Political Climate & Law | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150


Political Climate & Law

In October 1860, Andrew G. Curtin of Bellefonte won the gubernatorial election in Pennsylvania, beginning a century of Republican dominance of the state’s office of governor. Curtin, a moderate Republican, worked hard to mobilize the state in support of the war, but he was not a vocal proponent of abolitionism.

Voting Rights For Soldiers

At the beginning of the war, Pennsylvania was the only state with a law that permitted soldiers to vote. During the state’s first wartime election, in October 1861, Pennsylvania soldiers stationed as far away as Virginia voted for state and local offices. However, the election returns revealed large amounts of fraud, which led to several contested elections, both in the general assembly and in the courts.

Several cases worked up through the state judiciary until finally, in May 1862, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled the law permitting soldiers to vote beyond state lines as unconstitutional. In his majority opinion, Justice George W. Woodward of Wilkes-Barre argued that the law violated a provision of the state constitution that required voters to vote in election districts, and the legislature could not create election districts outside of the state.

Democrats Sweep Elections

As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, Pennsylvania soldiers were not allowed to vote in 1862 and Democrats made sweeping gains in the state and nationwide at all levels of government. Democrats believed their victory reflected a dissatisfied popular reaction to the Republican administration in Washington.

Many Republicans, on the other hand, believed the Democrats had won because the ranks of the Union armies were swelled with Republican voters. One disappointmed Pennsylvania Republican wrote:

“The cause of the elections going Democratic is the Republicans are away fighting the war and the Army did not vote this year.”

In January 1863, the Pennsylvania legislature met to elect a new U.S. senator. The Democrats controlled a joint session of the legislature by a single vote, and it was expected that they would elect their candidate, Charles Buckalew. But Republican Simon Cameron, a former U.S. senator and Lincoln’s first secretary of war, also desired the seat. Cameron, who was renowned for his ability to purchase elections, bribed enough Democratic legislators to win the Senate vacancy, but when word of these transactions became public, a band of armed Democratic “rowdies” went from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to stop him. They filled the hall of the capitol building, ready to shoot any Democrat who did not do his duty. Buckalew consequently won the election.

Republican fortunes appeared to be on the decline in early 1863, and many within the party hoped that Curtin would step aside in favor of a new man for governor. Cameron, who led the more radical wing of the party, made great efforts to secure another nominee.

Curtin initially pledged not to seek re-election but changed his mind when the Democrats nominated the “copperhead” Democrat, Judge Woodward. Members of the Cameron wing of the party were sorely disappointed with Curtin, but they quickly unified behind him.

Republicans used Woodward’s opinion in the soldier voting case, as well as a conciliationist speech he had delivered in Philadelphia in December 1860, to accuse the judge of disloyalty, and Curtin carried the state in October 1863 by 15,000 votes.

The Draft Stirs Controversy

A secondary issue in the election of 1863 was the draft. In March of that year, Congress had enacted the first national conscription act. Many Democrats in Pennsylvania opposed the draft, and some even reacted with violence against enrolling officers and provost marshals.

At the time of the gubernatorial election, a case was pending before the state Supreme Court in which Woodward was expected to rule federal conscription unconstitutional, which is precisely what happened; however, the court waited until after the election to issue its decision.

As it happened, the 1863 election also caused a change in the composition of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, moving it from a 3-2 Democratic majority to a 3-2 Republican majority. The court, consequently, reheard the conscription case and in January 1864 reversed its decision, thus upholding the constitutionality of the draft and avoiding a potentially explosive conflict between the state and the national governments.

Republicans Rise Again

By early 1864, the Pennsylvania legislature had adopted a resolution to amend the state constitution to permit Pennsylvania soldiers to vote, and in August 1864, the voters of Pennsylvania overwhelmingly ratified the amendment. The legislature hurriedly adopted a law giving soldiers the vote in time for the October congressional and November presidential elections.

Republican electoral prospects were looking dim until the fall of Atlanta in September 1864. With good news from the front to boost them, and with the help of the soldier vote, the Republicans easily carried Pennsylvania in October. A month later, Lincoln won a resounding victory, carrying every northern state except Delaware, Kentucky and New Jersey. Just six months later, the war ended.

Information for this section was contributed by Jonathan W. White, University of Maryland.

CWPA 150 welcomes your feedback. To share your comments or Civil War stories, please e-mail editor@pacivilwar150.com.


  • William Blair, “We are Coming, Father Abraham—Eventually: The Problem of Northern Nationalism in the Pennsylvania Recruiting Drives of 1862,” in The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War, ed. Joan E. Cashin (Princeton University Press, 2002), 183-208.
  • Mark E. Neely Jr., The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North (Harvard University Press, 2002).
  • Robert M. Sandow, Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians (Fordham University Press, 2009.
  • Adam I. P. Smith, No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Secondary Sources

  • Jonathan W. White, ed., “A Pennsylvania Judge Views the Rebellion: The Civil War Letters of George Washington Woodward” in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 129 (April 2005): 290-316.
  • A Philadelphia Perspective: The Civil War Diary of Sidney George Fisher (Fordham University Press, 2007).

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