October Surprise: 1864 Edition

By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

In an era of increasingly high-stakes elections, when, as we are told, the greatness and even very survival of the United States of America and the future of the Republic are at stake, many of us turn to opinion polls, stats, and election betting odds. We also anxiously look at the historical precedent, partly for guidance, and partly to reassure ourselves that things had in fact been worse and the nation was able to overcome even greater adversity.

However unusual, fateful, or unprecedented this election season may be, it has nothing on the campaign to re-elect Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Even under ordinary circumstances, re-election of a sitting president was in the mid-19th Century a near impossibility.  After all, no President had won a second term since Andrew Jackson in 1832.

And the circumstances were anything but ordinary. There was no precedent for a presidential contest conducted in times of “actual armed rebellion,” amid the mounting toll of death and destruction and in a nation fractured and mired in despair.The unprecedented war-time emancipation provoked a bitter backlash; even the President’s supporters accused him of waging an abolitionist crusade and labored to convince him “cancel his abolition Proclamation.”

In addition, the new federal income tax and military drafts caused wide-spread protests and even riots. And a growing anti-war sentiment split the major parties, bringing the already bitter partisanship to fever pitch. Finally, tens of thousands of eligible voters, the enlisted men fighting on many a bloody battlefield, were away from their districts. None of this bode well for an increasingly unpopular incumbent.

Yet the stakes could not be higher. The Democratic candidate, General George B. McClellan vowed to restore the Union under “the old Constitution,” with the states free to allow property in men, while Abraham Lincoln pledged to continue to fight for a nation without slavery.  Although Lincoln’s party dropped the name word “Republican,” which many despised as synonymous with abolitionism, and adopted the name of the Union Party, it made the national abolition of slavery the centerpiece of its platform.

The conventional wisdom points towards the fall of Atlanta on September 25 as the turning point in the election. However, the outcome of the campaign was unclear until days before the nation went to the polls on November 8, 1864.

In the absence of public opinion polls, the anxious American public watched the betting odds (most of which favored McClellan). State elections offered another closely watched indicator. Due to the rolling electoral timetable, there were a number of state elections scheduled to take place prior to the Election Day.

In August, the Democratic candidates for minor county offices and the judge of the court of appeals won in Kentucky, in spite of the martial law established in the state. On September 6, Vermont voted in the Union Party candidate for governor and all of its candidates for Congress. Maine followed suit, scoring “a great victory for the Union cause.”

The most important were Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania where the state elections were in October. The results of the elections in the “October states” had correctly predicted the outcome of the presidential elections in 1856 and 1860.


On October 11, Thomas T. Eckert, charged with monitoring telegraphic communications from the wards and districts, took his place at the telegraph in his office. He entered the dispatches in his own letterpress books rather than the ledgers of the United States Military Telegraph. Those same letterpress books now constitute part of the Huntington’s Thomas T. Eckert papers.

Although the elections in Indiana and Ohio brought clear victory to the Union candidates, the dispatches from Pennsylvania were troubling. The telegraph in Eckert’s office tapped out the results: “Dist. Dauphin Co. Harrisburg 233 Dean Maj. Dem gain 140”; “Returns from two thirds 2/3 of Allegheny Co. indicate a Union Majority on the house vote of Seven Thousand two Thousand additional as confidently expect from the army vote; Nothing yet from Lawrence or Fulton.”

In the end, the Union Party did carry the election in Pennsylvania, but by far fewer votes than expected. If it hadn’t been for western Pennsylvania, which gave the Union ticket a 15,000 vote majority, Lincoln’s party would have been defeated.

Two days later, Lincoln walked over to Eckert’s office. As the two men pored over the data, Lincoln grabbed a telegram blank and began tallying up numbers. Indiana and Ohio were placed in the “Union Vote” column. Pennsylvania, however, went to the “Copperhead,” or McClellan’s column. Lincoln also expected to lose his home state of Illinois as well as New Jersey, New York, and all the border states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware. This would bring Lincoln’s tally to 117 electoral votes to McClellan’s 114.


Abraham Lincoln’s tabulations for the upcoming 1864 election. HM 2032, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Then Eckert reminded him that he could also count on Nevada and its 3 electoral votes. On September 7 the constitution of Nevada, which outlawed slavery, was overwhelmingly approved by the state voters. Nevada brought Lincoln’s total to 120.  The margin was less than reassuring.

On the main Election Day, Lincoln won with 55% of the popular vote, re-elected with 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s 21. In the end “Little Mac” carried only Kentucky, New Jersey, and Delaware.

A little more than three months later, on January 31, 1865, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to amend the Constitution of the United States and to ban slavery “within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

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