In the 21st Century, Abraham Lincoln is a revered figure. A 1948 poll of American historians ranked Lincoln second, after only George Washington, in greatness among presidents. A similar poll conducted by C-SPAN in 2009 ranked Lincoln first. In 17 such surveys over the last 60 years, Lincoln is ranked first nine times and second six times. The remaining two surveys ranked him third.1
A century and a half after his death and near deification it can be hard to remember that Lincoln was a politician who, in his own day, was hated by nearly as many people as loved him, and that even some of those who supported his policies as president worried that he was not competent to hold the greatest office in the land at the time of a Civil War.2
On August 23, 1864, Abraham Lincoln, after a long spring and summer of military stalemate and of soldiers dying in The Wilderness, at Cold Harbor, and outside of Petersburg, wrote a memorandum that began, “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected…”3
The Republican Party, which he had led to victory in 1860, was beginning to splinter, with conservatives calling for him to negotiate with the Confederates and radicals demanding he give blacks full citizenship rights and that he strip white rebels of their United States citizenship for treason.4
This Democratic Party poster promised ruin if the country reelected Lincoln.
The Democratic Party, which had seemed moribund after the Southern half of its members had led the formation of the Confederacy, was revived by conservative dissention from the Emancipation Proclamation, by hatred of America’s first Federal draft, and by anger at the seeming incompetence of the leadership of the Union war effort. With the country divided, immigrants, a traditionally Democratic constituency, were seen as key swing voters in the coming November election. They would be courted, lied to, and sometimes have their citizenship rights suppressed in the months and days before the balloting took place.5
Immigrants would not only be voters in this first-ever wartime election. They would play crucial leadership roles in both parties. Individual immigrants would lead the effort to unseat Lincoln and others would work around the country and even inside the White House to ensure his reelection. Immigrant electoral strategy would help force Lincoln’s hand to introduce the XIII Amendment ending slavery, and they would nearly cost him the election by promoting the candidacy of a third-party challenger from the abolitionist left.6
By 1864, many American voters had experienced the horror of searching battlefields looking for their dead husbands, sons, and fathers. This scene is from Antietam in 1862.
Today we look at the election of 1864 through the lens of the preservation of the Union through war and the emancipation of the slaves. These were the overriding issues of the day, but for voters then, as now, these big questions existed alongside other concerns. For example, the German immigrant community in St. Louis was the most solidly anti-slavery voting block in the state of Missouri. In addition to believing that Lincoln was making too many concessions to slave owners by not setting Missouri’s slaves free in the Emancipation Proclamation, they also criticized what they saw as a clamp down on civil liberties and workers’ rights by Republicans.7
1864 was a year in which workers, who saw industrialists enriched by war profiteering, expressed deep resentments at the Republican Party’s increasingly tight relationship with big business. Labor leader William Sylvis wrote that “the nationalism which maintained class peace behind Union lines, had worn thin by the mid-point of the Civil War.”8
Prices had risen 56 percent between 1860 and 1864 in the United States, while wages had only gone up by half that much. When workers in war-related industries struck for wages that kept pace with inflation, the Lincoln administration sometimes acted as an ally of their bosses. For example, when immigrant and native-born workers went on strike in March of 1864 at the artillery foundry at Cold Spring, New York, across from West Point, Federal troops occupied the town and jailed the union leaders.9
In the spring of 1864, skilled workers in St. Louis struck to protest the increasing use of child labor. Boys were brought in to work at low wages in many industries to compete with adults and depress wages. A local newspaper published a report that “the machinists and blacksmiths of St. Louis, as well as the tailors and shoemakers are now out on strike.” According to the report, the workers were “uniting for complete recognition of their individual and collective rights.”10
The unions also objected to the hiring of women at lower wages than men. This pushed down the pay of both genders. They demanded equal pay for equal work as a protection for all workers.11
The united St. Louis workers organized tri-lingual meetings—in German, French, and English—for the native-born and Irish workers. The strike continued to spread. Employers, many in leading positions in the Republican Party, insisted that the Federal government act. 12
St. Louis at the time of the Civil War.
Major General William Rosecrans, commanding Union forces in the city, issued General Order 65 on April 29, 1864. The order said that organized labor efforts that interfered with the war effort will “be punished as a military offense.” It ordered that, “No person shall directly or indirectly attempt to deter… any person from working… in any manufacturing establishment where any article is ordinarily made which may be required for use… in the military… service of the United States.” Since articles as diverse as shoes and ship parts could be used by the military, this broad order covered all sorts of work places. 13
Labor organizing was prohibited, with Rosecrans ordering, “No person shall watch or hang about any such establishment for the purpose of annoying the employees thereof, or learning who are employed therein.” He even barred unions from holding meetings, writing that, “No association… shall be formed…, or meeting be held, having for its purpose to proscribe to the proprietors of any such establishment whom they shall employ therein or how they shall conduct the operations thereof.” 14
The order set up a surveillance regime in which industrialists could finger union supporters for arrest. “Employers will forthwith transmit the names of all persons who have… left their employ to engage in” strikes. The order ominously added, “…The places of residence of such persons…will be stated…” 15
The general tipped his hand as to whose side the army was on when Rosecrans referred to the union leaders as “bad men” who were engaged in an attack “upon private rights and the military power of the nation.” To deal with them, he had essentially placed the working class of St. Louis under martial law. 16
The German press in St. Louis condemned the military takeover of labor relations. Editor Carl Bernays, who had been an early and ardent supporter of the Republicans, wrote that there was no evidence that the strikes had been called for “disloyal purposes.” He said that the “sword of a military commander” should not have been drawn in a labor dispute between private parties. He wrote to Abraham Lincoln that while “we are not half through with the destruction of slavery… we already begin to attack free labor.” 17
He reminded the president that “slave and free labor have created all the capital” of the United States but that the government now appeared to be destroying labor “in order to maintain capital alone.” Other German newspapers warned that “military arbitrariness” had been unleashed in an “attack on the freedom of labor and the right of association.” This anger would lead to a splintering of the Missouri Republican Party. 18
It would not only be conservatives whom Lincoln would have to worry about in the coming election.
Video: Abraham Lincoln’s Emotional Life
Sources: Will be posted Oct. 15, 2014
1. “Historians Rate the U.S. Presidents” by Arthur M Schlesinger,Life November 1, 1948: 65-66, 68, 73-74; Lincoln Wins C-SPAN Survey. See also Wiki compilation of surveys.
7. Civil War St. Louis by Louis S. Gerteis published by University of Kansas Press (2001)
13. Official Records of the Rebellion Series I Vol.34 Part iii pages 344-346 Rosecrans General Order 65 April 29, 1864
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites