November 8, 1864 – Abraham Lincoln won reelection, thus ensuring that the war to destroy the Confederacy and reunite the Union would continue.
In this presidential election, the incumbent Lincoln ran on a “National Union” party ticket that included both Republicans and pro-war Democrats in a united front. Lincoln’s opponent was Democrat George B. McClellan, the popular former general-in-chief whom Lincoln had fired. McClellan had alienated political allies by repudiating his own party’s platform that called for peace at any cost, including southern independence and continuation of slavery.
Two days before the election, General John A. Dix announced that Confederate agents from Canada planned to burn New York City on Election Day. That same day, the U.S. State Department issued a communiqué: “Information has been received from the British provinces to the effect that there is a conspiracy on foot to set fire to the principal cities in the Northern States on the day of the Presidential election.”
Democratic Governor Horatio Seymour tried calming fears by declaring, “There is no reason to doubt that the coming election will be conducted with the usual quiet and order.” Nevertheless, the Lincoln administration dispatched Major General Benjamin F. Butler and 7,000 Federal troops to New York City and the harbor forts to supervise the election process.
Even without potential panic in New York, Lincoln’s reelection seemed assured before Election Day. On the 7th, James Russell Lowell published “The Next General Election” in the influential North American Review. He supported Lincoln and denounced Democratic attempts to reconcile with southerners. He called Lincoln “a long-headed and long-purposed man” who had “shown from the first the considerate wisdom of a practical statesman.”
On Election Day, government officials received furloughs to go home and vote. Washington seemed empty as a result; prominent banker Henry D. Cooke observed that “the streets wear a quiet Sunday air—in the Department building(s), the empty corridors respond with hollow echoes to the foot fall of the solitary visitor; the hotels are almost tenantless, and the street cars drone lazily along the half-filled seats.”
The Lincoln administration also furloughed soldiers and sailors with the expectation that they would vote for Lincoln. As a result, over 150,000 soldiers and sailors in the Federal military cast ballots for who they wanted as their commander-in-chief. Lincoln even allowed party officials to use a boat on the Mississippi River to collect ballots from the crews of gunboats patrolling the waterway.
Lincoln and his fellow National Unionists expressed optimism, but they expected the election to be close. Storms delayed telegraphic results, but by 7 p.m. on the 8th, Lincoln walked to the War Department telegraph office and began reading the results as they trickled in. The first messages showed larger Republican majorities than anticipated. To his surprise, he won Philadelphia by 10,000 votes and Baltimore by 15,000. By midnight, it was clear that Lincoln had won handily.
The ticket of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson won 55 percent of the popular vote, including 400,000 more votes than the ticket of George McClellan and George Pendleton. Lincoln won the Electoral College 212 to 21, with McClellan carrying only New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky. Soldiers voted overwhelmingly for Lincoln, 116,887 to 33,748; Lincoln won eight of every 10 soldier votes in the western armies and seven of every 10 in McClellan’s old Army of the Potomac. This indicated they wanted to finish the job they had been sent to do.
Democrats made the biggest gains in the major cities and counties with large Irish and German-American populations. Republicans won using the same successful formula from 1860—harnessing the voting power of native-born farmers, high-skilled workers, city professionals, young voters, and New Englanders.
Military victories at Mobile Bay, Atlanta, and the Shenandoah Valley contributed to Lincoln’s reelection. Radical Republican John C. Fremont’s withdrawal from the race also played a part, as did McClellan’s repudiation of his own party’s anti-war stance.
In addition to Lincoln’s victory, Republicans or Unionists maintained strong majorities in both the House of Representatives (149 to 42) and the Senate (42 to 10). This further ensured that Lincoln’s policies would continue for at least another two years.
Considering Lincoln’s ability to influence the election with military furloughs, martial law, and suspension of habeas corpus, his victory was much narrower than the numbers indicated. Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana said that all “the power and influence of the War Department, then something enormous from the vast expenditure and extensive relations of the war, was employed to secure the re-election of Mr. Lincoln.” Even so, Lincoln could only garner a 10 percent margin of victory in an election that excluded all southern states.
While soldiers voted overwhelmingly for Lincoln, ballots were not cast in secret and it was tacitly understood that Democratic military officers who criticized Lincoln could lose their commissions. Curiously, the soldier vote went strongly for McClellan in Kentucky (3,068 to 1,205), where Federal authorities did not supervise the polls. McClellan also soundly won that state’s total popular vote, 61,478 to 26,592. Lincoln lost his home county in Illinois (Sangamon), and all its neighboring counties. Most big cities favored McClellan, with New York City and Detroit voting three-to-one against Lincoln.
However, the soldier vote in favor of Lincoln proved the difference in Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Indiana, and Illinois. Lincoln won the key state of New York by just 7,000 votes, and he won the states with the most electoral votes (New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio) by just 86,407 out of 1,774,131 ballots cast, or a margin of less than five percent. Missouri also went strongly for Lincoln, where Federal officials required voters to swear allegiance to the U.S. before casting ballots.
McClellan did not express disappointment in defeat. Instead he wrote, “For my country’s sake I deplore the result…” and announced he would retire from the U.S. army.
For Federal General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln’s victory meant that he could take more military risks without fear of political consequences. These included more aggressive action against the Confederacy and the removal of incompetent political commanders. To many southerners, the election merely confirmed their belief that northerners supported the Federal subjugation of the South.
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