As fresh deeds of violence or new aggressions against the government were reported from the daily papers in the shop where I was then employed, some one who was not a "Lincolnite" would exclaim, in an angry tone; "I hope you fellows are satisfied now. I don't blame the South an atom. They have been driven to desperation by such lunatics as Garrison and Phillips, and these men ought to be hung for it." And, "I want to see those hot-headed Abolitionists put into the front rank, and shot first."
Tempers ran hot up to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Bravado was evident on both sides, with both sides believing the other would not fight. But when the fighting did come, some with the most belicose stance faded behind the crowd and let others shoulder the burden and take the risk. Oliver Wedel Holmes, Sr., father of the famous jursit, wrote an ode to these braggarts, entitled "The Sweet Little Man," that summed up the feelings of the Wide-Awakes and Rail Splitters.
Taken from: Billings, John D., "Hardtack and Coffee." (Boston: George M. Smith & Co., 1887). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
On the 6th of November, 1860, Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of the Republican party, was elected President of the United States, over three opponents. The autumn of that year witnessed the most exciting political canvass this country had ever seen. The Democratic party, which had been in power for several years in succession, split into factions and nominated two candidates. The northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, who was an advocate of the doctrine of Squatter Sovereignty, that is, the right of the people living in a Territory which wanted admission into the Union as a State to decide for themselves whether they would or would not have slavery.
The southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckenridge, of Kentucky, at that time Vice-President of the United States. The doctrine which he and his party advocated was the right to carry their slaves into every State and Territory in the Union without any hindrance whatever. Then there was still another party, called by some the Peace Party, which pointed to the Constitution of the country as its guide, but had nothing to say on the great question of slavery, which was so prominent with the other parties. It took for its standard-bearer John Bell, of Tennessee; and Edward Everett, of Massachusetts, was nominated as Vice-President. This party drew its membership from both of the others, but largely from the Democrats.
Owing to these divisions the Republican party, which had not been in existence many years, was enabled to elect its candidate. The Republicans did not intend to meddle with slavery where it then was, but opposed its extension into any new States and Territories. This latter fact was very well known to the slave-holders, and so they voted almost solidly for John C. Breckenridge. But it was very evident to them, after the Democratic party divided, that the Republicans would succeed, and so, long before the election actually took place, they began to make threats of seceding from the Union if Lincoln was elected.
Freedom of speech was not tolerated in these States, and Northern people who were down South for business or pleasure, if they expressed opinions in opposition to the popular political sentiments of that section, were at once warned to leave. Hundreds came North immediately to seek personal safety, often leaving possessions of great value behind them. Even native southerners who believed thoroughly in the Union — and there were hundreds of such — were not allowed to say so. This class of people suffered great indignities during the war, on account of their loyalty to the old flag. Many of them were driven by insult and abuse to take up arms for a cause with which they did not sympathize, deserting it at the earliest opportunity, while others held out to the bitter end, or sought a refuge from such persecution in the Union lines.
As early as the 25th of October, several Southerners who were or had been prominent in politics met in South Carolina, and decided by a unanimous vote that the State should withdraw from the Union in the event of Lincoln's election, which then seemed almost certain. Some other States held similar meetings about the same date. Thus early did the traitor leaders prepare the South for dis-union. These men were better known at that time as "Fire-eaters."
As soon as Lincoln's election was announced, without waiting to see what his policy towards the slave States was going to be, the impetuous leaders at the South addressed themselves at once to the carrying out of their threats. The people at the North stood amazed at the rapidity with which treason against the government was spreading, and the loyal Union-loving men began to inquire where President Buchanan was at this time, whose duty it was to see that all such uprisings were crushed out. But Buchanan seemed anxious only for his term of office to expire, making little effort to save the country, nor even willing, at first, that others should do so. And so at last he left the office a disgraced old man, for whom few had or have a kind word to offer.
Such, briefly, was the condition of affairs when Abraham Lincoln, fearful of his life, which had been threatened, entered Washington under cover of darkness, and quietly assumed the duties of his office. Never before were the people of this country in such a state of excitement. At the North there were a large number who boldly denounced the "Long-heeled Abolitionists"' and "Black Republicans" for having stirred up this trouble. I was not a voter at the time of Lincoln's election, but I had taken an active part in the torchlight parades of the "Wide-awakes " and "Rail-splitters," as the political clubs of the Republicans were called, and so came in for a share of the abuse showered upon the followers of the new President. As fresh deeds of violence or new aggressions against the government were reported from the daily papers in the shop where I was then employed, some one who was not a "Lincolnite" would exclaim, in an angry tone; "I hope you fellows are satisfied now. I don't blame the South an atom. They have been driven to desperation by such lunatics as Garrison and Phillips, and these men ought to be hung for it." And, "I want to see those hot-headed Abolitionists put into the front rank, and shot first."
If I were asked who these men were, I should not call them by name. They were my neighbors and my friends, but they are changed men today. There is not one of them who, in the light of later experiences, is not heartily ashamed of his attitude at that time. Many of them afterwards went to the field, and, sad to say, are there yet. But this was the period of the most intemperate and abusive language. Those who sympathized with the South were, some months later, called Copperheads. Lincoln and his party were reviled by these men without any restraint except such as personal shame and self-respect might impose; and these qualities were conspicuously absent. Nothing was too harsh to utter against Republicans. No fate was too evil for their political opponents to wish them.
