Lesson from History: 150 Years Back, Elections Mattered, Too, Only Then the GOP Was Progressive

1864, Lincoln vs. McClellan: How Allegheny County voted

A pivotal presidential contest in the thick of the Civil War, the election was hotly contested in Pittsburgh. Note the role of the ‘Wide Awakes,’ the Insurgent Youth of the time.

20141102hoabelincoln001local Cartoon of Abe Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan prior to 1864 election. Illustration in Harper's Weekly, June 25, 1864.

Cartoon of Abe Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan prior to 1864 election. Illustration in Harper’s Weekly, June 25, 1864.

Voting rites in 1864: messy and unfair, but rough justice

By Len Barcousky

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Nov 2, 2014 – While the editors at Pittsburgh’s Gazette and Post disagreed on almost every issue, the rival newspapers were united on one topic: the importance of the presidential election of 1864.

“The hour has come,” The Pittsburgh Daily Gazette told voters on Nov. 8, election day. “The decisive blow must be struck today.”

“The main issue … is no less than the preservation of our country and with it the preservation of our liberties,” The Daily Pittsburgh Post opined.

Despite worrisome results in congressional elections a month earlier that showed Republican gains, Democrats in southwestern Pennsylvania were counting on a win in the presidential contest.

The Post was the city’s pre-eminent Democratic newspaper, and its editor, James P. Barr expressed confidence.

Six days before the election “the Democracy of Washington, Beaver and Allegheny counties, with their wives, children and sweethearts, turned out en masse to vindicate the Union and the Constitution,” the Post reported Nov. 4. The mass meeting was held in Clinton, Findlay Township.

The march of Democratic supporters, led by Allegheny County delegations from Moon, Crescent, North Fayette and Findlay, “took three-quarters of an hour to pass,” the newspaper said. “The States were represented by a wagon filled with young girls, appropriately clad and adorned, drawn by 35 horses ridden by lads uniformly clothed …”

Why 35 horses and riders? The Union, until the admission of Nevada on Oct. 31, 1864, had 35 states.

“The regalia, transparencies, enthusiasm and display generally far exceeded anything ever before seen in that vicinity,” the Post concluded. “The whole affair was a triumphant success and will do good service for the Union and McClellan.”

Union Gen. George McClellan had agreed to run as the Democratic Party candidate against Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, a Republican, and his vice-presidential running mate, Andrew Johnson, a Democratic senator from secessionist Tennessee, ran as National Union Party candidates.

If Lincoln had persuaded a Democrat to run with him, Pittsburgh’s Democracy — as the party referred to itself — had found a former Republican to back McClellan. “The last grand rally of the Democracy of Lawrenceville will be held on Saturday evening next, at the corner of Butler and Allen streets,” the Post reported Nov. 4. Speakers would include Thomas Little, described as “the facetious captain of the 1860 Lincoln Ox Roast … and a former leader of the Lawrenceville Wide-Awakes.” It had taken him four years, but Little was “now thoroughly awakened” to the dangers posed by Lincoln and the Republicans, the newspaper said.

The “Wide-Awakes” were young men’s political clubs organized to support the Republican Party. Carrying oil lamps or torches in nighttime parades, members had provided security at campaign rallies and carried out some quasi-military drilling.

Lincoln was counting on votes from soldiers as one of the keys to his re-election, but the Post ran several stories suggesting he would have trouble on that front. “The vote of the Army is for Little Mac,” the newspaper reported Nov. 3, reprinting a letter that had appeared in the New York World.

“My regiment voted today,” the letter said. The newspaper identified the writer as an officer with the New York 88th Infantry Regiment. The result would not have seemed out of place in North Korea. “There were two hundred entitled to vote, and they all voted for McClellan and [New York Gov. Horatio] Seymour,” the officer claimed. He and his comrades were lucky to be able to vote. “You know most of the soldiers who served under McClellan are dead, while most of the fellows who are now voting for Lincoln were at home at ease.”

