Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Private to Colonel: Marylanders in the Army of the Potomac, Part 6.

Which Marylander was the Army of the Potomac’s brightest star? The answer to this question is a matter of opinion, but I have a candidate for it. There were only two Marylanders who began the war as privates and who rose to the rank of colonel before the war ended. One of these was Col. Stephen W. Downey of the 3rd Maryland Potomac Home Brigade. The other was Col. Benjamin Franklin Taylor of the 2nd Maryland.

Colonel Taylor is the subject of this post. He’s a remarkable character for several reasons. First, in addition to going from private to colonel, he was wounded three times during the war: at Fredericksburg, Petersburg, and Fort Mahone. He recovered from all three wounds and led his regiment back to Baltimore in 1865 amid great fanfare. Second, Taylor’s story involved disappointment and redemption. In 1865, his brigade commander almost cashiered him, but Taylor redeemed himself by leading his regiment in a gallant charge on April 2, 1865. (Like so many Marylanders, he was in at the war’s close in a rather profound way.) Third, and by no means least, as a veteran, Taylor did not shy away from the war’s memory. He spent years writing tales of his wartime experiences and he even completed a regimental history for his well-traveled regiment, the 2nd Maryland Volunteer Infantry. And yet, almost nothing from his personal papers or correspondence has ever been published. His excellent regimental history lies languishing unseen inside the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.

If Maryland was the Army of the Potomac’s most unsung state, then Col. Taylor might be the state’s most unsung hero.

If Marylanders want to honor a valiant officer from the Army of the Potomac, they need not look any further than him.

This is Taylor’s story. I regret that it is incomplete.

Benjamin Franklin Taylor was born in Baltimore, November 13, 1840. He was the son of a War of 1812 veteran. Based on some circumstantial evidence, Taylor appeared to grow up in comparatively wealthy circumstances. During his teenage years, he entered St. Timothy’s Hall, a military academy located in Catonsville, Maryland. In fact, the Booth boys—Edwin and John Wilkes—were among his classmates. There is no indication that he was friends with them, nor was he influenced by their pro-Southern politics. Taylor seems to have been a lifelong Republican. In 1859, at age 19, Taylor graduated St. Timothy’s and he entered the Maryland Agricultural College, staying there for one year.

Like many young men, in 1861, when the war’s trumpet sounded, he felt called to action. Promptly, he enlisted in one of the first companies forming in Baltimore City, Captain Andrew Brunner’s. On June 30, 1861, Taylor mustered into the service of the United States, starting out as a private in Company B, 2nd Maryland Infantry. Readers will recognize this regiment as the one that was troubled by the questionable leadership of Lt. Col. Jacob E. Duryée, the subject of a previous post.

Taylor rose through the ranks quickly. On October 8, 1861, regimental leadership promoted him to sergeant-major, the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer in the regiment. On July 12, 1862, he received an officer’s commission, becoming second lieutenant of Company B. As an officer, he fought at Second Bull Run, Chantilly, and Antietam. On September 23, 1862, a few days after the bloody fight at Burnside’s Bridge, Taylor received a promotion to captain of Company B. A few months later, he fought at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and there he received a wound, a shell fragment to the left thigh, from which he recovered.

In 1863, the division to which Taylor (and the 2nd Maryland) belonged transferred to the Department of Ohio. For two months, the Marylanders operated in Kentucky, and at the end of the year, they went to Eastern Tennessee, fighting at the Battles of Blue Springs, Campbell Station, and Knoxville. In November, Captain Taylor left his regiment to serve as an aide-de-camp on the staff of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 9th Corps. He held that position throughout December, and then in January 1864, became acting inspector general for the staff of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, 9th Corps. In January 1864, his regiment went home on veteran furlough and it returned to the front in February. When it went back, the 2nd Maryland went to Virginia, rejoining the Army of the Potomac.

The 2nd Maryland participated in the Overland Campaign, skirmishing with Confederate forces near Spotsylvania. After that, the Marylanders participated in the combat actions at Totopotomy Creek, Cold Harbor, and in the opening assaults on Petersburg. On June 25, 1864, Captain Taylor received a gunshot wound to the left shoulder. As with his previous wound, he recovered from this one as well.

I’m not sure how long his shoulder wound sidelined him, but apparently, he managed to return to his regiment sometime in the autumn of 1864. While he was recuperating, several Marylanders organized a campaign to have him promoted to command of the 2nd Maryland. At the time, the 2nd Maryland’s colonel was recovering from a wound received at the Battle of the Crater and it did not appear that he would return. The signers included a quarryman, Ebenezer Dickey McClenahan; an educator, Jacob Tome; and two Know-Nothing newspapermen, William J. Jones and Charles H. Haines. Here is the letter they wrote to the governor:

Sept. 15, 1864
To His Excellency, A. W. Bradford,
Governor of Maryland
Dear Sir,

We learn that an application has been forwarded to your Excellency from the Second Maryland Regiment asking for a Commission for Capt. B. F. Taylor as Lieut. Colonel in that Regiment. We beg leave most respectfully but earnestly to join in that recommendation.

