History Wars Civil War

This active duty general nearly beat Lincoln during Civil War election

The former general-in-chief of U.S. forces and active Gen. George McClellan ran against his own president and friend during the Civil War.
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Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan in the general's tent at Antietam, Maryland, October 3, 1862. (Library of Congress)

Arguably, the closest that the Confederacy ever came to winning the war was not at Gettysburg and the High-Water Mark, but at the ballot box. In the 1864 election, a fractured Democratic Party led by George McClellan looked, for most of the summer, like it would defeat Abraham Lincoln. If it had, the party platform called for a negotiated peace.

Oh, the candidate was an active-duty Union general, a friend of Lincoln, and a former commander of all Union forces named General George McClellan. Also, Lincoln had previously fired McClellan for being too slow to attack Confederate forces.

Yes, Lincoln ran against his own general and friend

While it might seem like madness now, when we consider it scandalous that retired generals and admirals gave endorsements in recent elections and some sought jobs in presidential administrations, in the 1860s it was actually considered fine for active-duty officers to run. (At the Congressional level, it’s not unheard of for active-duty service members to run, but their actions are limited.) McClellan didn’t even resign his commission until Election Day.

And so, in its convention for the 1864 nomination, the Democrats chose McClellan on the first ballot. Getting a candidate on one ballot sounds great. But the convention turned out very messy. The Democrat-led secession after the 1860 election broke apart the party. Then, by 1864, the remaining Democrats split between pro-war and anti-war factions.

And McClellan counted himself in the pro-war camp. Despite his struggles with Lincoln as the Union general-in-chief, he believed that winning the war was necessary to restore the republic. But then, while nominating McClellan, the Democratic Party selected an anti-war platform. And then they chose an anti-war vice president.

George McClellan, to his credit, pushed back immediately by advocating for the war in his acceptance speech.

And so McClellan and Lincoln, friends who both supported the war, ran against each other in 1864.

George McClellan portrait
General George B. McClellan in 1861.

How did it go?

Initially, and for much of 1864, it looked like the Democrats would win. The Confederacy knew that their best chances at ultimate victory were diplomatic recognition from Europe or the North tiring of the war. As many history teachers like to point out, the South didn’t need to take a single square meter of Union territory to win. It just had to outlast the hostilities.

And the North, in 1864, was tired of the hostilities. In particular, it had tired of feeding men into a meatgrinder that seemed endless, especially since Confederate forces drew close to Washington D.C. in July 1864. The Democrats promised an end, to both the war and to the emancipation of Black people.

Meanwhile, Lincoln faced a defection within his own party from the opposite side. John C. Frémont ran with the Radical Democracy Party on a platform of no compromise, confiscating Confederate property, and abolishing slavery.

Meanwhile, no president since Andrew Jackson – 32 years before – had won re-election. As the war dragged on, Lincoln became convinced that he would lose the election and gave his cabinet a warning order. They needed to prepare to work with McClellan to save the Union before the inauguration because the Democratic platform would force McClellan to pursue a negotiated peace.

Lincoln wrote to his cabinet on August 23, 1864:

This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.

Abraham Lincoln, as quoted on BattleFields.org

Before anyone double-checks their maps, yes, of course, Lincoln won the election, the U.S. won the war against the rebellion, and we’re still one (even bigger) republic. So how’d that happen?

Well, the Union forces suddenly found more battlefield success in September and October. Gen. William T. Sherman seized Atlanta in September, breaking apart the Confederate logistics node and knocking out a pillar of Confederate political power. Then Gen. Philip Sheridan, newly in command of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, managed to drive Confederate forces under Gen. Jubal A. Early away from D.C., saving the capital and pushing toward Richmond.

Battlefield successes win the election, which wins the war

And so the North’s spine stiffened. Suddenly, the pro-war leaders had a clear path to victory in the war. And persuadable voters swung across. Meanwhile, while the Democrats’ split factions crumbled apart.

Lincoln didn’t just win in 1864. Despite his own fears, he would lose just months before, he carried 212 electoral votes. McClellan got 21 electoral votes. George McClellan wrote to Lincoln of a relief at his own defeat. “For my country’s sake I deplore the result,” he wrote, “but the people have decided with their eyes wide open and I feel a great weight has been removed from my mind.”

Lincoln headed into his second inauguration and term buoyed by the tantalizingly close end to the war. He planned for a peace that would bring healing and restore the republic he loved. Unfortunately, some Confederate sympathizers did not feel the same way, and John Wilkes Booth assassinated him months into his second term.