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Election of 1864

        As the weeks dragged on during the summer of 1864, with their increasing military disappointments and sense of Union discouragement culminating in the Early raid and the narrowly averted capture of Washington, the clouds of depression, defeatism, and political opposition thickened and darkened. The Democrats played a waiting game, postponing their convention to the last of August but ominously gathering their forces. Mean while various forms of peace agitation and efforts toward negotiation were taking shape. C. L. Vallandighan, having escaped from the South and returned via Canada to Ohio, was attacking Lincoln and urging Peace; in Illinois James W. Singleton and others were planning similar demonstrations. Singleton promoted a convention at Peoria (August 3, 1864) which was denounced as a copperhead movement to make "peace with traitors" (though many who participated did so, like Singleton, with sincere and honest purposes); and under like sponsorship a "peace pow-wow" was held at Springfield on August 18. It was not without significance that these efforts were closely associated with political opposition to the Lincoln government, and the connection of the movement with the "Sons of Liberty" served still further to identify the peacemakers with those who would overthrow the existing administration.
        In a larger sense, however, the spread of the peace movement was an inevitable expression of a war-weary and heartsick nation; sincere Northern patriots yearned for an end to the fratricidal slaughter. Even the calm Charles Francis Adams in faraway London, was willing to grasp at almost any hope for peace. Early in 1864 he entered into unofficial discussions with one Thomas Yeatman of Tennessee, who pledged that Jefferson Davis would step aside as President of the Confederacy in order to allow the Southern states to re-enter the Union, provided the Lincoln administration adopted a gradual plan of compensated emancipation. When Yeatman's indiscreet behavior and his failure to produce authoritative credentials as a Confederate peace envoy caused Seward to drop the negotiations, Adams grieved that his government had failed to pursue "the heroic policy which would have smoothed the path to reconciliation."
        Adams's explorations were kept secret, but when the more excitable. Horace Greeley associated himself prominently with the peace movement, the attention of the whole North was focused upon the subject. Earnest though he was in his abolitionism and his denunciation of the South, Greeley had more than a trace of pacific idealism, On learning from a self-constituted envoy named Jewett that "two ambassadors of Davis & Co. are now in Canada, with full and complete powers for a peace," and being advised that "the whole matter [could) be consummated by me, you, them, and President Lincoln," the editor of the Tribune, eager for peace but caving no personal connection with a possibly unpopular negotiation, referred the matter to President Lincoln, as in fact he should have done. "I venture to remind you [wrote Greeley to the President) that our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country also longs for peace; shudders at the prospect of fresh conscriptions, of further wholesale devastations, and of new rivers of human blood. And a widespread conviction that the government and its . . .supporters are not anxious for peace . . . is doing great harm. . ." Lincoln, then harassed by Early's raid toward Washington, replied to Greeley on July 9 promising to meet "any person anywhere professing to have any proposition of Jefferson Davis in writing, for peace, embracing tile restoration of the Union and abandonment of slavery. . . " At the same time he made the embarrassed Greeley the intermediary for conveying the governments declaration of its purpose to receive responsible negotiators. When days passed and nothing was done Lincoln became more emphatic and wrote to Greeley on the 15th: "I not only intend a sincere effort for peace, butI intend that you shall be a personal witness that it is made." To show good faith the President extended to C. C. Clay, Jacob Thompson, J. P. Holcombe, and G. N. Sanders, the Southern commissioners" in question, a formal letter of safe conduct to Washington. It has been maintained that the purpose of these Confederate agents in Canada was to harass the Lincoln government, promote the Confederate cause in certain Northern districts, and stir up peace sentiment among the Northern people.
        Caught up in a plan for which he had no relish, Greeley made the trip to Niagara only to find that the advertised diplomats had no credentials. Their mission was unofficial; they offered, however, if granted safe conduct to Washington and Richmond, to obtain the needed authorization. It appears that the agents had no authority to negotiate for peace at all, being interested rather in peace agitation (a very different matter); but that they had to guard against an unfortunate effect upon the people of the South if it were made to appear that Lincoln was ready for peace while the South was not. Informed of this development, Lincoln made public the following announcement:

To Whom it may concern:

Any proposition which embraces the restoration of peace, the integrity of the whole Union, and the abandonment of slavery, and which comes by and with an authority that can control the armies now at war against the United States will be received and considered by the Executive government of the United States, and will be met by liberal terms on other substantial and collateral points. . .

