More Americans lost their lives in the Civil War than in any other war. Every decision weighed heavily on Lincoln, which had visible effects on his appearance. 1864 was the first election held during wartime since 1812. Allowing the election to be held at all was a crucial, frankly underrated, decision by Lincoln. Many believed the election should be postponed, but Lincoln insisted it was necessary to preserve our democracy, even if he might lose. But hey, he’s the greatest president of all time for a reason.

The Last Four Years

By the time Abraham Lincoln took office, seven Southern states had seceded from the Union. These rebellious states formed the Confederate States of America, made a constitution, and appointed Jefferson Davis (Mississippi politician and Pierce’s Secretary of War) as president. It became clear that legislative compromise was no longer possible. In his inaugural address, Lincoln assured the South that he did not intend to outlaw slavery where it already existed, but purely wanted to preserve the Union.

Of course, Lincoln did not recognize the authority of the Confederacy, which brought into question the Federal property in the South. One of the biggest concerns was a group of forts near Charleston, South Carolina. Fort Sumter was still under construction on a small island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. As the South Carolina Militia (the Confederate Army didn’t exist yet) approached the forts, Union forces joined together in Fort Sumter. Lincoln took office to learn that the fort only had six weeks of rations left. He attempted to send aid, but it was too late. On April 12, 1861, the Southern Militia gave their final ultimatum. They bombarded the fort throughout the night. Union forces finally surrendered the next day, abandoned the fort, and were allowed to retreat north. Surprisingly, there were no causalities of the battle. That is, until a gun misfire during the Confederate’s 100 gun salute (the Union Army’s one request after withdrawal) led to the deaths of two Southern soldiers. These were the first deaths of the Civil War.

Lincoln responded to the attack with a call to arms. Northern states sent thousands of troops to join the Union Army. Southern and border states, however, were not so eager. Forced to pick sides, four more states seceded. As incentive for secession, Virginia was awarded the Confederate capital in Richmond, just over a hundred miles from Washington, DC. Remaining slave states Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware were reluctant to send troops, but did not seceded.

At the beginning of the war, General Winfield Scott (former Whig presidential candidate) was the most senior military officer. The Union adopted his “Anaconda Plan” to squeeze the South on all sides with a blockade. Ideally, they would then surrender with few casualties. Northern war supporters called for an attack on nearby Richmond. On the march South, Union and Confederate armies met at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Both forces were of similar size, and equally untrained and unprepared. Despite the Union initially having the upper hand, it was a Confederate victory mostly thanks to General Thomas J. Jackson standing his ground and earning the nickname “Stonewall Jackson.” After the battle, both sides realized that the war would be much harsher and longer than they had anticipated. General Scott retired and Lincoln promoted George B. McClellan to General-In-Chief.

Lincoln found General McClellan’s methods to be too slow and defensive. He took his time making his way towards Richmond, this time from the Virginia coast. McClellan’s slow pace, and the mounting Union loses were weighing on the nation. Meanwhile, the Confederates were benefiting from the military prowess of General Robert E. Lee, who kept Richmond out of Union hands. When Lee tried to cross into Maryland, however, he was stopped by Union forces on September 17, 1862. The resulting Battle of Antietam remains the single bloodiest day in American history. Despite the huge number of casualties, the battle ended in a much-needed Union victory. Lincoln took advantage of the good news to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the Confederate States and effectively ending the Fugitive Slave Act. The Union Army also started recruiting black troops and former slaves. While Lincoln truly felt like this was the morally correct thing to do, he was partially motivated by the need to deter European intervention. Now that the Union had a stronger moral standing, countries like Britain (who were missing out on their cheap cotton supply) were less inclined to support the South. He also finally fired General McClellan, after he failed to chase Lee during his retreat back into Virginia.

