Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln by Jonathan W. White (review)
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Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln. By Jonathan W. White. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014. Pp. 275. $39.95 cloth)

Jonathan W. White impressively challenges works by James McPherson, Jennifer Weber, and especially Chandra Manning, insisting that although 78 percent of Union soldiers voted for Lincoln in 1864 it does not necessarily indicate overwhelming support for emancipation. White’s thesis is clear and concise, forcefully argued, [End Page 750] and lacks the annoying jargon that could have marred such a work. Yet he sometimes supports his argument with speculation and a debatable use of primary sources, tending to raise more questions than intended.

White insists that military officials and the Lincoln administration suppressed anti-emancipation sentiment in the army. They did so with a combination of summary dismissals, public punishments, the withholding of promotions, and courts-martial designed to intimidate soldiers who openly opposed emancipation. Further, when officers resigned in protest of the Emancipation Proclamation, officials harshly punished them. White also argues that emancipation increased desertions and considerably limited reenlistments. Thus, by the election of 1864 soldiers who promoted Democratic or anti-Lincoln sentiments were largely gone or had been intimidated into acquiescence. Further, White maintains many of those who did remain either refused to vote or did so mainly against the Democratic peace platform rather than for Lincoln’s emancipation agenda.

White builds his intriguing argument on impressively extensive research. His large array of soldier diaries, letters, and memoirs provide considerable (yet selective) support. The court-martial records are his most unique sources, but almost all of the cases he presents involved soldiers accused of making threats directed at Lincoln and/or of saying that they intended to either support or join the Confederate army. It seems evident that the army punished them for these sentiments more than for their anti-emancipation utterances.

Further, before his discussion of the election itself, White’s anti-emancipation soldiers seem to have come slightly disproportionally from the western armies. The Lincoln administration insisted that emancipation was a military necessity, but because of their success in the field, western soldiers were probably less likely to believe that freeing the slaves was required to win the war (especially those of midwestern background). Admittedly, an analysis of the differences between the sentiments of the eastern and western armies might be a bit outside the scope of White’s work, but it may be time for scholars [End Page 751] to stop viewing the different Union armies as monolithic.

The work raises other questions. Was there a significant drop in dismissals and courts-martial for “disloyalty” after the election, or did they continue unabated? The answer would seemingly either strengthen or weaken White’s argument. If soldiers were forced out of the army, is it not logical to assume that they would go home and become more vocally anti-Lincoln and would then still cast a Democratic vote? Chasing them from the ranks would not necessarily negate their vote, so one has to wonder if it were more likely that these efforts were mainly an attempt to stop soldiers from criticizing military authority (obviously something the military cannot tolerate) and to encourage unit cohesiveness. Yet White insists that these purges were meant to intimidate other soldiers into voting Republican, but here he has to rely heavily on anecdotal evidence and sometimes mere speculation. His argument that much of the Lincoln vote was more a reflection of anti–peace Democrat sentiment than of pro-emancipation sentiment is his most convincing, but the controversial elements of the book tend to overwhelm it.

All this is not to say that White’s work is meritless. Quite the contrary, his provocative thesis and impressive research provides a powerful challenge to the orthodoxy that has emerged in regards to Lincoln’s reelection, and thus future works in the historiography will need to address it. Clearly, White’s anti-emancipationist soldiers were a significant presence in the Union army, and he has done much to cause scholars to view the 1864 soldier vote in a new and complex light. Still, the soldiers who other scholars have demonstrated embraced emancipation either...