Records show that Abraham Lincoln was re-elected in 1864 by a huge electoral vote majority, taking 221 votes to his opponent’s 21. But until a month or two before the election, it looked as though Lincoln would be defeated. For a while, it looked like the Republicans might even nominate someone else, not even giving Lincoln a chance to be re-elected.
Early in 1864, as both major parties prepared to choose their presidential nominees, there were many Republicans felt Lincoln could not be re-elected. Editor Horace Greeley declared, “Mr. Lincoln is already beaten. He cannot be elected. And we must have another ticket to save us from utter overthrow.” Radical Republicans, blaming Lincoln for battlefield reverses and fearing he favored a “soft” policy toward the South after the war, looked around for another candidate. Some wanted Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and Chase wanted the nomination very much. Some suggested General Grant who flatly refused to even be considered.
When Grant was told that his name was being mentioned as a replacement for Lincoln, he pounded his fists on the arms of his chair and declared, “They can’t do it! They can’t compel me to do it!” When a listener, John Eaton from the War Department, asked him if he had told Lincoln how he felt, Grant said that he hadn’t thought it worthwhile and added, “I consider it as important to the cause that he should be elected, as that the army should be successful in the field.” When Eaton told Lincoln what Grant had said, Lincoln “fairly glowed with satisfaction.”
But knowing that they faced an uphill battle for re-election, the Republicans formed a temporary coalition with Democrats who supported the war effort called the National Union Party. This party nominated Lincoln for President on the first ballot, and named for Vice-President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who had been one of the most prominent of the pro-war Democrats. Lincoln especially liked that Johnson was a southerner, which he thought would be useful after the war.
The dissenting Republicans, the Radical Republicans, held a separate convention in Cleveland, Ohio on May 31, 1864. They nominated John C. Fremont for President and John Cochrane of New York for Vice-President. Fremont had been the first Republican nominee for President in 1856, and had been a senior general early in the war until Lincoln fired him.
The Democrats nominated George B. McClellan, former general-in chief and twice commander of the Army of the Potomac, whom Lincoln had twice removed from command. McClellan had been immensely popular with his troops, and was known to be opposed to Lincoln’s policies on slavery.
As the war dragged on and looked as though it would continue indefinitely, things looked bad for Lincoln’s chances. Thurlow Weed, powerful editor and a Lincoln supporter, told Lincoln that his re-election was impossible. Henry J. Raymond, chairman of the Republican national executive committee, urged Lincoln to make a peace move, but Lincoln refused. The Cincinnati Gazette suggested that both Lincoln and Fremont withdraw from the race and that the Republicans find someone who “would inspire confidence and infuse a life into our ranks….”
The Democrats emphasized the “ignorance, incompetence, and corruption of Mr. Lincoln’s administration.” They counted on war-weariness to win them votes. On August 23, Raymond wrote Lincoln saying that the chances of a Republican victory were extremely slim.
Shortly after that letter, Lincoln wrote a few lines on a piece of paper and asked his cabinet members to sign it without reading it. After the election, he showed them what he had written and they had signed: “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 to Union between the election and the inauguration, as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward.”
Just about the time Lincoln reconciled himself to defeat at the polls, the military situation began to change. Admiral David Glasgow Farragut took Mobil Bay, General William Tecumseh Sherman took Atlanta and began his devastating March to the Sea, Ulysses S. Grant made progress at Petersburg, and General Phillip Sheridan won a resounding victory over Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley. Fremont withdrew from the race on September 21, 1864. He gave his support to Lincoln and asked his supporters to work for Lincoln’s re-election.
Lincoln won a solid victory in the popular vote, taking 55%. He won in a landslide in the Electoral College. But just a few months earlier, he was preparing to turn power over to the new President after losing his bid for re-election. This aspect of the war is often forgotten because of the election results. Lincoln served less than six weeks of his second term before he was assassinated. The formation of the coalition National Union Party placed a Democrat, Andrew Johnson, in the White House, and provided a very different Reconstruction era than we would have experienced under a Republican president.
After the election, Harper’s Weekly ran a cartoon showing an extraordinarily tall Lincoln with the caption: “Long Abraham Lincoln a Little Longer.”