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150 Years Ago Today: Presidential Election Day: November 8, 1864

November 8, 1864: Election Day on the Front Lines at Petersburg

1864ElectionHarpersWeeklyNovember 8, 1864 was a unique day in history up to that point in time.  For the very first time, soldiers in a democratic nation would be voting on the front lines to essentially determine if the war they were waging would continue or cease.  As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Ulysses S. Grant was very uneasy about the possibility of a Confederate attack which would disrupt this voting, but his fears proved groundless.  In the absence of any real Confederate attack, thousands of Federal troops in the Army of the Potomac and Army of the James cast their ballots for President 150 years ago today while on the front lines of a war. For a nice series on this “soldier election,” see this post from the Emerging Civil War blog, and look for follow-ups as well.

In the Army of the Potomac, every reporting state showed a majority for Lincoln, as related in a dispatch from Grant to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on November 9, 1864, a day after the voting occurred:

The following official statement of the vote polled in the Army of the Potomac yesterday has just been received from General Meade: Maine, total vote, 1,677; Lincoln’s majority, 1,143. New Hampshire, 515; Lincoln’s majority, 279. Vermont, 102; Lincoln’s majority, 42. Rhode Island, 190; Lincoln’s majority, 134. Pennsylvania (seven counties to hear from), 11,122; Lincoln’s majority, 3,494. West Virginia, 82; Lincoln’s majority, 70. Ohio, 684; Lincoln’s majority, 306. Wisconsin, 1,065; Lincoln’s majority, 633. Michigan, 1,917; Lincoln’s majority, 745. Maryland, 1,428; Lincoln’s majority, 1,160. U. S. Sharpshooters, 124; Lincoln’s majority, 89. New York, 305; Lincoln’s majority, 113. Majority for Lincoln, 8,208.

Clearly the soldiers fighting the war wanted it to continue to a successful conclusion.

The Richmond papers in the days leading up to the election were full of news indicating that the Army of the James had been mostly evacuated from the north side of the James River and Bermuda Hundred to go home to vote.  They believed the lines there were consequently held by a skeleton force.  Grant, in contacting acting commander General Alfred Terry, was hoping for a Confederate attack on that “skeleton” force.  He asked Terry to be prepared for anything, a continuation of his vigilance on November 6-7.  He sent the following dispatch cautioning Terry to keep a sharp lookout for trouble:

I see that our papers announce that large numbers of the army have gone home to vote. These papers get through to the enemy within an hour after reaching our lines. Information gained by this means the enemy may try to take advantage of. If we are prepared I hope he may. I see by the Richmond papers that they think this depletion is mostly from the Army of the James; at least they say they know that most of the forces from the north side have gone; that nothing is left but a skeleton line to hold our works. I think from this there is sufficient probability of your being attacked to justify the greatest vigilance on the part of division and brigade commanders and the most perfect readiness to form and move their commands. If the enemy should attack and be repulsed he should be followed up at once and no officer should hold back for orders to do so.

Ultimately, however, no attack was prepared or delivered by Lee’s forces on either front, though Terry took Grant’s orders to heart and had an elaborate plan established to account for almost anything.

In related news, show me an election and I’ll show you accusations of voting fraud.  This election was no different.  Several men were arrested and “charged respectively with circulating fraudulent poll books in Pennsylvania regiments tending to vitiate the election returns.”  Jeremiah McKibbin, a Democratic agent for the state of Pennsylvania, was one such individual.  He and others were placed under arrest and were to be delivered to civil authorities in Pennsylvania for trial.  That’s one hanging thread I might just pull further one day in the future.  Judging by the results displayed earlier, these men weren’t very successful with their acts of deception…

Keep an eye out today and you’ll see a sort of “live blogging,” 150 years late, of soldier election results as reported by corps and division commanders in the Union armies facing Richmond and Petersburg.  It’s not a comprehensive list of every regiment and battery in the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac, but combine these partial returns with those Grant gave to Stanton above and the results are pretty conclusive.

In the end, as I’m pretty sure most of you reading this know, Lincoln was a landslide winner, both in the military and on the home front.  U. S. Grant congratulated the two term President on November 9:

“Enough now seems to be known to say who is to hold the reins of Government for the next four years. Congratulate the President for me for the double victory. The election having passed oft quietly, no bloodshed or riot throughout the land is a victory worth more to the country than a battle won. Rebeldom and Europe will so construe it.”


For Further Reading…

  • OR XLII, P3, roughly pages 549596
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