The Myth of Northern Unity

Myth might be too strong a word, but we have a tendency to minimize or overlook entirely the extent to which the loyal citizenry of the United States remained bitterly divided over key policies of the Lincoln administration, especially emancipation. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe this tendency as a blind spot.

Our popular memory of the war assumes a high degree of Northern unity and support for Lincoln throughout the war. This can be explained, in part by the deification of Lincoln as well as the singling out of Copperheads as representing the extent of anti-Lincoln sentiment. The Copperheads are easy to dismiss owing to their “radical” and potentially “disloyal” policies and/or relatively small numbers.

I was reminded of this while reading Edward Ayers’s new book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America. Consider his summary of Lincoln’s victory in 1864:

Abraham Lincoln’s mandate was real and fairly won. But it is worth remembering the twisting path to Lincoln’s reelection in the midst of the greatest crisis the nation has ever known, the number of men, including soldiers, who would not bury partisan identities in the midst of wartime, and the bitterness that followed the election. The white people of the United States did not undergo a massive conversion experience in the fall of 1864. Despite all the advantages the Republicans enjoyed, close to half of Northern white men voted against Abraham Lincoln in the most important election in the nation’s history.

In retrospect, recognizing the greatness of Lincoln and his cause, it is puzzling that so few Democrats changed their minds or their loyalties. Despite the events and accomplishments of the preceding four years, the patterns of voting across the North barely shifted between 1860 and 1864. Abraham Lincoln, for all his eloquence, changed the minds of few white Americans who were not already inclined to believe him. The victory of Lincoln, his generals, his party leaders, and thousands of nameless local workers lay in mobilizing their own party, not in persuading their Democrat neighbors. The Republicans knew they still faced a relentless opponent. (pp. 269-70)

No doubt much of this resistance to Lincoln centered on the Emancipation Proclamation and the growing calls to end slavery. Implicit in Ayers’s analysis is the reminder that only by coming to terms with the extent of the political divide in the North during the war will we have any chance of understanding the postwar challenges that the nation faced, especially those connected to the place of four million newly freed people in the body politic.

Finally, Ayers reminds us that there is at least one moment in our history when we were even more politically divided.

7 comments… add one
  • Crispien Van Aelst Dec 4, 2017

    He may not have shifted most Democrats but he did shift many of those Democrats who served in uniform, or he would have never beat McClellan.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 4, 2017

      Not exactly. It is true that Lincoln won the majority of the soldier vote, but according to Jonathan White is not a “reliable index of the army’s ideological motivation or political sentiment.” See Emancipation, the Union Army and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln (LSU Press, 2014).

  • Paul Taylor Dec 4, 2017

    Jonathan White also points out that many Democratic-leaning soldiers simply opted not to vote. Since voting was a public, not private process, some soldiers chose not to incur the wrath of their Republican officers and possibly find themselves on the front lines. Others could not bring themselves to vote for a party who seemed so disdainful of their efforts.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 4, 2017

      Another good point. It really is a thought-provoking book.

  • Joshism Dec 4, 2017

    Remarkable that either side could wage a war for 4 years given the divisions both had.

    The northern divisions would seem to underscore the foolishness of Southerners in seceding. Northerners approved Republican wartime policies by a small margin. With a solidly Democrat South they should have been able to ally with Northern Democrats and sway moderates to keep things largely as they wanted for years to come. Instead, they panicked and bolted, unwilling to accept anything less than total control.

  • HankC Dec 5, 2017

    Perhaps it boils down to the Democrats having many little issues and the Republicans one big issue.

  • Jim Simcoe Dec 6, 2017

    Another consideration is to what extent Northerners believed that the South would never lay down arms to the Republican Party, which of course was quite an accurate assessment. To see an ending of the war finally on the horizon after the fall of Atlanta and destruction of Early’s army in the Valley…. A calculus that NOW Northern and Southern Democrats could sit down and suppress any ‘escalation’ of the import of the 13th Amendment, while bringing peace. My idea is that many voted for Mac not because they wanted a result short of full reunification; they thought he was the guy the Confederate government would talk to.

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