Historians commonly claim that 80 percent of Union soldiers voted for Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 election, but Jonathan W. White, a professor of American Studies at Virginia’s Christopher Newport University, has delved into archives of soldiers’ letters and court-martial case files and found more nuanced support for the president. In his new book Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln he presents evidence of widespread intimidation in favor of Lincoln as well as suppression of Democratic voters—though not enough to have swayed election results. Nonetheless, White notes that enfranchising soldiers in the field—granted by 19 Northern states during the war—marked a milestone in voter rights and helped expand the franchise in the United States.
What is new about your research?
Scholars often point out that 78 percent of the Army vote went for Lincoln, and they use that number to support claims that the soldiers had become Republicans by 1864. But the “78 percent” statistic is deceiving. Yes, of the soldiers who voted in the field, 78 percent voted for Lincoln. But that doesn’t take into account soldiers who chose not to vote, nor soldiers who had been intimidated into voting for Lincoln.
What did you find?
I estimate that at least 20 percent of the soldiers chose not to vote for either candidate in the presidential election of 1864—a conservative estimate. What is even more remarkable, though, is that historians have never systematically looked at how soldiers voted in the state and congressional elections in September and October 1864. Soldiers could vote in those elections, but very few chose to do so.
What makes that fact significant?
I think it reveals that soldiers in the field were not as tied to their political parties as the voters at home were. Democratic soldiers had come to doubt their party’s loyalty. The Democratic platform, after all, called the war a “failure.” Still, some Democratic soldiers were willing to vote for George McClellan because they believed he would restore the Union. But many chose not to vote in the various elections that fall.
How were votes suppressed?
You find things like Secretary of War Edwin Stanton dismissing soldiers who spoke out against Lincoln’s reelection. You find soldiers being court-martialed for saying they supported McClellan or for using bombastic language like “I would rather vote for Jefferson Davis than vote for Lincoln.” You find other more interesting aspects as well; for example, some soldiers at West Point went to a McClellan meeting in the fall of 1864, and when they got back they were ordered to dig the drain for the superintendent’s toilet as a punishment, whereas Republican soldiers could go listen to Republican campaign speeches all they wanted. And Democrats complained that there were a lack of Democratic ballots in the field, so they couldn’t even vote Democratic if they wanted to.
Who provided the ballots?
That’s a really important point about elections in the 19th century. There was no secrecy in how you voted. The parties printed their own ballots, often on distinctively colored paper, and when you went to vote, you would first pick up your ballot from a party representative. So everyone around you knew exactly how you were voting. Soldiers who were Democrats but might not want to vote or who might want to vote the Democratic ticket would have to really get some courage if they were going to vote against what a number of their comrades—or their officers—wanted them to do.
How do you think this affected the result?
It’s difficult to quantify, but here is one example from a regiment: A Michigan soldier wrote a day or two after the election that there were only 188 votes cast in the presidential election, even though there were more than 300 soldiers qualified to vote. In some regiments there may have been a tremendous amount of intimidation to keep Democrats from voting at all, or peer pressure to coerce Democratic soldiers into voting Republican.
You found evidence of selective use of furloughs?
The Republicans in Washington and statehouses across the country made no attempt to hide who would be furloughed. In a number of cases, the regimental officer would call the regiment out: All who intend to vote for Lincoln, step forward. And if they were from a state that did not allow soldiers to vote in the field, those would be the soldiers allowed to go home and vote.
You have also revised reenlistment rates for Union soldiers, right?
Scholars have widely varied in their estimates of the percentage of soldiers who chose to reenlist in November 1863–November 1864 when given the opportunity. Joseph Glatthaar wrote years ago that 6½ percent of the soldiers chose to reenlist. James McPherson says 50 percent chose to. I did a number of calculations, and I think it was actually about 15 percent of the soldiers. I think that’s significant; it says that 85 percent of the soldiers chose not to reenlist, and certainly some of those men would have chosen not to reenlist because of the changing nature of the war. Some men saw themselves as having enlisted to fight for the Union, and then having to fight for Emancipation. And not all were willing to do that.
Where did Stanton and Lincoln stand on this?
My sense is that Stanton was the prime mover in this push for intimidation leading up to the presidential election. I think Lincoln wanted a fair vote, but Stanton was more willing to wield the strong arm of the Executive Branch to bring people into line. For him this was perfectly logical: This is patronage politics. We’re going to get rid of people who don’t toe the party line.
Why is the soldier vote of 1864 important?
By the end of the war, 200,000 black men had fought in the Union Army, and they could make the claim that they deserved the right to vote in the same way that white solders had the right to vote during the war. That claim was acted upon in the 14th Amendment, which attempted to give black men the right to vote, and the 15th Amendment, which explicitly said you can’t deny the right to vote on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. The soldier vote during the war set that precedent and led to a very important expansion of the franchise. This was also the first widespread instance of absentee voting in American history. The soldier vote laws disappear in the postwar period, but then they reemerge in the early 20th century, during World War I and again during World War II. And the Civil War soldier vote set a precedent for what we now take for granted: that anyone who is away from home can vote. You still retain that right of citizenship even if you’re not able to be at the ballot box on a given day.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.