The 1864 Election - A View From the Trenches

Death and destruction consumed the landscape. For miles, crude, yet sophisticated trench works, dotted the terrain. The land resembled nothing more than one giant moonscape. This was the physical setting two armies found themselves in as the final year of the American Civil War enveloped Petersburg. From June to July, to August, to September and beyond, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia stared down their counterparts, the Union Army of the Potomac. Ten months – June 1864 to April 1865 – blue and gray cladded soldiers lived on continuous alert and watched one another’s movements and counter-movements. From sunrise to sunset, and even at night, soldiers dodged artillery shells and musket fire, fortified trench works around Petersburg, and waited; waited for the end to an insufferable war. However, military movements and actions alone did not define a soldier’s existence in 1864. The presidential election loomed and every soldier had a vested interest in the outcome.

By November 1864, the Army of the Potomac suffered approximately 95,000 casualties. This included a devastating 54,000 in the Overland Campaign alone.[1] As a comparison, the Union army began the war at First Manassas with 35,000 men, had 62,000 soldiers engaged at Second Manassas, 97,000 engaged at Chancellorsville, and 102,000 to begin the Overland Campaign at the Wilderness. In six months of savage fighting the Union lost an entire army. What was the nation to think of such an expenditure of life? More essential, what did soldiers think about the dreadful conditions and the extreme loss of life without victory and an end to the war? Fred Lockley, a lieutenant in the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, had been a part of the war since 1862. He noted that the recent Overland Campaign was unlike any other in military history. The murderous fire and “scenes of woes and suffering,” led Lockley to conclude that this war was “too sickening to be endured.” Grant seemed to care little for life and the campaign showed no end in sight. Any positive outlook on the war, as of late June, “would not be understood” by any soldier.[2] However, tragic war scenes and bloodshed only hardened the soldiers’ resolve. The army voting results in the election of 1864, reaffirmed support in President Abraham Lincoln’s military policy.

As the costly war dragged on, soldiers became more exposed to the hardships of trench warfare. Trench warfare, as experienced at Petersburg, exposed soldiers to hardships not faced by Union soldiers before; but they did not lose hope in the ultimate defeat of their Rebel foes. Private Sanford Beyer, 110th Pennsylvania Volunteers, wrote of the dangers each soldier exposed themselves to, either on picket duty or in defensive trenches behind advanced Union lines. Mortar shells harassed Union positions every day but he did not lose faith in victory. With the combination of increased Confederate desertion, encircling of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s position, and faith in Lincoln’s reelection, Beyer saw the Confederacy’s end.[3] Lockley, speaking after the disaster of July 30, wrote that he had become discouraged about the prospects of this war. Grant infamously stated “if it takes all summer,” but the artilleryman believed the war would last longer than the summer. The Crater brought no advantages, just 2,500 more casualties. This was perhaps Lockley’s lowest point. Midway through August his hopes returned. “We are willing to submit to any privations and endure any hardships if we can only advance the termination of the war.” After further weakening Lee’s army throughout September, Lockley wrote, “now we feel ourselves victors,” and “we believe our foe to be already nearly beaten. We no longer dread encountering him; he is manifestly weak and cautious…we place implicit trust in the skill of our general – and the strength and morale of the army are all that can be wished. The hardest work of the campaign is over.” By November, the men worn down by war, applauded the president’s reelection. After months of hardships, the military became revitalized. It was only a matter of time until the Rebels succumbed to the might of the Union. The soldiers did not want to quit with the war seemingly over. Further, the Chicago platform pushed soldier support away from the Democratic nominee, George McClellan.[4]

Both parties decidedly wanted the war to end, but that is where the comparisons ended. Lincoln and the Republicans wanted no peace unless by an “unconditional surrender” of southern forces. The government would prosecute the war until the “complete suppression of the Rebellion,” and the return of southern states to their former “allegiance to the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Democrats feared a continuation of violence and demanded “that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities.” “Immediate efforts” implied a negotiated peace that would allow the South to either permanently split from the Union, or rejoin the Union on favorable terms. The latter could only be achieved in a peace, “equally conducive to the welfare and prosperity of all the States, both Northern and Southern.” Although, if the South came back into the Union with government control similar to the pre-war era, the peace was anything but equal. These differing war doctrines proved vital for soldiers in the November election.[5]

Colonel Charles Wainwright, an outspoken opponent of the Lincoln administration, saw the importance of a strong military stance. Before the results of the convention reached the army Wainwright wrote that “if they [Democrats] pass a strong war platform, up and down against secession, keep out all the Vallandigham set, and nominate good men, I think there is not a doubt of their success.” When information of the platform reached camp Wainwright plainly stated that he could not vote for McClellan based on a peace ideology.[6] Peace and compromise were two terms that turned the military vote away from McClellan. A self-proclaimed Democrat summed up the ill-feeling towards the Democratic Party in a letter to his parents. “I cannot chew that Chicago Platform fine enough to swallow it,” wrote the soldier from City Point. “After enduring privation and difficulties which none but the soldier can imagine, for upwards of two years then vote for a man who says the South cannot be conquered” was unfathomable.[7] Accordingly, it was not in the best interest of Union soldiers to vote for McClellan.

