Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

As the presidential election of 1864 neared, the eyes of politicians in the North turned warily towards the armies of the Union. During the previous two years, nineteen northern states had passed legislation permitting volunteers to vote in the field, and many politicians believed that the soldiers’ votes would determine whether President Abraham Lincoln would be reelected in November. Never before had absentee voting existed on such a grand scale in the United States, but with such a large portion of the electorate serving in the military, many politicians felt it incumbent upon themselves to provide them with an opportunity to vote. Consequently, the ballots of the soldiers became central to winning the election.

“Everything depends on Pa. and upon the army vote of that State,” wrote Samuel L. M. Barlow (1826-1889), of New York, one of the nation’s most prominent lawyers and among Wall Street’s wealthiest corporate counsels, to the Democratic candidate for president, Major General George Brinton McClellan (1826-1885), a native of Philadelphia. Barlow and McClellan had first met ten years earlier, in 1854, when both were twenty-eight years old.

McClellan had enjoyed popularity as an officer in the Army of the Potomac during the early months of the war, but disputes over military strategy, as well as his inaction as commander, prompted President Lincoln to remove him from command in 1862. At their national convention in the late summer of 1864, Democrats chose McClellan as their presidential candidate for several strategic reasons. The peace wing of the Democratic Party had been able to include a plank in the party platform that called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. It declared “that after four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war,” peace must be returned to the nation at once. These peace Democrats – derided by Republicans as “Copperheads” – had also gotten a peace man from Ohio, George Hunt Pendleton, nominated as the vice presidential candidate. In order to moderate the ticket and make it appealing to more hawkish members of their party, convention delegates chose the ever-­popular general to run for president. Despite their aversion to the war, Democrats sought to make their candidates appear supportive of both the war effort and the troops.

Democrats also chose McClellan because their party had generally opposed allowing soldiers to vote in the field. Some Democrats feared that their position on soldier suffrage would alienate Democratic soldiers and that the army would only vote for the party that had supported their right to vote. In selecting McClellan, northern Democrats found a presidential candidate who had been loved by soldiers of both parties, and they hoped that this affection would be enough to win some of their votes.

When the Civil War broke out, Pennsylvania was the only state with a law on the books that allowed soldiers to vote. The state had initially enfranchised soldiers during the War of 1812. A similar law was still in effect in 1861, and in the state and local elections that year, many Pennsylvania volunteers voted in their camps, some as far away as Virginia. Following the elections, however, defeated candidates contested the legitimacy of the soldier vote in order to win offices they believed they had lost unfairly. Both Democrats and Republicans claimed that fraudulent ballots had been cast in the field, and neither party took a unified stance on the issue of whether or not the soldiers’ votes should be counted in the returns.

One of the contested elections centered on the office of district attorney in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, pitting Democratic candidate Ezra B.Chase against Republican Jerome G. Miller. After the soldiers’ votes were counted, Miller won the election, but Chase contested the result, claiming that soldiers had no right to vote outside of the Commonwealth. The contest eventually reached the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which struck down the law that permitted soldiers to vote. Judge George W.Woodward (1809-1875), a Democrat, delivered the Supreme Court’s opinion on the case in May 1862. He criticized Pennsylvania’s election law as “careless legislation” for the number of inconsistencies it contained. The law required that voters in Pennsylvania be residents of the state, and that they vote in election districts, which by their very nature must be bound by state lines. Neither the legislature nor the military, Woodward pointed out, had the right to create an election district outside of Pennsylvania. Moreover, there were no safeguards in the law to protect the ballot box from fraud when it was transported to the battlefield. The very law that permitted soldiers to vote also prohibited any troops, “either armed or unarmed,” from being present at the polls. Woodward knew he would be criticized for what would likely become an unpopular judicial decision, but he maintained that such a concern could not influence his constitutional position. “As a court of justice we cannot feel the force of any such consideration,” he wrote. “Our business is to expound the constitution and laws of the country as we find them written. We have no bounties to grant to soldiers, or anybody else …. Constitutions, above all other documents, are to be read as they are written.”

