The Election of 1864 – An Analysis

As outlined by this noted and respected historian who is the John L. Nau Professor in History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia he sees the election of 1864 as a referendum on the war and emancipation.

NOTE: The authors of this website see the election as one of the most important presidential elections in the history of the United States.

The professor goes on to say, “In many presidential elections, it seems that there isn’t that clear a choice given to the two parties. They often have a great, gray middle ground, and they might have a few areas where they disagree. Not in 1864. What would follow a Democratic victory? Well it isn’t clear. It might be peace; it might be an independent Confederacy; a reunited country with slavery.

If the Republicans won, the issues were clear: You’d have union and you wouldn’t have slavery, period. Those were the things Lincoln and the Republicans hammered on

Knowing this, the voters elected Lincoln by an electoral majority of 212 to 21, a landslide. George B. McClellan carried only New Jersey, Kentucky and Delaware. Lincoln received 55 percent of the popular vote. He’d only received 48 percent of that same part of the popular vote in 1860.

The Republicans gained control of all state legislatures that they lost in 1862, and they won 145 of 185 seats in the House of Representatives, and overwhelming majority in the House In the Senate their margin was 42 to 10. And within that cushion of victory, the radical Republicans gained strength as a faction on the party. So, the next Congress will be not only be far more Republican but will also have a stronger radical Republican flavor than the Congress that would be sitting for the rest of ’64 and into ’65.

The election of 1864 was the first time in history that people went to the polls, in the midst of a major war, to elect a national leader. It was a remarkable testimony to the vitality of American Democracy.

Equally remarkable was the fact that soldiers were allowed to vote in the field. The Northern soldiers, hundreds of thousands of them were allowed to vote in the field. Their votes might decide whether or not they had to keep fighting. How would a soldier vote? If he voted for the Democrats, maybe peace would come, maybe the war would not drag on, or maybe he’d have a better chance of living to a ripe old age.

It seemed to be a great risk that the United States took here, that the Republicans took, in letting soldiers vote, but nearly 80 percent of the soldiers who voted, voted Republican, voted to continue the war and push it on to victory.

The soldier vote proved crucial in many congressional districts. In the border states, Federal troops helped to see that Republican majorities came in, again used as they had been used in Maryland earlier and on other occasions.

But most important of all on the election of ’64 was the impact of Sherman’s victory in Atlanta, Sherman’s victories in the Shenandoah Valley, and to a lesser extent Farragut’s victory at Mobile. Without them Lincoln most certainly would have lost.

I think the message of the election was clear to all: that the war would now be pressed forward to a finish. The Confederate realized this as much as the Federals. Confederate diaries, and letters and newspapers from 1864, from the spring and summer into the early fall, are filled with observations about the Northern election.

The Confederates were very much attuned to how important this presidential election would be, and they hoped that they could avoid defeats. Didn’t have to win victories, they knew- just avoid defeats until Those November polling dates for the North.

They hadn’t been able to do that, and now many Confederates understood that the reelection of Lincoln was a terrible blow to their chances for Independence. It didn’t mean that they all decided the war was lost; they didn’t. But some of them did, and all the rest knew that it would be much harder now.

The war would drag on for several more months, of course, after the election of ’64, but that election represented a major step toward union victory.”

Ref: The American Civil War; Professor Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia

The J. M. Smith Letters (14 Jan. 1862; 9 Sept. 1864) consist of two handwritten letters written by Confederate Army Col. J. M. Smith to his sister “Lue” during the Civil War, dated 14 January 1862 and 9 September 1864.

In the second letter, dated 9 Sept. 1864, only a few days after the fall of Atlanta to the Union Army under General Sherman, Smith discusses his regiment’s campaign to burn the railroads, mostly in Tennessee, so that the Yankee troops will not be able to haul supply. U. S. Army General William Tecumseh Sherman is mentioned; so is the upcoming U. S. Presidential election between General George McClellan and then President Abraham Lincoln.


The election of 1864 contained substantial coverage and discussion throughout the South of the polls leading to the November election. In fact, several articles even speculated on the Electoral College votes necessary for McClellan to win the election. On the first day of October 1864, the New Orleans Bee reported: A majority of this Electoral College is necessary to an election, and that majority is one hundred and fourteen votes. With these figures, it is asked, in view of recent elections, what States can the Democrats probably carry and elect their candidate? Their leading arithmeticians thus enumerate: For Gen. McClellan, New York 33, New Jersey, 7, Pennsylvania 26, Oregon 3, Indiana 3, Illinois 16, Kentucky 11, California 5. These several states foot up to 114 electoral votes—just the number necessary to an election, any one of which lost, defeats their candidate. It is proper, however, to say that some of the more zealous Democratic politicians claim and equal chance for Connecticut 6, Wisconsin 8, Delaware 3, and Missouri 11, swelling the above aggregate, should these sanguine hopes be realized to 142, or 29 more than necessary to an election.

