Democrats of eastern Pennsylvania opposed the Republican administration’s war.
They were suspicious of the shifting justifications for it. They weren’t interested in fighting to free anyone. They denounced the president’s restrictions on civil liberties. And they predicted the bloodshed would lead to bigger disasters.
This wasn’t the Iraq war. It was the Civil War.
Seven score and more years ago, as the Rebel army marched for Gettysburg, in south-central Pennsylvania, Democrats of the Keystone State were doing all they could to stop Abraham Lincoln’s war against the break-away Southern Confederacy.
“What has provoked, of late, the popular hostility for President Lincoln?” The Allentown [Pa.] Democrat, a weekly newspaper, asked in 1863, halfway into the four-year war. “We answer: The general belief that he really means to destroy, while affecting an anxiety to save, the American Union.”
History books seldom tell the story, but the dissent presented in Pennsylvania’s newspapers during the Civil War was part of a significant Northern campaign to leave the South alone, even as a separate nation.
At the time, The Allentown Democrat was the most popular English-language paper in a borough of 8,000, where most of the residents still spoke German. Allentown also had four German-language newspapers and a second one in English.
The Democrat was a zealous advocate of the region’s Democratic Party. Throughout the Civil War, it railed against Lincoln and his policies.
“There are but two parties in this county and state, the Democratic and the Abolition [Republican] parties,” The Democrat editorialized on Jan. 21, 1863. “With one we had peace and prosperity as a Nation. With the other, we have war, bloodshed and desolation.”
Indifference to slavery
The Allentown Democrat appealed to readers who were indifferent to Southern slavery, uninspired to defend the Union, and alarmed by Lincoln’s arrests of “disloyal” political leaders and his closings of opposition newspapers.
Another Democratic organ was the German-language Der Unabhaengiger Republikaner (The Independent Republican), an Allentown weekly named by Democrats years before there was a Republican Party. Down the Lehigh River in Easton, Pa., the Democratic paper was The Argus.
Lincoln’s war was unlawful, The Allentown Democrat said, because nothing in the Constitution allowed the federal use of force to keep states in the Union.
And when Lincoln later issued his Emancipation Proclamation, promising post-war freedom to Southern slaves, the newspaper’s editorials were full of horror. Freeing the slaves left no room for a compromise that could end the war, The Democrat repeatedly asserted.
The newspaper reminded its readers that Lincoln once promised to take no such measure. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery where it exists,” the Republican president had said in his March 4, 1861, first inaugural address. “I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
“Were those his honest convictions?” the paper asked in its March 25, 1863, edition. “Or was he even then trying to dupe and blindfold the people? If he had ‘no inclination to do so’ then, what peculiar change came o’er the spirit of his dreams since?”
Lincoln apparently had hoped his inaugural address would calm an apprehensive South. The Slave States had threatened secession if he were elected in 1860, and he was aware that even the Free States of the North were divided over his presidency.
In the 1860 election, Lehigh County, Pa., had endorsed Lincoln uneasily, giving him 4,170 votes while casting 4,094 ballots for uncommitted Democratic electors. Neighboring Northampton County had rejected the man from Illinois, casting 4,478 for an obscure Democrat and 3,849 for Lincoln.
Nationally, Lincoln attracted barely 40 percent of the popular vote, but won 180 of 303 votes in the electoral college. His first speech as president, allowing for “slavery where it exists,” was aimed at steadying the rocking ship of state. It didn’t work.
On April 12, 1861, the new Confederate army fired on U.S. forces at Fort Sumter, an island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. No one died in two days of cannon exchanges, but America’s deadliest war had begun.
The Allentown Democrat’s reaction to these first shots has been lost to time. The paper’s spring 1861 editions are missing from archives of the Lehigh County Historical Society.
But six days after Fort Sumter, 48 men from Allentown and Easton hopped a train to Washington, D.C., to join a few thousand other “First Defenders” in protecting the capital from the Rebel army gathering south of the Potomac.
The Pennsylvanians found trouble sooner than they expected. As they changed trains in Baltimore, Southern sympathizers assaulted them.
“Two of my men were hurt with clubs and stones,” Capt. Thomas Yeager of the Allen Infantry, the Allentown militia group, reported after his men reached Washington. “We have the stones in our headquarters.” Yeager’s letter was published in The Lehigh Patriot, a German-language paper that supported Lincoln.