The following year saw Union victories at Vicksburg, Mississippi (gained control of the Mississippi River) and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (stopped another Lee invasion North). Lincoln promoted General Ulysses S. Grant, who had been the most successful Union general of the war, and brought him East to fight General Lee. Grant was known for his relentlessness, continuing to push forward even when facing heavy losses. In the East, Grant did just that. He used this controversial strategy to chase Lee towards Richmond in his Overland Campaign. The Union actually suffered more casualties than the Confederates during this phase, but was able to keep going thanks to their larger supply of reinforcements.

To add to all the stress in Lincoln’s life, his 11-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid on February 20, 1862. Lincoln had already lost another son, 3-year-old Eddie, in 1850. Their deaths had a profound effect on the mental health and Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd. Of their two other sons, Tad died after the war in 1871, and Robert lived to adulthood. Robert had his own brush with death, though. During the war, he was saved from falling between the platforms of a crowded train car by famous stage actor Edwin Booth.

Other Stuff Lincoln Got Done Pause!

The Civil War is a massive event to recap, but here are some other things Lincoln and the Republicans got done during his time in office. Without the pesky Southern Democrats in Congress, they were able to pass several agenda items that had been around since the Whigs.

  • Paper Money, aka Greenbacks (1861): To help finance the war, Congress authorized the use of green “Demand Notes” that could be redeemed for specie (coins) or used to pay customs duties.
  • Federal Income Tax (1861): Also to help pay for the war, Congress created a tax of 3% on incomes above $800. A year later, they added a progressive taxation structure and an inheritance tax.
  • Transcontinental Railroad (1862): Created the Central Pacific and Union Pacific companies to build a route from the Missouri River to California.
  • Homestead Act (1862): Designed to help small farmers, this act granted Western land to anyone who was willing to work on it and improve it.
  • Department of Agriculture (1862): Another effort to help farmers, Lincoln promoted the department to Cabinet-level.
  • Land-Grant College Act (1862): Provided land to states for the creation of colleges specializing in “agriculture and mechanic arts.”
  • Thanksgiving! (1863): Lincoln was convinced by writer Sarah Josepha Hale (of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” fame) to make Thanksgiving a national holiday on the final Thursday of November. In fact, she had written the last four presidents about the same thing. Previously, Thanksgiving had only been celebrated in New England, and on varying dates. At the time, only Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day were national holidays. Thanksgiving was an opportunity to bring people together in a fractured nation.

Major Issues

Thinkin’ Lincoln.

For starters, the Civil War was a major issue. There was a lot of opposition to Lincoln’s methods. But I also want to mention Lincoln’s most controversial decision, the suspension of Habeas Corpus. This meant that anyone arrested under suspicion of helping the Confederates could be jailed without charges and without a proper trial. Initially, the suspension was used to protect Union supply lines in Maryland, but it was eventually expanded to the entire Union, despite technically being ruled unconstitutional in court. As you might expect, not all who were arrested were truly conspirators. Several journalists who spoke out against the war were also arrested (for what it’s worth, Lincoln faced a lot of bad press and did not enact this law to its fullest extent). One such journalist was Frank Key Howard, grandson of Francis Scott Key. In fact, Howard was imprisoned in the same jail his grandfather had been in when he wrote the Star-Spangled Banner during the War of 1812. I don’t think he found that as neat as I do.

Party Watch & The Candidates

Despite their huge resource advantage, the North had been struggling against the South. Facing criticism from all sides, Lincoln expected to lose re-election. The Republican Party combined with some War Democrats (aka Northern Democrats that supported the war) to form the National Union Party. Their platform directly called for the end of slavery. Luckily, they still nominated Abraham Lincoln on the first ballot. For vice president, they selected Andrew Johnson. Johnson had been a representative, governor, and senator from Tennessee and was currently serving as its military governor. Although he was certainly not an advocate for African American rights, he despised rich plantation owners and preferred to support small farmers. He was the only Southern Democrat to not resign following secession. His policies did not align well with the Republicans, but that didn’t matter because the highest position he would possibly attain was vice president, and they don’t do that much, anyways. The bipartisan ticket was aimed at attracting all voters who wanted to win the war and preserve the Union.

