Credit: George Danby / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on

Eben Miller is a professor of history at Southern Maine Community College.

On Sept. 12, 1864, Maine voters approved the 10th Amendment to the state constitution, allowing soldiers to vote while absent from home.

Current concern over voting in the context of a pandemic has an antecedent during the Civil War era, when Mainers argued over whether to permit soldiers to vote absentee. Examining this debate reveals a disunited Maine home front, riven over the legitimacy of the Union war.

The inability to vote vexed Maine’s soldiers during the first years of the Civil War.

“I would like to be at home at election,” William Hooper, a member of the 7th Maine regiment, from Virginia wrote in September 1863. “I would throw a good Union vote.”

In their two years at war, the regiment’s veterans had served in some of the bloodiest campaigns, including Gettysburg. Yet because they were away from home, they could not vote.

Maine men on the war front were disenfranchised because tradition dictated a separation between military and civilian powers. With so many northern men defending the Union, however, states began allowing enlisted men to vote in absentia.

In 1864, in advance of the upcoming presidential election, the Maine Legislature passed an amendment to the state Constitution allowing soldiers to vote absentee. For ratification, a majority of Maine voters needed to approve the amendment in the state’s September elections.

“We don’t see how” anyone can “vote to withhold the right to suffrage” from Maine soldiers, the Oxford Democrat stated as the election approached.

This posed a quandary to the peace faction of the Democratic Party, the conservative party of the day. Believing wartime sacrifice unworthy of the struggle, they advocated acceding to rebel demands by recognizing the sovereignty of the Confederacy or the legitimacy of human enslavement, or both.

Peace Democrats also realized that most enlisted men supported the Lincoln administration — like the troops traveling on a train through Bangor in the summer of 1864 who favored the reelection of Abraham Lincoln 89 to 6, the Bangor Whig & Courier reported.

The passage of the soldiers’ vote amendment would extend a Union war they deemed illegitimate.

To stoke opposition, conservative newspapers such as the Belfast Republican Journal posited that soldiers would be pressured to vote for “abolitionist” candidates or kept from casting their votes. They also framed the issue as a referendum on emancipation. To the Maine Democrat, published in Saco, sustaining the Lincoln administration meant “Freeing Negroes and Enslaving White Men.”

Maine soldiers, even lifelong Democrats, tended to disdain this outlook. A member of the 1st Maine Cavalry believed “such traitors” as the editor of the Maine Democrat “deserved hanging.” Joseph Rice, of the 31st Maine, wrote home to Hancock County that because tension over “African slavery caused the present rebellion” he wished to witness its demise.

Proponents of the soldiers’ vote amendment such as the Bangor Whig & Courier argued convincingly in favor of enfranchising Maine’s enlisted men. Roughly three-quarters of Maine voters agreed. The amendment became law with the governor’s signature that October.

Despite predictions of intimidation, the November election passed quietly among the Maine troops. The 17th Maine cast bullets as ballots, placing them as votes in ammunition boxes: 201 for Lincoln and 47 for former Union general George McClellan, his Democratic opponent.

Such a lopsided result was typical. Maine soldiers overwhelmingly supported Lincoln’s reelection. As H.N. Fairbanks of the 30th Maine explained, “the army can’t set aside the work of three or four years.” Lincoln earned 184 out of 210 votes from his regiment. The tally from the 1st Maine Cavalry went 329 to 46 in favor of Lincoln.

With the validation of Union soldiers, the Lincoln administration prosecuted the Civil War to a swift close and the dispute over the soldiers’ vote amendment dimmed into obscurity.

Yet the 10th Amendment to Maine’s Constitution remains in place today, a reminder of the contested history of the right to vote — even for Maine’s Civil War soldiers.