In speculating on campaign poll data, journalists considered the election returns from the 1860 election. On October 25, the Richmond Enquirer reported the 1860 election returns for the state of Maryland. Their data showed that Lincoln received 2,294 votes, Douglas received 5,966 votes, Bell received 41,760 votes, and Breckenridge received 42,482 votes. The article also reported that 65,973 persons did not vote. Using this data, the newspaper concludes, “This shows that there are in Maryland 66,000 voters who refused to recognize the legality of the late Convention, and only 27,000 that acknowledged its legality.” Additionally, the newspaper concludes that “there are therefore 78,793 voters in Maryland opposed to Lincoln and his free negro Constitution. This is more encouraging to our hopes of Maryland than ‘an army with banners.'” The Charleston Daily Courier printed an article from the Louisville Journal that was also based on the 1860 election. The article states, “Congress having refused to admit the vote of those States which have passed the Ordinances of Secession, the number of electoral votes to be cast in November will be 231, and it will require 116 for election. Were these states to vote as they did in 1860, Lincoln would receive 188 and McClellan 35” (Charleston Daily Courier, October 24) Southern newspapers also reported on the progress of the campaign and the possible vote totals in particular states. On October 18, the Richmond Enquirer reported, In Ohio the soldier’s vote will not be needed to swell her triumphant majority to fifty or sixty thousand, though it may serve to sweep the last vestige of Peace Democracy from her Congressional delegation. The city of Cincinnati, the home of George H. Pendleton, the peace colleague of General McClellan on the Democratic ticket, has done nobly.

The North Carolina Standard on October 12 contained the following, which speculated on possible election returns as well as the uphill battle that McClellan supporters were facing: A vote for the Presidency was taken at the convalescent and recruiting camp in Augusta, Maine a few days since. There were present 1,500 soldiers and the result of the vote was 1,450 for Lincoln and 50 for McClellan. The Lincoln men were no doubt promised furloughs, and the McClellan men were told if they voted for the man of their choice they would have no furloughs. The McClellan men were also no doubt called traitors and enemies to the Union of the States. When the election takes place in the army the McClellan men will have their tickets taken from them and torn up, and they will be threatened with heavy punishment if they vote as they wish to do… A man who votes with the party in power is perfectly free to do so, but if he has a mind or opinion of his own he is deprived of the right of suffrage, and is compelled to occupy the situation of a white slave.

Southern newspapers also discussed what candidates and parties would need to do in order to obtain the desired votes. The Richmond Enquirer carried an article from a St. Louis paper saying, “Abraham Lincoln, through his tools, causes electoral tickets to be put up in the so-called reconstructed States, in order to obtain by a cheat those votes which he cannot get in the free States” (October 18). Not surprisingly, after the 1864 election southern newspapers reported on the final outcome of the election. The Richmond Enquirer on November 11 concluded, “The re-election of Lincoln is no longer doubtful” and provided the following results: Maine and Vermont each gave Lincoln thirty thousand majority. All the New England States went for Lincoln. New York State gave Lincoln seven thousand majority. New York City gave McClellan thirty-seven thousand majority. Maryland supposed to have given Lincoln eighteen thousand majority. Baltimore gave him fifteen thousand majority. Pennsylvania and Michigan have given majorities for Lincoln. New Jersey and Missouri are reported to have gone for McClellan, but doubtful. No other States heard from.

The Daily Conservative of Raleigh, North Carolina reported the election results as printed in northern newspapers. On November 14, the Daily Conservative stated: The New York and Baltimore papers of Wednesday have been received. The Herald editorially announces the re-election of Lincoln. The Baltimore American, evening edition, contains the latest returns. A New York telegram says the Tribune claims for Lincoln all the New England States, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Kansas making a total of one hundred and ninety electoral votes.

In additional to strict poll data, southern newspapers also provided more introspective conclusions. In an effort to summarize the results of the election and the overall feelings of the South, the Richmond Enquirer printed an article from another newspaper under the headline “After the Battle.” The article reported, “We need not at present recite the causes which have culminated in the defeat of Gen. McClellan. It will suffice to say that he has fallen a victim to the copperhead managers of the Chicago Convention and the Democratic Party” (Richmond Enquirer, November 11).

Ref.: News “From Yankeedom”: Southern Newspaper Coverage of the Presidential Election of 1864Eric David, Park Fellow Master’s Student and Nicole Elise Smith, Park Fellow Doctoral Student School of Journalism and Mass Communication University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Campus Box #3365 Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-3365

The picture below is taken from the October 29, 1864 issue of Harpers Weekly and shows Union soldiers in line to vote.

Image of from the October 29, 1864 issue of Harpers Weekly showing Union soldiers in line to vote.

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