SOLDIERS: I am exceedingly obliged to you for this mark of respect. It is said that we have the best Government the world ever knew, and I am glad to meet you, the supporters of that Government. To you who render the hardest work in its support should be given the greatest credit. Others who are connected with it, and who occupy higher positions, their duties can be dispensed with, but we cannot get along without your aid. While others differ with the Administration, and, perhaps, honestly, the soldiers generally have sustained it; they have not only fought right, but, so far as could be judged from their actions, they have voted right, and I for one thank you for it. I know you are en route for the front, and therefore do not expect me to detain you long, and will therefore bid you good morning.
Abraham Lincoln’s speech to the 189th New York Volunteers in Washington D.C. on October 24, 1864.
Source: Lincoln, Abraham. A. Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865. (published 1989; Library of America.) page 585.
Sustained by the Soldiers?
The Civil War armies were made of volunteer soldiers. Certainly, some of the men in the ranks had been drafted or bought as substitutes, but the majority volunteered. In the North, the men’s willingness or at least determination to enter the military as citizen soldiers allowed the Federal government to maintain the fight to restore national unity.
In this brief address, Lincoln recognized the importance of the common soldier. Without them in the ranks, there could be no substantial war and no defense of the Federal government and restoration of the union.
Also, the president recognized that by 1864, many of the northern soldiers leaned toward the Republican party (at least those who voted) and their votes would help carry Lincoln to a second term. On many levels, the citizen soldier allowed the war to continue and helped influence the outcome of the election.
189th New York Volunteers
This regiment was “new” in 1864. Actually, recruited and formed in August/September 1864. These soldiers came from the area around Elmira, New York, and four of the companies had been intended for the 175th New York Regiment, but at the last minute were used to help form this new regiment.
President Lincoln met these troops while they were en route to join the army. The 175th would see action at the Siege of Petersburg, Hatcher’s Run, the Appomattox Campaign, and Five Forks.
“Voted right.” To Lincoln that meant voting for him and his party. Which raises the interesting question about the soldiers’ votes of 1864. Of those soldiers who voted, the majority cast their ballots for the incumbent. But what about those who didn’t vote? Some regiments carefully gave voting leave to those who would vote against McClellan. While within the camps, themselves the secret ballot did not exist and some soldiers may have been forced on a vote or simply chose not add their name to a ballot.
Many of the 1864 election details and the observation that not all soldiers voted or received selective permission to go home to vote came later and may not have even been known by the president. At face value, Lincoln’s speech thanked the soldiers for their support, recognizing their importance to the nation and to his political campaign.