In opposition to the unity approach, some Radical Republicans didn’t think Lincoln was doing enough. This faction had been fighting for abolition since before the war. They wanted to continue the war, like the National Union Party, and also wanted to confiscate all Confederate property. They formed the Radical Democracy Party and nominated our old pal, 1856 nominee John C. Frémont. Known for his suspect military decisions, Frémont had been at it again during the Civil War. He was in charge of defending Missouri and Southern Illinois, a region filled with Confederate sympathizers. While there, he declared martial law and took it upon himself to issue an emancipation proclamation, over a year before Lincoln’s. This huge, reckless move made Lincoln lose faith in Frémont and he reassigned him elsewhere. In 1864, Frémont’s running mate was John Cochrane, another Civil War general and former representative from New York.

John C. Frémont, now with less hair.

Luckily for Republicans, the Democrats were even more split than they were. Peace Democrats, also known as Copperheads (like the venomous snake), thought the war was a failure and should end with negotiated peace. They nominated General George B. McClellan to run against his old boss. Oddly enough, McClellan’s personal position was in favor of the war, directly opposed to the platform of the Peace Democrats. He refused to call the war a failure, but did blame Republicans for its lack of results. He shared his ticket with a true Copperhead, ohio Representative George Pendleton.


Republicans called the Democrats cowards, defeatist, un-patriotic, and traitors. Democrats considered Republicans to be ignorant, incompetent, and corrupt. They mainly relied on war weariness for votes. They yelled, “Lincoln removed McClellan. Now we’ll remove Lincoln!” In general, the press was also very hard on Lincoln and attacked him at every opportunity.

In August 1864, Lincoln presented his cabinet with a document to sign, but kept its text hidden. As far as we know, they signed it without question. Unknown to them, this “Blind Memorandum” was an oath to cooperate with the next administration in order to save the Union, even if Lincoln lost the election. Lincoln was that sure of defeat.

But then, the tide turned.

Sherman looking gruff.

In early September 1864, Union General William T. Sherman finally captured Atlanta, an important industry hub for the South! This was such a big victory, that public support swung back in Lincoln’s favor. Frémont even dropped out and endorsed Lincoln to ensure that he would lead US through the end of the war. The Radical Republicans fell in line and got behind Abe.

Election Day

As you might expect, the Confederate-controlled states did not vote in this election. Recaptured parts of Tennessee and Louisiana did send electors (that voted for Lincoln), but their votes were not officially counted.

Three new states voted in this election, Kansas, West Virginia, and Nevada (though one Nevada elector abstained from voting). West Virginia was formed from the Northwest counties that had largely voted against secession. It was admitted to the Union in 1863 under the condition that they include a gradual method of emancipation in their constitution.


It was a surprise landslide victory for incumbent Abraham Lincoln, all thanks to the Battle of Atlanta! Lincoln’s 212 electors obliterated McClellan’s 21. McClellan only won slave states Kentucky and Delaware, plus his home state of New Jersey. Lincoln also did well in the popular vote, especially with active military members. Lincoln was the first incumbent to win re-election since Andrew Jackson in 1832.

What Did It Say About America?

Americans wanted to end the war in the fastest way possible. No one expected it to be this bloody and costly. As soon as Lincoln seemed like the best way to make that happen, his victory became clear. Additionally, the parties were still pretty divided and there were a lot of competing motivations, even among those who supported the war.

Was It The Right Decision?

Yes! Lincoln did some questionable expanding of federal power during the war (see: Habeas Corpus), but he also showed his commitment to democracy time and time again. I think one thing that draws historians to Lincoln so much is his personal journey on slavery. After insisting over and over that Republicans did not want to end slavery in the South, he took the opportunity to end it forever. Lincoln went into his next term with the war almost over and Reconstruction on the horizon. Luckily, he was the best person to lead America into its next phase.


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