        Lincoln's memorandum was no mere gesture: he was ready to do precisely what he said. Since, however, reunion meant defeat in the Southern mind, his terms were impossible, while the lack of official credentials made the Southern agents useless as negotiators.
        Thus the Greeley fiasco ended. It was soon followed by another unofficial peace effort which seemed more promising, the Jaquess-Gilmore mission. Jaquess was a preacher-soldier of Illinois, a Methodist college president who had become colonel of a volunteer regiment. Shocked that fellow Christians North and South should be killing each other, he obtained a furlough from military duty and journeyed to Fort Monroe, where he was afforded the facilities of a boat to enter the Confederate lines under flag of truce. He did this without government authority, though Lincoln unofficially approved the mission, even going so far as to say that it promised good if freed from difficulties. Though his mission broke down because of the refusal of Jefferson Davis to interview him, he persisted. J. R. Gilmore had become associated with him in the enterprise; and in July, 1864, Lincoln was induced to consent to a new peace mission conducted by these two men. To Lincolns mind it was an experiment. While carefully avoiding official connection with it, he saw no reason to prevent it. It may be also that Lincoln wished to expose the "political" purposes of the various peace efforts afoot and to bring into prominence the Southern attitude toward terms of peace. In Richmond the peacemakers conferred with President Davis and Secretary Benjamin on July 17, 1864; but, as in all similar cases, the undertaking broke down when the Confederate leaders indicated that Southern independence was indispensable. With an eye to war publicity the Boston Evening Transcript printed on July 22, 1864, an account of the Jaquess-Gilmore mission in which Jefferson Davis was quoted as saying: "This war must go on till the last of the generation falls in his tracks . . . unless you acknowledge our right to self-government." Much the same result ensued at Toronto in August, 1864, when J. S. Black met Jacob Thompson, his former colleague in the Buchanan cabinet. Again the Southern sine qua non of independence closed discussion and gave no opening for a consideration of collateral points such as amnesty, state restoration, and compensation to slaveowners, on which Lincoln stood ready to offer generous pledges.
        A strange movement now developed--an effort within the Republican party to get rid of their chosen nominee, i.e., to force the withdrawal of Lincoln in favor of a "more vigorous" candidate. Whether viewed from the angle of Greeley's pacifism or of Wades aggressiveness, the national prospect under existing management seemed, in the dark summer of 1864, nearly hopeless. Grant seemed to be accomplishing nothing; Lee appeared invincible; three years of war and hundreds of thousands of casualties had gone for naught; Sherman was apparently getting nowhere; Early had almost seized Washington. Lincoln was at odds with his own party on war aims and reconstruction and had offended his Congress. Prominent men kept denouncing the "imbecility" of the administration; the governments financial credit was ebbing; further calls for troops but emphasized the futility of Union effort; and meanwhile the people were made to believe that the South was anxious to negotiate but was rebuffed by a stubborn administration at Washington. On August 9 Greeley wrote: "I firmly believe that, were the election to take place tomorrow, the Democratic majority in this State and Pennsylvania would amount to 100,000, and that we should lose Connecticut also. Now if the Rebellion can be crushed before November it will do to go on; if not, we are rushing on certain ruin."
        Under these circumstances a "call" was confidentially circulated by dissenting Republicans who set September 28 as the date for a convention to meet at Cincinnati "to consider the state of the nation and to concentrate the union strength on some one candidate who commands the confidence of the country, even by a new nomination if necessary." It was the intention to circulate the "call" secretly and then, if sufficient sentiment seemed ready to consolidate back of the movement, to bring the project into the open at what was deemed an opportune time.
        Though the projected convention never met, the call evoked letters from men high in Republican councils which one reads today with considerable wonderment. Horace Greeley wrote: "Mr. Lincoln is already beaten. He cannot he elected. And we must have another ticket to save us from utter overthrow. If we had such a ticket as could be made by naming Grant, Butler, or Sherman for President, and Farragut as Vice, we could make a fight yet. And such a ticket we ought to have anyhow, with or without a convention." Henry Winter Davis wrote: "My letters from Maryland say Lincoln can do nothing there, even where the Union party is most vigorous, and everybody is looking for a new candidate He added: "I think we have a pretty good start in New York and the N. E. States, Pa., Del., and Ohio and Michigan. If a break be made there, it compels Lincolns surrender." To Richard Smith, writing from the Gazette office in Cincinnati, it seemed that the success of the Democrats would be the ruin of the nation, that the "peace party" was of dangerous proportions, that the "people regard[ed] Mr. Lincolns candidacy as a misfortune," and that the best course would be the withdrawal of Lincoln and Fremont and "the nomination of a man that would inspire confidence and infuse life into our ranks." Whitelaw Reid wrote on September 2: "That which I could do has been done in inducing the Gazette to come out for Mr. Lincolns withdrawal."
        With this feeling of trepidation in Republican ranks, the Democratic delegates met at Chicago on August 29. The convention represented a union of war Democrats and peace Democrats: to please the war Democrats McClellan was nominated for the presidency, his running mate being Pendleton of Ohio; while the drafting of the platform was assigned to the so-called "peace faction," of which C. L. Vallandigham was the outstanding leader. After referring to "four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war," the platform demanded the cessation of hostilities "to the end that at the earliest possible moment peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union of the States."
        This was not a peace-at-any-price declaration; it proclaimed reunion as the condition of peace. Its weakness lay not in the aims and objectives that were visioned, but in the easy assumption that an undefeated Confederacy, having achieved an armistice on the basis of what would have been deemed Southern victory, would give up the main purpose for which they were fighting and consent to abdication by the Southern government.