Capt. Taylor entered the 2nd Maryland when the Regiment was first formed at a very early period in the War, as a private, and by his bravery and good conduct in all the battles in which the regiment has been engaged has won his way to his present position. He has, we learn, been several times wounded, last in front of Petersburg some three months ago. He is now with and in command of his Regiment.

Capt. Taylor was educated at a Military School and is regarded in Military circles as a most efficient and worthy officer.

We know that he left a comfortable home surrounded by luxury and against the wishes of all his family purely from his love of his country and entered the army as a private. We respectfully submit to your Excellency that such services deserve recognition. We sincerely hope that you will forward to Capt. Taylor this commission and we are sure that his future conduct will accord with his past services and fully justify the confidence thus placed in him.

We are, respectfully,
Your Obt. Servants,
J. Tome
W. J. Jones
Chas. H. Haines
Wm. Parker
E. D. McClenahan

Governor Bradford sent Taylor his commission, and as lieutenant colonel, he led his regiment at the Battles of Hatcher’s Run and Nottoway River. At age 24, he was, at the time, one of the youngest regimental commanders in the Army of the Potomac.

Sometime in February 1865, Taylor angered his brigade and divisional commanders. Currently, I’m not sure what kind of unspeakable act he committed. His personal papers—which are held at the Maryland Historical Society—contain several angry letters written by his no-nonsense divisional and brigade commanders, Brig. Gen. Robert Potter and Brig. Gen. Simon Griffin. In high fury, Potter and Griffin expressed disappointment in Taylor’s comportment, blaming him for some unnamed incident. I don’t know why they were displeased. If I had to guess, I’d say it was drunkenness, a common problem among the officer corps. For some unexplained reason, neither general wished to bring charges against Lt. Col. Taylor. Instead, their letters merely admonished him, warning him to learn from his mistake and strive to restore his good name.

As if on cue, Taylor’s moment of redemption came a few weeks later. On the morning of April 2, 1865, the 9th Corps attacked the Confederate earthworks at Fort Mahone. Lt. Col. Taylor’s regiment, the 2nd Maryland, was part of this attack. During the charge, Taylor fell wounded, struck in the left ankle by an enemy shell. This exciting attack stuck fast in Taylor’s memory for a long time. In 1909, 44 year later, he wrote a lengthy account of the Battle of Fort Mahone and sent it to the National Tribune, a newspaper that paid its bills by publishing stories from Union veterans. The editors of the Tribune loved Taylor’s account. They considered it so good they decided to publish it in their short-lived magazine, the National Tribune Repository. Despite some sleuthing, I’ve been unable to find any existing copy of Taylor’s account. Along with the other stories from the National Tribune Repository, it appears to have disappeared.

Although taken off the front line, Taylor continued to serve the Army of the Potomac. During the final days of the war in the Eastern Theater, he helped command the army’s provost guard. On April 8—two days after the Battle of Sailor’s Creek—he took charge of 7,500 Confederate prisoners, including Richard S. Ewell, Joseph B. Kershaw, G. W. Custis Lee, Eppa Hunton, Dudley DuBose, Montgomery Corse, John R. Tucker, Raphael Semmes, and James Howard. No doubt, it must have been therapeutic to become temporary jailor to these leaders of the rebellion.

Taylor’s superiors were astonished by his heroics at Fort Mahone and they sought to reward him with one final promotion. On July 10, 1865, he advanced to the rank of colonel. Seven days later, Taylor led his regiment back to Baltimore for its muster-out. Easily, the 2nd Maryland was the state’s elite regiment. It had been in service since the beginning of the war and it had reenlisted a majority of its veterans. It had been with the Army of the Potomac during its campaigns in Maryland, along the Rappahannock, through the Overland Campaign, and through the Siege of Petersburg. In addition, the regiment had also served in during the East Carolina Campaign, in Pope’s Second Manassas Campaign, in the 1863 Kentucky Campaign, and in the Siege of Knoxville. It was Maryland’s most well-traveled regiment. As one historian later explained, “During its service in the United States Army, the Second Maryland Infantry marched 1,847 miles, was transported by rail 1,575 miles, and by water 2,131 miles, a total of 5,553 miles.”

Like many veterans, Taylor made the most of his postwar career and readjusted to peacetime. On February 3, 1869, he married Mary J. Cator of Harford County and raised three children with her. He became a member of the Baltimore County Grange and the Superintendent of Loudon Park National Cemetery. For the remainder of his life, he lived at a place called Mount Peru Farm in Bradshaw, Maryland.

