The Politics of 1864: President Abraham Lincoln is Re-Elected

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  • 0:07 Political Battle
  • 0:33 The Parties & Candidates
  • 2:13 Abe on Shaky Ground
  • 3:54 The Campaign
  • 4:48 The Election
  • 5:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the turbulent political landscape of 1864, focusing especially on that year's presidential campaign that pitted incumbent Abraham Lincoln against General George McClellan.

Gearing Up for a Political Battle

By 1864, the United States was slogging along into its fourth year of the Civil War. There was no victory in sight, and the country's morale was low. Because 1864 was a presidential election year, the Union's military battles were about to be joined by a political battle as two parties and two candidates squared off over issues of war and peace.

The Parties and the Candidates

The Republican Party, led by current president Abraham Lincoln, was still in control of the government, but just barely. As leading Republicans looked toward the presidential election, many of them feared defeat. In an effort to gain supporters, they decided to make a change in their party's structure. They turned to a group of so-called 'War Democrats,' who shared their commitment to carrying the war through to victory. Together, the Republicans and War Democrats formed a new party, the Union Party.

For their presidential candidate, Union Party members nominated the incumbent Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, however, had faced some stiff competition from Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who accused the president of lacking the necessary drive to win the war and of being too ready to compromise. Running with Lincoln as candidate for vice president was War Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. The Union Party hoped that Johnson would attract voters in the border states.

After the defection of the War Democrats, the Democratic Party was now comprised of the Peace Democrats and their extreme antiwar counterparts, the Copperheads. These politicians opposed the war and sought peace as soon as possible. They nominated General George McClellan as their presidential candidate. McClellan had been a popular general among Union soldiers, but he was sacked by Lincoln earlier in the war for failing to take decisive action against the enemy. The Democrats' vice-presidential candidate was George H. Pendleton, a Congressman from Ohio.

Old Abe on Shaky Ground

For much of 1864, it seemed like Abraham Lincoln actually had a strong chance of losing the presidency. For one thing, the war wasn't going well in the spring and summer of that year. The Union had lost several major battles, including Cold Harbor and Spotsylvania. Thousands of soldiers were dying in battle and of disease. The Union army had Petersburg, Virginia, and Atlanta, Georgia, under siege, but it was making very little progress toward actually capturing the cities.

Northern citizens were tired and discouraged. Many of them had lost loved ones, and they were wondering why they should sacrifice any more, especially since victory seemed so far away. Many Northerners were also upset because they felt that the government was taking away their rights and freedoms, especially with the draft, which, since March 1863, had required all men ages 20-45 to register for military service. Discontent with the current administration was widespread.

Even Lincoln himself wasn't sure he would be re-elected. In August 1864, he wrote:

'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 so cooperate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.'

The president was trying very hard to be optimistic about the situation, no matter what happened.

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