‘Our Circumstances are Novel and Exceptional’ – The Soldiers Get to Cast their Vote

November 3, 1864 (Thursday)

While election day was technically, on the 8th of November, getting the soldiers to vote was an entirely different matter. In his diary, General Meade’s staff officer, Theodore Lyman, committed the following:

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“Flocks of election commissioners, scurvy looking fellows, are coming down here to look after the presidential vote. Voting is a state matter; from some states there is no permission for soldiers to vote. Those who can, vote either by proxy or by commissioners. By proxy, they publickly declare that they wish to give a certain person at home the power to vote for them, and to him a proper document is duly forwarded. By commissioner, they appear before this officer and their vote is registered and given to him, in a sealed envelope.”

There had been much preparation for this election, as far as the army went. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had visited Grant weeks ago, warning him not to initiate a pitched battle in the Petersburg/Richmond front as a loss was certain to sway the vote against Lincoln.

“I had reason to believe that the administration was a little afraid to have a decisive battle at that time,” wrote Grant in his memoirs, “for fear it might go against us and have a bad effect on the November elections. The convention which had met and made its nomination of the Democratic candidate for the presidency had declared the war a failure. Treason was talked as boldly in Chicago at that convention as ever been in Charleston. It was a question whether the government would then have had the power to make arrests and punish those who talked treason. But this decisive victory was the most effective campaign argument made in the canvass.”

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Even out in the west, William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces had to deal with the effects of electing a president at a time of war. Writing about his preparations for the attack on Atlanta, he said: ” A presidential election then agitated the North. Mr. Lincoln represented the national cause, and General McClellan had accepted the nomination of the Democratic party, whose platform was that the war was a failure, and that it was better to allow the South to go free to establish a separate government, whose corner-stone should be slavery. Success to our arms at that instant was therefore a political necessity; and it was all-important that something startling in our interest should occur before the election in November. The brilliant success at Atlanta filled that requirement, and made the election of Mr. Lincoln certain.”

By this time, the idea that soldiers would vote was obviously set in stone. But even in late September, when the question was put before Grant, things were not so certain.

The exercise of the right of suffrage by the officers and soldiers of armies in the field is a novel thing. It has, I believe, generally been considered dangerous to constitutional liberty and subversive of military discipline. But our circumstances are novel and exceptional. A very large proportion of the legal voters of the United States are now either under arms in the field, or in hospitals, or otherwise engaged in the military service of the United States.

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Most of these men are not regular soldiers in the strict sense of that term; still less are they mercenaries who give their services to the government simply for its pay, having little understanding of political questions, or feeling little or no interest in them. On the contrary, they are American citizens, having still their homes and social and political ties binding them to the States and districts from which they come and to which they expect to return. They have left their homes temporarily, to sustain the cause of their country in the hour of its trial.

In performing this sacred duty, they should not be deprived of a most precious privilege. They have as much right to demand that their votes shall be counted in the choice of their rulers as those citizens who remain at home —nay, more; for they have sacrificed more for their country.

Absentee voting was a novel thing, some even believing it to be unconstitutional. But in the end, fourteen of the twenty-five participating states allowed their soldiers to vote. And though McClellan was dear to the hearts of many in the eastern theater, the west was almost strictly for Lincoln.

To Lincoln, the soldiers’ vote was essential, as he knew it could very well carry the election for him.

A story rose up shortly after the election of an exchange between the President and a soldier, which supposedly occurred on this date. The newspaper reporting it, claimed then, “the following story is good enough to be true, whether it is or not.”

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Just before the Presidential election, when many of the soldiers about Washington were furloughed, in order that they might return to their homes and exercise their right of voting, a private, wearing a McClellan badge on his breast, appeared at the transportation office with his furlough aid requisite transportation to the North. For some reason or other, probably because the zeal of the officials outran their sense of justice, the soldier was for a day or two unable to obtain the requisite transportation.

He saw others passed rapidly by the Board, but was not able to obtain a hearing himself. At length, disgusted with the long delay, resulting evidently from the unfairness of the official, he determined to appeal directly to the President himself. Upon being admitted to the President, he told him in brief terms the story of his delay at the transportation office and the object of his visit to the White House, prefacing the whole by a candid declaration that he was a McClellan man and was going home to vote for McClellan.

Lincoln asked for his furlough, and glancing over it to satisfy himself that It was all right, wrote on the back of it these words: “Let this man have transportation immediately. A. Lincoln,” and banded it back to the soldier. The latter looked at the order for a moment, and then exclaimed: “When I came here this morning, President Lincoln, I was fully determined to vote for McClellan, if I could get home, but I have now changed my mind and shall vote for you. You have satisfied me that you are worthy of being President, and I shall do all I can to re-elect you.

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  1. Sources: Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Campaigning with Grant by Horace Porter; Sacramento Daily Union, December 23, 1864; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth. []
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‘Our Circumstances are Novel and Exceptional’ – The Soldiers Get to Cast their Vote by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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