No presidential election in American history carried stakes as high as the contest in November 1864. Three years into the Civil War, the conflict had already left hundreds of thousands of dead Americans strewn across battlefields from Mississippi to Virginia. Northern voters would head to the polls to cast a ballot to determine not just the nation’s highest office but its very future. Lincoln’s challenger, former Union Gen. George B. McClellan, had promised to end the war with an honorable peace if elected—an idea that suggested recognition of the Confederacy’s independence in some form.
There was no precedent for a democracy holding a general election in the midst of a national crisis, and some Republicans urged Lincoln to consider postponing the vote. But Lincoln persevered in his belief that “We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”
Christopher Hamner, professor of history at George Mason University, examines the months leading up to the November 1864 election, drawing on primary source material from people who had been witnesses to the turmoil engendered by the election. Hamner shares the perspective of Americans who were alive as events unfolded–and for whom the election’s ultimate outcome was a frightening unknown.
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