On June 5, 1864, John Nicolay arrived in Baltimore to do his president’s bidding at the Republican Party Convention. Nicolay had been Abraham Lincoln’s chief secretary since his first day in the White House and his appointment had been the president’s first official act. William Stoddard, a junior secretary wrote that Nicolay was entrusted with “vast power for good or evil which is placed in the hands of a man constantly in the President’s confidence, able at any time to ‘obtain his ear,’ sure to be listened to without suspicion or prejudice, and always in possession of current State secrets.”
Jeremy Strong played John Nicolay in the film Lincoln.
The young Nicolay was a German immigrant who had spent the last three years of his life organizing the White House transition from Buchanan to Lincoln, protecting the president from his enemies and friends, and serving as the president’s eyes and ears by going to places that Lincoln could not go. Now he was at the nominating convention where the temporarily renamed Republican “Union Party” was meeting to pick a presidential candidate.
As the war had dragged on bloodily into its third year the left wing of the Republican Party, men known as the Radicals, and particularly pro-racial equality Missouri Germans derisively called “Charcoals” because they were the “blackest Republicans” threatened to split from the party. In May, four hundred of them had met in Cleveland to try to press the German favorite John C. Fremont as a third party candidate on the Radical Democracy line. The delegates were denounced by Republican regulars as a collection of “sly politicians from New York, impetuous hare brained Germans from St. Louis, [and] abolitionists…” The third party maneuver failed, but the Charcoals would carry on the struggle the next month in Baltimore.
John C. Fremont may not have appeared on the presidential ballot, but campaign posters were at the ready in case he ran.
Now at the Baltimore Republican Convention, Missouri sent not one, but two rival delegations, conservatives and Charcoals. After much controversy, the Charcoals were seated as the official delegates of the state. When the vote on the presidential nomination was held, the only votes against Lincoln came from the Missourians. Instead of handing Lincoln a unanimous first round nomination, the vote was 484 for Lincoln to 22 for Ulysses Grant. One Missourian said he feared that the Charcoals would be “picked up and thrown out onto the street” by the angry Republicans. After the voting had concluded, the Missouri delegates switched their votes to make Lincoln’s nomination unanimous.
1864 Union Party campaign poster.
Although the Missouri Germans and their radical allies had not unseated Lincoln, they had pushed the convention into adopting a platform that dedicated the party to passing and ratifying a Constitutional Amendment abolishing slavery throughout the United States forever. They also forced in a plank rejecting the Know Nothing origins of some Republicans by promising:
That foreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, development of resources and increase of power to the nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations, should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.
John Nicolay played his part behind the scenes at the convention as Lincoln’s man, but he failed in one key test. When delegates turned to Nicolay to find out who Lincoln wanted to serve as vice president, Nicolay could not give them an answer. He wired his junior secretary, future Secretary of State John Hay, to find out Lincoln’s wishes and got back the message “The President wishes not to interfere in the nomination even by a confidential suggestion… He is and intends to be absolutely impartial.”
This opened the way for the convention to nominate Andrew Johnson, a poorly educated and harshly racist senator from Tennessee. Lincoln would be dead within a year and Johnson would as president try to roll back many of the gains for African Americans that Lincoln had engineered. The day before Johnson was nominated, Nicolay had written to Hay that “Andy Johnson seems to have no strength whatever,” little realizing that the man who would try to undo Lincoln’s legacy would soon be his running mate.
The single disastrous act of the Republican Convention was nominating Andrew Johnson for Vice President.
Even with the now-unanimous Republican nomination, Lincoln had a hard path to reelection. Throughout the summer battlefield losses piled up the Union war dead and financial ruin threatened the nation. Powerful Radicals Ben Wade and Henry Winter Davis denounced Lincoln in a manifesto declaring that Lincoln’s policies were losing the war and implying that he should drop out of the presidential race. Nicolay wrote to Hay that this “was the most vigorous attack that was ever directed from his [Lincoln’s] own party.”
Because the Democrats had adopted a “peace plank” in their platform, the Republicans predicted that if their candidate George B. McClellan was elected the South would be allowed to leave the United States.
With mounting criticism and calls for Lincoln to step down as the nominee, Nicolay wrote and spoke to party leaders to assure them that the president was doing everything possible to win the war. He travelled to New York and Missouri to secure the unity of his fractious party. To the editor of the Chicago Tribune he wrote in response to claims that Lincoln did not act decisively:
The President’s task is no child’s play. If you imagine that any man could attempt its performance and escape without criticism, you have read history in vain, studied human nature without profit.
One thing that the president would do to win reelection was to secure the vote of the soldiers.
Many of the most devoted Republicans had enlisted early in the Union army and had been in the field ever since. Under the laws at the start of the war, they could not vote unless they returned home. There was no absentee voting. Republicans observed that they had been badly harmed in the 1862 Congressional elections when some of their most passionate supporters were barred from voting because they were in the service of their country.
When the Republicans moved towards allowing the soldiers to vote in the field, the Democrats devised arguments against allowing it. The Democrats said that soldiers were ignorant of the political condition of the country because they were not allowed to express honestly negative views about the president because he was the commander in chief. They pointed to instances when Democratic campaign literature, which was also anti-war, was prevented from reaching the troops. They also worried that Republican officers might order their men to vote for Lincoln.
Soldiers voting in the election of 1864.
Public pressure was too strong to allow the Democrats to prevent voting by the soldiers and so, for the first time in history, mass absentee voting was allowed. Soldiers cast their ballots wherever their regiments were camped on election day and the tallies were sent home. The soldiers would vote 116,887 (78%) for Lincoln and give only 33,748 (22%) votes to his Democratic opponent George B. McClellan. As one German soldier was recorded as saying “I goes for Fader Abraham, he likes the soldier boy.”
Nationally, Lincoln had won a strong majority. Helped immeasurably by the Union capture of Atlanta on September 1, Lincoln beat McClellan by ten percentage points and he won 212 out of the 233 electoral votes cast. Only two states, Kentucky and New Jersey, voted against Lincoln.
Video: Don’t think Lincoln could lose the Election of 1864? Watch this.
Sources will be posted on December 30, 2014.
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