        Shortly prior to this convention, President Lincoln had set down on paper, chiefly as a way of formulating his own purpose, the following memorandum: "This morning . . . 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 ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards." In the diary of John Hay it is recorded that when Lincoln wrote this memorandum he obtained the signatures of his cabinet secretaries without showing them the contents, and that at the cabinet meeting of November 11 just after his reelection the President read the memorandum and stated that it had been his resolve, in case of McClellan's election, to "talk matters over with him" and say: "General, the election has demonstrated that you . . . have more influence . . . than I. Now let us together, you with your influence and I with . . . the executive power . . . , try to save the country. You raise as many troops as you possibly can . . . , and I will devote all my energies to assist and finish the war." "At least," said Lincoln, "I should have done my duty and have stood clear before my own conscience."
        Embarrassed by the peace plank, McClellan cut the knot by laying the strongest emphasis on the Union in his letter accepting the nomination. He thus went before the country as a war leader: indeed his war record was the reason for his candidacy. Nor did McClellan stand apart from other leading Democrats in his insistence on the preservation of the Union as the object of the war; the same emphasis was found in the general conduct of the Democratic campaign in the North. Democratic speakers generally, while avoiding mention of the "peace plank" of the platform, inveighed against Lincolns policies, denounced his so-called acts of usurpation, and urged Republican unfitness for the task of restoring the Union.
        Until the beginning of September the political horoscope seemed to presage Democratic victory. On September 2 three important editors-- Greeley, Theodore Tilton, and Parke Godwin, representing the Tribune, Independent, and Evening Post, all of New York--joined in letters to Northern governors, seeking to promote the movement to discard Lincoln for some other candidate. Suddenly, however, the horizon changed. The Democrats had stirred up resentment by their peace paragraph, which the Republicans used with telling effect, denouncing what they chose to call the "Copperhead platform." Then followed in quick succession the fall of Atlanta, giving Lincoln the military victory he needed, and Republican triumph in the elections held in Maine and Vermont. With remarkable rapidity the plans for the Cincinnati convention melted away. Fremont withdrew from the race (September 22). At the same time anti-Lincoln Radicals were appeased by the retirement of Montgomery Blair from the cabinet and the appointment of William Dennison, war governor of Ohio, in his place. Even Wade and Davis, seeing the hopelessness of displacing Lincoln, decided that it was expedient to support him; Republican ranks were closed behind the President; and the "multitudes . . . rushing to McClellan" which had caused Henry Winter Davis so much concern were halted.
        Only the Union states were counted, though elections were also held in Louisiana and Tennessee, which Lincoln carried. Just prior to the election Nevada was added to the Union. Earlier in the year, when radical Republican votes were needed in the Senate for reconstruction purposes, Congress had passed enabling acts for Colorado and Nevada (March 21, 1864). In Colorado the process was delayed, but in Nevada it worked according to design. The Nevada constitutional convention completed its work at so late a date that the constitution had to be telegraphed to Washington so that the state might be admitted prior to the election. It was on October 31, 1864, just eight days before the election, that Lincoln proclaimed the admission of the new commonwealth. Lincoln carried the state by a comfortable majority; and though much was made of its "argentiferous leads," there were those who suspected that its two Republican senators constituted its chief product.
        Of these Union states, all except three (Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey) gave Lincoln their electoral vote, while in the popular ballots Lincoln had a majority of 400,000 over McClellan. In a careful analysis of the election returns, William Frank Zornow concludes: ". . . Lincoln won the election because of the support given him by the agricultural areas inhabited largely by native-born citizens, former Bell-Everett voters, and the skilled urban workers and professional classes. McClellan drew his best support from the immigrant proletariat and from rural areas in which the foreign element predominated. Those who supported Breckinridge in 1860 seem in a large measure to have voted for McClellan in 1864. Most Protestant denominations urged support of the administration, while the Irish element of the Catholic church supported McClellan."
        Though the election was hailed as a Lincoln "landslide," the large minorities for McClellan in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois gave point to those indications which seemed in August to foretell Democratic success. According to a contemporary observer (John D. Caton of Illinois), Democratic failure in 1864 was due to the ambiguous expressions in their platform and to the questionable principles of some who figured in the Chicago convention. The Democrats, supporting the war but condemning the "radicalism of Lincoln," won the election of 1862; then in 1864, thought Caton, they failed because they took up the cry of peace, denounced all others as abolitionists, organized secret societies, and wrote a platform to conciliate a minor group that had assumed leadership.
        It may be well to inquire into the validity of the familiar tradition regarding the election of 1864. The stereotyped picture is that Lincoln and McClellan were opposites, that McClellan personified a movement in opposition to Lincolns main objectives, that Democratic victory would have brought defeat in the war and failure to the Union cause, and that only by the election of Lincoln were the purposes of the people in terms of "restoration" salvaged. The patent fact, however, is that all parties in the North in 1864 were Union parties. The Union (i.e., Republican) party under Lincoln, the Democratic party under McClellan, and the radical anti-Lincoln party under Fr~mont (whose ticket disappeared before election day), all favored the restoration of the Union as the chief point at issue. Writing from the contemporary Southern viewpoint E. A. Pollard commented as follows on the relation of war issues to the campaign:

