The Soldier Vote: How Union Troops Propelled Lincoln To a Second Term

Union soldiers line up to vote during the 1864 presidential election pitting Abraham Lincoln against former Army of the Potomac commander George McClellan, whom Lincoln notably relieved of duty in November 1862.

This 2020 article from Dr. Zachary Fry is actually an excerpt from Dr. Fry’s book, A Republic in the Ranks: Loyalty and Dissent in the Army of the Potomac. “Loyalty was the byword of the Army of the Potomac. Soldiers in the ranks, the junior officers above them, and generals at headquarters all professed political obedience as the imperative of a citizen-army in time of civil war. The main source of frustration and intrigue within this fractious field army lay in debating the ultimate object of that loyalty. Was it devotion to the Lincoln administration, to the policies of hard war against the Confederacy, to the Constitution, or perhaps even to the young general whose charismatic leadership inspired the ranks? Beginning with his meteoric rise to command in 1861, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan inspired the devotion of thousands in Union blue. Early war patriotic imagery capitalized on ‘Little Mac,’ a Napoleonic figure of such dash and zeal that he eclipsed Abraham Lincoln in the mind of the average soldier. By the middle of the war, however, the tides had shifted. McClellan’s failed 1862 Peninsula Campaign frustrated the army’s thousands of political novices and prodded them to call for greater commitment from the home front, as well as fierce resolve in the face of political intrigues that might harm the war effort. McClellan’s dismissal as Army of the Potomac field commander in November 1862 stunned and saddened the army, which believed—somewhat naively, they were later to learn—that Little Mac was their greatest bulwark against political schemes. As dramatic as McClellan’s downfall was, the rise of an antiwar ‘Copperhead’ movement in late 1862 and early 1863 was an even greater shock to the army. Led by ambitious, politically active junior officers, the ranks of the Army of the Potomac initiated a war of words with the Democratic Party in the spring of 1863. Dozens of regiments drafted official political resolutions to denounce their own home-front politicians for failing to support the war and President Abraham Lincoln’s policies. Some regiments threatened to march home and exterminate draft dodgers, expel partisan Democrats, and even disown weak-willed family members. Soldiers were livid at anyone who seemed to be insulting the sacrifice witnessed at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and in countless hard marches and skirmishes in between. Following more bloodletting at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, the depleted ranks of the Army of the Potomac voted overwhelmingly against Democrats in the 1863 gubernatorial contests. A critical mass of Republican-leaning junior officers had successfully pulled the survivors into Lincoln’s political camp. In fact, on election day in Pennsylvania, McClellan himself, eager for a future in the Democratic Party, endorsed a notorious peace candidate for governor. The army expressed horror at Little Mac’s lack of loyalty in a time of war. One soldier in the 2nd Corps groaned that the ranks had always believed McClellan something of a martyr, “but since we have learned better.” Shortly after the autumn 1863 elections, approximately 84,000 men in the Army of the Potomac confronted the question of whether to renew their terms of enlistment for the duration of the war. Only about 28,000 ‘reupped.’ The rest—the many thousands who were exhausted, wounded, physically drained, or too emotionally battered to bear breaking the news of reenlistment to patient loved ones—returned home and mustered out in early-to-mid-1864. Their comrades marched south with Ulysses S. Grant.”

Andrew Johnson was named Lincoln’s running mate in 1864, in place of Hannibal Hamlin. Their ticket pledged “Liberty, Union and Victory.” (Library of Congress)

Many of George McClellan’s former soldiers chafed at this election poster’s “Peace! Union! and Victory!” sentiment. (Library of Congress)

