A Truly Noteworthy Election

Despite the hype, elections are rarely noteworthy events or turning points in history

By Bob Brown

Political candidates usually passionately proclaim that the election in which they are running is “the most critical in a generation,” or the “the most important in modern history.” Despite the hype, elections are rarely noteworthy events or turning points in history.

One election that was enormously significant happened exactly 150 years ago this month. Civil War President Abraham Lincoln was in deep political trouble with the approach of the election of 1864. Americans, North and South, were in the bleakest and bloodiest phase of our most cataclysmic conflict. An appalling 60 percent of the soldiers in “Mr. Lincoln’s Army” that invaded Virginia in the spring of 1864 had fought their last battle by July.

There was no election scheduled in the battle-ravaged South in 1864, but there was in the Union, and the people of the North were weary of war. “Let the South have its own country. How could forcibly preserving the union be worth this hideous slaughter?” Thus the Democratic “Peace Party” made its case. Lincoln himself expected to lose.

All the Confederacy wanted from a negotiated settlement was its independence. Such an outcome would have assured two competing countries. With the concept of secession validated, the breakup might have continued, so a map of North America might soon have looked like one of South America.

In the suffocating southern summer, the armies of Grant and Lee were clinched in deathly deadlock in a grinding siege near Richmond. No end was in sight. Then, unforeseen events reversed the fortunes of war, and with them the tide of the election. In August, Admiral Farragut’s dramatic capture of Mobile Bay sealed the blockade of southern ports in the Gulf of Mexico. Economic strangulation of the South was probably inevitable, but only if the North had the determination to stay the course.

In September came the capture of the southern stronghold of Atlanta, and General Sherman’s victorious breakthrough into Georgia. In October, General Sheridan established Northern control of the vital Shenandoah Valley at the conclusive battle of Winchester.

In November, 55 percent of the people of the North decided to soldier on. With Lincoln leading, there would be no turning back. The unified, powerful, prosperous, democratic and free United States America was the ultimate result of that election 150 years ago. The world is a better place because there is a United States.

In a strange and little-known way, that election also impacted Montana. An obscure ramification of it was Green Clay Smith. What? A person or a piece of pottery you might ask.

I wondered that too, when first learning about this in a lecture by Dr. Mike Malone, my Montana history professor over 40 years ago at Montana State University in Bozeman. In the same 1864 convention that renominated Lincoln, Congressman Smith very narrowly lost the nomination for Vice President to Andrew Johnson, who then became president after Lincoln’s assassination. And Green Clay Smith? Well, in a tiny echo of that great election of 1864, rather than becoming President of the United States, he ended up being appointed, by Johnson, as governor of Montana Territory.

Bob Brown is a former Montana secretary of state