Full war and an election in Missouri – 1864

About a decade ago, I was posted at an overseas military post as a historic event occurred – the first in a round of free elections in Afghanistan.  That lead to a lot of pictures such as this one you may have seen in the news:

Purple ink on the fingers came to symbolize not only the success of the elections, but also became a simple means to legitimize (generally speaking) the results.  (Although when someone later exposed how easily the purple ink washed off… well that turned into something I’d save for another venue.) At the time, one of the officers with whom I worked stated, “well, we should be proud.  Not often a country holds elections in the middle of a civil war.”  I had to remind him by way of a response – “like 1864?”

In the fall of 1864, Missouri was arguably the most unstable state on the North American continent.  Not only were two warring armies campaigning across the state, but where the armies were not present, irregular forces prowled.  Years of partisan warfare left some citizens suspect of even the local authorities.  But come war or flood, November 8 was an election day.

Foremost concerns in the minds of Federal authorities were, first, ensuring only legitimate votes were tallied; second, preventing the Confederates from disrupting the election; and third, ensuring the men of Missouri then under arms were represented in the voting.  With that in mind, on October 12, 1864,  Major-General William Rosecrans issued General Orders No 195:

Our free Government, established and administered by the will of the people, expressed through legal elections, requires from every citizen a sacred regard for the preservation and purity of the elective franchise.

The general commanding expects the united assistance of the true men of all parties in his efforts to secure a full and fair opportunity for all who are entitled to vote at the approaching elections in the State of Missouri, and in excluding from the polls those who, by alienage, treason, guerrillaism, and other crimes or disabilities, have no just right to vote.

The laws of the State declare who may vote, and prescribe the times and places of voting. But in the present disturbed condition of the country the civil power is too weak effectually to enforce the execution of those laws, or adequately to punish offenders….

Rosecrans listed seven points in these orders to his subordinates.  The first stated the qualifications for legitimate voters:

I. Those, and only those, who have the qualifications, and who take the oath prescribed by the laws of the State, copies of which are hereto annexed, shall vote.

From the terms of the oath it is manifest that it was the intention of the Missouri State Convention that no person should vote who, since the 17th day of December, 1861, has willfully taken up arms or levied war against the United States or against the provisional government of the State of Missouri. This excludes from the right of voting all who, since that date, have been in the rebel army or navy anywhere, and all who, since that date, have been anywhere engaged in guerrilla marauding or bushwhacking. If, therefore, any such person offers to vote his vote may be challenged, and he shall be immediately arrested. And any judge of election shall be arrested and punished who permits the name of any such person to be recorded in the poll book or his vote to be received, where such judge has personal knowledge of his true character, or the same is shown to him by lawful evidence before the vote is received.

Voting or attempting to vote in contravention of law or orders, is declared a military offense, subjecting the offender to arrest, trial, and punishment if convicted.

Those orders matched the wording from an ordnance defining “the qualifications of voters and civil officers” passed in 1862 by the state convention.  The intent was clear.  Complete exclusion of anyone who had sided with the Confederates.  Such may sound harsh and discriminatory.  But consider the context.  Didn’t the secessionists already cast a vote, for all practical purposes, for their candidate?

But please note the date set for exclusion – December 17, 1861.  That coincided with the establishment of a provisional state government.  And was also some three weeks after the Confederate Congress admitted Missouri as its 12th state.  That date was a delineation at which time the political confusion of the early war months became clear.

Rosecrans went on to address points to ensure the integrity of the process and maintain order at the polling places:

II. No one who has borne arms against the Government of the United States, or voluntarily given aid and comfort to its enemies during the present rebellion, shall act as judge or clerk at election, nor shall any county judge knowingly appoint any such person to act as judge at election. Violation of this will be promptly noticed and the offenders brought to trial by the local military authorities.

III. Outrages upon the freedom of election by violence or intimidation; attempting to hinder legal or to procure or encourage illegal voting; interfering with the legal challenge of voters; acting as officers of election in contravention of law or orders; willful neglect to perform their duties under the laws and these orders by officers of election, and especially taking the voters’ or officers’ oath falsely; and all other acts and words interfering with the purity and freedom of elections, are crimes against the liberties of the people, and are declared military offenses, and will be rigorously punished.

Rosecrans also ensured the troops from Missouri would vote:

IV. The laws of the State provide that those of its citizens who are in the army shall not thereby lose the privilege of voting, provided the voting is done in the manner prescribed. The commanding general therefore directs that on the day of election every practicable facility be afforded for taking, in camp or in the field, the vote of citizens of Missouri, who may then be in any company of Missouri volunteers or militia, in the service of the United States or of the State….

He went on to press his commanders to make arrangements for voting where the tactical situation allowed.  And where the soldiers in uniform were posted near their local polling places, he desired the soldiers be allowed to vote there.  However, in the interest of fair and free elections, “any soldier who abuses the privilege… by any disorderly conduct or by any unauthorized interference… shall be punished….”

Other points in the orders looked to the general security on the day of the elections:

V. Wherever there is good reason to apprehend that rebels, bushwhackers, or other evil disposed persons will attempt to control the election at any precinct by their acts, threats, or presence, a sufficient guard will be detailed to prevent any such control and to keep the peace.

VI. District and all subordinate commanders will strictly and carefully enforce this order at the approaching elections, and use all diligence to bring to speedy and condign punishment all civilians, officers, or soldiers who violate any of its provisions.

VII. The commanding general earnestly invokes the zealous and active aid of all law-abiding citizens, on the day of said election, in preserving the peace at the polls and preventing illegal voting; and he hopes that every newspaper in this State will see proper to publish this order continuously, in every issue, until the day of the next election.

Rosecrans orders of October 12, 1864 placed the military authorities at the polling places to facilitate, but not directly influence, the outcome.  Some will say the voter qualification standards, established by the provisional state government and enforced by the military, discriminated against those dissenting in disapproval of the Lincoln administration.  But at the same time, how can any eligible voting list include those who seceded from the government holding the elections?  Furthermore, if Rosecrans needed bayonets at the polling places, wasn’t it because of those who’d already “voted with their muskets”?

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part III, Serial 85, pages 804-6.)


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