Bexley students enlisted to sort soldiers ballots from 1864

 Photo courtesy of Ohio Historical Society

Bexley Middle School students Derek Cain, left, and Sirrus Lawson-Bourne, look over presidential ballots from 1864 with William Laidlaw, executive director of the Ohio Historical Society. The students were recruited to help catalogue the ballots cast by Ohio soldiers, the first time the troops were allowed to vote from the field.

Bexley Middle School students recently had a hands-on lesson about an election held during wartime, with the major parties divided over whether to continue the conflict and the soldiers in the field adding their crucial votes to the final outcome.

They weren’t learning about 2008, or even 2004, but 1864, when Abraham Lincoln sought re-election during the Civil War, and the Union soldiers, for the first time, were allowed to vote for president from their encampments.

The Bexley students in Jeanine Hetzler’s class came to the Ohio Historical Society April 18 to help catalogue the actual ballots cast by those soldiers, after 58 boxes of the artifacts were turned over by the Secretary of State’s office.

"I’ve never seen anything quite like these," commented Jelain Chubb, state archivist, of the bundles of ballots, some still wrapped in the string they arrived with 144 years ago.

It was an historic election for several reasons.

It was the first time that a country in the midst of a civil war had tried to hold a national election.

Lincoln, a Republican, was opposed by George McClellan, a Democrat and his former commanding general.

"Lincoln knew the soldiers’ votes would be incredibly important," offered Fred Previts, a government records archivist for the historical society and a Civil War re-enactor.

So 13 states with Republican legislatures passed laws allowing the soldiers to cast their votes from their camps, rather than having to obtain leave and travel to their home towns.

Ohio soldiers had been allowed to vote in the state’s gubernatorial election in 1863 and in statewide elections in October, 1864, before the November presidential contest.

Democratic states declined to offer such accommodations to their troops.

Lincoln and the Republicans wanted to see the war through until the South surrendered unconditionally, and supported a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.

Counties in red voted for Abraham Lincoln and the National Union Party, and the counties in blue cast their ballots for Democrat George McClellan. The darker areas indicate counties for which the Ohio Historical Society has obtained the ballots of soldiers.

To attract voters from the other party (Lincoln’s running mate, Andrew Johnson, was a Democrat), the president ran as the candidate of the National Union Party.

McClellan (whose running mate was Democrat George Pendleton of Ohio) favored continuing the war and retaining the southerners’ right to own slaves. But most Democrats wanted peace at any cost and advocated signing an armistice with the South, Previts added.

Lincoln’s position was strengthened by Union victories, including Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in September and Grant’s aggressive offensive against Lee in Virginia.

The soldiers saw the peace overtures "as a betrayal" Chubb said, and 81 percent voted for Lincoln.

Ohio probably would have gone to Lincoln without the soldiers’ votes, but the margin of victory would have been narrower, according to Previts.

Only 53 percent of Ohioans at home voted for Lincoln, and eight counties would have been captured by McClellan without the soldiers’ votes.

Ohio soldiers cast 51,434 ballots that came in from as close to home as Camp Chase on the west side of Columbus, and as far away as Jacksonville, Fla., and Fort Laramie in the Idaho Territory, what would later become Wyoming.

The archivists have been interested in the variety of ballots made available by each county. Most are printed in black and white, but some were embossed on green or yellow paper.

Others, such as those provided by Montgomery County, were printed in red and blue and festooned with flags, eagles and patriotic slogans such as "Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys."

"It was all about patriotism and we must win the war," Chubb said.

The ballots were cast anonymously, but some troops couldn’t resist the temptation to leave their personal mark on posterity and wrote their names and messages on the backs of their ballots.

Once they were cast, the ballots were hung up on a string by county. The tell-tale hole in the center (without any hanging chads) is the sign that the ballots were counted. Names were recorded in poll books and votes counted on a tally sheet.

The Bexley students were brought in to sort the ballots and record the unit from which they came, the location where they were cast, the type of ballot and any other pertinent information.

While the ballots don’t show how individual soldiers voted, they will reveal how the units as a whole were swayed by newspapers, letters from home, even the political leanings of their commanding officers.

This is the third time that the archivists have employed students from Bexley Middle School. One previous group helped sort pamphlets that promoted everything from agriculture to Prohibition to the Ku Klux Klan.

Having students participate in the actual cataloguing has benefits for everyone.

The experience gives the students a unique opportunity to view historic documents.

"They get a history lesson and a civics lesson at the same time," Chubb said. "It shows that history isn’t boring."

For the historical society, which has undergone drastic cuts in staff, it provides additional sets of hands for what is a "labor-intensive" process, Chubb said.

Chubb called the Bexley kids "a very engaged group of students."

They made the connection to what was happening then and what is happening in the country now, the archivists noted.

By handling the ballots cast by men who fought and died to save the union, the students also learned about having their voices heard in a democracy.

"It brought home how important casting a vote is," Chubb said.

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