The Supreme Court’s decision overturned several election results in Pennsylvania, giving some offices to Democrats and others to Republicans. Surprisingly, Republican newspapers generally ignored the opinion, while Democratic papers wholeheartedly praised it. Harrisburg’s Patriot and Union declared Woodward’s opinion “so exhaustive and conclusive that it cannot fail to receive the concurrence of the public.” While the Court “may have regretted the necessity of this decision, it obviously could not have determined otherwise consistently with its duty to expound, and not to make, the fundamental law.”

The Supreme Court ruling prevented Pennsylvania’s volunteers from voting in 1862, a year in which Democrats made sweeping gains throughout the nation and at all levels of government. Most Democrats believed the elections revealed a northern populace dissatisfied with the Republican leadership in Washington, D.C. Many Republicans, on the other hand, believed the Democrats had won because the ranks of the Union armies were swelled with Republican voters. In a private letter dated November 10, 1862, to Carl Schurz (1841-1915)-who had served as Lincoln’s ambassador to Spain until he resigned to serve as a major general in the Union army – the president wrote that the “democrats were left in a m?majority by our friends going to the war.”

Republican James S. Brisbin (1837-1892), a native of Boalsburg, Centre County, argued along the same lines. “The cause of the elections going Democratic,” he believed, “is [that] the Republicans are away fighting the war and the Army did not vote this year.” Some Democrats also believed that political benefits could be gained by discouraging Democrats from enlisting Ezra Chase delivered a speech in which he urged his audience not to enlist “but to stay home and to go to the polls.” Republicans, of course, thought this attitude was treasonable and harmful to the war effort. Military authorities subsequently arrested Chase. To counter these actions by the political opposition, and to regain electoral majorities, Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania – and in many other northern states – began debating bills that would extend the vote to soldiers in the field.

When Pennsylvania conducted its gubernatorial election in 1863, Republicans ran the incumbent governor, Andrew Gregg Curtin (1817-1894), of Bellefonte, Centre County. Democrats chose Judge Woodward as their candidate. Ironically, Woodward’s position on the soldier voting issue came back to haunt him during the campaign. Pamphlets flooded the Commonwealth charging Woodward with disloyalty and pro-secession sympathies, citing his ruling in the soldier voting case as evidence. U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens, of Pennsylvania, in his “Speech on State Elections,” delivered in September 1863, claimed that opposing soldier suffrage was the “surest way” for Wood­ward and his fellow Democrats “to aid their rebel friends, and punish those who oppose them.” A Republican pamphlet criticized Woodward for his “zeal and alacrity in thus attacking the soldiers and their right to vote, and for his declared sentiments directly justifying the southern rebellion.” Many soldiers also resented the judicial position Woodward had taken the year before. When news reached one Pennsylvania infantryman, Cyrus W. Bea­menderfer, that Curtin had won reelection, he wrote home, “Am. glad to hear that Andy Curtin is in for govner of Pennsylvania again. Woodward and [Democratic Judge Walter Hoge] Lowrie made out that the soldiers had no right to vote for govner. [I]f they aint got no right to vote they aint got no right to fight.” Beamenderfer wondered if Woodward might like to try joining the army. “Let Woodward come out and fight himself and see how he likes it,” he wrote. “I will Bet he will Pull Back and say let them fight it out.”

By 1863, many northerners had come to believe that it was unpatriotic to oppose allowing soldiers to vote. Support for soldier suffrage to became a popular political cause, and Republicans seized the issue in 1863 and 1864.

The first step politicians needed to take was to amend the state constitution specifically to allow Pennsylvania soldiers to vote outside of their election districts. This was a lengthy process by which the state legislature had to pass an amendment in two successive sessions, which it did in 1863 and 1864, before the amendment could be submitted to the people for ratification. When the day for the referendum came in August 1864, the citizens of Pennsylvania overwhelmingly approved the amendment by a vote of 199,855 to 105,352.

