November 8, 1864 (Tuesday – Election Day)
Abraham Lincoln found himself alone on this dreary and rainy day. The morning cabinet meeting was attended by only two others, as most had returned to their respective states so they might vote. It was election day, and the President was in a solitary state of anxiety.
“I am just enough of a politician to know that there was not much doubt about the result of the Baltimore convention,” he said to Noah Brooks, a friend and reporter who visited him around noon, “but about this thing I am very far from being certain. I wish I were certain.”
But all certainty was swept away by the fear that he might have to leave his office with his work unfinished. Not only that, but his office would then be occupied by George McClellan, who would almost certainly establish some sort of peace with the Confederacy, very likely allowing it to become a separate country.
Sometime that morning, Lincoln’s son Tad had burst into his office, and dragged his father to the window. The Pennsylvania Bucktails, who had been acting as a body guard for the President, and were encamped on the lawn of the White House, were voting for Lincoln, and Tad wished for his father to see the spectacle.
What Lincoln noticed, however, was Jack the turkey, whom Lincoln had “pardoned” that past Thanksgiving. Jack, it turned out, was poking and pecking around the polls.
“Does he vote?” asked the President of Tad.
“No,” Tad replied. “He is not of age.”
Lincoln would joyously retell this story to anyone who might listen over the next week. But of the remainder of the day, there was still that anxiety in solitude. In this way, the afternoon bled into evening, when finally he, accompanied by his personal secretary, John Hay, splashed their way to the War Department
The returns had begun to come it via the telegraph, and it must have been hard to not become to optimistic. Lincoln was leading McClellan, though the random results were anecdotal at best.
With Secretary of War Edwin Stanton now with them, they waited with the telegraph clicking away. Lincoln had won by 10,000 votes in Pennsylvania, though the President dismissed it. But when the returns came in from Baltimore and Maryland, which had him up by 15,000 and 5,000 respectively, he exclaimed, “All Hail, Free Maryland. That is superb!” Soon came Boston, with Lincoln up by 5,000.
Through the long night, Lincoln told stories and read bits of writing from a humorist named Petroleum V. Nasby, which he carried with him in his breast pocket. Lincoln would read a few paragraphs, and the more serious and boring Secretary Stanton would silently fume.
“The idea that when the safety of the republic was thus as issue,” remembered Charles Dana, who had just joined the party, “when the control of an empire was to be determined by a few figures brought in by the telegraph, the leader, the man most deeply concerned, not merely for himself but for his country, could turn aside to read such balderdash and to laugh at such frivolous jests was, to his mind, repugnant, even damnable. He could not understand, apparently, that it was by the relief which these jests afforded to the strain of mind under which Lincoln had so long been living, and to the natural gloom of a melancholy and desponding temperament – this was Mr. Lincoln’s prevailing characteristic – that the safety and sanity of his intelligence were maintained and preserved.”
There were also stories. After an officer entered the room, caked in mud from a fall, Lincoln recalled a previous election: “For such an awkward fellow, I am pretty sure-footed. It used to take a pretty dexterous man to throw me. I remember, the evening of the day in 1858, that decided the contest for the Senate between Mr. Douglas and myself, was something like this, dark, rainy and gloomy. I had been reading the returns and had ascertained that we had lost the legislature, and started to go home. The path had been worn hogbacked, and it was slippery. My foot slipped from under me, knocking the other one out of the way, but I recovered myself and lit square; and I said to myself: ‘It’s a slip and not a fall.'”
But tonight was hardly a slip. By midnight, when the group finally took supper, Pennsylvania, all of New England, Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin were for Lincoln. It would be another two days before he would learn the fate of his own Illinois. But with the states already gathered, it was safe to call the election for Lincoln.
Those few awake enough to remain, congratulated him, though he remained collected. He was, he said, “glad to be relieved of all suspense.” He was grateful that the people had cast their lot with him and the war.
Around 2:30am, they were serenaded by a band. Soon after, with a touch more certainty then he had when he arrived at the War Department, the President left, returned to the White House.
This return did not go unnoticed, and soon a crowd had gathered, playfully demanding a speech. Lincoln could not disappoint:
“If I know my heart, my gratitude is free from any taint of personal triumph. I do not impugn the motives of any one opposed to me. It is no pleasure to me to triumph over any one, but I give thanks to the Almighty for this evidence of the people’s resolution to stand by free government and the rights of humanity.”1
- Sources: Washington in Lincoln’s Time by Noah Brooks; Recollections of the Civil War by Charles Anderson Dana; Letters of John Hay by John Hay. [↩]