The presidential election of 1864 transpired at a time when the country was divided, both geographically and politically, by war. The outcome of the election would ultimately be decided by swiftly changing political tides.
The majority of Republicans backed the current president, Abraham Lincoln; but Lincoln had a significant number of detractors even within his own party. They accused Lincoln of being too eager to compromise, lacking conviction, and of offering up ill-timed jokes, putting Lincoln’s renomination at first in doubt.
However, his Republican supporters had a plan. Dissention within the Democratic Party, due in part to the recent death of their leader, Stephen A. Douglas, divided the northern Democrats into three factions: War Democrats, Peace Democrats, and Copperheads. War Democrats put patriotism above party loyalty and supported Lincoln, and the Republicans sought an alliance with them. A partnership with the War Democrats brought a temporary end to the Republican Party, as the new alliance named themselves the Union Party.
Lincoln won the nomination of the Union Party, and selected Andrew Johnson as the Vice Presidential candidate on his ticket. Johnson, a War Democrat and slave owner from Tennessee, had never attended school but taught himself to read. Apprenticed to a tailor at the age of ten, he became active in politics as a teenager and stood out as a powerful orator. Johnson rose through the political ranks to become a congressman, governor of Tennessee, and a United States senator. He campaigned for the rights of impoverished white planters, but refused to secede from the Union with his home state. Lincoln believed that choosing Johnson as his Vice-Presidential running mate would give him the widespread appeal necessary to achieve re-election.
The Peace Democrats were party loyalists, and they withheld their support of Lincoln but did not take any radical action against him. The Copperheads, however, openly demonstrated their disdain for the Lincoln administration with physical and political attacks against Lincoln, the draft, and emancipation.
The Copperheads, aptly named after the snake that strikes without warning, were led by a notorious man named Clement L. Vallandingham. Venomously outspoken against the war, he was eventually brought before a military tribunal on the charge of making treasonable utterances. Convicted in 1863, he served a prison term and was banished from the Union.
However, Vallandingham did not quietly go away. He eventually resurfaced in Canada, and ran for the governorship of his home state of Ohio from foreign soil. He was not victorious in that election but did garner a significant number of votes. He eventually made his way back to Ohio, but was never prosecuted for violating his exile.
After the War Democrats joined forces with the Republicans, the Copperheads and the Peace Democrats comprised what was left of the Democratic Party. They nominated General George B. McClellan as their candidate for president in 1864. Known affectionately as “Little Mac” by his soldiers, McClellan was a stern perfectionist who demanded precision from his troops. However, his methodical practices had earned him the nickname “Tardy George” from his critics, including President Lincoln, who in 1862 had grown weary of McClellan’s reluctance to move forward on the battlefield. Lincoln finally issued a direct order for McClellan to approach and fight at the Peninsula Campaign, where the Seven Days Battles occurred. Although McClellan was defeated at the Peninsula, he had managed to garner enough popular support to earn the Democratic nomination for President in 1864.
Throughout the presidential campaign the country was at war, and the campaign itself was no different. The Union Party hurled insults at the Democrats and the Democrats responded in kind. Lincoln began to grow despondent, believing that he had lost the campaign even before the first vote was cast. But the face of the war was constantly changing, and the political tide rolled back in Lincoln’s favor.
The catalyst for this change was a series of Northern victories in Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. With these victories, Lincoln had the faith of the people, particularly the soldiers. Leaving nothing to chance, many Northern soldiers were furloughed during the election to improve Lincoln’s vote count. Other Northern soldiers were allowed to vote multiple times to log the votes of their counterparts who were still on the battlefields. When the results were tallied, Lincoln carried the popular vote by only about 400,000 votes out of four million cast, but he garnered 212 Electoral College votes to McClellan’s 21.
Lincoln interpreted his re-election as a validation of his war policy—battling against the South for unity and emancipation. He charged General Ulysses S. Grant with the responsibility of surging forward toward Richmond, the Confederate capitol. Grant’s troops were finally successful in April of 1865, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse.
While the North savored the victory, the South took account of the costs of the war. The physical destruction in the South was profound. Major cities, such as Richmond, Charleston, and Atlanta had been burned to the ground, and many smaller towns had suffered the same fate. The physical destruction extended to individual homes, including many impressive mansions that were reduced to shambles.
