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.

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