How (and Where) Lincoln Won

The Civil War was the largest, bloodiest conflict fought on American soil, but today its geography — from elections and secession to the back-and-forth of military struggle — is often obscure. This article is the first in a series in which Susan Schulten, a historian at the University of Denver, uses maps to illuminate the secession crisis and the war it produced.

Abraham Lincoln won a decisive victory on Nov. 6, 1860, with more than double the Electoral College votes of John C. Breckinridge, the runner-up. The election also sparked a crisis where 11 Southern states left the union, formed a new country and fell into a disastrous war with the North, all within six months of Lincoln’s win. In other words, to understand the origins of the war, we have to understand not just why Lincoln won, but how and where.

Most importantly, Lincoln’s victory came entirely from the states of the North, Midwest and far West. He failed to win a single slave state, and 10 of the 15 even refused to place him on the ballot. Such a sectional win, following decades of growing sectional tensions, seemed proof to many that the country was irredeemably divided.

Normally a candidate with such geographically limited appeal wouldn’t stand a chance. But Lincoln had a few advantages. For one, he benefited from a deep divide among the Democrats and between the Upper and Lower South. Many Democrats in the South refused to support northerner Stephen Douglas as the party’s nominee; following a convention in Charleston, these Southern Democrats formed a separate party and chose Breckinridge as their candidate. Meanwhile, members of the defunct Whig Party in the South — unable to support a Democrat or a Republican and hoping to defuse the crisis — formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell as their candidate.

The result was essentially two separate races, with Lincoln and Douglas vying for supremacy in the North while Breckinridge and Bell split the Southern vote. Lincoln trounced Douglas, conceding only Missouri and three of New Jersey’s seven electors to his opponent. In the South, the Southern Democrats won every state except Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, which supported the Constitutional Union Party.

The Democratic split certainly widened Lincoln’s margin of victory, but what really mattered was sectional division and the national population distribution. Few Northern Democrats voted for Breckinridge, certainly not enough to have put Douglas over the top in any of Lincoln’s states. Nor would it have mattered if the Democrats had united behind Breckinridge and thus delivered him Missouri and the three New Jersey votes. Even if Breckinridge had captured all of Bell’s votes as well, Lincoln’s victory in the populous states of New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania made his election all but certain.

Given the divided electorate, few observers were surprised when South Carolina began the secession process just weeks later, and announced its break from the Union just before Christmas. By Feb. 1, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas had done the same. Each of these seven states had voted Southern Democrat in 1860, outraged by the prospect of a president opposed to the extension of slavery.

Yet voting patterns were more complicated than the map indicates. In Georgia and Louisiana, Unionists provided a powerful counterweight to the Southern Democrats. Similarly, a vote for Southern Democrats did not always predict secession. While a majority in Delaware and Maryland voted Southern Democrat, those states remained loyal. Conversely, in Tennessee Bell actually defeated Breckinridge, even though that state seceded in early June. Kentucky and North Carolina were split between the two parties, and while the former remained in the Union, the latter did not. The winner-take-all model of the Electoral College obscures this complexity.

Equally intriguing is the relationship between secession and slavery. The pace of secession roughly correlates with the proportion of the slave population in each state. The first six states to secede enslaved well over 40 percent of their respective populations. The seventh—Texas—is an interesting outlier: though slaves made up only 30 percent of the population, the institution was rapidly growing, and fostered a secessionist spirit that overwhelmed Gov. Sam Houston’s Unionist sentiment.

After Texas voted to secede on Feb. 1, months passed without another state joining the Confederacy. The strong showing of the Constitutional Union Party in the Upper South further convinced Lincoln that secessionists were a distinct minority. But the crisis at Fort Sumter ended hopes of a rebellion limited to the Lower South, and soon Americans found themselves in one of history’s bloodiest wars.

Sources: Two works that do particular justice to the complexity of the sectional crisis are David Potter and Don Fehrenbacher, “The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861“; and Daniel Crofts, “Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis.”

Susan Schulten is a history professor at the University of Denver and the author of “The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950.” She is writing a book about the rise of thematic mapping in the United States.


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