As he got older, Taylor’s thoughts returned to the war, and he used his time to remember the men with whom he served. In his final years, he wrote a history of his regiment, but currently, no one has ever published it.

Although Taylor did not shine with the same luster as some of the Army of the Potomac’s more famous officers, Marylanders recognized him as one of their state’s success stories. A biographer wrote, “As a soldier, he was unusually brave and energetic, possessing great courage, as well as those other qualities that won for him the confidence of his fellow officers.”

Taylor died on February 25, 1919, at age 78.  He was buried at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Kingsville, Maryland. (Many years ago, I was Best Man in a wedding at this church.)

It’s a shame that the Army of the Potomac’s brightest Maryland star is not better known. His personal papers are unpublished. His account of the Battle of Fort Mahone is missing. His regimental history remains unseen.

One day, perhaps, an enterprising student will attempt to tell the tale of Benjamin Franklin Taylor. He started at the bottom of the Army of the Potomac’s hierarchy and rose to the top. For that, he is worthy of the state’s recognition.

This image depicts Col. Benjamin Franklin Taylor in the summer of 1865. 

This image depicts the officers of the 2nd Maryland Infantry in early 1865. Lt. Col. Taylor can be seen sitting in the front row, center, with legs crossed.

This is Benjamin F. Taylor, postwar.

Monday, April 27, 2020

“You Got the Prize Money, Didn’t You?” Marylanders in the Army of the Potomac, Part 5.

On October 15, 1864, Thomas Savage, the U.S. Vice Consul to Cuba, sent $350.65 to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Savage had collected this money from several American citizens living in Havana who wanted it donated to the “noncommissioned officer or private, who may be first to enter Richmond, should that City be taken by assault, and in the event of his being killed, to his legal heirs.”

Stanton deposited the money inside the City Bank of New York and then wrote to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, general-in-chief of all Union armies, repeating the same message. As commander of the Union forces near Richmond, Grant had the authority to determine who should receive Savage’s prize money. As the months passed, more patriotic northerners heard about the “First-to-Enter-Richmond” prize fund and contributed to it. By April 1865, the pile had grown to $460.

For the past several posts, I’ve been profiling the important work done by Marylanders who served with the Army of the Potomac. Well, you probably guessed it. Marylanders got the prize money. Therefore, they won the distinction of being the first troops to break the back of the Army of Northern Virginia.

How did it happen? Well, here’s the story.

The Army of the Potomac lurched forward on two critical days, April 1 and 2, 1865. At 4 P.M., April 1, the 5th Corps—then under the Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren—slammed into the far right flank of Robert E. Lee’s line at Five Forks crossroads. Specifically, the 5th Corps troops struck a section of earthworks held by Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division. Although the whole 5th Corps participated in this assault, Col. Richard N. Bowerman’s Maryland Brigade, bearing 875 enlisted men, had the good fortune of being the first to overrun Pickett’s entrenchments. (This was not because the Marylanders were better fighters, or better runners, but merely because the Maryland Brigade was positioned in the ideal spot to make contact.) 

The Marylanders struck Brig. Gen. Matthew Ransom’s brigade with full fury, routing it, and sustaining only 10 killed, 57 wounded, and 11 missing. In the maelstrom of battle, the Marylanders took two battle flags and dozens of prisoners. One of those who earned recognition was Corporal Jacob R. Tucker, Company G, 4th Maryland Volunteer Infantry. Other members of the brigade claimed that he had been the first to cross the enemy parapet. Tucker was not a Marylander by birth—he had been born in Chester County, Pennsylvania—but he enlisted in Baltimore in the summer of 1862, mustering into service on August 13. Although young, Tucker was no greenhorn. He had survived a wound during the Battle of Spindle Farm, May 8, 1864. Coincidentally, April 1, 1865, was his twentieth birthday.

The next day, another valiant Marylander distinguished himself. At dawn, April 2, Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright’s 6th Corps delivered a knock-out blow against Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Confederate corps southwest of Petersburg. More than 14,000 federal troops overran these Confederate earthworks, breaking open a yawning chasm in the Confederate line. Colonel Joseph C. Hill’s 6th Maryland occupied a portion of the front line. Although debate later raged about which division had been the first to make contact, most officers in the 3rd Division, 6th Corps, believed that Hill’s regiment had been the first to cross the enemy earthworks. After the battle, Colonel Hill identified twenty-two officers and men from his regiment who had distinguished themselves by being at the front of the charge. Among that contingent, Hill identified Sergeant John Ezra Buffington of Company C, 6th Maryland Volunteer Infantry. Buffington was a farmer from Carroll County, born July 12, 1839. Like Tucker, he enlisted in Baltimore in the summer of 1862.

