The 1864 Federal Election Campaign

October 31, 1864 – Party unity, statehood for Nevada, and recent military success worked to shift momentum in favor of President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection.

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As the Federal elections approached, Lincoln’s chances for victory were much greater than they had been in the summer. Radical Republican John C. Fremont had dropped out of the race in September, and many Radicals and abolitionists who had supported Fremont now switched allegiances to Lincoln. This included the attendees of the National Convention of Colored Men, who gathered on the 4th in Syracuse, New York.

The convention included 144 delegates from 18 states. John S. Rock, a black attorney from Massachusetts, urged participants to support Lincoln over his Democratic challenger, George B. McClellan. Rock declared, “There are but two parties in the country today. The one headed by Lincoln is for Freedom and the Republic; and the other, by McClellan, is for Despotism and Slavery.” Prominent civil rights leader Frederick Douglass, who had opposed Lincoln’s moderate policies in the past, also voiced support for his reelection.

Meanwhile, Lincoln administration officials waged a campaign of fear designed to get voters to oppose anti-war candidates. Just a week before the early elections, Federal Judge-Advocate General Joseph Holt reported that the Sons of Liberty, an anti-war organization, was somehow being funded by the bankrupt Confederate government.

Democrats accused Holt of releasing a report filled with “absolute falsehoods and fabrications… too ridiculous to be given a moment’s credit.” Even Lincoln recognized that the Sons of Liberty was “a mere political organization, with about as much of malice (as of) puerility.” But anti-Federal conspiracies did exist (although on a much less influential level), and pro-Republican Union Leagues used this to scare voters into supporting pro-war candidates.

Early elections took place in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana on the 11th, and many believed that these would be a preview of what would happen in the rest of the states in November. Lincoln and other officials stayed near the telegraph in the War Department until after midnight awaiting returns. While waiting, Lincoln read passages from Nasby Papers, a comedic book about an uneducated Copperhead named Petroleum V. Nasby.

In the end, Lincoln and the Republican Party enjoyed more support than most expected. In Indiana, Republican Governor Oliver P. Morton won reelection, and Republicans won eight of the 11 congressional seats. Lincoln had urged Major General William T. Sherman to furlough his Indiana soldiers so they could go home and vote. Sherman responded by sending 29 Indiana regiments home, along with Major Generals John A. Logan and Francis P. Blair, Jr. (two former politicians) to urge voters to support the president and his party. Convalescing Indiana soldiers were taken from hospitals if they proved well enough to travel. This effort paid off.

In Ohio, Republicans gained 12 congressional seats and a 50,000-vote majority. The results in Pennsylvania were closer. Pennsylvania soldiers were allowed to submit absentee ballots, and when they were tallied a few days later, the Republicans won out. An editorial in Harper’s Weekly declared, “The October elections show that unless all human foresight fails, the election of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson is assured.”

Questionable electioneering tactics helped secure these victories. Each of Lincoln’s cabinet members was required to donate $250 to Republican candidates, and each employee of the Treasury, War Department, and Postal Department was to donate five percent of his salary. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton fired 30 War Department employees for either refusing to support the Republicans or failing to show enough enthusiasm for them.

Nevertheless, the soldier vote contributed to the Republican victories more than anything else. Acknowledging this, Lincoln told the 198th New York Volunteers, “While others differ with the Administration, and, perhaps, honestly, the soldiers generally have sustained it; they have not only fought right, but, so far as could be judged from their actions, they have voted right…”

Despite his success in these three states, Lincoln still worried that the results may not be so favorable in the rest of the North. Two days after the elections, he wrote out a scorecard in which he guessed that he would win 117 electoral votes, while the “Supposed Copperhead Vote” would give McClellan 114. Lincoln included Pennsylvania in McClellan’s total, not yet aware that the soldier vote would move that state into his column. Lincoln also supposed that McClellan would win New Jersey, Illinois, and all the border states (i.e., Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri).

In neighboring Maryland, an election took place to ratify a new state constitution, which included a 23rd article in the bill of rights: “All persons held to service or labor as slaves are hereby declared free.” Before the vote, Lincoln wrote influential Maryland politician Henry W. Hoffman, “I wish all men to be free. I wish the material prosperity of the already free which I feel sure the extinction of slavery would bring. I wish to see, in process of disappearing, that only thing which ever could bring this nation to civil war.”

Federal military officials were stationed at the polls to ensure that only men who had pledged loyalty to the U.S. could vote. When the votes were counted, the new constitution failed. However, Republican Governor Augustus Bradford declared that after counting the absentee soldier vote, the new constitution was approved by a vote of 30,174 to 29,799, or a majority of just 375. Only 59,973 total votes were cast, compared to 92,502 in the 1860 election.

Despite the dubious results, Marylanders who voted for the new constitution serenaded Lincoln at the White House. Referring to claims that McClellan would grant Confederate independence if elected, Lincoln told them, “I am struggling to maintain government, not to overthrow it. I am struggling especially to prevent others from overthrowing it.”

In Kentucky, Governor Thomas Bramlette tried preventing Federal military forces from influencing the election. He instructed county sheriffs to oppose Federals trying to suppress the Democratic vote, and if they could not, they were to terminate the election process because, “If you are unable to hold a free election, your duty is to hold none at all.”

Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, instructed Acting Master John K. Crosby to “proceed with the U.S.S. Harvest Moon under your command to Savannah River, Warsaw, Ossabaw, Sapelo, and Doboy, and communicate with the vessels there, in order to collect the sailors’ votes already distributed for that purpose. A number of ballots will be given you, in order to enable the men to vote.”

On the last day of the month, Nevada became the 36th state in accordance with a hurried act of Congress endorsed by Lincoln. The territory had less than 20 percent of the required population to become a state, but being heavily Republican, it was expected to contribute electoral votes in Lincoln’s favor.

Lincoln did not seem eager to make Nevada a state for his benefit; in fact, he exerted no influence to bring in the states being restored under his reconstruction plan (Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas) for the election. But he did hope to bring Nevada into the Union because it might add enough Republican representation in Congress to pass the proposed Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.

With or without Nevada, as October ended, Lincoln’s reelection seemed a foregone conclusion.



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