The bountiful cotton fields were badly scarred, as well. Entire crops had been burned by Northern soldiers, and those that had escaped intentional destruction had fallen into an unproductive disarray of weeds.
Livestock on the southern plantations had suffered a similar fate. When Northern soldiers invaded the south, many livestock were killed or left to fend for themselves after their shelters and food sources were burned.
Southerners who returned to what was left of their homes not only had to endure this overwhelming physical destruction, but also the economic effects of the war. The Southerners had to abandon their wartime currency and return to Union currency, which had undergone wartime changes itself. Banks and businesses in the south had been shut down during the war. Planters had no source of capital with which to rebuild their homes or their livelihoods. Crops could not be restored without seed, and no seed was available for purchase.
It is estimated that Southern planters had lost over $2 million in human chattel when their slaves were emancipated. Any crops that might be salvaged lay idle because planters had lost their labor source. Southerners who had once lived the high life were now poverty-stricken, struggling to get by. It would be ten years before the South’s agricultural output would return to pre-Civil War numbers, and even then the most productive region would be the burgeoning southwest.
While Southerners were mourning the loss of their financially lucrative labor source, more than four million former slaves were trying to find their way as freedmen. The majority of the emancipated blacks were illiterate, with limited skills and financial resources.
The one factor that connected most former slaves was a thirst for religion. Many masters had allowed their slaves to worship beside them, but with the Emancipation Proclamation former slaves began developing their own churches. Between 1850 and 1870, the black Baptist Church had grown by 350,000 members, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church quadrupled its membership. Many blacks were driven toward literacy largely out of their desire to read the Bible.
In response to the desire for literacy, black schools were established—some with black teachers and others with white teachers, primarily female missionaries from the American Missionary Association. It was not uncommon to see grandmothers attend school alongside their grandchildren. However, there were not enough teachers to meet the demands, and eventually the federal government stepped in to help.
At President Lincoln’s encouragement, along with pressure from influential Northern abolitionists, Congress developed the Freedmen’s Bureau on March 8, 1865. This early social welfare program was dedicated to educating, training, and providing financial and moral support for former slaves. One strong supporter of the Bureau was Union general Oliver O. Howard, the eventual founder and president of Howard University in Washington, D.C.
With Howard’s support, over 200,000 blacks learned to read through the programs offered by the Freedmen’s Bureau. Unfortunately, the system became corrupt and it was never able to achieve its potential. The catch-phrase of the day was “40 acres and a mule,” as that was what was promised to the emancipated slaves, with the plan to settle them on land confiscated from the Confederates. However, corrupt officials usually kept the land for themselves and manipulated many former slaves into signing labor contracts that essentially placed them back in a slave-like environment.
White Southerners campaigned against the Freedmen’s Bureau. Many felt that although they had lost the right to own slaves, they still possessed racial superiority. The Freedmen’s Bureau threatened that presumption. When President Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865, and Andrew Johnson stepped into office, the Freedman’s Bureau lost an ally in the White House. Johnson, a Southerner, had been raised with the same racial biases as those who opposed the Freedmen’s Bureau, and he allowed the program to expire in 1872.
Despite its flaws, the Freedmen’s Bureau had helped a majority of former slaves achieve some degree of success. Freed slaves began to develop a political unity and refused to be discouraged. Their primary political vehicle was the northern-based Union League, which educated freedmen on civil responsibility and campaigned for Republican leaders who supported the freedmen’s cause.
Blacks themselves also began to assume political roles. Sixteen black men served in the Senate and the House of Representatives between 1868 and 1876, and numerous others took on roles in state and local government. This was much to the dismay of their former masters, who scorned the white allies of these black political leaders.The whites who allied themselves with blacks became known as either “scalawags” or “carpetbaggers.” Scalawags were Southerners who opposed secession and were accused of harming the South by helping the blacks and stealing from their state treasuries. Carpetbaggers were Northerners who were accused of putting all their worldly belongings into a carpetbag suitcase and coming to the south at war’s end to gain personal profit and power. The name-calling on occasion erupted into violence, suggesting that Southerners believed that they were superior not only to blacks, but to black-friendly whites, as well. This disharmony was typical of the early stages of Reconstruction.