Following ratification of the amendment, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania debated and passed a law to regulate setting up polls in the field. Alexander K. McClure (1828-1909), a prominent Republican legislator, lawyer, author, and newspaper editor and publisher, later recalled that the state legislature “had a most bitter struggle” in passing the law. “Partisan bitterness was then at what might be called high-water mark, and even legislators who, under ordinary conditions, would have been conservative and just in framing an election law, were driven by the intensity of partisan prejudice.” Democrats opposed the law because they believed it would allow fraud to determine the outcome of elections. Once the ballot was taken to the field, they claimed, there would be no safeguards to prevent officers from ordering their subordinates to vote a certain way. Democrats also argued that soldiers in the field would be uniformed on the issues. One Democratic legislator opposed the bill because it did not guarantee free circulation of political documents among the troops. “No soldier-no man can vote intelligently unless he knows the principles and the issues at stake in the canvass.” He further believed that Republicans cared only about “making a mere ballot machine of the soldier.” Democratic legislator William A. Wallace (1827-1896), of Clearfield, Clearfield County, contended that Lincoln could use his power as commander-in-chief, “if he has one half the brain attributed to him by his friends, [to] have himself elected from term to term during his natural life.”

Regardless of any points made by the Democratic opposition, Republicans controlled the state legislature, and they were determined to adopt the measure. The law required soldiers to vote in company polls set up in the field, with most of the same procedures as if they were voting at home, and following an election the results would be sent back to the Commonwealth. The law also allowed the governor to appoint election commissioners to transport necessary materials to and from the soldiers, and to supervise the voting in the field. Curtin, a conservative Republican, feared that the law placed “the whole election into the hands of politicians, with little or nothing to restrain them in the perpetration of the most flagrant frauds.” Believing that if he only sent Republican commissioners he would “be connected with a fraudulent election,” Curtin appointed both Democrats and Republi­cans to go to the field.

Governor Curtin’s bipartisan choices unsettled many Republicans. One northern partisan informed U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward that “Gov. Curtin is not behaving well, and … his action in the matter of soldiers votes may damage us.” Another wrote to the governor claiming that one of his appointees “is not only openly and publicly opposed to both your administration and Lincolns,” but that he also had taken an “open and strong ” position against permitting soldiers to vote. He believed that keeping this election commissioner would “affect our vote very materially,” and he called on Curtin to revoke the commission and appoint someone more loyal to the Republican cause.

Even the chairman of the Republican Party in Pennsylva­nia, Simon Cameron complained to President Lincoln about the commissioners Curtain has appointed. Cameron consequently “selected more than 100 reliable men whose expenses we have paid out of our own fund, to visit every part of the Army in the field and secure our full vote.” (A consummate political machine boss who “never forgot a friend or forgave an enemy,” Cameron spent many years manipulating politics in Pennsylvania, mostly behind the scenes. Rampant corruption forced him to resign as Lincoln’s secretary of war in early 1862, after which the president named him ambassador to Russia.) Democrats, on the other hand, were satisfied that Governor Curtin had decided to make bipartisan appointments. Although one Democrat still feared that fraud and coercion would plague the army vote, he was pleased that “Gov. Curtin has appointed very fair Commissioners for the army.”

One of Governor Curtin’s appointees, Jeremiah McKibben, a Democratic politician from Philadelphia, initially refused the appointment because he feared being arrested by Republican officers in the field. He was also concerned about Democratic prospects among the army, however. In a letter to General McClellan, McKibben complained that “things are not as they should be about the army vote,” so he decided he better “go by ‘the front.”‘ McKibben proceeded to Washington and then to the field under the sanction of Pennsylvania’s Republican governor. Following the presidential election, complications arose about the ballots and poll books McKibben had been distributing, and Colonel Theodore Lyman (1833-1897), a staff officer under General George Gordon Meade (1815-1872), described the affair. “A long-haired personage, fat and vulgar-looking, one of that class that invariably have objectionable finger-nails, came puffing over to General Meade’s tent, with all the air of a boy who had discovered a mare’s nest,” recounted Lyman. The “Mr. Somebody from Philadelphia” informed General Meade that a Democratic election commissioner had been distributing Republican ballots with misspelled names of the Electoral College nomi­nees. Meade countered that he saw no evidence. “Give me proof,” the general said, “and I’ll arrest him.” The frustrated Philadelphian angrily hurried off to find proof, “evidently thinking the Commanding General must be a Copperhead not to jump at the chance of arresting a Democrat.

