How the Pennsylvania press reacted to Lincoln’s reelection in 1864
Apart from the relatively recent phenomenon of massive sporting events, in the history of American media nothing captures national attention, from both the press and public, quite like presidential elections. The electoral contest of November 8, 1864, was one of the talked about—and, in turn, most consequential—of all time.
As the Civil War moved toward the conclusion of its fourth calendar year, the choice that awaited eligible voters on their ballots that autumn pitted Democratic candidate George McClellan (a Philadelphia native and the former general-in-chief of all United States armies) against the incumbent president, Abraham Lincoln, then running as a member of the National Union Party, a temporary rebrand by Republicans. Staying true to its status as the old keystone of the republic, Pennsylvania played a central role in an election that would go a long way in determining the fate and meaning of a conflict that had reared its ugly head throughout the Commonwealth in such tragic events as the Allegheny Arsenal explosion, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the burning of Chambersburg.
At its core, Lincoln’s party platform proposed a series of pro-civil rights policies, including endorsements of “an amendment to the Constitution” that “shall terminate and forever prohibit the existence of Slavery,” and “a liberal and just policy” on matters of race and immigration. On the other hand, the president’s opposition, led by McClellan, wished to be known as “the great democratic and conservative party of the country,” which “will be entirely satisfactory to the democratic and conservative masses.” Contrary to the National Union guarantee of abolition and equality, by McClellan’s own estimation, “The preservation of our Union was the sole avowed object for which the war was commenced....The Union is the one condition of peace—we ask no more.”
Ultimately, Lincoln and vice-presidential candidate Andrew Johnson were victorious in a landslide, having earned 212 Electoral College votes against the mere 21 gained by McClellan and running mate George Pendleton. Nevertheless, at a moment of deep racial and political divides that partitioned American society along partisan lines, reactions varied depending on vocal biased affiliations. This extended to every state in the Union, including Pennsylvania, which Lincoln won by a margin of 3.5 percent of the popular vote.
“The struggle is over, and LINCOLN and JOHNSON are elected...,” the Pittsburgh Commercial touted from the western side of the state on November 9, in an era when political associations could be easily identified by the newspaper carried under one’s arm. “The victory is not over the rebel sympathizing Democracy alone, but over the armed rebels as well,” the paper continued. “It is not merely a civic triumph, but it will be like a new army in the field....It secures all that is valuable to a loyal American. It crushes the viperous enemy to human freedom.” Further, the Commercial opined, Pennsylvanians and Americans had seen “the last of” George McClellan, now one man in a host of “domestic traitors” who had been “disposed of—condemned and branded by the loyal people of the land...against traitors everywhere!”
Likewise, on November 10, the Pittsburgh Gazette defined “Tuesday’s vote” as “an emphatic declaration of the people that this war shall be vigorously prosecuted to the complete suppression of the rebellion” and “an endorsement of the general policy of the administration in the conduct of the war, including the emancipation proclamation.”
By sticking with Lincoln, said the Gazette, the American people gave “an indication of their will that the National Constitution shall be so amended that slavery...shall be totally and forever interdicted in all the territory over which the national flag waves,” and “that no terms whatever shall be offered to traitors in arms, short of unconditional submission.”
Elsewhere in the Steel City, however, the Pittsburgh Daily Post lamented Lincoln’s reelection by placing little emphasis on the significance of a Democratic defeat, and by attempting to paint all Republicans as fringe radicals.
“As usual the Abolitionists claim to have carried everything by a sweeping majority,” the Post reported on November 10; “but, although we concede the election of Mr. Lincoln the result will show that he escaped defeat very narrowly.” (This statement ignored the fact that he had earned 90 percent of the Electoral College tally nationally.) Later in the same issue, the paper mockingly looked to the future and suggested “that although the Abolitionists call Lincoln a Success, we hope that Little Mac will be a Successor.”
On the opposite side of the Commonwealth, on November 9, the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph hoped “recent glorious election returns have caused universal joy in every breast, and will render the approaching Thanksgiving Day doubly joyful.”
The following day, the paper congratulated Pennsylvania voters for the “degree of quietness and good order rarely equaled” in an election “known to be of a very intense character.” Further, the Telegraph attempted to indulge the notion of brotherly love by yearning for a future in which Lincoln’s detractors would engage his supporters in “a hearty co-operation in the great and important work of subduing the Rebellion and re-establishing the Union.”
In the Pennsylvania town most directly afflicted by the Civil War—and the only Keystone State locale which had seen Lincoln walk its streets during his tenure as president—Gettysburg’s dueling papers saw the election’s outcome in starkly different terms. On November 15, the progressive Adams Sentinel viewed the commander-in-chief’s triumph as “one of the most glorious events in the history of the American People,” and boasted that it meant “that the great democratic doctrine” had triumphed over “the traitors [who] took up arms.”
Meanwhile, the conservative Gettysburg Compiler (which oftentimes espoused overtly white supremacist tendencies) dissented. “Had McClellan been elected, an honest effort would have been made to secure peace and restore the Union without further bloodshed...,” editor Henry Stahle published on November 14. “Abolition has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives and thousands of millions of dollars. Under the same policy, how much will it cost in four years more?” The Compiler focused heavily on the fact that while McClellan lost the election as a whole, Gettysburgians could somehow take comfort in knowing that Little Mac won “Little Adams” County by a 524-vote majority over President Lincoln.
Just west of Gettysburg, the Valley Spirit—stationed in Chambersburg, a city burned by Rebel soldiers a little more than three months earlier—equally bemoaned the electoral developments. The “Democracy” is “defeated,” and surely, “Without a change of policy the future must be dark and bloody,” the paper ranted on November 16. “Financial ruin must overtake us sooner or later, to be followed by anarchy fearful and terrible, which in its turn will be followed by a starless midnight of despotism, from which there will be no deliverance....It is our most serious conviction that if Mr. Lincoln continues his present pernicious policy, the disasters which it will accumulate upon him will induce him, before his next term shall expire, to make a peace recognizing the independence of the South—a disunion peace.”
Contrarily, the Franklin Repository of Chambersburg exulted in the news of Lincoln’s reelection. “It declares that those who are deemed most faithful to the cause of an imperiled government in its terrible struggle with treason, shall direct the destinies of the Republic until Peace and Union are honorably and enduringly secured to ourselves and posterity...,” the weekly periodical printed on November 16, before adding that “only...lesson of the 8th of November” is that the American people proclaimed themselves as conquerors over “Treason and Slavery—twin-sisters of desolation and death.”
Across Pennsylvania, hundreds of other papers produced additional sentiments through millions of far-reaching words. Examining the contents of these printed news columns offers valuable insight into the wartime attitudes of the Commonwealth’s press corps in light of Abraham Lincoln’s triumph in the only national republican election ever held during a civil war. As the de facto voices of a populace which sent more than 433,000 of its sons—both black and white—to fight in U.S. armies, navies, and militia from 1861 to 1865 (at least 33,000 of whom died in the process) the Pennsylvania print media represented the range of emotions evident at perhaps the most pivotal electoral moment in American political history.
 D.F. Murphy, Presidential Election, 1864. Proceedings of the National Union Convention Held in Baltimore, Md., June 7th and 8th, 1864 (New York: Baker & Godwin, 1864), 57-58; Official Proceedings of the Democratic National Convention, Held in 1864 at Chicago (Chicago: The Times Steam Book and Printing House, 1864), 26, 47, 60.
 “Facts & Figures,” Pennsylvania Civil War 150, 2010-2015, http://pacivilwar150.com/Understand/FactsFigures.html.