Not all soldiers loved Lincoln. In fact, some soldiers did not like either presidential choice. An Irish private, James O’Neil of the 4th Delaware Volunteers, mistrusted both Lincoln and McClellan. Lincoln wanted to prolong the war “until Slavery is abolished,” but McClellan “totely aposed the Interest of the Soldier…he Would Sacrefise the best Interest of the country to gain the Raines of government.”[8] Even if the army did not agree with the abolition agenda of Lincoln’s administration, McClellan whom the army loved and admired, did not represent the ideas of victory that burned within every Union soldier. Their sacrifices would not go unrewarded. Copperheads and compromise turned a one-time beloved general into an enemy of the Union. The platform publicized by the Democratic Party was not alone to blame for the political failure. Confederate soldiers also played a significant role in determining the outcome of the 1864 election.[9]

As early as August, Union and Confederate forces looked towards the election as a sign of the end. Democrats believed in a peaceful solution to the war and Confederates agreed. Ulysses Grant wrote to a Whig friend, “I have no doubt but the enemy are exceedingly anxious to hold out until after the Presidential election. They have many hopes from its effects. They hope a counter revolution. They hope the election of the peace candidate.”[10] Peace became synonymous with Confederate victory and separation. However, when Rebels showed enthusiasm for McClellan and a Democratic victory, Union soldiers stood determined to defeat all efforts that threatened military success. On October 11, while a Pennsylvania regiment held their election, “Johnnies would take off their hats by the hundreds and shout for McClellan.” That is how Sergeant Samuel Chase “knew I was right” in voting for Lincoln. Rebels continued to cheer for McClellan throughout October and into November. On November 8 an armistice was held and “the Rebels cheered by the hundreds for McClellan,” wrote Chase. The cheer subsequently hurt McClellan’s chances.[11] Another Pennsylvanian, Colonel William J. Bolton, noted the disappointment in southerners after news of Lincoln’s reelection. The Rebels looked despondent and noted that had McClellan been elected “the war would soon come to a close,” with favorable terms for the South. McClellan, thought southerners, “was the best man for them” in terms of compromise and the end of hostilities.[12] By openly supporting McClellan, Confederates obstructed the Democratic Party’s chance for success and the potential for peace negotiations. Instead, the Rebels only strengthened military support for Lincoln.

Approximately 155,600 soldiers cast votes in the 1864 election. McClellan received about 33,700 votes compared to 116,800 votes Lincoln collected.[13] The available records of the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac tell similar results and illustrates a compelling story.[14] Soldiers overwhelmingly voted for Lincoln and the prosecution of war. Even though Union soldiers may not have agreed with Lincoln’s ideological views they knew the necessity behind a complete military victory. Sacrifice without victory was not acceptable. Therefore, soldiers went to the polls in October and November to cast their votes for the man they believed most capable of securing an unconditional Union victory. It was not a military man the soldiers put their faith in, but a man who shared the heartache of death and defeat over the previous three years.


[1] The Overland Campaign consisted of the military engagements leading to Petersburg in May and June 1864. These battles consisted of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Totopotomoy Creek, and Cold Harbor.

[2] John Pomfret and Fred Lockley, “Letters of Fred Lockley, Union Soldier 1864-65,” Huntington Library Quarterly 16, no. 1 (November 1952): 81, 81-82.

[3] Sanford F. Beyer to his sister, August 30, 1864, Petersburg National Battlefield, Eastern Front Unit, Letters, Diaries Written During Siege folder, File #20, Petersburg, VA.

[4] John Pomfret and Fred Lockley, “Letters of Fred Lockley, Union Soldier 1864-65,” Huntington Library Quarterly 16, no. 1 (November 1952): 86-87, 89-90, 91-92.

[5] The Platforms. Baltimore. Chicago. 1864. Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/scsm000249/. (Accessed July 31, 2017).

[6] Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865 (Gettysburg, PA: Stan Clark Military Books, 1962), 459-61.

[7] Bernard A. Olsen, Upon the Tented Field (Red Bank, NJ: Historic Projects Inc., 1993), 283.

[8] James O’ Neill to Mother and Father, October 12, 1864, “Letters from Sergeant James O’Neill, 4th Delaware Volunteers, Army of the Potomac, 1863-1865,” Petersburg National Battlefield, Five Forks Unit, Delaware Folder, Petersburg, VA.

[9] Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, The Passing of the Armies: An Account of the Final Campaign of the Army of the Potomac, Based upon Personal Reminiscences of the Fifth Army Corps (Gettysburg, PA: Stan Clark Military Books, 1994), 12.

[10] John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant (Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 12: 16-17; A chaplain has the same view of the southern mentality. Lafayette Church to Daughter, September 28, 1864, “Lafayette & Nathan Church: Letters from the War, 1862-1864,” Petersburg National Battlefield, Eastern Front Visitor Center, Soldiers/Civilians Diaries/Memoirs Collection, Petersburg, VA.

[11] Daniel Chisholm, The Civil War Notebook of Daniel Chisholm: A Chronicle of Daily Life in the Union Army, 1864-1865, ed. W. Springer Menge and J. August Shimrak (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989), 42, 43, 48. Olsen, Upon the Tented Field, 283.

[12] William J. Bolton, The Civil War Journal of Colonel William J. Bolton 51st Pennsylvania, April 20, 1861-August 2, 1865 ed. Dr. Richard A. Sauers (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 2000), 236.

[13] E. B. Long & Barbara Long, The Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac, 1861-1865 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1971), 594.

[14] Totals for the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac can be found on www.beyondthecrater.com. Approximate returns for the Army of the James total 4,305 for Lincoln and 2,396 for McClellan. The Army of the Potomac returns are as follows: 9th Corps – Lincoln-2,945; McClellan-1,028: 5th Corps – Lincoln-5,157; McClellan-2,070: 2nd Corps – Lincoln-3,565; McClellan-1,380. Total votes in the Army of the Potomac: Lincoln-11,667; McClellan-4,478.

Last updated: October 10, 2017

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