General Meade expressed mixed feelings over what to do, but eventually decided that he had to arrest Mckibben. ‘I had no other course to pursue than to arrest the parties complained against, until an investigation could be had,” he wrote home to his wife, Margaretta Sergeant Meade (1815-1886) in Philadelphia. “Today we have been examining the matter, and there appears to be no doubt that poll books were brought here and distributed, having names of Republican electors misspelled and some omitted. The Democrats declare it is only a typographical error … whereas the Republicans charge that it is a grave and studied effort to cheat the soldiers of their vote.” Two other election commissioners from Pennsylvania were also arrested with McKibben, and all three were detained by the military. The War Department ordered them sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington to stand trial before a military tribunal. General Meade doubted that the War Department’s order was the best solution to the problem. Because the commissioners were civilians, Meade thought that they should be tried in a civil court in their home state of Pennsylvania, pointing out that the Commonwealth’s election law gave “jurisdiction to the courts of the Commonwealth over all questions of fraud or illegality in relation to the voting of soldiers.” Nevertheless, the War Department maintained its claim of jurisdiction.

Twenty-five individuals serving as guards escorted the three prisoners to Old Capitol Prison. McClure remembered hurrying to the White House to discuss the matter with the president. “I told him,” McClure remembered, “that several Democrats had been persuaded reluctantly to accept these commissions with the full knowledge that they would perform no o?official duties beyond delivering election papers committed to their charge, and that they had been appointed by Governor Curtin solely to give some semblance of fairness to the elections in the field.” Lincoln called on the War Department for the records regarding the arrest and realized that the Democratic commissioners had delivered the same election materials, misspellings and all, as had the Republicans. According to McClure, Lincoln declared the arrests a “stupid blunder” and immediately ordered the prisoners’ release. After returning home to Philadelphia, McK­ibben wrote to Eli Slifer (1818-1888), secretary of the Commonwealth in the Curtin administration, “heartily thanking you for kindness in going to Washington on my behalf,” as well as requesting the pay that was owed to him.

Despite the partisanship that led to the arrest or dismissal of the Democratic commissioners, Republican claimed to want fair elections. ‘I want to get all the votes I can of course,” Lincoln told the Pennsylvania election commissioners, “but play fair, gentle­men, play fair. Leave the soldiers entirely free to vote as they think best.” Lincoln probably believed that most soldiers would support his reelection, but his words may also have been meant to placate the Democrats whom Curtin had appointed, many of whom most likely believed that the president would use his war powers to secure his own reelection. Just two months before he was arrested McKibben had written to General McClel­lan about the importance of the army vote and his fears that the Republicans might “perpetrate … enormous frauds.” Like many Democrats, McKibben believed that the Republicans had enfranchised soldiers simply to increase the number of ballots cast for Republican candidates. Both Democrats and Republicans grew concerned that the other party would win the presidential election through illegality and fraud. Democrats believed that Republican officers would force their men to vote for Lincoln, while Republicans thought the Democrats would stuff the ballot boxes. Simon Cameron published a circular letter encouraging “all Union men, and all other persons who believe in fair dealing and honest voting” to protect the polls on election day, urging them to “watch, guard, detect, and have arrested and brought to trial and punishment, all who may engage in any such villainous practice.”

