Northern military officers soon found that any Democrat political leanings were an obstacle to promotion from Republican politicians. One officer wrote his brother that “several sources advised that if I change my political views and make a few Republican stump speeches to my troops it would be greatly to my advantage.” Democrat officers claimed that promotions and dismissals were more often based upon partisan politics and Lincoln’s desire to win elections. Historian Michael Holt noted that Lincoln did appoint prominent Democrats to high rank, but only for the purpose of luring Democrat votes to union parties in northern States.
Dissent in the Northern Ranks
“While Republican soldiers had no difficulty [obtaining or] writing to their hometown newspapers, Democratic soldiers often found themselves in hot water. In August 1864, Pvt. Newton B. Spencer of the 179th New York Infantry wrote a letter to his local newspaper of which he had previously been editor, the Penn Yan Democrat, claiming that the “Abolition mania for employing “n****r” soldiers has culminated in the worst disaster of the whole campaign and discouraged and nearly demoralized the whole army.”
Spencer believed that it “was to glorify the sooty abolition idol, that upon a Division of raw and worthless black poltroons, was devolved the most important part of the whole conflict – in the hope that they would crown our temporary success with decisive victory and bear off the hard-won laurels of the white fighting men.”
Spencer was charged with conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline, contempt and disrespect for his commanding officer, violation of the Fifty-seventh Article of War (giving intelligence to the enemy), and “giving aid and comfort to the enemy,” which was essentially a charge of treason. Spencer admitted writing the letter but pleaded not guilty to each of the charges.
In like manner, Sgt. William B. Gillespie of the Twenty-eighth New York Infantry was convicted by courts-martial for publishing a newspaper article in January 1863 in which he stated that Lincoln’s emancipation edict “will be the cause of a large number of our best officers resigning and of a large number of desertions,” to which he added that the freed people should all be “shipped to Washington . . . for a heart welcome and cordial embrace.” Gillespie was sentenced to be reduced to the ranks and then drummed out of the service.
Capt. Thomas Barrett of the Nineteenth Illinois Volunteers was summarily and dishonorably dismissed for publishing a letter in the Chicago Times on May 25, 1863, critical of Lincoln’s policy of enlisting black soldiers.”
(Emancipation, the Union Army and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln. Jonathan W. White. LSU Press, 2014, pp. 55-57)