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Voting in the Field in a Civil War Army

        The problem of the soldier vote agitated the Civil War as it did World War II. The Republican party was particularly eager to provide opportunity for soldiers to go home to vote or machinery for voting in the field. Both methods were widely used in the state elections of 1863 and the Presidential election of 1864. The Wisconsin soldier vote--which James Leonard describes--was decisive in the election of a chief justice. That the soldier vote was decisive in the 1864 election, too, is generally conceded--and this notwithstanding such sup port for McClellan as is revealed by George Breck, of Rochester, New York. Thousands of soldiers were furloughed home at voting time. Lincoln wrote to Sherman, for example, that it might be well to let Indianas soldiers "or any part of them go home and vote at the state elections," and so enthusiastically did Sherman act on the suggestion that the ,9th Vermont Volunteers found themselves voting in the Indiana elections which the Republicans carried. Some states--New York, for example, and Ohio-- arranged for voting in the field, and the overwhelming majority of these votes went to Lincoln. The most careful student of the subject concludes that "without the soldiers vote in six crucial states, Lincoln would have lost the election."

ELECTIONEERING IN THE CAMPS

Camp near White Oak Church, May 14, 1863

        Let me state a simple instance as regards myself and the late election that took place in Co. A for Chief Justice of Wisconsin The morning of election day the Captain and Lieutenants asked me and the Orderly our opinion in regard to holding an election, The Captain was rather against it, fearing that very few of the boys would vote as was the case last fall, I almost sided with him but I and the Orderly both advised to open a poll, and take what votes could be got, He finally consented to commence on the condition that I would act as runner and speak to, or rather electioneer the boys in the company, I declined at first, advising the selection of some one who as I thought had more influence than myself Finally however I consented just to satisfy the Captain and Lieutenant but satisfied in my own mind that I could accomplish but little I went to work and first brought up all those whom I knew to be sure and then I set at those who were a little wavering or careless and by some talking got them up, then I went at those who are true Union men but still cling to party, all that was needed with them, was to satisfy them that Mr. Cothren was a Copperhead and we had the papers to do that The result was that 53 votes were polled every man in the company voting who was old enough, save one before the polls were opened I would not have believed that 30 votes could be obtained unless he set some one to work who had more influence than me, I wish though that I could have more influence in the temperance cause here Whiskey rations are occasionally dealt out now and I am the only one in our Co who does not use his ration, it is rather embarrassing to be thus the odd member of a family with the rest joking you on the matter, but I have withstood these temptations thus far and I hope by the sustaining grace of God to hold out firm to the end.
James A. Leonard, "Letters of a Fifth Wis. Volunteer"

PRESIDENT LINCOLN NEEDS THE SOLDIER VOTE

Executive Mansion, Washington, September 19, 1864

To General W. T. Sherman.

Major-General Sherman:

        The State election of Indiana occurs on the 11th of October, and the loss of it, to the friends of the Government would go far toward losing the whole Union cause. The bad effect upon the November election, and especially the giving the State government to those who will oppose the war in every pos.. sible way, are too much to risk if it can be avoided. The draft proceeds, not withstanding its strong tendency to lose us the State. Indiana is the only important State voting in October whose soldiers cannot vote in the field. Anything you can safely do to let her soldiers, or any part of them, go home and vote at the State election will be greatly in point. They need not remain for the Presidential election, but may return to you at once. This is in no sense an order, but is merely intended to impress you with the importance to the Army itself of your doing all you safely can, yourself being the judge of what you can safely do.

Yours truly, A. LINCOLN.

The Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln

VOTING FOR MCCLELLAN

"Fort Keen," Va., Oct. 23, 1864

My dear Ellen

        It seems a long time since I have written home, and so it is indeed, nearly three weeks, if I mistake not. You have, perhaps, thought I must be sick, but no, I have enjoyed the best of health. I have been very, very busy, however, with company matters, and with politics also. Last week was devoted, or a good share of it, evenings principally, to the polling of votes from the company and from outside commands. Battery L. cast 108 votes, 61 for McClellan and 47 for Lincoln. Quite a strong vote was cast for Lincoln in consequence of a number of new recruits, between thirty and forty, having joined the Battery very recently, one year men, from the strong Republican district of St. Lawrence Co., men who got $1,000 to $1300 bounty each. Nearly all the old men voted for McClellan. I shall send my vote home by Lieut. Anderson to give to Father to poll. Quite a form has to be gone through by New York soldiers who vote, giving power of attorney to some legal voter where they reside to cast their votes for them, taking an oath that they are legal voters etc. all of which requires a good deal of writing. The affidavits are administered by some commanding officer, and I being such, I have administered something in the neighborhood of 500 oaths. About that number of votes have been polled by Lieut. Anderson and I for "Little Mac," which would never have been cast, had we not interested ourselves in the matter. Such mean, contemptible favoritism or partisanship as has been and is shown for Lincoln, by many officers in the army, representatives of the Sanitary and Christian Commissions, etc., you little imagine. Hundreds of soldiers have been literally proscribed from voting for McClellan by their officers, and they have been obliged to get McClellan ballots from other sources and to get other officers to administer the necessary oath to them. I think I shall have to write a letter to the Union about the matter, which I think would tell for our side, and it might tell in such a manner as to eject me from the army.
"George Brecks Civil War Letters"
Source: "The Blue and The Gray" by Henry Steele Commanger

This Page last updated 01/17/04

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