November 5, 2012


            The debates are over. The political commercials are (thankfully) in their last runs. The presidential campaign action now moves to GOTV - Get Out The Vote - and the ground game to get supporters to the polls.
            This year the presidential campaigns - particularly the Obama campaign - have focused substantial resources on a final GOTV push. But it pales when compared to another son of Illinois’ GOTV in 1864.
            Abraham Lincoln was convinced he would not be re-elected. Ten weeks before Election Day he asked his cabinet to sign the outside of a sealed document they were not allowed to read. Inside the president had written, "This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such grounds that he can not possibly save it afterwards."
            The week after Lincoln passed the paper around his cabinet meeting, the Democratic Party nominated General George McClellan as their candidate for president. "The People are wild for peace," New York's powerful Thurlow Weed had previously written Secretary of State William Seward, adding, "I told Mr. Lincoln that his re-election was an impossibility."
            The president who described himself as, "more of a politician than anything else," responded with proven political tactics. Winning elections was about getting your supporters to the polls. Abraham Lincoln believed his support resided in the men who were bearing arms to preserve the Union. It was difficult for many of those soldiers to vote, however. In 1864 only 17 states had changed their procedures to allow soldiers to cast absentee ballots from the field. In five states - Indiana, Illinois, Delaware, New Jersey, and Oregon - soldiers could only vote in person at home.
            Thus, Lincoln wrote General William Tecumseh Sherman, "The State election of Indiana occurs on the 11th of October, and the loss of it to the friends of the government would go far towards losing the whole Union cause. The bad effect upon the November [federal] election, and especially the giving the State Government to those who will oppose the war in every possible way, are too much to risk...Indiana is the only important state whose soldiers cannot vote in the field. Any thing you can safely do to let soldiers, or any part of them, go home and vote at the State election, will be greatly in point."
            Although Lincoln’s request of Sherman specifically stated that the furloughed soldiers "need not remain for the Presidential election [the following month]," Indiana governor Oliver Morton wired the president the day after the state election (and the governor's reelection), "I most earnestly ask that their furloughs be extended by a special order until after the Presidential Election." The president wired Gov. Morton in response that he had specifically told Sherman those furloughed did not have to remain for the November election. "I therefore can not press the General on this point." Then, having established the record of being good to his word, Lincoln deftly opened the door to granting the governor's wish: "All that the Sec. of War and Gen. Sherman feel they can safely do, I however, shall be glad of."
            Governor Morton seized upon the opening. In a telegram to the president and secretary of war he observed, "It is my opinion that the vote of every soldier in Indiana will be required to carry this state for Mr. Lincoln in November." There were similar exchanges from other governors.
            It was not, however, just a matter of non-absentee states that concerned Abraham Lincoln. Thirteen of the 17 states that allowed voting from the field segregated those votes from the "home vote" at local polls. The president worried about the impact on the credibility of an election delivered by the vote of men under his command. Therefore, his administration worked to furlough soldiers in key electoral states so they could return home to cast their vote as a "home vote" rather than an "army vote."
            The result of this effort was illustrated by General George Thomas's order, a week before the election: "By direction of the honorable Secretary of War you will grant furloughs to the 15th instant to all enlisted men belonging to regiments from the following States, who are in hospitals or otherwise unfit for field duty: Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Connecticut, and Massachusetts...Transportation to be ordered to and from their homes." All told, thousands of soldiers were furloughed to return home to vote in battleground states.
            Lincoln's GOTV worked. The president carried 55 percent of the popular vote and all but three states. In the hindsight of history Lincoln probably would have won without this extraordinary effort. Making history in real time, however, provides no such hindsight opportunity. On November 6, 2012 the presidential campaigns will be practicing just what Abraham Lincoln did in November of 1864, delivering votes to the polls.
This is adapted from my book "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War (HarperCollins 2006) 

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