The 1864 Elections

November 8, 1864 – Abraham Lincoln won reelection, thus ensuring that the war to destroy the Confederacy and reunite the Union would continue.

The presidential election pitted the incumbent Lincoln, who pledged to prosecute the war until the Union was restored and slavery abolished, against Democrat George B. McClellan, his former general-in-chief. McClellan had alienated the peace wing of his party by pledging to prosecute the war until the Union was restored, but he was willing to negotiate with the southern states on all other questions, including slavery.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit:

Election Day in Washington was rainy and gray. Government officials had been furloughed to go home and vote, leaving the capital empty and quiet. 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 were optimistic about their chances, but they expected the election to be close. The president told correspondent Noah Brooks, “I am just enough of a politician to know that there was not much doubt about the result of the Baltimore convention (which nominated Lincoln for reelection), but about this thing I am very far from being certain. I wish I were certain.”

Around 7 p.m., Lincoln and his secretary John Hay walked to the War Department to get the results from the telegraph office, but most results were delayed by storms. The initial messages trickling in indicated larger Republican majorities than expected. To Lincoln’s surprise, he won Philadelphia by 10,000 votes and Baltimore by 15,000. Regarding Maryland, Lincoln remarked, “All Hail, Free Maryland. That is superb!” Results from Boston showed Lincoln ahead by 5,000 votes.

As the night wore on, Lincoln passed the time between messages by reading funny stories from humorist Petroleum V. Nasby. This irritated Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, as Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana recalled:

“The idea that when the safety of the republic was thus as issue, when the control of an empire was to be determined by a few figures brought in by the telegraph, the leader, the man most deeply concerned, not merely for himself but for his country, could turn aside to read such balderdash and to laugh at such frivolous jests was, to his mind, repugnant, even damnable. He could not understand, apparently, that it was by the relief which these jests afforded to the strain of mind under which Lincoln had so long been living, and to the natural gloom of a melancholy and desponding temperament–this was Mr. Lincoln’s prevailing characteristic–that the safety and sanity of his intelligence were maintained and preserved.”

By midnight, dispatches indicated that Lincoln had won Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and all the New England states. Results from New York and Illinois would not come for another two days, but even without them, it was clear that Lincoln had won handily. Those on hand congratulated him, and he simply replied that he was “glad to be relieved of all suspense.”

A band serenaded the War Department at 2:30 a.m., and when Lincoln returned to the White House, a crowd had gathered and demanded a speech. Lincoln said:

“If I know my heart, my gratitude is free from any taint of personal triumph. I do not impugn the motives of any one opposed to me. It is no pleasure to me to triumph over any one, but I give thanks to the Almighty for this evidence of the people’s resolution to stand by free government and the rights of humanity. I earnestly believe that the consequences of this day’s work… will be to the lasting advantage, if not to the very salvation, of the country.”

The Lincoln-Johnson ticket ultimately won 55 percent of the popular vote, or 400,000 more votes than the ticket of McClellan and anti-war Democrat George H. 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 that despite their love for McClellan, 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. Their base continued to consist mostly of unskilled laborers, immigrant Catholics, border state slaveholders, and anti-war dissidents. Republicans won using the same successful formula from 1860–harnessing the voting power of native-born farmers, high-skilled workers, city professionals, young voters, abolitionists, 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. 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.

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. On the state level, Republicans or Unionists won the governorships and legislatures in every northern state except the three that Lincoln lost (New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky).

Lincoln had the ability to influence the election with military furloughs, martial law, and suspension of habeas corpus. Charles 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.” Yet despite all these resources at hand, Lincoln could only garner a 10 percent margin of victory in an election that excluded all southern states. On the flipside, even if the Confederate states had been allowed to vote, and all 81 electoral votes in those states went to McClellan, he still would have lost to Lincoln by over 100 votes.

Soldiers voted overwhelmingly for Lincoln, but 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.

For Lieutenant General 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. For most southerners, Lincoln’s reelection was no surprise, and it confirmed their belief that northerners supported the Federal subjugation of the South.



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