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Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln

By Jonathan White Louisiana State University Press, 2014, $39.95

In allowed soldiers to vote in the field, 11 of which tabulated the returns the election of 1864, 19 states separately. States where Democrats controlled the legislature, including Illinois, Indiana and New Jersey, refused to permit soldier absentee voting. No one was certain whether the soldiers would vote for Abraham Lincoln or his opponent George B. McClellan, supposedly beloved by his men. An estimated 40 percent of Union soldiers had been Democrats when the war began, but the national Democratic platform labeled the war a failure and called for “cessation of hostilities,” whereas most soldiers sought victory. In the end, Lincoln received 78 percent of the separately tabulated soldier vote.

In this scholarly study, Jonathan White argues the vote did not mean the soldiers endorsed the administration’s policies, especially emancipation. Rather, soldiers voted for Lincoln for any number of other reasons: They opposed the Democratic Party platform; they believed Lincoln would more quickly bring the war to a victorious conclusion; and whatever their feelings about abolition, they voted to support their commander in chief.

White has done extensive research and the value of this book is in the voices he presents, particularly steadfast Democrats who either opposed Lincoln and were court-martialed for denouncing him, or gave reasons for voting for him. One soldier called the president a “God damned Old Shit,” but another proclaimed, “I am a Democrat, but I say hoora for old Abe and down with cession.” Many others expressed ambivalence: “I can’t vote for Old Abe. Tho, I think he will be elected. I can’t go Maclelland, no way.”

Unfortunately, White’s determination to argue that soldiers did not necessarily support Lincoln sometimes conflicts with his evidence. He states  that approximately 20 percent of the eligible soldiers “chose not to vote,” but at another point explains that in many cases soldiers were away on a mission or had failed to register properly. Not voting did not necessarily mean dissent. In his emphasis on reading the soldier vote as something other than an endorsement of the Republicans, he also neglects to show just how many soldiers did indeed change their partisan allegiance and come to support the war against secession as a war against slavery as well. Many of them even wrote home to urge their relatives to vote Republican.

It is worth recalling that Lincoln was concerned about how the soldiers would vote. When he expressed his fears to a journalist on the eve of the election, he was told not to worry, “they’ll vote as they shoot.” Indeed, they overwhelmingly did, and the result was a mandate that helped bring the war to an end within six months.


Originally published in the November 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.