Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Dark hour, sunny disposition

[More about Anna E. Dickinson here]

Our Civil War ancestors in New Hampshire had a cure for cabin fever. Each February they held a campaign for governor and Congress and sent speakers all over the state to entertain and arouse the populace.

Anna E. Dickinson mesmerized audiences.
Perhaps no gubernatorial election was as hard-fought or consequential as the one in 1863. I tell the story in Our War, pegging it to March 10, town meeting day, when qualified males cast their votes in the statewide election. But the campaign raged in February.

New Hampshire was at war, of course, and the White House was desperate to keep a Republican in the governor’s office. The public ardor for war had cooled. The draft, the Emancipation Proclamation, Union battlefield debacles, long casualty lists and the sight of women in black gave heart to antiwar Democrats – Copperheads. Their man, Ira Eastman, seemed likely to win.

The Republicans took desperate steps, even pushing behind the scenes for a third-party candidate to siphon votes away from Eastman. He was Col. Walter Harriman, a pro-war Democratic Unionist from Warner.

Another big decision the Republicans made was to advocate the abolition of slavery as a war aim, in effect embracing the Emancipation Proclamation. This they did not through their gubernatorial candidate, Joseph Gilmore, but through speakers sent to towns and cities throughout the state. Many of these were famous lecturers or colorful party figures. Craving social opportunities and entertainment on cold February nights, citizens of all political stripes turned out to hear them.

The job of hiring, scheduling and paying these speakers fell to Benjamin Prescott, the state party secretary. In researching and writing my chapter on the 1863 election, I had the privilege of reading Prescott’s letters to Anna E. Dickinson, who became his star lecturer. Dickinson, a Philadelphia Quaker, was just 20 years old, but her abolitionist talks mesmerized audiences.

Prescott, who turned 30 that February, acted as Dickinson's head cheerleader. During these worrisome weeks for Republicans, Prescott was just the person for the job. His letters to her brimmed with optimism. (They are in the Dickinson papers at the Library of Congress.) Here are a few excerpts:

Prescott later served as governor (1877-79).
On Feb. 18, Prescott wrote Dickinson that he was glad to hear that many Democrats were turning out for her lectures. He also explained Harriman’s nomination by so-called Union Democrats as the latest move against the Copperheads. 

“We shall whip them handsomely. A third candidate was nominated by the Convention at Manchester on Tuesday [Feb. 17] for Governor. By this movement many votes will be taken from the Democratic Party for they do not want to vote for Eastman. Some few who do not want to vote for Gilmore will also find a refuge. They will all vote for our members of Congress and most of our other Ticket. We think we know how to play our cards as well as the ‘Copperheads’ if we do not we will throw up the game. There is a visable reaction going on among the people in the state and the Democracy already feel it. Their courage is broken and they hardly know what to do.

“Everything now is working in our favor. I have always felt confident and cheerful. I believe we shall succeed in this state at the coming election. I believe we shall succeed in our struggle with the rebellion. I have faith that this country is to be purified, and that it will stand before the world ere long a truly free country. My prayer is that I may be permitted to see the joyful day when every man can stand up and say that I am free. Until that day shall come, this contest will never be ended. How few there are that look at the real issues now at stake in this struggle. The day is coming when they will see it . . .

“Persevere in your good work.”

Two days later, Prescott wrote to share glowing reports about Dickinson’s lecture in Dover and to tell her about other speakers he had deployed. He himself had gone the previous night – 150 years ago today – to hear Andrew Jackson Hamilton, the former attorney general of Texas, speak in Concord. Hamilton was a handsome man who appeaered in full uniform. “He looked like a hero, or he is, though he has not fought many battles,” Prescott wrote.

He closed with his typical cheer: “We are going to whip the Rebel in this State. Our people are thoroughly aroused.”

What is striking about Prescott’s letters to Dickinson is how sunny he remained at this dark hour for the Union cause. And more bad news – Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s defeat at Chancellorsville and Robert E. Lee's second invasion of the North – lay just months ahead.

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