Of course all of these revilers were not sincere in their ill-wishes, but the effect of their utterances on the community was just as evil; and the situation of the new President, at its best a perplexing and critical one, was thus made all the harder, by leading him to believe that a multitude of the citizens at the North would obstruct instead of supporting him. It also gave the slave-holders the impression that a very considerable number of Northern men were ready to aid them in prosecuting their treasonable schemes. But now the rapid march of events wrought a change in the opinions of the people in both sections.
The leading Abolitionists had argued that the South was too cowardly to fight for slavery; and the South had been told by the "Fire-eaters" and its northern friends that the North could not be kicked into fighting; that in case war should arise she would have her hands full to keep her enemies at home in check. Alas I how little did either party understand the temper of the other!
Patriotism, love of the Union, at last came uppermost, and the greater portion of them ceased their sneers and ill-wishes, and joined in the general demand that something be done at once to assert the majesty and power of the national government. Even President Lincoln, who, in his inaugural address, had counseled his "countrymen, one and all, to take time and think calmly and well upon this whole subject," had come to feel that further forbearance was no virtue, and that a decent respect for this great nation and for his office as President demanded that something should be done speedily. So on the 15th of April he issued a proclamation calling out 75,000 militia, for three months, to suppress the Rebellion, and to cause the laws to be executed.
That much talked-of, much dreaded calamity was at last upon us. Could it really be so? We would not believe it; and yet daily happenings forced the unwelcome conclusion upon us. It seemed so strange. We had nothing in our experience to compare it with. True, some of us had dim remembrances of a Mexican war in our early childhood, but we only remembered that there was a Scott, and a Taylor, and a Santa Ana, from the colored prints we had seen displayed of these worthies; so that we could only run back in memory to the stories and traditions of the wars of the Revolution and 1812, in which our ancestry had served, for anything like a vivid picture of what was about to occur, and this, of course, was utterly inadequate to do the subject justice.
The President’s order carried dismay into many hearts, causing the more timid to withdraw from military service at once. A great many more would have withdrawn at the same time had they not been restrained by pride and the lingering hope that there would be no war after all; but the moment a man's declination for further service was made known, unless his reasons were of the very best, straightaway he was hooted at for his cowardice, and for a time his existence was made quite unpleasant in his own immediate neighborhood. If he had been a commissioned officer, his face was likely to appear in an illustrated paper, accompanied by the statement that he had "shown the white feather," — another term for cowardice.
A little later than the period of which I am treating, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the following poem, hitting off a certain limited class in the community:
THE SWEET LITTLE MAN.
Dedicated to the Stay-at-Home Rangers.
Now while our soldiers are fighting our battles,
Each at his post to do all that he can,
Down among Rebels and contraband chattels,
What are you doing, my sweet little man?
All the brave boys under canvas are sleeping;
All of them pressing to march with the van.
Far from the home where their sweethearts are weeping;
What are you waiting for, sweet little man?
You with the terrible warlike mustaches.
Fit for a colonel or chief of a clan,
You with the waist made for sword-belts and sashes,
Where are your shoulder-straps, sweet little man?
Bring him the buttonless garment of woman!
Cover his face lest it freckle and tan;
Muster the Apron-string Guards on the Common,
That is the corps for the sweet little man!
Give him for escort a tile of young misses,
Each of them armed with a deadly rattan;
They shall defend him from laughter and hisses,
Aimed by low boys at the sweet little man.
All the fair maidens about him shall cluster.
Pluck the white feather from bonnet and fan,
Make him a plume like a turkey-wing duster,
That is the crest for the sweet little man.
Oh, but the Apron-string Guards are the fellows!
Drilling each day since our trouble began,
"Handle your walking-sticks!" "Shoulder umbrellas!"
That is the style for the sweet little man.
Have we a nation to save? In the first place
Saving ourselves is the sensible plan.
Surely, the spot where there's shooting's the worst place
Where I can stand, says the sweet little man.
Catch me confiding my person with strangers,
Think how the cowardly Bull-Runners ran!
In the brigade of the Stay-at-Home Rangers
Marches my corps, says the sweet little man.
Such was the stuff of the Malakoff takers,
Such were the soldiers that scaled the Redan;
Truculent housemaids and bloodthirsty Quakers
Brave not the wrath of the sweet little man!
Yield him the sidewalk, ye nursery maidens!
Sauve qui peut! Bridget, and Right about! Ann;
Fierce as a shark in a school of menhadens,
See him advancing, the sweet little man!
When the red flails of the battlefield's threshers
Beat out the continent's wheat from its bran,
While the wind scatters the chaffy seceshers.
What will become of our sweet little man?
When the brown soldiers come back from the borders.
How will he look while his features they scan?
How will he feel when he gets marching orders.
Signed by his lady love? sweet little man.
Fear not for him though the Rebels expect him,
Life is too precious to shorten its span;
Woman her broomstick shall raise to protect him.
Will she not fight for the sweet little man!
Now, then, nine cheers for the Stay-at-home Ranger!
Blow the great fish-horn and beat the big pan!
First in the field, that is farthest from danger.
Take your white feather plume, sweet little man!