This year marks the 150th anniversary of the election of 1864, one of the most momentous in American history. Abraham Lincoln’s re-election as president on November 8, 1864, virtually assured that the Civil War would continue until Union victory was achieved and the institution of slavery was destroyed. Another hallmark of that year was Nebraska Territory’s failure to take advantage of an opportunity to become a state. In April Congress passed an enabling act authorizing Nebraskans to adopt a state constitution complying with certain conditions that, if met, would have led to immediate statehood. However, no constitution was drafted and Nebraska remained a U.S. territory whose residents could not vote in presidential elections until statehood finally came in 1867.
As for the 1864 election, Civil War historian James M. McPherson (Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction) has termed it unique in history because it was held in the midst of a civil war that would decide the nation’s future. Moreover, no other society had ever let its soldiers vote in an election whose outcome might determine whether they would have to keep on fighting. Both Lincoln’s supporters and critics knew that if Lincoln were returned to the White House and the Republicans maintained control of Congress, the war would go on to its bitter end.
The election presented Democrats in the North with a dilemma. A significant number, whose most prominent spokesman was former Ohio Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham, argued that the war was a failure and that the Union could be saved only by an immediate end to hostilities and a negotiated peace. They were known as “Peace” Democrats (also called “Copperheads”) and many Republicans considered them sympathetic to the Confederacy at best and traitors at worst. By contrast, the so-called “War” Democrats believed that the Southern armies must be defeated on the battlefield before peace could be restored, although they disagreed with many of Lincoln’s policies toward achieving that goal, such as the emancipation of slaves and the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army.
As the time neared for holding party conventions, the Peace Democrats’ argument that Lincoln and his administration’s prosecution of the war had been a failure was bolstered by a seeming stalemate on the battlefields and by the tremendous number of Union army casualties sustained in bloody fighting during the spring and summer. In the absence of decisive Union victories over the Confederate armies, many Republicans and even Lincoln himself doubted his chances for re-election by a war-weary electorate. Continue reading