The election of 1864 was one of the most critical in the history of the United States. With the country embroiled in Civil War, Abraham Lincoln hoped to become the first incumbent president to be re-elected since Andrew Jackson in 1832. But as the campaign commenced, even Lincoln himself was not confident he would win the election against his Democratic rival, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. George McClellan. 

Despite Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg a year earlier, the war was not going well for the Union and the Confederate army was advancing toward Washington, D.C. Lincoln and his administration were also receiving harsh criticism for his stance on emancipation and slavery, as well as for his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and other constitutional rights.

With a nation weary of war, the Democrat platform advocating immediate peace with the states in rebellion and, in essence, granting them their independence from the Union, had widespread appeal. Had McClellan and the Democrats prevailed in the election there would likely have been two separate nations with no guarantee of reconciliation between them.

But everything changed on Sept. 6, 1864, when Gen. William T. Sherman seized Atlanta and began his march to the sea. The war effort turned decidedly in the Union’s favor and even McClellan now sought military victory rather than negotiations. 

Two months later, Lincoln won the popular vote that eluded him in his first election. He won the Electoral College by 212 to 21 and the Republicans controlled three-fourths of Congress. A second term and the power to conclude the war were now in Lincoln’s hands.

"The Union at the Crossroads: The Presidential Election of 1864" presents a selection of materials documenting the campaign, the election, and its aftermath.

Curated by Timothy D. Murray