Draft-related voter fraud rocks Washington County town

Voter fraud occurred in Marshfield in late summer 1863, but town officials quickly got wise to the voting irregularity — and it was not attributed to Russian interference.

Only 17.54 square miles in size, Marshfield lies in central coastal Washington County, with Machias blocking immediate access to salt water to the south. Winding through Marshfield, the Middle River reaches the Machias River at the Machias Dike.

Formerly the northern part of Machias,” Marshfield became an incorporated town on June 30, 1846, noted George J. Varney in the 1886 A Gazetteer of the State of Maine. The town has always been small, with 350 people living there in 1870 and 300 people in 1880.

Around 500 people live in Marshfield today.

In summer 1862, “there are but 62 voters in town,” the South Paris-published Oxford Democrat reported in its Friday, August 28, 1863 edition. That figure of 62 voters was important to what had happened in Marshfield some time earlier that month.

The Lincoln Administration was drafting men to fill the depleted Union ranks. A draftee — for such was every man whose name was drawn in the national draft — could pay a $300 commutation fee to avoid military service.

In Maine, anti-war (and anti-Lincoln) Democrats got the idea of using town funds to buy commutation fees for draftees unwilling to serve in the army. In several Maine towns, local “Copperheads” (as pro-Union men called the anti-war crowd) passed such resolutions at special town meetings.

Copperheads presented a similar resolution at a Marshfield town meeting that August. All men, the assembled voters wrote “‘yes’ or ‘no’”on paper ballots.

Selectmen counted the votes. The total “stood 37 no, 63 yes—a great democratic victory,” the Oxford Democrat noted in an article drawn from a Machias Republican report.

With 110 men voting, there was a big problem with that vote count, however.

As there are but 62 voters in town, and part of these were away,” including some in the military, “the check list was demanded, and another vote was taken,” according to the Oxford Democrat.

This astonishing result” was “the number against was 37,—the same as on the first ballot,— while the opposition had dwindled to 17” votes,” the paper noted.

Forty-six “yes” voters had vanished, “although no man had left the house, and all voted!” the paper exclaimed.

Marshfield voters then approved a motion paying “drafted men or their substitutes” a $300 bounty, a very generous sum for such a small town.

The motion “passed with little opposition,” according to the Oxford Democrat.

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Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.