The election of 1864 was widely considered by many as a referendum on the Civil War. Were Lincoln to be re-elected, the Union campaign would continue uninterrupted. However, should Lincoln suffer a defeat, the Union's authority would be seriously undermined with its commander-in-chief toppled by an unsupportive electorate.
As the election approached, Lincoln's chances of success looked slim for several reasons. For one, with Grant entrenched outside of Petersburg and Sherman entrenched outside of Atlanta, the Union armies were making little progress at the expense of heavy casualties. In addition, Lincoln had to endure the embarrassment of a French-backed occupation of Mexico, when Napoleon III set up the Archduke Maximillian as Emperor in the spring of 1864 in a blatant violation of the Monroe Doctrine. However, with American forces engaged in the Civil War, Lincoln was helpless to strike back, and the French would hold Mexico until after the war's conclusion.
Struggling at home and faltering abroad, doubt swirled as to whether Lincoln would even be re-nominated by the Republicans. In February of 1864, Senator S. C. Pomeroy of Kansas had issued a circular recommending the nomination of Secretary of Treasury Chase over Lincoln. This breakaway factionalism led to the resignation of the increasingly truculent Chase from his cabinet post. However, Lincoln did not begrudge his rival, and appointed Chase as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court upon the death of Taney in December of the same year.
Amidst echoes of revolt, a convention of dissident Republicans met in Cleveland at the end of May, eventually shifting their support from Chase to General Fremont. Fremont, the initial Republican candidate of 1856, and a staunch abolitionist, had seen early successes during the Civil War in western theater, where his emancipation of slaves in Missouri had been repealed by Lincoln. The Radical Republicans, displeased with Lincoln's mysteriously effective combination of moderate politics and a dictatorial style, saw Fremont as a leader who, unlike Lincoln, would support a stern plan for reconstruction. However, a month before the election, when Fremont realized that running as a third candidate would likely hand a victory to the Democrats, he withdrew from the race. In so doing, he left Lincoln with a much clearer chance at re-election.
In a show of solidarity, the Republicans combined with the so-called War Democrats to form the National Union Party, which nominated Lincoln for president at a convention held in Baltimore on June 8. To balance the interests of this makeshift party, leading War Democrat and Acting Military Governor of Tennessee Andrew Johnson was nominated for vice president.
For their part, the Democrats convened on August 29 in Chicago, on Lincoln's home turf. To oppose him, they nominated General McClellan on a platform of negotiated peace. But one week after being nominated, McClellan accepted without embracing the party platform. In this manner, the Democrats hoped to broaden their electoral base, winning anti-war votes on the strength of their platform, and anti-Lincoln votes on the strength of McClellan's record.
In the late summer and early autumn of 1864, many Republicans publicly voiced their fears that the misfortunes of war would prevent Lincoln's re-election. On August 23, Lincoln himself circulated a secret memo in which he expressed a pessimistic stance toward his chances for victory in November. With the costs of living skyrocketing and a highly unpopular second draft of 500,000 men about to go into effect, such reservations were perhaps not unfounded.
As Union forces continued to stagnate in their siege positions, the Confederacy ran intermittent raids on towns such as Frederick, Maryland and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Such attacks were in part assisted by a secret society of Confederate sympathizers known as the "fifth column." Also known as Peace Democrats, or Copperheads, these anti-war Northerners were led by prominent politicians such as Governor Horatio Seymour of New York and Congressman Clement Vallandigham of Ohio. Although their exploits never amounted to much, their function as a hostile bloc to Lincoln's aims was plain to see.
Under critical assault from all sides, Lincoln was encouraged by many of his closest advisers to postpone election in the interest of the war effort. Lincoln rejected this proposal without a second thought, explaining that "we cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might already fairly claim to have conquered and ruined us."
Then, just when Lincoln's support seemed to be at its lowest, the Union forces came through with a series of brilliant successes to bolster his position. Admiral Farragut captured the port of Mobile, Alabama in early August, strengthening the Union grip on Confederate naval operations. One month later, General Sherman finally broke through the Confederate lines, seizing the city of Atlanta and evacuating all civilians.
Further north, Union General Phil Sheridan pushed the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley, destroying all private property that could be made use of by the Confederates. By October, the rebels in Virginia were strictly confined to their defense of Richmond. Although Grant continued to lay in wait at Petersburg, the victories of his supporting cast came as a much-needed assertion of Union dominance.
On the strength of these positive developments, a groundswell of support built up behind Lincoln in the weeks leading up to the election. Suddenly, the Democratic platform of a negotiated peace was rendered a nonsense, and Lincoln rode the renewed confidence in his war program to a resounding victory. With only a single opponent to contend with, Lincoln won a clear popular majority of over 400,000 votes, and completed a virtual clean sweep of the electoral college, out-polling McClellan by 212 votes to 21.
As commander-in-chief, Lincoln was able to control an uncertain election to some extent. Nevada was admitted to the Union only a week before the election, as a safety set of votes should Lincoln need them in the electoral college. Regarding the popular vote, extensive provisions were made for soldiers to vote at front, and whole regiments were given leave to return home to the polls. Proclaiming their confidence in his command and acting as a key bloc of voters across the country, the military vote went strongly in favor of Lincoln.
Once Lincoln's re-election was secure, the Union kicked their endgame into gear, launching an all out assault of total warfare. Sherman and his forces left Atlanta burning in their wake and embarked on a cataclysmic march to the sea, laying waste to a wide swath of the Georgia countryside as they went. After five surreal weeks of pillaging and looting, accompanied by deserters and hangers-on of various stripes, Sherman arrived at Savannah on December 13, capturing a Confederate fort there before joining up with the Union's naval blockade.
Following Sherman's lead in the western theater, Confederate forces led by General John Bell Hood made a quixotic march-and-fight push north all the way to Nashville, where they were finally defeated in December. Meanwhile, having accomplished his mission in the deep south, Sherman turned his attention back toward the home front. Upon the new year, Sherman marched north through South Carolina, burning his way through the state. Union reprisals were especially merciless, given South Carolina's role as the instigator of secession. The capital city was burned to the ground in mid-February, and in March Sherman entered North Carolina, rejoining Union forces at the coast later that month.
In the opening months of 1865, several armistice discussions took place. Lincoln found himself in no mood to negotiate, however, and talks with the rebels were repeatedly dropped. Instead, Lincoln spent a fortnight on the front with Grant, and met together with Grant and Sherman in late March to discuss peace terms.
By this time, the possibility of a complete surrender loomed quite large for the Confederacy. Their final desperate attempt to defend Richmond ultimately collapsed on April 2, when Grant pushed through the line at Petersburg. The next day, with Richmond burning, Davis and other Confederate leaders fled south. Meanwhile, Lincoln marched victoriously through the ruined city.
Less than a week later, Lee would surrender to Grant at a small farm near Appomattox Court House in south central Virginia. Lincoln had given Grant the authority to provide generous terms of surrender, which Lee graciously accepted. There would be little talk of such things as war criminals or executions: a remarkable occurrence in the aftermath of a such a bloody civil war. In just under four years of fighting, a combined 200,000 men were killed in battle, and half a million others died of various diseases. And yet, after all these casualties, the most profound loss to the nation was yet to come.