaign banner.

David J. and Janice L. Frent / Corbis / Getty Images

When Lincoln first ran for president in 1860, it was his Republican Party which had a stronghold in the north, and the Democratic Party which had found its popularity in the south. When 11 southern states seceded to join Confederation, the Republican Party became the dominant political party in the Union. Despite this, for the 1864 election, the Republican Party decided to join with some Democrats to form the Party of National Union.

Despite concerns about Lincoln’s eligibility, the National Union supported him as a presidential candidate. Yet, notably, Lincoln abandoned his current Republican vice president to run with Andrew Johnson, a Democrat who had previously supported slavery, in an attempt to “swing the ticket.”

Meanwhile, a divided democratic party named George McClellan, a popular general who had served in the Union army. Lincoln’s campaign position was that there would be no ceasefire until the south joined the north and ended slavery. In contrast, McClellan said his only condition for ending the war would be for the Confederate states to join the Union.

Lincoln Opponents Launched Racist Campaign

A racist political caricature representing a

Racist political caricature depicting a fictional “crossbreeding ball” at the headquarters of the Lincoln Central Campaign Club, circa 1864.

Library of Congress

Whether slavery continued or not – as well as the plight of black Americans – was not a priority for McClellan or the Democratic Party. And in his bid to win the votes of war-weary white Northerners, he launched “probably the most racist presidential campaign in American history,” said David Goldfield, professor of history at the University of Carolina. du Nord to Charlotte and author of America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation.

For example, a Democratic political cartoon exploited the fears of Caucasian Americans about interracial sex by portraying a “fictional mixed race ball at the headquarters of the Lincoln Central Campaign Club.” Another pamphlet from the Democratic campaign referred to Lincoln as “Abraham Africanus the first” and declared that the first command of the Republican Party was “You will have no other God than the negro”.

In the end, what helped Lincoln win McClellan was not the fact that he wanted to end slavery. It’s the fact that in the two months before the elections, the Union won military victories capturing Atlanta and winning a major battle in the Shenandoah Valley. These military victories boosted the morale of both civilian and military voters. The soldiers in particular seemed to agree with Lincoln’s campaign slogan: “Don’t change horses in the middle of a stream.”

Getting out of wartime voting

Election of 1864

Union army soldiers line up to vote during the American Civil War, 1864.

Provisional Archives / Getty Images

In order to succeed in the 1864 elections, the Union needed a way for soldiers stationed far from home to vote. To this end, most northern states have passed new laws allowing soldiers to vote by mail in military camps. However, as soldiers were more likely to vote for their current commander-in-chief, there were partisan attempts to suppress their votes.

“In states where the Democrats controlled the state legislature, like Indiana, they did not allow soldiers to vote in their military camps,” says Foner. “But the War Department somehow encouraged the commanders to let these soldiers go home for a week or something to be able to vote.”

The election also included three new states: Kansas, West Virginia and Nevada. Kansas joined the Union as a free state in 1861, just after Lincoln’s first presidential election and before the start of the Civil War. West Virginia joined it in 1863 after breaking away from the Confederate State of Virginia. And Nevada became a state on October 31, 1864, just a week before the election, in part because Congress thought it could give Lincoln an electoral advantage, says Foner.

On November 8, Lincoln won a landslide. It obtained 54% of the civil votes, 78% of the military votes and 212 electoral votes in 22 states. In comparison, McClellan won 21 electoral votes in just three states: Delaware, Kentucky, and his home state, New Jersey. The victory meant that Lincoln continued to wage war with the aim of reuniting the country and abolishing slavery.

“I think it was one of the most important elections in our history,” said John C. Waugh, historical journalist and author of Lincoln Re-election: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency. “And thank God, Lincoln won.”

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