The excerpt continues, “The 1864 presidential campaign had begun in earnest by the time the ex-soldiers reached their loved ones at home. Lincoln, piecing together a National Union Party coalition of Republicans and War Democrats, faced McClellan, who handily received nomination even though the vocal pro-peace faction dominated the party’s platform. Lincoln’s victory, which could only come with substantial support from the army’s rank and file, would signal renewed determination to the struggle for Union and emancipation. A McClellan victory, which Democrats likewise believed would come with heavy support from the soldiers at the front, could lead to a patched-up armistice between the warring North and South. For thousands of veterans hanging up their blue uniforms, this was indeed the climactic chapter of a long and bitter debate over loyalty. Captain George A. Wilbur crossed a dangerous stretch of Virginia countryside between the lines at Petersburg with a flag of truce in hand, hailing the enemy to help locate a Vermont officer who had been killed days earlier. A Confederate obliged, found the body, and then asked Wilbur the question on everyone’s mind in the trenches: Would the North choose George McClellan to be the 17th president? No, the Union captain responded. Lincoln would doubtless be reelected ‘if the people of the North will be true to their country, to themselves, and to their God.’ The single abiding prayer of the Army of the Potomac, he insisted, was that ‘loyal men will vote for a loyal man.’ The army that voted in 1864 was not the same army that had fought against Confederates and antiwar Copperheads in 1863. Mounting casualty lists, especially in the junior officer corps, combined with a steady stream of less-devoted conscripts permanently changed the army’s composition. When McClellan tacitly supported the controversial Democratic peace platform by agreeing to serve as the party’s standard bearer, the army’s politically aware ranks reacted with spite. Little Mac had finally sold his soul to the devil, they insisted. Meanwhile, demobilized veterans at home sparred against each other in political clubs, vying for the right to prove the “true” meaning of loyalty. When it came time to vote, the results from reenlisted ranks at the front showed how completely Republican junior officers had inspired the army. Although recruits and draftees complicated the picture, the army’s veteran core resoundingly rejected its once beloved commander. Fifty thousand men who crossed the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864, to begin Grant’s Overland Campaign would be casualties by the first week of June. In six weeks of relentless combat north of Richmond, the Army of the Potomac faced its sternest test of the war, all but destroying the old ranks of battle-hardened, politically educated veterans and replacing them with thousands of raw draftees unused to the war’s reality. By November, with the war still not won, everything Republican junior officers had done to transform the army into a political movement stood in doubt. The month of inconclusive bloodshed between the fighting at the Wilderness in early May and Cold Harbor in June drained the Army of the Potomac of its offensive power. The blue column that eventually limped into trenches at Petersburg was a skeleton of the proud force Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade had led to victory at Gettysburg a year earlier. Fifty thousand Union dead and wounded marked Grant’s brutal trail through eastern Virginia. As a journalist following the army declared: ‘[S]haken in its structure, its valor quenched in blood, and thousands of its best officers killed and wounded, [it] was the Army of the Potomac no more.’ Numerous politically savvy generals were among the casualties of Grant’s 1864 campaign. James Wadsworth, the beloved old New York Republican, fell to Rebel fire in the Wilderness. James C. Rice, commanding a brigade in the 5th Corps, fell at Spotsylvania. Highest-ranking of all was Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick—a proponent of the 1863 McClellan testimonial, an aborted effort by the army’s high command to raise thousands of dollars for a gift of support and esteem toward the old commander—cut down by a Confederate sharpshooter during a lull in the action on May 9. Junior officers paid an especially high price for Grant’s relentlessness. Historian Carol Reardon observes that enlisted men were so physically and psychologically enervated by the end of May that only a regiment’s most trusted officers could impel the ranks to advance. These officers led from the front, costing the army dearly in experienced captains, majors, and colonels. In the Wilderness, for example, the army lost one of its most brilliant and articulate conservative voices, Major Henry L. Abbott of the heavily Democratic 20th Massachusetts. Months later, serving as a delegate to the Democratic Convention, Abbott’s father reminded the party of his son’s sacrifice under the president’s ‘false pretenses…not for the Union, not for the Constitution, but for the Negro.’ “

According to Dr. Fry, “Rebel bullets found Republicans as well as Democrats. Nonetheless, the legion of officers whose corpses littered forests in Spotsylvania and ramparts at Cold Harbor left behind a vigorous political legacy in the ranks, decimated though those ranks were. Their zeal and activity on behalf of the president’s policies had sown the seeds of Republican loyalty for more than a year, bearing fruit already in the soldier vote that trounced the Copperheads the previous autumn. No one could deny, however, how little remained of that old Army of the Potomac by late summer 1864; in its place rose an amalgam of veterans, fresh-faced recruits, draftees, bounty-seekers, and substitutes. The battle-hardened core of veterans would struggle to pass on the pro-administration view of loyalty, and the stakes could scarcely be higher as Lincoln’s reelection campaign loomed. While the army tested Lee’s defenses under a blistering Virginia sun, politicians at home were looking ahead to the presidential election as a referendum on the war itself. Republicans were eager to attract as many War Democrats as possible, forging a National Union coalition to replicate the successes of state party officials and further marginalize the peace faction. Holding their convention in Baltimore in mid-June, the president’s party added loyal Tennessee military governor and former Senator Andrew Johnson to the ticket in a gesture of unity. The party’s platform called for a ‘vigorous prosecution’ of the conflict and, to the surprise of some, a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery once and for all. Although some radicals had balked at the notion of a second term for Lincoln, the promise of an amendment placated the president’s harshest pro-emancipation critics. The army’s Republicans expressed widespread approval of the National Union movement. Levi Duff of the 105th Pennsylvania, who until recently considered himself too radical to stomach the moderation of Lincoln’s emancipation policy, came to believe by June that political expediency and loyalty to the administration trumped any zeal for a more radical alternative. ‘The rebels seem to be very afraid of Lincoln,’ Duff wrote home, ‘and for this reason I have latterly desired his nomination.’ Democrats who gathered in Chicago to nominate a candidate of their own faced an uphill climb to rescue the party’s reputation with the army. The adopted platform put McClellan in a vice between accepting a pro-peace plank—which could ruin his reputation with the army and any moderates in the North—and repudiating his own party. Through much hand-wringing, he penned six drafts of an acceptance letter trying to walk between these two options, determining his campaign would be a call for national reunion and a ‘guarantee for the constitutional rights of every state.’ The men who foisted the peace platform on McClellan had always insisted the war was a failure. That was the dark presumption upon which everything rested for purist Democrats, especially in August 1864, when Union fortunes in the war indeed looked bleak.”

