The Presidential Election of 1864

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Podcast Transcript

The election of 1860 was unquestionably the most important election in American history. 

The presidential election after that was still important, but it has the distinction of being perhaps the oddest presidential election in history, if for no other reason than it was conducted in the middle of a civil war. 

Learn more about the election of 1864 and all the ways we’ve never seen anything like it before or since, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Abraham Lincoln is considered by many historians to be the greatest American president. 

However, he certainly wasn’t considered that while he was in office. He was elected with the second-lowest percentage of the popular vote in history, and he probably would have been the lowest if most states had popular voting in 1824.

While he was in office, he also wasn’t that popular. The war took a horrible toll on the country, and Lincoln was the personification of everyone’s anger towards the war. 

Moreover, in 1864 the outcome of the war was still in doubt. In hindsight, it might now seem obvious that the Union was going to win if for no reason other than manpower and economics, but that wasn’t perceived to be the case at the time. 

It wasn’t just the incredible loss of life from the war, but the fact that the Union lost several major battles early on. Being in a war is one thing, but losing a war is another.

On August 23, 1864, Lincoln wrote a letter to his cabinet that said the following, “This morning, as for some days past, 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 grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.”

On top of the war, no incumbent had won relection in the past 32 years. The United States had three decades of one term presidents, and people had gotten quite used to it.

So the possibility that Lincoln could lose the election was very real. It was so real, that it was the reason for many of the unique things about the election.

We should start with the first and most obvious odd thing about the election, and that is the fact that it took place at all. 

Many people advocated the cancellation or the postponement of the election due to the war, however, the main advocates of canceling the election were Lincoln’s supporters. 

Lincoln, however, refused to cancel the election. He felt the entire war was about democracy, and canceling the election would defeat the entire purpose of the war. 

The other odd thing about the election is of course that many states, or former states as the case might be, would not be taking part. Because the southern states were in rebellion and had declared independence, only the Union states would be taking part….sort of. More on that in a bit.

Politically, the country was divided into roughly four camps. 

On the far left, and I’m using left and right in this instance just to describe how much they advocated change, were the Radical Republicans. 

The Radical Republicans were staunchly in favor of the abolition of slavery and wanted it to be the primary goal of the war. They were upset that Lincoln hadn’t done more in this regard.

They actually created a brand new party called the Radical Democracy Party and had a party convention with their own presidential nominee. They nominated John C. Frémont, however, he withdrew from the race in September and threw his support behind Lincoln. 

The second group was the status quo Republicans. They were Lincoln’s primary supporters who believed in continuing the war to its conclusion.  Their attitude can be summed up by Lincoln’s campaign slogan, “Don’t change horses in the middle of a stream”.

The third group was the War Democrats. They were Democrats, but they supported the Union and President Lincoln and wanted a more aggressive policy towards the Confederacy.

The final group was the Peace Democrats, also known as the Copperheads. The Peace Democrats simply wanted to end the war immediately, bring the southern states back into the Union and didn’t care about the abolition of slavery. 

The Republicans called the Peace Democrats “copperheads” because they were supposedly as venomous as a snake. 

Another odd thing about this election is that Abraham Lincoln didn’t run as the nominee of the Republic party. 

In order to unify the Republicans and the War Democrats, the Republican party temporarily changed the name of the party for this one election to the National Union Party. That way Democrats wouldn’t have to do something as unpalatable as vote for a Republican.

Because this was the Union party, a serious attempt was made to court Democrat votes. To do this, Lincoln abandoned his vice president, Hannibal Hamline of Maine, and picked a new running mate. 

He selected one of the leaders of the War Democrats, a former Senator, and the current military governor and former elected governor of Tennessee, Andrew Johnson. 

While he was from Tennessee, he was firmly in support of the Union. He was the only sitting senator from a southern state that didn’t resign his seat after his state left the Union.

Johnson didn’t particularly care about slavery, which became a big issue when he became president.

The Peace Democrats choose as their presidential nominee General George B. McClellan.

McClellan was formerly the head of the Army of the Potomac, and the Commanding General of the Union Army.

He famously did….nothing when he was general. He waited and delayed and found excuse after excuse for not taking action which drove Lincoln nuts. Eventually, he relieved McClellan and replaced him with Ulysses S. Grant. 

McClellan followed in the footsteps of General Winfield Scott in1852 and accepted the nomination and campaigned while on active duty. He didn’t resign his commission until election day. 

That meant that for the entire presidential campaign, he was actively campaigning against his boss, the commander-in-chief, while still a member of the military. 

Lincoln’s electoral fortunes swung in September when Atlanta was taken by General William Tecumseh Sherman. This and several other victories changed the public’s attitude towards the war and greatly increased Lincoln’s odds of reelection. 

The next odd thing was the makeup of the electoral college. 

In the 1860 election, there were 33 states. After that, 11 left the Union to join the confederacy. 

During the war, three more states were added. One was West Virginia which was created out of Virginia, the other was Kansas, and the third state was Nevada.

Nevada literally became a state one week before the election on October 31. Their statehood was approved by the Republican-controlled Senate in an attempt to get a few more electoral votes for Lincoln. 

Of the 11 states which seceded, two of them had been occupied by the Union and submitted electoral votes: Louisiana and Tennessee. 

The Senate rejected the electoral college ballots from both Louisiana and Tennessee. The reason for the rejection is that the states were under military occupation and the electors were not selected either by popular vote or by a democratically elected state legislature. 

Both states submitted their votes for Lincoln, so it didn’t affect the outcome of the election. 

One of the final unique things about the election was who was allowed to vote. 

The 13th and 14th Amendments hadn’t been passed at this point, so the new voters weren’t yet freed slaves. 

The big voting innovation for 1864 was allowing soldiers to vote by mail. 

Given that a significant part of the adult population was far from home, it meant that the soldiers who were out doing the actual fighting and dying wouldn’t be able to cast ballots in the democracy they were fighting for. 

This was especially true for the western states like California.

Several states approved voting by mail for soldiers on active duty: California, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. 

The War Department encourage units from other states to be given leave for a week or two so they could go home and vote.

Lincoln ended up winning 78% of the military vote.

In the end, Lincoln’s fears of not winning re-election proved to be unfounded. He won the election in a landslide garnering 212 electoral votes to George McClelland’s 21. 

Even if all the Confederate states had voted and had voted against Lincoln, he still would have won. 

Perhaps more interesting than the election was what happened in the five months immediately after the election. 

On January 31, 1865, congress ratified the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. 

On April 12, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Grant, ending major hostilities. 

On April 14, Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington DC, and hours later on April 15th, he died and Andrew Johnson became the 17th President of the United States.

In between these historic events, Lincoln took the oath of office for the second time on March 4. 

In his Second Inaugural Address, he uttered the words which he had hoped would define his second term and the post-war period. 

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.


The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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