On November 8, 1864, Northern voters overwhelmingly endorse the leadership and policies of President Abraham Lincoln when they elect him to a second term. With his re-election, any hope for a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy vanished.
In 1864, Lincoln faced many challenges to his presidency. The war was now in its fourth year, and many were questioning if the South could ever be fully conquered militarily. Union General Ulysses S. Grant mounted a massive campaign in the spring of that year to finally defeat the Confederate army of General Robert E. Lee, but after sustaining significant losses at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, the Yankees bogged down around Petersburg, Virginia. As the fall approached, Grant seemed no closer to defeating Lee than his predecessors. Additionally, Union General William T. Sherman was planted outside of Atlanta, but he could not take that city. Some of the Radical Republicans were unhappy with Lincoln’s conciliatory plan for reconstruction of the South. And many Northerners had never been happy with Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation, which converted the war from one of reunion to a crusade to destroy slavery. Weariness with the war fueled calls for a compromise with the seceded states.
The Democrats nominated George B. McClellan, the former commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. McClellan was widely regarded as brilliant in organizing and training the army, but he had failed to defeat Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Virginia.McClellan and Lincoln quarreled constantly during his tenure as general in chief of the army, and Lincoln replaced him when McClellan failed to pursue Lee into Virginia after the Battle of Antietam in Maryland inSeptember 1862.
In the months leading up to the 1864 election, the military situation changed dramatically. While Grant remained stalled at Petersburg, Mobile Bay fell to the Federal navy in August, Sherman captured Atlanta in September, and General Philip Sheridan secured Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in October. On election day, Lincoln carried all but three states (Kentucky, New Jersey, and Delaware), and won 55 percent of the vote. He won 212 electoral votes to McCellan’s 21. Most significantly, a majority of the Union troops voted for their commander in chief, including a large percentage of McClellan’s old command, the Army of the Potomac.
Perhaps most important was the fact that the election was held at all. Before this, no country had ever held elections during a military emergency. Lincoln himself said, “We can not have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.” Five months after Lincoln’s re-election, the collapse of the Confederacy was complete.
READ MORE: Lincoln's Hard-Fought Civil War Re-Election