Meanwhile, as various elections approached, partisan passions ran high in the field. Soldiers felt strongly for their respective candidates and parties. “The soldiers here don’t feel like letting the copperheads have it all their own way at the ballot box this Fall,” wrote one soldier, W. R. Whitney, to Governor Curtin prior to the gubernatorial contest of 1863. Democratic soldiers, by contrast, responded harshly to critics of their candidates. “I Wil vote For George B McClerring,” wrote Francis M. Elliott to his sister, adding “thare is some Hear thinks that He is A trater if A man tells me that I Wil nock him don or kill my self tring to.” And fights did break out. A member of the 51st Pennsylvania Volunteers later recalled the heat of the 1864 presidential election: “Politics now began to attract the attention of the 51st more than did the enemy.” A “rough and tumble” fistfight even broke out in the regiment between two lieutenants of differing political persuasions. As the combatants were not equal in size, the smaller one made up in ‘spunk’ and agility, and it became a drawn battle” that “finally ended in the adjutant’s office, by the upsetting of Com.-Sergt. Parker, who was sitting in there filling out a requisition for rations; the desk, table, trunks, valises, &c., with the ‘special orders’ were scattered around quite freely.”

Civil War politics was, to borrow the phrase of historian Joseph J. Ellis, a truly cacophonous affair. Neither Republicans nor Democrats believed that their political rivals constituted a legitimate opposition. In fact, Republicans often spoke of Democrats as traitors and an “enemy in the rear,while Democrats were known to deride Republican field commanders as “enemy officers.” Part of the stake in the soldier voting debate was to determine which party genuinely supported the troops in harm’s way. Republicans claimed to be the true allies of the soldiers in the field, in part, because of their support for soldier suffrage. One pamphlet, sarcastically entitled “Copperhead Love for the Soldier,” detailed how northern Democrats professed support for the troops but wanted to deprive them the right to vote.

In the end, most soldiers were not convinced by what they believed were the Democrats’ false avowals of support. Roughly 78 percent of the soldiers who voted in 1864 cast their ballots for Lincoln’s reelection, and prior to the election they expressed bitter sentiments against the Democratic minority. One Pennsylvanian stationed in Tennessee believed the army would defeat “the Scoundrels that would Deprive them of the Right of Voting.” Another stated he was “ready to fight the traitors on the Battlefield and at the B[allot] Box.” By the traitors at the ballot box, he, of course, meant the Democrats. That so many soldiers cast their ballots for Lincoln suggests that most Union soldiers would not vote for a party that called their effort in the field a failure, no matter how much support for the troops that party professed.


Travel Tips

Pennsylvania abounds with buildings, structures, and sites directly related to the American Civil War, the most famous of which is the hallowed ground in Adams County where 165,000 Union and Confederate soldiers waged the epic bloodbath known as Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863.

Gettysburg National Military Park interprets the Civil War’s largest battle that resulted in a hallmark victory for the Union’s Army of the Potomac and successfully ended the second invasion of the North by General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Since 1933, the National Park Service (NPS) has safeguarded Gettysburg National Military Park as a symbol of America’s struggle to survive as a nation and as a lasting memorial to the armies and soldiers who fought in the great conflict. In ongoing efforts to preserve the park, the NPS is rehabilitating the battlefield landscape that will eventually return it as close as possible to its 1863 appearance. A popular draw for visitors are the monuments and memorials which punctuate the landscape.

Less than an hour’s drive north of Gettysburg, Harrisburg offers travelers interested. in the Civil War several attractions, including The State Museum of Pennsylvania, the National Civil War Museum, and the John Harris-Simon Cameron Mansion.

The State Museum of Pennsylvania Civil War Gallery – dominated by Peter Frederick Rothermel’s monumental painting Pickett’s Charge – features an array of military dress coats worn by famous Union leaders, presentation swords and revolvers, flags, lances, mess kits, canteens, carbines, medals and ribbons, maps, cannon, cartridges, and photographs. Several exhibit areas highlight the military careers of Union officers who later became governors of Pennsylvania, including James Addams Beaver, John F. Hartranft, and John W. Geary. Visit the State Museum of Pennsylvania website.

