From the Archives: Union troops vote for Lincoln

Sepia Saturday 546. For Veterans Day 2020, here is an updated post from the archives about Union Army troops voting at the front in the pivotal 1864 presidential election — a timely offering in this presidential election year. 

On 23 Aug. 1864 — before the Union victories at Atlanta and Cedar Creek, Va., 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.

A wartime election

The pivotal 1864 election took place during the U.S. Civil War. 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 1864, 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 — since Lincoln’s opponent, Union Gen. George B. McClellan, called for abandoning the fight to eliminate the brutal slavery system.

Allowing the troops to vote

Then the tide turned on the battlefield. Union forces took Atlanta in September 1864 and defeated the Confederates at Cedar Creek in October 1864 — and a new offensive began at the ballot box.

Here, too, Union combatants played a vital role — among them my great-great grandfather Arthur Bull of the 6th NY Heavy Artillery.

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 back to Broome County, N.Y., where he lived.

Minnesota Population Center. National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 2.0. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota 2011. If possible, citations should also include the URL for the NHGIS site: http://www.nhgis.org"
Votes by county in the 1864 U.S. presidential election. Lincoln won the vote by 60 percent in Broome County, N.Y., my ancestor Arthur’s home county, and received 78 percent of Union soldiers’ and sailors’ votes overall. In two close states, New York and Connecticut, it may have been the troops’ votes that pushed Lincoln to victory. Map: Minnesota Population Center. National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 2.0. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota 2011.

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, one of Arthur’s compatriots — 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. (my ancestor’s home), and he received 78 percent of Union soldiers’ and sailors’ votes overall. In two close states — New York and Connecticut — it may have been the troops’ votes that pushed Lincoln to victory.

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/00650938/
President Abraham Lincoln delivering his inaugural address on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1865. 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. Photo: Library of Congress

Lincoln defeats McClellan

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 eliminate 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.

Up next: Resuming the series on my dad’s Uncle Albert, who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of other participants in this week’s Sepia Saturday — and in this month’s Genealogy Blog Party honoring veteran and military ancestors.

© 2020 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Similar Posts:

Please like and share:

18 thoughts on “From the Archives: Union troops vote for Lincoln”

  1. This post is fascinating to read, especially given current situation in US. I have a fascination with US politics and have been avidly watching from afar. Sharing on Twitter #geneabloggers

  2. I always find your stories about your G-G-Grandfather interesting because my G-G-Grandfather was also in the 6th NYHA. Pvt. Patrick J. Reagan. His story is quite a bit different and tragic. I hope to be able to travel to NY once the pandemic is over and have a look at his record and see if I can find some answers. Thanks again, Bill

    1. That’s amazing, Bill. Your great-great grandfather served with mine in the 6th NY Heavy Artillery! I hope you will be able to out find more about him and his military service. I will be interested to hear what you discover — and I will keep a look out for him as my research continues.

  3. A great choice for this weekend! I’ve read numerous histories of Lincoln and the Civil War, but I don’t remember that episode about the note. It’s another example of what an extraordinary leader Lincoln was. The change of New York’s voting rules for soldiers was also new history for me. General McClellan ‘s poor performance and his posturing ego must have frustrated many ordinary soldiers as much as he exasperated Lincoln.

    You might like a similar story I wrote in 2012 for the election. It’s about a postcard that my grandmother had of an elderly couple going to vote in 1920. https://temposenzatempo.blogspot.com/2012/11/dr-mrs-halstead-on-election-day-1920.html

    1. After a barrage of requests from Union troops for leave to return home to vote, a number of states approved remote voting so they could remain at the front at a crucial time in the U.S. Civil War.

      Thanks so much for the link to your 1920 election story. It was so moving to read about Mrs. Halstead, a Missouri woman, voting for the first time at age 91!

    1. Thanks, Kathy. This post first appeared during the U.S. Civil War sesquicentennial, but it seemed apropos to revive and update it for this election year given the focus on mail-in ballots.

  4. What an endeavor it would have been to manage an election in the 19th century during a war!

    I wonder why the 22% soldiers who didn’t vote for Lincoln voted for McClellan.

    1. It’s hard to know exactly why all the troops didn’t vote for Lincoln — but it may have been war weariness or misplaced loyalty to McClellan, who had been a Union Army general and head of the Army of the Potomac. Thankfully, the majority backed Lincoln and the rest is history.

    1. Yes, we have! And it’s important to know that 2020 is not the first time in U.S. history that widespread mail-in voting was used when in-person voting was not possible.

  5. Fascinating research. I’ll share this in The Civil War group on Facebook.
    I did find on one ancestor (an Abolitionist in Illinois) that he said he didn’t vote for Lincoln the first time as he felt he was not strong enough against slavery. I assume that means he did vote for him in this election.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.