- Historic Sites
Grant And The Politicians
It was almost election time, the unpopular war was stalemated, the casualty lists were growing, and the President’s opponents cried “Peace!” Then the new commanding general moved with consummate political as well as military skill
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
Grant took a long look at the matter, and he put his thoughts on paper in a manner showing that the head of the democracy’s armies understood democracy to the full; understood that the democratic process need not be feared as long as the men who used it acted with boldness and good sense. Writing thus, Sam Grant at last came of age and turned a routine document into a triumphant affirmation of the faith America fought for. On September 27 he sent Mr. Stanton this letter: The exercise of the right of suffrage by the officers and soldiers of armies in the field is a novel thing. It has, I believe, generally been considered dangerous to constitutional liberty and subversive of military discipline. But our circumstances are novel and exceptional. A very large proportion of legal voters of the United States are now either under arms in the field, or in hospitals, or otherwise engaged in the military service of the United States.
Most of these men are not regular soldiers in the strict sense of that term; still less are they mercenaries, who give their services to the Government simply for its pay, having little understanding of the political questions or feeling little or no interest in them. On the contrary they are American citizens, having still their homes and social and political ties binding them to the States and districts from which they come and to which they expect to return.
They have left their homes temporarily to sustain the cause of their country in the hour of its trial. In performing this sacred duty they should not be deprived of a most precious privilege. They have as much right to demand that their votes shall be counted in the choice of their rulers as those citizens who remain at home. Nay, more, for they have sacrificed more for their country.
I state these reasons in full, for the unusual thing of allowing armies in the field to vote, that I may urge on the other hand that nothing more than the fullest exercise of this right should be allowed, for anything not absolutely necessary to this exercise cannot but be dangerous to the liberties of the country. The officers and soldiers have every means of understanding the questions before the country. The newspapers are freely circulated, and so, I believe, are the documents prepared by both parties to set forth the merits and claims of their candidates.
Beyond this nothing whatever should be allowed. No political meetings, no harangues from soldiers or citizens, and no canvassing of camps or regiments for votes. I see not why a single individual not belonging to the armies should be admitted into their lines to deliver tickets. In my opinion the tickets should be furnished by the chief provostmarshal of each army, by them to the provost-marshal (or some other appointed officer) of each brigade or regiment, who shall on the day of election deliver tickets irrespective of party to whoever may call for them. If, however, it shall be deemed expedient to admit citizens to deliver tickets, then it should be most positively prohibited that such citizens should electioneer, harangue or canvass the regiments in any way. Their business should be, and only be, to distribute on a certain fixed day tickets to whoever may call for them.
In the case of those States whose soldiers vote by proxy, proper State authority could be given to officers belonging to regiments so voting to receive and forward votes. As it is intended that all soldiers entitled to vote shall exercise that privilege according to their own convictions of right, unmolested and unrestricted, there will be no objection to each party sending to armies, easy of access, a number of respectable gentlemen to see that these views are fully carried out.
In the end: no problem. The soldiers talked things over among themselves, soldier fashion, but there was no general electioneering to disturb army morale or discipline, and the men showed they could take a national election in their stride. As Election Day drew nearer it became quite obvious that these soldiers were not in any significant numbers going to try to vote themselves out of the war. They had affectionate admiration for McClellan, but he lost many votes in the army he once commanded because the men felt that he had been made the victim of a stop-the-war faction that had dominated the Democratic convention; men who were using great batteries of siege guns to salute immense victories were not ready to embrace a party whose platform called the war a failure. Elated Republicans in the election districts back home were boasting that they needed no campaign speeches except the dispatches from Sherman and Sheridan (although just to be on the safe side they sent out every orator they had); and the soldier vote began to look so safe that in states which had no absentee-voter laws Republican party leaders pulled wires to get the men furloughed by regiments, confident that nearly all of them would vote for Lincoln. And now, near the end of the third week in October, Sheridan sent in another dispatch which told the North that it need never again worry about Jubal Early or Confederate operations in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan had won another victory, and this time it was conclusive. The federal triumph at Cedar Creek virtually ended the career of Early’s army.