Sunday, November 2, 2014

Civil War Sunday- Moments That Changed History

Consider this statue in front of the Broome County Courthouse in Binghamton, New York.  I pass it several times a week.

Statue of Daniel Dickinson, Binghamton, NY

You are looking at someone who could have been President of the United States if only he had been chosen to run with Abraham Lincoln in 1864.  Yet, chances are, you've never heard of him.  His name was Daniel Dickinson, and he was a minor player in this incredible story.

To tell this story, I must tell a story about the United States Presidency.

In the United States, our Constitution (through the 22nd Amendment) currently limits a President to two full elected four year terms. That amendment did not exist in 1864, but tradition worked to similarly limit Presidential terms. 

War between our States threatened as soon as Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860.  Barely was Lincoln inaugurated with his Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin (March 4, 1861) than war broke out in Charleston, South Carolina (a state that had seceded the previous December 20th).  Lincoln was a peacetime President for just a tiny bit more than a month, as the Civil War formally began on April 12, 1861.  The saying "brother against brother" was no cliche.  Families were torn apart.

Now, in the summer of 1864, it was time for a Presidential election.  And the beauty of our system is, such an election has never, before or since been delayed or called off for any reason.

Would Lincoln run for reelection in 1864?  And, would he have a different running mate for Vice-President? (In our system, the President and Vice-President run on one ticket).  And would Lincoln even be able to run as the candidate of his own party, the Republican Party?

There were so many reasons for Lincoln not to run.  Many people were not happy with his handling of the war, including some in his own political party.  In fact, his political party, the Republicans, were a third party in 1860 (the main two parties being the Whigs, and the Democrats).  Yes, Lincoln was the last third party candidate ever to win our Presidency, thanks in part to a splintering of the Democratic Party.
(The 1860 election was actually quite complex, and its complexity is beyond the scope of this blog.)

But now it was 1864.

The Union and the seceded Confederate States of America had been at war for three weary years. A Union victory seemed so far away in the fall of 1864. 

The last President prior to 1864 to be reelected was Andrew Jackson - in 1832.  No President had been reelected to a second term since then.

But run Lincoln did.  His party split.  One wing called the Radical Republicans nominated not Lincoln, but explorer of the West John C. Fremont, a man who grew up in what had become the Confederacy. Other Republicans who supported Lincoln united with "War Democrats" and Lincoln ran under a combined "National Union" banner.  Meanwhile, the "Peace" Democrats ran a man by the name of [General] George McClellan - a man who once commanded the Union's Army of the Potomac.  Yes, McClellan ran against his Commander in Chief.

 I am far from a political junkie, but I know a good story when I read one.  (And if I got any of my facts wrong, I'm sure I will hear from my politically inclined readers.)

But now, back to the Vice-President.  It was decided not to have Hannibal Hamlin as his Vice-President again if he won a second term.  Various candidates were considered, including the former U.S. Senator from New York, and War Democrat, the very Daniel Dickinson whose statue stands in front of the Broome County Courthouse.  But he wasn't chosen.

Instead, Lincoln's running mate became someone born in one Confederate State (North Carolina) who was currently the Union military governor of a Confederate state under Union control (Tennessee) - Andrew Johnson.

The Confederacy itself did not participate in the election.

The election was close.

But Lincoln won, taking all but three participating states..  To this day, there is speculation that, if the Confederate states had been allowed to vote, if McClellan would have won. As the peace candidate,what would have McClellan done as President? We'll never know for sure.

When Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865, mere days after the Civil War ended, Johnson became President.

But it just as easily could have been Daniel Dickinson, and if it had, history, again, may have been quite different.

We'll never know how different, though.

Politics are not my main interest but there are many resources online if you want to learn more about this election.


  1. I always love to read about the Civil War and you presented many interesting facts about that election; so timely! Have you seen that movie out about Abraham Lincoln? Supposedly where his wife Mary goes insane due to Lincoln's assasination? I have always wanted to see it but haven't yet. Thanks for a great story!

  2. Wow! This is a part of history that I obviously know nothing about. I'm definitely going to share this with my husband who's a history lover. Thank you so much for sharing.
    Dorit Sasson
    author of Accidental Soldier: What the Israel Defense Forces Taught Me about Faith, Courage and Love

  3. Gosh, I feel like I have learnt a fair bit from your post! I know very little about American history, but this was very interesting!

  4. I hated history in school, but find myself fascinated with it now that I'm older. I had never heard of Dickinson before!


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