We also learn, “The army received the controversial news of McClellan’s nomination at the same time word arrived that Atlanta had fallen. Those who subscribed to the Republican view of loyalty wasted no time privately denouncing the platform, Little Mac himself, and any of his partisans lingering in the army. From a Cavalry Corps hospital bed at City Point, Va., Joseph A. Griner of the 8th Pennsylvania observed a simmering ‘indignation displayed at the proceedings of the Chicago Convention’ and the peace platform. A Democratic defeat that fall would be as significant as a major Union battlefield victory, he declared. Democrats were divided over McClellan’s mindset. Some celebrated his rise to political power, while others cringed at the thought of their former chieftain rubbing elbows with Copperhead leader Clement Vallandigham and vice-presidential candidate George H. Pendleton. Captain George Breck, an artillery officer in the 5th Corps, used September 17, the anniversary of Antietam, to call for solidarity with McClellan in the Rochester Union & Advertiser. The Young Napoleon still ‘holds the hearts of the soldiers of the Republic,’ he insisted, imploring readers on the home front to remember that men in the trenches at Petersburg ‘look for a nation’s victory of Union and Peace in [Lincoln’s] successor.’ Little Mac’s awkward partnership with the peace faction was a bitter pill for the army’s expedient War Democrats who had embraced the Republican view of loyalty in the face of the Copperhead threat in early 1863. It guaranteed that their alliance with Lincoln’s party would not be the mere temporary coalition they might have hoped. So powerful was the McClellan mystique in some portions of the army, these men insisted, that if he had only put his shoulder to the wheel instead of affiliating with the peace party, plenty of moderates in their units could have been persuaded. Demobilized enlisted men and junior officers from the Army of the Potomac took the North’s major cities by storm, forming social clubs in solidarity with likeminded veterans, toasting the prospects of victory, and marching in parades as paramilitary campaign clubs to influence fence-sitters. Former 3rd Corps Brig. Gen. J.H. Hobart Ward organized a ‘McClellan Legion’ in New York and assumed its presidency, aided by the old commander of Little Mac’s beloved 5th New York, Abram Duryée. The Legion grew to more than 6,000 members, reportedly, and mobilized into ward divisions led by former junior officers. Republican and War Democrat veterans formed their own clubs, cooperating with local Union Leagues and working to resist the notion that all the army’s returning veterans worshipped Little Mac. The membership of the Veteran Union Club was a who’s-who of pro-administration Army of the Potomac generals, including Abner Doubleday, Dan Sickles, and Dan Butterfield. The 1864 election confronted party agents and officeholders in the Northern states with an unprecedented political and logistical nightmare: how to provide campaign materials and absentee ballots to hundreds of thousands of soldiers on Southern battlefields. When it came time to distribute and collect ballots, governors entrusted the task to men with such staunch party allegiances that corruption was a valid fear. A strong party presence at the ballot box was, however, typical of mid-19th century elections, as soldiers were well aware.”

