Election of 1864
Throughout the year of 1864, President Abraham Lincoln believed that he would lose the election in November. He admitted in August, “I am going to be beaten, and unless some great change takes place, badly beaten.” The odds were stacked against him.
Plenty of voters in the Union had reason to despise, even hate, Lincoln. The war that had begun in April 1861, at Fort Sumter, had turned into a ghastly event, full of fury, fever, horror, and madness. The human wreckage was colossal, on a scale never imagined before.
Voters blamed Lincoln because he had failed to end the war quickly, to crush the rebellion, to vanquish Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army, and to reunite the Union.
No other country had ever held an election in the middle of a civil war, and yet it was on the calendar, set for November 8, “an unprecedented democratic exercise in midst of a civil war.”
The last time that a political party had nominated an incumbent President to run a second time had occurred in 1840, and no President since Andrew Jackson had won a second term.
On August 23, Lincoln said, “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration.”
On September 1, 1864, Lincoln received some welcome news. The Union General, William Tecumseh Sherman, reported, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” This was a huge loss for the South, because Atlanta was a railroad hub, and the South’s major manufacturing center.
A reporter at the “Richmond Examiner” wrote, that the “disaster at Atlanta came in the very nick of time to save the party of Lincoln from irretrievable ruin. It will obscure the prospect of peace, late so bright. It will also diffuse gloom over the South.”
Lincoln beat the odds and won the Republican party’s nomination. Former Union General, George McClellan, whom Lincoln had fired in 1862 from his position as the Union’s lead General, won the Democratic party’s nomination.
On Tuesday, November 8, Lincoln carried all but three of the states’ electoral votes, except for Delaware, Kentucky, and New Jersey. Lincoln won 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s 21. Lincoln took 55% of the popular vote. Yet, some 78% of Union soldiers voted for Lincoln.
The Civil War historian James McPherson wrote, that the 1864 election “was a powerful endorsement of Lincoln’s iron-willed determination to fight on to unconditional victory.”
A British war correspondent observed “that the North was silently, calmly, but desperately in earnest, in a way the like of which the world never saw before. I am astonished the more I see and hear of the extent and depth of this determination to fight to the last.”
It was Lincoln’s willpower that drove Sherman and Grant and their soldiers forward.
On November 16, 1864, Sherman set his army on a march to the sea, to Savannah.
In Geoffrey Ward’s 1990 book “The Civil War,” he wrote, that on November 24, “Union cooks served up 120,000 turkey and chicken dinners to the men of Grant’s great army, outside of Petersburg, Virginia.
“Dug in only yards away, the Confederates had no feast, but held their fire all day out of respect for the Union holiday.”
On December 22, 1864, Sherman sent Lincoln a telegram: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition.”
Ward wrote, that “On January 31, 1865, Congress voted 119 to 56 to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, to abolish slavery, and then sent it to the states for ratification.”
On March 4, 1865, Lincoln spoke at his second inauguration, saying, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.
“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Lincoln would live only 40 days of his second term.