Civil War History 50.3 (2004) 291-317
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Canvassing the Troops:
The Federal Government and the Soldiers' Right to Vote
Jonathan W. White
Absentee voting by Union soldiers during the Civil War was a new phenomenon in American history. When the war began, only one state allowed soldiers to vote outside their election districts, but by the presidential election of 1864, nineteen northern states had passed legislation permitting their soldiers in the field to vote.1 Nevertheless, historians have generally ignored this important political innovation. Only one monograph—written by a Union veteran—and a handful of articles has been published on the subject.2 This lack of interest may stem from the fact that absentee voting is such a common occurrence today. Every state allows for absentee ballots, [End Page 291] and in at least one state all voters are required to mail their ballots to local officials to be counted in the elections.3 Today, most Americans are unaware that absentee voting has not always been an accepted practice.
When historians have addressed the question of the soldier vote in the Civil War, they have focused primarily on the partisan debates of the issue—the Republican support for permitting soldiers to vote and Democratic opposition to doing so—and that the army voted overwhelmingly Republican. Historians have overlooked the intricacies of this first large-scale instance of absentee voting. For example, scholars have very little idea of what polling in the field actually looked like. Moreover, historians have paid little attention to how the soldiers in the field were canvassed and how politicians at home took the ballot to them.4 Examining this last issue reveals the extent to which the parties went to win elections. As the battle over Lincoln's reelection loomed in late 1864, politicians from both parties were willing to alter traditional understandings of the role of the state and federal governments to win the election.
During the presidential election of 1864, many state legislators and party leaders faced the unusual dilemma of determining how to take the ballot to voters beyond state lines. With soldiers from every state spread across the continent, this problem weighed heavily on the minds of politicians, and they found themselves unprepared for the task of canvassing the troops. They knew that the soldiers' votes were crucial to winning the election and that "hard work must be done" to secure them.5
This hard work was more than state and local politicians could accomplish on their own. Letters seeking aid flooded national party offices and federal departments in Washington. Under normal circumstances, local partisans oversaw all the happenings of election day, but with soldiers serving in every theater of the war, they had to look to national leaders for assistance. Consequently, Democrats from across the nation appealed to their party machinery in New York, while Republicans petitioned the federal government [End Page 292] for support in turning out the army vote. Democrats often asked for pamphlets and ballots to distribute among soldiers, while Republicans requested aid in locating the troops and collecting their ballots.6 As a result of these appeals, the federal government assumed unaccustomed responsibilities during the elections of 1864. When it came time for soldiers to vote, the Lincoln administration played a crucial role in ensuring that all of their ballots were counted, and when problems arose from the canvassing in the field, the federal government claimed jurisdiction over criminal proceedings that, under normal circumstances, would have been tried in state courts.
New York offers a particularly useful vantage point for exploring these important changes in the right of suffrage. The law passed by the New York legislature required soldiers to vote by proxy—that is, to mail their ballots home rather than cast them at polls in the field. This procedure opened the door to a unique type of fraud in American electoral history and presented the federal government with a new opportunity to regulate elections. As charges arose concerning frauds, the central question was one of jurisdiction. Members of both...