        This struggle [of 1864] did not turn upon a sufficiently tangible issue to give it importance. As a Union party, the great body of the opposition [i.e., Democratic] party was committed to the war as the only practicable means of Preserving and restoring the Union. . . . It would have been vain to expect Success upon the principles of the very few Democrats. . .who believed . . . that the war had been unrighteous . . . in its leading object. . . . The great body of the opposition concurred with Gen. McClellan in the opinion that secession was unwarrantable . . . and that it ought to be resisted by all the power of the Union.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

        Except in the important particular that the Government party proposed, In its amended platform, to abolish slavery by an extra-constitutional means, there was no great difference between the positions of these two parties in regard to slavery itself. . . .By the summer of 1864, however, the fate of slavery had . . . been sealed. It probably could not have existed if the Confederacy had been established.

        The false emphasis upon the "peace plank" adopted at Chicago comes largely from party propaganda directed against the Democrats. It is to be noted in the first place that the peace declaration (in its reference to the war as a "failure") did not represent even a majority of the opposition party, and that if the Democrats had won the election, their victory would have been obtained under McClellan's leadership, not that of Vallandigham. Such a victory could have been fairly interpreted only as a mandate to do as McClellan said, i.e., to prosecute the war as a conflict whose object was restoration of the Union. Had McClellan been chosen, it is more reasonable to suppose that he would have held true to his own war record and his declarations in the campaign and would consequently have refused peace on terms of Union surrender, than to suppose that he and his advisers would have consented to such surrender. Not even the peace Democrats--the Vallandigham element--favored a peace of this nature. Even the "Copperhead plank," so roundly denounced, declared for peace on the basis of reunion. The main difference between Vallandigham and McClellan was as to the efficacy of an armistice in promoting suitable peace terms.
        On the main issues of the day Lincoln and McClellan were not opposites. They agreed in considering secession iniquitous and the war righteous; they agreed essentially as to reconstruction. The differences between them were more a matter of shading than of glaring contrast. Perhaps these can best be defined in terms of the support which each candidate drew. Though the great body of the Democrats in 1864 was formed of unquestionably loyal citizens who favored the vigorous prosecution of the war, the McClellan ticket also received the backing of the small but noisy anti-war faction; and so powerful was this group that, as we have seen, Lincoln thought it could control McClellan should he be elected. On the other hand most Republicans in 1864 were undoubtedly moderates who desired nothing more than the restoration of peace and the Union; but the vigorous Radical minority, which wanted a social revolution in the South, was also a part Lincoln's following, and, as the previous years had demonstrated, the President could be pushed into a gradual acceptance of their Radical views.
Source: "The Civil War and Reconstruction" by J.G. Randall and David Herbert Donald

This Page last updated 11/06/04


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