Eventually, an estimated 2,000 young men from Lehigh County and as many as 6,000 from Northampton County fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. But local involvement did not stop the arguing.
As the fighting intensified, so did the debate. Democratic newspapers continued to condemn the war, angering Lincoln’s supporters. The Allentown Democrat and Der Unabhaengiger Republikaner received threats.
On Aug. 22, 1861, Lehigh County Sheriff C.B. Haintz felt compelled to issue a public notice that warned “all the good citizens” of Allentown to abstain from acts of violence against the two newspapers.
Though it opposed the war, The Allentown Democrat did find one war hero on the Union side. He was Gen. George B. McClellan, a Democrat whom Lincoln picked to reorganize the Union army. Democrats counted on McClellan to make sure Lincoln did not make the abolition of slavery an official condition for peace.
Allentown’s Capt. Yeager served under McClellan on June 1, 1862, at the indecisive Battle of Fair Oaks, Va. Yeager was shot three times and died. His horse took 11 bullets.
After Fair Oaks, Republicans complained that McClellan had missed a golden opportunity to capture Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Southern forces and the Confederate capital of Richmond. On July 16, 1862, The Allentown Democrat defended the general, calling him the “idol” of his men.
McClellan again led his troops against Lee’s army at Antietam, Md., on Sept. 17, 1862. It was the bloodiest single day of fighting in American history, taking 4,800 lives and wounding 17,900. Cpl. Ignatz Gresser of Allentown’s 128th Regiment earned the Medal of Honor there for rescuing two wounded soldiers under heavy fire.
But again the two armies fought to a draw.
As Antietam’s battle-weary Yankees were evacuated to the Allentown Fairgrounds, canceling the 1862 Allentown Fair, The Democrat ran an editorial criticizing the failure of Lincoln and his administration to make a quick end to the war.
“We see them as firm in their convictions as ever that the insane policy of extermination and emancipation is the only one that can end it [the war],” the editorial said.
Der Unabhaengiger Republikaner accused Lincoln of prolonging the war to profit his Republican friends in New England industry.
A year earlier, a scandal over contractors overcharging the government and delivering shoddy supplies resulted in the reassignment of Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s first secretary of war, but the accusations of fraud and corruption continued.
The opinions of The Democrat and Der Republikaner offended some soldiers, who felt the North’s war critics only encouraged the South.
Pvt. William J. Reichard of the 128th Regiment wrote home from the war to tell his father in Allentown that Der Republikaner’s Democratic words amounted to treason.
“You ought to hear the boys scold about the editors for printing such treasonable editorials,” Reichard said. He urged his father to subscribe to the English-language Lehigh Register instead.
By year’s end, Lincoln had relieved Gen. McClellan from command for being too slow to attack and too comfortable with slavery. The Democrats were furious.
Then, on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation. To the president’s opponents, the decree was further evidence that Lincoln was a war-mongerer, a liar and a fool.
“It is a wicked, unconstitutional and, at the same time, ridiculous act which will draw down upon the President at once the condemnation and laughter of the world,” The Democrat declared six days after the proclamation. “If negro slavery is the cause of the war, as alleged by President Lincoln in his message, why did it not produce war for the last eighty years?”
The newspaper rejected the idea that black people were equal to whites. It reported that Lincoln’s policies already had burdened the North with the cost of caring for thousands of runaway slaves.
“Abolitionism, in its blind and crazy attempt to set free a few millions of African slaves, better off here in the condition of slaves than in their native country, has brought the terrible calamity of substantial slavery upon the masses of our laboring white men and women,” The Democrat said.
Lincoln’s restrictions on civil liberties, allowing the Union Army to arrest anyone suspected of aiding the South, were another major target for The Democrat’s editorials.
The paper was particularly alarmed by the president’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, a constitutional protection that normally prohibits the arrest of any citizen without immediately showing a court the legal grounds for the arrest.
The Union Army arrested Clement Vallandigham, an Ohio Democratic leader, and put him before a secret military tribunal on charges he made disloyal speeches. When the tribunal convicted Vallandigham, Lincoln exiled him to the South, which then sent him to Canada. The Allentown Democrat saw a dangerous precedent.
“We ask, is it reasonable for us to apprehend that the United States may experience a coup d’etat, converting the republic into a despotism and placing an absolute dictator in the White House?” the newspaper wondered on March 4, 1863.
