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The fall of Atlanta and Lincoln’s reelection: 'Game-changer' or campaign myth?

- September 2, 2014

Gen. William T. Sherman among the breastworks outside Atlanta in 1864. (George N. Barnard/Library of Congress)
You might call it the ultimate campaign “game-changer,” and it happened 150 years ago today.
In the summer of 1864, during the Civil War, the best political minds thought Abraham Lincoln’s reelection chances were slim, including Lincoln himself. The year had been especially brutal for Union forces, even compared to enormous losses of previous years, and the armies were stalled outside Petersburg, Va., and Atlanta, Ga. It was doubtful whether military victory could be attained before the Northern public gave up on the war, and this made Lincoln’s electoral defeat appear certain. Given the peace platform of Lincoln’s opponents, his loss might mean the death of the Union itself, the perpetuation of American slavery and the faltering of democracy’s prospects around the world.
Then it all changed.
On Sept. 2, Atlanta surrendered to Union troops under Gen. William T. Sherman, converting Lincoln’s prospects from defeat to victory overnight. Or so many historians say, citing contemporary accounts from leaders and voters. But was Lincoln really doomed without Atlanta? Or is this another bogus “game-changer” campaign narrative?
There were no polls tracking public sentiment in 1864. Instead, politicians relied on local operatives for opinion reports, but these snapshots were often unreliable. Only elections provided representative evidence of partisan moods in the electorate.
To shed some light on this question, I leveraged a quirk in 19th century election calendars. Unlike today, when federal elections are held on the same day in early November, U.S. House elections before 1872 took place over more than a year. Gubernatorial elections were often held the same day, and several states held annual elections for governor, thereby providing a kind of annual tracking poll on each party’s standing.
Like today, many voters in the 1860s – by law, predominantly white men with citizenship 21 years or older – had strong party loyalties and cast straight-party votes. So a voter choosing Lincoln for president in 1864 was likely to choose Republicans for House and governor, especially when voting for each on the same day. Of course, many factors influenced how individual candidates fared, but their average performance across dozens of elections should tell us much about the public’s mood toward Republicans.
If Lincoln was in trouble before Atlanta, Republican vote share before September 1864 should appear lower than after. But if we see little change in Republican votes over time, it may suggest that Lincoln was on his way to reelection without Atlanta.
The graph below shows election results from Jan. 1, 1862, to Nov. 8, 1864, subtracting Lincoln’s 1864 state-level vote share from Republican state-level vote share in House and governor elections. A trend line shows the average over time. (Additional methods details are here.)

Graph by Nathan Kalmoe

(Nathan Kalmoe)

The solid horizontal line shows that Lincoln’s 1864 popular vote share of 55 percent He also dominated the Electoral College vote 212 to 21.  But a 5 percent popular shift from Lincoln to his opponent, George McClellan, would have created a tie , indicated by the dashed line. If the Lincoln lost 5 percent in every state, McClellan would have won the Electoral College vote and the presidency.
Early in 1862, Republicans performed well but clearly lost vote share in elections held late in 1862. This could be interpreted as dissatisfaction with the war, but these late-1862 elections occurred after the Union victory at Antietam, when the public’s mood about the war should have been improving.
Another explanation for the shift in 1862 could be the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, which created considerable controversy.  But this also doesn’t quite fit the facts: Abolitionist Massachusetts had the biggest Republican loss while slave state Delaware showed Republican gains.
Thus, the midterm dip in 1862 looks more like a pattern quite familiar to us today: the tendency of the president’s party to suffer losses in the midterm.
Notably, even at this lowest level of support, Republicans averaged only 3 percent worse than Lincoln’s 1864 vote share, short of the 5 percent  threshold needed for Lincoln to lose in 1864. And by the fall 1863, Republicans fared substantially better, equaling or exceeding Lincoln’s 1864 vote share.  The early 1864 elections also went well for Republicans. This suggests that Republican fortunes before Sherman reclaimed Atlanta were not actually that bad.
Most important is the continuity between the elections before and after the fall of Atlanta.  Republican vote shares in House and gubernatorial elections did not change that much.  The Atlanta thesis should show Republican gains after the victory. The evidence shows otherwise.
I also compared the 11 states that voted both before and after the capture of Atlanta.  There were only four states where Republican votes actually increased after Atlanta fell.  There were seven where Republican votes actually declined, although by mostly insubstantial amounts. This evidence also counters the notion that the capture of Atlanta was a game-changer.
At no point does Lincoln appear in danger of losing badly, as he worried. Even the grimmest interpretation of tough 1862 midterms shows only a tossup. And that dip in Republican fortunes evaporated in 1863, which should have restored Republican confidence. Public partisan mood was not apparently against Lincoln before Atlanta, and his chances did not substantially improve after.
With only four states holding contested partisan elections in 1864 before Atlanta, it is possible that public mood dipped precariously in the summer between elections. But it is not likely given the stability of partisan voting during the war, in both victory and defeat. Of course, we can’t rerun history to see what would have happened if had Atlanta remained in Confederate hands. But the electoral trends we can observe show Lincoln on track for reelection by late 1863, if not sooner.
To be fair, it’s easy to imagine how, with relatively few states holding elections in early 1864, fears could multiply during a terrible season of fighting. And although periodic midterm losses by the president’s party may be familiar to us now, this pattern may not have been clear in 1864.
All told, Lincoln’s pre-Atlanta pessimism about his reelection prospects appears unfounded, and the predominant “game-changer” narrative surrounding the 1864 election looks mythical in this light. Saying so does not diminish the monumental significance of Lincoln’s reelection and Union victory, which still shape our politics today. But it does inform our understanding of how Lincoln won.
Nathan Kalmoe is an assistant professor of political science at Monmouth College.