September 8, 1864 – Former General-in-Chief George B. McClellan officially accepted the presidential nomination by the Democratic Party. However, he alienated the peace wing of the party by repudiating their call to end the war at any cost.
Since being removed from command by President Abraham Lincoln, McClellan had remained sequestered at his Orange, New Jersey, home awaiting reassignment. Despite calls from McClellan’s supporters, Lincoln refused to reinstate him. McClellan responded by supporting the Democratic Party in hopes of ousting Lincoln and his Republicans in this year’s election. The Democrats in turn nominated him to directly challenge Lincoln for the presidency.
The Democrats were sharply divided between those who wanted to continue fighting the war until the Union was restored and those who wanted to end the war immediately, regardless of whether the Union was restored. They had compromised at their convention by nominating a War Democrat for president and a Peace Democrat (George H. Pendleton) for vice president, and by endorsing the Peace Democrats’ platform. McClellan quickly learned that the two were not reconcilable.
McClellan faced tremendous pressure. The war faction, particularly eastern Democrats, urged him to renounce the peace platform, especially now that the Federals had captured Atlanta. If McClellan accepted the nomination but said nothing about the platform, War Democrats would perceive it as a tacit approval and possibly withdraw their support.
Conversely, if McClellan did anything less than endorse the peace faction’s call to end the war at any cost, he risked alienating them. Clement L. Vallandigham, the Peace Democrat who authored the platform, warned McClellan, “Do not listen to your Eastern friends who, in an evil hour, may advise you to insinuate even a little war into your letter of acceptance… If anything implying war is presented, 200,000 men in the West will withhold their support.”
From his home, McClellan wrote six drafts of his acceptance letter, trying in vain to satisfy both sides. In the early drafts, McClellan seemed to lean toward the peace faction by calling for an immediate armistice to negotiate an end to the war, and supporting a resumption of war only if negotiations failed. But influential War Democrats persuaded him to remove this pledge because once the war stopped, it would most likely not be started again, with or without Union.
McClellan submitted the final draft of his acceptance letter to the nominating committee at midnight. To placate the Peace Democrats, he pledged that if elected, he would “exhaust all the resources of statesmanship” to end the war. McClellan then explained why he accepted the nomination, even though he had not sought it:
“The existence of more than one Government over the region which once owned our flag is incompatible with the peace, the power, and the happiness of the people. The preservation of our Union was the sole avowed object for which the war was commenced. It should have been conducted for that object only, and in accordance with those principles which I took occasion to declare when in active service.”
McClellan then backed the War Democrats by firmly declaring that the war would not end until the Union was restored:
“The Union must be preserved at all hazards. I could not look in the face of my gallant comrades of the army and navy, who have survived so many bloody battles, and tell them that their labor and the sacrifice of so many of our slain and wounded brethren had been in vain, that we had abandoned that Union for which we have so often periled our lives. A vast majority of our people, whether in the army and navy or at home, would, as I would, hail with unbounded joy the permanent restoration of peace, on the basis of the Union under the Constitution, without the effusion of another drop of blood. But no peace can be permanent without Union.”
McClellan stated that when “our present adversaries are ready for peace, on the basis of the Union,” he would be willing to negotiate with them in “a spirit of conciliation and compromise… The Union is the one condition of peace–we ask no more.”
This letter enraged the Peace Democrats, and many hurried to call a new convention to nominate a different candidate. However, they were unable to do so, and most (including Vallandigham) eventually backed McClellan simply because it was too late to find an alternative.
McClellan’s letter meant that if he was elected, everything besides restoring the Union, including ending or reinstating slavery, would be negotiable. But the Confederates would not accept restoration as a condition for peace because their only condition was separation. This ensured that the war would continue until a clear victor emerged.
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 179-80; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 456; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11564-85; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 494; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 656; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 568; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 775-76