“The glories of the past will become dimmed as the historian writes in future that thirty-three millions of white men lost their own liberties for the sake of four millions of negroes who asked no interference in their behalf.”
Lincoln’s orders also allowed troops to close 300 newspapers during the Civil War. The Allentown Democrat was not timid in its antiwar, anti-emancipation rhetoric, but it somehow avoided the government’s wrath.
In June 1863, nerves were raw in the Lehigh Valley towns of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. Lee was leading his Rebel army toward Pennsylvania. Lehigh and Northampton county officials were calling for reinforcements south of Harrisburg.
The Allentown Democrat was angry.
“When you hear a man say that he will not consent to a termination of this war until every vestige of slavery is eradicated from our soil,” the paper said June 17, “set him down as a coward, and as an Abolitionist who hates the Constitution.”
In late June, at Hagebuch’s Hotel at Eighth and Hamilton streets, Allentown, a fight broke out at the bar when someone criticized “Lincoln’s war.”
Then, 141 years ago today, Blue and Gray met at Gettysburg. As Northampton County’s 153rd Regiment battled the Rebels, 106 men of Lehigh County’s 38th Regiment left Allentown to support Union Gen. George G. Meade’s troops.
The 38th made it only to Chambersburg, Pa., where the unit was turned back because the battle was over.
Three days of violence at Gettysburg had killed more than 5,000 and wounded more than 10,000 on each side. Ten days later, many of the tired Union survivors were put on trains for New York City, where they had the bitter duty of controlling a four-day riot against the military draft.
Easton threw a wild celebration to welcome back Col. Charles Glanz and his scarred, sunburned 153rd Regiment. But the Union’s victory at Gettysburg had not changed the Democratic Party position.
The Allentown Democrat sneered at the Lehigh County Republican convention Aug. 29 in Snydersville. The paper described the Republican gathering as “a meagre affair,” having attracted a small group.
The Republicans heard a few speeches about “liberty, equality and fraternity,” the paper said. Then The Democrat, in describing the Republicans’ sympathy for black people, used racial slurs that cut as deep in that era as they do now.
Referendum on the war
The 1864 presidential election would be the decisive referendum on the Civil War. As the year began, the Union’s 1863 victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga combined to boost Republican hopes for re-electing Lincoln.
In Allentown, Pa., the optimism came through March 18, 1864, with the elections for local offices. Charles Klein, a Republican, defeated Democrat John Dillinger 748-665 for burgess, an office equivalent to mayor.
But as the presidential election approached, Lehigh Valley Democrats reminded voters that the war still had no end in sight. They argued that thousands of Americans were dying every month because Lincoln had failed to win the war or negotiate a peace.
In August, the Democratic Party nominated Gen. McClellan for president. Running against his former boss, McClellan called for a compromise that would ignore slavery but restore the Union.
Lincoln, by contrast, now dedicated himself unambiguously to freeing the slaves. His re-election prospects dimmed in mid-summer, but brightened on Sept. 2, when Union Gen. William T. Sherman captured Atlanta.
On Nov. 8, Lincoln was re-elected president. He won 55 percent of the popular vote and 212 of 233 electoral votes.
But with endorsements from The Allentown Democrat, Der Unabhaengiger Republikaner and The Easton Argus, McClellan won 64 percent of the vote in Lehigh and Northampton counties.
Pennsylvania went to Lincoln, but the Lehigh Valley said no to Lincoln’s war.
As he began a second term, Lincoln knew he had deep divisions to repair, North and South.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in,” he said March 4, 1865, in his second inaugural address.
Allentown’s Democratic newspapers complained immediately.
The president’s speech had an inappropriate “theological tone,” they said. In particular, they rejected his suggestion that God gave America the war as punishment for slavery. They said Lincoln was using theology to justify years of killing.
The Northern opposition to Lincoln reflected a natural revulsion to war and to a skepticism over the motives of a president steering the nation into dangerous and uncharted waters. In Pennsylvania, 99 percent white in 1860, the discord also demonstrated that many here cared little for the lives and liberty of black people.
As things turned out, Lincoln did not have to compromise. Freedom had its unconditional victory. But against a stream of arguments and objections, it took a lot of leadership and at least a little luck.
Note: Much of this story first appeared June 29, 2003, in The [Allentown, Pa.] Morning Call.