From that point, the general narrative is well-known by Civil War buffs. With the lines outside Petersburg taken, Lee’s army (and the Confederate government with it) commenced a desperate evacuation from Petersburg and Richmond. In the end, Lee’s army became trapped at Appomattox Court House, and one month later, Jeff Davis was arrested by Union cavalry near Irwinsville, Georgia. In short, the attacks of April 1 and 2 sounded the death knell of the Confederacy.

In May, after the other major Confederate armies had surrendered, Grant commenced the business of finding out which of his soldiers was entitled to the $460 in prize money. He determined that, since Richmond had not fallen by direct assault, the money should be awarded to several soldiers who led the way during the April 1 and 2 attacks. Ultimately, he decided to split the money three ways. One third of the fund would go to the 5th Corps soldier who was first to leap atop the earthworks at Five Forks. Another third would go to the 6th Corps soldier who was the first to cross the earthworks southwest of Petersburg. And the final third would go to the 24th Corps soldier who was the first to scale the forts at the far end of the Petersburg line. For some unexplained reason, Grant ignored the 9th Corps, which made a valiant assault south of Petersburg. Why he chose to snub this corps is still a mystery.

In any event, the three relevant corps commanders—Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin (5th Corps), Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright (6th Corps), and Maj. Gen. John Gibbon (24th Corps)—began making inquiries. Eventually, they identified three soldiers. Gibbon selected Sergeant Thomas McGraw, Company B, 23rd Illinois. Meanwhile, Griffin (who had recently replaced Warren) selected Corporal Tucker of the 4th Maryland. Both of these soldiers received nearly identical letters from Grant, entitling them to their share of the prize money, which amounted to $153.33.

This is the letter received by Tucker:

To Corporal Jacob R. TUCKER, Company G, Fourth Regiment Maryland Vol. Infantry:
SIR: The sum of four hundred and sixty dollars was sent me by patriotic citizens of the North to be given as a reward for gallantry to the soldier who should first raise the United States flag over Richmond. As Richmond was not taken by assault, I concluded that the donors’ wishes would be best carried out by dividing the sum between the three soldiers most conspicuous for gallantry in the final and successful assault on Petersburg.
Major-General Charles Griffin, commanding Fifth Army Corps, has selected you as entitled to this honor, in behalf of that command, and I herewith transmit to you the sum of one hundred and fifty-three dollars and thirty-three cents as one-third of the original sum.
It affords me great pleasure to receive from your commanding General such unqualified testimony of your gallantry and heroism in battle, and to be the medium of transmitting to you this recognition of the worth of your services in defence of our common country.

However, the identification process in the 6th Corps was murkier than the other two. Union forces had struck the Confederate line so quickly that the officers of 6th Corps could not easily determine which regiment had been the first to penetrate the enemy line. Col. J. Warren Keifer, a brigade commander, adamantly believed that his brigade had been the first to do it. Taking the prize money case seriously, Keifer interviewed his officers, and by May 19, he had settled on Sergeant Buffington as the lucky recipient. Writing to Maj. Gen. Truman Seymour, his divisional commander, Keifer concluded, “I . . . am fully satisfied that Sergeant John E. Buffington, Co C 6th Maryland Volunteers was the first man to pass over the works. . . . It is admitted by the men that the Sergeant did not halt upon the works but sprang within them.”

However, if Keifer’s report was circulated up the chain of command, it had no effect on the ultimate choice. For some unknown reason, Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright selected another soldier, one from a different division, Sergeant David W. Young of the 139th Pennsylvania. Sergeant Young’s story is adequately told by the Emerging Civil War website, here. Grant’s letter to Young appeared in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Like Tucker’s letter, it read:

Headquarters, Armies of the United States, Washington, July 22, 1855.
To Sergeant David W. Young, 139th Pennsylvania Infantry Volunteers:
The sum of four hundred and sixty dollars was sent to me by patriotic citizens, to be presented as a reward for gallantry to the soldier who should first raise our flag over Richmond. As Richmond was not taken by assault, I have concluded that the doners’ wishes will be best carried out by dividing the sum between the three soldiers most conspicuous for gallantry in the final and successful assault on Petersburg.
You have been selected by Major-General H. G. Wright, commanding the 6th Army Corps, as entitled to this honor on behalf of that command; and I herewith present to you one hundred and fifty-three dollars and fifty-three cents, as one-third of the original sum.
It affords me great satisfaction to receive from your commanding general such unqualified testimony of your gallantry and heroism in battle, and to be the medium for transmitting to you this recognition of the worth of your services in defence of our common country.
U. S. Grant, Lieutenant-General.

