Election of 1864
Elections matter. Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in 1860 and that precipitated the South seceding. The war began in April of 1861. In November 1864 there was another presidential election - in the middle of a fiercely fought civil war! And even Lincoln thought he could lose. What would have happened if George McClellan, who had been a top general under Lincoln, had been elected instead of Lincoln being reelected?
Fergus Bordewich wrote a very interesting essay on this topic in the August 29, 2014 Wall Street Journal: “The Election That Saved the United States”. Playing what-if with the Civil War produces wildly different long-term results. A direct link to the Journal article won't work for you, so I created a Word document of it and posted it on my Web site. Here's the link to my Lincoln page in the Civil War section: http://jimjanke.com/civilwar/lincoln.htm
The link to the essay document is the top link on the page. But I have included the full text below:
The Election That Saved the United States
A victory for George McClellan in 1864 would have meant Southern independence and no emancipation of the slaves.
On Aug. 31, 1864, the sweltering galleries of Chicago's largest assembly hall, known as the "Wigwam," erupted with wild yells as Gen. George B. McClellan was nominated as the Democratic Party's candidate for president. The delegates had reason to be exuberant. The North was sick of war, support for Abraham Lincoln was plummeting, and they had an attractive candidate. But if McClellan had won, it would have been the last election in United States as a unified nation.
Handsome and self-confident, the 37-year-old McClellan had won several minor victories early in the war and was promoted to command the Union forces. His battlefield record after that was unimpressive. But he remained immensely popular with the troops, even after Lincoln dismissed him for failing to destroy Robert E. Lee's army after the Union victory in Antietam in September 1862.
A McClellan presidency would have momentous consequences. The Democratic platform called for an unconditional cease-fire and a peaceable restoration of the Union. This was a clear signal to abandon the war, and thus also Lincoln's commitment to free the slaves. Lincoln, while not an abolitionist, loathed slavery and had staked his administration on ending it. McClellan opposed any interference with slavery.
Although he expressed a willingness to continue the war if necessary, in practical terms McClellan's victory in the election would likely have led to European recognition of the Confederacy, Southern independence, and the forcible return to slavery of the hundreds of thousands of former slaves who had fled to the Union armies for safety.
The war was not going well for the Union. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had lost some 55,000 men during his campaign in Virginia, but Richmond remained in Confederate hands and Southern defiance was undiminished. Elsewhere, Federal armies had also been checkmated, while Confederate privateers wreaked havoc on American shipping. Public horror at the lengthening casualty lists fueled opposition to the war. Draft resistance became epidemic, while desertions from the army climbed to an average of 7,333 a month, a 40% increase over the previous year.
Republicans were desperate; even party stalwarts considered the president's re-election "an impossibility." Lincoln himself expected to lose. At the end of August he asked members of his cabinet to sign a sealed document whose contents he did not disclose. What it said, it later became known: "This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly likely 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 afterward."
Lincoln's choice of a running mate also had far-reaching consequences. With his approval, the party unceremoniously dumped the sitting vice president, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, a staunch abolitionist, and replaced him with Democrat Andrew Johnson, a former slave owner and a deep-dyed racist. But Johnson was the only Southern senator who had remained with the Union, and more recently the hardfisted governor of Union-controlled Tennessee. For Lincoln, it was pure political calculation: what he most urgently needed was support from wavering war Democrats, and he banked on Johnson delivering enough of their votes to swing the election.
Then came the unexpected: The Union army began to win battles. First there was Mobile. On the day McClellan was nominated, the Navy under the command of Adm. David Farragut shot its way into Mobile Bay and seized the city. His command to the fleet entered history: "Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead!"
Three days later, Gen. William T. Sherman captured Atlanta after arduous months of maneuver across northern Georgia. Then Gen. Philip Sheridan recaptured the Shenandoah Valley. Grant was still bogged down in Virginia, but public opinion gradually began to turn.
Still, no one knew what was going to happen on election day. McClellan was optimistic; Lincoln steeled himself for defeat.
On election night, Nov. 8, he planted himself in the telegraph room at the War Office as a chill rain pelted the capital's streets. He waited stoically as the returns slowly trickled in from around the country. Only in the early hours of the morning did the outcome begin to take shape: Lincoln had won a sweeping victory, carrying all but three states—New Jersey, Delaware and Kentucky—and crushing McClellan by 212 electoral votes to 21.
Most startling was the military vote: Overall, Lincoln had won 78% of the soldiers' ballots. They wanted the war over but were set on victory, as were the people of the North.
Five months later Lincoln would be dead—and the nation would be haunted by his decision to put Johnson on the ticket. Abolitionist Hannibal Hamlin would have protected former slaves and punished those who defied federal laws. The nation would have experienced a genuine Reconstruction and not have had to wait a century for the Civil Rights Movement.
Instead, President Johnson pushed forward against the will of Congress the rapid restoration of Southern states toward their prewar status, often with ex-Confederates still in control of the levers of power. He also tolerated horrific reprisals against blacks who attempted to exercise their newly won freedoms. Johnson's defiance of Congress led to his impeachment in 1868, and chaotic violence continued in the former Confederate States.
Nevertheless, the election of 1864 was a triumph for American democracy. Without it, the North's victory, as well as passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, would have been unlikely. That the election took place at all was one of Lincoln's greatest achievements. If ever there was a time when a state of emergency might have trumped democracy, it was 1864. But even when faced with what he believed was almost certain defeat, Lincoln refused to suspend the election.
On Nov. 10, he told a gathering of joyful "serenaders" who had sought him out at the White House: "We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forgo, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us."
Mr. Bordewich's most recent book is "America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union" (Simon & Schuster, 2012).