• Kendrick Gibbs

"Penalty Upon Patriotism" - The 151st Pennsylvania's Public Call for Soldier Voting Rights

Pennsylvania was home to more than one battleground in 1863. Centre County native Republican Andrew Curtin was running for re-election against Democrat George W. Woodward of Wayne County for Pennsylvania Governor.


Pennsylvania Governor, Andrew G. Curtin. Image taken by Matthew Brady (Library of Congress)


The vote of the American soldier is still a difficult task to this day, but the Civil War was the first time in American history that soldiers in the field were able to vote in major elections. The question of the soldier’s vote was not an easily answered one during the war and not all states allowed their men to vote in elections while serving.


Raised in late summer 1862, The 151st Pennsylvania consisted of men from Susquehanna, Pike, Warren, Juniata, Berks, and Schuylkill Counties. In a grievance to the Governor’s office, the Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers of the regiment expressed their want and responsibility to vote in the upcoming election.



Col. Harrison Allen, 151st Pennsylvania. (American Civil War Research Database)


Lt. Colonel George McFarland, 151st Pennsylvania. 1874 (The Biographical Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania of the Nineteenth Century)



The grievance letter was printed in the February 13, 1863 edition of Carlisle Weekly Herald:


“The undersigned citizens of Pennsylvania, now officers of the 151st Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, respectfully submit to your Excellency the following memorial. It touches a grievance which is deeply felt by many who love their country, and who prompted by that love, have taken up arms in defence of its National Constitution.


We feel convinced, your Excellency, that it could never have been the deliberate intention of the framers of our State Constitution to thus impose a penalty upon patriotism – and yet it not only does impose a penalty upon patriotism, but it offers a premium to disaffection. The practical effects is just as if the State of Pennsylvania were to announce to her sons as follows:


You who go to fight for your political rights shall be deprived of your political right shall have your political influence increased, through the absence of those who do go. Those of you make any sacrifice, who offer even life itself. In support of the Government, shall for that reason be deprived of your former share in the Government. Those of you who make no sacrifices in support of the Government shall have a greater share in the Government than ever, by reason of the absence of its defenders in arms.


Such may it please your Excellency, we are persuaded, was not the intent of the framers of our State Constitution. And yet such, practically, is the direct effort of disfranchising the citizen in the field to inquire as follows:


Is it possible that we love our country less, and are we less worthy to be instructed by it than before we took up arms to defend it? Is it possible that we, who have offered to fight for the Government deserves less of it than those who have stayed at home?

All of us know men in our respective counties who, so far from enlisting themselves have dissuaded others from enlisting. How hard it is for the soldier to think that the disaffected citizens at home retain a power against the government which is taken from those who have gone forth to battle to uphold it?


In short, may it please your Excellency, we submit that, for the Government to deprive one citizen of the right of voting because he has drawn the sword to defend it, is to punish patriotism, to foster treason, and to practice suicide.


If it were only the undersigned who were disfranchised it would be little more than a personal matter to ourselves. But it is probable that not less than one hundred thousand voters in the single State of Pennsylvania were prevented from voting at the late election. And they were deprived of voting for no other crime than that they had bared their bosoms to the bayonets of the common enemy of all.


To traitors, or those who sympathize with treason, we make no appeal for redress, or even for a hearing. But can it be doubted that every patriot at home, every patriot member of the Legislature, every patriot member of Congress, who wishes that legislature should have reference to the public opinion of the State, will desire to know something of the public opinion of that great multitude of patriots who are now in the army?


As friends both of the soldier and the citizen, may it please your Excellency, and as a friend of our republican system of government, we respectfully petition your Excellency that you will submit the fact to the Legislature, to see if some way cannot be devised by which to correct the great political anomaly of depriving those patriots of the right of voting, who, in defence of that very right, brave hardships, dangers, and even death itself.”


Unfortunately, Pennsylvania soldiers did not get the chance to vote from their camps. Many men wrote home telling their families how to vote or even went home themselves so they could vote. For Pennsylvania soldiers, Curtins reelection was critical to winning the war. Curtin was known as "The Soldier's Friend" due to the attention he paid to the soldier's needs and the needs of their families.


If Pennsylvania soldiers had been able to vote in their state elections, the statistics would be lopsided like the Ohio Gubernatorial election.[1] The statistic results are misleading and do not prove that soldiers were largely Republican, in fact, a rejection of Copperheads or Peace Democrats such as George Woodward.


Democratic Candidate, George W. Woodward. Image taken by Matthew Brady. (Library of Congress)


After all, Curtin was a conservative Republican who was a Democrat before the war and only ran for reelection to block an abolitionist from getting the nomination instead. Soldiers were willing to vote for a party and candidate who would support them and want them to be treated as citizens.[2]



"Withdrawal of the 151st" by Dale Gallon. The painting depicts the 151st Pennsylvania withdrawing from the western slope of Seminary Ridge in the late afternoon of July 1, 1863 in Gettysburg, PA.

[1] John Brough, a joint ticket Republican/War Democrat defeated Peace Democrat, Clement Vallandigham by a large margin due to the soldier vote which was overwhelmingly in favor of Brough, 17:1.


[2] Jonathan White, Emancipation, The Union Army, and The Reelection of Abraham Lincoln (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014).



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