Abraham Lincoln Investigates Voter Fraud in the 1864 Presidential Election

Agents of the Democratic Party had been convicted of forging soldier’s ballots and casting them for their candidate, George B. McClellan

The earliest letter of a President investigating voter fraud that we have seen reach the market

It was clear by 1863 that the vote of the Union soldiers would be a critical factor in determining the upcoming 1864 presidential election, particularly in the swing state of New York. Republicans expected to get...

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Abraham Lincoln Investigates Voter Fraud in the 1864 Presidential Election

Agents of the Democratic Party had been convicted of forging soldier’s ballots and casting them for their candidate, George B. McClellan

The earliest letter of a President investigating voter fraud that we have seen reach the market

It was clear by 1863 that the vote of the Union soldiers would be a critical factor in determining the upcoming 1864 presidential election, particularly in the swing state of New York. Republicans expected to get the lion’s share of soldier ballots, and Lincoln supporters in New York sought to allow Union soldiers to cast their votes through a proxy. New York Democrats opposed this proxy legislation, with Governor Horatio Seymour saying that if proxy votes decided the election, there would be “a well founded doubt as to the person rightfully entitled to the Presidential office.” But in March 1864 the tide of approval for soldiers voting in the field, without coming back to their home precincts, swept in a popular vote, winning in New York with a the statewide margin of better than 5-1. President Lincoln wrote to General Ulysses S. Grant: “New York votes to give votes to soldiers. Tell the soldiers.” Other states followed this lead, as the widespread conclusion was that soldiers, who were risking their lives for the Union, should be entitled to vote.

The Democratic presidential game plan in 1864 also required the party’s candidate, General George B. McClellan, to do well among Union soldiers. McClellan’s closest advisors fully expected him to do so. In September, Democrats, fearing that the Unionists would not stop short of intimidation to force the soldiers to support Lincoln, urged McClellan to form a veterans’ society to offset this possibility. These clubs would generate enthusiasm, react upon the soldiers in the field, and contradict the assertion that all soldiers were for Lincoln. An organization known as the McClellan Legion grew out of this suggestion, and by October it was deeply involved in the campaign. The Unionists were quick to realize the importance of capturing the veteran and soldier vote and retaliated by organizing the Veteran Union Club.

Soldiers voting in the field in 1864 would take ballots provided to them, mark them and return them to their local state election officials for counting. Republicans were aided in garnering soldier votes by the support for Lincoln at the highest chains of command; generals like Grant and Sherman are two examples. The states also appointed voting agents to visit the troops and monitor the election. For New York, Seymour appointed several dozen Democratic Party agents to see that voting by that state’s soldiers was conducted in accordance with its law; no agents who were members of the New York Republican Party were appointed.

Two of the Democratic Party agents, Moses J. Ferry and Edward Donahoe, were arrested in Baltimore by an Army Provost Marshal. They were arraigned by a military commission in October chaired by Gen. Abner Doubleday. Specifically, the two were charged with “conduct prejudicial to the welfare of the service, falsely impersonating and representing officers in the United States service”. They were accused of forging ballots of New York soldiers and changing votes to support Democratic candidates. Donahoe asked for an attorney while Ferry made a confession. He accused Donahoe of affixing the officer’s name to the ballots himself. Donahoe at first denied complicity, but later confessed to having signed blanks with the name of “C.S. Arthur, captain and aid-de-camp;” but he claimed that no offense was committed inasmuch as there was no officer by that name in the service of New York or the United States. In the press dispatches, it was alleged that several dry-goods boxes of forged votes for the Democratic national and state tickets had been forwarded to New York.
Ferry also implicated several other New York Democratic Party operatives. Both Ferry and Donahoe were convicted of forgery in late October, weeks before the election, and sentenced to prison. The voter fraud case was reported on extensively by newspapers supporting Lincoln. The New York Times reported that fraudulent Copperhead attempts to alter the election results have been thwarted.

In the end, 400,000 soldiers would vote in 1864, and 78% voted for Lincoln. Lincoln carried New York narrowly, with the soldier vote making the difference.

Autograph letter signed, on Executive Mansion letterhead, Washington, February 27, 1865, to Joseph Holt, who was the Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Army. “Please procure the record, and report to me, on the case of Edward Donahue, Jr. about election fraud.”  The letter has been professionally conserved and is backed by a sheet of Japanese paper.

What action Lincoln was contemplating in asking for this record is unknown, but he would have had no time to take any. He was assassinated just six weeks later. Donahue was in prison until June 1865, months after Lincoln’s death.

This rare letter has been in a private collection for nearly a century.  It sold in the 1920s for around $400, then a handsome sum.

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