Despite provisions by most states, efforts by the Democratic Party ensured widespread disenfranchisement of many Union soldiers. Every state that attempted to amend legislation to provide for some method of soldier voting failed if voted on by a legislature with a Democratic majority. The Democrats persistently opposed any legislation giving the soldier the right to vote in the field. The five states that prohibited absentee voting, especially Illinois and Indiana, were heavily Democratic, and hoped to maintain their vote for Democratic candidate and former Union general George McClellan. Guessing that the Union armies were probably going to vote for Lincoln, none of these states had any reason to encourage their soldiers to cast ballots.
Lincoln himself wrote to General William Tecumseh Sherman asking him to allow his men from Indiana to return home in October to vote in that state’s crucial election. The president asked the same of Generals George Meade and Philip Sheridan regarding the Pennsylvania election, of General William Rosecrans concerning the Missouri election, and of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles relating to the New York election.
Only about 150,000 of the army’s more than 1 million soldiers were able to cast absentee ballots from the field in the 1864 general election. However, many soldiers were able to return to their home states to vote in that election and thus did not submit absentee ballots. No record was kept of the number of soldiers who voted in their home states. Of those soldiers who were able to cast an absentee ballot, 119,754 (or 78 percent) voted for Abraham Lincoln, while only 34,291 (22 percent) voted for McClellan. Lincoln captured over 55% of the popular vote and a staggering electoral count of 212 to 21. Of the more than 4,000,000 votes cast, the president received 2,203,831 versus McClellan’s 1,787,019. The military’s tally was even more disproportionate as Lincoln took nearly 120,000 of 150,000 soldiers’ votes.
The central issue of the election was the war, and the presidential candidates offered two distinct choices to the Union fighting men. To vote for Abraham Lincoln was to vote to continue the prosecution of the war, with more forced marches, more worm-infested rations, more sleeping out-of-doors, and more dying. To vote for George McClellan meant to stop hostilities immediately, and offered the possibility of returning home, but also for admitting that the war had been a failure. The men who voted in 1864 were not the bright-eyed young, inexperienced volunteers of 1861, but, for the most part, they had been. These were the men who came of age in an army fighting for a cause bequeathed to them by the Revolutionary generation, and who had been raised to love the ideologies of Union and Liberty. Secession was a threat to all that was held dear by the immense Union family. Private Wilber Fisk, serving in the Army of the Potomac, wrote in 1862: “When we reflect that we are standing on the outer verge of all that is left of the American Union, and nothing but . . . rebellion is beyond, and that we are guarding our own homes and firesides from treason’s usurpations, we feel a thrill of pride that we are permitted to bear a part in maintaining our beloved Government.”
By 1864, the Emancipation Proclamation had been released for over a year. Democrats hoped this would shore up anti-Lincoln sentiments, but soldier letters and diaries indicate this was not necessarily the case. Black soldiers fighting in the Union army had convinced many white soldiers that the causes of Liberty and Union could be shared. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a private in the 6th Wisconsin Battery in Sherman’s army wrote in his diary that just before the election in November 1864, a general discussion took place among his battery mates concerning the “slavery question,” along with politics in general. A straw poll indicated that the battery supported “Old Abe” 75-0. After the election, Jones noted, “Thank God the ‘sin of slavery will soon be no more. I can cheerfully bear all the discomforts of a soldier’s life for the overthrow of the monster evil.”
Lincoln was not certain that the troops would vote for him. He was concerned about troop morale in the summer of 1864, and he had little indication that there was, in fact, great support for his candidacy within the ranks. On August 23, he wrote a note to himself, and to his Cabinet:
This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.
He folded it, had his Cabinet members sign it without reading it, and placed it in a drawer in his desk. It was not taken out of the desk until after the election, as Union General Sherman’s successful occupation of Atlanta gave Lincoln the victory he needed to shore up both civilian and soldier votes.