The National Civil War Museum – “the only museum in the United States that portrays the entire story of the American Civil War … without bias to Union or Confederate causes”o?ffers permanent and changing exhibits that, unlike others mounted by cultural organizations, are humanistic in nature. The museum’s extensive exhibitions interpret the struggle as a timeline, from the issues straining the nation through the war’s conclusion at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Objects and artifacts offer commentary on the sectional controversies, particularly slavery that plagued the period. The museum emphasizes the human dimension of the Civil War, interpreting the experiences of ordinary soldiers, women on the home front, and African Americans in both the North and the South.

Also located in the capital city is the historic John Harris-Simon Cameron Mansion purchased in 1863 by Cameron, President Abraham Lincoln’s first Secretary of War. A political power broker who became known as a ruthless political opportunist, Cameron was first a Whig, then a Democrat and, finally, a Republican. After mounting political pressure forced Cameron to relinquish his responsibilities as head of the War Department, Lincoln appointed him Minister to Russia.

No Civil War student’s visit to Philadelphia would be complete without touring the Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library, headquartered in the historic Ruan House on Griscom Street, and the Civil War Library and Museum,located on Pine Street. The Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library mounts changing exhibits, hosts roundtable discussions and educational programs, offers tours of its extensive collection of objects and artifacts, and invites researchers to utilize its archives. . The Civil War Library and Museum houses a significant collection of firearms, uniforms, accouterments, and flags, including the uniform worn by General George Gordon Meade at the Battle of Gettysburg, the saddle upon which General John F. Reynolds was seated when killed during the first day of battle at Gettysburg, and field glasses belonging to Ulysses S. Grant.


For Further Reading

Baker, Jean H. Affairs of Party: The Politi­cal Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. New York: Ford­ham University Press, 1998.

Bensel, Richard Franklin. The American Ballot-Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Bird, Margaret McKelvy, and Daniel W. Crofts, eds. Soldier Voting in 1864: The David McKelvy Diary.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 115 (July 1991): 371-415.

Blair, William A., ed. A Politician Goes to War: the Civil War Letters of John White Geary. University Park: Tire Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

Daly, Maria Lydig. Diary of a Union Lady. New York: Bison Books, 2000.

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Klement, Frank L. Dark Lanterns: Secret Political Societies, Conspiracies, and Treason Trials in the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.

Long, David E. The Jewel of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln’s Reelection and the End of Slavery. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stack­pole Books, 1994.

Neely, Mark E., Jr. The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Wainwright, Nicholas B., ed. A Philadel­phia Perspective: The Diary of Sidney George Fisher Covering the Years 1834-1871. New York: Fordham University Press: Forthcoming.

White, Jonathan W. Citizens and Soldiers: Party Competition and the Debate in Pennsylvania over Permitting Soldiers to Vote, 1861-64.” American Nineteenth Century History (Summer 2004): 47-70.


The author wishes to acknowledge the support of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the U.S. Army Military History Institute, the H. B. Earhart Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. He is also indebted to David and Irene Lepley for providing housing during periods of research and to James Gerencser of Dickinson College’s Waidner­-Spahr Library for supplying information drawn from the library’s special collections.


Jonathan W. White, of Horsham, Mont­gomery County, is a doctoral student in United States history at the University of Maryland, College Park, concentrating on nineteenth-century political and constitutional history. His articles have appeared in several academic journals, including American Nineteenth Century History, Civil War History, and The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. He is writing a new introduction to A Philadelphia Perspective: The Diary of Sidney George Fisher Covering the Years 1834-1871, edited by Nicholas B. Wainwright and originally published in 1967 by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania as A Philadelphia Perspective of the Civil War: The Civil War Diaries of Sidney George Fisher. This article is derived from research the author conducted while a scholar-in-residence at the Pennsylvania State Archives in 2005.