It is hard for modern Americans to believe that Abraham Lincoln, one of history's most beloved Presidents, was nearly defeated in his reelection attempt in 1864. Yet by that summer, Lincoln himself feared he would lose. How could this happen? First, the country had not elected an incumbent President for a second term since Andrew Jackson in 1832 — nine Presidents in a row had served just one term. Also, his embrace of emancipation was still a problem for many Northern voters.
Despite Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg a year earlier, the Southern armies came back fighting with a vengeance. During three months in the summer of 1864, over 65,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing-in-action. In comparison, there had been 108,000 Union casualties in the first three years. General Ulysses S. Grant was being called The Butcher. At one time during the summer, Confederate soldiers under Jubal Early came within five miles of the White House.
Lincoln had much to contend with. He had staunch opponents in the Congress. Underground Confederate activities brought rebellion to parts of Maryland. Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was ruled unconstitutional by Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney — an order Lincoln refused to obey. But worst of all, the war was not going well.
Meanwhile the Democratic Party split, with major opposition from Peace Democrats, who wanted a negotiated peace at any cost. They chose as their nominee George B. McClellan, Lincoln's former commander of the Army of the Potomac. Even Lincoln expected that McClellan would win.
The South was well aware of Union discontent. Many felt that if the Southern armies could hold out until the election, negotiations for Northern recognition of Confederate independence might begin.
Everything changed on September 6, 1864, when General Sherman seized Atlanta. The war effort had turned decidedly in the North's favor and even McClellan now sought military victory.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 had won three-fourths of Congress. A second term and the power to conclude the war were now in his hands.