Soldiers' Ballots

Voting by Mail during the Civil War

Recruiting poster and officer's commission (1862/1865) by California Adjutant General RecordsCalifornia State Archives

The Civil War left its mark on many aspects of American life including on elections and voting. California’s first experiment with voting by mail occurred during the Civil War. At the start of the war in 1861, most of the Federal Army was stationed in forts across the western United States. More than 16,000 Californians volunteered to serve during the war, and most of these new soldiers helped to fill the void left when Federal troops were transferred to the east. One volunteer named Juan de la Guerra joined the First Battalion of Native Cavalry, a military unit authorized by the War Department and composed primarily of hundreds of Californians of Hispanic and American Indian ancestry (pictured here is Juan de la Guerra’s commission as a lieutenant in the First Battalion of Native Cavalry). As California’s soldiers fought on battlefields stretching from Virginia to Arizona, another struggle was being waged in the legislature and the courts to secure and protect these soldiers’ right to vote.

Original bill file, Assembly Bill 57 (1863) by California State Legislature RecordsCalifornia State Archives

In 1863 Governor Leland Stanford urged the legislature to allow California’s new soldiers to vote: “…every right which our citizen soldiers possessed at home should follow them to the camp and to the field…let their votes be recorded…let no loyal man who responds to his country’s call be disenfranchised…” The legislature obliged, and the Governor signed an act that year which allowed those California soldiers serving away from home "to vote, as fully as they would be entitled to vote at elections in the several counties and districts in which they reside" (pictured). Furthermore, "votes received from…each place where…California soldiers in the service of the United States may be on that day…shall be sealed up by the commanding officer, and be by him forthwith transmitted, by mail or otherwise, to the Secretary of State at Sacramento.” Today these elections records are in the California State Archives.

Muster roll and ballots (1863) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

This new law allowed thousands of California soldiers stationed as far north as the Canadian border, as far south as the Mexican border and as far east as Texas to vote for their elected officials. Members of the famed “California Hundred” (fighting east of the Mississippi River as part of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry) gathered on September 2, 1863, to cast ballots at their post in Virginia (pictured). These men desired to fight in the Eastern Theater and had offered their services to the Governor of Massachusetts. In addition to the official slate of candidates, votes were cast for their Captain James Sewall Reed (later killed in action) for Lieutenant Governor, and for Emperor Norton (a well-known San Francisco eccentric named Joshua Abraham Norton) for Governor.

Fort Tejon and cavalry flag (1960) by Frederick A. Meyer Papers and California State Legislature RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Fort Tejon, original established in 1854 in what is today Kern County, was one of many forts occupied by California soldiers during the Civil War. Company D of the Second California Cavalry was posted to Fort Tejon in the summer of 1863. Although most of the soldiers in Company D were originally from northern California, the new voting law allowed them to cast ballots for Governor, members of Congress and other offices at Fort Tejon in southern California on election day. Today Fort Tejon is a State Historic Park (pictured).

Fort Tejon statement of votes (1863) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

According to this statement of the votes dated September 2, 1863, the soldiers at Fort Tejon voted unanimously for pro-Unionist candidates. Some Californians regarded the new voting law as unconstitutional, and some Californians who held Confederate sympathies may have also opposed the new law for enfranchising their political opponents. An article in one California newspaper from 1863 stated: “…the Legislature has no more constitutional right to alter this clause of the constitution in behalf of the soldier, than it has to extend the right of suffrage to the negro or the Chinaman…such a thing as free suffrage in the army, is of necessity an impossibility; and the attempt is disorganizing and destructive to discipline. The soldier, on entering the army, ceases to be a free citizen, and becomes a subject of arbitrary power…”

Fort Miller (1970) by California Department of Parks and Recreation RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Fort Miller, originally established in 1851 in what is today Madera County, was abandoned at the start of the Civil War. In 1863 Lieutenant-Colonel William Jones of the Second California Cavalry wrote: “…I am informed that there is not a loyal man in the place. I am also informed by reliable Union men that upon the receipt of the news that the rebel army under Lee had crossed into Maryland and Pennsylvania they celebrated the occasion by a public demonstration, in which all joined (of both sexes), by firing a Confederate salute…this county is the resort of bad men. The people boast that they have neither a common school nor a church in the county…I would suggest for the general commanding the propriety of reoccupying Fort Miller with a company or detachment of cavalry. The fort is now occupied by the families of disloyal men, with one exception, using the buildings as dwelling houses. In my opinion the presence of a cavalry company would have a moral influence upon their conduct toward the Government and its officers…” Fort Miller would instead by occupied by soldiers of the Second California Infantry. The fort’s original blockhouse (pictured) was relocated after Friant Dam was built in the 1940s and the surrounding land was flooded as a reservoir.

