On this day in history, Nov. 8, 1864, President Lincoln defeats Gen. McClellan to win re-election

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President Abraham Lincoln, amid the most turbulent administration and deadliest conflict in American history, defeated bitter personal rival and former Civil War Gen. George McClellan to win re-election on this day in history, Nov. 8, 1864. 

As Union soldiers fought their fellow Americans on the battlefield, Union voters battled each other at the ballot box over competing visions of the nation after the war.

“Lincoln had good reason to doubt his chances for re-election. No president since Andrew Jackson in 1832 had won a second term,” writes the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.

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“The Democratic Party nominated Gen. George McClellan, whom Lincoln had removed from command [in 1862]. McClellan ran on an anti-Lincoln and anti-Emancipation Proclamation platform and left open the possibility of a negotiated peace with the South.”

The Great Emancipator is proclaimed by many historians to be the greatest president in United States history. 

(Original Caption) President Abraham Lincoln with General George B. McClellan at his headquarters at Antietam, Oct. 3, 1862. From left: General George W. Morell, Colonel Alexander S. Webb, General McClellan, scout Adams, Dr. Jonathan Letterman, unidentified officer, President Lincoln, Colonel Henry Hunt, General Fitz, John Porter, unidentified officer.

(Original Caption) President Abraham Lincoln with General George B. McClellan at his headquarters at Antietam, Oct. 3, 1862. From left: General George W. Morell, Colonel Alexander S. Webb, General McClellan, scout Adams, Dr. Jonathan Letterman, unidentified officer, President Lincoln, Colonel Henry Hunt, General Fitz, John Porter, unidentified officer.
(Getty Images)

So it’s easy to forget that, in his time, Lincoln was perceived as the most divisive politician in American history, the man whose election in 1860 drove the nation to disunion and Civil War.

The election of 1864 proved that bitter divisions still existed even within the Union. 

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“The Democrats called for a speedy conclusion to the war and an end to notions of emancipation,” reports the American Battlefield Trust. 

“Negotiations with the Confederacy were discussed in what came to be known as the ‘Chicago Platform.’ 

“McClellan’s letters reveal his contempt for his commander-in-chief.”

One Democrat campaign poster shockingly proclaimed: “Elect McClellan and whole Democrat ticket. You will defeat Negro equality, restore prosperity, re-establish the Union!”

Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, presidents of the United States and the Confederacy, struggle to control a map with General George McClellan in between. Artist Currier and Ives.

Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, presidents of the United States and the Confederacy, struggle to control a map with General George McClellan in between. Artist Currier and Ives.
(Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

McClellan’s vision was seen by some voters as a third and speedier way toward peace between the warring Americans. 

Political division was exacerbated by the personal animosity between the two men. McClellan’s Union troops in the Army of the Potomac were repeatedly outwitted and outfight by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. 

Lincoln by the fall of 1862 grew frustrated and infuriated by McClellan’s failure to press the attack despite enjoying superior manpower and resources.

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“For six weeks, Lincoln and McClellan exchanged angry messages, but McClellan stubbornly refused to march after Lee,” reports History.com. 

“McClellan’s letters reveal his contempt for his commander-in-chief (whom he sometimes referred to as ‘the Gorilla’), and the historical record shows that as the war slogged on, Lincoln became increasingly frustrated with his general’s timidity and excuses,” writes American Battlefield Trust.

Political division was exacerbated by the personal animosity between the two men.

The president grew increasingly frustrated with the general following an inconclusive win over the Confederate army during the shockingly bloody Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.  

With nearly 24,000 men killed or wounded from both sides, it’s the deadliest day in American military history.

Lincoln removed the general from command on Nov. 5, 1862. 

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“McClellan was … ordered back to Trenton, New Jersey, to await further orders,” writes American Battlefield Trust, “though none ever came.”

It was an inglorious end of McClellan’s career, who hoped to resurrect his legacy in the White House. 

The Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, was the deadliest day of the Civil War. Some 24,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded.  

The Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, was the deadliest day of the Civil War. Some 24,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded.  
(Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

His effort failed: Lincoln in the end easily won re-election with 55% of the popular vote while carrying 22 of 25 states. McClellan won only Kentucky, Delaware and New Jersey, where he would serve as governor from 1878 to 1881. 

The victory allowed Lincoln to pursue his vision for victory and post-war America, which he famously outlined in his deeply elegant second inaugural address on March 4, 1865.

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“With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

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Historians say that the sentiment expressed in the memorable line “malice toward none with charity for all” helped the nation heal itself when many featured protracted strife between the north and south after the war.

Lincoln would never see the nation united. He was assassinated 41 days after he gave the address.



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