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Written just over a month before the 1864 presidential election, Lincoln was banking on votes of soldier to secure his re-election. SETH WILLIAMS. [ABRAHAM LINCOLN].
Letter Signed to Richard N. Batchelder. “Head Qrs Army of the Potomac,” September 1, 1864.
“The Commanding General directs that you make the necessary arrangements to store, at City Point, until the arrival of the agent the blanks that may be sent to that place for soldier voting from New York. These blanks will be sent to City Point in a few days.”
General George G. Meade was the “Commanding General” of the Army of the Potomac when he ordered Williams, his Assistant Adjutant General, to prepare for the coming election. Despite the war, Lincoln was committed to free elections even though he thought he would lose in 1864. After his surprising victory, he asserted “We cannot have free government without elections, and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.” Hampered by a string of Union losses in 1864, Lincoln was prepared to be a one-term president. Instead, he was reelected in a landslide to become the first president since Andrew Jackson to be returned to the White House, perhaps with the help of military voters.
Here, the chain of command dictates that the army prepare for the upcoming election by preparing and staging “blanks” (ballots) for Union soldiers to vote.
The election of 1864 was one of the most significant in U.S. history. On November 8, 1864, civilians and soldiers cast their votes in the midst of the Civil War and re-elected Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln over his Democratic opponent, General George B. McClellan. It was the first time a president had won a second term since the 1830s, when Andrew Jackson was re-elected.
This was also the first time that a general election was held during a time of war. Historian James McPherson points out: “Here was a bold experiment in democracy: …The American experiment of holding an election during a civil war whose election would determine the nation’s future is unique in history…. No other society had tried the experiment of letting its fighting men vote in an election that might decide whether they were to continue fighting.”
The central issue of the election was unmistakably the war, which made extending the franchise to soldiers a bold concept. The presidential candidates offered two distinct choices: A vote for Lincoln meant the continued prosecution of the war; a vote for McClellan offered the immediate cessation of hostilities and the possibility of returning home. During previous elections, furloughed soldiers had to travel home to cast their ballots. By 1864, nineteen of the twenty-five states remaining in the Union allowed their soldiers to cast their votes in the field and twelve of those nineteen states kept separate tallies for soldiers’ votes.
Lincoln was by no means certain that the troops would vote for him. During the summer of 1864, morale plummeted in the North as casualty rates skyrocketed. Northern Republicans questioned Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation the previous year and attach slavery to the party platform—a decision that meant the Union Army was now fighting for the preservation of the Union and the elimination of slavery. Lincoln’s concern over the election is evident in an August 23, 1864 note he penned to himself:
This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.
Everything changed on September 2, when Sherman captured Atlanta. This victory helped swing the vote in favor of Lincoln. Lincoln captured over 55% of the popular vote and a staggering electoral count of 212 to 21. Of the more than 4,000,000 votes cast, the president received 2,203,831 versus McClellan’s 1,787,019. The military’s tally was even more disproportionate as Lincoln took nearly 120,000 of 154,000 soldier’s votes.
In the spring of 1864, many people believed that the Army of the Potomac was still loyal to their old commander, General McClellan, and that their fidelity, coupled with outrage against the bloody campaigns of 1864, would sway soldiers to vote against Lincoln. But McClellan and his supporters underestimated how negatively the troops would respond to his peace platform. He proposed to let the South become an independent country, thus destroying the Union and preserving slavery. To the troops, this meant that all they had fought and suffered for would mean nothing. Even though the casualty rates skyrocketed in 1864, the men under Grant felt they were accomplishing something.
The soldier vote proved crucial to re-electing Lincoln. From the twelve states allowing absentee ballots for military votes, their separate tallies confirm that 78% of these men voted for Lincoln. Those results, as historian James McPherson observes, validated Lincoln’s war policies: “the four-to-one Republican majority of soldier ballots was an impressive mandate for Lincoln’s policy of war to victory. The men who would have to do the fighting had voted by a far larger majority than the folks at home to finish the job.”
Seth Williams (1822-1866) was born in Augusta, Maine, attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and served in the Mexican American War before becoming assistant adjutant general of the Army of the Potomac under Generals McClelland, Burnside, Hooker, and Meade. He was later U.S. Grant’s Inspector General (1864-66) and the Adjutant General for the Military Division of Atlanta. He delivered Grant’s surrender terms to Robert E. Lee, and was breveted major general in 1866.
Richard Napoleon Batchelder(1832-1901) served as lieutenant, captain, and lieutenant colonel in the Quartermaster Corps, before being promoted to brigadier general in 1865 for war service.
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