1864: “A General and Warrior on a Peace Platform”

September 3, Saturday.

New York City is shouting for McClellan, and there is a forced effort elsewhere to get a favorable response to the proceeding at Chicago. As usual some timid men are alarmed, and there are some like Raymond, Chairman of the National Committee who have no fixed and reliable principles that are without confidence and another set, like Greeley, who have a lingering hope that they can yet have an opportunity to make a new candidate. But this will soon be over. The issue is made up. It is whether a war shall be made against Lincoln to get peace with Jeff Davis. Those who met at Chicago prefer hostility to Lincoln rather than Davis. Such is extreme partisanism.

We have to-day word that Atlanta is in our possession, but we have yet no particulars. It has been a long hard struggle, continued through weary months. This intelligence will not be gratifying to the zealous partisans who have just sent out a peace platform. But it is a melancholy and sorrowful reflection that there are among us so many who do not rejoice in the success of the Union arms. They feel a conscious guilt, and affect not to be dejected, but discomfort is in their countenances, deportment, and tone. While the true Unionists are cheerful and hilarious, greeting all whom they meet, and Rebel sympathizers shun company and dolorous. This is the demon of party, – the days of its worst form, – a terrible spirit, which in its excess leads men to rejoice in the calamities of their country and to mourn its triumphs. Strange, and unaccountable are men. While the facts are as I have stated, I cannot think these men are destitute of love of country, but they permit party prejudices and part antagonism to absorb their better natures. The leaders want power. All men crave it. Few, comparatively, expect to attain high position, but each hopes to be benefited within a certain circle which limits perhaps his present ambition. There is fatuity in nominated a general and warrior on a peace platform.

Gideon Welles, private diary, September 3, 1864.

(Source: The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It; Brooks D. Simpson, Editor, 2013, pages 368-369)

1864 Campaign poster for McClellan

1864 Election and the Democrats

On August 31, 1864, the Democrat Party nominated George B. McClellan for their presidential ticket. As Gideon Welles pointed out, this was an eye-brow raising choice since the party’s platform angled for peace, even at the cost of letting the South go and form a separate country.

McClellan actually ran for office while still in the military – following precedent from Winfield Scott. He found himself in a difficult situation. The general actually wanted to restore the Union and realized the necessity of the war; however, he did not support the abolishment of slavery. So…how did McClellan end up on peace platform?

Well, the Copperhead division of the Democrat Party seized the pen and wrote the platform, led by Clement Vallandigham from Ohio. They opposed the war and wanted to settle the conflict without necessarily gaining a reunification or the abolishment of slavery. The party calculated that the soldiers and homefront that had adored “Little Mac” in 1862 when he led the Army of the Potomac had grown tired of the high casualties and costs of war and would follow their old hero to end the war politically and through negotiation.

Rumors From Atlanta

While there was a spirit of dissatisfaction in the north during the spring and summer of 1864, its roots came from the lack of decisive Union victories. The people – soldiers and civilians alike – still searched for a meaning to the war and a reason for the heavy sacrifices. If victories could be secured and victory promised for the future, there would be more meaning to the losses of the previous years than through a peace settlement.

Gideon Welles

Welles notes the rumors from Atlanta, but also the political response that such news provoked on the homefront. According to his observations, the news of this great Union victory did not spark universal rejoicing, but rather intensified the political positions. The Republicans, supporting the war, celebrated the whisper of success while the Democrats responded with long faces since their presidential platform rested on dissatisfaction and lack of victories/meaning to the war.

In fact, the rumors from Atlanta proved true. With hindsight, the capture of Atlanta helped Lincoln secure his political victory. (Oops…spoilers! But you already know what happens…)

Historical Musings

Politically drawn lines and response to local, national, or global news isn’t really anything new. Watch the modern news or social media and you’ll quickly find people responding to issues according to political party lines. The same thing was happening in 1864!

Sometimes, we live in such modern “bubbles”, thinking that the divisive climate of our own era must be a new phenomenon. Hardly. To some extent, it is true: history does repeat itself and there is “nothing new under the sun.”

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

3 comments

  1. I don’t dislike McClellan as much as I should, I guess. I have often felt sorry for him in this impossible election. He did the honorable thing and stayed out of the campaigning, at least. Politics!

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