Soldiers Vote in the Election of 1864

In the Winter of 1864, the state saw a very tight political race for the Presidental November 1864 and the approaching the State March 1865 elections – between the Republicans and the “Copperheads”.

Copperheads was the pejorative term which now refers to any Southern sympathizer living in the north during the Civil War.  The Republicans wanted a political victory – and so the Governor initiated steps to have the soldiers (who were overwhelmingly supportive of Lincoln) available to vote.  AN order from the Governor’s Office went out to all the field Regiments: “All soldiers who could be spared from the front to vote, was given a leave of absence of 12 days to return home to NH to vote.”

“Benjamin  Prescott, [ NH Secretary of the Republican State Committee,] released an instructional broadside from his office to the heads of the Republican Committes in the state.  At the top of the page, CAUTION was printed twice on bold, black letters.  Never referring in the broadside to the opposition as Democrates, it only referred to them as Copperheads.  The instructions read, “in the close towns, the copperheads will make a desperate effort to elect their Representatives and there is where they are now making THEIR GREATEST EFFORT.  The greatest care should be exercised in these towns in guarding every point.”   A list of suggestions followed, and perhaps the most shocking one instructed party workers, “If there is any man in your neighborhood who is a little uncertain, have a man visit him constantly and talk with him and furnish him facts and the proper kind of reading matter, to disabuse his mind of copperhead misrepresentations.” [1]

There were certainly many New Englanders who opposed the war. Some were willing to see it end at any cost, even if that meant the secession of the Confederacy and the creation of a pro-slavery nation. Many local textile merchants had close ties to cotton production in the South. They were afraid that the Abolitionist movement would wreck the national economy by releasing the enslaved workers who kept cotton prices low. Others were simply attracted to racist commentary in an era when racial prejudice against blacks was common, even in New England.

The Copperhead Voice

Editor Joshua Lane Foster hated Abraham Lincoln with such passion that he started his own anti-Lincoln newspaper. Foster launched the weekly States and Union, not in a Confederate state, but in the Yankee seaport of Portsmouth, NH. It appeared in January 1863 at the height of the Civil War. Portsmouth already had four newspapers — all generally favoring the Union cause. Foster offered the only radically alternative view. But his taunting, racist pro-slavery newspaper riled many local citizens and tested the bounds of free speech in an era of war.

The Trip Home to the Polls

Major George A. Bruce was sent from the camp of two New Hampshire regiments, stated:

There was no attempt to distinguish between Republicans and Democrats.  In consequence of may threats, however, that in certain towns the soldiers would not be permitted to vote in case of their return, the order provided that the soldiers should wear side arms, and be considered on special duty and under military orders — that is, officers were to take their swords and belts, and the men their bayonets and belts, which they were to wear on all occasions during their absence.  Free transportation home and return was given to them.  The 14th Infantry was one which sent some of it troops home to vote in this tightly contested vote.

Three hundred and ninety soldiers constituted the voting contingent which went to New Hampshire.  At four p.m., March 3rd this contingent marched in military order from camp to the station, and was cheered by thousands of men from other states.

            “From Boston to Portsmouth they were taken by the steamer Guide, not arriving until one p.m., on account of a heavy fog.  Only about two-thirds of the voters arrived at their several homes in time to vote, the others being detained by a wash-out on the Boston and Maine Railroad at Newmarket, New Hampshire.”

 Voting in the Fields

The following account by Major Bruce, who was an officer in the 13th New Hampshire Volunteers, of voting in the field under the New Hampshire bill of 1864.

“The two Commissioners, one representing the Republican, and one the Democratic, party came to the 13th New Hampshire bringing with them a list of the legal voters in each regiment procured from the different towns, and permitted only those to vote whose names were on that list.  There quite a number of men who had become of age during their service whose names had not been added to these lists of voters, and therefore they were not permitted to vote.

On a certain day at dress parade the regiment was notified that between certain hours on a fixed day they would be permitted to vote.  I was present and voted on that day.  There was no speechmaking and no gathering of the regiment as a whole.  Each man came up the polling place and voted by himself.  He was given two ballots, one representing the Democratic, and one the Republican, candidates, and secretly, without knowledge of anyone, he deposited whichever vote he saw fit.

There had been no campaign literature circulated and no speechmaking.  There probably never was a purer election held in the world than that which was held under the two Commissioners from New Hampshire.  Both Commissioners expressed their opinion to the effect that no influence was exercised on the part of anybody to vote one way or the other.


NH Election Results

The end results in the Presidential election by New Hampshire Soldiers in the Field were:

For Lincoln 2,066; for McClellan, 690.

For Congressmen in the First District:  Marston, Republican, 747;  Marcey, Democrat, 40.

For Congressmen in the Second District: Rollins, Republican, 598; Clark, Democrat, 62.

For Congressmen in the Third District: Patterson, Republican, 708;  Bingham, Democrat, 62.

 In the law were an exacting series of regulations specifying the procedures by which Soldiers would be allowed to vote in the field.  New Hampshire sailors were forgotten or ignored, at all events as they were not provided for.  Perhaps it was thought that their conditions of service were so varied as to make it difficult to frame a law to cover the proceedings for them in many cases.

November 1864 National Results

“On November 8, Lincoln was reelected with 2,330,553 votes to McClellan’s 494,567.   McClellan carried only Delaware, Kentucky, and New Jersey.  Lincoln carried the state of New Hampshire but not by a landslide.  The Republican president received 36,600 votes to McClellan’s 33,034.  Lincoln carried the large towns and cities while McClellan carried the majorities of small towns.  The towns of Exeter, Hampton, Londonderry, and Portsmouth all went to Lincoln, while many small sourrounding towns like Epping, Kingston, Nottingham and Raymond  reported Majorities of McCLellan.

“One reason the towns voted as they did could have been the size of the towns themselves.  The smaller towns like Fremont, North Hampton, and Newton tended to be closely knit communities where everyone knew each other or was related, and if such a town lost a number of its sons and fathers in battle, its war-weary residents would be more likely to vote for a change in administration.   The larger towns like Salem, NEWMARKET, and Deerfield also lost residents in the war but had a larger, perhaps less-cohesive population and therefore supported Lincoln.

“The majority of military votes in the field went to Lincoln with 2,066 votes to McClellan’s 690.  One of the NH regiments that did not give Lincoln a majority of their votes was the Eighth New Hampshire Regiment that felt abandoned and blamed the administration for their losses from disease in Louisiana and the failure of Banks’s Red River Campaign.  The Tenth New Hampshire gave McClellan the majority of their votes, supposedly because they were comprised of mostly Irish Democrats from Manchester.” [2]


(Sources: [1], [2] - Men of granite: New Hampshire’s soldiers in the Civil War,  By Duane E. Shaffer

Voting in the Field,  A forgotten chapter of the Civil War, by Josiah Henry Benton, as published by Google Books.

Portsmouth is Revolting, written by Strawbery Banke Archive-HISTORIC PORTSMOUTH #43b)

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