November 8, 1864: The Re-Election of Abraham Lincoln

150 years ago today, one of the last great victories of the Civil War occurred. This was not a victory on the battlefield, but rather one at the ballot box. On November 8, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln was re-elected to his second term as the President of the United States, defeating Democratic nominee and former Union general George B. McClellan.

President Lincoln

Though Lincoln took 55% of the popular vote to McClellan’s 45%, the election was not as close as those numbers suggest. Of 233 electoral votes, Lincoln won 212. Lincoln’s party, the Republicans/Unionists, won 145 of the 185 seats in the House of Representative and 40 of the 52 seats in the Senate. From those wearing the Union blue in the armed forces, Lincoln received 78% of the vote, quite a feat considering the extreme level of loyalty and admiration which many soldiers felt for George McClellan during his tenure as General-in-Chief of Union armies and leader of the Army of the Potomac just two years before.

While Lincoln’s November triumph was astounding, let us not forget that as recent as August 1864, the president was gravely doubting the prospects of his re-election, going so far as to discreetly ask his Cabinet members to sign a document declaring their unequivocal support for him and his efforts to win the war for the Union before the next president took office as a result of the upcoming election.

Certainly, it is important to note that, despite the ongoing Civil War, the election of 1864 was not a military event. In a rarity in the history of mankind, a ruling party and leader caught in the midst of a popular rebellion taking hundreds of thousands of lives and threatening the very life of the nation did not use military strength to enforce their own political victory at the polls. Placed in context, many would not have thought it to be unreasonable to even postpone or cancel such an election in the whirlwind of civil war. Yet, Lincoln firmly understood the United States to be first and foremost a nation of laws and not of men. Thus, the election was held, and Lincoln was victorious.

Even despite all of that, Lincoln’s political success 150 years ago today still would not have been possible without the blood shed on the battlefields of the nation. Without the sacrifice at places such as Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and the fields of the Atlanta Campaign, Lincoln and his government would have lost the war and the nation long before November 8, 1864. The blood shed at those places, and at countless others, afforded the country a continued existence and provided Lincoln a continued ability to lead the nation towards a better Union than had existed before.

The Union soldiers in the ranks took note of all this in November 1864. The same men who had suffered through the long marches through Northern Georgia, through the dense forests of Pickett’s Mill and New Hope Church, through the trench warfare and frontal assaults of Kennesaw Mountain, and through the siege and battle for Atlanta, all realized that they too had a stake in the politics of 1864, for their combat record and suffering had made Union victory in the war possible.

Bliss Morse, a soldier in the 105th Ohio (14th Army Corps), took time on November 8, 1864, to record his thoughts for the election and its importance for the country, noting,

This day we pool our vote for Abraham Lincoln, the man who represents the principles of Liberty, of Justice, and of the Righteousness which exalteth a Nation, of Peace and good will to all men—that right may be the more firmly established forever in the land, and that it be a home for all men do we vote for Lincoln.[1]

Another soldier from the 105th Ohio–Albert Champlin–echoed Bliss’s words a few days later on November 11, once word of Lincoln’s massive electoral victory had reached the men in the field. Champlin, whose diary was filled with strong rhetoric describing the Union cause as righteous, believed that the victory of Lincoln and the Republicans was nothing short of a sign of God’s guidance of the nation.

“We have received the election returns from nearly all of the Northern states. All have gone strongly for Lincoln, Johnson, and the Union, thus saying unmistakably that our Government shall be preserved, our Country saved, and that the army may rely on them as its reserved. Thanks to God and our determined countrymen for the decisive victory at the Poles, that good and tried rulers have been chosen and elected.”[2]

With Lincoln’s re-election 150 years ago today, once again, the United States had reached a turning point in the Civil War. There would now be no return to the nation that once was, and for the Confederacy, it would only be a matter of time until defeat would come. For the victorious Lincoln and the soon to be victorious Union, there was no turning back.

[1] Bliss Morse letter of November 8, 1864, in The Civil War Diaries and Letters of Bliss Morse, 165.

[2] Albert Champlin Diary, Alfred Mewett Papers, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio.

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