And yet, some disagreement still exists as to which 6th Corps soldier—Buffington or Young—deserved the prize money. Years later, Buffington applied to the War Department for a Medal of Honor based on his combat performance on April 2, 1865. In 1908, the War Department finally issued the award. On March 28, 1908, at Reindollar’s Opera House in Taneytown, a delegation from the G.A.R. made the official presentation to Buffington, who was then 68-years-old. A large gathering came out to witness the ceremony. The President of the G.A.R., John Rigdon King, delivered the dedicatory remarks. King was a self-selecting choice. After all, he had been present during the April 2, 1865, assault. In fact, he had served as the first lieutenant of Buffington’s company!

As he closed his speech, King made reference to the $460 prize money, claiming, perhaps incorrectly, that Buffington had received his share:

General Grant had placed in his hands the sum of $400 [sic] as a reward of gallantry for the man who should first raise our flag over Richmond. As Richmond was not taken by assault, he deemed the donor’s wishes would be best carried out by dividing the sum among three men, one to be selected by General Wright, Commander of the Sixth Corps, as most conspicuous for gallantry in carrying the lines at Petersburg, one to be selected by General Gibbons for gallantry in the assault on the fort south of Petersburg and one by Sheridan for gallantry at the battle of Five Forks. When General Grant addressed General Wright to designate the man of the Sixth Corps he referred the order to the commander of the Third Division of the Sixth Corps and General Ricketts in turn referred the order to the commander of the Second Brigade of the Third Division of the Sixth Corps, and here is the endorsement and recommendation:
Headquarters, First Brigade,
Third Division, Sixth Corps,
May 20th, 1865
Respectfully forwarded.
Sergeant John E. Buffington, Company C, 6th Maryland (Second Brigade) is believed to have been the first enlisted man of the Third Division who mounted the parapet of the enemy’s lines at Petersburg,
April 2, 1865.
Brigadier General

It will be noticed that General Seymour was commander of the First Brigade. General J. Warren Keifer, whom we all love so well, was commander of the Second Brigade, of which our Regiment was a part. Why Seymour was called on to report I do not know. However, it is all the more honor as it is; but there is the record. . . . You got the money, didn’t you, Comrade Buffington, and how much of it have you left; enough to pay the expenses of this occasion?

So, who received the prize money, Buffington or Young? Probably that answer will never be known. Based on the existing documentation, it’s my guess is that Sergeant Young received it; however, there seems to have been an effort by the 6th Corps officers to give it to Buffington.

Bravery is a difficult thing to quantify, and surely $153.33 is a paltry sum; it fell far short of doing justice to the heroics displayed by all the 6th Corps troops who participated in the morning battle of April 2, 1865. Sergeant Young’s valor was certainly worthy of an award of any amount that could be imagined, but I wonder if the money went to the correct soldier. Even 43 years later, many people felt certain that Buffington was the first to cross the enemy line.

Buffington didn’t live much longer. He died on April 26, 1915, only seven years after receiving his medal. He is buried at Trinity Lutheran Cemetery, Taneytown, Maryland.

The life of Corporal Jacob Tucker, 4th Maryland, is harder to track. On April 22, 1871, Tucker, too, received a Medal of Honor for his action at Five Forks. He died on February 16, 1926. He was 80-years-old. He is buried in Baltimore Cemetery (at the modern-day junction of Belair Road and North Avenue).

In any event, Marylanders were in at the war’s close. That truth cannot be denied.

Sergeant John Ezra Buffington, Co. C, 6th Maryland, was reported to be the first Union soldier to cross the Confederate earthworks at Petersburg. Did he receive the promised $153.33 in prize money? The jury is still out.

Sergeant David W. Young of the 139th Pennsylvania made a valiant rush against the Confederate earthworks at Petersburg. Possibly, he may have received the prize money meant for Buffington.

In 1908, G.A.R. president John Rigdon King (formerly of the 6th Maryland) presented Buffington with his Medal of Honor. King believed that Buffington must have been given his share of the prize money.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Deciding Vote: Marylanders in the Army of the Potomac, Part 4.

In the autumn of 1864, Marylanders serving with in the Army of the Potomac had a busy time, politically. They had to vote in two important elections. The first election determined if their new constitution (which promised to outlaw slavery) would be adopted. The second election determined which presidential candidate—Abraham Lincoln or George McClellan—would carry Maryland’s seven electoral votes.

The two elections were interrelated. If Maryland adopted a new constitution, that document would allow the state’s soldiers to vote in the field on the day of the national election. Graciously, but with questionable legality, Maryland’s government allowed its soldiers to vote in the field in order to determine the fate of the new constitution.

It was an important decision. As it turned out, the soldiers were the deciding vote.

Thus, among their many wartime contributions, Marylanders in the Army of the Potomac deserve credit for bringing slavery to a permanent end in their state—no small feat since the peculiar institution had existed from the first decade of Maryland’s colonial settlement, 222 years prior.

