Monday, June 9, 2014


[Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln by Jonathan W. White (Louisiana State University Press, 2014). Hardcover, appendix, tables, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:184/290. ISBN:9780807154571 $39.95]

According to historian Jonathan White, his new study of the soldier vote during the Civil War Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln is the topic's first book length scholarly treatise to appear since Josiah Benton's 1915 work Voting in the Field: A Forgotten Chapter of the Civil War. The question of whether soldiers should even be able to vote in the field has vexed politicians and citizens since the early years of the republic. At the beginning of the Civil War, only one Union state (Pennsylvania) allowed army voting, but in the wake of Republican electoral defeats in fall 1862, the Lincoln administration and Republican party sought to leverage the soldier vote to their advantage. Thus, with hundreds of thousands of potential voters in the field, a rather quiet, albeit counterintuitive, part of the American democratic process suddenly became a volatile political football. Democrats argued (presciently, as will be seen) that voting in army camps could never be free and fair, but some of their more paternalistic arguments (ex. ignorance stemming from lack of access to information from both sides and inability to escape Republican propaganda in the army's closed society) offended many soldiers in their own party, who felt perfectly capable of understanding the issues of the war and exercising their right to vote.

The main premise of White's book is that the character and meaning of the soldier vote in the 1864 elections has been widely misinterpreted as an expression of unity toward administration war aims (i.e. restoration of the Union via any number of means, including hard war policies, heavy restrictions on civilian civil rights, and emancipation). The author effectively challenges the conclusions of several well respected historians, taking them to task for their simplistic views and evidence mishandling on the subject. According to White, several factors need to be considered in order to place the 78% soldier vote for Lincoln in its proper context. Rather than being indicative of resounding approval of the Lincoln administration's war and societal aims, the author finds that voter turnout, the drumming out of the service of Democratic officers and men in the post-Emancipation Proclamation years, intimidation at the army polls, and the circumstances of the 1864 nonpresidential elections significantly complicate the issue.

A common concern with Civil War soldier studies is, given the huge amount of source material available, even large selections can be cherry picked to support just about any argument. White goes some way toward mitigating such objections to his own work by using and citing a vast amount of primary source material to support his arguments, including newly examined court martial records and other government documents as well as a huge volume of manuscript material located all across the country and representing soldiers serving in all major armies and theaters.

White's determination that 20% of eligible Union army soldiers did not even vote in the presidential election (the 78% figure applying only to soldiers that did vote) casts new light on claims of solidarity in the military. According to what is made clear in many letters and diaries, the pairing of War Democrat McClellan with Peace Democrat Pendleton on the presidential ticket led many solidly Democratic soldiers (who rejected the peace elements of the national party platform) to vote for Lincoln as a one-time event, a 'lesser of two evils' protest vote for the restoration of the Union, or not vote at all. Many desperately wanted to vote the Democratic ticket but their consciences would not allow it.

The book traces the meaning of disloyalty in the Union army and how it evolved by 1863-64 to include expressing, publicly or even in private correspondence, opposition to to the president or any aspect of his war policy. By mid-war, the army and its Republican civilian leadership thought such sentiments serious enough to warrant dismissal from the service, imprisonment, forfeiture of pay, and even execution (though eventually reduced to hard labor or some other lesser punishment). The Articles of War's limitations on free speech during armed forces service were used to cashier large numbers of Democratic soldiers from the rank of private on up to general officer. White documents innumerable examples in the book, from those courtmartialed to others dishonorably discharged having never been convicted by army judicial proceedings or even charged with anything. Calling what happened a ideological purge may be too much, but it would be interesting to compare the composition of the soldier electorate between 1861-62 and 1863-64, with perhaps significant weeding out of Democratic elements through desertion, resignation, discharge, and service death all combined with less proportionate replacement.

Intimidation of Democratic voters is another major theme worthy of consideration when assessing the 1864 soldier vote. It is well known that the Lincoln administration blocked many Democratic papers from use of the national mail system, but White also documents the blocking of Democratic election materials from army camps and tampering with their ballot boxes by military officials. With the opposition party widely regarded as treasonable, Democratic electioneering was banned while Republicans were allowed free reign to express their political views. If they did not keep quiet, Democratic soldiers were routinely harassed and publicly humiliated by their officers. According to White's findings, even the regimental resolutions that were famously published in newspapers throughout the north, were often farcical in their presumed unanimity in war policy support. Officers pressured, threatened, and some even ordered, their men to sign the document while others manipulated the numbers to give the appearance of absent dissent. With the combination of army coercion and disgust with their own party's peace platform, it's no wonder many soldiers felt it better to be quiet and not vote at all. With White's study focusing exclusively on the army, it might be interesting to see if similar patterns emerged in the navy.

White notes that the level of soldier vote abstention was even higher for the 1864 state and congressional elections preceding the presidential contest by mere weeks than it was for the critical vote for or against Lincoln himself. Turnout doubled between the two for the Democratic army vote, while Republicans saw an increase of 40%. White interprets this to mean that soldier Democrats felt deep disappointment in the Copperhead influence on the home front, but were profoundly invested in who would be the next commander-in-chief. Many believed that holding their noses and voting for Lincoln would best ensure that their sacrifices toward restoring the Union would not be vain, while others either abstained or felt comfortable enough to trust in War Democrat McClellan as a distinctive force outside the reviled peace elements of the national party platform. One might make the counterargument that the apathy Democratic soldiers felt toward their own party elections in 1864 and their votes for Lincoln meant growing ideological adoption of the full range of administration war aims but that would be ignoring the words of the soldiers themselves on the matter. The vital issue of reunion had the bipartisan support absent from other Republican goals and policies.

The book also takes the voting issue into the post-war years, tracing legislative efforts to strip Civil War deserters and dishonorably discharged veterans from voting and holding office, even those never actually charged, tried and convicted. The author notes that both parties went back and forth on the issue in the decades after 1865, all according to which stance was politically expedient at the time. Finally, lest we be too hard on the Civil War era army, White also notes the logistical difficulties of ensuring current armed forces participation in U.S elections, which are typically characterized by low voting rates among service members, using today's technology.

Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln is one of those all too infrequent Civil War studies that rise up unannounced to challenge emerging arenas of consensus in the literature. Because of this, White's book should be regarded as essential reading for historians and amateur scholars alike. A deeply original and award worthy effort (certainly a leading contender for placement on year end 'best of' lists), it is highly recommended.

More CWBA reviews of LSUP titles:
* Greyhound Commander: Confederate General John G. Walker's History of the Civil War West of the Mississippi
* Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War
* Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory
* Battle of Stones River: The Forgotten Conflict Between the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the Union Army of the Cumberland
* Granbury's Texas Brigade: Diehard Western Confederates
* The Last Battle of the Civil War: United States Versus Lee, 1861-1883
* Confederate Guerrilla: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia
* Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security
* War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914
* Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator
* Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community 1861-1865
* Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War
* Homegrown Yankees: Tennessee's Union Cavalry in the Civil War
* John Bankhead Magruder: A Military Reappraisal
* A Wisconsin Yankee in the Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General
* Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas
* Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era
* Where Men Only Dare to Go Or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.A.
* Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks
* Walker’s Texas Division, C.S.A.: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi
* The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles
* A Crisis In Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor, And The Army Of The Trans-Mississippi
* The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock

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