Battlefield Victories and Votes from Soldiers Helped Propel Abraham Lincoln to Reelection in 1864
By the middle of the summer of 1864, Union offensives in Virginia and Georgia had bogged down into near stalemates. It was an election year, and with the Civil War dragging on, President Abraham Lincoln’s chances for reelection were in trouble. Not only was there the obvious opposition from the Democratic Party, there were also members of Lincoln’s own Republican Party who were dissatisfied with him and were looking at other possible nominees to replace him. In order to shore up support for Lincoln, the Republican Party and War Democrats joined together to form the National Union Party. Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat and former senator from Tennessee who was serving as military governor of that state, was chosen as the vice presidential candidate, replacing Hannibal Hamline, the vice president during Lincoln’s first term.
In early August, Admiral David Farragut’s fleet was victorious in the Battle of Mobile Bay, an encouraging development. But Lincoln was convinced that there was a real possibility he would not be reelected. At a meeting of his cabinet on August 23rd, the president had each cabinet member to sign the outside of a note, the contents of which were known only to Lincoln. This would later be referred to as the Blind Memorandum. In it, Lincoln pledged to try to win the war in the time between the election and the inauguration of the new president if he, Lincoln, was defeated at the polls.
At the end of August, the Democrats nominated General George McClellan for president and Representative George Pendleton of Ohio for vice president. Lincoln and McClellan had a mutual dislike of each other, but the pragmatic Lincoln kept McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac until November 1862. Losing to McClellan in the election would have been humiliating for Lincoln. But the Democrats adapted a peace plank in their platform, calling for the end of the fighting and a negotiated peace with the Confederacy. Mindful of the sacrifices made by the soldiers he once commanded, McClellan was opposed to that, and wanted to continue the war and restore the Union (though he did not favor ending slavery as a condition). McClellan’s running mate, Pendleton, also wanted to end the war. The candidate and the party were awkwardly misaligned.
As the calendar turned to September, the tide began to turn in Lincoln’s favor. On September 2nd, General William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign came to a successful conclusion with the capture of that city. General Philip Sheraton’s victories in the Shenandoah Valley in September and October also increased the perception that the war was indeed being won. The question was if these victories would translate into votes for the president.
The soldiers doing the fighting would also be casting votes in the election. McClellan had been popular with those under his command, a worrisome point for the Lincoln Administration. Nineteen states allowed for absentee voting in the field for the military, and 12 of these counted the soldier vote separately. This would provide an indication of the degree of support for the Administration’s conduct of the war.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant fully supported the rights of the soldiers to vote in the election. He wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:
CITY POINT, VA., September 27, 1864.
Hon. E. M. STANTON, Secretary of War, Washington, D.C..
The exercise of the right of suffrage by the officers and soldiers of armies in the field is a novel thing. It has, I believe, generally been considered dangerous to constitutional liberty and subversive of military discipline. But our circumstances are novel and exceptional. A very large proportion of legal voters of the United States are now either under arms in the field, or in hospitals, or otherwise engaged in the military service of the United States. Most of these men are not regular soldiers in the strict sense of that term; still less are they mercenaries who give their services to the Government simply for its pay, having little understanding of political questions or feeling little or no interest in them. On the contrary, they are American citizens, having still their homes and social and political ties binding them to the States and districts from which they come, and to which they expect to return. They have left their homes temporarily to sustain the cause of their country in the hour of its trial. In performing this sacred duty they should not be deprived of a most precious privilege. They have as much right to demand that their votes shall be counted in the choice of their rulers as those citizens who remain at home. Nay, more, for they have sacrificed more for their country. I state these reasons in full, for the unusual thing of allowing armies in the field to vote, that I may urge on the other hand that nothing more than the fullest exercise of this right should be allowed, for anything not absolutely necessary to this exercise cannot but be dangerous to the liberties of the country. The officers and soldiers have every means of understanding the questions before the country. The newspapers are freely circulated, and so, I believe, are the documents prepared by both parties to set forth the merits and claims of their candidates. Beyond this nothing whatever should be allowed. No political meetings, no harangues from soldiers or citizens, and no canvassing of camps or regiments for votes. I see not why a single individual not belonging to the armies should be admitted into their lines to deliver tickets. In my opinion the tickets should be furnished by the chief provost-marshal of each army, by them to the provost-marshal (or some other appointed officer) of each brigade or regiment, who shall on the day of election deliver tickets irrespective of party to whoever may call for them. If, however, it shall be deemed expedient to admit citizens to deliver tickets, then it should be most positively prohibited that such citizens should electioneer, harangue, or canvass the regiments in any way. Their business should be, and only be, to distribute on a certain fixed day tickets to whoever may call for them. In the case of those States whose soldiers vote by proxy, proper State authority could be given to officers belonging to regiments so voting to receive and forward votes. As it is intended that all soldiers entitled to vote shall exercise that privilege according to their own convictions of right, unmolested and unrestricted, there will be no objection to each party sending to armies, easy of access, a number of respectable gentlemen to see that these views are fully carried out. To the army at Atlanta, and those armies on the sea-coast from New Berne to New Orleans, not to exceed three citizens of each party should be admitted.
Lincoln requested that leaves be granted to those from states that did not allow soldiers to vote in the field so that they could go home and do so, especially in Indiana, which was thought to be a tight race.
George McClellan may have been popular with the soldiers while he commanded the army, but that did not mean the soldiers wanted him as commander in chief. On Election Day, November 8th, of those soldiers whose votes were tallied separately, 78% voted for Lincoln. The president received 55% of the total vote with McClellan getting 45%; Lincoln received about 400,000 more popular votes than McClellan. The Electoral Vote count was a blowout for Lincoln, at 212-21. McClellan carried Kentucky, Delaware, and his home state of New Jersey; Lincoln carried 22 states. Confederate hopes for a negotiated settlement with a McClellan Administration were dashed, and Lincoln’s pursuit of victory on the battlefield and restoration of the Union would go on until the end of the war.
Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years by Carl Sandburg
A Stillness at Appomattox (Army of the Potomac, Vol. 3) by Bruce Catton
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson
Lincoln by David Herbert Donald
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume XLII, Part 2