Our story begins with Maryland’s second constitution, adopted in 1851. That constitution prevented soldiers from voting in the field. Specifically, it required all Maryland voters “to vote in the ward or election district where he resides.” At the time, this was a common feature of state constitutions. The framers of these documents feared that absentee balloting would open up opportunities for corruption. Therefore, denying soldiers the right of suffrage seemed like a small price to pay to ensure the sanctity of the electoral process. In fact, by the outbreak of the Civil War, only two of the Free States—Ohio and Pennsylvania—had passed legislation that allowed soldiers to vote by proxy.

So, when Marylanders went to war in 1861, they could not vote in any of the state or federal elections unless their commanding officer granted them a furlough on the day of the election. During the first three years of the war, Union generals attempted to accommodate Maryland regiments by giving them limited time off to return home and cast their ballots. For instance, in October 1861, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks had furloughed three Maryland regiments for ten days, allowing them a chance to participate in the state election on November 6. In 1862 and 1863, the commander of the Middle Department, Maj. Gen. Robert Schenck, granted the same courtesies to the Maryland soldiers under his command. These furloughs happened only because those regiments that were furloughed were stationed near convenient railroad lines, and also because their temporary absence did not disrupt any crucial U.S. military operations. Even so, the votes cast by these Maryland soldiers were so insignificant in number they did not influence any state or national election.

However, in 1864, matters changed. That year, it became clear to the members the Union Party (Maryland’s moderate version of the Republican Party) that if they wished to gain an advantage in the Presidential Election of 1864, then Maryland needed to include the soldier-vote. As in other states, Maryland’s Union Party faced a noticeable problem. Those soldiers who enlisted in the summer of 1861 would be returning to Maryland at the end of their three-year tour-of-duty. Only those who reenlisted as “veteran volunteers” would stay in the army. Union Party members generally believed that most re-enlistees were Lincoln supporters. Meanwhile, all the George McClellan supporters were coming home. In short, the end of the Union army’s first tour-of-duty promised to give the Democrats a boost. Something had to be done before Election Day. Maryland’s Union Party determined that the Constitution of 1851, which outlawed absentee voting, needed to be replaced.

This was an idea that had been long in coming. Unionists in Maryland had also hoped that a timely revision to the state constitution could abolish slavery. Victories at the state level had given the Union Party a majority, and in February 1864, the Union Party mustered sufficient votes to call for a convention. Despite a dyspeptic protest from the Democratic Party, the convention opened on April 27, 1864. By May 11, its managers formed a committee to consider the rights of Maryland voters. This organization became known as the Committee of Elective Franchise. It consisted of six men: George W. Sands, David Scott, Thomas Russell, Jonas Ecker, John Brown, and Fendall Marbury. The first four committeemen belonged to the Unionist majority. The last two belonged to the Democratic minority. Among other obligations, this committee had instructions to consider “incorporating into the Constitution an article extending the right of suffrage to soldiers . . . who may be out of this State, and in the Service of the United States at the time of any election in this State.”

Over the summer, the convention’s suffrage committee devised several sections to be incorporated into the new constitution, one of which proposed to disfranchise citizens who had supported the Confederacy. Also, the committee recommended a “test oath” for every Marylander to become a legitimate voter. (These two provisions were adopted and incorporated into the new constitution, but eventually deleted when Maryland adopted yet another constitution in 1867.) True to their word, the members of the Committee of Elective Franchise also provided seven sections to describe how soldiers from Maryland could vote in the field. On Election Day, so this section described, from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M., each Maryland regiment serving under U.S. command could open a small poll with commissioned officers acting as the state’s election judges. The officers were required to record in a poll book the names of every soldier who voted and then thread all ballots onto a string, sending back the poll book, the threaded ballots, and the official returns to the office of the governor.

In addition to suggesting methods for how soldiers could vote in the field, the Committee of Elective Franchise suggested the wild idea that Maryland soldiers should also have the right to use this new method of voting in the upcoming ratification vote on the new constitution. This dubious argument meant that the provisions of the new government could go into operation even before the voters had officially ratified it.

Democrats who attended the Maryland constitutional convention of 1864 felt tremendous pressure to prevent its adoption. Not only did the new constitution promise to outlaw slavery, but the enfranchisement of Maryland soldiers threatened George McClellan’s chances to carry the state. Maryland Democrats were in a tight place. They did not want to appear as if they hated the idea of soldiers voting solely because they carried partisan misgivings about it. Instead, they had to contrive shallow excuses to explain why voting in the field threatened the elective process with corruption.

