Union troops vote for Lincoln

On 23 Aug. 1864 — before the Union victories at Atlanta and Cedar Creek, where my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was stationed — Pres. Abraham Lincoln asked members of his cabinet to sign a folded note. Then he tucked it away in his a desk drawer. It said this:

This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probabl[e] that this Administration will not be reelected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.

Oct. 1864: Pennsylvania soldiers in the Union Army of the James cast their ballots.
Oct. 1864: Pennsylvania soldiers in the Union’s Army of the James vote in the presidential election.  My ancestor’s state, New York, allowed Union troops to vote in the field and mail their ballots to their home county for tabulation. Photo: Library of Congress.

There was war weariness in the North. Tremendous loss of life in the Union Army’s spring campaigns — which sent my great-great grandfather to the hospital — had not yielded victories. And in July, the Confederates marched down the Shenandoah Valley and attacked Washington.

This was also the first wartime ballot since 1812. No president had won a second term since 1832. Yet the outcome of the U.S. Civil War — and the country’s future — hung in the balance.

Allowing the troops to vote

Then the tide turned on the battlefield. Union forces took Atlanta in September and defeated the Confederates at Cedar Creek in October — and a new offensive began at the ballot box. Here, too, Union combatants — among them my great-great grandfather Arthur — played a vital role.

Arthur’s home state of New York adopted a law allowing soldiers to vote in the field — the result of a political struggle described in the Smithsonian Magazine article “The Debate Over Mail-In Voting Dates Back to the Civil War.”

Once the law passed, New York faced the daunting tactical challenge of delivering ballots to nearly 400,000 New York State combatants stationed throughout the South.

But delivered they were — giving my ancestor the amazing opportunity to vote for President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and mail his ballot to his home county.

How did Arthur vote?

How did my great, great grandfather vote? I have no way of knowing for sure. Yet circumstantial evidence suggests that Arthur probably cast his ballot for “Old Abe,” as Union combatants affectionately called the president.

On 27 Oct, 1864, his compatriot, Sgt. William Thistleton of 6th NY Heavy Artillery Co. I, wrote this in his diary:

Soldiers were busy sending off their votes. McClellan and Seymore are evidently not favorites with the soldiers.

Lincoln won the vote by 60 percent in Broome County, N.Y. — where Arthur was from — and he received 78 percent of Union soldiers’ and sailors’ votes. In two close states — New York and Connecticut — it may have been the troops’ votes that pushed Lincoln to victory.

In the end, Lincoln garnered 55 percent of the popular vote throughout the North and was reelected with 212 electoral votes against McClellan’s 21 electoral votes — a decisive mandate to press on with the fight to end the brutal slavery system and preserve the union.

I couldn’t be prouder that my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was a participant — at the front and at the ballot box — in that historic moment.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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4 thoughts on “Union troops vote for Lincoln”

  1. So does this mean the Republican Party at one time encouraged voting rather than trying to suppress the vote as it does today?

    1. The Republican Party of 1864 was far different from the Republican Party today. In that election, Lincoln actually ran for president as the candidate of the National Union Party — a name used to attract Democrats and Border State Unionists who agreed politically with Lincoln, but would not vote for the Republican Party.

  2. This post really brings so much to the fore…the fact that history is a living reality…something to know and learn from…things like Lincoln’s re-election were not set in stone…and how important individual actions were to the course of our history. Love it!

    1. Always appreciate your comments, Jane. This was new and interesting territory for me and another aspect of my ancestor’s experience I had not considered until I sat down to write this post.

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