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Lincoln's Challenge, 1864

By Drew E. VandeCreek, Ph.D.

Even as his armies pushed deep into Virginia, Abraham Lincoln faced his greatest challenge in 1864. Many northerners had tired of war. Democrats began denouncing Grant as a "butcher." "Patriotism is played out," declared one newspaper. "Each hour is but sinking us deeper into bankruptcy and desolation." Thus while Lee's armies teetered on the verge of destruction, the Confederate cause saw its last, bright hope flicker in the fall of 1864. Southerners considered their northern sympathizers to be "large and strong enough, if left to operate constitutionally, to paralyze the war and majority party." 1

The Democratic Party had met in convention at Chicago and nominated General George B. McClellan to challenge Lincoln for the presidency. Lincoln had dismissed the general in 1862. But now McClellan emerged as a champion of the northern Democrats, campaigning on the policies that many Republicans had suspected informed his generalship from the start.

While McClellan did not embrace the prospect of an immediate armistice, he did argue that the war had gone on too long, and hoped to secure an early peace by offering the Confederacy generous terms. His position reflected several major sets of concerns among northern Democrats. Many had migrated from southern states, and retained family, cultural and economic ties to their native region. The war cut many of them off from their familiar trade routes via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and forced them to rely upon the railroads and canals funneling trade toward the northeast.

The Union's overwhemingly Republican wartime congresses heightened northern Democrats unease with their bold actions beyond the purview of war. Taking advantage of the absence of southern Democrats, they enacted a set of hugely significant economic policies. Legislators approved bills setting high tariffs, authorizing the construction of a transcontinental railroad, underwriting the construction of state institutions of higher education, and consolidating the nation's monetary structures. Each of these initiatives decided major political issues of the antebellum era in favor of a Whig-Republican interpretation of American national development. "Shall we sink down as serfs to the heartless, speculative Yankees," asked one northern Democrat, "swindled by his tariffs, robbed by his taxes, skinned by his railroad monopolies?" In hopes of reviving their economic fortunes, many western Democrats proposed a separate peace with the Confederacy, opening the Mississippi River for commerce and effectively depriving the Union of the Northwest. 2

Lincoln's emancipation proclamation of 1862 had further alienated many northerners as well. The president had begun the war devoted to saving the Union and unwilling to strip southern slaveholders of their human property. But the unfolding conflict convinced Lincoln that a struggle confined to securing the Union was impossible. In order to defeat the South, Lincoln saw that he must deprive the Confederacy of its greatest resource and destroy the fabric of its social order. Putting aside the morality of emancipation for the moment, Lincoln cast his measure as a matter of military necessity. Thus Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most significant documents in American history, reads much like, in the words of one scholar, "a bill of lading."

Many Illinois Democrats voiced these concerns. A Democrat-controlled state legislature elected William A. Richardson, an ally of the Ohio "Peace Democrat" and Lincoln critic Clement Vallandingham, to the United States Senate. Two weeks before the Battle of Gettysburg, Illinois Peace Democrats held a mass meeting at Camp Yates, a fairgrounds in Springfield. Many Republicans often succumbed to the trials of war and branded every democrat not actively supporting the administration war effort a "copperhead" and traitor to the union. State officials often subjected their perceived opponents to arbitrary arrest and denied opposition newspapers the use of the mails, driving anti-government sentiment underground. 3

Guerillas and "bushwhackers" did stalk the countryside, particularly in southern Illinois. Armed insurgents, often inflamed by the ruthless persecution of southern sympathizers, took union men from their homes, whipped them, and in some occasions, shot them. In the last years of the war this mass retaliation terrorized central and southern Illinois. Gangs of rebel sympathizers from Missouri, opportunistic horse thieves and other criminals, and deserters from both armies joined with Illinois guerillas to threaten entire towns.

In March of 1864 a mass of over one thousand copperhead raiders menaced the towns of Mattoon and Charleston in east central Illinois. Fighting with soldiers on furlough and active troops dispatched to subdue them, the renegades dispersed. Authorities placed the county under martial law and made many arrests.

A secret society known as the Knights of the Golden Circle organized southern sympathizers into covert action. Many Republicans believed that the Knights aimed to foment a revolt in order to break the northwestern states away from the Union. When federal and state authorities investigated the group, they concluded that its activities did not constitute an armed opposition to the government. Conspiracy trials convicted several alleged ringleaders of espionage and treason, but found others not guilty.

Republicans met the Knights' of the Golden Circle's threat through the organization of their own secret society, known as the Union League. The League provided loyalists anxious about the Union's progress in battle and the loyalty of their neighbors with an opportunity to contribute to the war effort. Members took up the tasks of sniffing out potential copperhead outrages and espionage. 4

By the summer of 1864 even the Republican leader Thurlow Weed of New York considered Lincoln's re-election "an impossibility…. The people are wild for peace." 5 But while Grant's armies bogged down in Virginia and McClellan's presidential candidacy picked up speed, Union troops secured a hard-won victory at Atlanta. The hub of commerce in the Deep South had fallen, providing General William T. Sherman's armies with an unobstructed path to the Confederate rear in the Carolinas. The Richmond Examiner complained that "the disaster at Atlanta" came just in time to "save the party of Lincoln from irretrievable ruin." 6

Where disgruntled Republicans had once considered new candidates to replace Lincoln, they now embraced him as a victorious leader. Democrats attacked Lincoln as "Abe the Widowmaker" and "Abraham Africanus," the proponent of miscegenation. But Union victory had ruined the southern Democrats' campaign. In November of 1864 American voters returned Abraham Lincoln to office by a half-million vote majority.


1. James McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 506.

2. McPherson, 593.

3. Arthur C. Cole, The Centennial History of Illinois: The Era of the Civil War, 1848-1870 (Springfield: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1919) 302.

4. Cole, 309-10.

5. McPherson, 761.

6. McPherson, 775.


©2002 Illinois During the Civil War Digitization Project.