Edward W. Belt, a representative of Prince George’s County, called the soldier-voting provision a “total abnegation of all protection against fraud.” He explained:

The real objection which obtains to soldiers voting in camp is not that anybody wants to deprive them of a fair right to vote under the same conditions under which civilians vote. If they can procure furloughs, or be detached and come home and vote, as they have done heretofore, under the same conditions that civilians vote, there would be no objection on earth to it. But the objection arises from the circumstance that it is proposed that these people shall vote nobody knows where, no matter how many hundreds of miles away from the place where the election is conducted. It is the total abnegation of all protection against fraud. Nobody can guarantee a fair election under these circumstances. And another strong and conclusive objection against the policy proposed to be inaugurated is that it is to be conducted by persons who are not officers of the law, and therefore a discrimination is made between one part of our people who are in the State, and those who happen to be in the military service, in favor of those who are in that service. I am opposed to a policy which gives to men, because they happen to be in the army and out of the State, who are in the service which they have chosen with all the known disabilities of it, an immense advantage of this sort over our whole civil population. It is upon this ground, and this only, that I am opposed to this system.

Naturally, the Union Party delegates cried foul. They believed Democrats’ objections served as window dressing to mask their concerns about the 1864 election, that McClellan would lose Maryland if the soldiers’ votes were tallied. Delegate John Lewis Thomas, Jr. from Baltimore City, explained, “[Some] Gentlemen . . . say that the soldier has no right to vote for it [the new constitution]. The more honest and brave of them tell us that they want the soldier to vote for their peace candidate. The soldier is not good enough to vote for your constitution, but he is good enough to vote for George B. McClellan?”

In high fury, Thomas went on to call McClellan a tyrant and a usurper—prompting hisses from those in attendance—and then he defended the right of soldiers to vote in the field. Reaching an oratorical crescendo, he said:

I give my vote for this section with the same feeling that I gave my vote in support of the declaration of emancipation. I gave it with a full determination that I was doing what was approved by my conscience and by my God. I gave it with a determination that those who shall come after me when this war shall have been ended, and peace shall have been brought back once more to this now distracted land, will honor me for it. And if I am to die, be it sooner or later, be it the death of a martyr, or be it any other death that Almighty God may ordain for me, I shall never regret that I have not only voted to allow Maryland soldiers to vote to adopt this constitution as the organic law of the land, but that I have voted to prevent every man who is in sympathy with, or who has given any aid, comfort or encouragement to those in armed rebellion against the government of the United States, from voting either in favor of or against the adoption of this constitution.

With Unionist control of the convention, the delegates adopted the new constitution in a split vote, 53 to 26. When the Democrats drafted their protest, they listed three reasons to kill the new constitution: 1) the constitution’s decision to abolish slavery, 2) the imposition of test oaths for voters, and 3) that soldiers in the field were allowed to vote for or against its adoption.

When Marylanders voted in October, initially, it appeared as if the constitution would fail. Only 27,541 Marylanders supported its adoption, while 29,536 Marylanders voted against it. For a few days, it appeared as if slavery would stand, but then, the returns from the soldiers arrived. From their camps, 2,633 of them voted in favor of the constitution, and only 375 voted against it. These numbers overturned the results. Now, the votes were 30,174 in favor of the constitution and 29,799 votes against it. In essence, Maryland’s soldiers had been the deciding vote. Surely, some Maryland soldiers had made their decision to adopt the new constitution because they wanted to see Confederate citizens punished by the test oaths or they wanted to see them lose their slaves; however, the decision that weighed the heaviest on their minds was the new constitution’s promise to enfranchise Maryland soldiers in the nick of time for the presidential election.

Despite a futile effort by the Democratic Party to use the courts to disqualify the soldier-vote, the new constitution went into effect on November 1, 1864.

Seven days later, the national election took place.

On November 2, 1864, one day after the constitution became the law of the land, Governor Augustus Bradford dispatched an agent named Richard King to take Union Party ballots to all Maryland regiments assigned to the Army of the Potomac and to the Army of the James. King was a state relief agent, responsible for transporting supplies donated by benevolent Marylanders. He left Baltimore and arrived at City Point on the same day.

Wasting little time, King began touring the front lines, locating every Maryland regiment and ensuring that their commanders possessed sufficient ballots. On the morning of November 4, he visited the encampment of the 1st Maryland Cavalry, and then, during the afternoon, he visited the 5th Maryland. King tallied the number of men in each regiment (likely to ensure that no voter fraud occurred). In a letter to Bradford, he declared himself pleased with his encounters. It seemed as if the Maryland soldiers planned to give Lincoln an overwhelming majority. After visiting the cavalry regiment, he said, “They seemed to take much interest in the coming Election, also to know they were not forgotten at home.” 

Although the 5th Maryland had lost heavily at a recent engagement, Maj. David Boutwell White (the regimental commander), “spoke in strong terms of their Bravery and desired to be remembered to friends at home.” King related, “Many of the men detailed from the Regt. are in close proximity [to the enemy] and were very anxious about receiving their ballots.” Because of the feisty debate at the state convention, the Union Party had established itself as the pro-soldier party, and from King’s face-to-face conversations, it looked as if that reputation would pay off.