Pittsburgh Republicans seemed appeared unfazed by Democratic attacks.

The pages of The Pittsburgh Daily Gazette, the city’s Republican newspaper, contained multiple advertisements for GOP rallies around the region. German-speaking voters were invited in that day’s paper to a Nov. 5 mass meeting at Pittsburgh’s Concert Hall on Wood Street. There they would be addressed in their native language by Frederick Hauserick, a politician from Cincinnati. A “Grand Union Mass Convention” was scheduled for noon that same day in Elizabeth Borough. “Union men of Pittsburgh and vicinity” were instructed to assemble that morning at Wilkins Hall, on what is now Fourth Avenue, at “7 1⁄2 o’clock and proceed to the Brownsville Wharf.” There “a special steamer, chartered for the occasion, will convey the delegation to Elizabeth Borough. A Brass Band will be in attendance.”

Not to be outdone by the Democrats in rural areas, the Republicans held their own tri-county rally in Findlay at noon Nov. 5. “The unfavorable weather did not prevent the sturdy yeomen from turning out in company with their families, and giving a day to the cause of Lincoln and Liberty.”

If the Democrats claimed their parade was three-quarters of a mile long, the GOP “procession was over a mile in length.” Like the “Democracy” the previous week, the Republicans mounted pretty girls on horses. “Each lady wore a blue sash on which was inscribed, on a white ground in black letters, the name of the state which she represented. The seceded states were represented by eleven ladies on horseback, in mourning, and carrying a small banner, on one side of which was the inscription – Our Folly makes us Mourn.”

On election day, both papers warned voters to look out for fraud. “The one especial need today is vigilance,” the Gazette said. “The polls must be closely watched…”

“If any Democrat shall tender his vote [and] the election officers should refuse to receive it, let him not rest here,” the Post advised. “Let him take two or three witnesses and demand that he shall deposit his ballot.”

Reporting on the election itself, the Gazette on Nov. 9 grew poetic in describing the balloting: “All is moving on as quietly as the fall of a calm snow shower. Each citizen walks up, deposits his little ballot and retires. What one man does seems to be a little thing in itself … and it is only when we take in the sum total of these things—that the sublimity and grandeur of the thing strikes home upon the mind.”

The Post agreed that the election “passed off quietly enough so far as we have heard.” The exception was one ward in Allegheny City “where the Abolitionists, early after the polls were opened, manifested a disposition to carry matters in a high hand; but the firm stand taken by the Democrats deterred them from carrying out their designs.”

The next-day results, however, were not looking good for McClellan. “Abolitionists appear to have increased their majority by a few hundred since the last election. The aggregate vote is astonishingly large … which can be accounted for in no way except by illegal voting,” the Post said.

By Thursday morning, Nov. 10, the Post could not avoid the obvious. “Although we concede the election of Mr. Lincoln, the result will show that he escaped defeat very narrowly …”

The Gazette was jubilant. “It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Tuesday’s vote,” the newspaper said that same day. “It is an emphatic declaration of the people that this war shall be vigorously prosecuted to the complete suppression of the rebellion … From the result of this election, this glorious civil victory, achieved as it was in the face of a powerful armed foe in the field, and in the midst of multitudinous conspirators, we may assuredly infer that God is with us …”

Lincoln and Johnson had racked up a 55 percent to 45 percent victory in the nationwide popular vote and an overwhelming win in the electoral college. McClellan carried only Delaware, Kentucky and New Jersey.

By turning out to vote, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County residents had played an important part in that triumph. The city’s contribution was recognized in a poem written by a Philadelphia lawyer named James Graham and published Nov. 9 in the Gazette:

Hurrah, you dwellers in the smoke,

The neck of Little Mac is broke;

The loyal city of old Penn

Again rolls up her thousands ten.

The Union’s safe, and freedom too,

Says Yankee doodle, doodle doo.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.

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