Many Democrats were hoping that the men in the field, particularly those in the Army of the Potomac, would remain loyal to former commanding general George McClellan. They underestimated the ability of the Union soldier to analyze for himself just what a vote for the Democratic Peace Platform would mean–that everything he had fought and suffered for was meaningless. Most of the Federal forces had been in uniform since the first clarion call of 1861. These men knew personally what this war meant and what would happen were it not fought to its conclusion. They “announced with their votes” their ownership of the conflict and their belief that Union and Emancipation were worth the effort.
Soldiers in a volunteer army are citizen-soldiers, and most of them in the Civil War armies thought of themselves as citizens first. Their fighting faith, their belief in the cause for which they fought, was essential to their fighting prowess. Historian Joseph Allen Frank suggested, “Politics was thus central to a people’s army, which was the armed manifestation of a political idea.” Politics created the war, and whether a man was politically sophisticated or naive, politics kept him fighting. By the time of the election of 1864, 71% of the enlisted soldiers favored freeing enslaved men and enlisting them in the war effort. Union soldier Lyman Ayer wrote, “I have yet to see one (a slave) . . . that does not prefer even the very imperfect freedom they enjoy with the army to slavery.”
John Hiller, a second lieutenant with the 2d Cavalry of the U. S. Missouri State Militia, saw no objection to equality. “If the black man has been endowed with the ability to elevate himself to the high position which will place him on a level with the white race, I say let him come up.”
Union citizen soldiers benefitted greatly during the last years of the war by being able to get mail regularly, and receive both local and national newspapers. Communication with the homefront was evidence of the social contract the soldiers made with those they left behind. Men counted on the homefront to support their efforts and share their sacrifices, and they communicated these feelings to their friends and families. The homefront was obligated to sustain army morale, uplifting lonely men who had been fighting for three years or more by 1864. A soldier expected “home to share his devotion to the war effort.” For most soldiers, Democrats and Copperheads in general and Clement Vallandigham and George McClellan’s candidacy in particular raised their ire.
Whether they voted at home or in the field, soldiers were politically influential over their families and communities. A person who criticized Lincoln by default criticized the war, and by criticizing the war, so, too, criticized the soldier. This sort of person, Democrat, Copperhead, or disgruntled malcontent, became a traitor. “Dad, I am in sober earnest when I say . . . don’t waiver in your devotion. Load your gun and strike the traitor! . . . watch who the sympathizers are . . . so we can settle with them when we come home,” wrote an Iowa infantryman to his father. Another Iowan wrote, “The longer I stay in the army the worse I feel toward [the Copperheads], they have no rights But to be hung.”
George McClellan, whom the Democrats nominated in hopes of securing the vote of the men in arms, fared very poorly in the eyes of the average Federal soldier. Union General Edward A. Wild sent a letter to a friend proclaiming McClellan, ‘the most treacherous traitor of them all,” and a Massachusetts soldier, from the trenches around Petersburg, claimed that the election of McClellan, “would be the worst thing that was ever done for the country and the Rebels say that is what they are depending on most.”
The election of 1864 excited Confederates, who even shouted across the streams and picket lines that separated the armies their enthusiasm for McClellan’s candidacy. This furthered the resolve of Union soldiers to vote Republican. After casting his ballot for Lincoln, William H. Pittenger wrote in his diary, “The day of the greatest battle & I believe the greatest victory . . . has been fought and I know I won today.” Luther Short, of the 43d Indiana wrote to his family, “I wan Abraham to handle the rains until this rebellion is crushed and the Old Flag waves proudly over this land again.” “i cant see little Mc in the white house . . . ,” wrote a Pennsylvania cavalryman. “not while old Abe is able to swing the maul.”
Of all the stories, diary entries, and letters concerning the election of 1864 and Union loyalty, one of the most moving is from Warren Goss’s book The Soldier’s Story of His Captivity at Andersonville, Belle Isle, and Other Rebel Prisons, first published in 1867. Goss explained that the prison officials at Andersonville were very pro-McClellan, and anxious to see how the men in prison felt:
On the day of the election two bags were placed on the inside of the stockade. Those who were in favor of Lincoln were to put a black bean into a bag, and those who were for McClellan were to vote white beans, which were provided for this purpose. We were marched by hundreds, and deposited our ballots. It was understood that if a majority of votes were cast for Little Mac, we should get extra rations that day. The result of the ballot was about fifteen hundred for McClellan and six thousand for Lincoln.
That soldiers in a place like Andersonville would willingly forgo “extra rations” to cast a vote–a vote not even counted in the election–is humbling. There is much to be said for solidarity of purpose in the majority of Union soldiers.
The soldier vote did not prove crucial to re-electing Lincoln. The President and the Union Party gained a majority in the popular vote of just over 406,000. They won 55.09 % of the vote. Nevertheless, from the twelve states allowing absentee ballots for military votes, their separate tallies confirm that 78% of these men voted for Lincoln. The three-out-of-four Union/Republican soldier ballot majority was an impressive mandate for Lincoln’s policy of war to victory.
After the Civil War, absentee voting was never again a problem for the American military. All state constitutions were quickly amended to be sure that America’s fighting men (and women) would never again be disenfranchised. In July1942, Representative Robert L. Ramsay (D-WV) introduced a national military voting rights bill. Despite opposition from southern states concerning states’ rights and poll taxes, the Soldier Voting Act of 1942 passed both houses by a good margin. President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law on September 16, 1942.
Trying to see into the minds of Americans one hundred and fifty years ago is a challenging task, but one that remains perhaps the most worthwhile challenge of all–to try to discover just what it was that made veteran troops vote for more war.
The soldiers of both the Union and Confederate armies underwent an intense period of politicization during the years, 1861-65. Politics was central to the development of soldier morale, unit organization and cohesion, officer qualification, the shaping of fighting styles, and the nature of the evolving relationship between the military and the homefront. Politics began the war and, ultimately, political decisions were responsible for the lives of America’s citizen soldiers. After three years of slaughter, these men demanded the right to vote. Almost 80% of them voted for Abraham Lincoln. The men who did the fighting voted by a far larger majority than the folks at home to finish the job. The soldiers had a good understanding of the politics of the time, and knew clearly that voting for Lincoln meant voting in favor of continuing the war. They voted their loyalty to the causes of Union and Abolition with ballots, many of which were, figuratively speaking, marked in blood.