On November 6, King reached the Union earthworks along the Weldon Railroad, where he found the Maryland Brigade, which consisted of four infantry regiments (and a single company that had once been the Purnell Legion). The Maryland soldiers welcomed him exuberantly. King explained, “They were in splendid spirits, very few sick and quite excited about the Election. Some few officers were at home on short leave. The sight of these men, the good order and condition of the Camp and military bearing and the hearty welcome that I always receive from every officer and man of our Fighting Brigade makes me proud of being a Marylander. They are spoken of throughout the 5th Corps, from the highest to the lowest, as the most worthy descendants of the Old Md. Line.” Although he did not have time to deliver ballots personally to the 9th Corps, two officers, Lt. Col. Benjamin Franklin Taylor of the 2nd Maryland and an unnamed captain from the 3rd Maryland, arrived at the Maryland Brigade’s headquarters to take ballots back to their troops.

On November 8, Election Day, voting occurred with cordiality and excitement. According to King, “the day was kept as an holiday and for amusement and pleasure. We think it will be long remembered by every man in the Brigade.” Marylanders traveled for miles vote. Those assigned to the brigade quartermaster and commissary reached the encampment to cast their ballots, as did those stationed at the field hospital, and also those on picket duty. King explained, “So great an interest did our Noble Soldiers take in an Election that volunteers 3 at a time offered and did relieve those on Pickett & vidette that they too might exercise their right of voting.”

When all the ballots were tallied, the Marylanders in the Army of the Potomac had given Lincoln a stunning endorsement. More than 90% of them had chosen to stick with Old Abe.

This chart tabulates the results.
Total Maryland Voters in the Army of the Potomac
Total Maryland Voters for Abraham Lincoln in the Army of the Potomac
Total Maryland Voters for George McClellan in the Army of the Potomac

These are the votes broken down by regiment. The results from all of the Army of the Potomac regiments are known, as are the results from the 5th Maryland in the Army of the James. Only the results from the 1st Maryland Cavalry are missing.
Votes for Lincoln
Votes for McClellan
1st Maryland Volunteer Infantry & Purnell Legion Infantry (5th Corps)
4th Maryland Volunteer Infantry (5th Corps)
7th Maryland Volunteer Infantry (5th Corps)
8th Maryland Volunteer Infantry (5th Corps)
2nd Maryland Volunteer Infantry (9th Corps)
3rd Maryland Volunteer Battalion Infantry (9th Corps)
5th Maryland Volunteer Infantry (18th Corps—Army of the James)

Of course, Maryland soldiers served elsewhere, other than in these two eastern armies. Taken as a whole, the results are generally the same. Lincoln won almost 90% of the soldier vote from Maryland, while McClellan took only 10%.
Total Maryland Voters in all Union Armies
Total Maryland Voters for Abraham Lincoln in all Union Armies
Total Maryland Voters for George McClellan in all Union Armies

However, the votes from Maryland soldiers did not reflect the state as a whole. While Lincoln carried 90% of the soldier vote, he took only 55% of the home front. Unlike the voting for the state constitution, the addition of the soldier-vote did not alter the result.
Total Maryland Voters Who Voted in Maryland
Total Maryland Voters Who Voted for Abraham Lincoln in Maryland
Total Maryland Voters Who Voted for George McClellan in Maryland

In the afterglow of his reelection, Lincoln noticed what Maryland had done. In the end, he didn’t care much about Maryland’s decision to reelect him, but more that the Old Line State had willfully abolished slavery. On November 17, Maryland’s “Central Committee”—a delegation of Union Party members—arrived at the White House to meet with Lincoln and congratulate him on his victory. Lincoln’s general words were recorded by a reporter for the Washington Chronicle:

When he thought of Maryland in particular, it was that the people had more than double their share in what had occurred in the elections. He thought the adoption of their free State constitution was a bigger thing than their part in the Presidential election. He could, any day, have stipulated to lose Maryland in the Presidential election to save its free constitution, because the Presidential election comes every four years and the adoption of the constitution, being a good thing, could not be undone. He therefore thought in that they had a victory for the right worth a great deal more than their part in the Presidential election, although he thought well of that. He once before said, and would now say again, that those who had differed from us and opposed us would see that it was better for their own good that they had been defeated, rather than to have been successful. Thanking them for their compliment, he said he would bring to a close that short speech.

As usual, Lincoln hit the nail on the head. Presidents were fleeting. Freedom was permanent. My only criticism is that he ought to have said these words directly to the Maryland soldiers from the Army of the Potomac.

After all, they had been the deciding vote.

Delegate John Lewis Thomas, Jr. of Baltimore argued in favor of granting Maryland soldiers the right to vote in the field. He declared, no matter how he might die, he'd never live to regret his decision.