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  • Writer's pictureRichard Condon

"Free Speech, Free Men, and Free Home" - Pittsburgh's Wide Awakes in the 1860 Election

The election of 1860 may likely be considered the most pivotal and divisive of its kind in the history of our country, as the question lingered - would the United States be a free nation for all people? Support for Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party in the presidential election took many forms, including that of the Wide Awakes - many of whom would lend their support for Lincoln’s eventual presidency by enlisting in the Union army at the onset of the Civil War. As outlined by a Chicago chapter of the Wide Awakes, their mission consisted of the following decrees: “1st. To act as a political police. 2nd. To do escort duty to all prominent Republican speakers who visit our place to address our citizens. 3rd. To attend all public meetings in a body and see that order is kept and that the speaker and meeting is not disturbed. 4th. To attend the polls and see that justice is done to every legal voter. 5th. To conduct themselves in such a manner as to induce all Republicans to join them. 6th. To be a body joined together in large numbers to work for the good of the Republican Ticket.

Membership certificate for the Wide Awake Club (Library of Congress)

Following the founding of the Wide Awakes in February 1860, large political and social gatherings were held in major cities across the North including New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and Pittsburgh. Parades stretched through the streets while bystanders and supporters bore witness to a torchlit procession of young Republicans clad in black capes and caps carrying oil lamps, as well as “transparencies” and political signs supporting Lincoln’s popular party. The first of these gatherings to unfold in the Pittsburgh area in fact took place in the commons of Allegheny City - now Pittsburgh’s North Side. On July 13, 200 members of the Wide Awakes assembled in what was known as Diamond Square at 8:00pm and prepared to move through the streets of Allegheny toward the city of Pittsburgh, just across the Allegheny River. An estimated 9,000 onlookers witnessed what was described by the Pittsburgh Gazette as “…a grand success, and now that outdoor meetings are fairly inaugurated, we have no doubt that there will be many more of the same description as this last one.” The Gazette was correct in its assumption - at least two more major gatherings occurred in the Pittsburgh area between August and September 1860.

Gen. James Scott Negley (Library of Congress)

Held again on the grounds of the Allegheny Commons, August’s gathering yielded twice as many Wide Awake participants as the previous month’s, as at least 400 men assembled under the command of General James Negley, including those from the Birmingham (Pittsburgh’s South Side), and surrounding city wards. The Pittsburgh Gazette provided a vivid depiction of the scene on August 17:

We have no doubt most people were struck with the splendid display made by the Wide Awakes last evening. We had no idea the organization possessed half the force that was mustered. The evening was clear and pleasant, and it seemed as if the whole population of both cities had poured out into the streets, every thoroughfare on the line of march over to the Allegheny Commons being thronged with people of all classes and ages, females forming quite a large portion of the crow.d. The Wide Awake uniform consists of a cap and cape, as is well known. Last night every color was represented, which added not a little to the impressiveness and glitter of the parade. The torches, not made of pine knots, but of well constructed lamps, blazed like so many beacons on the streets, and arranged as they were, four abreast, the splendor of the illumination exceeded anything we ever saw… As it was the first grand demonstration of the kind, it may fairly be considered as the opening of the campaign.”

Pittsburgh Wide Awakes extended invitations to many delegates within their party, including William Seward, Cassius Clay, Andrew Curtin, and Carl Schurz for a gathering on September 26, 1860. (Cincinnati Museum Center)

The procession of the Birmingham, Port Perry, Pittsburgh, and Allegheny Wide Awakes, along with the “Lincoln Minute Men” and the First and Fourth Ward “Lincoln Guards” stretched from the Allegheny City Market House to the Saint Clair Street suspension bridge, and paled in comparison to what followed little more than a month later. On September 26, the city’s largest assembly of Wide Awakes formed before a crowd of an estimated 10,000 people. Clubs from various parts of Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, as well as Wheeling, Virginia, massed in the city for what would be described by the Pittsburgh Gazette as “the most imposing political demonstration that was every witnesses in this section of the state.” The “Etna Lincoln Guards,” “East Birmingham Lincoln Rangers,” Abraham Guards,” “Allegheny Rail Splitters,” and the “Lawrenceville Inaugurators” numbered among 50 groups and 5,000 participants. The “Mifflin Wide Awakes” were followed by a band, and bore a flag, as well as a banner inscribed with “Mifflin Township good for 100 majority for Lincoln, Hamlin, and Curtin,” and “Protection to American Industry, free speech, free press, free homes, and free men” on the reverse. A correspondent from the Gazette noted the precision with which the parade was conducted, and the “windows and doorways of a large number of houses along the route of procession were filled with ladies, who literally showered down floral wreaths and bouquets on the moving thrown below them… There was a very handsome display of fireworks which, added to the effect of the torches while the Wide Awakes were going through their various maneuvers, made a very imposing appearance. A more glittering array of torches Pittsburgh never saw. The procession was an hour in passing the Gazette office, so that the most liberal computation would make it at least two miles long. The whole was a grand success and a fit forerunner to the splendid pageant which is to be witnessed in our streets today.”

When Pittsburgh’s largest gathering of Wide Awakes concluded on September 26, the presidential election was little more than a month away, and the group’s message was shared loudly for all to hear - to go out and vote!


A young Wide Awake from Iowa, brandishing an oil lamp and a flag for Lincoln's Republican Party. (Floyd and Marion Rinhart Collection, The Ohio State University Libraries)


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