A war veteran, a lawyer and an explorer ran for president in 1864 and changed the course of American history.
When you put on your campaign cockade early in the race, you had many options to choose from. But party primaries sifted them to three main contenders: John C.Fremont, George B. McClellan and Abraham Lincoln.
|A cockade from Fremont's 1856 campaign|
John Fremont was sometimes labeled a Republican, sometimes a Democrat, but always a Radical. A highly talented and ambitious man, he made and lost fortunes as well as reaching the pinnacles of several careers – only to be demoted, recalled or fired through his own actions.
Fremont was a famous western explorer, historians calling him "The Great Pathfinder." He became quite wealthy from California gold mining in the 1840s. An ardent abolitionist, he first ran for president in 1856 with the campaign slogan "Free Soil, Free Men, and Frémont."
As an explorer and topographical engineer (who at one time employed Kit Carson), Fremont created the government report and map that would open the West and guide settlers to Oregon and California. He joined the Army in 1838 and fought in the Mexican War of 1846. Appointed military governor of California, he was later court-martialed from that position for mutiny. Fremont became one of California’s first two senators when she entered the Union, and was made military Commander of the Department of the West during the Civil War.
In 1861, Fremont issued an emancipation proclamation in Missouri. President Lincoln disagreed with this move and scolded Fremont for dragging "the Negro into the war." Lincoln revoked the proclamation and relieved Fremont of his command. All of this, oddly enough, happened sixteen months before Lincoln issued his own emancipation proclamation. Ah well, who ever said politicians have to be consistent?
Fremont’s campaign platform included the total destruction of the Confederacy and the unqualified freedom and franchise for all African-Americans.
George McClellan was the man responsible for organizing the Union army at the beginning of the Civil War. He was fantastic at meticulous planning and preparation, though not a particularly great general in the field. As Lincoln noted, "If he can't fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight." This contributed to his popularity with the soldiers however – they appreciated his detailed concern for their food, clothing and lodging.
McClellan was a career army man, having graduated second in the famous Class of 1846 at West Point. Previous service included a stint in the Mexican War. He, like Fremont, engaged in reconnaissance and mapping explorations. In one case, the Army sent him to track down the sources of the Red River. Apparently his expedition was thought to have been wiped out by Comanches and given up for dead. Upon returning alive and well, McClellan was exasperated with the “set of scoundrels” who started the rumor of his death, claiming they were creating drama out of thin air in order to receive “employment from the Govt. in one way or other.” McClellan was also assigned as an official observer during the Crimean War in 1855. McClellan wrote an Army cavalry manual and designed the “McClellan saddle” which has been used in Army cavalry duties ever since.
McClellan’s personal platform for his presidency was to continue the war to restore the Union, but he disagreed with the emancipation of slaves.
Lincoln’s stance on the abolition of slavery was somewhat ambivalent in his early political career. He is famously quoted in his first inaugural address as saying, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." In 1860 he tried to calm the fears of Southern states. “Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears.”
But by the time of the 1864 election he had concluded that emancipation of slaves – in the South, that is – served a useful political purpose. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863 and though it exempted areas under Federal control (oddly enough, the only areas where he had legal jurisdiction) it “freed” the slaves in the Confederacy (where he had no jurisdiction).
Lincoln’s platform was the middle of the road. He was moderate on everything – moderate on pursuing the war, moderate on reconstruction of the South, and moderate on the abolition of slavery (he favored colonizing freed African-Americans elsewhere). His speeches – the language as down-to-earth as the ideals were lofty – were full of vision for the future of the United States. He had a knack for either bringing opposing factions together, or else making them irrelevant by pitting their animosities towards each other instead of himself.
It looked initially like Lincoln would lose the election. The War Between the States was going badly. Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee spent the summer defeating Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant in large, bloody battles. Many Northerners had long opposed the war and the “Copperhead” movement was gaining popularity as the seemingly pointless conflict dragged on.
