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.