Fort Miller list of electors (1863) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

This list of electors includes “…residents of California in the military service of the United States entitled to vote at the State and County Judicial Elections to be held on the third Wednesday the 21st day of October 1863…Fort Miller…” The names of officers and enlisted men of the Second California Infantry who voted are shown on this list along with their corresponding rank and county of residence.

Appellants' brief (1864) by California Supreme Court RecordsCalifornia State Archives

The constitutionality of the new law was quickly challenged. John Bourland, who had lost a close election for sheriff of Tuolumne County in September of 1863, brought a case that was eventually decided in the Supreme Court of California in 1864. Bourland’s opponent, George Hildreth, had won the election by such a narrow margin that he actually would have lost had the soldiers’ ballots not been counted. The Supreme Court eventually decided that the law was indeed unconstitutional (pictured). They ruled that a soldier must cast his ballot within the boundaries of the county in which he resided at the time of his enlistment in order for his vote to be counted. Justice Lorenzo Sawyer wrote: “after a most patient, long-continued, thorough and anxious investigation of the question in this case, with a full appreciation of the responsibility resting upon me, and of the fact that a large and meritorious class of citizens may, for the time being, be unable to avail themselves of the inestimable privilege of the right of suffrage, and of the still more important fact that the State, in a momentous crisis in her history, may be deprived of the benefit of the voice of all her electors, I am unable to come to any other conclusion, than that the limits within which the right of suffrage must be exercised are fixed by the Constitution, and that the elector must claim his vote in the county or district in which he has his residence.”

Original bill file, Assembly Bill 350 (1864) by California State Legislature RecordsCalifornia State Archives

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the law allowing California’s soldiers to cast ballots by mail was criticized in the press. According to one California newspaper, the court’s judgement “was intended to give aid and comfort to the Jeff Davis rebels…it will place in office rank secessionists in Tuolumne, and perhaps in some other counties…the opinion is none the less regretted by devoted Union men, for it will most assuredly rejoice the hearts of Copperheads and Secessionists.” The legislature passed another act soon after to protect the soldiers’ voting rights (pictured). This second law specifically allowed soldiers to vote for members of the state legislature, for members of Congress and for presidential electors. The Supreme Court’s ruling would have no effect on these particular races. The state legislature and Congress, for example, are themselves the ultimate arbitrators of their own respective membership.

Fort Humboldt list of electors (1864/1962) by California Secretary of State Records and Frederick A. Meyer PapersCalifornia State Archives

About eight months after the legislature again passed a law allowing California’s soldiers to vote, thousands of these soldiers were able to cast ballots in the presidential election of 1864. Among these soldiers were the officers and enlisted men of Company A of the First Battalion of Native Cavalry (their names can be seen on this list of electors). President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection was uncertain, and his loss to the Democratic candidate George McClelland may have put his goals of reuniting the Union and abolishing slavery in jeopardy. Company A was stationed at Fort Humboldt, which is now a State Historic Park (pictured), in the far north of California. Their commanding officer Captain José Ramón Pico urged his men to vote in the upcoming election: “Soon will come the day when you will be called upon to exercise your rights as civilians in the selection of a man for the Chief Magistracy of the Nation. On such a momentous occasion it is hoped and believed, from your intelligence and patriotism, and love of order, that you will sustain the defenders of the Union and the cause of liberty.”

Fort Humboldt return of votes and ballots (1864) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

President Lincoln won reelection with the support of over seventy percent of the votes of all Union soldiers and sailors nation-wide. Lincoln’s support among military voters was higher than was his support among civilian voters (he won fifty-five percent of the overall popular vote). The President won California’s five electoral votes by less than twenty-thousand votes, with backing from California’s soldiers providing a critical boost. The officers and enlisted men of Company A of the First Battalion of Native Cavalry who voted by mail at Fort Humboldt supported Lincoln almost exclusively. According to this return of soldiers’ votes dated November 8, 1864, only one member of Company A voted for Lincoln’s opponent. The fight to protect and expand voting rights continued after the Civil War, and today a majority of all California voters cast their ballots by mail.

Credits: Story

All images from records of the California State Archives.

Digital exhibit by Sebastian Nelson (2018)

Imaging by Thaddeus McCurry and Brian Guido (2018)

California State Archives
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