On the other hand, many of those who were in favor of pursuing the war had other reasons to be dissatisfied with Lincoln. Particularly the abolitionists felt that Lincoln wasn’t doing enough to end slavery.
Lincoln himself believed he had little chance of winning the 1864 presidential election. So what changed in 1864?
Early in 1864, Fremont withdrew from the race. As a Radical Republican, he favored the destruction of the Confederacy and the uncompensated, immediate abolition of slavery. Fremont thought there was some hope of Lincoln obtaining these objects. But he had no hope in McClellen’s campaign, feeling that he was compromising on the issue of slavery. Therefore, Fremont withdrew rather than allowing Lincoln’s opposition to be divided between himself and McClellan.
|A Lincoln campaign armband|
Meanwhile, Lincoln and his fellow Republicans were smart enough to realize that the Republican Party currently had a bad reputation. Radical Republicans had offended those willing to negotiate on the issue and slavery. And Republican politics were responsible for the apparently never-ending war with the Confederacy. So the “Republican Party” temporarily changed to the “National Union Party” in order to establish a new and more “inclusive” party platform. Lincoln was a masterful coalition-builder.
As the election campaign continued through 1864, voters became increasingly dissatisfied with the schizophrenic Democrats and more attracted to the “big tent” philosophy of the National Union Party.
Victory on the War Front
|Battle of Mobile Bay|
In March, President Lincoln put General Grant in command of all the Union armies. In May, Grant began the “Overland” or “Wilderness”campaign against General Lee’s armies. As the bloody summer wore on, the huge casualties on both sides – easily repairable in the North by the constant stream of immigrants – began to tell on smaller populations of the Southern states.
In August, Admiral Farragut defeated Confederate naval forces at Mobile Bay. This completed the Union blockade of the Gulf of Mexico east of the Mississippi River.
And General Sherman began a campaign in May that would end with probably the most pivotal wartime event in the presidential campaign: The Union army taking and burning Atlanta in September.
Victory in the Election Campaign
With the victories at Atlanta and Mobile under his belt, the tide turned for Lincoln and he pulled off a win with the slogan, "Don't change horses in the middle of a stream." Though Lincoln received 212 electoral votes and McClellan only 21, the results of the election were not as lopsided as they appear. Lincoln actually only received 55% of the popular vote – barely over half.
So Lincoln won this historic election and by April 1865 he had won the war. But his moderate reconstruction policies were never put into effect. When JohnWilkes Booth assassinated him in April 1865, the era of the cooperative “big tent” ended. Vice President Johnson was not the coalition-builder that Lincoln had been and the Radical Republicans had their way. For twelve bitter, divisive years, the former Confederate states were “reconstructed,” leaving such a deep scar on the southern states that even today the phrase “The South will rise again” is commonly heard.
Which candidate would you have voted for? Cockade merchants were ready to supply both sides. Many of them ran regular ads in the newspapers like this one:
Or consider the verbiage from this ad: "Great Chance to Make Money. - Agents can make from $10 to $15 per day by selling our new badges of Lincoln and McClellan. These Badges we manufacture ourselves; they are far superior to the Badges generally offered to the public, being good size, and Life-like portraits of the two Candidates for the Presidency. Agents can easily make 100 per cent. on their sales. For samples, prices &c., &c., address, with 15c. and stamp, to Hart and Critchly, Wholesale Depot, 182 Superior Street, Cleveland, Ohio."
Photographic images on campaign badges were still a new idea in 1864. The 1860 election had been the first to debut these political images. Ferrotypes or tintypes - that is, photographic images printed on tin - were invented in the 1850s and made the process of creating these little pictures much easier.
Whoever your choice would have been in 1864, I hope you could have stood behind him as proudly as this gentlemen did while wearing his campaign cockade!
Those reenacting the 1860s may be interested to note that my Presidential Campaign Cockades are all on sale for the month of March!