He writes, “On October 1, Secretary Edwin M. Stanton’s War Department published General Orders No. 265 outlining the procedures for army voting. The order’s purpose was to ‘secure a fair distribution’ of election material and prevent fraud and intimidation at the front, and further invited ‘civilian inspectors of each political party’ to visit the various brigade headquarters throughout the army ‘to see that the elections are fairly conducted.’ Political ‘harangues’ and ‘canvassing’ were strictly forbidden, Stanton insisted, a stipulation party affiliates largely disregarded. Partisan literature blanketed the troops thanks to newspapers and elite party organizations. The National Union Party seems to have been significantly more prolific in this effort, directing pamphlets specifically to the average soldier’s concerns. Democratic agents canvassed troops with copies of McClellan’s moderate acceptance letter, but Republican and Union Party publishers were more direct, beseeching soldiers to remember that it was the administration’s opponents who wanted to curtail voting at the front. In addition, newspapers took soldiers’ stories of political momentum and inflated them to motivate enthusiasm on the home front, in the process capitalizing on the army’s hallowed place in the national dialogue. The New York World, long a McClellan supporter, asserted in early October that all indications from the Army of the Potomac portended a Democratic sweep. ‘In a word,’ one correspondent pledged, ‘the whole army vote will be cast for…McClellan, with a few inconsiderable exceptions.’ The officers of the 59th New York kept tally of their soldiers’ votes and sent results to Democratic newspapers in mid-October, showing McClellan with a lopsided 143-7 edge. ‘No wonder [Lincoln] is nervous on the subject of soldiers’ votes,’ snickered the World’s editors. For some Pennsylvania soldiers, duty interfered with voting. Many were holding the picket line that morning and could not retire to the trenches in time to vote. Nonetheless, the overall Pennsylvania soldier vote from all Union armies amounted to 17,888 for Union candidates, 5,232 for Democrats. Extant totals for the Army of the Potomac in particular, as published in state and local newspapers, reported 2,645 for the Union ticket, 607 for the opposition. The home vote, by contrast, produced a razor-thin 395-vote margin of victory for Union ticket candidates out of approximately 80,000 cast. Other state elections went similarly to the Republicans. The most remarkable was Maryland, a border state exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation whose Republicans pushed for ratification of a new state constitution explicitly outlawing slavery. After a contentious campaign, Democrats stood poised to defeat the constitution by a margin of nearly 2,000 ballots on October 12. The Maryland Brigade of the army’s 5th Corps, complete with four infantry regiments and the Purnell Legion of cavalry, followed events closely. The men delighted radicals by sending pro-ratification forces a majority of 692 votes. The 6th Maryland, of the 6th Corps, gave another 179 votes to the cause of emancipation. Together, these regiments and other Marylanders in uniform made up the radicals’ vote deficit to outlaw slavery by a margin of 263 votes.”

He goes on to write, “Combat did not cease simply because politics preoccupied the army. In the Shenandoah Valley, where the 6th Corps marched with Phil Sheridan’s column, Union troops secured a striking victory at the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19. A week later back at Petersburg, Winfield Scott Hancock’s 2nd Corps advanced against the Boydton Plank Road, a key line of communication on the Confederate right flank. The fighting swept back and forth all afternoon on October 27. Republican troops wrote home to loved ones and newspapers that charging Rebels in this and other actions used the battle cry of ‘McClellan!’ A Pennsylvania officer and prewar Breckinridge Democrat recalled that the last reluctant holdouts in his regiment ‘came out of the rebel fire changed in politics.’ Orsell C. Brown of the 140th New York corroborated that Rebels were trying to sway Union voters: ‘The Rebs on Picket tell our Boys, that McClellan is the man. They know he will be elected.’ Private James H. Wood of the 124th New York penned a letter to an Orange County paper that such tactics were having an effect: ‘There has been a great change in the Army, politically speaking, as well as otherwise, within the last few days.’ The army at Petersburg awoke on the morning of Tuesday, November 8 from a rainy night. A firefight had broken out hours earlier along the 2nd Corps front when pickets from the 17th Maine cheered for Lincoln, eliciting a scattered return volley for Little Mac from the Rebels. Guided by elected judges and clerks, most regiments opened polls by 8 or 9 a.m. and used ammunition chests for ballot boxes. Soldiers lined up, presented proper paperwork if necessary, and voted with party tickets in a referendum on the army’s two competing understandings of loyalty. The reality was that officers and men of both political persuasions employed underhanded tactics, the inevitable result of contentious mass politics colored by a fundamental divide over the very definition of wartime loyalty. Extant voting returns show how successfully the army’s Republicans had maintained control despite the vicissitudes of 1864. Voter participation was as high as Union candidates could have hoped for. Approximately 32,000 men in the army, including those detached with the 6th Corps in the Shenandoah Valley, cast ballots in the presidential contest, and the Union Army as a whole reported approximately 80 percent participation. More tellingly, every state but one gave Lincoln a solid majority of its combined Army of the Potomac votes. In fact, soldiers from most states gave the Union ticket at least a 20 percent higher turnout than civilians at home. Of approximately 164 extant regimental voting returns, 130 showed a Lincoln majority, with 71 regiments having given the administration more than three-quarters of their votes. Soldiers whose states forbade them from voting in the field often held polls anyway and published the results. The 7th Indiana, for example, kept a tally of 231 Lincoln supporters to 33 McClellanites. The 36th Massachusetts was even more lopsided, totaling 200 to 7. Finally there was the 8th Illinois Cavalry, the ‘Abolitionist Regiment,’ which published its straw poll at 344 for the administration and 21 for McClellan. The Chicago Tribune reported that among the 136 weary cavalrymen from the 8th who did not reenlist and were returning home during the campaign, 118 had already voiced their support for the administration.”

