Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Marc W. Kruman


During the Civil War, twenty northern states changed their laws to permit absent soldiers to vote. Before enactment of these statutes, state laws had tethered balloting to the voter's community and required in-person participation by voters. Under the new laws, eligible voters - as long as they were soldiers - could cast ballots in distant military encampments, far from their neighbors and community leaders. This dissertation examines the legal conflicts that arose from this phenomenon and the political causes underlying it.

Legally, the laws represented an abrupt change, contrary to earlier scholarship viewing them as culminating a gradual process of relaxing residency rules in the antebellum period. In fact, the laws left intact all prewar suffrage qualifications, including residency requirements. Their radicalism lay not in changing rules about who could vote, but in departing from the prewar legal blueprint of what elections were and how voters participated in them. The changes were constitutionally problematic, generating court challenges in some states and constitutional amendments in others. Ohio's experience offers a case study demonstrating the radicalism of the legal change and the constitutional tension it created.

In political history, prior scholarship has largely overlooked the role the issue of soldier voting played in competition for civilian votes. The politics of 1863-1864 drew soldiers into partisan messaging, since servicemen spoke with authority on the themes the parties used to attack their opponents: the candidates' military incompetence, Lincoln's neglect of the troops, and McClellan's cowardice and disloyalty. Soldiers participated politically not only as voters, but also as spokesmen for these messages to civilian voters. In this setting, the soldier-voting issue became a battleground in partisan efforts to show kinship with soldiers. The issue's potency became evident nationally after the 1863 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, presaging the 1864 presidential contest. The Republican incumbent ran as "the soldiers' friend" and attacked his Democratic rival as the enemy of soldiers for opposing that state's soldier-voting law. The issue was decisive in securing civilian votes for the victorious Republican. That experience launched a nationwide push by Republicans to enact soldier-voting laws in time for the 1864 elections.