Retro Baltimore

Mail-in ballots were subject to fraud in Baltimore during the Civil War

An 1864 headline in The Baltimore American, proclaimed the event “the great election fraud.” The story played out in the early weeks of fall that year as the Civil War was in a critical stage and the country faced an important election.

A New York state lumber and flour merchant and central committee member, Orville Wood came to Baltimore on a secret mission. Within days he found plenty to testify about at a military court hearing.


Wood was charged by New York Gov. Horatio Seymour to shadow the voting process for New York’s military presence in Baltimore, a city known to have divided loyalties in the Civil War. Baltimore was then effectively an occupied city where Union generals called the shots.

Wood used a ploy. He said he was keeping an eye on the mail-in votes of New York State Union soldiers stationed in Baltimore. Many of these men were recuperating from battle wounds and were in hospital beds at Fort McHenry or other sites around the city. Wood later exposed a complicated election fraud conspiracy that made national headlines when it was exposed at the end of October 1864.


The historic scandal deserves renewed focus in the year 2020, when speculation of malfeasance within the U.S. Postal Service coupled with complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic has led some to allege election tampering ahead of the November vote. Mail-in voting has been a contentious topic as the election nears. Democrats have pushed for increased access to mail-in voting while President Donald Trump and other Republicans have said — without evidence — that it will lead to increased fraud and hurt his chances of reelection.

Wood supported the re-election of Abraham Lincoln, who called for a continuation of the Civil War until the Confederacy was defeated. The antiwar Democratic Party, often called Copperheads, looked for an immediate compromise with the Confederate leaders and a likely continuation of slavery.

Wood smelled trouble at once. He visited the 91st New York Regiment and picked up scuttlebutt that there had been “checker playing” with the votes.

His suspicions were confirmed when he visited wounded men at the Newton University Hospital, one of the institutions serving the Union military.

He also called on Moses Ferry, who was specifically charged with supervising the votes of New York’s military personnel in Baltimore.

At Ferry’s Fayette Street office, Wood falsely claimed he was a supporter of Lincoln’s opponent, George McClellan. Ferry was a McClellan advocate and bought into Wood’s ruse.

Wood also was suspicious that the votes of the 16th New York Volunteer Cavalry had been tampered with. Less than a year later, men from volunteer cavalry hunted down Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth and killed him in Northern Virginia.

In a short time, Wood, as a kind of double agent, began forging signatures of members of the 16th Cavalry. Ferry confided to Wood that the tainted votes from New York’s 91st Regiment were being stacked up for McClellan, some 400 of them — and only 11 for Lincoln.


Wood continued in the fraudulent scheme until it was time to expose the deal. It all went through and needed the approval of another voting fraudster, a man named Edward Donahue Jr.

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Wood took his story home to the New York authorities and a military court hearing was called immediately. Moses Ferry broke down and gave state’s evidence.

He was defended in a Buffalo newspaper story that described Wood as a “Christian gentleman, whose character for truth, honor and morality is ... above suspicion.”

The testimony from Ferry broke the conspiracy wide open. The Sun quoted Ferry’s role in the fraudulent signing of names.

“It was agreed we should sign the names of soldiers and officers and then send them home to have the local tickets filed,” Ferry said in the newspaper’s account. Ferry said he wanted to make a “full and free confession.”

The Sun reported the military commission that heard the testimony was housed in the Eutaw House, then a prominent Eutaw Street hostelry near today’s Hippodrome Theatre. The commission was called to order by the career Union officer, General Abner Doubleday.


History credits the general with giving the command to fire the first shot at Fort Sumter off Charleston, South Carolina, at the Civil War’s start and with playing a critical role at the Battle of Gettysburg. Claims that he invented the game of baseball have been debunked, but he did help secure a patent: the San Francisco cable car system, which is still in use.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.