In continuing to read we find, “The exception in all things, it seemed, was New York, whose regiments were much more evenly split between the candidates. Of 30 known voting totals, 19 regiments voted for McClellan and 11 for Lincoln, presenting a total of approximately 3,518 Democratic ballots and 3,500 Union. Another 15 regiments reported simple McClellan majorities in the newspapers, while only five reported the same for Lincoln. One factor for the exceptionally high McClellan total was that Empire State regiments harbored thousands of immigrants more likely to identify with the Democratic Party. Foreign-born soldiers tended to align with the Democratic understanding of loyalty. Lower-class Irishmen in particular feared an influx of freed slaves and resisted the calls of pro-administration countrymen. As historian Christian Keller notes, the label of ‘foreign hirelings’ to such soldiers is unfair since so many signed up with deep commitments to proving nationalistic manhood in the Union Army, but it is equally true ‘few German- and Irish-American recruits enlisted to abolish slavery.’ Nonetheless, evidence supports assertions by veteran soldiers that later recruits were less politically reliable for Republicans. Private Charles Biddlecom, a political moderate in the 147th New York, observed the phenomenon in his brigade. For example, he alleged the 95th New York, which cast nearly 90 percent of its votes for McClellan, was full of ‘bounty jumpers.’ The 95th’s roster shows it received nearly 700 draftees and recruits from late 1863 to October 1864, roughly 40 percent of all who joined the 95th during the conflict. Political unreliability was not confined to New York regiments. A straw poll conducted in Company E, 11th New Jersey found that Lincoln won the veteran soldier vote by more than 2-to-1, but McClellan carried the new recruits by five votes (the regiment had already lost 341 recruits to desertion since summer). New officers appointed by Democratic governors were instrumental in arresting the Republican tide and motivating new recruits to support McClellan. Such officers were especially vocal in New York regiments. Biddlecom recalled that the ‘real earnest souled Union men’ in the 95th New York—those who supported the pro-administration view of loyalty and who owed their positions to Governor Edwin Morgan’s early-war Republican administration—were all casualties of the Overland Campaign. By September 1864, there was ‘scarce one of the old stock of officers’ remaining. In their place, Democratic Governor Seymour appointed junior officers who were ‘his faithful friends[,] and a more worthless set are not to be found in the army.’ Undeterred Republican officers showed quiet confidence that the war’s radicalizing experiences would bear fruit in the vote total. Typical of these was Colonel Thomas Allen, who assured the 5th Wisconsin that he would not preach as they assembled on the morning of November 8. He simply reminded them they were allowed to vote and expressed his desire that they all do so. But in considering their ballots, Allen remarked that he hoped the regiment’s voice ‘would square with their actions in coming here to fight the enemies of our country.’ The Badger regiment raised three cheers and went on to cast 85 percent of its votes for Lincoln.”

In concluding, Dr. Fry writes, “Scores of other regiments gathered at Petersburg and in the Shenandoah Valley did the same that day. And as the autumn sun went down over the trenches, a full two-thirds of the soldier votes stuffed in ammunition boxes and drums went not to the army’s one-time idol, but instead to the very man who had seemingly robbed the army of that idol two years earlier. The war’s political awakening was complete, the test of loyalty had been passed, and, as a soldier from the 9th Corps boasted to hometown readers, ‘the momentous question is decided.’ The Army of the Potomac formally learned of Lincoln’s reelection on November 13 when reports trickled in from newspapers and military authorities. The reaction was exuberant. It seemed to be vindication of all that the army’s Republicans had been fighting for—proof, in fact, that the war would soon close on terms worthy of the army’s suffering. The final triumph of the administration, aided at last by the Army of the Potomac, wrote Private Thomas J. Owen of the 50th New York Engineers, ‘will remain a shining light to the world…[proving] ‘The people of the United States are able to sustain a government.’ ‘ Thousands like Owen would return home in a few short months knowing they had voted as they fought—loyal to Lincoln, loyal to the Republican message, and loyal to a Union all the more worth saving.”

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